What do we talk about when we talk about the arts? In giving a voice to our innermost joys, fears, anxieties, it gives a shape to what we believe to be our identity. Different parts of India have had a rich artistic and cultural heritage that define the identities of those regions.

On one hand, Sanjoy K. Roy, cultural entrepreneur and managing director of Teamwork Arts, has been striving to take Indian arts and culture across the globe to showcase its rich traditions and robustness of scope, while on the home front, the success of Jaipur Literature Festival, one of the biggest literary festivals in Asia that Teamwork puts together every year, has created a template for making literature ‘cool’ among the young.

With India By The Creek opening a new portal of cultural dialogue between India and the UAE, Roy talks at length about why arts may just have the answers to the most pressing questions of our time. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What cemented your belief in cultural entrepreneurship? Is it challenging to monetise the arts?

I started with theatre and the artistic director of the group was Barry John. At that time, I was following my passion, but also realised it was equally important to get paid for it. When I was about to marry my wife, my would-be father-in-law asked what I did for a living. I said, “I do theatre.” He insisted on knowing what my day job was till he was convinced that I worked in theatre. He asked, “How will you look after my daughter?” I said, “She is a manager in a big company, so she will be the one to look after us” (laughs). He was obviously not too excited by my response.

In those days, television had just started and because there was no industry as such, the state broadcaster had given slots to independent producers. Bobby Bedi, who’s produced Bandit Queen, reached out to me, and I joined him. In 1989, my partner Mohit Satyanand and I set up Teamwork and till about 1995, we were primarily a film and television company. Those days, we would shoot in Delhi, send the tapes physically to Bombay, which would then be sent to Nepal for uplinking.

By this time, Mohit had already started Friends of Music, a cultural programme that brought musicians and discerning audiences under one roof. And we replicated a similar format for dance where we got Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas and acclaimed dancer Daksha Sheth. Their work was different and spectacular, which captured audiences’ attention. Our breakthrough came when we set up our first platform at the Edinburgh Festival. Once we had that stamp of approval, things became relatively easy.

We realised that if you create a touring festival, you are able to find income from the different cities you’re taking it to. It was an accidental economic model that we stumbled upon. There had been no prior examples of this kind of work being done in India. We weren’t doing broadway musicals but contemporary works that were rooted in classical imagery from India. It took us some time, but we were able to multiply it in different parts of the world.

The idea of culture for Indians living outside India often tends to be rooted in nostalgia. How does one cater to such an audience?

When we started, there was no sense of doing contemporary work per se. We were pretty much presenting arts the way it was meant to be performed or showcased. When we started pushing dance, however, we did face some amount of resistance. I remember at Edinburgh, Aditi Mangaldas said, “You’re making me dance on the streets of Edinburgh. My Guru will have a heart attack.”

I used to push them to relook the way they were, for example, designing the costumes. When the artiste heeded to our comments and observations, it was good; when they didn’t, it was difficult. But there was another aspect to it: dance critic Mary Brennan, who’d been with The Herald, had once told me, “So, you will show certain ways in which Indians stump their feet?” We brought them to India and exposed them to the robust legacy of dance in the country. I think the fault also lay with us: we had not been educating critics or peers about the essence of our culture.

Much of what we look at in the contemporary space has classical roots. You see the Indian diaspora coming to terms with classicism, and it’s not necessarily the first generation. People forget that Indian classical dance or music forms are not instant noodles; it takes years to perfect the art.

It’s interesting that you are talking about artistic responsibility because there is an entire generation of youngsters who, we are told, have short attention spans and hence content needs to be tweaked as per their needs. How can we make arts and culture accessible to them?

It’s not about accessibility, but making arts and culture ‘sexy’ enough for them to engage with it. We have been able to address this issue in some of our festivals. At Jaipur Literature Festival, 80 per cent of our audience is aged below 25. In any other literary gathering across the world, the average age of the audience is 50-55 years. We want young people to attend these festivals because of the energy they bring to the table. When we catch them young, we are able to move them away from the world of WhatsApp information.

We want them to use considered knowledge to push back on ignorance, to push back on hate. Years ago, we had set up a festival in Chicago and ran a workshop in a park, where the city gave us a screen and popcorn machine. There were Africans standing on one side, Latinos on the other. We must have been playing Monsoon Wedding or Salaam Bombay, when we saw a woman and her baby being shot at.

We stopped the movie and I asked the people, “Is this the kind of neighbourhood you would like to live in? Why can’t you learn to trust each other and set up something?” They set up a Neighbourhood Watch and the place got a lot safer.

Another example I can give you is from 10-15 years ago, when I used to sit in Arts Council of England’s diversity board. Riots had broken out and the committee decided to meet. I asked them to look at areas where they had shut community art spaces and map them to places where rioting was taking place. When reports came, it was the exact match.

Arts matter. Because when you work in the arts, it compels you to look at things out of the box. By looking at things out of the box, you become a better innovator. And today, innovation is key to unlocking the potential of any economy.

Lately, has there been a shift in how governments look at the arts?

Different parts of the world have different reactions to culture. In Trump’s first year, he had cut the arts budget. A few of us had been invited to make a case for why these budgets should not have been cut in the first place. So, one of the things I’d said was if you cut this budget, the only culture you would be known for is gun culture. For most governments, culture is not a priority because they see it as net spend. They don’t calculate the contribution of the creative sector. In the UK, it contributes more than the energy sector. In India, it’s looked at by 14 different ministries, and there has never been an enumeration.

Close to 400 million people get their primary income from the arts. The contribution of the arts to the world’s economy stands at 3.2 per cent. During Covid, 2.1 trillion dollars was lost in this sector. So, you can understand the magnitude. But more and more cities are coming to us to start festivals. Saudi Arabia is a case in point. For the arts, you have to have mixture of subsidies plus sponsorship and marketing. It’s never going to have the same kind of value that football or cricket has, but it is becoming important for every country to foreground its identity through culture.

How did the idea for India By The Creek take root?

We have been working in the Middle East region for a while. Before partnering for Expo 2020 Dubai, we had partnered with Abu Dhabi Book Fair and Abu Dhabi Festival, and felt that there was a scope to do something. The delegation from these events would also come to Jaipur Literature Festival and Kabira (music festival). When Expo happened, we did more than 100 events there. At that time, local authorities asked us to set up a festival that comes back every year. We wanted artistes of both countries to come together and exchange ideas.

Then the CEO of Emirates Literature Foundation Ahlaam Bolooki asked us to explore the market. When we met our first partner, Dubai Economy and Tourism, they got excited. They helped us throughout, and wanted us to do this before Ramadan and do the second edition just before Diwali. Then Dubai Duty Free came on board and offered incredible support. To bring the first edition of the festival to Dubai, we have been ably guided and supported by our local partner, Ravi Menon, who carries lightly over three decades of professional and lived in experience in Dubai.

Pre-Covid, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan had invited me to open a new festival in Abu Dhabi, and that led to us doing some stuff with the international festival. And that set into motion what this full-fledged offering is.

What would you say is the larger cultural ethos of the UAE?

The UAE has been very much in the eye of the Bollywood experience, and we want to convey that there is more to Indian culture than Bollywood. When we set up JLF Doha, we didn’t necessarily think that anybody would come, but it was amazing to see the turnout. The Qatar National Library had agreed to do this. Similarly, when we were part of Abu Dhabi Festival, it was interesting to see the audiences being hungry for something different. The region has also come a long way in recent times in how it looks at people from the subcontinent.

India By The Creek will take place at Al Seef from March 8-10. For more information, log on to www.indiabythecreek.com


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