Drama within the Akademi

Print edition : May 20, 2005

The Sangeet Natak Akademi becomes the scene of bitter wrangling between Chairperson Sonal Mansingh and those demanding her ouster.

in New Delhi

THE Sangeet Natak Akademi, the apex body of the performing arts in the country, is caught in a vortex of controversy. Resignations are pouring in; representations to the President of India and the Union Minister of Culture are piling up; and political and personal accusations and allegations are flying thick and fast.

Sonal Mansingh, Sangeet Natak Akademi Chairperson.-K. GANESAN

The tensions have been brewing for a long time. The situation came to a head when 60 artists made a representation in early April to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam that Sonal Mansingh, Chairperson of the Akademi, should be dismissed from her position. The representation questioned her appointment by the National Democratic Alliance government under "circumstances that were both very dramatic and very curious". It went on to list instances of her "autocratic behaviour".

Earlier, the government nominees to the Akademi's Executive Committee, noted Carnatic musician M. Balamurali Krishna and well-known theatre personality Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, who was its Vice-Chairman, had resigned.

Many artists followed suit, by resigning from the General Council or the Executive Board. They included Hindustani vocalist Ajoy Chakraborty, Chandigarh Sangeet Natak Akademi Chairman Kamal Tiwari, his predecessor G.S. Channy, Chennai-based theatre artist B. Jayasree, Manipuri artist Savitri Heisnam and Hyderabad-based musician N. Satyanarayana.

Narayana Panikkar, who resigned after the Executive Board meeting on April 23, said it was not about power but about the autocratic behaviour of the Chairperson. He said: "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 artists, including Balamurali Krishna and me. We have refrained from responding in kind. 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?"

Balamurali Krishna, noted Carnatic musician.-V. GANESAN

Sonal Mansingh is said to have bypassed the Secretary and the General Council and that "affected [the] course and outcome of some of the most important events of the Akademi such as the ongoing golden jubilee celebrations," according to the representation made to the President. Instead of having year-long celebrations she decided to bring it to an immediate end, the artists alleged. The representation said: "[F]or this prestigious function she personally edited and prepared a CD ROM of an archival 30 min[ute] film... which began with her own speech and ended with several excerpts from her own dance recitals."

Sonal Mansingh contends that the material for the CD ROM was prepared by Akademi Secretary Jayant Kastuar as she had just joined and that she had merely requested some artists to send in their photographs for inclusion. However, the artists alleged in the letter: "[Sonal Mansingh] set about with a list of names in order to hijack the structure of the new Executive Board and General Council that had to be appointed in April 2004." The letter also charged that the Chairperson proposed that the word "Natak" in the name of the Akademi, a composite term inclusive of both dance and theatre, be replaced by "Nritya", which implies only dance. To counter the charge Sonal Mansingh produced a letter written by the Secretary to the Vice-Chairman that states that "the proposal to change the name from Sangeet Natak Akademi to Sangeet Natya Akademi was discussed briefly only as a preliminary idea and was intended to bring in larger, more complete and comprehensive Indian concept of Natya which appropriately defines Indian Theatre tradition and practices as you have yourself referred to in the preceding para...".

The artists have accused the Chairperson of having "ordered audio recording of all proceedings and meetings of the Council, Board and Committees. This mechanism is nothing but a virtual terror tactic to thwart members' right to hold free and frank discussions in confidence". In response, Sonal Mansingh said that the decision was taken at the Executive Board meeting as many members felt that discussions were omitted and ideas misrepresented in the minutes of the meeting.

Apart from the allegation that she got the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Gujarat to nominate her mother for a Padma Shri in 2004, another serious accusation made by the artists is that "Smt. Mansingh's personal dance performances all over the country... justified by the fig leaf of `official' work, have multiplied and quadrupled. This is a clear case of Conflict of Interest and it is reprehensible that no less than the Chairperson of a national institution like the Sangeet Natak Akademi is thus using contacts made in the course of her honorary work to turn them into avenues of profit and promotion for herself and her personal institution."

Sonal Mansingh dismissed the allegations. She said: "This was pre-planned and well-orchestrated. Different kinds of pressures were built up last year but direct pressure from the Ministry never came. There is no evidence of me campaigning for [Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra] Modi. If I had gone there would have been newspaper reports, pictures. But what hurts me most is the dragging of my 92-year-old mother into this. She received the award after the President saw her work in Gujarat."

She insists that this controversy was raked up because of the "unfulfilled personal ambitions and gender bias". Sonal Mansingh added: "As long as I was among artists I was admired, celebrated and loved. It is also about the irregularities that had been going on. During two meetings many things were brought to [the] Board's notice and most things pointed to the Secretary [of the] SNA. Complete disregard for rules and discipline had become a norm to him. And discretionary funds were diverted for other things." However, Narayana Panikkar believes there were other ways of going about setting the wrongs right.

When asked about her political affiliation, Sonal Mansingh said: "I have supported causes like Cuba, cancer, old age problems and so on. I do not have any political affiliation. I have been dancing for over 40 years and have earned respect through dance. [The] BJP is a new party. I do not understand why I am being singled out. I have no personal agenda to serve. Tell me if I have used in the past 16 months the Akademi's facilities or funds, promoted certain groups known to me... or made my name now."

With nine resignations pending and Sonal Mansingh determined to stay put, Union Minister for Culture S. Jaipal Reddy has not made any comment on the issue. Jayant Kastuar refused to comment on the controversy.

Adding another dimension to the controversy is the accusation of regional bias. Veteran musician N. Satyanarayana accused her of being unfair to South Indians. "We feel we are out of place. More than once I have been looked down upon and insulted by the Chairperson. Her style is not democratic. She brushes aside some members and maintains some groups of Delhi. Many South Indians are ill-treated. I had proposed names of two great persons who were from the backward class for the award but they did not get. Whoever she thinks is good gets the award. Decisions are autocratic and I feel my presence is not required. So I resigned," he said.

Sadanand Menon, art critic, feels that the Akademi has been reduced to an organisation giving out annual awards and grants and has not helped art to grow. "It has to go beyond issues of personality, the machinery is not delivering, and even the bureaucracy is in a dismal situation," he said.

K. Satchidanandan, Secretary, Sahitya Akademi, said: "It is very unfortunate. I am definitely not for changing the name of the Akademi. The SNA has to play a key role and differences have to be settled amicably. One has to look at the exact powers and there is a need to define these exactly and correctly. There is a power struggle on, which is unfortunate. The government will have to come in and define key roles and everyone will have to stick to his or her role. It should be settled as soon as possible. It is a cultural institution but right now it is looking like a political institution."

Girish Karnad, who was the Chairperson of the Akademi from 1988 to 1993, said: "Once a person has been appointed he or she should be allowed to function for the full term. These kinds of complaints of being high-handed had been made against me as well. Someone or the other will always be unhappy, but taking to [the] streets is no solution." In a letter to Abdul Kalam, Girish Karnad praised Sonal Mansingh as one of great artists of our time. He added: "But I am not talking about an individual here as about the future of this great Akademi itself. Once a person is appointed to this post, she or he should be removable only if proven guilty of criminal misdemeanour. If she or he were to be removed from office on the basis of emotive criticism or mere difference of opinion on matters of policy or on grounds of political affiliation, it will bring the Akademi to a grinding halt. Once such a tactic succeeds and authorities act upon it, it will become a precedent and every Chairperson in future will be threatened with it. Instead of acting fearlessly and with conviction, she or he will either have to yield to outside pressure or face harassment. I fear it will in fact destroy the very strengths that have made the institution so unique."

Jayant Kastuar, Secretary, Sangeet Natak Akademi.-RAJEEV BHATT

Vijay Tendulkar, noted playwright and a lifetime fellow of the Akademi, said: "Since we are far away we are removed from the politics of the institution but these so-called autonomous institutions have always had internal problems. People may come and go but problems remain. No decision or management happens on the national level - sometimes it is about regional interests or sometimes it is about personal grouses. These issues should be dealt with at the national level."

More and more critics and artists feel that all these will have a disastrous effect on the functioning of the Akademi. Though art per se will not suffer, the credibility of such an apex organisation is definitely scarred.

Caught between political agendas, ego clashes, allegations and counter-allegations, the Akademi seems to be compromising on its prime objective of "preserving and promoting the vast intangible heritage of India's diverse culture expressed in the forms of music, dance and drama".

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