The Economics of Culture

By Anjum Altaf

I doubt anyone would guess right if a quiz master were to ask what Britain’s leading export was in 1997. The surprising answer: The Spice Girls, through sales of their music, attendance at their film, and related merchandising.

This confirms that culture is big business. In the same year, the US economy produced over $400 billion worth of books, films, music, TV programmes and other copyrighted products and this category emerged as the leading export for the US as well. Not only that, the sector is growing rapidly, between two to three times as fast as the overall economies in developed countries.

East Asian countries which grew by leaps and bounds during the last quarter century on the strength of low-cost manufacturing have noticed this phenomenon in their search for diversification. Almost all of them are investing heavily in promoting their own cultural output as well as in providing lower-cost facilities for the making of cultural products. Entire digital multi-media cities are being set up in a number of locations including Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore with Shanghai not far behind. The Indian movie industry has started to attract external capital and looks set to follow software as a global player.

All this is a preamble to highlight an undiscovered and under-exploited source of economic growth and to motivate a discussion of what we might be doing in Pakistan. Clearly we ought to re-examine culture not as a luxury but as a source of economic growth and employment creation. The market is extensive. There is a very large South Asian diaspora with adequate purchasing power. In addition, South Asian culture is continually making inroads in Western markets building on the breakthrough provided by Ravi Shankar: just in the last year, Lagaan was nominated for an Oscar, Bombay Dreams opened on West End, Moulin Rouge paid tribute to Bollywood, and Ashwariya Rai made the cover of Time magazine. Then there is a very large Indian market itself waiting to be tapped. Just to look at one dimension: there is a ghazal craze in India and artists of the calibre of Mehdi Hasan, Ghulam Ali, Fareeda Khanum and Iqbal Bano can sweep that market repeatedly with ease.

The possibilities are manifold. However, on the negative side, we have not only failed to tap these markets in the past, we have allowed our cultural heritage to decay to an extent that we may not be able to exploit the markets when they do open up and we realise their potential. Some examples are obvious and cannot be disputed. Thus, there are no comparable replacements for Roshan Ara Begum or for Ustads Amanat Ali Khan-Fateh Ali Khan, Nazakat Ali Khan-Salamat Ali Khan, Shareef Khan Poonchwaley, Shaukat Hussain Khan, and Bundoo Khan.

It is incorrect to argue that this is so because there is no demand for classical music. We have failed to reproduce this asset base out of sheer neglect and callousness. Musical trends among the youth are no different in India yet Ustad Allah Rakha has been followed by Zakir Hussain, Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan by Shahid Parvez, and Ustad Nisar Hussain Khan by Rashid Khan, to give just a few examples. The number of exciting new stars moving up the ranks is very large. The contribution of the Indian Tobacco Company in setting up the Sangeet Research Academy in Calcutta is an eye-opener (for details see http://www.itcsra.org).

But even if we accept that classical music is dead in Pakistan, if only for the sake of argument, we cannot say the same for the ghazal which remains immensely popular. Yet, even here we have not been able to reproduce and replace artists of the calibre of Mehdi Hasan, Fareeda Khanum and Iqbal Bano. Nor is there the semblance of a replacement for Nur Jehan Begum on the horizon.

The reason can be very simple. These artists were truly great because they had a firm grounding in classical music. New singers often have equally good voices but it is easy to tell that their sense of pitch and rhythm is nowhere the same. They can imitate some of the songs of the greats very well but whenever they sing something original their weak foundations are exposed immediately. Inadequately trained artists would survive in the home market but would find it very difficult to make a mark in a much more discriminating global one.

Given the extent of the neglect and decline, it is obvious that Pakistan cannot jump into the forefront of the market for cultural products. But a realisation that such a market exists can provide a motivation for actions that will not only reverse the decline but likely generate other positive externalities as well.

In this context, we need to remind ourselves that the value of culture extends beyond economics, something we were aware of but have seemingly forgotten. Just one Ravi Shankar has created more goodwill for India than hundreds of paid publicists could ever hope to deliver. At a time when a very negative image of the country has to be overcome, the role of culture in presenting an alternative image cannot be overlooked. Globally recognised cultural icons like Abida Parween, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, Naheed Siddiqui, Ustad Raees Khan, and Zia Moheyuddin (to name, in alphabetical order, a few of the ones who are still with us) have the power to create positive emotional resonance for a country in search of a new image.

This article can be concluded with another little-known fact. The best-selling poet in the US is Rumi in translation. This is another indicator of the surprising nature of global demand. Yet, none of the great Sufi poets from our region have been translated or marketed in a manner which caters to the global market. Is that really an impossible task? I don’t believe it is and in a follow-up article I will present for discussion a modest proposal for the revival of the arts in Pakistan.

Anjum Altaf is provost of Habib University in Karachi. This op-ed appeared in the Daily Times on 9 February 2004 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission because of a renewed interest in the economics of culture.

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