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  Opinion   Columnists  17 Jul 2022  Shreya Sen-Handley | The unsung benefit of pursuing the arts

Shreya Sen-Handley | The unsung benefit of pursuing the arts

Shreya Sen-Handley is the author of the award-winning 'Memoirs of My Body', short story collection 'Strange', and new travelogue 'Handle With Care', and a columnist and playwright. Her Twitter and Insta handle is @shreyasenhan.
Published : Jul 17, 2022, 12:15 am IST
Updated : Jul 17, 2022, 12:15 am IST

The arts and sciences aren’t combatants. When born of creative minds, they are complementary

A still from the Welsh National Opera’s 'Migrations' which depicts the experience of Indian doctors working in the NHS featuring Natasha Agarwal as Neera and Jamal Andreas as Jai. (Credit: Craig Fuller)
 A still from the Welsh National Opera’s 'Migrations' which depicts the experience of Indian doctors working in the NHS featuring Natasha Agarwal as Neera and Jamal Andreas as Jai. (Credit: Craig Fuller)

British Deputy PM Dominic Raab recently criticised Opposition MP Angela Rayner for attending an opera performance, suggesting that for a working-class woman an interest in the arts was misplaced. To those of his toffee-nosed ilk, the common man should undoubtedly concern themselves solely with eking out a living. Many of the ‘great unwashed’ however rushed to Angela’s defence, to point out that the arts, every single branch, high or low, was for EVERYONE.

It was ironic that this public debate over the place of the art in our lives was unfolding in Britain the very week I took a bowto wholehearted applause on the vast stage of Cardiff’s iconic Wales Millennium centre, for having co-written Welsh National Opera’s grand operatic production, ‘Migrations’. No better proof of the democratic nature of the arts could have been found than our 200-strong, gloriously diverse, cast, crew, and creatives with whom I took the curtain call, collectively basking in the audience’s appreciation of the magnificent show we’d put up.

Six different stories from “six excellent writers” (as described by The Times in their glowing review) formed the bedrock for this dazzling production by a versatile cast, crew, orchestra, choirs, conductors, composers, directors, and more, coming together like never before in an opera of this magnitude. The newspapers concurred too, hailing it as a “remarkable achievement” and “a testament to the power of multicultural collaboration”.

Yet, by the lights of Dominic Raab, should any of us be creating art?

Like many in our extensive team, I didn’t come to opera by birthright or social connections. A veteran journalist and author, I was invited to write a libretto by the Welsh National Opera, because the comedy, colour and rhythm of my writing struck a chord with them. A surprise and an honour, especially being that rare South Asian to have received such an offer, I experienced both excitement and trepidation. But then I realised it was as much my heritage as any other. Hadn’t I grown up with the sumptuous musical dramas of Indian cinema? Weren’t the stories I had to tell from my background a fitting subject for opera?

Life is art and art is life.

But people tend to forget that, compartmentalising art as a privileged, even frivolous, activity, that has no place in a competitively money-spinning modern world. Time and again we’re told that the arts and humanities are a niche interest, or a pipe dream. Never a career, if even a hobby. Global disinvestment in the arts in schools and higher education has been accruing steadily.

In India, we’ve grown up with inexplicable prejudice against, and contempt for, training and careers in the arts. How often did your parents remind you that you would have to swot sciences and maths to the exclusion of all else, to gain entry to the hallowed halls (aka cutthroat corridors) of engineering and management? Weren’t we interminably interrogated by ‘aunties; and ‘uncles’ on whether we’d qualify for science, “or, at the very least, commerce”? Followed by their inevitable disappointment, and often, derision, when we admitted to studying arts instead, sometimes by choice — goodness, “mental problems acche nishchoy!”

In the pandemic, former British chancellor Rishi Sunak ran a series of ads in the media advising people to turn away from creative work and retrain for ‘practical’ jobs, even though the creative industries bring £10 billion a year into British coffers. But jobs in the arts are often the worst paid, and therefore, valued less in our get-rich-quick world because so little money can be made from them. A recent British report about university degrees that lead to the lowest paid employment listed film, fine arts, and English literature amongst them.

And in India of course, the matrimonial ads will leave you in no doubt that you aren’t cut out for marriage either if you aren’t a science graduate!

Yet, the arts and sciences aren’t combatants. When born of creative minds, they are complementary. The kind of science that benefits humanity and the planet, and not pointless exercises in aggrandisement like the space race, is closely allied to the arts that enlighten, unify society, and enhance well being. They both save lives.

As so many credible yet ignored scientific studies have proven repeatedly, we are healthier, happier people for our enjoyment of the fruits of each, and our world is the better for it. The wisest of men, Leonardo Da Vinci knew this: “To develop a complete mind: Study the science of art; Study the art of science… Realise that everything connects to everything else.” The operatic story I’ve written is a similar fusing of their strengths: a musical theatre tribute to 1960’s Indian NHS doctors.

Wasn’t it both arts and sciences that kept us alive in the pandemic? If the vaccinations slowed the deadly march of Covid, it was the persuasive communication that accompanied it, in the media, in campaigns, by word of mouth, that brought millions around the world into vaccination centres to take it, saving not just themselves but those around them in the process.

In lockdown as well, our anxiety, isolation, frustration, and grief, were made bearable by our continued access to books, music, good television, and even theatre, which ingenuously found its feet quickly; streaming rather than staging their performances for the interim. Together, they got us through the darkest days in recent years.

Considering the damage done to our planet and its denizens by ‘big business’, greed, and the enshrining of money and materialism at the heart of our existence, what we all need now are lives of creative enlightenment.


Tags: dominic raab, welsh national opera