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Hidden Riches: Evolving Philanthropy in the Arts

By Deepika Sorabjee
February 22, 2019

 

One of the ten monuments at the Quli Qutb Shah tomb complex in Hyderabad supported by the Tata Trusts, being restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
Courtesy of Tata Trust.

 

Hidden Riches: Evolving Philanthropy in the Arts

 

 

The Tata Trusts, with a history of “125 years of giving”, is one the oldest philanthropic bodies in India. The Trusts were started in the year 1892 with the JN Tata Endowment by Jamsetji N Tata, a successful industrialist with a deep interest in the welfare of his employees and the larger community. This was added to substantially by endowments from his sons, Ratan Tata (1919) and Dorab Tata (1932). More endowments entered through the 20th century, an extraordinary business family that supported a country being newly formed with a parallel social commitment.

 

This year the Arts & Culture portfolio set up the Tata Trusts Art Archives. A plough through this seemingly modest archive reveals a wealth of funding – individuals and institutions that have secured the arts or key aspects of it through the years, that has left definite markings over the decades like no other philanthropic art institution in India has, in the particular or the macro.

 

In the initial years, individual grants were given, largely for educational and medical purposes, then as the needs of a nation changed, institutions were supported. It is pertinent to note here that the Tata Trusts are not an ‘arts foundation’ working exclusively in the arts but rather a larger structure that works with health and sanitation, education, rural development, urban poverty alleviation that includes habitat and migration, civil society and arts, craft and culture. Indeed, for a theme like the arts in such a scenario, the case has to be fought for a portion of the funds within the organisation as much as it is sought for from the outside!

 

The Euro 3.50 entrance to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s ‘Barcelona Pavilion’ belies the Stendhal Syndrome – a moment of being overcome by sheer awe, perhaps dizziness, when in presence of a work of art – that is worth 100 times more the admittance fee. One stands in wonderment at how a few erected slabs of marble can encompass spaces of enchantment. Function and form meld indoors with outdoors. It has withstood time, and moreover formed a grammar in architecture’s Modern Movement, that influences design in modern living, almost a century later.

 

At the Trusts, how does one place one’s admission fee into an art program that will produce a Stendhal Syndrome moment years later? In a sense, one has to have the confidence and risk taking of an entrepreneur – the vision to see the larger outcome, the belief of an idea, and the passion to see it through, probably in the face of a review committee, who may not understand what exactly it is you see.

 

A few stories of the marriage of philanthropy and vision produced in the Trusts’ history might explain the ‘rasa’ that several initiatives the Arts portfolio have induced. Some anecdotal, others documented in numbers, each narrates the lives of people, of excellence, of a country’s rich cultural history and the celebration of the deep diversity that we have inherited, that can provide Stendhal moments in the hybrids produced, for centuries to come.

 

Many a current well-known personality in the arts has found creative solace in a grant from the Tata Trusts in the initial years of their careers, as have students and scientists and writers. As the need for institutions rose in a newly independent India, institutes in science and research were seeded, chairs at universities looking specifically at community needs were established. One such institution seeded for the arts was the National Centre for Performing Arts, established in Mumbai in 1968. Now one of the premier institutions in the country, it is a thriving stage for the arts.

 

Through the last decades of the 20th century, support for the particular gained ground and the shift to non-governmental organisations (NGO) started. In a country that is as diverse as a continent in its art forms, the difficulty in supporting a practice with rigour is challenging to say the least. An NGO/institution working in one particular art form could maintain the authenticity needed. However, the dilemma where to put your allotted funds when there are 10 equally viable proposals on your desk was always present. Here, the mandate of the organisation steps in and the Trusts have been pioneers in leading where funds would not otherwise reach, the vision in the arts to work with the marginalised (be it region, art form, caste, gender, economic, in accessibility etc), with multiplicity, and with excellence.

 

In the last decade the shift has been away from grants to NGOs, to designing larger programs that in using the experience of past years, assessing success and heeding failures, allows the Trusts to address gaps in the sector and community in a more direct and economical manner, nevertheless hoping to enhance impact and leave healthy organisations capable of functioning on exit of the programs.

 

Some stories from the past and present.

 

In the late 90s, a small grant was given to Shrujan, a crafts organisation in Bhuj, Gujarat. The program involved sending a team on a bus provided, with different types of embroidery, often borrowed from museums, to villages that once specialised in these types, but had long forgotten the dexterity and design in the standards of excellence their grandmothers adhered to. The increased cost of living, the weariness of poverty and insensitive modernisation had robbed them of time and concern for old ways. Working with women, in their homes, the program brought to their doorstep, materials and methods and the quality required. Removing any avenue of complaint was a sure way to start the process, but ensuring quality was another.

 

In a crafts program, it is not merely livelihood that must be foremost, but if that livelihood has to endure post the program intervention, it has to engage in quality. As demand grows, it is the mediocre that may bring in the bucks for a while, but that wanes. Fast forward to 20 years later. On a visit to Bhuj in September 2016, a gallery at the newly opened Shrujan Museum, stuns with the quality of work done on new panels showcasing revived techniques, forgotten patterns, new interventions in colour and form, that matched erstwhile museum pieces. A small grant given decades ago sees two decades later the culmination of a program in a museum, less can be more than more.

 

What may have seemed a large grant given to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, for the conservation of Humayun’s Tomb, was truly groundbreaking at its time, the support of a public private initiative between government institutions and a private organisation, was the first of its kind in India. Today the results are seen in the “outcomes” that so many funders ask for – the increase in footfall from 1.5 lakh people ten-fold and more, a revenue in ticket sales per year in excess of the total initial grant, women from the Nizamuddin Basti earning millions of rupees per year through selling their craft products at the site, the employment of 3,000-5,000 craftsmen during the project, the training of scores as guides and site management professionals. A combination of livelihood with best practices in conservation. Ten years on, 53 acres of 16th century Delhi have been reclaimed and recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage site – a public monument kept as commons with access for all. Would this have been imaginable ten years ago?

 

At the Roja Muthiah Research Library in Chennai, the Trusts supported a program to set up the first thorough paper conservation lab in South India. Providing equipment and training, a small room and the landing of a staircase was converted, tables set up and work began to conserve 60,000 pages of rare Tamil manuscripts, that exposed to Chennai’s inclement weather prior to acquisition had undergone damage. Six months later on a visit, the landing had been glassed in, air conditioners in place, an efficient assembly line of people trained meticulously worked with rigour. In the Nitrogen chamber downstairs, which the grant had provided for, hundreds of books could be put in at a time, left for a day, in conditions that freed them of insect damage. During the devastating floods of 2015, the RMRL conservators helped other libraries repair damaged books. Having documented the processes, manuals produced will be the fore-runner guides to scores of labs that will come into place. This is a small start, that is laying seeds for replication, that will impact the big picture – a coalescence of equipment, training and documentation that shows the way to future labs in the making.

 

When the Trusts seeded Attakkalari, a contemporary dance company in Bangalore in the early noughties, little did one realise that one was not seeding an organisation but a movement as Jayachandran Palazhy, an Attakkalari founder says. Today, alumni of Attakkalari are starting organisations of their own. This year a practice-based Masters in Contemporary Dance, that the Trusts are piloting with Ambedkar University Delhi has commenced. This layering of funding support in practice and then education, has rooted contemporary dance into the traditions of India.

 

Similarly, two decades ago, dhrupad, a classical music form was practiced by a few families with scarce public performances. Sustained giving to Dhrupad Sansthan, helmed by two outstanding practitioners, the Gundecha brothers, has seen established performers, through 25 plus Tata Trusts Fellowships, secure an art form in peril, their calendars booked out for performances nationally and internationally and with pedagogy continuing to the next generation. A marginalised art form was addressed and established, with excellence maintained.

 

In the case of the Students’ Biennale that is the art education thrust of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, it is the direct concern of the languishing state of pedagogy in our art schools and the inaccessibility to contemporary art outside the metropolitan area that the Trusts support. Here the funding is strategic – by supporting a program that reaches out to colleges and institutions in second tier cities it brings in students who would otherwise escape the contemporary art radar, exposure to a national platform – the only one of its kind in the country, while in time builds a case for changing curricula and art practices in colleges.

 

Cut to the present and the Trusts are embarking on the Tata Trusts Art Conservation Initiative that through direct implementation and in partnering with select institutes hopes to address the laying of infrastructure in the 21st century in new ways – a conceptual institute that lays a program that addresses an urgent need, addresses pedagogy, addresses the creation of jobs in the art sector, keeping the big picture in mind – of establishing art conservation through laboratories established around the country and creating a cohort of trained conservators much needed in a country with millennia’s worth of objects in disrepair and few labs.

 

These are measurable processes – income, man-hours, pages, revenue but art is more than that. It is an expression of an artist, an architect, a craftsman, a librarian, a performer, that touches lives – termed by some as ‘soft power’, laughed as trivial in the face of the more pressing demands of survival. While not disputing the fact that a nation that cannot provide water and sanitation to 65% of it’s people is in a deplorable situation that needs to be addressed first and foremost, what survives eventually, after we have all gone, is centuries of the expression of artists in India. And the Trusts’ engagement in the projects above ensure that. The very gardens and architecture of Humayun’s Tomb that millions of people enjoy, the precious books of centuries ago that lift a reader’s soul, the dying tradition of a particular school of music revived that enthrals audiences, the virtuosity of a women’s deft fingers and innate colour sense that stuns as visual imagery otherwise lost, all this, bringing not just income to the practitioners, but joy – to them and the community – that gross national happiness that is much needed in the dark lives of the many.

 

Today’s contemporary is tomorrow’s heritage – the stories above show that programs start with ideas, often small, where a focussed vision and lean programmatic execution, shorn of unnecessary baggage ensures a valuable outcome, rooted always in the passion of people. Small first steps, (a modest grant in terms of conservation, a bus, a stair landing, a belief in the new), did not hold back grandiose expressions of the highest level. Less is more than more: in need, lies innovation, urgency and practicality, especially in a country like ours where funding for the arts has to fight so many more pressing needs.

 

A little money for the arts, leaves, for long after, immeasurable amounts of what money cannot buy.

 

 

By Deepika Sorabjee, Head – Arts and Culture, Tata Trusts

 

 

This article can be read in our recent Special Report India: Art and Philanthropy 2019, which was published on the occasion of India Art Fair by ArtTactic together with our partner, W / R / B Underwriting. The full report, which is free to read, can be accessed via clicking Here.

 

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