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Arty soul

Lalit Kala Akademi Chairman Ashok Vajpeyi speaks about what's new in the art world and the universe he calls home

Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Kindling culture Ashok Vajpeyi

In a world that increasingly loves to specialise and divide, Ashok Vajpeyi is a votary of the holistic. A well known Hindi poet, he is as comfortable and erudite in English as he in his mother tongue. A man of letters, he is equally comfortable with the performing arts. Recently, he led a delegation of eminent classical musicians — “I was the only non-musician among them” — to meet the Prime Minister with a plea for Government action to make music — learning, appreciation and performance — more central to the life of the people.

The state of music education in schools and specialised institutions figured in the exchange with the Prime Minister, says Vajpeyi, convinced that “the Government cannot and should not abdicate its responsibility to culture.” Among the suggestions put forward by the delegation was a television channel dedicated to the arts. Hasn't Doordarshan tried this experiment more than once in the past? There was DD-3, and DD Bharati is still on the air, albeit not as popular as the mainstream channels. The national broadcaster's track record is studded with attempts to translate culture into entertainment, which began with a bang and retired without a whimper. “We emphasised this channel should be the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture and not the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting — because they are preoccupied with news,” explains Vajpeyi. A cultural channel being run by “an institution that is running so many other channels,” he says, “is bound to be a poor cousin.”

He points out there are 40-odd autonomous cultural institutions under the Ministry of Culture, and these could provide excellent programming content.

Archives of Doordarshan, All India Radio, the Sangeet Natak Akademi and other Akademis, among others, possess material tailor-made for such a channel. He pegs the cost at Rs.50 crore, of which half would go towards buying equipment, and the rest would be enough to set up the channel and run it for a year, since it is “not likely to invite, at the outset, much advertising.”

Meanwhile, as Chairman, Lalit Kala Akademi, Vajpeyi has done his bit to reach out to the public at large. But all the three Akademis, autonomous institutions under the Government, receive their share of brickbats.

Although the Sahitya Akademi has been bringing out books in Indian languages and translations for roughly half a century, other private publishers are now popularising classics from various languages by putting on the market well-produced books with artistic translations — qualities the Sahitya Akademi was never famous for. Lalit Kala, eaten up from within by alleged malpractices, was finally taken over by the Government and has remerged only over the past decade.

Vajpeyi feels: “The Akademis have somehow been given less credit than they deserve,” but agrees in general that “public spending is under a cloud.”

Initiatives galore

During his tenure, now nearly three years old, he has introduced a number of initiatives at Lalit Kala, such as talks on art by artists. When he took office, he found “the academic part sadly missing,” and this is the area he has focused on by arranging regular talks. “Then we started ‘critics speak'. And the third is ‘others speak on arts'.” The publication programme too is being expanded. “We've started a new series on significant artists, in which we ask a young art historian, critic or writer to pick up the best that has been written on a particular artist,” he explains, mentioning one on Manjit Bawa that has been collated by Ina Puri. The Akademi has also come out with a series of films on Husain, Raza, Akbar Padamsee and Ram Kumar etc. The films are premiered in tandem with exhibitions.

“In an age where private-public partnership is well established, we were a bit reluctant,” he remarks. But he introduced the concept of Lalit Kala Galleries hosting exhibitions presented by private city galleries.

“We are hoping the Triennale will take place early November-December next year. Countries used to appoint their own art commissioners. Now we will have a curatorial team (including Indian and non-Indian experts) who decide a thematic rubric and select works. And we also ask about 50 private galleries from across the country to do associated events around the theme.”

Other developments include the confirmation that India will be participating as a nation in the Venice Biennale. “Ranjit Hoskote is our curator.”

So things seem to be looking up for the arts. “The Akademis are not exactly suffering from lack of funds. They are suffering from lack of ideas.” Mark the words of a veteran.


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