When it comes to art and culture, the relationship between practitioners and their supporters, funders and sponsors has always been complex and fraught with concerns around power, influence and hegemony. It is indeed ironic that often people and entities who have profited and built their wealth from the very ideas and their manifestations that the arts challenge and question are also its key proponents and patrons. These include industries and industrialists, royalty, governments, embassies, funding bodies and, in some cases, even the military.

So, invariably, the lines between and around these conversations become tentative and arduous. They remain largely and simultaneously influenced by the contradictions between the ideological positions of artists and the pragmatic necessity to keep their practices alive. The questions that often come up have to do with the length and strength of the strings attached to the funds and its colour; and whether there are safe mechanisms to resist the pressures.

The possible casualties are often freedom of expression, challenges against dominant narratives, and work that creates ruptures in status quo. The one aspect that stands out clearly in my experience for decades in this contentious zone is that no answers are easy – and yet one has to insist on an answer, perhaps the one that is most liveable with, in the context of one’s need, values and ethics. In a world where there is very little support for the arts and culture as it is, this dangerous minefield of the “politics of support” makes the fragile ecologies and lives of artists even more precarious.

It is in this context that I had received on November 20, 2020 a message from a friend who pointed me to a statement by Vijay Prashad and Noam Chomsky whose discussion was cancelled at Tata Literature Live – The Mumbai Litfest for that very evening. Like many others who are committed to the world of arts and culture, I condemned this cancellation on social media. While assumptions were being made about why this had happened, there was also a demand for a statement from the festival. Anil Dharker, the Director of the festival made his statement the next day.

Reading the two statements, a few observations, from both sides of this issue, occurred to me. They are important for me to understand the role we play as audience, participants, critics, and more important, citizens in our country at a time when our freedoms and safeties are facing urgent questions:

  • Prashad was part of the session titled “The Unquiet American” on November 16 at Tata Literature Live, speaking about his book Washington Bullets – on the politics and economics of America’s foreign intervention – with Michael Hudson and Suhasini Haider. So a festival of literature supported by the Tata Group did have space for a Communist to discuss his book. Speakers in other sessions included artists and scholars like Mallika Sarabhai, Jayati Ghosh and Javed Akhtar, to name a few who have often criticised current dispensations of power.
  • According to festival director Anil Dharker’s statement, he decided to cancel the discussion between Chomsky and Prashad on the former’s book Internationalism or Extinction because some media reports said that the session would include criticism against corporations, including the Tata Group. This is deplorable. An honest arts festival must have space for all kinds of debates, including those that criticise, question and challenge the methods and values of their financiers and sponsors. That is the true spirit of the arts and ideas.
  • However, the above “true spirit” to accept criticism and challenge, especially when discussing ideas must apply for all those who engage in it. While this never applies to events organised by political formations on the right, I have noticed that this also often does not apply to some political formations on the Left. They mainly, and in most cases, invite only those who would broadly agree or empathise with their positions, and never ever bring in hard criticism. Recently the launch of Aijaz Ahmad’s book Nothing Human is Alien to Me saw a conversation between Prashad, Subhashini Ali, Prabhat Patnaik and the author – all members of the CPIM. I had wondered then whether it is fear of criticism or worry about lack of control over the narrative that stops those who are outside of this circle from being invited.
  • I must say I am quite confused about the CPIM party’s feelings about the Tata Goup of companies. I say this because Prashad is an important voice of the party and the editor of LeftWord Books. I keep thinking of the industrialisation of West Bengal and the Left Front government’s invitation to the Tata Group to set up a factory in Singur, leading to the displacement of farmers, and the ensuing people’s struggle which ultimately led to their decimation in the state. The 6th paragraph in the statement by Prashad and Chomsky mentions many atrocities attributed to the Tata Groups, but not the Bengal incidents. And this tirade seems pretty recent. (It is important to mention here that in 2007, Chomsky, with a few others, had signed a letter supporting the Left Front government in Bengal during the people’s struggle in Singur and Nandigram against that government. It drew so much criticism across the board that a short second statement had to be put out quickly. In all of this the Tata Group looms large.)
  • Now for the more difficult question for those of us in the arts. The Tata Group has supported the arts for a long time through their trusts and various companies. There are many organisations and individuals who have received support, enabling them to continue their practice and scholarship. On the other hand, the group also has a track record of being involved in the displacement of people where their projects and industries have come up across the country. So obviously the world of the arts and those of the Tata Group, among others, shares a difficult relationship. I feel it would have been good if Dharker had not cancelled the event. In fact I feel it would have been better if the Tata Group had insisted that the discussion take place and it be criticised in public. None of these criticisms is a secret anyway. Most of it is already available in the online spaces frequented by activists and people from the various movements and struggles against the group. The Tata Group would have shown it can take criticism – which they know already exists – even in a space it supports financially.

As someone who has worked, and worked really hard for decades, in this twilight zone between artists and funders, foreign funds and local donations, individual and CSR contributions, collectors and patrons, I know how difficult it is to stand on a single spot for this. But stand one must. And so here are my conclusions:

  • All arts and cultural festivals must truly enable polyphonic debates, including criticism of funders, sponsors and political parties of different kinds in power. Funders must know this, as must directors and curators of these festivals, and in times of trouble they must stand with the artists they invite.
  • All artists and cultural practitioners must weigh the consequences of the support they are using. There are always strings attached – but perhaps one can live with only some of them.
  • The responsibility for justice is a shared one.

Arundhati Ghosh is a cultural practitioner and works at India Foundation for the Arts.