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Sangeet Natak Akademi's New General Council
- Shanta Serbjeet Singh

April 27, 2015

By the time this edition of Base Notes is up, the new Governing Council of the national Sangeet Natak Akademi would have been constituted and functioning. Delhi know-alls are many. Many more are the conjecture specialists and the culture forecasters. First, for months, one has heard of all manner of names being floated around as the new Chairman of the Akademi. The punter's favourite horse, or in this case, mostly mares, were supposed to come straight from the 'horse's mouth.' But I have always wondered who that great oracular horse must have been who started this adage! And what did he forecast about!

Shekhar Sen
Shekhar Sen

In the event, the great knowers and keepers of state secrets of all matters, including the lowly field of culture, must be an embarrassed lot today. The choice narrowed upon a dark horse, to continue the 'sasta' pun (and with due apologies to literary buffs) was that of a modest Bhakti Sangeet specialist who lives in Bombay but hails from that RSS fortress town, Raipur. In fact Shekhar Sen's parents still live there. And he is relatively young, in his sixties. His was the only name of a performer who received the Padma Shri in the BJP Government's first Republic Honours list this year, pointing to the role of perhaps Raman Singh, the Chief Minister of the state in question, Chattisgarh.

As a matter of fact this whole region of the erstwhile Madhya Pradesh, before it was divided into Chattisgarh and Jharkhand was known for its generally very active cultural pulse. From famous pioneering festivals like Khajuraho to Bhopal's fine museums like the Adivasi Museum and the well-known and respected award schemes like Kalidas Samman, artists have a fondness for Madhya Pradesh. It goes beyond the fact that these awards, for many categories like folk, classical, contemporary, tribal, in the fields of both dance and music and for both men and women carrying names like Tulsi Das, Kabir, Ahalya Bai etc, have an all India thrust and carry a handsome purse.

My personal caveat with Madhya Pradesh, having tried, since the 70s, to help the state in its many cultural activities, as did my colleagues, Leela Venkataraman and Sunil Kothari, is that the top echelon of the MP cultural bureaucracy has become a coterie of corrupt, fat cats, sensitive only to pleasing their political masters and dead to the advice of caring experts, even on the rare occasions when they seek it out! One hopes that the CM Shivraj Chauhan will extend his known sensitivity for cultural issues to cleaning up the Aegean stables in his backyard.

The next area of conjecture was the names of the five government nominees who, together with the Chair, have a pivotal role in composing the General Council. They co-opt, by nomination, the experts like musicians and dancers, puppeteers and theatre practitioners, documentation and intangible culture experts who then form the GC. Once this process is completed, they elect the Vice Chairman from amongst this expanded body of all artistes.

A pivotal role is played by the five central nominees in this process. They are the 'Panj Piyare,' so called by me because of the five original disciples whom Guru Gobind Singh baptised for the creation of the Khalsa Panth. Of course, unlike the Five Beloved of Guru Gobind Singh, this quintet is not being asked for its head as the price of joining the SNA and in case you don't know the story I will tell you. On the contrary, these five are a privileged lot and indicate the pecking order in the corridors of power.

The 'Panj Piyare' or the beloved first five disciples of Guru Gobind Singh marked the birth of the Khalsa. This came about on 30 March 1699, at the historic Gurudwara Anandpur Sahib where a spanking new museum of Sikh history has now come up. Here the landscape is lush and verdant, a series of low-lying hills marking the start of the great Himalayas surrounding the town. At the behest of the Guru, the congregation sauntered down the hill where Gurudwara Anandpur Sahib is and a multitude mustered on the hill of where stands Gurudwara Keshgarh. The Guru remained busy in meditation and contemplation. He told the congregation that 1000 years ago Brahmins had created the brave community of Rajputs by performing a yagna of fire on Mount Abu. The Rajputs were valiant people, but they had failed to preserve the freedom of the Indian people from foreign oppression. He was going to perform the yagna of blood to create a new community braver and bolder than Rajputs to liberate the country from foreign oppression and tyranny. On the morning of 30th March, Guru sought God's blessings:

Thad bhayo main jor kar bachan kaha sar nyae
Panth chale tab jagat men jab tum ho sahae

(I stood up with folded hands and head bent down and said, the Panth can flourish in the world only with your help)

He entered a specially constructed canopy where a huge congregation was seated. Behind it there was a small tent which was closed on all sides and it could be entered from the canopy alone. One by one the Guru asked the congregation to utter the following call after him: (The salute of Sikhs was invented by him right then)

Jo bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal!
It means, whoever utters the name of the Immortal God is blessed.

The Guru explained that in order to safeguard their spiritual and temporal rights the people should not depend on fate. They ought to entrust this duty to themselves. They should individually feel any national wrong done, and collectively organise means to resist it. After an eloquent oration the Guru flashed his sword and said that every great deed was preceded by equally great sacrifice. The holy Sword would create a heroic nation after supreme sacrifice. The need of the hour, he told them, was for sacrificial blood. The Guru demanded a devotee in whose heart he would plunge his sword. This sent a wave of horror in the audience. He repeated it in a sterner and more sonorous voice. All were terror-stricken and there was no response at the first and second call. At the third call, Daya Ram, a Khatri of village Dalla in District Lahore, rose in his seat and expressed willingness to lay down his life. He was led into an adjoining tent and asked to sit there quietly. Gobind Rai (until then the 'Singh" had not been adopted ) dipped his sword blade into a vessel full of goats blood. He came back with the sword dripping with blood, and asked the congregation for another head. One by one he repeated the ritual and then he stopped at the mystical number five. He ordered the curtain separating the tent from the canopy to be removed. All were wonder struck to see the five men standing hale and hearty. The whole hill top rang with loud applause and thunderous clap of hands.

After their baptism, the Guru stood before these five beloved ones and requested them to baptise him in the same manner. They pleaded their unfitness for such a performance. The Guru replied that he was not superior to his devoted disciples. His superiority lay in one thing. The Guru had attained salvation, nirwan while his disciples were in the process of attaining it. He told them, "The Khalsa is the Guru and the Guru is the Khalsa. There is no difference between me and you." The word Khalsa, therefore has the sacredness of number five as well as the presence of God with his new 'singhs,' a corruption of 'shishya', both engaged in a pleasant conversation.

Wasifuddin Dagar
Wasifuddin Dagar

Coming back to more mundane matters like the SNA's current General Council, the new five are Kalapini Komkali, Wasifuddin Dagar, Anup Ranjan Pande and Deepak Karanjikar. The absence of any nominee from the South is glaring but withal, at their first meeting of co-option of others from the field, the selection is good. In the first round of selection they have invited artistes of eminence like Malavika Sarrukai, Karaikudi Mani, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and Pandit Birju Maharaj to join.

Singer Kalapini Komkali with mother Vasundhara
Singer Kalapini Komkali with mother Vasundhara, wife of Kumar Gandharva, affectionately called "tai" by all

The exercise also points to the culturally active persons in the BJP ruled states. For instance, besides the Chairman Shekhar Sen, two other members, Kalapini Komkali and Anup Ranjan Pandey are from the erstwhile Madhya Pradesh. Kalapani of course is the well-known inheritor of the musical legacy of the formidable Kumar Gandharva while Anup Ranjan Pandey is an expert on folk art from Chattisgarh. Here is wishing them a fruitful innings!

Shanta Serbjeet Singh
Shanta Serbjeet Singh, for twenty-five years, columnist, critic and media analyst for The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Times of India, is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and Delhi Govt.'s Sahitya Kala Parishad for her contribution to the field of culture. She just finished her term as Vice Chairman of the SNA, is the founder-secretary of the World Culture Forum and continues as Chair of the UNESCO created NGO APPAN (The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network), a position to which she was appointed in 2001. Singh has authored several well-known publications such as 'Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor' (published by Ravi Kumar (Paris), 'The 50th Milestone: A Feminine Critique' (Sterling Publishers, to mark India's fiftieth anniversary of Independence), 'Nanak, The Guru' (Oxford University Press) and 'America and You' (22 editions).

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