Making India a cultural power

Dancer, choreographer, Pratibha Prahlad on managing cultural scenario and encouraging the promotion of arts and art forms

Geeta Sahai | May 14, 2016


#Interview   #Arts   #Pratibha Prahlad   #Culture  


A dancer, choreographer, art administrator, organiser of Delhi Art International Festival and a writer with a mission, Pratibha Prahlad, was honoured with Padma Shri this year. In conversation with Geeta Sahai, she talks about the importance of cultural diplomacy, managing cultural scenario and encouraging the promotion of arts and art forms. She also candidly shares notes on her life, passion and multifaceted interests. Excerpts from the interview: 


Did you ever expect you’d get a Padma award?

My first reaction was of extreme happiness, that finally I have been recognised. I say, ‘finally’ because the fact is that I have been performing for 30-odd years. 

Some say one has to lobby for it.

[Promptly] Certainly, you did not hear my name [laughs]. When I saw people honoured with Padma awards, I believed that one has to work hard and that one’s contribution has to be extraordinary to get it. I still maintain and believe in the same idealism. People lobbying for an award has been a gossip for years. But what do you do in a system where recognition does not come of its own accord? I don’t blame those who deserve and ask for it. What would they do if the system has kept them out of recognition? For Padma awards names are recommended by the ministries of the central government. There are many artists who remain out of this system. There was a time when the political class was sensitive to the fields in which they nominated the  awards. The person who received an award was treated with respect and regard. There was immense sanctity to it. We should try to maintain that sanctity. After all, these are national awards; not just any awards. 

What’s the role of cultural diplomacy in building people-to-people contact?

In 2007 when I began Delhi Art International Festival, my key phrase, rather two key phrases, were ‘cultural diplomacy’ and ‘cultural tourism’. Today cultural diplomacy is of extreme importance. I always say that India can be a world economic power, but to be that one has to have a lasting impact on other economies and cultures of the world. One has to be a cultural power first. In fact, culture is all about understanding people, value system, art, languages and the way people transact their life. And one part of their life is the way they transact business, commerce, etc. To be able to understand how people live, the meaning of life, ethos, one has to understand the culture. It is the total of everything that one does in life. So, it is very important to understand other’s culture and value system to be a world economic power.

What is your view about India’s cultural diplomacy?

The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) was formed with a mandate. The question is whether it has fulfilled that mandate or not? My answer is ‘no’. The next question is ‘why so?’ I think, probably, because of our education system. It is so very subject-specific. Art administration was not given importance in the curriculum. So those serving as IAS and IFS, unless they are self-motivated when they acquire position of power, are just not interested in culture. They take it for granted. To them, culture is just asking a dancer or a musician to perform. Exposure to dance, music is just one aspect of diplomatic efforts but encouraging people-to-people dialogue and building up long-lasting tie-ups and relationships is a different thing. It can only happen by creating networks and opportunities between people from different cultures.

How can that be created?

By introducing exchange programmes like the British Council or Alliance Francaise or Max Mueller [Bhavan] does. I call them early imperialists. They understood that imperialism cannot be sustained without cultural imperialism. So they started British Council or Alliance Francaise across the world. America started that much later. Now we have cultural centres of China, Russia, Taiwan, Japan, etc. They organise cultural activities throughout the year. It is an ongoing process. One has to have a strategy. I believe that due to lack of trained personnel staff at ICCR we lost projects somewhere along the way.

So, a person with an in-depth knowledge of art and culture should be at the helm of affairs?

Exactly. Also, that person should have administrative capabilities. There are many who are experts in their field but fail to serve as good administrators.

What is an ideal cultural scenario?

I think the government should just fund and not manage the scene.

Is it possible? Because money can be misused.

They should just be a part of it and not try controlling everything. Australia set a good example in this context. Though the country is not very rich – culturally – it has some of the best international festivals like Melbourne International Festival, Sydney International Festival, Adelaide and Perth International Festivals. Nearly 10-20 years back, they started Adelaide Performing Arts Market. In this, they invite performing artists from every nook and corner of their country and showcase them in their performing arts market, in front of invited directors from all over the world. They tie up with different countries and strategically place Australian arts and art forms. Adelaide Festival is not organised by the Australian government. It is organised by an NGO with full financial support by the Australian government. In culture, there has to be a continuity and it cannot be dependent on the government of the day. After Adelaide Performing Arts Market, we now have Tokyo Performing Arts Festival, China and Shanghai Performing Arts Festivals. Despite being culturally rich, India does not have any [such arts festival]. NGOs cannot organise it independently and even if one  gets the funding for a year, one is unsure whether funding will be done next year. So, I believe that the government and non-government sectors have to work in cohesion with a strategy and the government has to have complete faith on that NGO and vice versa.

You are saying that to promote culture we should have international art festivals by independent bodies?

Yes. I think we are completely confused in the way we administer culture. Just as we have an International Film Festival, we should have international performing arts festival. Currently, there’s no proper documentation of several arts and art forms including rare instruments, music and dance. Is this not a part of the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s mandate? We don’t even have a permanent art exhibition by the Lalit Kala Akademi. Why? Every year, I write to the Lalit Kala Akademi that we would like to include the Akademi’s permanent art exhibition in our Delhi International Art Festival, so please let us know whose work you are focussing now. And the reply is always same: ‘We have outsourced our gallery.’ The question arises that what happens to all the artwork that the Lalit Kala Akademi acquires? Why is there no such permanent art gallery in a vast country like ours? Why is there so much gossip about missing paintings? Every other museum in the world does it. Why can’t we?

Have you ever shared your views and vision with the authorities?

Many times. I have also given them a detailed document. They keep talking about a national culture policy and I keep saying that in a pluralistic country like ours, we cannot have one national cultural policy. It would be much better to have a national policy for the management of cultural centres, under the umbrella of the government. The government can review the working of the art academies, museums, and rework the mandate.

With your children grown-up, how do you see your life ahead?

I think I am on a cusp of change. One phase of my life is obviously getting over with my children grown up. I don’t know where they will be. My life is at the transitional phase as they are my only family. My mother and father have passed away and I am a single mother.

Do you fear loneliness?

Never. I have too much to do, too many commitments to fulfil and too many interests. If there is still time left to be alone, then I like my aloneness.

Do you miss RK Hegde [former Karnataka CM and union minister]?

Oh, yes. I miss him a lot. He was an important part of my life. He left the world 12 years ago. With the passing of years the intensity of ‘missing’ has diminished to some extent.

Did you ever regret being a single parent and not getting married ever? Was it tough bringing up children?

I never regretted. I am a sort of person who breaks systems. And the answer to the second part of your question is ‘yes’, it has been very tough. Especially, in a country like ours where this module is not accepted, where we have the patriarchal mindset. I am glad that now laws are getting reframed for single parents.

(The interview appears in the May 1-15, 2016 issue)

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