Reservoir of Indian literature

Published : Dec 03, 2004 00:00 IST

The Sahitya Akademi, the apex body which has made invaluable contribution to Indian literature, celebrates its 50th anniversary.

in New Delhi

THE 50th anniversary celebrations of the Sahitya Akademi, held in November 2004, were perhaps reflective of the history of the Akademi in the past 50 years. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated the celebrations at Vigyan Bhavan, New Delhi, in the presence of several dignitaries. Awards and fellowships were given to many writers, including Vijay Dan Detha, Bh. Krishnamurti, U.R. Anantha Murthy, Sankha Ghosh and Amrita Pritam.

Almost everyone invited to the podium spoke about the role of the Akademi, its invaluable contribution and its future. But the audience seemed to be a distracted lot. Though not lacking in organisation or noble intent, the event lacked the spark or engagement of a literary activity. The function resembled more a fancy government official gathering rather than a literary meet.

After Independence, the biggest challenge before the government was to keep the country united and to spread the spirit of unity among the culturally, linguistically and religiously different regions. The idea percolated through all the establishments, including the Sahitya Akademi which was meant to promote regional literature and present it to the world outside. The efforts towards the objective began with the redefining of the popular notion of Indian literature - that is, Indian writing in English. A more difficult task was to develop a system in which language would not, ironically, be a barrier to communication. The Sahitya Akademi ensures that award-winning regional literature gets translated into as many as 24 languages. The English translations reach a global audience, though to a limited extent.

The new emphasis on English, however, does not appeal to all. Nirmal Verma, noted Hindi writer, says that it is through "common references that can be experienced in Indian languages that one enjoys Indian literature and not by referring to `footnotes'. Through translations one gets to understand Indian culture of many kinds. A writer can be of any language. Because of the Sahitya Akademi he will be part of Indian literature. Unfortunately, they have depended on English. Why do we have to depend on English? It deprives Indian girls and boys of thought in their own languages." However, this dependence on English is very often a compulsion. K. Satchidanandan, secretary of the Sahitya Akademi, says that at times it is inevitable as it is difficult to find translators knowing the required languages, say, for example, Malayalam to Oriya, or Telugu to Manipuri. "In such cases we have to depend on the link language, which is English or Hindi. We also translate the work to Hindi as often as possible."

Nirmal Bhattacharjee, Editor of Indian Literature, published by the Sahitya Akademi, points out that the English translation has the added advantage that it takes the Indian literary work to a global audience.

However, when one talks about reaching the global audience it is not a very happy situation, with Sahitya Akademi publications hardly reaching even the popular bookstore displays. When it comes to being hi-tech, the Sahitya Akademi's website, last updated in February 2002, says a lot about keeping with the times. With coffee lounge bookstores becoming a la mode, is the Sahitya Akademi losing out on this elite, gen-next market?

Satchidanandan explains a dilemma that the Sahitya Akademi faces. Marketing and sales have indeed been the weakest links, says Bhattacharjee. Sahitya Akademi works are priced low so that the maximum number of readers can benefit. However, it also means lower commissions for the bookstores that stock them. As they can make higher commissions by selling private or foreign publications, they hesitate to give prime display spots to these publications. Add to this effect of the market forces the influence of the electronic media and the Internet and the decline in the reading habit among the younger generation.

But not everyone is pessimistic. Says Nirmal Verma: "It is only in cities that you feel that people are not reading because of television and the Internet. In rural areas and small towns people still depend on books for entertainment and recreation. As for the younger generation, the structure of educational institutes should improve. Teachers should try and inculcate in young people interest in quality literature. The Sahitya Akademi comes in only later. It can play a very crucial role but only if the educational institutes change."

The movement of the middle class to the upper middle class is also one of the reasons for the dwindling reading habit, says Bhattacharjee. People start preferring English writing over regional writing after going to English schools, according to him.

Satchidanandan says television and the Internet have not caused any decline in serious reading. "These influences have decreased popular reading. But people who seek serious literature are different, and the television or other electronic gadgets do not satisfy those needs. Moreover, we are trying to reach the maximum number of people through nationwide book fairs and select outlets. We also organise programmes where new and young writers get a chance to read out their work."

Everyone associated with these writers' workshops, where writers under the age of 40 participate, speak enthusiastically about the benefits of being part of the Akademi. Keki Daruwala, member of the Advisory Board of the English Language Department, still recollects his first paper presentation at one such literary meet. "It has played a very big role in bringing writers together. Especially, it is only through translations of the Sahitya Akademi that I can get to know the works of literary geniuses in other languages. I have benefited a lot in understanding Indian literature," he said.

Also, Sahitya Akademi awards help writers to reach more people. Namdeo Dhasal, the Dalit Marathi poet and writer who received this year's lifetime achievement award, said: "Through my writing I will continue to strive for a casteless, classless society. I am happy to receive this award as it is a recognition of my efforts."

Of course, some writers and political activists like Dhasal have been conferred awards despite the obvious political ideologies. But there have been times when the Akademi was accused of playing safe or being pressured by the government - such as the withdrawal of the award conferred on Masti Venkatesa Iyengar by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru himself after the Veerasaiva community in Karnataka reacted, or even the recent controversial appointment of Prof. Gopichand Narang as president.

Most government organisations run the risk of interference of the ruling party and the bureaucracy. The autonomy of an institution is especially at stake when the government funds it. Jawaharlal Nehru, when he became the president of the Sahitya Akademi, said that he would not allow the Prime Minister in him to interfere in the work of the president of the Akademi.

Bhattacharjee insists that the Akademi has taken an honest stand and expressed its views fearlessly on many occasions - be it in condemning the attack on the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune or in defending the award given to Sheikh Abdullah for his autobiography Atish-e-Chinar in which he made unpalatable remarks about Nehru.

The Sahitya Akademi might seem like a government set-up but it has the credit of being the apex body that brings all the works of Indian literature together. Works like A History of Indian Literature and An Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature could become a reality only with the efforts of an institution like the Sahitya Akademi, considering the vastness and complexity of the country. With over 200 literary meets in a year and 300-odd publications, the Sahitya Akademi is not idle at all. The Akademi moves inch by inch to achieve its goals. But what one might overlook is the distance it has travelled in 50 years.

Manmohan Singh urged writers to be "the conscience-keepers of our people" and called for entrusting the institution with "the responsibility of proceeding with the task of nurturing Indian literature, and thereby contributing to a more aware, inclusive and humane society, at peace with pluralist traditions".

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