The controversy over the 65th National Film Awards ceremony has a false ring to it. An estimated 50 of the 125 awardees boycotted the function on Thursday after they were told that President Ram Nath Kovind would present only a select few awards and the rest would be given by I&B minister Smriti Irani and her junior minister, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore.
The previous day, those who didn’t make it to the President’s lot wrote a letter to him in which they claimed he not giving them their awards felt like “a breach of trust” and pleaded that no hierarchy be introduced in the “most pristine and unbiased” award function. It appears the President’s office has instituted a new protocol according to which he does not stay at a function for more than an hour and that the I&B ministry was informed in advance. The ministry failed to communicate the message to the awardees, but does this slip-up merit a boycott of the function?
The real issue that needs to be debated is the pre-eminent role that the State has accorded itself in deciding merits and demerits of art and culture. Art, by its very definition, is that which questions power and its representations in all its forms. If the State is to arbitrate its social value — and that’s the pretext for the government honouring or promoting artists with public funds — it is not necessary that the truth of art and the autonomy of the artist would be respected.
The Indian state sees itself as a legatee of the old feudal order which took pride in patronising art and culture. Nehru’s India built central art bodies, for instance, the Sahitya Akademi, and empowered them with notional autonomy to curtain off the institution from the state. Any pretence of independence was defeated when Nehru himself chose to become an office bearer in the Sahitya Akademi.
Over time, these “autonomous” cultural bodies, that dispensed awards and fellowships annually, became synonymous with the state. Is it surprising that the film award winners are feeling “humiliated” at being told that they will not receive their awards from the head of state? In a way, the writers who returned their Akademi awards to register their disapproval of the government in 2015 underlined, eloquently, their rejection of state patronage.
With no disrespect to the greats who have been part of these institutions and their awards, the “state award” model works best at grooming courtiers. When governments change, the courtiers too change, as it used to in the time of kings, queens and zamindars. Protest the protocol if you insist, demand a higher ranking functionary if you wish, but remember that art should not need a certificate from the Emperor.