More space for CULTURE?

The global discourse must yield primacy to the discussion on culture and values. Human responsibility must readily embrace obligations that underline the need to protect and promote cultural diversity, focusing on that which is most vulnerable and most at risk in a rapidly altering world. Freedom of expression and freedom of creativity should be enshrined as universal rights for all human beings. In a globalized world, corporate cultural responsibility must be mobilized, even as communities must reiterate the lasting values of human culture. This can probably be undertaken only if new investments are made to catalyze education to create a future generation energized with the revived values of universal human responsibility and for whom the obligations of that journey are not a burden but a joy!

The UNESCO sponsored Stockholm Declaration signed at the conclusion of the 1998 Intergovernmental Conference on Cultural Policies for Development needs to be fully integrated into the framework of the Declaration on Universal Responsibility.

There is a wonderful story in the Panchatantra, a fascinating collection of animal fables compiled in India between the third and fifth centuries AD. It tells of an incident when a flock of doves are snared in a bird trapper’s net. Individually they are unable to free themselves; however when they collectively decide to fly together at one go, they are able to lift the whole net, and to the dismay of the trapper, fly together to eventual freedom. This conference has been addressing so many issues that we all need to “lift”. But like in the Panchatantra, I am optimistic that we can only do it together!

But I am also concerned of the threads in the net that are most frayed, and face continued neglect. The perpetually voiceless and often harshly silenced part of the mesh:  CULTURE.  I believe that in all global discussion, of future and values, of human rights and sustainability, and of human responsibility, the primacy of protecting and promoting culture has unfortunately been marginalized.  There is need to examine strategies and paradigms for securing cultural policies across the globe; this should be integral in our global discussion today. 

As an artist from a land known all over the world for its ancient culture, and for its adhering to its indigenous cultural principles for aeons, I am most seriously concerned of the vulnerability and fragility of culture today. Both the pan-human culture and the specific culture as applicable to different communities and groups are at risk of deep altering by contemporary forces of the market-place, new values of the media and of the nauseating sameness globalization paints us all with.

This is no small threat. Cultural change can affect human security with possibly more impact than climate change!  As the gap between the ostentatious consumption patterns of the haves versus the have-nots increases, those without are made to feel completely inferior, even as images in the media and in the global entertainment industry alter aspirations and dreams. If you are without high-end labels, brands and are not “with it” there is a stigma that gets insidiously attached to you.

I have seen such alteration in many communities of my country, where the beautiful and sustainable old culture has been forced to yield place to the new and the vulgar.  Where the fast replaces the slow, where the culture of money has impinged on the human culture that till very recently was sustained so beautifully, in rhythm with local values, local colours and local priorities.

A prime example of this comes again from India, when in the service industry’s call centres, young Indian workers are given foreign names and taught to speak in foreign accents. It is now documented that these young workers also very quickly adopt customs and patterns of behaviour as dictated by their adopted names. This in turn is impacting social behaviour and their roles in their societies.

At the other end are the progeny of traditional craftspersons who are rejecting  traditional family crafts as their profession and are enrolling for computer courses to earn from sunshine industries. They give up their privileged cultural advantage and abandon a valuable knowledge base acquired over centuries, chasing a new set of skills, and embroil in a radically new field where they will have a disadvantageous start. Generations of knowledge and specialized skills are forsaken while chasing new rainbow dreams. Even though their aspirations may be justified, India’s famed crafts face rapid obliteration.

All this is not unknown.  But is yet to be quantified fully. In an esteemed forum, such as this, the space for culture and its protection, promotion and celebration needs to be accorded due place. For what are we defined by, if not by our cultures? Our food, our languages, our music, our literature, our dance and our ways of life.  If we were all to behave in a similar way, then what a dreadful bore this planet would be!

As an artist I have to sadly underline that our modern world seems committed to erasing culture! The suffocating grip of proliferating global corporations and the collusion of global media networks are assisting in the obliteration of cultural diversity.

UNESCO has raised the critical issue of the impending death of innumerable languages and mother tongues:  “Within the space of a few generations, more than 50% of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world today may disappear. Less than a quarter of those languages are currently used in schools and in cyberspace, and most are used only sporadically. Thousands of languages are absent from education systems, the media, publishing and the public domain in general.”

The internet has become the new arena for discrimination. Take Hindi, India’s national language, which is spoken by 180 million people in South Asia for whom the language is their mother tongue, and used/understood by 300 million more.  Yet , the language has only a token e-presence. On the contrary, millions of Hindi speaking Indians face social and job-related stigma in their own country because of not knowing English, which is completely a foreign language to them!

What is happening to global cuisine is similar.  With agricultural patterns changing what is grown, with the altering of the global climate, local ingredients are at risk, and food is being changed in both perceptible and imperceptible ways. Global farm networks and their corporations are dumping new farm products on unsuspecting cultures. Local flavours are being obliterated. Yet, the threat to the diversity of cuisine has never been seriously raised.

The dominant theory today is that obliterating cultural distinctions is a measure of the progress of civilization. It holds that the greater public good warrants eliminating those cultural characteristics that promote conflict or prevent harmony, even as less-divisive, more personally observed cultural distinctions are celebrated and preserved. But in practice, while one part of the equation is being pursued with determination, the second part -- of protection, promotion and celebration -- is not being actively pursued at all.


At another level, and especially as an artist, I am equally pained by so many infringements of the basic tenets of culture: of infringements on freedom of expression and creativity!

While the recent episodes of the Danish cartoons revealed the twin sides of creative freedom and societal responsibility, in India we have had a growing culture of the intolerant right movement that censors creativity; films, poems, literature and art works have all faced horrific attacks. Such a trend towards intolerance of artistic creativity and freedom is also witnessed in other countries of South Asia, as also in other parts of the world.

Such limits to creativity cannot be brooked.  Artists are the oxygen of the human race, and they need to be able to enjoy responsible creative freedom.  They should be able to say what they must!  Musicians in North Korea are penalized if they sing music that veers even a bit from praising their great leader! The public in Myanmar craves to read literature, rather than propaganda!

The politics of freedom are closely linked to the politics of cultural censorship.  Controlling culture becomes a tool for suppression of ideas and oppression of identity. What need to be analyzed are the forces that control such censorship. Instigated mobs often hide the faces of the true perpetrators!

We must recognize that art piques our curiosity, catalyses discussion, and leads to engagement and eventual action. It is a powerful agent of change. It is a bridge to unlearn intolerance. Artists help open eyes -- and hearts -- to enable us to embrace harmony. For all these reasons, freedom of expression and creativity in the arts are basic rights that this forum should protect and promote. 


As an artist, my worst fear is that the new global economy expects us to eat alike, sing alike and even be entertained alike! Products that are supported by mega funds and corporations are able to elbow themselves into all parts of the world, altering -- squashing even -- with their gigantic footprints the small, the meager and the local. Diversity of the human experience is slowly being erased by the boring sameness of logos and brands.

Who can calculate the incredible loss of such fragile expressions of human culture that reflect human values?  Values that have been linked to local geography and history rather than linked to the volatility of stock markets! Will we allow megacorp balance sheets to be the new Bible or the Bhagavad Gita of our times??? Will we now begin to replace our prayers with chants of profits and shares?

While our new globalized world is increasingly accepting the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility, we are yet to map the contours of Corporate Cultural Responsibility. Corporations enter other cultures and assist in the rapid disabling of local culture. This is done whether wantonly or unknowingly.  The motive does not matter; the fact is that they alter culture.

Let me give you one small example of this:  Women in India who work in the corporate sector are expected to wear business suits.  They could be equally at home in Wall Street, Bond Street or the Champs Elysees! The humble saree -- timeless symbol of India -- has been sacrificed as a difficult and unwieldy garment!

While women can surely choose to wear whatever they wish, the corporate insistence on the sameness of them being in a business suit has deep cultural impacts.  The humble illiterate weaver who for centuries upon centuries has thrived on weaving sarees for my culture is today marginalized. Rising costs, altered raw materials and an increasingly impoverished market are leading to suicides and poverty. These linkages are not ably recognized and the impact of corporate action on cultures of the world is not fully analyzed. Who will bear the costs of such cultural alteration?  If costs and the impact on balance sheets is what can move corporations, then it is time for our forum to begin to think of a corporate tax for cultural damage!

Similarly, while the spurt in global media networks creates a free flow of information and promotes human rights by highlighting its multi-violations, the media also plays a huge part in altering dreams, changing lifestyle patterns and promoting images and values that communities across the world may not be able to provide to all people in the short term.  This leads to social angst in many societies, and may fuel revolt in its most extreme.

Addressing UN delegates in 1999 on the phenomenon of globalization, the then UN Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette, warned, saying: “It brings up many opportunities to learn from each other, and to benefit from a wider range of choices, but it can also seem very threatening. Instead of widening our choices, globalization can seem to be forcing us all into the same shallow, consumerist culture giving us the same appetites but leaving us more than ever unequal in our ability to satisfy them. Many millions of people have yet to feel its benefits at all.”

The liability of corporate global entertainment’s impact on culture is probably even greater. As more and more money underwrites global entertainment, the space for cultural identity is often reduced to caricature, to new simplified prototypes and reduced space for the pan-human experience. 

I remember the great anger that viewers in India felt when they watched the popular American actor Peter Sellers enact the role of an Indian in several of his movies. While his films cemented his legend in western cultures, when the movies were shown in India, they were blamed for being highly insensitive!

Today, technology is not only transforming the world; it is creating its own metaphors as well. Satellites carrying television signals now enable people on opposite sides of the globe to be exposed regularly to a wide range of cultural stimuli. Chinese viewers today watch Indian soap operas; yet their family structure, their value systems are vastly different from their Asian neighbour. CNN is a global prime source for even local news. Yet that news is presented catering to the needs of the western viewer.

But communities all over the world watch it too!

Corporations – including media and entertainment conglomerates -- must be culturally responsible. They need to engage cultural bridge managers who can guide their foray with minimal cultural damage. They need to invest in much much more in local culture and integrate holistic cultural practices that do not alienate communities from whom they hope to profit.


Today we live in a world of information glut or overflow. But where is knowledge.  What systems can help us organize information into knowledge?  That is the key cultural challenge facing us today. The magic key remains the basic human touch called VALUES, which the Universal Declaration of Responsibility already highlights.  It is only through the lens of values that we can sift information and transform it to knowledge that we can use for our common good.

In ancient India the word used for education was Vidya – a Sanskrit word that meant “that which illumines”. As such, it was identified with knowledge that illumines the mind and soul. Since the imparting of knowledge was the aim of education, over a period of time, education as we know it today, also came to be known as Vidya. But the original Vidya had values inbuilt into its core.

Policy makers generally flee when they are accosted with values! It is unquantifiable and heuristic. No software can be developed to reflect values.  It exists in the human domain.  It however lives where art and artists are bred.

We have to re-enshrine values in the education system. Values empower information and transform it into knowledge. Mechanisms that can return knowledge to education need to be supported.

As this forum unlearns forces that are globally divisive and against the culture of human values, we can surely learn from the ancient Upanishad Sanskrit texts from India which mention the divine as being Sarva Bhutanam Hridesha Tishthati  or that which resides in everything that breathes and moves. It is an amazing concept that bestows equal dignity to every human being and to every living creature. By obliterating differences among “all things great and small” the Upanishads beautifully knit contemporary concepts of human rights with bio-diversity and environmental concerns. At the same time, by labelling the entire human race as Amritasya Putrah or children of immortality, the Upanishads honour and recognize the spirit of each individual and their unique individual potential. Thus the conceptual framework of human beings fulfilling their fullest individual potential in the larger context of universal unity, is the grand message of the Upanishads. The Panchatantra – to which I referred to at the beginning of my essay -- reiterates the concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam where the entire world is viewed as one family.

This is the ancient – and potent -- wisdom of India. 


In our globalized, corporatized world, what of the arts that cannot join the commercial bandwagon?  What strategies can we allow for their promotion?  Will the “other” be permitted to exist at all?

Take dance, for example.  Dance is probably one of the few art forms that completely rejects the market place.  The dancer has no product to market - no CDs and cassettes like the musician or instrumentalist, no painting or sculpture like the artist, no buildings like the architect, no books like the authors and poets.  The dancer only has his/her own body with which to create an omniscient art form which springs alive only for that moment and then, evanescent, fades from all existence, except audience memory.  And memory cannot be marketed! 

Hence it is that the entire related industries that have cropped up to market the other arts -- galleries, music companies,  publishing houses, ad agencies, have no dance equivalents, simply because the dancer and the dance have no commercial value. 

But performing arts can be the strength of the future.  In a globalized world when we are all painted of the same global hue, eating, wearing and listening to what can market itself most boldly and loudly, the performing arts step in and says that they can make a difference  -- despite the market, despite everything else.

That is why governments all over the world and intelligent communities should have the most stakes in supporting the performing arts.  It is the only chance they have at retaining their identity when everything else is disinvested, merged or sold! 

Wise policies that give the performing arts -- and other indigenous art forms -- their space -- and some resources -- would probably be the best investments for the future.  Mainstreaming the arts needs creative thinking and strategies.


In 1998, this city -- Stockholm -- gave its name to a Declaration signed at the conclusion of an Intergovernmental Conference on Cultural Policies for Development. That Convention provided a framework for the future:

--Cultural policy is of the key components of development strategy

--Promote creativity and participation in cultural life

--Promote cultural and linguistic diversity in and for the information of society

--Reinforce policy and practice to safeguard and enhance the cultural heritage, tangible and intangible, movable and immovable

--Promote cultural industries

--Make more human and financial resources available for cultural development

I recommend that these conclusions be integrated into the Declaration on Universal Responsibility so that culture can move central stage in the global dialogue.



I come from a culture where for aeons even the Gods have danced. Krishna dances the circular dance of creation, Shiva dances the solo dance of destruction and the Goddess’ dance throbs with the vitality of the universe.  But what needs to be emphasized is that even these Gods were cast in human mould, with human aspirations, desires and choices! Ancient Indian culture understood the complex linkages between human life and its cultural ethos. Even the very heavens throbbed to the rhythms of human aspiration! Is that not still the most important lesson for us today