The cities of Bombay (Mumbai), Madras (Chennai) and Calcutta (Kolkata) had deep cultural roots and urbanised commerce and industry even during the colonial period, possibly because a diversified and robust economy is important for the growth of cultural activities, beyond the purely traditional forms. Delhi has had the cultural institutions created by the government — but not the eco-system in which culture thrives. Till the 1980s Delhi was predominantly a bureaucratic town.
For Delhi, the big change came via cable TV, expectedly offering a window into foreign soaps. Primetime telecasts of “Santa Barbara” and “The Bold and The Beautiful” re-set the clock for Delhi’s social set. Delhi gorged on cricket, fashion, cinema, ice cream and potato chips. Stand-alone classical music and dance events and theatre productions that had comprised the Delhi cultural scene were all grappling with the lack of affordable performance spaces, vanishing sponsorship support and dwindling audiences. There was a sense of collective pessimism. Delhi deserved better.
We sensed the potential. The problem was hugely constrained supply of supportive spaces and facilities. It was against this somewhat bleak backdrop that we at Habitat World were privileged to take the opportunity and create an ecosystem for culture at the India Habitat Centre. It has worked very well. The pent-up demand for such cultural facilitation was embraced with joy and relief by artistes and performers. Our calendar of events is a directory of the greats of India’s performing arts.
We were careful to align our programmes with the demographics of our members and the broader potential audience. Some data mining helped. Nothing intrusive. Just second-guessing their aesthetics and proclivity from their age, education, income and location.
For those missing the good old days, we replayed the familiar favourites and they blessed us. For those who had never thought of an evening of performing arts as a leisure option, plays with a recognisable “star cast” that straddled cinema and theatre was the lure for a first foray. Film screenings and book launches, with an opportunity for a Q&A and an autograph (this was before the selfies age) with star directors, authors and actors (including the Big B himself) were teasers to enlarge the habit of enjoying a cultural evening. Out-of-the-box workshops for children and adults, cinema, art and music appreciation courses provided a predictable and steady stream of events to plan for.
Our outreach was primarily through our monthly calendar that was mailed to our 7,000 members; posters in other performance spaces and clubs and via insertion of the event listings in the city magazines and papers. For ticketed plays, the extra push that would make all the difference would be the coveted Page 3 interview or pre-show write-ups. At the time, paid-for news insertions were not the norm as they are today. If resources permitted, an advertisement in the newspaper was the exceptional add-on.
Our broad range of programmes enabled us to tweak the composition towards progressive acceptance of the more avant-garde and contemporary. New choreographies, fusion music, stand-up comedy, play scripts collectively created through workshops and indie cinema soon became part of our mainstream offerings. All this led up to “festivals” catering to specific art forms — festivals of music, dance, theatre, film, food, collegiate theatre, documentaries and shorts, comedy, environment, women directors… the possibilities seem endless.
So, what changed? Just as India changed in 1990 and opened its doors and windows to the world, in the noughties, digital technology upended both performance spaces and forms. Internet, Facebook, Youtube, Whatsapp, Twitter, Instagram and blogspots, connectivity, access, mobility… a mind boggling network that spun a whole new culture of excellence. Today, the audience can come prepared to watch a classic play after watching the international greats do the same play on YouTube. Audience expectations have increased and the cultural scene is responding. Importantly, the digital economy has created an entirely new audience of socially concerned persons looking for “time out” outside a beer bar and with the means to pay for culture. Demand has created its own supply of new-age customers and practitioners.
Digital technology empowered a new generation of creativity by reducing the cost of producing good art and accessing audiences. Work can be uploaded and sent out into cyberspace and, on occasion, can garner recognition overnight. New audiences and new stars were born without putting a foot onstage. The arts were now online. Artistes, events and festivals can be discovered, researched, followed, booked and publicised online.
The other big lifestyle change that the age of connectivity has ushered in is the travel trend. Over the last two decades, Indians have begun to travel like never before. The one annual holiday that was planned and looked forward to all year has turned into a series of shorter forays to new destinations, and long weekend getaways are par for the course. The more unique and experiential the package, the more its allure. Travel is a driver for wider cultural engagement of a personal kind. It encourages choice and competition and often deep commitments to what was earlier an exotic culture. On the supply side, it has generated a more aware, experimental and appreciative audience, which we at Habitat World are delighted to cater to.
Today it is psychographics and not demographics that provide a better insight into what the audience wants and how it can be persuaded to see multiple truths of the same reality. Cultural curators have recognised the potential of this aspiration and created a brand of experiential culture travel opportunities. If you have a mind to be a serial culture vulture, you could pack in a festival a month and still not cover a half of them.
There is new talent and enormous energy surging through the arts. An energy that is supported by the government, individual and corporate well-wishers. The good news is that we have merely scratched the surface, Consider: Arts and culture is one space which is the most resistant to the invasion of robotics — a major threat to job creation in the near term. India has a glorious tradition of art and culture; we should leverage it to create good jobs, great art and happy audiences.
(In “Shifting Sands of Culture” the first of five noted personalities address diverse issues and trace the changing dynamics of India’s culture in articles written exclusively for IANS. Vidyun Singh has been the Head of Programming at Habitat World, India Habitat Centre, since its inception in 1997)