The Indian Art of Giving

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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On artists donating works to raise funds for the Kochi Biennale and forms of charity

NEXT TUESDAY, October 31st, there will be an unusual auction happening in Mumbai. Works of 41 artists will be sold and the proceeds will go towards the organisation of the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale to be held next year. When it held such an auction in 2015 for its last edition, they collected over Rs 2 crore. In the present auction, the artists have been equally generous. A stainless steel sculpture by Subodh Gupta, for instance, has an estimated price price of Rs 15-20 lakh, an Atul Dodiya painting Rs 3-5 lakh.

It is money that is much needed because the Biennale is India’s biggest art event and, being a non-profit endeavor, runs entirely on donations that is always hard to come by. Artists donating their works is a form of fortuitous middle ground between their art, philanthropy and obligation to promote art by keeping an important cultural event going. It is also illustrative of India’s unusual relationship with charity.

In the West, the act of giving is clearly defined as a virtue. In recent times, multi-billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, two of the richest men in the world, have given almost their entire wealth away. Indian billionaires don’t replicate this model. Tatas, for instance, have trusts which are the most charitable in India but also serve a dual purpose as a holding institution that protects their ownership of companies. Salman Khan has recently discovered his generosity bone through his Being Human foundation but it has also served as an image makeover in the wake of his legal issues. But it does not demean the value of the deed itself.

At the individual level, Indians are said to be not a charitable people. In the World Giving Index 2017, a survey by the Charities Aid Foundation that ranked countries according to their philanthropy, India is ranked 81. We jumped up 10 places this year but in 2013 we were 69. Our poor showing might, however, not be a true reflection of Indian charity because it doesn’t take into account the mode that the overwhelming majority of Indians use when they feel the need to give, that is, as a religious offering to temples, mosques, churches, spiritual gurus, etcetera. This might be a roundabout way to be generous because the money is routed through a middle agent and because the intention is also to garner some points with god. We like to multitask an offering and it is not illegitimate do so. All the schools and hospitals that godmen inevitably run are because they have so much excess cash flow from devotees that it needs to be put to use.

A reason why we take circuitous routes is because we are a poor nation and charity is the privilege of the rich. Gates only decided to donate after he made his fortune, not when he was working out of a garage while beginning Microsoft. Buffet, in fact, will only give it all away after his death. That Indians should still find means of giving, where a self-interest is also satisfied, is a better reflection of ourselves. After all, the easiest thing to do is to not do anything.