Cultural politics in India
India's celebrities confront Hindu nationalism

In July 2019, with hate crimes against minorities in India rising sharply, 49 eminent personalities signed an open letter to Narendra Modi, stating that the slogan 'Jai Shri Ram' – Hail Lord Rama – a Hindu chant usually reserved for prayers or religious gatherings had become a war cry. By Amrita Das

The list of 49 included prominent filmmakers Aparna Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Anurag Kashyap, Mani Ratnam, Shyam Benegal and other celebrated artistes like Shubha Mudgal (singer), Revathy (filmmaker and actress), Ramachandra Guha (historian), Soumitra Chatterjee (actor), Konkona Sen Sharma (actress), Rupam Islam (songwriter) and more. It was possibly the first time that names from the Indian art and culture industry had intervened in the nation’s political framework. By contrast, interference in Indian culture by politicians has become the norm.

India is famous for its rich cultural heritage and evocative art. With names like Satyajit Ray and Mira Nair in films, Raja Ravi Varma, Amrita Sher-Gil and M. F. Husain in painting, Ravi Shankar and A. R. Rahman in music, Raghubir Singh in photography, and of course, Mirza Ghalib, Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu in literature and poetry, India has always had global representation in every field of art and culture.

Growing political interference

India’s cultural industry has also remained fairly free since 1947, when India became an independent nation. The banning of certain works such as Salman Rushdie’s book "The Satanic Verses" and Rakesh Sharma’s documentary, "The Final Solution", can be attributed to their controversial nature or likeliness to instil communal tension in society. It would be fair to say that political interference in culture in India is a new development.

In February 2019, Amol Palekar, renowned actor and director, was rudely censored. He stood at the podium delivering a speech on artist Prabhakar Barwe’s exhibition ‘Inside an Empty Box’ at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Mumbai.

Anita Rupavataram, director of NGMA, repeatedly interrupted Palekar when he mentioned the "loss of independence" in art, reminding him to stay with "Barwe's work". Palekar was trying to voice his dissatisfaction with the Ministry of Culture taking control over NGMA (Mumbai and Bangalore) and henceforth limiting the space for independent, ‘external’ artists and allowing only NGMA’s own artists to exhibit in their space.
There has also been a sharp increase in films propagating the government’s agendas. "Toilet: Ek Prem Katha" (Toilet: a love story) released commercially in 2017 and stars Bollywood’s most bankable actor, Akshay Kumar, alongside Bhumi Pednekar. It tells the story of a newly married couple in rural north India, where the wife walks out of her in-laws’ house because it does not have a private toilet.
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