Starting this year, the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize now known as the Shakti Bhatt Prize, will honour an author’s body of work rather than their first book, as was hitherto practiced. This year’s honours go to Anand Teltumbde, scholar, activist and writer of Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop and Republic of Caste along with Gautam Navlakha, an activist, journalist and writer of Days and Nights in the Heartland of Rebellion.
Incidentally, both these authors have been in jail due to their alleged link to Bhima Koregaon violence in 2018. Most recently their detention was extended for 90 days citing inability of the investigating officer in the Elgaar Parishad case to examine the matter effectively due to the lockdown.
Speaking to indianexpress.com, co-curator and author Jeet Thayil, while choosing not to comment on the political stand of the prize, stated that the reason behind choosing this year’s recipients is clear. “This year we chose them for many reason and it is very clear what these reasons are. They are good men who have been in jail for the wrong reasons.”
This year also marks a watershed moment in the 12 years of the Shakti Bhatt Prize as for the first time it has expanded its initial objective. “It just seems to us that at this point (in 2020) it does not make sense to have a first book prize. When we started nobody was doing it. In time, first books came up in many shortlists. In fact, there were copycats for just first books prize as well. We just did not see the relevance. So, we wanted to give it to somebody where it will make a difference. It is not so much money but I am sure both these men need some money to fight their court cases,” Thayil maintained.
The deteriorating health condition of imprisoned writer-poet Varvara Rao has been in the news lately, sparking social media outrage. This has also renewed the debate on the paucity of freedom that writers are left with in recent times and the consequence that any transgression can lead to. Thayil agrees and does not foresee a hopeful future. “I don’t know about artistes but certainly for scholars and activists their independence is being threatened in so many ways. The threat to artistes is far more insidious. It is not an overt threat. What happens is with many types of art, artistes self-censor and that is an unfortunate thing. It is happening in India because of the present political climate and I think we will see more of it in the future.”
He is also aware that with so many things going on in the world right now, a prize like this might not be an instrument of change. The endeavour, however, is always that.
Last year, Tony Joseph’s Early Indians had won the prize.
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