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On Stage

By Anil Dharker

08th June 2018

“When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun.” So Paul Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s right hand man and Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda is supposed to have said. As it happens he did reach for his gun, using it to shoot his wife and himself when Germany lost the Second World War.

In the India of today, no one is holding a gun to the head of culture; all they are doing is withholding their patronage. This thought, ever present, came to the fore last month at the opening of the memorial to Jamshed Bhabha in the foyer of the theatre named after him.

When you look at this permanent exhibition you will realise that the Bhabha family was remarkable. Jehangir Bhabha and Meherbai Petit gave their two sons Homi and Jamshed a truly well-rounded education:formal school and college education was supplemented by the informal addition of trips to Europe to look at museums and art galleries, to go to concerts and the opera. No wonder Homi, though one of the world’s great nuclear scientists, had an abiding interest in the arts. Jamshed, of course, immersed himself in culture; without him, there would be no NCPA because he not only gave his time and energy to this institution, he bequeathed his entire estate to it.

An education like the Bhabhas’ presupposes a privileged childhood, but among their peers, the Bhabhas were not exceptions: other families too didn’t think of education as something you only learned from text books. This must be why even people who didn’t devote their whole lives to culture as Jamshed Bhabha did, became great patrons of the arts. They did so because they were interested, they did so because they knew that art and culture represent the highest of human values and aspirations, they did so because they believed like Jawaharlal Nehru that ‘culture is the widening of the mind and the spirit’, they did so because they believed like activist and philosopher Marcus Garvey that ‘A people without the knowledge of their past history, origins and culture is like a tree without roots.’

It’s interesting to look at the great American philanthropists. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), was born to a weaver’s family in Scotland which was so poor that they had to share a single room with another family. They migrated to the US to seek a better life, where young Andrew rose from a life of hardship to become one of the world’s richest men (in today’s terms over $ 400 billion).

Carnegie devoted the last 18 years of his life giving away 90 percent of his fortune, and you see evidence of that all round the US – Carnegie Institute of Science, Carnegie Mellon University, Carnegie Library, Carnegie Hall in New York, Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh … In fact, he eventually funded over 3000 libraries in the US and countries as far away as Australia.

John D Rockefeller’s (1839-1937) story is somewhat similar: He grew up in a family abandoned by the father, which meant he had to take up a job (as an assistant bookkeeper) at the age of 16. From those humble beginnings to become the richest man in America (and one of the wealthiest Americans of all time) is yet another incredible story. Amazingly, his philanthropy began with his very first job when he gave 6 % of his salary to charity. At the age of 20, he raised that to 10 %.

He retired from business at the age of 57, lived to 97, and devoted those last 40 years to ‘giving’. The Rockefeller Foundation is active even today and practices his dictum of ‘targeted philanthropy’, with a large portion of its budget devoted to scientific and medical education and research. Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, Chicago and many other universities are beneficiaries of his largesse, as are institutions of arts and culture.

What’s common between these two men is that circumstances denied them an education, so they valued it immensely, and funded it generously. They concentrated on science and medicine because that would be most beneficial to mankind. But they also funded the arts and set up cultural institutions which thrive till today. Others like Cornelius Vanderbilt and J P Morgan followed their example: Vanderbilt established the Metropolitan Opera and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, while Morgan set up the Pierpont Morgan library and gave liberally to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Harvard Medical School, Trinity College and so on.

American philanthropists of today like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet follow their example by giving away most of their very large fortunes for good causes. The difference is that their emphasis has changed. The Gates Foundation, with additional funding from Buffet, is financing projects in poor countries in the areas of healthcare, primary education, AIDS prevention and access to IT. Li Ka Shing, the world’s third biggest donor and George Soros both concentrate on education and healthcare. India’s biggest philanthropist, Azim Premji (he has committed $ 8 billion so far) is also funding primary education in a big way.

You notice the shift: most of the money now is going where today’s philanthropists think it’s needed most – in primary education and in basic healthcare. This is, of course, commendable, and to be applauded. But they – particularly Indian philanthropists – are doing this to the almost complete exclusion of scientific and medical research (areas where we lag woefully behind), and to the total exclusion of art and culture. The lack of interest in culture may have to do with the fact that most of today’s super-rich are technocrats, but should they not see that a small percentage of their vast fortunes should also go into these areas?

If we are to preserve our culture, we have to fund it. And to preserve culture, and ensure it doesn’t become moribund, we must continue to create it. Where are the Jamshed Bhabhas of the world today?