An agenda for the arts

Published : Feb 28, 2003 00:00 IST

The Sangeet Natak Akademi, which has played a commendable role in preserving and promoting India's rich cultural traditions for the past 50 years, faces a new challenge in the form of globalisation.

The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we start ...and know the place for the first time.

- T.S. Eliot (The Four Quartets)

INAUGURATED on January 28, 1953, barely a week after the formation of the Lok Sabha, the Sangeet Natak Akademi was vested with the daunting task of preserving and furthering through practice the bewildering variety of music, dance and theatre in India. The performing arts were crucial to the newly independent nation's sense of self. Inaugurating the Akademi, President Dr. Rajendra Prasad said: "I have no doubt that the Akademi will play a great part in reforming and reshaping India, and India of the future could well boast of this day."

The beginnings of the organisation can be traced to the last years of British rule, when the Asiatic Society of Bengal proposed the creation of a national cultural trust to nurture India's vast heritage. The Sahitya Akademi (for literature), the Lalit Kala Akademi (for the plastic arts) and the Sangeet Natak Akademi were set up by the government as autonomous bodies dedicated to cultural revival and dissemination.

Fifty years later, celebrating its golden jubilee, the Sangeet Natak Akademi found itself in a contemplative mood, taking stock of its trajectory and achievements, and wondering how best to engage with its current context. And, curiously enough, it found itself at almost the same crossroads once again, trying to fashion an idea of India. As Akademi Chairman Bhupen Hazarika put it, "the preservation of our cultural identity amidst the onslaught of globalisation is the biggest challenge we face today."

The jubilee celebrations featured performances by some of the most eminent practitioners of music and art in the country, including Ustad Bismillah Khan, Birju Maharaj, Balamurali Krishna and Kelucharan Mohapatra. Several distinguished Fellows of the Akademi such as Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, Ebrahim Alkazi, Vijay Tendulkar, and Komal Kothari were also present. Kapila Vatsyayan, who was honoured by the Akademi for a lifetime's scholarship in the field of art and culture, said that the celebrations were "like going back in time. These artistes represent a continuity of the Indian tradition." Since its inception, the Akademi has been funding institutions dedicated to music, dance and drama and providing financial assistance to eminent practitioners. It has played a critical role in keeping alive the guru-shishya parampara, and has intervened to support young artists from traditional practising families and gharanas, who would otherwise be unable to pursue their art. The Akademi has been instrumental in organising music, dance and theatre festivals across the country and enabling cultural exchange both within the country and internationally. It also organises workshops and seminars, and provides a forum for creative interaction in this field. The Sangeet Natak Akademi awards for excellence and their fellowships for lifetime achievement in the performing arts are aimed at recognising and spurring talent to greater heights.

Over the years, the Sangeet Natak Akademi undertook the colossal project of documenting and recording performances. Its archives of photographs, audio and videotapes, and films testify to the richness and diversity of classical and folk forms in India. This collection, which is currently being digitised, has been used in publications, television, and research, and is "one of the most tangible services provided by the Akademi," said Abhijit Chatterjee, who edits Sangeet Natak, the Akademi's journal. The publication programme of the Akademi assists authors and publishers with grants for books and periodicals in English and Indian languages.

The visionaries behind the Akademi were aware of the dangers of standardisation and kitsch that can accompany state-sponsored art. "If there is anything ugly, it is the made-to-order work of art," said Dr. Rajendra Prasad in his remarkably far-sighted speech at the inaugural ceremony of the Akademi. Bhupen Hazarika corroborated the truth of that statement. He traced the process by which the Akademi understood India's cultural heritage and its constituents. Discussing the well-intentioned, but deluded recommendations of the 1950s such as evolving a uniform system of musical notations for India, he said, "We know that it is a various world, and its variety is to be protected."

Kapila Vatsyayan commented on this `conceptual dilemma', asking whether we can think in terms of a national culture at all. She cautioned against eschewing regional identity even as she credited the Akademi with placing the arts within the framework of civil society. Since the collapse of the princely states and the destruction of a feudal system of patronage, she said the Akademi had sought to fill the vacuum and rehabilitate the arts.

The Akademi has played a commendable role in preserving endangered art forms. Its generous grants helped resuscitate difficult, esoteric traditions such as Koodiyattam and Chhau dance, which would have otherwise fallen prey to the inattention of a rapidly changing world. It has made efforts to sustain traditional teaching and learning processes such as the Sufiana Kalam of Kashmir, or the percussion instruments of Kerala. Most recently, the Akademi gave a new lease of life to the Sattriya dance of Assam by conferring on it the status of a `classical' form.

However, 50 years down, the Sangeet Natak Akademi has been accused of a mid-life crisis. Cultural critic Sadanand Menon describes it as "an institution gone to seed". According to him, its feudal ethos and administrative infighting, cramp much of its mission. The Haksar Committee, appointed a decade ago to look into the functioning of the Akademis, had uncovered several glitches in the governance of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Their awards, mired in controversy are rarely granted to up-and-coming performers. Most recently, the cultural cell of the Bharatiya Janata Party created a ruckus by accusing the Akademis of blatant nepotism. However, Jayant Kastuar, the Secretary of the Akademi, brushed aside the charges, stating that "subjectivity is a fact, while judging any kind of art." Kastuar said that the performing arts in particular were ephemeral, existing only in a given time and space and that evaluating them was naturally a complex process. He pointed out that the awards were decided solely by the artists who comprise the General Council and the Executive Board. Despite differences of opinion, he said the selections remained an independent, above-board process. Jagmohan, Union Minister for Culture, quoted Ghalib's famous couplet, "You are a scholar, Ghalib, you have to praise the king," and begged to differ. He claimed that despite running on state funds, the Akademis remained fully autonomous, and that there were no strings attached to their artistic agenda.

However, the pressing question remains: to what extent should the government be primarily responsible for the cultural life of a nation? In a resource-strapped situation, can it afford to play the sole saviour of the entire gamut of performing arts? In most countries, funds for the arts come from a combination of public and private sources. However, in India, the corporate sector and civil society have yet to assume the role, and perhaps state patronage systems such as the Department of Culture and the Akademis, should encourage them to do so, gradually shifting focus to joint partnerships with private institutions and individuals.

Given its pivotal role today, however, the more immediate challenge facing the Akademi is to reinvent itself. Kastuar acknowledged the need to encourage creative experiment among emerging artists, and said that the golden jubilee celebrations included a range of nation-wide programmes geared towards tapping and showcasing young talent.

"For me, as a performer, the Sangeet Natak Akademi remains largely invisible," said Maya Rao, a contemporary theatre practitioner. "They need to find out a way of being more in your face, on an everyday basis, instead of merely cranking out the same old festivals with the same old names," she added. Comparing it to the Lincoln Centre in New York, she wondered why the Akademi could not be "a comprehensive resource centre for artists, and establish a network for creativity and collaboration." At the golden jubilee function, President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam drew attention to the sense of priority shown 50 years ago, when the arts "competed for attention with issues like food, industry and defence". Today, when the performing arts are increasingly pushed to the periphery of public consciousness, the agenda for the Sangeet Natak Akademi seems pretty clear.

For starters, it might do well to free itself from bureaucratic trappings, and make a genuine attempt to educate young people about the music, dance and theatre traditions that they have inherited. All it requires is the imagination and will to re-link the performing arts with society at large.

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