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What it takes to become a hub of culture

For a city to become a true culture capital, art and heritage must be the cornerstones of its development

Varanasi figures among the Indian cities in the Unesco Creative Cities Network for its music initiatives. Photographs: iSTOCKPHOTO
Varanasi figures among the Indian cities in the Unesco Creative Cities Network for its music initiatives. Photographs: iSTOCKPHOTO (iSTOCKPHOTO)

The term “culture capital” is bandied about rather loosely and carelessly. Every time a new museum or a cultural centre comes up, or a major festival is announced, there is haste to declare the host city “the culture capital”. But what does the term really mean? For a city to take on this mantle, culture has to be the mainstay of its economy.

“Cities and towns that rely solely on culture—tourism, museums, performing arts, gastronomy, visual arts and crafts or a combination of these—to sustain themselves economically can be termed as culture capitals,” says Deepthi Sasidharan, a museum heritage consultant with the Delhi-based Eka Cultural Resources and Research, a consulting firm that works on planning and creating cultural institutions.

Culture as a key pillar of economic progress is still a novel idea in India, for many believe it is intangible and soft. Internationally, the notion is very different. Recognising the tremendous potential that culture has for development, cities around the world, which have a long legacy of heritage, are consciously working on their infrastructure to become cultural hubs.

The European Union has the European Capitals of Culture (Ecoc) initiative. The idea is to highlight the diversity of cultures across Europe, foster the contribution of culture to the development of cities, instil a sense of pride in local residents while also boosting tourism. “The initiative was developed in 1985 and has, to date, been awarded to more than 60 cities across the European Union (EU) and beyond,” states an article on the European Commission website. The cities start working towards this six years before the announcement of the title, submitting proposals and applications.

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“European Capitals of Culture are formally designated four years before the actual title year. It is also the time needed to embed the event in a longer-term cultural strategy, to significantly engage with the citizens, to make the necessary European connections and to ensure the right infrastructure is in place,” elaborates the European Commission website. For 2023, the three Ecocs are Elefsina in Greece, Timișoara in Romania and Veszprém in Hungary.

The culture of progress

“Strengthening trade in cultural goods and services provides impetus for local and national markets, which in turn provides employment opportunities for decent work and promotes local production,” states a 2017 article in UNESCO Courier, a journal published quarterly by the organisation. It goes on to explain that culture is written into the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the United Nations. The SDGs’ focus on sustainable, equitable and inclusive development has deep links to cultural development and its Goal 11 reads, “Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.”

“In the UK too, every year, one destination is declared as a city of culture. It then gets a lot of public funding for infrastructure building and boosting the local economy,” says Smriti Rajgarhia, director, Serendipity Arts Foundation and Festival, a Delhi-based arts and cultural development organisation.

While the focus in the UK is on rejuvenating the local economy and putting its art, food and heritage on a global platform, the conversations are not insular. The chosen city doesn’t just propagate its own heritage and art, it also seeks to create a dialogue with other cultural hubs. “For instance, this year’s culture capital is Leeds. They are not just hoping to create awareness about their artists but are actively engaging with institutions in South Asia, seeking representation from the region. Also, by declaring capitals of culture, you create a new set of cultural leaders and managers who know how to create a multidisciplinary conversation around art and culture—be it sustainability, technology, urban planning, and more. They will take these innovative ideas to other cultural hubs, creating a connected web of sorts,” she explains.

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Can these ideas be translated to India’s culturescape? The Serendipity Arts Foundation has tried to create one such incubation space in Goa with its annual festival. “There is a transference of knowledge when you give a launchpad to gig workers like sound designers, light designers, set designers and other related professions. As the festival team travels from city to city (with seminars, talks, events), each cultural node transfers energy to the other,” says Rajgarhia.

India has no dearth of places with deep cultural ties, such as Santiniketan
India has no dearth of places with deep cultural ties, such as Santiniketan (iSTOCKPHOTO)

India has no dearth of places with deep cultural ties. Santiniketan, once home to Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and Ramkinkar Baij, could be developed, like Elefsina is being celebrated as the birthplace of Aeschylus, often described as the father of Greek tragedy. Why are we not looking to cities and towns such as Raghurajpur in Odisha, a heritage crafts village, which is home to patachitra painters?

“If you look at the Indiascape, the culture ecosystem is being invested in heavily by foundations funded by CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiatives, which are not in the business of profit-making from culture,” says Sasidharan. Take, for instance, the work in art and heritage, especially restoration—including the recentrestoration of the historic David Sassoon Library and Reading Room, built between 1867-70—led bythe JSW Foundation, the social development arm of the business conglomerate JSW Group.

For a city to be called a culture capital, however, its economic growth needs to rest largely on its heritage assets. This is not happening, certainly not actively.

Over the past few years, there has been a lot of discussion about which city is India’s culture capital. The Mumbai versus Delhi versus Bengaluru versus Kolkata debate keeps coming up. “Mumbai, with the kind of economic muscle power it has, can do so much more in this aspect. Delhi fares better with its public cultural spaces like India Gate, Triveni Kala Sangam, Crafts Museum and the National Gallery of Modern Art,” says Sasidharan. Then there are commercial fairs such as the India Art Fair and the government-initiated Museum Expo.

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“For a city to be a cultural power, there needs to be greater parlay between the public and private sector and its economies,” she says. “While some events in Delhi might have privileged access, there are film screenings, international food pop-ups, which are open to everyone. You can see a similar cultural milieu in Kolkata, with its salons, debating societies and poetry readings.”

At present, six Indian cities are part of the Unesco Creative Cities Network, an initiative started in 2004 to promote cooperation among cities that have identified creativity—in one of the seven fields of crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, media arts and music—as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development. The six Indian names in this network of 300 cities are Varanasi and Chennai, both for their music initiatives, Jaipur and Srinagar, for crafts and folk art, Hyderabad for gastronomy, and Mumbai for film. To give credit where it is due, the state and Union governments play a crucial role in formulating and forwarding any proposal.

“If one were to look at cities in which culture is spearheading the economy, I would say Rajasthan has taken the lead,” says Sasidharan. Around 15-18 years ago, she says, the Rajasthan government began identifying the strength of each city. Ranthambore was recognised for its wildlife, Jodhpur for rajwadas, Shekhawati for havelis, Jaisalmer for its dunes.... “Of these, Jaipur has emerged as a fantastic example of a culture hub which celebrates its heritage all-year round. People come there to buy gems, fabric, textiles and artefacts. It has a cluster of small museums, all of which do very well, and actively engage with people. For instance, the Amrapali Museum, a new entrant in the cityscape, finds a fine balance between commerce and traditional legacy,” she adds.

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Even at its hotels, culture is consumed in bits and bobs through folk dances and craft demonstrations. “All this has happened because of government intervention, which broke the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur) to include cities such as Jodhpur and Bikaner. Contrast this with states in the North-East, which have an equally strong cultural legacy and beautiful landscapes but are missing out due to constant conflict,” adds Sasidharan.

Many consider Kochi a missed opportunity. With the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, and its strong culinary heritage and colonial history, there was so much potential to connect the dots and market the city better. “Look at Japan. Every city and town has a community and craft centre, spanning four to five floors, with the top floor for craft demonstrations. We should focus on culture all year round, and think of better curation. Women of the Koli community make some really funky jewellery. Which international tourist wouldn’t be interested in them? A friend’s aunt does a zipped-up version of the nine yard saree. Why shouldn’t we market that?” asks Sasidharan. “To identify potential, it is very important to start with grassroot documentation and then move upwards.”

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