Culture can’t be legislated. By any reckoning, it has an autonomous order of existence—and the best an enlightened state can do is facilitate it, with just that touch of benevolent oversight, or get out of the way. But in India, culture is increasingly what the minister in charge makes of it. Pure bathos, in short—and the very antithesis of ‘culture’, unless we’re talking imitation-stalinist cultures of state control.
The calibre of those who deign to ‘run culture’ has perhaps never been such a critical question. A monofocal ministry is busy promoting the Ramayana and prescribing a jail term for publishers who fail to submit books they publish to designated libraries. Meanwhile, the 39 institutions under it are reeling under an emasculating spell of uncertainty. Many are headless; the suspense relates to persistent speculation on commercialisation and privatisation.
- The Sahitya Akademi has been paralysed ever since renowned scholar M.M. Kalburgi was slain by goons opposed to his rationalist views, leading to the ‘award wapasi’ movement by a stream of outraged authors and academics, some of them India’s best-known. The stalemate continues.
- The autonomy of the Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA) stands diluted; the government now controls it. Last April, the governing council and executive council were superseded. While a number of cases involving LKA affairs are pending in court, the Akademi has reinstalled a secretary who had been labelled “obstructionist” and dismissed by the former chairman, Ashok Vajpeyi.
- The expert committee on the Performing Arts Grants Scheme, which recommends grants for deserving artistes, has now been pared down to 68 members from the original 138, leaving a large number known to have right-wing leanings, many of them from Sanskar Bharati, an RSS-affiliated cultural wing. The screening for grants is now done by the National School of Drama. The NSD, however, enjoys no executive powers and is essentially being utilised to ensure a sanitised list for the PAGS panel.
- Fellowship/scholarship schemes are the onus of the Centre for Culture Resources and Training, Delhi. Its main focus is ‘culture-based education’ in preparing training modules for teachers, educational administrators and students throughout India.
- The Sangeet Natak Akademi has been without a regular secretary since 2011.
- There is a frenzied race among senior babus to be in charge of cultural institutions currently without regular heads, including the National Archives of India and the National Museum, among others.
Says historian Mushirul Hasan, who led a major initiative to expand, restore and digitise invaluable archival material during his tenure as National Archives D-G since 2010: “The place has had no full-time director-general for the last three years. It’s a rudderless organisation, not being given the importance it deserves.” The Archives is now run by a joint secretary-level bureaucrat as an “additional charge”. The family of celebrated writer Mulk Raj Anand donated his writings to the Archives during Hasan’s tenure—the state of affairs can be gauged from the fact that the papers have remained unsorted, as visitors were informed, “for want of a clerk.”
The fate of the National Museum is no less tragic. It houses collections of artworks and material culture samples from civilisations going deep into time (Harappa, Maurya, Kushana, Gupta....2500 BC to 500 AD, loosely, is itself a depth of three millennia!) Yet, incredible as it may seem, there’s no specialised museologist to supervise artefacts of such a vast, rich gamut. In fact, it has not had a museologist as D-G since 2007. Successive culture ministers are to blame. Again, it now forms another joint secretary’s additional charge.
Venu Vasudevan, a former DG who’d done a lot for the museum, was transferred out abruptly after the Modi led government came to power. Many artists, historians and writers had protested but to no avail. Ex-culture secretary Abhijit Sengupta was amazed at his exit. “Venu is a rare officer who worked very hard to bring professionalism into the museum’s working, a feat very difficult to achieve in such a short time,” he says. The government advertised for the post in June-July 2015. Insiders claim the delay is because the RSS wants someone of its choice.
Minister Mahesh Sharma has been making tall claims of revamping institutions under his charge (see interview) but on closer scrutiny, exactly what culture is being favoured is a matter of some contention. Culture and history cast in a certain mould is a cornerstone of Sangh politics, and the vast array of extant evidence of India’s variegated heritage does not always sit well with it. The paucity of specialised talent in established, world-standard methods is another problem. No surprise, then, that Ashok Vajpeyi, who recently returned his Sahitya Akademi award, says: “In culture, it’s all regressive and revenge.”
The growing influence of the RSS has not gone unnoticed. Performing artistes who often visit the ministry are unnerved by the presence of Sanskar Bharati officer-bearers. While denying the charge of dabbling with ministry work, SB joint organising secretary Amir Chand admits those associated with his outfit are part of several expert committees of theatre, music and dance.
Add to this the old sloth. Reports of four committees have been gathering dust in government almirahs. They range from the P.N. Haksar report of the early 1990s to the latest, the HPC or high-powered committee that gave its report in 2014. This stated explicitly that an Akademi “must not be run” by the government. A year later, via an order in April 2015, Lalit Kala’s administration was fully taken over by the ministry!
Artistes decry the lack of direction. Says theatre veteran M.K. Raina, “What happened to the Haksar report? It has great and far-reaching ideas for all our institutions.” The minister says all is well but facts on the grounds belie this. The secretary makes even top artistes wait over four months for an appointment, says one who suffered this.
Muted Writers and activists stage a silent protest outside SNA in Oct ’15
The trouble with ‘autonomous’ institutions, of course, is that they need government funds. Pavan K. Varma, culture advisor to Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, feels autonomy was always part of a “mythology and more so now”. The ex-IFS man, who’s done his share of ICCR promotions abroad, says “bureaucracy and culture are the kiss of death”. Adds Vajpeyi: “This regime’s ideology is such that it can neither respect excellence nor has concern for national institutions. The government is pushing these centres to utter irrelevance.”
In contrast to his remarks to us, Mahesh Sharma is best known for his response to protesting writers. “If they say they are unable to write, let them first stop writing. We will then see....” (They now say there is no provision for taking back awards.) The state of affairs has prompted artists, writers and intellectuals to stay away from the INStitutions that once attracted the best and the brightest. Says well-known artist Jatin Das. “I have stopped going to Lalit Kala. It has become a disgusting place full of politics and artistic corruption.” Here’s the irony. The culture minister runs a chain of hospitals. Yet, his ministerial charge is showing all symptoms of ill health.
By Bula Devi in Delhi