Cultural Management at the National School of Drama in New Delhi

In my course on cultural management at the National School of Drama (NSD) in New Delhi, I cover the topic of crowdfunding. A prime example for how it is for a Western lecturer to teach in India: On the one hand, one cannot presume many of the things that Western students would naturally know about. On the other hand, there is a wide range of cultural-managerial knowledge and skills, passed down in part through the generations under different labels, different names or simply without any special designation. At the same time, the work in a country like India is by no means any more exotic as in Europe.

Figure 1: fassade of the National School of Drama (NSD) in New Delhi

In India, the platform "Wishberry” recently achieved a good result for a dance festival and generated a lot of publicity for it. The platform has only existed since 2011 and is regarded as one of the pioneers for this kind of cultural financing in the country. The topic is new. I explain to my students that during a crowdfunding project witty "premiums" are often given out as intangible, ironic rewards for a relatively modest contribution. As an example, I show how the organizer of such a collection campaign stands up upon a mountain and calls the names of his patrons down into the valley. 

Meanwhile, I sit together with my third year students on the floor of one of the school's many rehearsal stages. We have all taken off our shoes – a sign of respect for the stage, even if it's just a rehearsal stage. I have just shown the commercial for a crowdfunding campaign on a large video screen. At that moment, Ari raises his hand. "Ma'am," he says (in India, the authority of teachers is unwavering). "I know that already. May I add something? "Ari comes from the countryside. His theatrical experience, a prerequisite for admission to the NSD, comes from performances of the Ramayana – a figurative, centuries-old myth about the god Ram and his wife Sita –  in village squares in southern India. That he in particular should have come into contact with an advanced western financial model is surprising. "When we play in a village," explains Ari, "we interrupt the performance several times and the performer of the especially popular god Ram proclaims the name of all donors. Whoever has given the most is the first to have his name listed.”

Figure 2: final theater production of the students’ 3rd year (Ari in blue on the right) 

Everyone in the village knows this; the men try to outdo each other with their amounts in order to receive the honor of this pole position. In general, Ari explains confidently, the model where many people give modest sums to fund something large originated in Indian villages. For example, if a poor girl wants to get married, she prepares a big meal and invites everyone. Each person who comes places a bit of money or a piece of gold under the banana leaf on which the meal is served. If enough people come and they have donated enough money to her, she can get married. "That's the same as crowdfunding, right?" asks Ari.

My lesson is an example of a paradox that I experience as a teacher. No one knows the word 'crowdfunding'. But all know of its potential and of the responsibility of communities for individuals: it is a collage of traditional and modern aspects, of western and local components.

In Europe, the providers and "clients" of cultural life have become increasingly diverse and multicultural these days and classical culture techniques are less self-evident than before. Producers, practitioners, audience – everything has become more rich and interesting but also increasingly complex and contradictory. Visitors sitting together on the stage of a theater or standing together at the museum definitely no longer have the same ethnic, social or modern educational background. With this in mind, the management of diversity becomes the central task, both globally and in one’s own culture. The work in a country like India, which forms an entire subcontinent, with an enormous regional, religious, linguistic and civilizational pluralism, is therefore by no means any more exotic but acts as a model.

The NSD is the leading school for performing arts in India. It gained fame not only because of its contributions to the theater scene but, above all, because of the Bollywood stars who have received their training here as actors (although there are no specific film courses). This is a big deal in a cinema-crazy country like India. The campus of the NSD is located in the heart of New Delhi. The school was founded in 1959 as one of the cultural institutions formed to establish a sense of identity more than a decade after the country, freed from British colonial rule the country, gained independence. There is an enormous number of applicants. Each year, 26 students are accepted of which six to eight specialize from the second semester onwards in stage design and direction. The generous budget of the NSD comes from the budget of the central government’s ministry for culture and repeatedly leads to envious discussions in the Indian theater and university scene.

Figure 3: entrance to the annual NSD theatre festival

The students come both from urban centers as well as villages, and here, the NSD differs from many Indian universities. All NSD students are already practitioners; the prerequisite for acceptance requires that the applicants were involved in at least eight theater productions. Many are already members of theater groups or have even established their own companies.

Despite good training and the university's high reputation, many graduates of the NSD have difficulties making a living. This prompted the rector to consider introducing "Cultural Management" as a subject and, since the field is still quite young in India, to call in a Western expert. I had taught at the German partner university of the NSD, the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts in Berlin (HfS) and had established the subject "cultural management and organizational practice" there. This background and the link between both schools in an international theater network brought me to the NSD at the request of Indian colleagues, asking if I perhaps wanted to teach there.

It soon became clear that one could not simply transfer the German curriculum over with some minor adjustments. A format such as "artistic positioning" (in which the individual student, in exchange with his fellow students, learns to understand and articulate the distinctive features of one's own personal artistic profile) did not work. In courses at Western universities, the common struggle for the individual artistic position is an intensive group experience that sensitizes individuals for both their own work and that of their classmates. At the NSD on the other hand, the students treated dealing with the artistic individual with suspect. They saw the nature of art as a counter-model to a society of egoism placed at risk. They did not want to work on the individual but on, and in, the group. Aesthetic handwriting, a key differentiator in the Western art world, seemed secondary for my students; more important were the political and social visions of the theater, the message of the plays.

In Germany, the theater business in Munich – in its organization, language and schedule – is not so fundamentally different from that in Hamburg or Berlin. In India, however, regional differences are the defining reality, as is the antithesis between town and country. Every student in the classroom is therefore an expert about his part of the country, about his region in India, for the seminar and his fellow students. He has knowledge about the relevant modes of culture, traditions, production conditions as well as knowledge about the political relationships that the others in the class do not have.

Therefore, teaching must first of all make this knowledge available to the other students (as well as to me as a teacher!) if possible, in a relaxed, fun way. It is important to bring in a mutual exchange of information and learning process, an interactive event in which specific ideas and local experiences are exchanged and placed in a wider context. Simple visualization exercises help in part. Each person outlines the characteristics of "his" audience and explains their incentive for visiting the theater.

Because of the mutual lack of information among the students, mapping, a stage in the work process that was rather marginal in my cultural management education in Germany, gains significance. "Mapping" is generally referred to as the attempt to review a predetermined field or a scene by incorporating and visualizing data that has been researched. In lessons, this technique helps gain an overview of the existing actors in a local theater scene – a necessary condition for one’s own artistic and commercial success if one wants to appear in such or similar surroundings.

The idea that one should first do research before embarking on a new project surprised my students. But essentially, "strategic acquaintance" is always the crucial work technique in India: for students, for a foreign guest lecturer like me, and even for the Indian teachers. The diversity of the country makes everyone a stranger to a certain extent, forcing all to be constantly attentive and flexible – and allowing for new discoveries and adventures at any moment.

The case studies that we worked on were local, the strategies had been already tried out in the Indian theater scene, and the ideas that emerged from it were ‘homegrown’ – as was the context in which they should ultimately work. So what was my contribution as a Western cultural manager? I had the inside perspective that the students, thanks to their training as well as through their own theater work, had transformed into an external perspective. I had acted as someone who was curious but who was unfamiliar with the details of the situation. I was a person one had to explain familiar things to, which meant that they themselves had to first reflect on them. Moreover, I had presented techniques to the students where they could visualize results and therefore make them more accessible. A student whose father belonged to the second generation of a family that runs a theater group analyzed the fundraising activities of her family. Although they were self-evident to her from years of experience (or by chance) she presented them for the very first time to me and the class.

What are the consequences of these experiences for cultural cross-border cooperation, in particular for the international exchange in cultural management? By no means is internationalism working in a way that advanced American-European concepts and standards are finally being extended to the underdeveloped periphery. Global consciousness is not about applying the same universal guidelines everywhere. On the contrary, it is about being open to the diversity and colorfulness of reality. One needs cultural management that is dialogical. A person who wants to understand another person or culture has to be an active player, give account of his own character and conditions, and engage in a genuine dialogue with the opposite side. Understanding and self-understanding are inseparable, as are understanding and support or respect: those who do not expect that a stranger or a foreign country will have something relevant to tell him won’t get anything worthwhile back in return.

Therefore, it is neither about instruction nor about export, transfer or development aid but about exploration and cooperation. Ultimately, it is about discovering something that already exists and bringing it to light. In a civilization as old as India, with a cultural history of not just hundreds, but thousands of years, there are well-practiced, traditional ways of working and behavior patterns that can be named, understood, enhanced and transferred over to new conditions. At the same time, there is also a strong interest in contributions from the West; they are actively in demand and can play an important role. But they must be adapted to the existing conditions and ultimately, together with the local knowledge and local practice, create something that is whole and new.

This article was first published in Kulturpolitische Mitteilungen No 153/ II, 2016

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Author/Source: Author: Ina Ross. Translation: Erik Dorset
Management Topic: Education & Development
Cultural Area: Theatre+Dance
Submitted by editor-in-chief on Aug 02, 2016