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Building cultural centres | A prospering society is never judged by money alone

August 29, 2017

A month ago when the Embassy of the Republic of Korea organised a beautiful evening of music, they had some of the best contemporary talent in Korea perform at a hotel—they had no other options for a venue. I kept wondering why we Nepalis still do not have a good venue for performances, even though decades have gone by since we built the last one. I kept wondering over the fact that we now have thousands of billionaires in terms of Nepali rupees, yet we have still not seen an investment for the cause of building a proper cultural centre.

Shameful options

The Royal Nepal Academy hall in Kamaladi was built decades ago and remains one of the few options for performance venues in the city apart from City Hall. The Birendra International Convention Centre will hopefully be vacated after the Parliamentary elections are complete. The state of the toilets at the Royal Nepal Academy or City Hall are deplorable. The fact that hundreds of organisations conduct programs at these venues and accept the state of the toilets and other facilities reflects the bearing that hygiene, sanitation and aesthetics has on the day to day lives of Nepali society. The development business is always considered to be short term and so building long term infrastructure was never a priority. Therefore, programs were conducted at hotels till the pricing became prohibitive and forced clients to shift to other venues. The banquet hall business in Nepal—popularly called party palaces—is modelled around the aesthetics of similar venues in tier two or tier three cities in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, in neighbouring India. These venues have become the acceptable benchmark of aesthetics and class in a country where, a few centuries ago, the Malla kings commissioned some of the finest works of construction. The stench of the toilets are a hallmark of these banquet halls, where standards of hygiene, sanitation and quality reflect what our government, private, and non-governmental organisations are used to. Torn table cloths, shabby service, and staff ponging of body odour have been norms very well accepted. Other issues such as the availability of parking space, safety and security, sanitation and basic issues like noise levels and acoustics have never been a priority. 

Learn from others

In Bhutan, the 9th edition of the Mountain Echoes has just concluded, and the main venue is the hall at the Royal University of Bhutan. The hall is a very simple structure that can house a good number of people and is very functional. In Rwanda, the convention centre built at a cost of $400 million has established the nation as the conference hub of East Africa, bringing in captive business for the many five star hotels that have been built in the past couple of years. 

For Kathmandu and Pokhara, at this moment, having a good conference centre would perhaps be useful to provide business to the mushrooming hotels, as Nepal still has greater competitive and comparative advantages in the mid-segment of the South Asian conference market. If land for banquet halls can be leased to people with political connections, then why should the  government not consider the use of the land at Chobar or other places. Perhaps the interest of global leaders in this area could be aroused and they would be amenable to come and build in Nepal based on commercial terms. In such a case, we could perhaps attract highly competent international companies from Singapore and the like, instead of making the same mistake of using local firms in the name of nationalism. We have constructed new structures to make our airports look like bus stations, whereas the world over, countries are starting to make their bus stations resemble airports—and offer similar services as well. After the construction of an ugly welcome arch at the international airport in Kathmandu, another equally ugly piece of construction is in the works that will take away the acres of open space in the Narayanhiti palace grounds. Currently, construction works are modelled for the benefit of people who are connected to political forces, and they are always limited to the imagination of political masters. Post local elections we have seen small ugly shops and eateries mushroom in open public spaces. Perhaps aesthetics and appreciation of our own heritage should be taught as a subject in our schools; by doing so, maybe the prevalent mind-set could be tackled with relatively less difficulty. 

Assuming responsibility

In a world where companies that produce the biggest components of garbage through packaged food lecture on corporate social responsibility, it is difficult to push companies to think of their larger responsibilities. However, proper cultural centres that can provide a platform for good musical programs, theatre, art exhibitions and cultural performances have been built through either state/corporate patronage or contributions by wealthy individuals all over the world. In Nepal, corporate or individual giving is negligible despite the increase in the number of individuals with wealth. Quick research into the number of people regarding the value of their investments in shares in banks and financial institutions would prove surprising, with a list of over a thousand people whose investments are over Rs1 billion. Now in a country with so many rupee billionaires, why is it difficult to raise money to build a nice cultural centre? Why is it that people who are willing to spend millions on events that are held in the name of religion and culture are not willing to spend money on contributing to build a world class cultural centre? With the advent of a digital finance platform, crowd sourcing of funds may be easier. There is hope that a group of young Nepalis will begin the crusade in this social entrepreneurship venture.