State of Indian arts today

By Paul Greenough
Guest Opinion for the Iowa City Press-Citizen

Nowadays a stream of good economic news is coming from India. Despite persistent poverty, the country has been growing at nearly 9 percent annually for 15 years. Its middle class is expanding by 10 million households each year, and the monied upper class reaps its reward in exotic cars, elite schooling for its children, foreign travel and large residences.

Meanwhile, American corporations race to enter the Indian consumer goods market. But how often do you hear about Indian artists or about the thirst among parts of the Indian public for painting, music, sculpture and design?

This is the focus of a small conference on the state of Indian arts today, Friday and Saturday at the University of Iowa — and of a WorldCanvass program on Friday night that is free and open to the public.

It’s not well-enough known that India has millions of village-based artisans and musicians — and that there is an array of fine art schools and music academies that turn out thousands of trained youths every year. It can also be noted that a handful of contemporary Indian painters — M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza, F.N. Souza come to mind — sell their paintings regularly at Christie’s and Sotheby’s for enormous sums, and their canvases are collected by patrons and museums in India, Europe, Japan, Australia and America.

The idea for a conference on “The Arts in India” began last spring with a recognition that the 150th birthday of Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel-prize winner for Literature in 1913, was being celebrated all over the world. The tall poet from Calcutta was a master story-teller, song-writer and painter whose verses are still sung all over eastern India and in Bangladesh. But Tagore was also a political activist, in his own way; he joined Mahatma Gandhi in underlining the injustice of the British Empire, and he campaigned globally against war and excessive nationalism.

In the course of his travels, Tagore visited the University of Iowa in 1916 to give an anti-war speech to faculty and students just a few months before the U.S. joined the Great War in Europe. Surely we on the faculty in the City of Literature could do something in recognition of this great man’s 150th birthday?

The result is 2½ days of panels and a thrilling play on Thursday evening, “The Prophet and the Poet” by Vijay Padaki, in which actors from the UI Theatre Arts Department take up the enlightening dialog between Tagore and Gandhi about schooling, politics and the aims of Indian independence. This drama, which is free, is playing simultaneously this week in Houston, London and Trinidad, but we are fortunate that the author, Vijay Padaki, will be present in Iowa City.

Other panels will examine folk art, studio painting, the art of the tabla (drum) and the use of digital media to broaden the base of devotional worship. A highlight event will be the public, comprehensive discussion on WorldCanvass that will include all the conference presenters and be shared with television and radio audiences across Iowa.

In so far as the conference has a theoretical thread, it asks the questions is the making of art in contemporary India a matter of privilege that rests with donors, patrons and ministries of culture? Or, on the contrary, is art a necessity for life, like food and shelter, which ordinary people need to relieve the dreariness of poverty? By the end of the conference, participants will have a grasp on major artists and the artistic character of the region and should be able to answer the biggest question, who makes and who consumes Indian art?

Paul Greenough is a professor of history at the University of Iowa.

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