India/ 1. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments  

Author: Raghavendra Tenkayala, P. Radhika, Ashish Rajadhyaksha

The year 1950 fits perfectly into India’s history, since that was the year India declared itself as a sovereign republic. The Planning Commission was set up on 15 March 1950. In the early years after Independence, this institution was crucial, as culture was seen as integral to the Planning process as a whole. As the Planning Commission documents from this period show, culture is not a marginal space as ‘arts & culture’ portfolios usually assume: it is intrinsic to the concept of planned national development.

Through the 1950s and into the early 1960s, under the first three Plan periods, the Government of India founded a number of institutions that determined its cultural policy and also thereby determined, for several other agencies, the dominant paradigms for the ‘arts & culture’ field as a whole. Among the major ones are the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (1950), the Sangeet Natak Akademi (1953), the National Museum, the Sahitya Akademi, the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Lalit Kala Akademi (all set up in 1954, following a Parliamentary Resolution initiated by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru and first Education Minister, Maulana Azad), the Film Institute of India (1959), the National School of Drama (1959) and the National Institute of Design (1961).

While all these institutions do recognise, engage in and otherwise support contemporary art practices, both classical (including music and dance) and explicitly modernist (most prominently contemporary literature, theatre, visual art and film), it is worth recognising that there is virtually no definitive space for autonomous contemporary art practice as such in any of the founding documents of national cultural policy in the period of the 1950s-60s. Instead, the role of these cultural institutions fits mainly within a very different concept of cultural nationalism. The Arts would need, if at all they wanted national visibility, to make sense only if they made a real or imagined contribution to national culture.

Pre-independence legacies: defining the arts

From the early years of the 20th century, a broadly modernist agenda for the arts suitable to Indian nationalism had led to the founding of some influential art institutions. The most visible was the multi-arts institution Shantiniketan, founded by the Bengali polymath, Rabindranath Tagore (Kala Bhavan, founded 1919, and Vishwabharati University, founded 1921). Institutions in dance included the Kerala Kalamandalam (founded by Vallathol Narayana Menon, 1930) and the Kalakshetra (founded by Rukmini Devi Arundale, 1935), and later the Uday Shankar India

Cultural Centre (1938), while influential institutions in music were the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya (founded by Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, 1901), the Bhatkhande Vidyapeeth (1926: formerly the Marris College of Music) and several other music schools. All of these were to become a prominent presence within the post-Independence effort to determine whatever can be construed as a national liberal arts policy. Likewise, in the years immediately preceding Independence and shortly thereafter, in response to liberal nationalism, a Left nationalist-modernism associated with the Indian People’s Theatre Association, the Progressive Writers Association and the Progressive Artists’ Group also constituted an influential presence in the field of which the newly emergent State had to take cognizance. Perhaps the most influential impact on State policy came (in some informal ways, it must be said) through the patronage of Jawaharlal Nehru himself, whose own commitments to viewing Indian nationalism within a global modernist frame did impact national policy. Nehru, it is well known, donated his personal collections of Amrita Sher-Gil’s paintings to inaugurate the National Gallery of Modern Art in 1946, and who later invited Roberto Rossellini and Louis Malle to make films on India and Le Corbusier to design the city of Chandigarh, and who actively supported Satyajit Ray’s early film work.

Notwithstanding Nehru’s own commitments to modernism, he too clearly also associated himself with the ‘uniqueness of India’s cultural heritage’ argument in what should be seen as the landmark policy document for the national vision, his book ‘A Discovery of India’ (1946). There he argues that the ‘evolved and cultured nation’ that India had been before colonialism now constituted a resource that could be directly accessed by ‘planned development under a free national government’ (‘India’s Dynamic Capacity’, see Nehru, ‘The Discovery of India’, 1946/1960, pg 512- 515. See also former Indian President S. Radhakrishnan’s monograph, Our Heritage, 1973).

Nehruvianism by this time therefore contributes to a long, and by the time of Independence, well-formed concept of culture dominated by what we can perhaps define as its pervasiveness, its role in determining everyday life in India. This definition draws from a complex history of cultural nationalism, a key figure of which was Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s concept of anushilan to define culture. Partha Chatterjee defines this nationalist common denominator as premised on the domain of sovereignty that could be demonstrated through the display of ‘marks of ‘essential’ cultural difference’, including a difference based on language, custom, tradition, religion, and in general our ‘inner’ or ‘spiritual’ aspects (Chatterjee, ‘Nationalism and Cultural Difference’, in ‘The Colonial State’, The Nation and its Fragments, 1994).

So pervasive is the representation of culture as national legacy, as both sanskriti (being cultured) and as parampara (tradition), that no corresponding practice or corresponding policy statement involving the Arts could exist without in some form incorporating (or at least adequately accounting for) prevailing definitions of sanskriti. This imbalance has been incarnated into the very substance of all prevalent arts & culture policy ever since this period and well into the present.

The nationalist location of culture has been further centred both historically and economically on the condition of the artisan, and thus on the crafts (in particular the handicrafts) industry. As historian Bipan Chandra shows (‘Reinterpretation of Nineteenth Century Indian Economic History’, 1979), the ruin of artisans through the 19th century, and in particular the ruin of the textile weaver in competition to imported yarn, and, more generally, the decline of handicrafts and the spinning industry leading to the penury of the peasant and the artisan, is one of the more elaborately discussed issues of colonial Indian economic history. Early documents outlining post-Independence economic policy were assembled in the light of colonial and pre-colonial expropriation, and in this light defined a distinct cultural policy that many claim is unprecedented in world history. Though the arts/culture distinction is not in itself unique, what is perhaps unique is an elaborate cultural policy centrally tied to India’s ‘development’ vision.  If the arts were constituted by the fine arts, included contemporary and classical forms, culture was identified in a range of practices—from handicraft and textile (khadi[1] and handloom) to folk and tribal cultures. Arts were primarily housed in the Akademies, with links to the Education Department, where the dissemination of the classical was seen as important to shaping and civilising the new Indian citizen. Culture, on the other hand, came under the purview of a range of ministries and departments: Textile, Khadi and Village Industries, and Education in these areas came to be understood within the frame of technical or vocational education.

In brief, national cultural policy in the period right after Independence adhered to the following five definitional criteria:

  • First, that India’s cultural policy presumes that India’s cultural resources, represented by the artisan-producer and crafts-producer, are a repository of national resources, and as such are central to the very enterprise of nationalism, informing all of its programmes.
  • Second, that they contribute a crucial component to India’s nationalist project of identifying and protecting its national heritage.
  • Third, while the protection and sustenance of the artisan has a cultural justification as representative of national heritage, it is nevertheless its economic component that gives it such visibility, informing the most ambitious and difficult aspect of national development: the agenda of agrarian reform (see section below, ‘The Critique of Developmentalism’).
  • Fourth, that the administrative elements of culture that arise from such imperatives therefore most directly impact the field of education (as against the Arts, see section below, ‘Culture as Educational Resource’), so that the Department of Culture, from the inception of Independence, is located in the Ministry of Education (until 1985, when it was shifted into the newly formed Ministry of Human Resource Development).
  • And five, perhaps most daringly, the founding documents would claim that the nationalist programme presents no contradiction – indeed, a synergy – between the support and development of artisanal practices on the one hand and the stated nationalist goals of industrialism and the emphasis on science and technology on the other (see ‘The Role of Culture in Planning’ in Section 2).

Brief timeline of institutions

1784: The Asiatic Society is founded by Sir William Jones to ‘inquire into…the Antiquities, Arts, Sciences and Literatures of Greater India’. It moves to its present location in Kolkata in 1849.

1814: The Indian Museum is formed out of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta. In 1878 it is transferred to its present building initially with two galleries, but at present covers over sixty galleries of Art, Archaeology, Anthropology, Geology, Zoology and Botany sections.

1861: The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is founded with Alexander Cunningham as the first Surveyor. In 1870, ASI becomes a central department, the first institution of the Department of Culture to come into being. In 1958, the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act comes into being. Under this Act, the ASI at present controls 3598 centrally protected monuments as being of ‘national importance’, 16 world heritage sites and 33 site museums. (Subsequently, the Antiquity and Art Treasure Act is passed in 1972.) The ASI’s main work centres on excavations, preservation and conservation, research into epigraphy and numismatics, training and publication.

1891: The Imperial Record Department is set up in Calcutta, the origin of the National Archives of India (NAI). The NAI is the repository of non-current records of the Government of India, holding them in trust for the use of administrators and scholars. The NAI exists as an attached office under the Ministry of Culture.

1901: Lord Curzon proposes a monument to Queen Victoria, and the Victoria Memorial is announced in Calcutta. Possessing a large repository of Calcutta’s visual history, it has perhaps one of India’s most substantial archives of painting, sculpture, manuscripts and other documentation of colonial India.

1945: The Anthropology section of the Zoological Survey of India becomes the Anthropological Survey of India, part of the Indian Museum, Kolkata.

1946: Blueprint for establishing the National Museum in Delhi is prepared by the Gwyer Committee set up by the Government of India. In 1949 a wing of the Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential House) is used to host an exhibition of Indian Art consisting of selected artefacts from various museums of India, sponsored by the Royal Academy (London) with the co-operation of the Government of India and Great Britain, and originally displayed at the Burlington House, London. This becomes the inaugural exhibition of the National Museum, New Delhi (launched 1949, moved to its present premises in 1960)

[This is the leading museum controlled directly by the Department of Culture. Apart from other museums and galleries run by Central Government agencies listed elsewhere, including the National Gallery of Modern Art, the Nehru Library and Museum, Teen Murti, the main museums cover the fields of art, archaeology, science and technology, handicrafts and textile design and natural history. Among the best known ones: the Archaeological Museum, Nalanda; the National Council of Science Museums, Calcutta; National Gandhi Museum, Rajghat, New Delhi; the National Handicrafts and Handloom Museum, Pragati Maidan, New Delhi; the National Museum of Natural History, FICCI Museum Building, New Delhi; the Nehru Children’s Museum, Calcutta; the Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad; the Nehru Science Centre, Pondicherry; the Patna Museum, Patna; the Pondicherry Museum, Pondicherry; the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, Mumbai (later renamed the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya); the Rabindra Bharati Museum, Calcutta; the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum, Pune and the Tipu Sultan Museum, Srirangapatnam.]

1951: Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) is established, to ‘project Indian culture abroad and to bring to India the rich manifestations of international culture’. India’s major institution for cultural diplomacy, the ICCR organises international cultural exchanges, offers scholarships, organises camps and cultural tours and placements, and supports the cultural centres associated with Indian diplomatic missions (Embassies and Consulates) abroad. The ICCR was the key organiser of the India Festivals organised in the 1980s in London, Paris, Moscow, etc. Funding source: Ministry of External Affairs. Present annual budget: Rs 40 crore approx. (Source: Standing Committee on External Affairs, 2002. Thirteenth Lok Sabha: Ninth report, Ministry of External Affairs. Demands for Grants (2002-2003). Lok Sabha Secretariat, New Delhi)

1953: The Sangeet Natak Akademi(SNA) is established (originally the National Academy of Music, Dance and Drama). The Kathak Kendra and the Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy are constituent units of the SNA. Its brief covers India’s performing arts in general, both contemporary and traditional. In addition to disbursing grants to institutions and individuals, the SNA organises festivals and workshops (including the National Theatre Festivals), events emphasising the preservation and promotion of traditional performing arts, organising inter-state and international cultural exchanges, and publications.

1953: The Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA) is established (originally the National Academy of Plastic Arts) to co-ordinate activities in the visual arts (painting, sculpture, architecture and the applied arts). The only art academy completely devoted to contemporary art, it organises art events, offers scholarships, co-ordinates some of international participation by Indian artists internationally as well as organising international exhibitions in India. In its functioning, the LKA has perhaps been the most problematic, featuring in numerous controversies including sustained criticism of its Triennale exhibitions, corruption in the management of the LKA which prompted the Government to appoint an external Administrator to take over the Akademi in January 1997.

1954: The National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) is started at Jaipur House, New Delhi. It holds one of India’s leading collections of contemporary art from the late 19th century.

1954: The Sahitya Akademi is started (originally the National Academy of Letters), covering 22 Indian languages. It has published over 3,000 books including translations, monographs on eminent figures from the history of Indian literature, anthologies and the mammoth five-volume Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature, dictionaries etc., in addition to conducting numerous workshops, encounters with writers and other events. The Akademi recently made the extraordinary claim that its current publication record is approximately one book every 30 hours (‘General Information’ brochure, Sahitya Akademi).

1959: The National School of Drama (NSD) is launched under its initial name of the Asian Theatre Institute, fully funded by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. In 1975, the NSD becomes an autonomous institute fully financed by the Department of Culture. The NSD, based in New Delhi, offers a three-year Diploma in theatre and allied arts and runs a repertory company.

1966: The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library is founded to maintain the museum of ‘Nehru personalia, memorabila, mementoes’ and to conduct a social sciences programme which includes perhaps India’s leading social sciences library. It is based in New Delhi.

1972: The Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation is founded as an autonomous organisation established and fully financed by the Department of Culture, Ministry of Tourism & Culture, as the nodal agency of the Government of India to support public library services and system and promote public library movement in the country.

1979: The Centre for Cultural Resources and Training (CCRT) is set up in May to ‘working in the field of linking education with culture’, with three centres (New Delhi, Udaipur, Hyderabad). Its origins lie in a University of Delhi project launched in 1970, entitled ‘Propagation of Culture among college and school students’ conducted by its Research and Production Cell.



[1] Hand-spun and hand-woven cloth


Chapter published: 22-04-2014


EN | ES