On a Thursday evening in September, the auditorium at Dilli Haat in West Delhi’s Janakpuri was tightly packed with people waiting to watch popular Punjabi singer Satinder Sartaaj perform. Among them were Raghuwinder Singh, a hospitality worker, and his family. “These events are generally very private…by invitation,” said Singh, who had left work early to watch his favourite artist live. “But now, the public can come too.” The concert that evening was free – and the wait, it turned out, was worthwhile. For two hours, Sartaaj sang his hits, including Maula ji and Nilami, as the audience hummed and clapped along.

Cultural events in the capital have traditionally centred around Lutyens’ Delhi, making them hard to access for most residents. So, in November 2017, the Delhi government started organising cultural programmes in other neighbourhoods, in a bid to decentralise the arts. “Delhi cannot afford regionalism,” and art and culture “can unite people the way no other market intervention can,” said Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, who also holds the culture portfolio.

Sartaaj’s concert in Janakpuri was a small part of the government’s effort. Once every month it organises Dastak in neighbourhoods like Okhla, Krishna Nagar, Mayur Vihar and Malviya Nagar, to give a platform to qawwali and ghazal performers. Awam Ki Awaaz is another monthly concert series, aimed at providing space to express dissent through performance and poetry. It has so far featured artists like Hindustani classical vocalist Shubha Mudgal, and Swarathma, an indie folk rock band from Bengaluru.

Art and culture, Delhi's Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia believed, was missing from the common mindset.

Involve practitioners

For decades, the cultural heart of Delhi was the area around Mandi House, which houses Kamani and Triveni auditoriums, the Sriram Centre, the National School of Drama theatre, and the government Akademis. If a Delhi resident wanted to attend a decent dance, music or theatre performance, this is where she had to go.

“Quite like many other cities, certain areas have probably held a greater sway than others,” said Aneesh Pradhan, a researcher and tabla maestro. “Cultural events in Mumbai, for instance, were concentrated largely in South Mumbai until a few decades ago. I think this has to do as much with the nature of urbanisation that takes place in each city as it has to do with the concentration of political and economic power in a certain area.”

Besides reducing this centralisation, the government has broadened the definition of arts for scholarships and fellowships to include rap, hip-hop, filmmaking and Bollywood dance styles. “The idea is to be more inclusive [as] every form of art cannot be classical,” said an official from the culture department, on condition of anonymity. “There is a hierarchy within the arts, and we want to democratise it.” In March, a talent hunt called Delhi’s Date with Democracy was organised to scout for dancers and singers. It started with 280 programmes at the ward level, and culminated with a bigger event attended by thousands.

The idea behind the attempt is to be as inclusive as possible.

Pradhan says the arts can only influence society if it receives the right exposure through the institutions that promote it. Governments can work as facilitators, but it is also a field that steers in the direction of its patronage. According to Pradhan, neither the government nor patrons should determine the course of culture. This should instead be done by its practitioners. “Political and economic power has impacted the manner in which culture has moved,” he said. “Practitioners should be involved in dialogue with all its stakeholders.”

Broadening horizons

The Delhi government’s process of decentralisation started with funding. Each MLA receives Rs 25 lakh from the culture department for a year to host events in their constituency. The MLA has an informal team that scouts for venues to host events, preferably public spaces like parks or neglected monuments. Artists are chosen based on the demographic of the area, and also as per guidelines given by the government, which state that the underlying theme of the performance should include messages of peace and social harmony. These guidelines also mention that the beneficiaries of the schemes must include women, children and senior citizens.

The intention to decentralise the arts was always there, according to Sindhu Mishra of the Sahitya Kala Parishad, the cultural wing under the Delhi government, but it was never planned systematically. Mishra has been associated with the Parishad since 1994 and has observed the cultural landscape of the city change along with changing governments. She says it was former Chief Minister Sheila Dixit who started the trend of hosting such events in parks. “She opened it culturally but it wasn’t easy at the time to go to different areas,” said Mishra. “Much of the planning happened only last year. The political will is very important.”

Delhi residents at the Satinder Sartaaj show.

True benefit

Despite such initiatives, it is difficult to quantify what impact these schemes really have on the beneficiaries, as it will always remain subjective. While Pradhan agrees that the arts can influence society, its trajectory, he says, is controlled by the institutions and individuals that promote it.

Mishra disagrees, saying it doesn’t make much of a difference as these events break away from the classical form. But, she says, it does help change public perception towards the arts and provides an opportunity for citizens to participate. “In the long run, if the intention is still good then this can definitely help,” she said. “But as of now, citizens get the opportunity to express themselves.”

All photos by Aabid Shafi.