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Cultural Drought

| | in Dehradun

The State of Uttarakhand became a reality in the year 2000. Few would dispute that the citizens' movement for a separate State was an experience fraught with unrest and trauma, testing people's patience against the antipathy of the ruling class. The day the new State was announced, me, and several other activists happened to be in Gairsain, a small mountain hamlet that was beginning to simmer as a political tinderbox. We were holding our own Statehood celebrations, debating the expectations people would have from the new State and possibilities for the future. By the time we returned to Dehradun, the interim capital, and saw the extravagant yet superficial preparations for the swearing in of the new Government, it became evident that the more things changed, the more they would remain the same. Within a few days, Statehood activists began circulating a pamphlet titled, Manzil unhen mili jo shariqe safar na the... (Those who made it to the destination were never part of the journey...).

This line, perhaps, best sums up the State of the mountain State. Throughout the agitation, to all the stakeholders—the man on the street, the protestors, and the intellectuals who lent support to the struggle—the State was clearly a cultural construct. The people of the mountains were fighting over the communities' rights over their own resources, to progress according to their own social and cultural rhythms, and for the right to frame policies, which were until then being framed in air-conditioned chambers by egoistic individuals far removed from the mountain dwellers' daily struggles of jal, jungle, jameen, (water, forest and land). Today, almost two decades, eight Chief Ministers plus two presidential-rule terms later, things have changed little. Gairsain remains contentious as ever; people seem deluded even as political corruption--that once seemed as remote as the planners-- has begun knocking at our doorsteps.

To the eternal losses of jal, jungle, jameen, the term jawani or youth is an unwelcome addition. Successive leaders and leadership regimes have completely missed the point that the Uttarakhand struggle was, in more ways than one, a struggle for a strong cultural identity. However, the state since its inception, has failed to create a single cultural institution, a cultural event of repute or even draft a policy. Such has been the complete bankruptcy of ideas that successive regimes have even tried to do away with whatever institutions or cultural events predated the State.

So utterly, and I insinuate deliberately too, have the leaders of the State missed the point, that no efforts have been made to establish even a state museum. The Heritage Act, drafted at the instance of the present Governor, has been hanging fire. Art, architecture, languages, festivals, all seem to be languishing with State apathy playing a major role in their annihilation.

Leave alone a film policy; we have even failed to produce a regional film of any worth since the State came into being. Even when efforts are made to showcase Uttarakhand's rich traditions outside the State by its agencies, the effort is so shoddy and aesthetically poor that those from the mountains are forced to hang their heads in shame.

Almora, touted as Uttarakhand's cultural capital, is a case in point. In 1938, the maestro of modern Indian dance, Pandit Uday Shankar arrived here with celebrated artistes such as Ustad Alauddin Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Guru Dutt, Zohra Segal, Amala Shankar, and Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in tow as students and teachers.

He came to the mountains with a vision of opening a dance school and adopted nuances of Kumaoni Ramlila in the productions presented by his troupe across the world. Such was the Uday Shankar-Anna Pavlova impact on modern Indian dance that the form itself began to be called ballet, even though it had no connection with the Russian art form. The dance school soon shut down and was dismantled. Uday Shankar's dream would remain nascent until Jagmohan, the proactive Indian culture minister decided to revive it by financing a new centre for dance and the arts, in the newly formed state. A modern edifice was commissioned and constructed in record time and inaugurated almost a decade ago by the then President, APJ Abdul Kalam. Once the facility was inaugurated, the state made no provisions for the center's functioning or upkeep.

The Centre has remained locked ever since its inauguration, visible from its vantage location, reminding Almora residents and tourists of the importance their state attaches to arts and culture. And there is another rotting building in the Dehradun Cantonment that was proposed as a cultural centre, built on taxpayer's money but never used.  

Besides the enormous loss to the exchequer caused by these ill-managed projects, what is truly criminal is the successive Government's complete antipathy towards the subaltern tradition bearers. Take the case Dhol-Damau, the twin drums that define culture in the mountain regions of Garhwal and Kumaon. The exponents of these instruments, even though from the lower castes, have generations of skill and knowledge ingrained in their art form, coming from the ancient text, Dhol Sagar. Each valley has its unique and diverse style of drumming accompanied with the folklore. The dholis or the drummers are the true bearers of mountain culture. Yet, they are the poorest and remain the drudges of society. No efforts have been made to codify the elaborate grammar of the twin instruments or provide sustenance to the knowledgeable ones. To its own peril, the state is assisting in the extinction of this rich cultural heritage.

A State formed on the premise of a cultural identity ought to have recognised bearers of indigenous traditions, institutionalised the instruction of mountain musical instruments, and supported the efforts of genuine cultural activists in fostering a strong cultural-ecological economy.

Girish Tiwari Girda, Jhusiya Damayi, Bachan Deyi, Madan Das, Buli Das, Jataru Lal, Ganga Ram the list of repositories from all walks of Uttarakhand's folk culture that we have lost since the state's inception is endless. As long as the State continues to fail its cultural traditions, the State of Uttarakhand will remain a failed State.      

(The writer is an anthropologist, author, traveler and activist who also runs a public walking group Been There, Doon That? )

 
 
 
 
 

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