Parramasala: putting art above politics?


The Indian Sun’s recent report on Parramasala seems to be causing concern to a select coterie claiming to speak for the “community” and “South Asian arts”. Our report “Western suburbs community groups lash out at Parramasala board” was about sections of the community feeling left out by the government, the Parramasala board and the other organisers of the festival. In our September 2014 editorial we had anticipated attempts by these same vested interests to ridicule and silence any criticism. In an article full of platitudes about the arts and festivals, a community journo argues that the arts should be free of “community politics”.

In our September editorial we also said that festivals are opportunities for communities to promote their activities and presence in a city, and the best way to ensure this is through mechanisms that encourage broad-based consultation. Responding to our article, the journo says: “Surely the point of the festival is to promote the arts, and not local businesses and leaders?”.

Is this a statement or a question? Or is it because the spellcheck didn’t pick it up?

According to this article, the arts should be free of politics. Now, any schoolboy who has read a bit of history knows that art is inextricably enmeshed with politics. Be it the Mauryas, Cholas, Tudors, Carolingians, art has never existed in any form, in any social formation, without political patronage. Any art that has gained currency in society has been able to do so only with political support. Art is not above or beyond society. It is socially embedded, and is a reflection of the prevailing powers and social interests. Artistes do not work in isolation. This is simply a myth. Art and Artistes have always been about political patronage. An art form or style is simply an attempt to legitimise and sanctify prevailing forces in society—this is the case with temple architecture in India, with the Baroque, with Persian poetry, with ghazals, jazz, sonatas whatever.

In the South Asian community in Sydney, artistes owe their existence to the patronage of many small businesses. Everyone knows this. One of the people quoted in our September report, Kamal Athwal, asked us if it was possible for any South Asian artistes in Sydney to survive without the help of businesses. We also said in our September editorial that government funding and corporate sponsorships have a long way to go so far as South Asian arts in Australia are concerned. One cannot think of South Asian arts without South Asian businesses. They need each other for their survival. Hence it is crucial that a wider cross-section of interests within the South Asian and the wider multi-cultural community are consulted and involved in organising a big Australian festival.

This is precisely why it is important to contest attempts by select groups (the Indian coterie and their buddies) who use festivals in cities to promote their own interests at the expense of many others. These very groups have set themselves up as representatives of a community and its cultural activities with the sole intention of cornering all official endorsement and patronage for their narrow ideas of community and culture.

Last year, questions were raised about taxpayer funds and Parramasala. Several groups within the Indian community asked why public funds were used on celebrities and not on local artistes. Clearly, this could not have happened if the intention of the festival organisers was to promote local artises and cultures. One hopes that the Australian political establishment will see through the politics of this self-serving group that uses slogans like community and art for its own narrow gains.

In the attack on The Indian Sun’s report, the so-called editor says:As the article proclaimed: ‘If big festivals do not involve the local community groups, businesses and leaders, what is the point’.” The Indian Sun’s article did not proclaim a thing. We merely quoted Dr Jagvinder Virk. Our article was a report about what he and a few others had to say about Parramasala. Here is the quote from our article: “I am unable to understand one simple thing: if you are organising these big festivals to support the ethnic communities but do not involve the local community groups, businesses and leaders, what is the point.” Perhaps the spell-check didn’t help.

The entire article refers to Parramasala as a festival of South Asian culture. Yet, the Parramasala board says that the festival is about the cultures of the western suburbs of Sydney. The Parramasala website says that 56% of performers “are from a wide and diverse range of backgrounds. There are more than 20 nationalities and cultures represented in Parramasala 2014”.

We have a question: Why does the Parramasala board have only Indians representing the whole South Asian community? Are the political nominations to the Parramasala board the outcome of any genuine community consultation? Do our politicians and organisations like Destination NSW have the interests of the wider community when they hand-pick officials and performers for the festival? If Parramasala is an Australian festival, meant to showcase the many ethnic communities of the western suburbs of Sydney, broader community consultation is vital for its success.

We could spend more time and words attacking the points made in the article on our report. We request our detractors to read carefully and intelligently.

But before we go: the article attacking our Parramasala report says: “The note of discontent started off as a Facebook rant that got shared around (not even a media release), and was picked up by a community newspaper and turned into a poorly-edited story with not even a spell-check run through”.

Our response: The trade of editing is full of so-called editors who can never stop reminding others of the need for spell checks. The reason is simple: these people cannot manage without a spell check. Go back a few years and look at the quality of the Indian magazines in Australia. It has taken them a very long time to work out that good spelling can make a good magazine. Instead of pointing fingers, look in the mirror or at your own past and the quality of your editorial.

In conclusion we repeat some points made in our September editorial about the festival: “Parramasala is provoking some debate on public funding and community consultation. Many members of the Indian community feel left out of the festival and are calling into question the role and agenda of the Parramasala board. Many self-appointed spokesmen and other influential people in the Indian community are working hard to silence any criticism or discussion about the festival. According to some sections in the Indian community, all Indians should wholeheartedly support a public festival. Any doubts or questions or concerns are viewed disapprovingly.

“We would like to tell the yea-sayers that festivals are important opportunities for communities to register their presence and activities in a city. A festival, apart from promoting harmony, understanding etc, is also an attempt by groups in society to make claims on public space. This means that a community always uses the opportunity of a festival to demand a greater role in social and public life. It is important that festival organisers and community associations are given a voice and genuine role in the planning of a festival. Any debate about Parramasala is also a debate about the sub-continental communities and their role in public life. This role needs to be constantly renegotiated. Attacking individuals and calling into question their motives or legitimacy is hardly constructive. We need to use Parramasala as an opportunity to debate and reflect on the nature and scope of community consultation. We need to work out how these processes can be improved. We need to use this occasion to give the various voices and concerns in the Indian community a chance so that all the different businesses and talents in Sydney’s western suburbs and beyond can get a chance to be involved in a major social event.

“The Indian Sun supports genuine community consultation for public funded festivals. It may be hard to deliver any event without criticism. But there is absolutely no harm in embracing the community’s views in delivering public funded events.”


Published in The Indian Sun, Sydney

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