The existential crisis of the Sahitya Akademi is a reminder that creative institutions should be headed by practitioners who command respect for their creative work, not their prowess in politics or administration.
While Sudheendra Kulkarni’s paint job grabbed the headlines, the real culture victim of the week is Vishwanath Pratap Tiwari. Hitherto permitted to live in peaceful anonymity, he is now outed as the man at the helm of the Sahitya Akademi, who is receiving a steady stream of literary awards stamped “return to sender”. It’s quite a handful, his heart is deeply wounded by the enormity, and his head is fairly baffled.
In recent years, the Akademi has been a peacetime posting. Its president knows that he must defend the supply of free samosas which are an integral part of its readings, lectures and seminars (many of which are quite excellent). But he no longer remembers that he is expected to go to the barricades to defend free speech, in whose absence literature dies and propaganda flourishes. Maybe it’s still on the duty roster, but lost in the fine print.
The literary figures who have slung their prizes back at the Akademi have taken this personally. So have I, but not in the same manner. A decade ago, the Sahitya Akademi was kind enough to award me its translation prize. Initially, since I do not identify with the literary establishment, I took it for a case of mistaken identity. But then MT Vasudevan Nair, a writer of a stature that I can never aspire to, put the prize in my hands. And the redoubtable if controversial Gopi Chand Narang wanted to know, in chaste Hindi: “Why doesn’t this guy have an Akademi badge? Stick a badge on this guy.” The possibility of error was ruled out.
Now, since the Akademi is no longer headed by people whose creative work commands respect across the world of Indian letters, it feels easier to consider returning its honours. I completely respect the choice of those who have chosen to do that, led by Uday Prakash and Nayantara Sahgal. Their action has drawn attention to the creeping horror being nurtured by the NDA government, which has incubated hate-spitting sadhvis, mahants and maharajes who have given heart to cultural supari gangsters.
The spate of returned awards has drawn attention to the predicament of the creative artist. The world now knows that there is something disturbingly wrong with Indian democracy. But autocratic governments concentrate power by disempowering institutions, and the award wapsi has also further weakened India’s premier literary body at its weakest hour.
In a letter to the literary community, an obviously pained Tiwari has said that the Akademi is their “swadesh” and requested them to come to its defence. That is how it should have been. Before the controversy broke, the Akademi only organised a condolence meeting for MM Kalburgi in its Bengaluru office. Among other authors and critics, Chandrashekhar Kambar, who was Kalburgi’s classmate, mourned his death as a personal loss.
But the Akademi in Delhi should have condemned the slaying and, taking advantage of its autonomous status, gone up against the government, which is disinclined to discourage cultural violence. But to be fair, while a call to arms from former Akademi presidents like UR Ananthamurthy or Sunil Gangopadhyay may have rallied the troops, a call from Tiwari sounds like a cry in the uncaring wilderness.
The existential crisis of the Sahitya Akademi is a reminder that creative institutions should be headed by practitioners who command respect for their creative work, not their prowess in politics or administration. It became controversial years ago because more than one key figure failed to meet this standard. The Sangeet Natak Akademi is headed by a practising musician, but he is an appointee. The Lalit Kala Akademi has been taken over by the government and is led by a bureaucrat. His predecessor was Ashok Vajpeyi, now a very visible member of the prize wapsi movement. An inventive cultural bureaucrat and a poet of modest abilities, his own appointment to the Lalit Kala was purely political.
If “autonomous” institutions appear to be so close to the government that the artistes they represent dissociate themselves, there is clearly an existential crisis. When this passes, artistes may consider asserting themselves to take charge of their institutions, to take control of India’s biggest cultural networks, which the Akademies have nurtured. While the crisis at the Sahitya Akademi has exposed a leadership failure in cultural organisations, it has also revealed that the right is wholly bereft of intellectual leadership.
Laughably, the BJP protests that writing and politics should be kept apart. They have no idea that the very act of putting pen to paper is political. There is more culture in a bowl of Mother Dairy yoghurt than in the entire cabinet put together. If the creative community got together and took ownership of what Tiwari has called their “swadesh”, the culture of impunity would stand checked.