`Her actions became unbearable'

Published : May 20, 2005 00:00 IST

Interview with Kavalam Narayana Panikkar.

Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, who submitted his resignation as Vice-Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi recently, is one of the most distinguished theatre personalities in India. He has given a new direction to contemporary regional theatre in the country and has made his mark as a playwright, director, actor, teacher, composer and poet. In a career spanning nearly five decades, he also gave a new lease of life to the age-old Sanskrit drama tradition of the country. Noteworthy among his productions are plays in Malayalam and Sanskrit, particularly the works of Bhasa, which have enthralled audiences worldwide. He has drawn upon Kerala's unique repository of music, dance and theatre forms to evolve a distinctive theatre language.

He has written songs for several feature films in Malayalam and scripts for documentary films. Panikkar is the founder-director of the Sopanam theatre company, his "theatre laboratory", based in Thiruvananthapuram. He has received various honours, including the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 1974, the Kerala State Film Award in 1978 and 1982 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for theatre direction in 1985. He received the Kalidas Samman in 1995 and was made a Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 2002.

Panikkar says that though his life's mission had been the integration of various art forms of the country, at the Akademi people are trying to do exactly the opposite. The institution is becoming a breeding ground for cliques and power-mongers, he told R. Krishnakumar in this exhaustive interview in Thiruvananthapuram a few days after his resignation. Excerpts:

The reasons for your resignation from the vice-chairmanship of the Sangeet Natak Akademi are not yet known. Frankly, is it a personality or ego clash?

Not at all. I am not a person who would wish to pitch a tent in New Delhi to seek or enjoy power. I was an occasional visitor as required by my position as Vice-Chairman. I had no role in the day-to-day functioning of the Akademi. On the other hand, it was the Chairperson who was interfering on a day-to-day basis and making personal remarks about several eminent artistes, including Balamurali Krishna and me. We have refrained from responding in a similar manner. But all of us wanted to work for the institution, to contribute our mite to the glory of such a great institution. However, if someone is bent on being autocratic, on insisting that what she says alone should be implemented, then, what else can we do?

In what way exactly did the Chairperson's attitude, behaviour or decisions lead to your resignation?

My resignation was the culmination of a series of events. From the beginning, even before the first meeting of the General Council was convened, Sonal Mansingh, as the new Chairperson, had shown a certain enthusiasm to pack the various committees and bodies of the Akademi with her own favourites. Then came the question of vice-chairmanship, which had to be decided through an election. I had no intention of being a candidate, even though several theatre personalities had met me to insist that I must accept that position because they wanted theatre too to be represented at the top rungs of the Akademi. I attended the first meeting of the General Council in two minds but my name was proposed by the Director of the National School of Drama and was supported by others. But then, to the surprise of everyone, [Carnatic vocalist] Nookala Satyanarayana proposed Balamurali Krishna's name, even though Balamurali was away in London. The Chairperson allowed Balamurali's name to be proposed in his absence, after reading out a letter deliberately sought from him stating his inability to attend and his willingness to accept the decisions taken by the Chairperson at the meeting. Mind you, it was not a letter of consent from Balamurali agreeing to be the Vice-Chairman or to contest for the position. The Chairperson then went around canvassing votes for Balamurali, throwing all norms of democratic functioning to the winds. [Santoor maestro] Shiv Kumar Sharma's name too was proposed but he gracefully withdrew from a contest. There was no one to withdraw Balamurali's name in his absence. The Chairperson probably thought that because she had canvassed for him everyone would vote for him.

Things came to a head and I had to take a position. I explained that even though I didn't want to have a fight with such a great musician as Balamurali, he was not present to explain his position, or to withdraw from the contest. But since someone had proposed my name I had no objection if he himself withdrew the proposal. I also proposed the name of [Sanskrit scholar and theatre personality] Dr. J.B. Tripathi as an alternative for the post of Vice-Chairman. But Tripathi refused the proposal. The Chairperson insisted on an election. Balamurali got six votes and I got 25. Many members refrained from voting.

Even now Balamurali considers it an insult caused to him - not by me - but by the Chairperson. Later too, she tried to create a wedge between us, by spreading stories that I was gloating over my victory in my interviews to the media in Kerala. Fortunately, Balamurali saw through her game.

But yet you functioned as Vice-Chairman for nearly a year after that.

The election was the first real shock. Then I found that the Chairperson was interfering in every small matter of running the Akademi, quarrelling with the officers, especially the Secretary [Jayant Kastuar] and trying to curtail his powers. She would not allow the Vice-Chairman the constitutional respect due to him. Initially, I found all this very silly. But then she began to interfere in the activities of the various committees presided over by me as was required under the statutes. She would invariably come to preside over such meetings, lecturing eminent members and insisting that decisions of the committees not to her liking should be revoked. The first meeting of the publications committee was one such experience. The minutes of the meeting that went on after she left the venue, and prepared by the Secretary, were sent to me for approval. After I approved it, she summoned the minutes and tampered with it without my knowledge. Similarly, she overruled the decision of the grants committee to disburse grants early to the institutions under the Akademi, insisting that the Executive Board should first approve the minutes. The disbursal of grants was already late by several months and the next meeting of the Executive Board would mean a further delay of one or two months. The institutions were literally starved of funds, even though the Chairperson was empowered to disburse funds early, taking the Executive Board members into confidence.

I raised these issues at the next meeting of the Executive Board. I got a callous response, especially on the serious issue of tampering with the minutes, and so I demanded the constitution of a high-power committee to inquire into it. But to my surprise, the fact that I raised this demand too was missing from the minutes of the Executive Board meeting.

Are you saying her actions were prompted by personal animosity towards you?

Her actions became unbearable to many people. By then her quarrel with the Secretary had reached its zenith. She constituted an administrative committee, purportedly with the approval of the Executive Board, with three of her own nominees, raised several allegations, including that of financial irregularities, against the Secretary and began to harass him. I would be the last person to say such allegations should not be inquired into. If anybody is involved in such financial irregularities, their role should be inquired into and action taken if they are found guilty, even if it is the Chairperson.

What was then the immediate provocation that led to your resignation? The Chairperson said recently that the discussions at the last Executive Board meeting in which you participated were very cordial and she could see no reason why you resigned a few hours after the meeting concluded.

It was when I was in New Delhi for the last meeting of the Executive Board that I came to know that Balamurali had submitted his resignation about a month earlier. I was kept in the dark about it. Nobody knew about it. When I raised it at the meeting, the Secretary said the Chairperson had accepted the resignation. But the Chairperson said she had not. I demanded to know why if the resignation was accepted it was done so unceremoniously, without informing anyone and without requesting Balamurali to reconsider his decision; or, if the resignation had not been accepted why was Balamurali not present at the meeting. I also demanded that the Executive Committee request Balamurali to withdraw his resignation because it was very important if I were to continue in my position. But as soon as I returned to Kerala House where I was staying, I called Balamurali to enquire whether he would accept our request to withdraw the resignation. And he told me, `No Panikkar, I will not because she has used such crass words against us. What she said in her media interview wounded my feelings. I don't want to continue as long as she is there.' I told him that I was proud of his decision and that it was my duty to be with him to save this institution and I too was going to resign. So it was a decision taken on the spur of the moment.

I understood how hurt Balamurali was by the Chairperson's comment that he had resigned because she had refused a request by him that the Akademi give an award to the well-known dancer Dr. Saraswati. The fact, as I know it well, is that among the several names that were suggested by members at the General Council for being honoured, Dr. Saraswati's name too was suggested, among many others by Balamurali. It is not that she is not a deserving person, or that Balamurali had insisted that she be given the award. Balamurali had at the same time suggested several other names too, for example of Vyjayantimala Bali and Yamini Krishnamoorthy, names that were not acceptable to Sonal Mansingh, they being her `rivals' in the field. It is here that a comment made by Pandit Ravisankar becomes pertinent; that a performing artist should never be placed at the helm of such a body, because then invariably there will be prejudice and bias in their decisions.

She had made similar disparaging remarks about me too; that I'm 75 years old, she's only 61, and that I had resigned because I didn't like to work under a woman. Balamurali and I are the ones who have received the highest Akademi honours, the `Ratna' fellowships, and the Chairperson's comments were nothing but humiliating.

There were reports that you, among 60 other artists, had also complained to the President of India about a documentary produced by the Chairperson and also about her proposal to change the name of the Akademi. Are they significant issues that the public should know about?

The documentary produced on the occasion of the golden jubilee of the Akademi was a bid to project herself, soon after she was nominated and when the General Council was yet to be constituted. Except for cursory references to other great artists of India it was a documentary to project her glory as the only great dancer after perhaps Balasaraswati. She even sent copies of the documentary to all the Governors, with pictures of the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the inauguration. Everyone objected to the way she tried to bask in her own glory.

I had very strong reservations also about the way she tried to change the name of the Akademi, including it on the agenda without any discussion on it earlier on. She wanted to replace the `Natak' part of the name. She said in one of her interviews that half a dozen dancers had approached her and complained to her that there was nataka but no `dance' in the name and, therefore, she had suggested natya instead of nataka - Sangeet Natya Akademi. But, my question was, why should we change the name after over 50 years of glorious existence of the institution only because a popular term nataka that includes dance, drama, music, every art form, perhaps, is part of its time-tested nomenclature? It was one instance that demonstrated her antagonistic attitude towards theatre.

So is it a case of a person trying to promote one form of art against another, a tug of war?

Exactly. Even on other occasions she has demonstrated a hostile attitude towards `drama' or the theatre. Indian natyasastra seeks to integrate. It is actually a holistic approach. The Akademi is an institution meant to realise and propagate this fact. Instead, the Akademi seeks to compartmentalise everything or at least to create such a feeling. This was what I have been objecting to. I have dedicated my life to the integration of art forms. But when I go to the Akademi I find people are trying to encourage the segregation of the various art forms.

Would it be correct to say that the current problems in the Akademi also reflect a regional divide in the institution?

Although one is tempted to say there is no such divide, it is there certainly, though it cannot by pinpointed. Such a bias was there from the very beginning. For example, Kerala was a non-entity in the Akademi and there were times when we used to feel, `why are we here at all?' We were all labelled `Madrasis'. Similar criticism exists in other regions of the country too, for example, in the North-East. This is one of the reasons why I have represented to the Minister [in another context] that the National School of Drama should be broken down to at least regional if not language-based national theatres. Unless that is done, such feelings of being left out will continue. Only vibrant regional theatres can create a strong national theatre.

Sonal Mansingh has alleged that you resigned because you wanted to be the Chairman. Is it true?

I have told the Minister I am not interested in the chairmanship. I told him that I can also vouch that Balamurali too is not interested in the post. We only want to save the institution from the clutches of a very bad clique.

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