Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
DANCE: December 27, 1998
An index of merit?
Even the Gupta age had its 'Nava Ratna', the Nine Gems, as the highest recognition of excellence in a field. Titles and awards, it would seem, as symbols of merit and achievement have always been coveted. But one only has to go over the tangled terrain of awards and other manifestations of recognition in the area of dance in post Independence India, to realise that these have become as much a prey to the immorality of market driven forces, as any other aspect of modern day living.
Not even the 'Bharat Ratna' the crowning glory of recognition in the country has been able to fully escape considerations of political expediency and noblesse oblige in the selection of awardees, and we have the strange phenomenon of the most deserving clubbed with those on whom greatness, for whatever compulsions, has been thrust. As for the Padma awards, from the Padmashri to the Padma Vibhushan, the grading of achievement in different fields by a set of falliable persons, all convinced of their infallibility, has only helped create a backdrop of cynicism amongst those who have been left out of the reckoning. Apart from the occasional selection of unlikely candidates, the list of omissions would make a long story in itself.
It is this factor which prompted a certain well known dancer to remark in anger "There is discrimination against the south Indians. Look at the number of Padmashrees and Padma Vibhushans in the north. Has the Centre ever considered the merits of a phenomenal Kudiyattam exponent like Mani Madhav Chakkiyar - true genius? He never got even the lowest Padma award. What about Raman Kutty Nair? Does he not merit an award? Look at Gopi, such a special artist. Why not a Padma Bhushan for him? Then take the case of Kottakkal Sivaraman, a trendsetter in Stree Vesham roles. Why are Kathakali and Koodiyattam exponents meant only for the Sangeet Natak awards and not the Padma awards?"
One has no quarrels with the person's selection of names. But what has been diagnosed as an anti-south bias, is really a Delhi centric situation which makes even great talents outside the capital live unknown and unsung lives like "Violets by a mossy stone half hidden from the eye" as Wordsworth said in his "Daffodils."
When unpolluted by any consideration barring one of professional ability, dance awards, as indeed all awards, can be a matter of legitimate pride for artists. But for this, selectors of unflinching neutrality, and the absence of any market waffle in which an adulatory media can play its own role in hyping or down grading achievements, are essential prerequisites. Neither of these conditions can be guaranteed. The truth in many cases is that everything is up for grabs by those who know how to play the game to their advantage.
It is agreed that no selection process can be foolproof. One is reminded of the bizarre case of a highly deserving Bharatanatyam dancer whose name was recommended for the Kalaimamani award by the appointed Committee of the Tamil Iyal Isai Nataka Manram. The then Chief Minister M. G. Ramachandran's signature as final approval remained before the list of names of awardees was made public. During the said dancer's performance at the India International Centre in Delhi, one of the over-enthusiastic supporters, somewhat prematurely, made the remark from the stage that the dancer had the distinction of being recommended for the Kalaimamani that year. In the typical slip between the cup and the lip, just prior to the Chief Minister's signature, frantic and successful lobbying by bureaucrats in favour of another dancer resulted in the name of the recommended dancer being quietly deleted with another name substituting it. Of course the other person became the Kalaimamani. An anguished member of the Selection Committee told me of the ruthless behind-the-scene shenanigans which had led to this situation. I asked if anybody had protested or resigned in anger. Certainly not. Why would persons in the art world stick their neck out to become persona non grata with the establishment, whose help they frequently sought. And all for the dubious case of fighting for a fellow artist! Therein lies the rub.
All government bodies dealing with art have selection panels as a kind of cover-up, and behind these murky deals may well be struck. A committee of experts appointed by any agency can propose names but has little official power to lay down the law and insist on its choices. A few years ago eyebrows were raised when the Delhi Sahitya Kala Parishad included among the awardees a name not considered during the Board's deliberations, under a new hitherto not known category. A government circular one day prior to the awards function to all Board members as a fait accompli, had throttled any collective discomfort and negative votes which may have greeted the proposal if raised during the meeting. Beyond some fuming and frustration expressed in private, nobody had the guts to raise his voice against what was clearly a violation of norms. Obviously political and bureaucratic pressures had forced the decision on the Parishad.
In fact it is the system and the rot that has set in, which have made the awards an unreliable index of merit. Every organisation dispensing titles and awards has one or two kingpins who invariably make the decisions. Others merely lend their names. An open and frank system where in camera meetings thrash out decisions in free and frank exchanges, with the reasons which prompted the final choices being made known to the public, is not common in our country. The more shrouded in secrecy such processes, the more vulnerable they are to being misused.
Not even an august body like the Sangeet Natak Akademi at the Centre can boast of an unblemished record in its awards selection. A few years back, we had the unedifying spectacle of members of the governing body doling out fellowships to its own members in total defiance of all healthy convention. In an informal exchange with one of the ex-functionaries of the Akademi, I asked why a dancer whose excellence I valued highly, had never been considered for an award. "Rest assured, the name has come up for consideration quite often. But it is the dancers on the panel who invariably veto the name. We as staff are helpless and the others do not interfere for who are they to press for someone, persons in the field do not consider worthy?"
Yet another account by a former functionary of the Akademi had an element of wry humour to it. "--- came to me requesting that he be thought of for an award. I told him "Look, we people as members working for the Akademi are not allowed to speak. But ... and ... are persons who have the ear of the Chairman. Just catch hold of these two people and your job will be done." What was said in a tongue-in-cheek manner facetiously was seriously taken by the said person and it required just a year and a half for him to get the coveted award! What hurt the fair name of the Akademi was not the giving of the award to such a person but the fact that serious writers on dance like K. S. Srinivasan for instance, a scholar in Sanskrit, in Tamil, and in English and one of the most urbane writers on dance subjects had not even been thought of for the SNA recognition.
Two qualities expected of any proper selection process are honesty and consistency. While the former is rare, the latter is more a 'hobgoblin of foolish minds'. Anomalies abound. A seventy-year-old Guru gets his award years after his disciples have been awarded. We had the embarrassment of seeing Gurus Krishna Rao and wife Chandrabhaga getting the Sangeet Natak Akademi award the same time with their very senior disciple Sonal Mansingh. Fortunately Sonal's recognition was for Odissi, and this saved the two parties embarrassment.
A certain prima donna, resented for her outspoken comments about the establishment, whose case for any government award had been bypassed for years overnight got catapulted to a level above that of many of her colleagues by the new government which was well disposed towards her. Out of such trivial developments do fortunes change for some artists.
There is also the case of a scholar who for various reasons had been ignored by the dispensers of the Padma awards. When the person was finally selected for a title, it was for a mere Padmashree which at the same time was being conferred on two dancers at least twenty years junior to her.
Even an award like the Nritya Choodamani conferred by the Krishna Gana Sabha of Chennai, has had its hiccups with unpredictable responses from artists... While the timing may be disputed in many cases, the award with, perhaps the odd exception has generally kept the aspect of excellence in mind as its main criterion.
The gossip and stories doing the rounds, poison the general atmosphere further. If the awardee is a choice from outside Chennai and an exponent of Bharatanatyam, it is deemed to be an ill-advised decision in favour of an 'insipid' dancer. If the selection is in favour of a dancer from an affluent background, it is criticised as being manipulated by 'persuasions offered to the panel members. Charges of this nature are never proved though they persist. They do however erode an already warped atmosphere further.
The general climate of hard sell muddies the environment even more. To remain in the public eye has become the blueprint for success. Regular doses of planned publicity are the need of the hour. Gossip columns are a dime a dozen-today. If not the dancer's art, details of her lifestyle, her preferences in food or colour of clothes, her tete-a-tete with societal celebrities can all make news. The important thing is to remain in the forefront of events. Slowly and steadily an image of fame and of invincibility is built up and here it is the affluent few who can manoeuvre the media to their benefit who have all the advantage. Isolated from this high profile circuit, deserving artists from modest backgrounds have already missed the bus. While the less proficient but glamorised colleagues get crowned with awards, these talented youngsters are left out of the race. They are incapable of buying platforms from sabhas and even performance opportunities are less for them. And in this area, it is the young male dancer who is specially handicapped. Though talented, for dancers like Sooryanarayana Murthy, Lakshmanan, and Narendra the way to the top will always be paved with more obstacles. Unlike female dancers who often take to dance as a hobby, for male dancers who choose this art as a way of life, a lot more is at stake in terms of earning a livelihood. And in such an atmosphere awards which should if conferred with scrupulous selection be an encouragement for the future, can, through a wayward system of choices create bitterness. Already one can feel the seething anger and frustration in some dancers who feel that they are being asked to compete in a running race with their feet tied.
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