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The future of cultural spaces in New Delhi

Grassroots, suburban and inclusive: The future of cultural spaces in New Delhi

Meet Anurupa Roy, a leading creative producer in Inidan Puppet Theatre and a CLORE Fellow. During her secondment at the World Cities Culture Forum, she mapped Delhi’s cultural spaces, cultural policy and emerging trends in cultural provision. This article is based on her research.

My childhood was deeply influenced by the theater district of Mandi House in New Delhi. In particular, the Sutradhar Puppet theater at the Sriram Center basement in the 1980s; the Trade Fair exhibitions in the Central Delhi fairgrounds; nearby art galleries and museums; and UNESCO heritage sites in South, Central and Old Delhi. They influenced the artist I am today and pushed me to work where arts hubs don’t exist, on the periphery of the city.

Culture on the periphery of the city

Since 1998, I’ve run a travelling puppet theater company currently in Jaitpur village, on the Southern edge of New Delhi. Engulfed during the fast, but haphazard, expansion of the city, the metro reached this village before proper sanitation infrastructure was introduced. This started a gradual shift towards gentrification and a change in social demographic making it, like the other fringes of Delhi, even more chaotic than the center. The Delhi metro now connects almost the entire length and width of this 1,484 sq kilometer city.

Investment in suburban cultural spaces

Central cultural hubs and events are feeling the pressure of increased footfall as the city grew by 2.1% in 2023, bringing the population total to over 43 million. So there is a need to invest in new and existing cultural spaces outside of the city centre.

However the governance of Delhi is complicated as it is a union territory shared between the central and local government. Culture policy and spending is no different. The Government of India generally funds bodies that look after the upkeep of monuments and the running of the national cultural institutions across India. While their offices are based in New Delhi, the budget for the city is less than 3% of the net government budget. So it falls to the Delhi government, namely the Government of Delhi Department of Art, Culture and Language, to support local arts and culture. At least two major philanthropists, including the Serendipity Arts Foundation and the Kiran Nadar Center for the Arts, are investing in culture, particularly in spaces in the suburbs. For example, there are plans to build mega cultural complexes within the next five years outside the city center.

What does culture look like in New Delhi?

For the average Indian, culture is about religious festivals, which differ vastly from region-to-region, with massive participation and budgets raised through mostly private donations. Certain art forms are favoured, with classical music and dance dominating the government arts budgets. Folk arts tend to be sponsored by the communities in which they are popular.

Delhi -the city of immigrants - has multiple indigenous cultures and celebrates all major Indian festivals. It is this very diversity that gives the artists of Delhi the space to experiment beyond classical and traditional forms. However, contemporary and secular arts are practiced and accessed mostly by an educated elite in the city’s cultural hubs.

Creating inclusive art spaces

Many theatre companies (mine included), seek to run community-based art spaces that are more inclusive. Some like Jan Natya Manch focus completely on street theater so that they can reach disadvantaged communities in low socio-economic areas and take theater to the wider public. The reason the arts and culture survive on Delhi’s fringes is the ingenuity of the artists themselves. We call this ‘jugaad’ in Hindi, a word roughly translated means everything from hustling to inventing.

The future of cultural spaces in New Delhi

Through my research, I found that there are a few driving forces in the development of Delhi’s cultural spaces.

Firstly, in the wake of the financial impact of the pandemic on central cultural institutions, small grassroots cultural venues are thriving and mushrooming across New Delhi. These venues can offer a more inclusive space to disadvantaged communities, particularly in suburban areas. Serving their immediate neighbourhood, art becomes more accessible. For example, Kutumb Foundation in Noida; Studio Safdar in Shadipur West Delhi; Black Box Okhla in the industrial area; Samarth Theater in Mayur Vihar; and The Katkatha community arts space in Jaitpur to name a few.

Secondly, there is a growing movement using the arts to engage citizens in education, health care, science, advocacy and human rights in Delhi. This could drive the city to use arts in a more inclusive and cutting-edge way.

Finally, the climate crisis is challenging the city and its artists to think more sustainably about development. Delhi is currently expanding at a rapid rate, engulfing villages, compromising green spaces, choking water run-off channels that lead to flooding during the monsoons, and suffering terrible winter smog. But we could learn from London’s green belt system and use our own ‘jugaad’ skills to use the city’s existing buildings and protect our green spaces.

In conclusion, New Delhi shows a future trend towards fast paced expansion both in land mass and size of population. While the problems of overpopulation and congestion may not go away soon, a distinct trend in grassroots inclusion in the arts is emerging. Proposed policies of the Delhi Government and private mega cultural complexes promise to decentralize cultural hubs in the city.