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Spic Macay: The banyan tree of Indian culture

LiveMint logoLiveMint 07-07-2017 Veejay Sai

The classical arts come with a large number of prerequisites, not only for performers and practitioners, but for audiences as well. One volunteer-run organization that can claim credit for promoting the arts, in addition to state initiatives, is the Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Among Youth, or Spic Macay, which has done path-breaking work in the field of cultural evangelism.

It all started when Kiran Seth heard a concert of the Dagar brothers, legendary dhrupad maestros, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. Seth, who had studied at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, was pursuing his doctoral studies at Columbia University in New York. Overwhelmed by the emotional effect of the music, he decided this was an experience worth sharing with the world. Once back in India, he organized a dhrupad concert in 1977 for a small group of friends and music lovers at IIT, Delhi, where he was teaching. Half-a-dozen people showed up and a few walked out midway. That didn’t deter him from organizing the next. Gradually, the numbers grew.

Four decades later, Spic Macay is a cultural movement to reckon with. What started off with classical music has now embraced dance, folk art, handicrafts, handlooms, photography, cinema, heritage tours and more. Several legendary artists—such as sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, a Bharat Ratna awardee and Carnatic vocalist Dr Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna—joined the movement, believing it was capable of taking their music to the masses. With over 800 chapters in India, over 100 chapters overseas, and over one million volunteers, both in and outside India, it has taken the message of Indian arts and culture to places where no government agency has been able to.

Just about every artist, from painter Anjolie Ela Menon to film-makers such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, has joined the Spic Macay family.

Its fifth international convention, held on the IIT campus in Delhi from 5-11 June, saw thousands of students spending time with legendary artists like dancers Alarmel Valli (Bharatanatyam) and Kapila Venu (Koodiyattam) over the course of five days. A normal day at the convention is crammed with activity. The day starts at 4.30am with yoga sessions, followed by shramdaan, the concept of cleaning up the campus they live on that week. This is followed by “intensives” where students are grouped with an artist of their choice to learn or orient themselves with a specific art form—it could be Hindustani classical vocal or Gond tribal painting. The meals are vegetarian and self-service is encouraged. Evenings end with performances by famous artists, with the days ending by 9pm.

This rigorous routine has been designed to keep everyone on their feet. The idea was to provide a glimpse of a holistic living experience, and encourage people to follow this healthy lifestyle at home too.

These conventions hit the “refresh” button in young minds and keep them looped into the world of Indian arts. And in the last four decades, several generations of volunteers have become part of the Spic Macay movement.

In 2013, Spic Macay collaborated with state broadcaster Doordarshan to launch a programme, Naad Bhed: The Mystery Of Sound, on the lines of a reality show. Anchored by actor Shabana Azmi, it presents talented young people from across the country.

But it’s not as if Spic Macay has not had its share of troubles. Run totally on volunteer help and donations, it has often fallen short of funds—in such times, artists have stepped forward and performed without a fee. Individual and corporate philanthropy has kept the movement going. And its “Vision 2020” aims to cover over two million schools, colleges and other educational institutions, to initiate them into the world of Indian arts.

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Today there is a new tier of passionate volunteers, including some who are spreading the essence of Indian arts to students across the world. Like a large banyan tree, Spic Macay has grown, with hundreds of branches giving rise to newer shoots and leaves. Amid the complicated logistics of organizing thousands of events related to arts across the country, what has remained constant is Seth’s vision.

In the words of author Saul Bellow: “Only art penetrates the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which, without art, we can’t receive.” It is these hints that an organization like Spic Macay has been trying hard to convey.

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