With the 70-year-old institution caught in a time warp, it must become more accessible and less bureaucratic in order to survive.
It is midday, mid-May, in my Mumbai marketing office, and I find myself repeating the words “Sahitya Akademi” to my colleagues. Evanshi asks me if it is “that literature magazine”. Vruddhi shrugs, unbothered. Niharika jokes about a friend named Sahitya. Alex says he has never heard of it, ever.
I am no better; the Sahitya Akademi has been around for almost 70 years, and yet I fumble to define it. It is many things, I say; it gives awards, translates books, and organises literary events. Like the most recent Festival of Letters, whose diverse panels placed Dalit, LGBTQ+, and ethnic minority writers at the forefront. My colleagues are pleasantly surprised. “I know so many people who would be interested in this stuff,” they tell me. “Why isn’t it everywhere?”
To this, I have no answer. Honestly, I am not sure I have described the body correctly, or if I even know what it does. So I decide to ask writers and academics, only to learn that 20 years ago, Adil Jussawalla raised the same question in The Afternoon Despatch & Courier, in an article titled “What Does The Sahitya Akademi Do?”
India’s national body of letters was born in 1954 with a Nehruvian, idealistic aim to archive and propagate Indian literatures. Its website clearly states its purpose: “As India’s premier literary institution, the Akademi preserves and promotes literature contained in twenty-four Indian languages recognised by it through awards, fellowships, grants, publications, literary programs, workshops and exhibitions.”
Apart from having a publishing wing, its major awards include the Bal Sahitya for young writers, the Yuva Puraskar for young adults, the Bhasha Samman translation prize, and the iconic Sahitya Akademi Award. On paper, it seems like the Akademi is doing everything right: offering prizes, promoting young writers, translating, publishing, hosting literary events (online and offline), and digitising archives. Still, there is a gap in public reach.
“On paper, it seems like the Akademi is doing everything right: offering prizes, promoting young writers, translating, publishing, hosting literary events (online and offline), and digitising archives. Still, there is a gap in public reach.”
Dr Semeen Ali, assistant editor of the Akademi’s journal Indian Literature, says: “This disconnect is surprising to hear, considering that many submissions we receive are from young people. But one needs to also look at what they are interested in reading.” The Tamil poet Salma agrees: “Youngsters don’t have interest in literature, even though the Akademi’s books are quite affordable.”
The politics of money must play a great role, says A.J. Thomas, former editor of Indian Literature: “People value things that are priced, and Sahitya Akademi might not be the ‘in’ thing. Poetry readings, tribals’ readings, women’s programmes, transgender programmes, queer literatures—all have been done. This is the only democratic organisation, in that sense.”
Of course, this is not to blame young readers alone. As the writer and translator Arunava Sinha tells me: “[The Sahitya Akademi] needs to make more effort. For example, I have translated a book that won an award, but nobody knows of its existence. Because they don’t try. I don’t think marketing is part of their brief at all. Occasionally when officers take personal initiative, things happen.”
The Marathi poet and playwright Akshay Shimpi points out: “Since the body falls under India’s Ministry of Culture, it has to follow due process; it has certain responsibilities to rules, regulations, and the law.” And if the Akademi begins to “compete” and “sell”, what becomes of the value of writing, asks Arundhathi Subramaniam. She adds: “How does one locate the quiet writer of credibility in an age when brands, brochures, and hashtags speak louder than real poetry?”
According to Ernst & Young’s 2021 report, the Indian publishing industry is estimated to reach Rs.80 crore by 2024. Private publishing has morphed into an aggressive industry of its own, including growing verticals like printing, translating, illustrating, distributing, marketing, advertising, self-publishing, digitising e-books, involving international markets and awards, to name a few. The PR expert Atika Gupta emphasises the importance of the industry: “Books need to get space in main lines, like newspapers and TV programmes, shop windows and bookstores. People like to read reviews, watch influencer videos, and find out more before buying them.”
Against all this, what chance does a government body have? To read Sahitya Akademi’s books, one needs to visit their local offices, attend State book fairs, or hunt them down in archaic libraries. It is near impossible to find book reviews, author interviews, or publicity material on national award-winning literature. Even when the Akademi makes itself accessible, like placing a bookshop at the University of Delhi’s Metro station exit, youngsters still throng around nearby restaurants and kiosks—almost tauntingly so. Sahitya Akademi publications are judged by their dull covers; their social media presence is reclusive and unattractive. At a time when marketing agencies spend lakhs on making every Instagram post artistic and trendy, the Akademi’s online existence is bureaucratic, and definitely not aligned with the latest trends.
This economic approach to literature spills over into litfests as well. On World Poetry Day this year, the Sahitya Akademi live-streamed an event with diverse poets. I began watching enthusiastically, only to zone out midway. Fewer than 10 audience members were live with me, and the current total view count is at 168. In contrast, the 2023 Jaipur Literature Festival had more than five lakh guests, 300 speakers, and was marketed as “part-circus, part-postgraduate seminar and part-revolutionary assembly”. The 2023 Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (KGAF) was a packed affair. Yashasvi Vachhani, assistant organiser of literary events, says: “KGAF’s Literature panels usually enjoy a regular audience; partly due to the festival’s legacy, and partly due to marketing.” Most of the attendees were young people from urban, tier-2 and tier-3 cities. The same people who have little to no idea about India’s national body of letters.
We live in an age of excess, so it makes sense that literature has to reach us first, and not the other way around. With money on its side, private publishing and festival ventures are able to control market forces and influence readership. How much this makes for egalitarian literature and how much this cordons off reading to the urban elite is not yet clear.
National recognition and controversies
So, if Instagram poets, international prizes, and private publishing groups are in vogue, do we then look to Sahitya Akademi for a stamp of legitimacy, approval, or honour? The literary agent Kanishka Gupta questions how much credibility can be given to the well-intentioned Akademi awards jury committee if their selection process is ambiguous. He says: “While Akademi winners are always good, there are always three or four weak, questionable books nominated in the shortlist. Some are published by unknown presses and some are not even literary! This makes selecting the winner an easy exercise for the jury. The awards process needs to be revamped, and the method of shortlisting should be made transparent.”
At a time of either rising sycophancy towards, or distrust in, national authorities, I wonder how writers feel about Sahitya Akademi’s claims of sovereignty, while existing under India’s Ministry of Culture.
Arundhathi Subramaniam, who won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2020 for When God is a Traveller, puts it quite honestly: “It was affirmation, and it was certainly welcome to be acknowledged by a jury of my peers. But my real habitat lies in those dark spaces of hard creative labour and occasional magic.”
Mihir Vatsa, whose travel memoir Tales of Hazaribagh won the 2022 Yuva Puraskar, says: “Not only do I feel recognised by the Akademi, but more so by Indian readers in general. After the award, sales went up, the book was inducted in the syllabus of the Vinoba Bhave University, Hazaribagh, and multiple opportunities opened up.” The Maithili poet Ajit Azad, who won the 2022 award for Pendrive Mein Prithvi, says: “Winning a Sahitya Akademi award is definitely on every writer’s mind. The experience is both exciting and nerve-wracking.”
The involvement goes beyond simply winning awards. For the Kashmiri poet Dr Naseem Shafaie (2011 award winner for Na Thsay Na Aks), the feeling is that of belonging to a family: “Because of the Akademi, I’ve been to so many other cities for events, interacted with so many writers—opportunities you get only here. I’m grateful that the Akademi exists, giving writers respect, a community, and a destination.” Salma has not won an award but always feels included: “Every time there’s a literary panel or event, they always think of me and invite me.”
The poet Vivek Narayanan says: “The Akademi library in Delhi is a place of almost mythic significance—portions of both [my] later books, Life and Times of Mr. S and After were composed there.” For Akshay Shimpi, even having his book, Bincheharyache Kabhinna Tukade, nominated for the Yuva Puraskar was encouragement enough: “It felt like the Akademi was sending me a message: ‘keep writing’. So I kept writing.”
The Yuva Puraskar inspires young writers; Sufia Khatoon, whose book Death in the Holy Month has been nominated twice, says: “[It] gives me hope for all writers (of all ethnicities and beliefs), who have only their craft and a madness for writing.”
The credit for this emphasis on representation must then be given to well-meaning Sahitya Akademi officers. K. Satchidanandan, who played a major role in this during his tenure as secretary, along with then president U.R. Ananthamurthy, says: “I organised two all-India Dalit, Adivasi, and women writers’ meets. I also started Asmita for identity literature, and Mulaqat for writers under 35. Strange as it may seem, I was the first south Indian, non-Brahmin secretary of the Akademi too! But let me admit that the new accent on the marginalised was prompted by new social movements.”
In 2018, the Sahitya Akademi organised its first transgender poets’ meet in Kolkata. The writer and academic Dr Manabi Bandyopadhyay, who hosted the event, says: “I am happy with these activities, but to an extent. I was a member of Kolkata’s regional office, but that tenure lasted five years. I am not aware of any transgender writer being considered for an award; the day that happens will be my dream come true.”
The Tamil novelist Perumal Murugan agrees that the Akademi can do more: “It acknowledges some to show that nobody is ignored. Otherwise, it does not seem to really recognise marginalised voices.” When One Part Woman, the English translation of Murugan’s controversial Madhorubhagan was conferred the Translation Prize in 2017, its translator, Aniruddhan Vasudevan, declined because agitators petitioned against him in the Madras High Court. The court ordered a stay on the English translation prize “until further notice”. Murugan believes that “Aniruddhan’s rejection was the right thing to do. Sahitya Akademi did not arrange a lawyer to make strong arguments. A government agency will always justify its actions. This award does not show sufficient concern in the matter.”
Can one really blame writers for being wary of the government body, no matter how autonomous? Ajit Azad puts it perfectly: “If you are locked in a kajal ki kothri [dark room] and told to go about your business without being tainted by darkness, will that be possible?” A burning question that the writer Anjum Hasan also asks: “What form does that serious, conservative, preservationist, establishment approach to literature take when the space for writing and writers in public life, unless it’s entertainment they are producing, starts to shrink?”
I am reminded of the award wapsi wave of 2015, in protest against the NDA government’s rising intolerance and the writer and scholar M.M. Kalburgi’s murder.
Eight years on, however, it seems like all forms of protest are futile. A parliamentary panel recommended in August 2023 that award winners sign an undertaking that they will not return their awards at any stage to protest against any political incident. Imposing such a caveat will entirely alter the identities of both Indian writers and a supposedly autonomous national body of letters.
As a writer myself, I want to have faith in the Sahitya Akademi because I want to have faith in Indian literatures. I turn to Dr S. Radhakrishnan’s Editorial Note in Indian Literature, Volume 1, Number 1(October 1957), for hope: “[Writers] seem to think that the Akademi having been founded by the State is necessarily under the control of the Government.... Except for [financial expenditure] there is no other interference or pressure from the Government side.”
Arunava Sinha believes that “Until now, the Akademi has not been politically influenced in a way that bows down to the diktat of any government. It is almost shockingly independent in that sense.” A.J. Thomas seconds this: “If writers are free to choose their representatives in the general council, and if the autonomous democratic structure continues, I think Sahitya Akademi will continue to be as it has been till now. This is one hope I have—till now it has been democratic and autonomous.”
K. Satchidanandan is slightly more pessimistic: “It has so far retained its autonomy and refused to be the arm of any political party or a propaganda wing, but as a close observer, I can say this is slowly changing. I gather for the first time there was a whole panel in the Akademi elections propped up by one party.”
- The Sahitya Akademi, India’s premier literary institution, was formed in 1954 in order to “preserve and promote literature contained in twenty-four Indian languages recognised by it through awards, fellowships, grants, publications, literary programs, workshops and exhibitions.”
- Today, the Akademi continues to be the only junction for all Indian literatures to meet, but there is a younger generation that does not appear to have even heard of it.
- It is time for the Akademi, a 70-year-old brand of undoubted value, to change its staid old ways, become more accessible and less bureaucratic, and be in tune with the times as the national body of letters without losing sight of its core values.
A junction for languages and literatures
Initially a colonial consideration in 1944, the Sahitya Akademi has parallel institutions across the world, with parallel problems. Germany’s DeutscheAkademie für Sprache und Dichtung has been accused of nationalism and language gatekeeping. The Académie Française, also known as the French Academy, has been called conservative, anti-feminist, and famously opposed its government’s 2008 proposal to include indigenous, regional languages. In contrast, the Sahitya Akademi commits to annually preserving four unrecognised Indian languages (The Saora dialect was chosen as one for 2023). The reason, says the Akademi’s current secretary, K. Sreenivasarao: “We do not want any language to go extinct.”
“Every single writer I have spoken to thus far has agreed upon one thing: the Akademi has to matter, because languages have to matter, and for 69 years it has been the only junction for all Indian literatures to meet.”
Every single writer I have spoken to thus far has agreed upon one thing: the Akademi has to matter, because languages have to matter, and for 69 years it has been the only junction for all Indian literatures to meet. Their online events range from “Marathi-Santhali Poets Meet” to “Kathasandhi with Abdus Samad”, “Tamil-Kashmiri Poet Meets”, and an annual “All India Dalit Writers Meet.”
Searching for this ideal junction, I take a trip to Mumbai’s Dadar office of the Akademi. Walking down its dingy basement, I see innumerable books, in their dusty, multilingual glory, ready for my perusal. I leave with two big bags of poetry, prose, rare translations, and essays in English, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil—all under Rs.2,000. Anjum Hasan’s words ring in my mind as I think of the office’s “certain attractive dullness, the feeling that literature is being preserved, even if in bland rooms, even if in a formal, sarkari way”.
Sitting in my room, I am surrounded by Akademi publications: Imayam’s Sellatha Panam, Ambedkar’s essays, Anish Ashfaq’s KhwaabSaraab, Ghalib, Mahasweta Devi, and Tagore. No other private literary festival, bookstore, library, or publishing house carries such linguistic variety and diversity. There is certainly a sense of preservation and propagation, albeit in a non-glamorous, understated manner. These books lie before me, quietly, patiently. It is now up to me to pick them up and take the effort to read them.
Saranya Subramanian is a poet, writer, and theatre practitioner based in Mumbai.