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Award selections cry for transparency

May 7, 2016

How the awards scene of today has changed! Gone are the days when merit was, if not the sole, certainly the main criterion. Memories go back to the sixties, when my father-in-law S.R. Balasubramaniam was conferred a Padma Shri for his path breaking research on the history of the Cholas of South India. When the names were first mentioned in the papers, I remember the sense of amazement in our home that a hard working scholar, away from the corridors of influence and power, should have been remembered for his contribution, with such a prestigious award. After the congratulatory messages followed by the ceremony, one does not recollect anybody mentioning the award, or tagging it on to the name as a title in season and out of season. This was unlawful.

The scenario of being conferred recognitions due to excellence seems to have been largely invaded by politics and aggressive lobbying for procuring awards. And predictably, after having successfully managed to be awarded, you cannot let people forget the fact, and every time you are referred to, the award has got to be mentioned as a part of you. Woe betide the compere who forgets to specially mention the guest of honour merely by name without tagging on the Padma Shri or whatever. Discreet reminders were made immediately to the announcer to make good the omission!

Awards for artistic excellence will invite criticism because the element of subjectivity in artistic preferences cannot be wished away. But even critics cannot disagree on the chosen person's general level of competence in the art form. SNA awards, notwithstanding anomalies, have by and large gone to deserving artists. But this year's mixed bag of selections has created a furore in the dance community, fuelling the perception that persuasions of other types, sans the guiding principle of artistic excellence, have been applied by selectors.

The SNA award for a certain Kuchipudi awardee, has created a storm of protest. I have never seen the person concerned in action and having been actively watching and commenting on the dance scene for the last 36 years, this anonymity by itself, does not speak flatteringly about the said dancer's contribution! No Indian dancer, residing even in Timbuktoo can be totally invisible.

What criteria prompted the selectors? There are dancers on the SNA Board, who one presumes are there to be heard - and not to sit as mute dolls. If they have made their opinions known loud and clear, (and according to all reports they expressed themselves in no uncertain terms) surely one cannot decide on an award on the basis of a show of hands or whatever method one has taken recourse to. Canvassing to have a person from the theatre arena or other- than-dance field to support a dancer (most have never seen perform) does not say much for the manner in which awards are judged.

Are there no guidelines of how to judge excellence and do we bring the entire exercise down to one of a show of hands? Why are the voices of the dancers in the Board not being heard? One learns that a Kuchipudi expert on the Board walked out in disgust at her opinions being disregarded. Since then the spate of comments on Facebook and what have you have made one feel, that there has to be greater transparency brought into this entire system - if it is to retain a degree of integrity and conviction and people's faith in the award.

Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.

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