Patronage, Learning, Innovation

On July 29, 2014 by admin


Prasanta Chakravarty

The career of poet Samuel Daniel (1562-1619) is a powerful instance of how a poet might succeed through patronage, quite independent of his considerable talent. After his education at Oxford, he was taken up by Sir Edward Dymoke, the Queen’s Champion, which led his establishing a connection with Sir Edward Stafford, the English ambassador in Paris in the 1580s. With Strafford he went to Italy and upon his return, now enthusiastic to write poetry, Daniel soon came to the notice of Mary, Countess of Pembroke. She was enthusiastic about his European experience and offered him financial support, banking on his concern for the condition of the English letters. Of course, educated Englishmen and women of eminent families had appreciated by then that talented men of letters should be championed and rallied  as a matter of patriotic pride.

In the year 1600, Daniel made a gainful move into the household of Lady Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland where he tutored her daughter. Circa 1604/5 he added the patronage of the rich Earl of Hertford to his portfolio. By this time literate aristocrats were vying for an allocation in the works of Samuel Daniel. He acquired a house in the City of London, became a Groom of the Queen’s Privy Chamber sometime in 1607, advancing to Gentleman Extraordinary in 1613 with a salary of £64, and remained in her household until the Queen’s death in 1619. Daniel, of course, kept lines of communication open to old patrons, dedicating Musophilus to Sir Fulke Greville in 1611, for example. His attentive patrons continued to care for him even after death:  Lady Anne Clifford fashioned a memorial inscription for him and paid for his monument in the parish church.

The immediate trigger for this lengthy preamble is the Man Booker long-list and the rather predictable unfolding of a network, which pushes and lobbies the case for an author of Indian origin. The mode is kosher. In fact, such care and diplomacy is part and parcel of our existence. There is indeed not much ground to speak from any righteous vantage point—for all of us, surely, must operate within certain finite circles and regardless of our finest professional attitude, we reserve our liking and disliking for this ideology or that style. Yes, the give-and-take in circles of patronage is a subtle art. You play by the rules, and if possible, play with certain élan and nonchalance. But the nature of creating networks and working within a coterie culture also means that you fully appreciate the rules of that particular culture or faction, as the case may be. To understand the inner workings of a faction is an art in successful communication and speech-act exchange.

In India, a section of the highly feudal parliamentarian left has been the most scientific practitioners of the art of patronage. Fellow travellers have been richly and routinely rewarded from time to time. In Bengal, one has seen this phenomenon play out as a drill, almost. But there has also been a powerful and small cosmopolitan section which has kept itself out of any strict political ideology but has changed tack from time to time, morphing pragmatically as the circumstance demanded. This group of people has always used their cultural capital for advancement in life. And tried to erect a stout support system. Working within a very closed and dedicated circle of mutual dependency.  Academics, artists and writers, publishers and journalists of such a dispensation have often closed ranks—for they have no other way but to rely on patronage since they have kept themselves out of the political arena. The footloose writer or artist, from the other side, has depended on structures of patronage at all times.  Indeed, in Bengal, Raja Krishna Chandra heavily patronized artists like Bidyapati and the sakta writings of Ramprasad, just as Raja Naba Krishna did with the likes of Haru Thakur. But what we are talking about is the patronage of an alien lettered class, developed much later and imbued with new ideas and novel methods. Over a period of time they have gotten entrenched in building institutions and have been given to using and circulating the benefits of their own new familial networks.



Though far removed in time and space, a superb analysis of how a select group of gifted and cosmopolitan artists around Giotto di Bondone emerged under the patronage of the mendicant Franciscan friars and mercantile bankers has been meticulously studied by Julian Gardner in Giotto and His Publics: Three Paradigms of Patronage. The study goes far beyond the clichés of Giotto as the founding father of western art and illuminates the complex interplay between mercantile wealth and the iconography of poverty. The Franciscans were intensely local, many of them members of the leading civic families. True, the Florentines, much like the group of Bengalis we are talking about, are also often truly international and not merely global. But in practice, the internationalism of such coterie is marked by local preferences and traditions.

In fact, any international success by way of an award or any other form of recognition of a member augments the imaginative cultural stature of the local patrons and the artist, who in his turn, would ideally return the favour, given a platform, by paying rich and nuanced tributes to the circles of local influence. The lonesome and precarious life of writing and art practice patiently await such recognition and patronage. The idea of the prodigal turns into a circulating and negotiating ideal.

It is rather intriguing to speculate how this class of people who primarily rely on the twin pillars of learning and piety might negotiate with the emerging values of New India—heavily consumptive and nationalistic at the same time. Since this class has immense faith in its own capacity—creative, analytical or argumentative— and on the networks of the select, the first moves to enthuse the government or other funding bodies inevitably begin with a subtle form of paternalism: the view that taste can be created by means of enlightened government policy. This view may work with a kindred soul on the other side. More often, however, such paternalism has been thwarted from time to time by the more populist dispensations among the Indian political class. For the political class is deeply suspicious of anything remotely smacking of intellect or abstraction in art or literature: notice how Swapan Dasgupta now argues for a non-specialist historian for a specialist governmental academic body. Therefore, the networks of local and international connections always need to be finessed not only in order to remain relevant but also to trump governmental and bureaucratic processes and apathy. Patronage, by its very definition, would seek to bypass procedure.

Advancement of learning is the cornerstone of the coterie we are referring too—conceptually. But advancement of learning also means advancement of the loyal group. From Francis Bacon to Samuel Hartlib, from A.O. Whitehead to Karl Popper—disinterested learning has always been an ideal with a practical, experimental side to it, ostensibly having a social value. Innovation and Invention are keys to this form of progress. This is the reason that those who still vouch by a mixture of patriotism, chivalry and learning would warm up to the networks of capital in a changed world, rather than pay any lip service to anything that might sound socialist or dissipating in tone.

Science and learning form a potent cocktail. Observe this proleptic, third person assessment of the stakes of Bacon’s blueprint of natural philosophy, in Instauratio Magna:

“Certain it is that all other ambition whatsoever seemed poor in his eyes compared with the work which he had in hand, seeing that the matter at issue is either nothing or a thing so great that it may well be content with its own merit, without seeking other recompense.”

Bacon is trying out a new method based on natural philosophy—a gambit in technological advancement with a rhetorical flourish. In a manner, the humanist in him would reject crass, commodifying tendencies and opulance. And therefore, as Huxley had observed, Bacon opens himself up to the charge of propagating  ‘pseudoscientific cant’. King James reacted exactly according to the script. He accepted Bacon’s presentation copy of the Novum Organum (1620)with the resonant quip that ‘like the peace of God, it passed all understanding.’  The only way to propagate such an idea of the advancement of learning is to popularise learning and make superficial peace with the reigning political arrangement and yet keep the inner workings of the coterie intact—an esoteric and secret cult.


So, this particular dispensation will always remain suspicious of more activist, utopian ideas of art and academy—of the right and the left, alike—which seem totalizing to the circles of cosmopolitanism. Here is Tzevtan Todorov, trying to explain the Constructivist project “In their conception, art no longer constituted a separate area: everyone could participate in its creation. In the commune everyone creates, wrote Osip Brik, another Constructivist theorist, picking up, perhaps unwittingly, the desire of Novalis, philosopher of Romanticism and a precursor of Wagner, for everyone to become an artist and everything to become art.” This democratic romantic tendency in the genuinely avant garde is something that irks the kind of patronage structures that we are referring to. The Baconian idea of art is a method of acquiring knowledge in life; not a method in life-building.

A masterful book on the sociology of patronage in recent times is Emily Levine’s Dreamland of the Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky and the Hamburg School. It is the story of a wealthy Jewish banker in the climate of the Third Reich and his singular and ruthless drive to establish a library and centre of learning in a rather provincial setting. It is a book about Aby Warburg’s efforts to not only find a scientific basis for aesthetic responses but also a study in circles of mutual reciprocation and the construction of a powerful peerage.

We are referring to a group of people who are literate, numerate, cosmopolitan and entrepreneurial.  A formidable combination.  Lobbyists and patronage structures of a variant hue has to marshal another set of skills in order to play the same game.

Or decide to walk out of the ring. Altogether.


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