Bengaluru: More than two dozen writers have returned their Sahitya Akademi awards, criticizing the institution’s silence over the murder of rationalist and Kannada scholar M.M. Kalburgi and other incidents that they see as instances of growing intolerance in the country.
But ever wondered what will happen to all those awards, and cheques that the writers have returned to the Akademi, which is India’s national academy of letters?
Apparently, even if the writers want to return their awards, there is no place for those cheques to go in the Akademi, which is most likely to return them to the writers, who do not want them in the first place.
The Akademi cannot encash any cheques other than those deposited by its sole patron, the government of India, in its main account in a Canara Bank branch in Delhi, says Sreenivasa Rao, the Akademi secretary who is the authority for all financial transactions at the institution.
The Sahitya Akademi’s annual budget, overseen by a general council representing about 100 writers from 22 languages across the country, comes to nearly ₹ 26 crore, says Rao. Apart from some ₹ 2.6 crore in revenue coming from around 560 self-published books that the Akademi sells every year, it depends solely on funding from government to meet its expenses, including that needed to hold some 460 events annually, says Rao.
The situation is more or less similar at other such institutions in the art and cultural sphere—such as the National Book Trust, the Nehru Museum and Library or the University of Nalanda—all embroiled in controversy involving “government interference" right now.
Should not this technical difficulty throw up a question of a crucial inadequacy in the way in which India’s art and cultural institutions are funded?
As art critic Sadanand Menon asks, can we expect any institution fully funded by the government not getting arm-twisted by the political party in power?
“In the Indian context, the Union government, with a minuscule 0.08% of the total national budget, is the sole patron of major arts and cultural institutions. Even as they try not to make it politically obvious, the institutions are dependent on the party in power—sometimes more, sometimes less," says Menon.
Illustrating how this gets practised, he points out a letter sent out by the culture ministry to all major art institutions after the National Democratic Alliance government came to power in 2014.
“They sent a memorandum of understanding (MoU)to cultural institutions under it such as Sahitya Akademi, Lalit Kala Akademi and FTII (Film and Television Institute of India). The first sentence said this is an MoU between the ministry and the so-and-so institution. The second sentence said henceforth, this organization is a subordinate agency of the ministry of culture," said Menon.
“That is a completely unheard-of formulation. That means at one stroke you are nullifying your advisory body and the governing council and the ministry automatically becomes supreme," he said.
So then, is it time we start thinking about such instituions raising their own funds in the country?
“That would possibly be a solution, except that then these institutions may be influenced by those financing them, whose interests again may not be entirely innocent," said writer, diplomat and legislator Shashi Tharoor.
“Whereas a body like the Film Censor Board could easily be turned over to the movie industry to finance and run, it is doubtful that the Sahitya Akademi would be able to raise sufficient funds from the literary community alone, and may be obliged to seek corporate sponsorship with the same risks of outside influence from their benefactors," he said.
He pointed out that “patronizing art" is something the private sector already does—“for instance, tobacco companies have replaced the maharajas of old as patrons of classical music and dance."
“But running cultural institutions is a different matter since they involve issues of peer recognition, awards and financial support for performers. Even Western democracies like the US or Germany rely heavily on taxpayer financing for bodies like the (American) National Endowment for the Arts, though they may also be free to accept private sponsorships, which our institutions tend to eschew," he said.
To be sure, the protests are not about returning cheques, but more of a symbolic act of returning the engraved copper plaque they receive from the Akademi. Nayantara Sahgal, who started it, won the award in 1986.
Rahul Chandran in Bengaluru contributed to this story.