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August 1, 2019

Sangeet Natak Awards suspense ends without much drama

List comes out unaltered after some general council members threatened to resign in case of any change under pressure.
By Vasudha Venugopal, ET Bureau | Jul 27, 2019, 07.51 AM IST

Culture ministry allegedly sought to review antecedents of artistes to avoid another ‘award wapsi’.

NEW DELHI: The Sangeet Natak Akademi, the national academy for music, dance and drama, refused to reconsider its list for the 2018 Akademi Puraskar, with some members of its general council threatening to resign if the list was altered, ET has learnt.

This followed a move, allegedly by the Ministry of Culture—which has oversight of the Akademi—to review the antecedents of the 44 artistes chosen for the awards, which were announced on July 16. This may have been aimed at preventing the recurrence of 2015’s ‘award wapsi’ campaign, said people with knowledge of the matter. Officials in the culture ministry, however, said it only sought to ensure there were no “technical errors” in the selection process.

Top ministry officials enquired about “certain names” on the list and asked if the Akademi could consider looking at a few others for possible inclusion instead, said one of two general council members. The general council of more than 70 members deliberates on and decides the list of awardees.

“We had made it clear that not a single name should be different on the list, otherwise we might need to resign,” said a member who didn’t want to be named. Those involved in the selection process said ministry officials checked for political alignments or views supporting movements against the government.

Winners Announced after 20 Days
Sangeet Natak Akademi chairman Shekhar Sen declined to comment on whether there was a move to review the names, while a spokesperson for the culture ministry did not respond to ET's questions.

The ministry took more than 20 days to announce the awards after the general council decided on the names at a marathon 11-hour meeting in Guwahati on June 26. Typically, the awards are announced two-three days after the council decides the names.

A general council member at the Akademi, who refused to be identified, said dancer and Rajya Sabha member Sonal Mansingh was among those who had sought a vetting of those selected for government awards.

“She did feel that it is important to honour the right kind of people for the current ecosystem to grow and that we must stop honouring the same kind of people,” he said.

The Akademi member said she had expressed her doubts regarding some names decided by the council, and suggested they be dropped. When queried about this, and on whether the general council had been asked to review the list of awardees, Mansingh declined to comment. She was named a fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in the July 16 announcement.

“The general council was informally nudged to review the list, but since the suggestion was not taken in the right spirit, we did not push it,” said the member cited above.

The council, which represents the interests of artists across India, “had spent much time and effort in deciding the final winners and it was important to maintain the integrity of the process,” Akademi chairman Sen said. “I am just doing my duty, of safeguarding the dignity of the institution. The word of the council is final in these matters.”

One of the recipients, Karnataka theatre director S Raghunandan, declined his award last week on account of the “country's atmosphere of hatred and lynching.”

“The process of deciding the winners was absolutely democratic,” said Bala Bharati, an artist and member of the general council. “There was voting on almost eight names. I still don't understand why there was so much delay in announcing (the awards).” Apart from the technical reasons mentioned above, the ministry had to conduct certain checks on artistes before announcing the list, said an official.

“Last year, there was a person who was named under #Me-Too (campaign against sexual harassment on social media) and he was accidentally nominated. There are also technical classifications such as theatre artiste, folk dancer, singer and composer, which need to be specified," the official said.

Last year, the cultural wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Sanskar Bharti, had raised concerns about honouring playwright Sunil Shanbag. It said he had been part of the ‘award wapsi’ campaign. The RSS affiliate also said Shanbaug had publicly criticised the government’s alleged hold over cultural institutions.

Vyomesh Shukla, another member of the Akademi’s general council from Lucknow, said the council should not look at “the political views of every artiste that it seeks to reward.” “We have to be clear that an artiste has his views on what goes around him and we should be respectful of that,” Shukla said. “It shouldn't stop us from appreciating his work.”

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