SNA expands the Awards canvas
- Shanta Serbjeet Singh, New Delhi

October 15, 2009

No one really remembers who the first Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, back in 1952 when it was founded by a special Act of Parliament, was. It was none other than the Maharaja of Mysore. His address in the SNA documentation was a simple "The Palace" and his occupation none other than the "Governor of Mysore." Nor are artistes of today bothered with how seriously everyone took culture back then, underlined by the fact that Mrs. Indira Gandhi followed the Maharaja and a host of luminaries subsequently led the nascent Akademi to developing a vision which is still in place and even, I am happy to report, growing.

Take their scheme of annual awards and fellowships. These are considered by many as more prestigious than even the Padma awards. There is good news for those who qualify for these schemes. Prospective awardees, in all categories, can savour the good news that in both numbers and purse money there is a substantial escalation. To begin with, the changes in the purse meant for the newest and the youngest category, under 35, the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puruskar. This has been doubled from Rs.25,000 to Rs.50,000. But a caveat has also been added - if no one qualifies in a particular style of dance and music, classical or folk, or any other category that the award is given in, it will just be withheld. Good. The seal of excellence must be observed otherwise the young will lose respect for it, a key quotient for any worthwhile award.

The purse of the main SNA awards, a source of great joy and - of course - a lot of heartburn and controversy-generating activity, including, of late, heavy-duty lobbying, has also been doubled. While a special awards review committee of the Academy will soon fix the categories in which there will be many more awards than before, the numbers may even go up to 50 and beyond if current discussions are a guide. The money, too, has doubled to a cool Rs.1 lakh from the previous Rs.50,000. But it is in the category of Akademi Fellows, the highest honour the nation has to bestow on culture workers, and one which looks at those in their 70s and above, that the Ministry of Culture has increased the numbers to 30 and raised the purse money from the present one lakh to Rs.3 lakhs. And it doesn't end there. The Fellows will also get a monthly stipend of Rs.10,000. This plus an insurance scheme for all categories is bound to go a long way in enhancing the self-esteem of all culture workers.

One night with the DIAF ladies
DIAF, what, who? Well, Delhi is no longer asking 'what' anymore. The Delhi International Arts Festival (DIAF) is now in its third year, a multi-arts, multi-venue festival that aims to be Delhi's signature festival. DIAF 2007 was spread over 17 days, had 19 segments, 40 venues, 85 performances and 900 artistes. By 2008, it had grown to 24 days, 35 segments, 75 venues, 300 performances and over 3000 artistes. In just one year, the international component had grown 300 % and only one segment, the Delhi International Literary Festival had 30 published authors from different parts of the world. DIAF is still growing and this year even got the official branding from the Commonwealth Games, to be staged in Delhi next October, having received that of 'Incredible India' last year. So, in effect this year's fest was timed for October 3rd so as to begin the count down to one hundred days to the big Games next year.

As for 'who,' well, that too is no longer a mystery. The DIAF logo, seen all over Delhi, in huge banners and stands, bus Qs and in full page humongous ads in newspapers as well as big promos and programmes in DD, its broadcast partner, is the image of a curvaceous, bimbette dancer with eight-arms, holding the many tools that a modern belle needs, from a pen and a laptop to an electric iron. Of course the real two ladies of DIAF, Bharatanatyam dancer Prathibha Prahlad and arts writer and manager, Arshiya Sethi, are 100-armed, no less. Let me illustrate this by recounting to you just one evening, that of October 10th, that I spent with the DIAF ladies and their all-women team of efficient young volunteers.

It is 7pm and we are at the Park Hotel, just in time for the start of their literary segment, a panel discussion on "The Word and the World." The moderator is Ashok Vajpayee, Vice-Chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi, the participants are N Satchidananda, former Chairman of the Sahitya Akademi, Tarun Tejpal, editor of Tehelka and the well-known Javed Akhtar. But where are the two DIAF ladies? One, Arshiya is introducing Hansraj Hans, the popular singer, at the Ashoka Theatre, packed to the gills, except that this is an open-air venue. The other, Prathibha is doing much the same at the Red Fort where Sonu Nigam has an audience of some 25,000, hollering for him to begin, while he is shooing away the twenty odd camera setups, furious that while he has accepted much less than his normal fee, because this is billed as a 'people's festival,' the channelwalas are trying to ride on his coat tails. Meanwhile, Drupadia Wasiffuddin Dagar at the Habitat open-air stage has never had such a huge and appreciative audience and it is the same with the Mridangam-tabla quartet between Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam, Sairam Sundaram, Hashmat Ali Khan and Akram Khan. There are some more venues, buzzing, with films and dance and Western music, a special youth focus at the Epicentre, the Gurgaon branch of the Habitat Centre, and the latest from the Chandni Chowk venue of Town Hall is that there is a mini riot there for entry to the Wadali Brothers and Talat Aziz night. So, all in all, considering that few of the many sponsorship logos on their publicity brochures, particularly the public part of their experiment in private-public partnership, have actually delivered, the DIAF ladies can certainly give themselves a pat on the back. Ah well! When did the creative people ever have it easy! It is enough that DIAF has survived its birth pangs.

Shanta Serbjeet Singh, for twenty-five years, columnist, critic and media analyst for The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Times of India, India's most important mainstream English dailies, is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the premier Government cultural institution of India in 2000 and the same from Delhi Govt.'s Sahitya Kala Parishad in 2003 for her contribution to the field of culture.

She is on the Central Audition Board of Doordarshan, India's national television, as well as the selection committees of several prestigious government bodies involved in culture such as The Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Department of Culture. She was a member of the Tenth Five Year Plan Committee for Cultural Policy and of the First National Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

Singh has authored several best selling books on Indian arts such as 'Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor,' 'The 50th Milestone: A Feminine Critique,' 'Nanak, The Guru' and 'America and You' (22 editions).

As elected Chairperson of APPAN (The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network) for the past nine years, she has individually organized and helped her team of eminent artistes to organize eight international symposiums and festivals in several Asian countries and in the United States. APPAN, set up in 1999 by UNESCO, has, with the collaboration of UNESCO, pioneered the concept of delivering stress therapy, in particular in disaster-prone situations such as the tsunami and earthquake victims. The pilot project of this series was done under her leadership in four Asian countries after the tsunami of 2005 and another for the cyclone affected of Myanmar in 2008. Singh is the founder-Secretary of The World Culture Forum -India and Director of WCF-India's first Global WCF to be held in New Delhi in 2011.