Thursday, 26 June 2008

NCPA and the Sell-out of Heritage - I: Overview

NCPA and the Sell-out of Heritage
Part I - Overview

[This is the first in a series of articles on NCPA's recent move to commercialise its archival resources. Here Arnab presents an overview of the facts, and also his viewpoint as an artiste.]

1. Introduction

In keeping with the spirit of the times, the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, seems to be turning market-savvy. Recently it brought out a tender, and also circulated an e-mail, inviting financial and marketing partners for a project that seeks to commercially release selections from the Centre’s archive of recorded music. This is being done ostensibly to "support the NCPA's core founding principles with regard to the wide-ranging dissemination of India's rich cultural heritage." Notwithstanding the laudable nature of this objective, doubts remain whether the venture is really much different from usual sell-outs to corporate interests.

2. NCPA: Background and Antecedents

According to the Tata group's official website, NCPA is registered as a society as well as a public trust. However, according to some it was founded through a special legislation. In any case, it funded through a generous grant from the Dorabji Tata Foundation. This includes a substantial endowment, which, if invested wisely, can definitely help sustain its routine operating costs, if not more.

It occupies a large chunk of some of the most coveted real estate in Mumbai. Some time ago it built a large apartment complex to house its employees. Subsequently it took permission to sell the flats commercially. The NCPA Apartments Complex, as it is now known, ranks among Mumbai’s most expensive addresses in terms of cost per square foot of area. Recently, an apartment sold for Rs. 36 Crores. As per its rules, the Centre is entitled to 50% of proceeds from the sale of an apartment, half of which it hands to the Maharashtra government.

Despite such largesses, NCPA’s heyday is long gone. In what seems to be its twilight, it looks to the past as a way of legitimising its present. Its powers-that-be, coupled with a hired “arts administration consultant”, have come together to anoint themselves the guardians of over 5,000 hours of what they claim to be among the finest instances of recorded Hindustani and Carnatic music performances.

Reports suggest the Centre is facing a financial crunch. Though this has been denied by its administrators, the fact remains that it had opened its premises to hosting "corporate events and high-class (sic) receptions" as early as four years ago.

3. NCPA and Dissemination

Serious practitioners and connoisseurs of Indian classical music know very well what a farce the business of arts administration is, especially in India. Unlike other professionals with secure jobs and a steady source of income, musicians are financially vulnerable and often make poorly informed decisions based on an immediate, desperate need for cash. It is the responsibility of organisations like the NCPA, which are basically funded by Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds and government patronage, to ensure that whatever they do serves the interests of the artists they engage. Unfortunately, it seems to me that these “premier institutes” in India are essentially vehicles that prey on the vulnerabilities of those who lead insecure, even destitute lives in the service of the arts, merely to serve the vested interests of a few.

NCPA's prior record in dissemination is dismal. Its earlier posture on the issue of sharing archival material is legendary. Even those artists who had performed at the venue were routinely refused copies of their own concert recordings by the centre’s staff, citing potential commercial “misuse” by the artist, although reportedly, frequent exceptions are made for powerful patron-musicians and their acolytes.

Given its earlier stance, it does not strike the discerning observer as though the NCPA administrators have suddenly sprouted empathy for students of Indian classical music and their need for these recordings for educational purposes. The decision to sell its archival recordings after almost forty years of zealous hoarding has ostensibly been taken with the objective of generating revenue. Obviously, the NCPA anticipates great profitability, if they can justify the hiring of a foreign “arts administrator” to oversee this project. So what is the financial need that drives this venture?

This is all the more galling because NCPA is neither the creator, and nor even really the owner, of the works they propose to sell. It is merely a repository. Not every artist has been consulted before his/her performances were recorded for the archive. According to khayal and thumri exponent Shubha Mudgal and tabla maestro Aneesh Pradhan, the Centre rarely ever signs or makes verbal agreements with artists whom they record in concert. Whenever it has bothered to make agreements pertaining to these recordings, they have almost always read “archive and educational” in the embedded statement of purpose. Even so, they use their (cement and bureaucratic) muscle to hoard recordings, to which, they do not own the rights.

The centre has already drawn up a catalogue of works they intend to publish, and without even consulting many of the artists who have created them, be it in the role of a main performer or accompanying artist. What is even more appalling is the fact that Owen Mortimer, the Centre's foreign “arts administration consultant”, claims in his tender notice that the intellectual property rights of each musician featured in the catalogue would be respected and all applicable laws honoured. As of now, this statement is both untrue and blatantly misleading. It remains to be seen how the Centre will rectify this infirmity.

4. NCPA and the Welfare of Art

Given how the “private sector” of the Indian classical music business is dominated by a number of interest groups that operate like a mafia, it is institutions like the NCPA that independent individual artists would look to for patronage, representation and protection of the collective interests of the professional community. With its infrastructure and access to both powerful private individuals as well as government resources, NCPA could have served as a powerful tool in the process of creating a regulatory body or even a labour union governing matters concerning Indian classical music. Alas, it seems to be nothing more than a struggling behemoth, a white elephant trying to sell the aura of its heydays to keep its reputation afloat, at the cost of innumerable individual musicians who are mere collateral to the interests of self-proclaimed musicologists and art administrators who infest the hallways of this hallowed institution.

Had the Centre been truly interested in the welfare of Indian classical music and musicians, they would have long ago, taken a progressive stand on the issue and created schemes under which they could nurture and sustain musical talent and steer it in the right direction. They would have exercised more discretion in their hiring process and involved genuine musicians and musicologists in the centre’s day-to-day affairs.

One of NCPA’s greatest shortcomings is the fact that its music department is essentially a tool in the hands of a small but powerful cartel of musical pretenders who pose as theorists and arts administrators. Indeed, all it has achieved in so many years is their archive. It has been conserved for over half a century with meticulous attention to security, and is now being made available to the public “with the larger goal of creating as large an audience as possible for Indian classical and traditional music” – at a price, of course.

A price which numerous artists, living and dead, rich and poor, have already paid, by way of poorly remunerated performances, some of which were recorded without consent, either written or verbal. For the benefit of the NCPA, of course, whose administrators, in the process of prostituting their zealously guarded archive, have now circulated a mass e-mail to all the e-mail addresses at their disposal, asking for the highest bidder to aid the process of this unilateral effort at commercialisation of the works of a wide range of artists. Ironically, this list of undisclosed recipients of the aforementioned email includes numerous artists who have performed for the NCPA, and whom the centre’s administrators did not think pertinent to consult before circulating such a message.

A large number of Indian classical musicians of the previous two generations have died either of starvation, or disease wrought by acute poverty. This, in itself, has absolutely no reflection on the class or capability of individual musicians. The fact of the matter is that transition of Hindustani music from princely patronage to the public concert stage has claimed many casualties, and transformed the profession into a vicious rat race for commercial success. It is a very small number of commercially successful musicians who control a vast majority of the limited resources available to the community, leaving many much more deserving artists to languish in poverty and anonymity.

5. Conclusion

Given how the measure of big-time commercial success in Hindustani music today is, in most cases, the ability to put on a pseudo-mystical fa├žade and pander to the tastes of ignoramuses, it is for premier institutions like the NCPA to stand up for genuine artists, and to help generate patronage for serious music. Instead, the NCPA chooses to sell its archive and from what may be construed from its actions so far, deprive its musicians of royalties or even the right to decide if their own recordings may be made public or not!

While the NCPA, in its widely circulated mass e-mail claims that works of “the finest Indian classical and traditional musicians of the past 40 years (are) to be made available for international retail, in consultation with artists and their families and with strict adherence to intellectual property rights and all prevailing laws applicable for their legitimate release”, most investigations reveal that no such steps have been taken to date. This leads one to believe that NCPA officials are essentially paying lip service to the public at large, while soliciting financial participation of third parties in their bid, purportedly aimed at “presentation, preservation and promotion of India's rich legacy of classical, traditional and contemporary culture.”

[back to prefatory note and list of articles]


james said...

It is difficult to imagine monetary profit being a prime motive for the proposed commercial venture considering the meager sales of recorded classical indian music. Maybe it is also a realization that if someone is interested in publishing the material, in the current climate of rapidly diminishing interest, it is better than hoarding it. Sangeet Natak Akademi seems to also be doing it. I do not really understand why you doubt the NCPA's claim that they will follow copyright law etc. I doubt they would publish someone's material without permission! Won't most musicians be very happy about it? Obtaining permission of all the accompanists seems impractical and unnecessary. Thus far NCPA's reputation seems impeccable as far as un-authorised leaks (unlike A.I.R. archives). I have been under the impression that anyone can go there to listen to anything they like from the archives. My experience of the well-stocked library, with the knowledgeable and helpful librarian is positive. It is unfortunate that NCPA is going the corporate direction, fewer music programs, and Bhabha auditorium and Tata theatre being rented out for fashion shows and Indian Idol auditions among other atrocities. At least with the recordings they have good intentions and in my view a great idea! James

Kalyan Mukherjea said...

I feel that Arnab's anguish is about exploitation of (possibly penurious) artistes by a cash-bloated organization like the NCPA. At least these concerns would be met if NCPA instead of releasing CD's on the market, simply put these recordings on their website for free downloads. not having been a professional musician myself I don't know if Shubha Mudgal would still object; I have the hunch that pros mind getting ripped off by someone who is actually making money. But free downloads also means very wide and free publicity. So perhaps
this is more equitable.

What I am suggesting is probably close to the stance that has been adopted by the ITC sponsored Sangeet Research Academy. But then their contracts are probably different from those of the NCPA.

Free, for trial, downloads are becoming popular amongst pop groups
in the West much to the dismay of the recording labels. Why don't our musicians also give this a try? Put up your music up and invite contributions from satisfied listeners.

These comments do not cover the issue of dead musicians or the claims
of their descendants; indeed. this is the real "sin" of the NCPA: hoarding music for decades without letting anybody hear it.


james said...

kalyan, I agree completely that free downloads seem to be the future. Most musicians though want to make some money from the recordings! Was it Coldplay, or some such group that released their entire cd on the internet, pay as you please- to the horror of the music companies? the record companies here are still in a time-warp with their broken-record anti-piracy campaign. Hypocrites too as abhik has mentioned. Unmusical too with the schloky over-produced sound that they dish out for us. Was it Mr. Bordas who did a very nice thing with the recordings of Mukul Shivputra in providing cds to interested parties with the co-operation of the artist,with the money going to Mukul. I may be wrong but I have been under the impression that anyone can listen to the archived music at the ncpa. Now that they seem to want to put it out to the public, in what appears to be a fair manner (permission of the artist etc.), unless you doubt their declarations, they receive criticism. Pecuniary benefit to the ncpa seems to me an unlikely motive. Am I wrong about that? I would be curious about the balance sheet of the people in Ahmedabad putting out the music of siddheshwar, kesarbai, sharafat, etc.

Aneesh Pradhan said...

James, contrary to your impression that recorded classical music does not bring in money for the record labels, I have to say that we at Underscore Records, have had quite a different experience. The archival recordings that we have produced in collaboration with the Society of Indian Record Collectors, and the ones that we distribute for Sangeet Kendra, Ahmedabad, are selling well. We are a small net-based label, and we retail only through select outlets. Consequently, our experience is not representative of the entire industry. And yet,we have had a positive feedback.

Clearly, the sales of classical music albums can't be compared with those of Bollywood or even Indipop albums. But the fact that record labels continue to recompile their old classical recordings, proves beyond doubt that there is a long shelf-life for these recordings and the money keeps trickling in.

Add to this the fact that most archival recordings don't need a huge investment as would be the case with a newly commissioned recording. And when the label/organisation releasing such material decides to flout copyright law, there's all the more money to be made!

There's just one more thing. If indeed the NCPA and most other archives are so interested in disseminating the music they have, why didn't they start with putting up their catalogue on their sites? The catalogue we accessed was up only because the NCPA wished to invite tenders. If it was only dissemination that they wanted, we would have been happy even if there was a non-commercial dissemination provided permissions were sought from all the artistes. The problem in this particular case is that the NCPA has taken a unilateral decision to sell its collection without taking the artistes into confidence. This is what we object to, and not to the fact that the material will be disseminated. The royalties and such other details are a completely separate issue.

Please note that most archives (NCPA included) and organisers do not give copies of the recordings to the performers, despite several reminders and even requests. I need hardly say that it is downright insulting for a musician to request for his or her own recording, particularly when the person/organiser/archive who made the recording did not have the right to do so in the first place.

Arnab Chakrabarty said...

Speaking of what motivates NCPA’s drive to sell its musical archive, James’s statements appear quite divorced from what the simplest logic would lead one to suspect. If the NCPA were uninterested in financial gain from the proceeds of commercialization of its archives, why in the world would they hire an expensive Arts Management Consultant from the UK? The scale of this investment itself seems to indicate that their motives are not as altruistic as you suggest. Wouldn’t it be more resource-efficient to hire an Indian consultant (if at all) at about a fifth of the salary (assuming they are compensating Mr. Mortimer at a wage commensurate to the levels of accomplishment his CV indicates) and devote the remainder of the resources towards creating an online edition of the archive, so that more and more people could access it?

This brings us to the issue of artiste permissions for the release of the archival recordings. You presume that every artiste would be glad, nay flattered, that the NCPA was releasing his/her CD. There are many problems with this assumption. First of all, the mass e-mail sent out by Owen Mortimer was a cut-and-paste version of the tender that was posted on the NCPA website. Floating a tender first, and then going about the business of securing artiste permissions, certainly indicates the position NCPA allocates to its artists in its hierarchy of priorities. The unilateral nature of their decision-making leads one to believe that there is more to this affair than meets the eye. From an artiste’s perspective, there are multiple issues. For example, a particular concert might not have proceeded to the best of the artiste’s satisfaction, and they may not want such a sound recording to hit the stands! The selection of the recordings (for release) has not been done in consultation with the artistes, which makes one wonder as to who makes these decisions, and whether they are even qualified to be doing so. My conjecture is that if monetary profit is not the motivation behind such an expensive venture, the Centre’s desperation to go through with the project indicates to me that the involvement of vested interests cannot be ruled out, perhaps not entirely independent of the career aspirations of some of its in-house arts-administration professionals.

vinaypande said...

NCPA is not cash rich. it is steadily going bust and i think the tatas are tired of supporting it. unfortunately the original lease allowed it only to develop residential premises on 2 acres. under antulay's chief ministership this was amended to allow construction of a hotel that NCPA would lease and be supported by the income from. unfortunately an unholy combination of hindutva enthusiasts, misguided "liberal" bombay lawyers and his enemies in the congress party succeeded in killing that idea. so they built an apartment complex, sold the apartments for lots of money and then blew up all the money on a new concert hall. and now they are broke because it costs an arm and a leg to maintain these halls.

vinaypande said...

the other problem with the ncpa is its attempt to host western classical music for the bombay audience was never a huge success because the audience is so limited and western performers prefer to go to HK or beijing or tokyo and of course australia. the bombay philharmonic ( is it still alive?) could find amateurs to play strings but only the police band to play winds. so that was not a huge success either.

the disaster with the indian classical music side has a fair bit to do with the artists themselves. the auditorium has superb acoustics and absolutely no amplification is needed. but people like amjad ali and others complain they "cant hear themselves". i wonder if they do riyaaz with amplification too. amplification with indian classical music is a disaster. ( have you ever heard an amplified western classical music performance? even chamber or solo concerts, never mind symphony orchestras?