Bringing Traditional Folk Cultural Skills Into the Mainstream

The National Skill Development Corporation is joining hands with a Delhi-based think tank on culture to work out possible business models to bring traditional cultural skills into the job market.

A group of magicians inaugurating the event in New Delhi with Navina Jafa of Centre for New Perspectives. Credit: Special arrangement

A group of magicians inaugurating the event in New Delhi with Navina Jafa of Centre for New Perspectives. Credit: Special arrangement

New Delhi: Media reports about artistes facing destitution and marginalisation across the country due to a dearth of sustainable avenues for livelihood, and state patronage are nothing new.

The Narendra Modi government introduced the ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship (MSDE) in 2014 with the aim of developing and honing skills that can fetch the unemployed a viable means of livelihood in different unexplored sectors. But, those with traditional skills, particularly in the field of culture, were not its focus.

What is new is that the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) under the ministry is now engaging with a New Delhi-based think tank on culture to help incorporate some traditional skills that face severe marginalisation, into the job market and thereby, help preserve them.

As per a senior NSDC official, “The Centre for New Perspectives (CNP) has been asked to submit a pilot project based on some traditional cultural skills which it feels are comparatively facing a bigger threat to survival due to lack of livelihood opportunities and other reasons. The pilot would suggest ways to create avenues of earnings by using those skills in a sustainable manner. NSDC will then support the model(s) with adequate funds, etc.”

Titled ‘Augmenting Skill India – Conserving Cultural Skills’, a two-day brainstorming seminar-workshop was held in the national capital by the CNP on April 7 and 8 to take forward the thought. Multiple stakeholders, including filmmakers, theatre directors, dancers and other experts in the field of culture, took part in the round table discussion at the India International Centre.

The skill sectors it particularly focused on were puppeteers, circus artistes, street artistes and snake charmers – a section of people who have been especially facing dire situations lately due to changes in laws and urbanisation. Among those who gave their inputs at the seminar were well-known puppeteer from Delhi’s Kathputli Colony, Puran Bhatt, Sheesha Nath of Snake Charmers Orchestra, Sujit Dilip of Rambo Circus and street artiste Ishamuddin Khan. Together with those who presented successful case studies – national and international – the participants engaged with the idea of “developing a few business models” to open financial avenues.

Kathak dancer and founder of CNP, Navina Jafa, highlighted the genesis of the initiative to The Wire. “We are a think tank that works towards re-positioning traditional skills through innovative pilot programmes (so that they can compete with the emerging new economy and attract new audiences). The non-inclusion of the traditional skill sector in the flagship programme of the central government, the Mission Skill India, provided a reason to the centre to initiate talks with NSDC to recognise and enhance the possibilities of income generation in this field and in the context of this project, to begin with the marginalised skilled communities engaged in street, folk and circus arts,” she said.

Jafa said, “As a performing artist who had gone to the central government’s Festival of India in the 1980s, and as a scholar on culture and development, I saw a visible lacuna in the skill sector of these arts. Government action was limited to exhibiting these artists as part of the exotic India canvas in bonanzas such as opening ceremonies of international Asian or Commonwealth Games or the Festivals of India.”

She said, “While these were important opportunities, there were no systematic policies to provide sustainability to this sector. These performative skilled communities became tools for creation of one-time events, and once that event was over, they went back to the hardships and deprivation of their everyday life.”

She pointed out, “To prevent deskilling, these skills need to be addressed through multiple institutional frameworks since there is so much of diversity in traditions as well as in the context of audiences.”

“If countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam can create million-dollar initiatives with such skills, and if countries of Africa, Latin America and even the Philippines can use these skills not only for entertainment but organise them as self-sustained cooperatives of artists for development communication,” she said, “We in India can do it too.”

The organisers, therefore, invited Phare Circus of Cambodia, besides some others from within the country, to showcase their successful business models based on traditional cultural skills to the participants.

Participants watching a presentation of a case study. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Participants watching a presentation of a case study. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

“The model in that war-ravaged and underdeveloped country has led to the creation of a net annual revenue of 1.2 million dollars with similar skills and the company has gone public where 71% shares are with the artist school it runs (in Ankor Wat),” pointed out Jafa.

Dara Huot of Social Enterprise Corporation, which runs Phare Circus, said, “With 90% of intellectuals, professionals and artists executed from across the country during the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia was left with a population traumatised by the war and unskilled labour. It lost traditional forms of arts and culture. In the 1980s, Phare began to work with children in refugee camps to start a socially inclusive arts and academic school in Ankor Wat. Hundreds, if not, thousands of lives were healed and transformed in these years, thanks to an opportunity to learn skills in the arts, general knowledge and receive social support from Phare.”

“In 2011,” he said, “Phare realised that what it was doing would not be sustainable if it continued to rely heavily on funding from development partners and donations. We then began to explore other ways. We saw an opportunity in the growing tourism market in Cambodia. We carefully studied our markets, made conscious, at times painful and difficult choices, selected the market segments we wanted to target, those who would appreciated what we had to offer. We began employing low costs sales and marketing strategies to communicate with target audiences, carefully decided our pricing models knowing how much our target market were willing to pay through our market research and business plan.”

After four years. “Phare’s model proved to be sustainable and successful.” Now, 47 artistes have found employment in circus arts, 17 of whom regularly tour internationally.

“They continue to pass the traditional knowledge to younger students and to earn income to support the Phare school,” he said. “The school now offers services in education, arts skills training and social support to 1,200 students and social follow-up to 800 families in three communes in the area.”

Among Indian successful models, two case studies were discussed. One was by Abhilash Pillai, a well-known theatre practitioner from Kerala (of the play “Talatum” fame), and the other was the cooperative model adopted by Amul.

Throughout the deliberations, moderated by Jafa and author Shailaja Kathuria, what emerged was the realisation that “one model will not suit all artistes”.

About the skill sector it particularly focused on, Jafa said, “A major challenge for this sector surfaces from the fact that there has been displacement due to a change in lifestyles. Reconfiguration of urban geographies has led to laws that have affected their performative spaces and has led them to be seen as beggars due to new laws in free India, and finally there is no quantified data available on either the number of skilled people or the state of their skills.”

At the end of the session, three models were worked out.

“The first is the creation of a corporation where a core group will explore the possibility of the creation of a private limited company with a soft loan where majority of the ownership will be by folk and street performing artists representing ten skills. It has been proposed by CNP and other stakeholders, that this organisation will be operated by professionals comprising of an experienced business manager with sensitivity to performing arts, administrative head, and production head,” Jafa said.

“The company will comprise of a limited number of master street and folk artistes who are willing to reinvent themselves and undergo training for upgradation, in order to be institutionalised.”

“The CSR program of the company will be a school along the guru-shishya parampara ensuring conservation of the skills,” she added.

“The second model,” she said, “is a busking scheme with capacity development programming to be launched in Delhi.” Both Kathuria and Jafa felt, “It will bring Delhi to be a part of the Creative City network of UNESCO. It will ensure socio-economic uplift of seven kinds of skilled street performing communities organised under India Street Performers Artist Trust led by magician Ishamuddin and CNP.” They said, “We are also hoping to initiate a busking program in a city in Maharashtra.”

Navina said, “The third model is the creation of an artist cooperative in the North East, primarily to ensure that these artistic skills are used in the development communication format.”

“CNP is discussing this model with the ministry of Department of North East Region,” she added.

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