Saturday, February 24, 2018

Rescuing culture from politics


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Ultimately, one hopes, the glow of the deya will spread over the land, embracing all in its warmth as light trumps ignorance, inch by inch.

In the tradition of Divali Sunday, communities will get together this evening, and people will discover each other across the flickering flames of the deyas. In Tunapuna, at the intersection of St Vincent and Connell Streets, a group of Divali newcomers will step into the light, adding the best of what they have to the festival brought to Trinidad from India 167 years ago.

For weeks, the youngsters of the Birdsong Music Academy, almost all teenagers, have been preparing an historic Divali showcase of their own with an offering that will include bhajans on the steelpan and introduce Birdsong Tassa with some female tassa players in the mix.

When the first deya is lit at 6 p.m., it will be, like every good Divali story, a symbol of triumph: Of community collaboration and cultural inclusiveness over our history of division; of spiritual defiance against the odds; of Birdsong innovation when government funding suddenly disappears from the PanYard Initiative triggering the overnight loss of much-needed tutoring services.

This was the same spirit of triumph witnessed two Sundays ago during a whirlwind tour of four Ramleelas, stretching from the little savannah in Matilda, Princes Town, down the road to Cedar Hill's natural gladiatorial amphitheatre, then to Dow Village's jam-packed arena before heading to Felicity's fiery finale.

There are Ramleelas elsewhere in the world, but there could be nothing exactly like the Ramleelas of Trinidad where no two are alike and where each is shaped by the particularity of the landscape and personality of the community in which it has evolved.

In any given Ramleela season, there could be close to 50 performances taking place simultaneously across this country, each absorbed in its own interpretation of the story of the Prince of Ayodhya, playing to a loyal fan base drawn from one generation to the next.

For over a 100 years, the Trinidad Ramleela has survived as vibrant community theatre because of its capacity to soften the hard toil of daily life with the spiritual joy of creation and the richness of communal endeavour.

This is why, in considering how to support and elevate the Ramleela, the government must be exceedingly careful to avoid stripping away the very things that have sustained it over these many long years.

Cultural traditions that have adopted resilience and flexibility as survival strategies could easily be snuffed out by state strategies that discourage resilience and reward conformity by incentivisng political notions of standards.

Big government brings an inexorable tendency towards centralisation which could suck the life-blood out of community initiative and destroy the fragile networks that have evolved over generations, nourished by relationships and traditions.

In the specific case of the Ramleela, format changes that move performances from the open field to the stage in an attempt to modernise management and enhance audience experience, could end up discouraging community talent that finds easier expression in the natural environment of home. Scheduling conflicts that put community Ramleelas in competition with the macco version could disrupt the dynamics of the season and bleed communities of their base.

At a time when the government is actively promoting the indigenous creative sector as a pole of economic growth, it would be counterintuitive to encourage the importation of performance and costume styles from India or anywhere else for that matter. What is needed is committed support for the indigenous industry and communal creativity on which Ramleela has rested for so many years.

Consultation and caution, therefore, should be the twin guide in state involvement in supporting and promoting Ramleela as, indeed, in every sphere of the national cultural landscape.

This is why everyone all of us, not only cultural activists, should pay attention and add our voices to the current public discussion on the draft national policy on culture. (

In Macoya two Mondays ago, the Centre of Excellence was filled with the wails of artists pouring their pain before officialdom. Most were the old stories of neglect and disrespect even if some details were new and startling.

A fresh urgency has been sparked by the government's declared commitment to investing in the Creative Sector as a key strategy of economic diversification. The massive allocation of funds for the Independence Jubilee celebrations spread unprecedented levels of state funds across the sector, fuelling competition for resources and provoking questions about policy, process, efficiency, transparency and objectives.

With the horse already bolting, the Ministry of the Arts is desperately trying to secure the policy barn door by establishing organising principles to shape and define the state's approach to development of the sector-- or at least that piece under its purview.

This will be no easy task.

Coming, as it is, in the midst of a scramble for turf and resources, the draft policy is sandwiched between competing agencies and interests within the government on one side, and those within the national community on the other.

Led by the admirably able Director of Culture, Ingrid Ryan-Ruben, the Draft Policy of Culture deserves the space to become all that it could be and all that we need it to be. For now, though, it shows the symptoms of a Public Service treading too warily for fear of running afoul of the politics. On something so important, Trinidad and Tobago cannot sabotage itself by hesitation and ambiguity.

To make the leap from CEPEP for The Arts to a vibrant Creative Industry will require our joint commitment to a future well beyond political lifetimes in the service of generations we will never know.

In this context, it is sheer madness and disrespect for the government to be restructuring its creative agencies, and committing itself to investments of one kind or another while a national discussion on culture policy is on the floor. This is precisely the kind of confusion that is sown throughout the society by incoherent leadership inside the cabinet.

This discussion should not be encumbered and short-changed by ministries and agencies working at cross purposes with each other. Good policy which has the confidence of being supremely relevant and responsive, and which does not have to duck the challenging issues of our times will be worth the wait, effort and expense.

May the light of Divali enlighten the process.

Sunity Maharaj is the editor of the

T&T Review and director of the

Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies