Bharatanatyam dancer and organiser of the Delhi International Arts Festival (DIAF), Pratibha Prahlad speaks to Gauri Dwivedi about why she has decided to shelve the DIAF after a 12-year run.


Eminent Bharatanatyam dancer and cultural ambassador Padma Shri Pratibha Prahlad, who has been at the forefront of creating cultural platforms showcasing India’s soft power through her acclaimed festivals–Delhi International Arts Festival (DIAF) and Hampi Utsav—seems to have hit a roadblock owing to government apathy. Never one to mince her words and call out the indifference that plagues most government bodies in the field of culture, Prahlad decided to put DIAF in cold storage 12 years after its mega launch. The reason? Refusal of cultural bodies like the Sangeet Natak Akademi and ICCR to back DIAF financially. Guardian 20 sat down with the artist recently to know more about what went wrong with the festival, and discuss whether this is symptomatic of the larger problems that plague our cultural bodies—problems like the lack of a clear and concerted direction and roadmap for India to harness its cultural heritage.

Q. What made you start a festival like the DIAF?

A. I realised India needed its very own international arts festival, something that would make International artistes keen to tour our country and discover Indian audiences and their responses to global art forms. I created a network of embassies, foreign governments, cultural centres, international cultural managers and other international festivals and artistes from around the world to ensure all genres of art were showcased at the festival. Art was viewed in all its variety and Delhi got represented the world over as a city of ideas and artistic practices. I am happy that we succeeded in creating the DIAF as India’s signature festival that projected India as a cultural superpower and went a long way in boosting our soft power.

Q. The festival had a smooth run for 12 years. So what went wrong this year, since you have now decided to shelve it?

A. Funding has been a key concern and the 2018 experience was quite sour where sponsors including government bodies refused to grant funding that they had earlier committed to. Cultural events have always relied heavily on State patronage and despite a clear mandate to promote Indian culture and arts, apathy of government bodies continues unabated. The Culture Ministry has not given us any reasons for not clearing our past dues, even as their main schemes are yet to be announced and applications are not being sought for them. So we are still waiting for our second installment of funds from the Ministry of Culture. With an eye on elections, the Delhi government is now organising its own small events and did not fund or advertise DIAF in 2018 despite promising to do so. Ideally, Ministries of Tourism and Culture should create synergies and push entities, festivals and platforms that boost India’s image globally. Unfortunately, that is not the case, despite these ministries having the same minister. The ICCR and Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA) have both done a realignment of their priorities and seem to be in favour of organising their own events and not backing landmark initiatives like the DIAF. In fact, I have to be honest here. The SNA has small-minded persons administering it who cannot think beyond themselves and their small agendas, hurting the larger goal for which they were set up.

 Q. So after your experiences in 2018 and 2019, have you decided to permanently shelve the DIAF?

A. I would like to believe that the government and others involved in the cultural sector will rise above their narrow thinking, and consider the larger good for the image of India and all Indians. If the right funding is available, I do see the possibility of DIAF being organised in 2020 and in the future as well. Several international festivals have run continuously for decades and brought innumerable intangible and tangible benefits to their societies and countries. It is with this vision that the DIAF was created.

Q. You have been holding events for over two decades, starting with the prestigious Hampi Utsav. How frustrating was it to put a festival on hold owing to a lack of support from government bodies?

A. I keep thinking, where are the visionaries who think for India and the larger good of our country? Government agencies and even large corporate houses act like they are funding me personally and not the platform. The DIAF is run by an NGO which goes through proper audits and reviews and I am not paid any salary, despite working on the festival for more than eight months every year. I am not a stakeholder in an initiative as unique as the DIAF, which changed the cultural landscape of India. It changed the manner in which the arts and artistes were presented, professionalised curation and brought in the element of a city-wide celebration, where virtually the entire city was engaged in organising, performing or attending art events. I firmly believe that the DIAF has many stakeholders—government, private, the artist fraternity. And they need to collectively think what’s next for the DIAF.

Q. What have been your takeaways from your experience of how India needs to think differently to further harness our cultural heritage and build on our soft power?
I want administrators who are passionate about the arts. We need people who can deliver, who can be honest, who are not controlled by their own small ego issues or lack of understanding of the larger picture to administer and serve culture. What is good for the arts and what is best for the country has to be placed above “what is good for me and the little organisation I now head”, which seems to be the general thinking of the incumbents now.

Q. Finally, irrespective of the fate of the DIAF, what’s next for Pratibha Prahlad and the Prasidha Foundation? Would you be looking at creating another such global forum?

A. I will continue to serve the arts and continue to create work that will be path-breaking. There are several books on arts that are in the pipeline. I will explore platforms to create a world-class art platform, even though I am still optimistic that the DIAF’s journey has not yet ended. 

Gaurie Dwivedi is an acclaimed classical dancer and senior journalist