Government’s grading system needs a serious rethink

Zero transparency, new arbitrary categories and no review of the fee structure marks the Union culture ministry’s latest initiative for artistes


Sharmila Mukerjee, an Odissi danseuse, is an “A” Grade artiste of Doordarshan, and has been graded “O” or Outstanding by the Union ministry of culture.
Sharmila Mukerjee, an Odissi danseuse, is an “A” Grade artiste of Doordarshan, and has been graded “O” or Outstanding by the Union ministry of culture.

In June, the Union ministry of culture announced its decision to grade artistes and writers, reportedly in a bid to “prevent a clique from dominating the official cultural space”. Responses to the announcement were largely critical and disapproving, prompting intense discussion and debate. The ministry has made available some information in this regard on its website, including a list of 185 applicants who have been graded for participation in Festivals of India across the world.

The memorandum provided by the ministry states that “the Outstanding and Promising category artistes in the graded list will be equal to ICCR (Indian Council of Cultural Relations) grading of Outstanding and Proficient respectively”. One may ask then that if the ICCR has already graded artistes, and if its grading is acceptable to the ministry, what is the logic in grading the same applicant again? To confuse matters further, All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan have for long auditioned and graded performing artistes. In fact, the grading system has also been shared between the two, so grades assigned to artistes by AIR were applicable on Doordarshan as well. A musician auditioned and graded by AIR did not require a separate audition to perform on Doordarshan, and a similar fee structure and rules on broadcast frequency were applicable for both AIR and Doordarshan. Hypothetically then, the same artiste will now have to apply for separate gradation by AIR/Doordarshan, the ICCR and, most recently, the ministry of culture. Could this possibly indicate that the ministry does not repose faith in the gradation methods of AIR/Doordarshan and the ICCR and feels the need to organize its own gradation? Possibly, it also fails to appreciate the fact that the expense involved in setting up and organizing its own gradation system could have been put to better use for the benefit of artistes.

However, while AIR and Doordarshan largely auditioned and graded musicians, dancers and voice artistes for radio plays, the list of 185 artistes graded by the ministry of culture seems to have opened up the playing field for many more categories. Applicant No.15 on the graded list has been rated Outstanding as a lighting expert, while Applicant No.108 has been graded Promising for karaoke singing. But the YouTube links provided against the latter’s details lead to episodes of television serials like Bharat Ka Veer Putra—Maharana Pratap, Crime Patrol and others—this could, of course, be a mistake. Applicant No.132 comes as a surprise—she has been graded Promising for “Musical presentation with PowerPoint presentation”. One wonders if this is a mistake too, or whether fresh category has been created for grading.

The inclusion of magicians, illusionists, lighting experts and even event organizers by the ministry is welcome, but the question that now begs to be asked is what kind of jury was put together to grade and evaluate such diverse skills and art forms? And what is the term each juror will serve on the panel? Will different panels be set up for different groups of applicants, or will the same panel that judged these initial 185 applications assess the estimated 10 million artistes that the ministry hopes to grade?

Learning from the past has never been one of our strengths, and in starting what seems to be a poorly considered exercise of gradation of artistes, the ministry has ignored the past once again. The existing audition and gradation process of agencies like AIR and Doordarshan could have been studied and evaluated to improve and revamp the process. For long, these processes have been suspect despite the anonymity mandated by the procedure, with the names of artistes being withheld, and their recordings submitted anonymously before an audition committee grading them. Allegations of foul play, partiality and injustice in the process abound and grievances in this regard are bound to have been submitted for redressal to the authorities concerned.

Way back in 1953, in Mumbai, artistes protested and picketed against AIR’s audition process, forming the Bharatiya Sangeet Kalakar Mandal with S.S. Kavalekar as the vice-president. On 12 June 1953, The Times Of India reported that the Mandal was receiving complaints from artistes from many parts of India “on the method and manner adopted by the jury in dealing with the artistes and subjecting them to unwarranted humiliation and putting them questions totally irrelevant to the declared purpose of the tests.” Perhaps the ministry could have paused to examine the history of such protests before setting out on the task of grading artistes once again, 63 years later.

The ministry is believed to have asked applicants to submit video clips of their work as samples for evaluation. Consequently, there are links to YouTube videos against the names of most applicants. Several of these videos are poorly recorded and cannot provide an adequate representation of an artiste’s work. Far worse, however, many of the applications have come from the family members of performing artistes. For example, a daughter applying on behalf of her vocalist father. The applicant name on record, therefore, is that of the daughter, but the YouTube videos are those of the father. If the applicant is rated Outstanding, will it be the daughter who claims the grade or the father? Event organizers too were asked to submit links to performances organized by them. What the jury examined, perhaps only for a few minutes, would have been videos of performances by various artistes—this, however, would not have given any indication of the vision and efficiency of the event organizer. If the ministry hoped to find efficient event organizers by including them in the gradation, the route it has taken may not be the best. And, if indeed poor recordings and videos are acceptable for gradation by the ministry, why are artistes not evaluated for upgradation on AIR and Doordarshan on the basis of their existing radio and television broadcasts? Why do they have to apply for upgradation repeatedly?

The very idea of making artistes and members of the creative community supplicants approaching the government or its many organizations for gradation is feudal and condescending.

Often, accompanying musicians are assigned a lower status than that enjoyed by the main or lead artistes. One of the admirable aspects of gradation by AIR and Doordarshan was the casting aside of such existing hierarchies. All artistes in a particular grade were treated as equals, irrespective of whether they were main artistes or accompanists. For example, a tabla accompanist would receive pretty much the same fee as a sitar exponent he/she accompanied if both were graded on par. And if the tabla accompanist had a higher grade than the main artiste, he/she would receive a larger fee. Disregarding this laudable policy followed by AIR and Doordarshan, the Festival of India cell chooses to offer Rs.50,000 to principal performers in the Outstanding grade and a mere Rs.7,000 to accompanying musicians in the Outstanding grade. Doing away with the gradation-based fee structure when dealing with dance and theatre groups, however, it offers a lump sum of Rs.75,000 for groups of up to 15 members, or Rs.1 lakh for groups with more than 15 members. As if this isn’t illogical enough, groups presenting rock, jazz, Bollywood, fusion and popular music are offered Rs.1 lakh for 10-member groups, and Rs.1.5 lakh for groups with 11-25 members. Whither equality and logic?

Instead of grading artistes, several of whom have already been graded by other arms of the government, it would have been advisable for the ministry to review its fee structure for artistes and make it more respectable, basing it on principles of equality.

Finally, an artiste sent to participate in Festivals of India overseas is expected to endure a cooling off period of two years before being considered for another event. If this is the law of the land, it should apply to politicians too and all politicians travelling overseas on government expense should also be made to undergo two-year-long cooling-off periods between overseas trips. And while at it, how about asking all politicians going overseas at taxpayer’s expense to also undergo gradation?

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