The words of Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet inspire generations of readers all over the world. In the words of an Oxford University lecturer, the book ‘serves various occasions or big moments in one’s life’.
I have so far escaped the worst of the deprivations of the pandemic. My pandemic grief is contained in the silence of the nights, so routinely spent in pre-pandemic times in the milieu of our country’s brilliant performing arts. My nights have been silent, bereft of live music and theatre.
Gibran helped me to understand my grief at the suspension of performing arts activity: ‘When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.’
In the course of my sorrow, I have attempted again to remind our disrespectful rulers and moneyed elites—as well as the Anthony Watkins-led committee on community recovery—what promotion of our performing arts can do to revitalise and diversify the economy, with practical suggestions for the use of the performing arts to earn money and to assist in winning a peace dividend within troubled communities.
See for example my column published in September 2020: The part the panyard plays in the social fabric and an online presentation on International Steelpan Day 2020, dealing with subjects such as pan building and pan tuning.
I know that many of our rulers and elites are blind to the true possibilities. As pleased as I am that Desperadoes will get a new pan theatre, I am certain that the underlying and persistent lack of understanding of the true capabilities of Despers and so many other cultural practitioners will not be cured by last week’s sod turning for the new Despers pan theatre or the completion of the project.
The remarks of the Minister of Tourism, Culture and the Arts Senator Randall Mitchell at the sod turning ceremony illustrate the reason for lack of confidence that the performing arts will be competently, or even respectfully, positioned to take the economy forward. They demonstrate a lack of vision where culture, cultural export and tourism are concerned.
Mitchell reportedly expressed his expectations that Despers’ new home would become a revenue earner, including the generation of foreign exchange when tourists visit since ‘as many as 3,000 people come into the city from a cruise ship’. He saw ‘limitless earning potential and possibilities through sustainable business models’.
In the same vein, the prime minister reportedly envisioned performances three times a day with both foreigners and locals flocking there, with revenues to be earned from admission charges and sale of food. He expressed the hope that the private sector would add to the theatre to create a wider entertainment district in the area.
These projections, with respect, are naïve in their assumptions about the viability of the area, unless accompanied by an enlightened social development programme. They are also naïve about how money will be earned by admission fees from a limited domestic audience, who traditionally enter panyards free of charge—and who cannot or will not pay a substantial admission fee if one was regularly demanded.
Another time I will dissect these projections further and explain again the export and tourism potential of pan activities as significant revenue earners. I must first point out that these latest government remarks are entirely inconsistent with earlier dismissive remarks, made around the time of the appointment of the Watkins committee, which asserted that investment in pan is unproductive because only a minuscule percentage of pan players will be able to gain employment as pan players.
The remarks also demonstrate an incapacity to formulate a coherent policy beyond the platitudes of ‘the importance of tourism and creative arts sectors’ and ‘the commitment of the ministry to both sectors and their operations in post-covid Trinidad and Tobago’.
Mitchell reportedly uttered those platitudes a few days before the sod turning ceremony in the course of a response by him to Opposition MP Rudranath Indarsingh.
Meanwhile, we don’t know if we will reach a post-Covid stage, given the ravages of the Delta variant among the unvaccinated, which could send us back to square one.