Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude,” said Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his 1982 Nobel speech. I remember reading about the discomfort that the maestro of magical realism had in accepting the Nobel, knowing that Jorge Luis Borges, whom he considered more deserving of the Nobel than him, never got the prize. Awards, unfortunately, are decided in the most bureaucratic manner everywhere in the world.
The immediate provocation for this article is the news that 93-year-old Parassala B. Ponnammal, one of the outstanding Carnatic classical musicians of the country, has been given a Padma Shri this year, more than eight decades after she began her life in music. Every day, as part of my daily routine of listening to music, I post a slice of what I have heard to my friends with a short comment. The day after the Padma awards were announced this January, I recalled asking a senior bureaucrat in the ministry of culture in Delhi some 15 years ago, why it was taking so long to recognise the contributions of Kathakali maestro, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, then 77. His reply was “India is a vast country. There are many considerations for deciding these awards. We can’t blame the system in isolation”. When I read about Parassala Ponnammal’s Padma Shri, that question returned to haunt me: Why so late?
In reply to my post, a friend in music, Asad Zaidi, wrote: Looking at the latest list of Padma awardees, you would find somewhere at the bottom the name of one “Imrat Khan (NRI/PIO)”, who has been given a Padma Shri under the category Art-Music. This is two steps below K.J. Yesudas (Padma Vibhushan) and one below Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (Padma Bhushan), among the current awardees from this category. I am wondering if he is the same person as Ustad Imrat Khan, the surbahar and sitar maestro, at 82, the senior-most surviving member of Imdadkhani (Etawah) gharana, the famous younger brother of late Ustad Vilayat Khan?.”
Later, Zaidi informed me that he wrote a letter to Ustad Imrat Khan requesting him not to accept the award. With his permission I reproduce excerpts from his letter here: “Adab from a music lover, who is also an old admirer of the Imdadkhani tradition in Hindustani music! It was a strange feeling this morning, seeing your name somewhere at the bottom of the list of this year’s Padma Shri awardees. I feel it is a great injustice to your gharana, your contribution and your stature. .May I appeal to you, Ustad, not to accept the award? It may sound presumptuous on my part to do so, but I am sure this appeal will resonate with thousands of your admirers, Etawah gharana faithfuls, and all those music lovers who have a sense of justice. There comes a time when protest becomes a duty, a matter of honour, and protest you must. I hope you will not take this amiss.”
Artistes tend to attach more importance to the Padma awards than what they attach to a Sangeet Natak Akademi award. When Ponnammal or Imrat Khan is seated in the second or third row in Rashtrapati Bhawan behind the much-younger Padma Vibhushans and Padma Bhushans to receive a Padma Shri, neither of them may feel bad about it. However, why must the government wait for artists to age before honouring them while sports stars, industrialists and bureaucrats are given Padma Shris at a much younger age? Perhaps it is easier to evaluate the contributions of a sports personality, an entrepreneur or a bureaucrat than that of an artist. So, a 50-year-old civil servant, Jagmohan, would be awarded a Padma Vibhushan in 1977 while a Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair had to wait till he turned 82 in 2007.
It may be wise for the government not to consider great artistes for a Padma Shri after they have crossed a particular age. Honour them with a Padma Bhushan or Padma Vibhushan, or leave them in the graceful company of great artists who have never been awarded. Carnatic musician M.D. Ramanathan was never selected for a Sangita Kalanidhi award, but his music has survived time whereas many Sangita Kalanidhis have been long forgotten.
Let me return to Ustad Imrat Khan’s elder brother. In 1964, Ustad Vilayat Khan was awarded a Padma Shri and four years later, a Padma Bhushan. He refused to accept them. He said the committee that decided the Padma awards did not have the musical competence to judge him. In January 2000, the government chose to honour him with a Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award of the country. He again refused. However, this time, he described it “an insult”.