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Tropentheater Amsterdam - Closing Down

Obituary and Call by Ludwig Pesch
(January 2013)

An important chapter in the global cultural relations of Europe ended on January 1st with the closing down of the Tropentheater Amsterdam. The closing came just at a time when the Tropentheater had a steady increase in visitors and plans of publishing its own magazine with a focus on world music. For more than three decades, it offered high quality programmes from all cultural backgrounds. Artists with experimental approach or social commitments but without support from their own authorities could expand their network of relationships here. The Dutch government's decision to cut all subsidies for the Tropentheater remains a mistery for every witness of these important developments. Apparently the Royal Tropical Institute had to offer a highly visible painful "sacrifice" due to the pressure of populists who refuse all aid for so-called developing countries. The loss of the Tropentheater seemed more defensible than closing the Tropenmuseum and those departments that provide poor countries in the tropics with scientific expertise. Cultural life in the Netherlands therefore has to cope with the loss of several initiatives, music and theatre ensembles that were considered exemplary all over Europe. And lovers of the music and dance traditions of India will probably miss a regular series of live programs with similar variety and high quality for a long time.

The Tropentheater was founded in 1975 as "basement theatre" (Soeterijn) at the Tropenmuseum with a focus on non-Western music and dance performances. It quickly became an important centre for experts from various fields. Its film programme provided valuable information at a time when documentaries were not yet available on DVDs and on the internet. Many a performance at the Tropentheater became the starting point of a successful international world music career. This was partly due to the close collaboration with committed partner institutions in The Haag, Utrecht, Groningen and Antwerp. European partner organisations that could not invite non-Western artists on their own due to financial constraints or bureaucratic difficulties benefited a lot from the Tropentheater's work, too.

The Indian music scene of the Netherlands owes its flowering to an initiative of two key figures whose Foundation India Muziek organized hundreds of successful concerts since 1973. The musicologist Felix van Lamsweerde (* 1934) was music curator in the Tropenmuseum contributed and charm, expertise and a wide network of contacts in India and Europe. He had organized a performance of Ravi Shankar at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam as early as 1957. Later on he received sitar lessons from Vilyat Khan and Imrat Khan in India and studied ethnomusicology in London. We was responsible for live recordings, introductions, accompanying texts, radio broadcasts and workshops in the Tropenmuseum. The musical layman John Eijlers (who died prematurely in 2004) was the driving force of the ongoing organisational work. With a mixture of his own intuition and openness to the opinions of experts, he managed to find the right artist and get the required public attention. The Foundation India Muziek organised about 160 performances until 1988, predominantly in the Mozes en Aaron Church. The programme of the first years reads like a "Who's Who" of Indian artists. In 1989, the series was integrated into the programme of the Tropentheater and thus became more "professional".

However, this consolidation process met with escalating fee expectations of renowned Indian artists. This development was fueled by wealthy Indian expatriates in countries like the US, Singapore and Australia developing more interest in their cultural roots. They are now willing and able to pay for the social status associated with classical music and dance in the form of higher concert fees, tuitions and memberships. Organisers mainly addressing Western audiences could neither keep up financially nor in terms of audience numbers. Even famous names are no guarantee for full halls in Europe any more, due to changes in listening habits (YouTube) and in cultural interests. In the Netherlands with its large Surinamese-Hindustani population, the interest of the audience slowly shifts from live classical music to classical dance performances with playback music and to large Bollywood shows.

A cultural dialogue at eye level is not a mere luxury for trading nations like the Netherlands and the Federal Republic of Germany. Some people think that globalisation and growing wealth in "emerging" countries like India has made special programmes obsolete. Considering the continuing strong influence of stereotypes, fears and prejudices, this view must be doubted. New approaches are as necessary as critical analysis of past accomplishments. It is important to realise that an open, cosmopolitan cultural life can neither be realised alone nor based only upon economical considerations. If desaster is the mother of invention, it might well happen that support for "other" cultures will be revived. The financial crisis has generally increased the openness for cooperation. The United Nations have stressed the value of cooperative action in 2012. It is worth while to take this seriously and learn from each other.