Fact Check: Has the Narendra Modi Govt Really Given India’s Cultural Institutions a ‘Facelift’?

The culture minister has three more years to go. One can only hope that at least all vacancies in the cultural institutes are filled before he releases any future self-signed progress reports.

Culture minister Mahesh Sharma. Credit: Reuters

Culture minister Mahesh Sharma. Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma recently claimed that the country’s cultural institutions, which were “in total ruins” before the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power at the Centre two years ago, were given a “facelift” by the government. Cultural institutions run on public money and clearly must serve the purpose they were assigned, particularly premier institutions that enjoy a greater share of government funds. So how does Sharma’s self-attested progress report stack up against the facts? The Wire did a quick audit.

Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML)

The NMML, an autonomous institution under the Ministry of Culture, is considered one of the premier centres of research on the social sciences, attached with a museum that celebrated India’s freedom movement and highlights the life and times of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru – all housed in a building where Nehru spent the last 16 years of his life. Every year, the library awards fellowships to scholars to carry forward work on a range of intellectual pursuits. A fellowship here is a much sought after opportunity for anyone interested in making a mark in the social sciences.

Since mid-September 2015, however, the NMML has been running without a full-fledged director.

The government reconstituted the NMML Board in April 2015 and began making the necessary noises in the media about the intent to have a change of guard at the director level too, even though the UPA government had extended the tenure of Mahesh Rangarajan. This prompted Rangarajan to step down as director five months later. Seven months on, however, Sharma seems undecided on Rangarajan’s replacement and still needs a “few weeks’ time”.

Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Credit: Wikimedia Commobs

Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

So far, the day-to-day activities of the NMML have been taken care of by a joint secretary the ministry, Sunil Mittal, who has been given additional charge. Direct rule by the Ministry has robbed the institution of its autonomy.

Last year, Rs. 10 crore was set aside to give NMML a “facelift”. The work, supervised by a sub-committee headed by BJP spokesperson M. J. Akbar, also the vice chairman of NMML’s new executive council, continues. However, the “facelift” in this case seems more of a “cleansing” act. With the name ‘Nehru’ attached to the institution, it is apparent that the BJP sees the institution in its current form more as a Congress legacy than a national bequest. No surprise then that the ministry expressed its aim “to focus on the evolution of Indian democracy and highlight recent achievements” through the exercise. The decision has attracted criticism from many quarters, including the Congress, which decried the effort to undermine the role of Nehru in the freedom struggle under the guise of a “facelift”.

“The present government may think that the museum is all about Nehru but a walk around here doesn’t give the idea that even if it is the former residence of Nehru, it is only about him. Among others, it also features Veer Savarkar, the man who coined the term Hindutva,” says a museum official who doesn’t want to be named here.

Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA)

The IGNCA, established by former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985 in memory of his mother Indira Gandhi, also functions under the ministry of culture, and focuses on academic pursuits and the dissemination of the arts.

Recently, the ministry rejigged the IGNCA’s board of trustees. Former diplomat Chinmaya Gharekhan was replaced as board president by senior Hindi journalist Ram Bahadur Rai, with dancer Sonal Mansingh, artist Vasudeo Kamath and Bollywood lyricist Prasoon Joshi joining the 19-member board. Nothing out of the ordinary here, considering Gharekhan held the post since 2007.

It is typical of a government in power to choose people it thinks it can trust for these posts. Thus, Rai, a former news editor at Jansatta and a former national president of the BJP-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, was ushered in. On hindsight, it seems he was readied since 2015 for the prestigious post, with the government conferring a Padma Shri on him. Rai’s other claims to fame are books on two former prime ministers, Chandrasekhar and V.P. Singh, and being the patron of the Integrated Talent Development Mission (ITDM), a social organisation constituted in 2012 to work among the youth based on the ideology of Swami Vivekananda. ITDM works in close proximity with right-wing associations.

The ministry is, however, yet to fill the post of IGNCA’s member secretary, even though an advertisement for the post was issued in September 2014.

This correspondent spoke to some artistes and cultural connoisseurs (who wish to remain anonymous) who regularly attend IGNCA programmes to understand what they make of the changes at the institute. All pointed out only one initiative that they found “interesting” – Project Mausam. Launched in June 2014, Project Mausam is an endeavour to understand how the knowledge and manipulation of the monsoon winds shaped interactions across the Indian Ocean, leading to the spread of shared knowledge systems, traditions, technologies and ideas along maritime routes. The recently-concluded travelling exhibition, ‘Africans in India” A Rediscovery,’ which traces the contribution of the Africans in the socio-cultural heritage of India, was held at the IGNCA as a part of this initiative, though the inputs were external.

National School of Drama (NSD)

Not far from IGNCA stands the NSD, another premier cultural institute. Since last year, Sharma has been pretty generous to the NSD, both in terms of promises made and funds released.

For a long time, the NSD had been urging the ministry to change its status to that of an institution of national importance, which can only be done through an act of parliament. According to sources in the NSD, Sharma has not only promised the status to the institute but has also begun drafting a bill to that effect.

The ministry is planning to hold an international theatre olympiad at the NSD in 2018. Additionally, since last year, the ministry has set aside Rs. 180 crore, to be staggered through five years, to improve the infrastructure of the institute, such as by building more classrooms, hostels and completing repair work.

Veteran theatre director and former NSD faculty K.S. Rajendran says, “I am glad that a huge sum is coming to the NSD. Unfortunately, it is meant only for infrastructure and not to improve the quality of the institute, say, spending on training, setting up more regional drama schools, etc. After all, it is ridiculous that in a country of 1.8 billion people, only 26 students are given admission at the NSD every year.”

Rajendran retired from the institute last year as associate professor of drama. His post is yet to be filled. “I still teach the students as a guest lecturer. Not just my post but those of former lecturers like Robin Das, Kirti Sharma and Anuradha Kapur, who retired much before me, have been left vacant.”

Rajendran makes a pertinent point about the olympiad. “Such jamborees take the attention away from what NSD is mandated for – training of people. In fact, not just this festival but so many others are now being organised by NSD that it now looks more like a national institute of theatre festivals than a drama school. No theatre person will be against a festival as it gives them a platform and an audience but why deflect from what the NSD is supposed to do? Why not create a separate entity for theatre festivals, like we have the Directorate of Film Festivals?”

Rabindra Bhawan, Delhi which houses the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Lalit Kala Akademi and Sahitya Akademi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Rabindra Bhawan, Delhi which houses the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Lalit Kala Akademi and Sahitya Akademi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Lalit Kala Akademi

A stone’s throw away from the NSD is the Lalit Kala Akademi, the country’s national academy of art. In April 2015, the ministry disbanded the academy’s governing body, the general council and the executive committee, but is yet to reconstitute them. Instead, additional secretary K. K. Mittal was made its administrator.

However, the man who practically conducts the academy’s everyday affairs is secretary Sudhakar Sharma, against whom former chairperson K. Chakravarty wrote a letter to President Pranab Mukherjee, urging him to look into the alleged financial bungling by Sudhakar. Chakravarty had put Sudhakar under suspension, his second time since 2011, on similar charges made during the tenure of the earlier chairperson Ashok Vajpeyi.

The scope of financial bungling in the academy is higher than at other cultural bodies as it has a revenue model. It is the only sarkari arts institution that has a physical space that is rented out for exhibitions, through which it earns a tidy sum every year.

The ministry, instead of looking into the chairperson’s allegations, removed him from the post and reinstated Sharma.

“That he has been able to return to his post even after serious charges have been levelled against him points to the fact that he has the backing of the ministry,” states well known photographer Ram Rahman.

In 2013, Rahman made a presentation on the alleged financial bungling by Sudhakar at the Lalit Kala Akademi before the parliamentary standing committee on culture. In a report submitted to Rajya Sabha chairman Hamid Ansari, the committee pointed out that secretaries of the cultural institutions, including the Lalit Kala Akademi, were manned by the people who have little idea or knowledge about how to manage arts and culture. Instead, it suggested, “A cultural cadre distinct from the regular administrative cadre needs to be created to undertake the functioning of the Akademis, museums and all other cultural institutions.” The culture minister’s “facelift” exercise is yet to take that report into account.

Although the ministry did not act against Sudhakar, it did take action again B. Venugopal, director of Kolkata’s Indian Museum, who was questioned by the state CID over the mysterious disappearance of museum conservator Sunil Upadhay. Venugopal was replaced by J. Sengupta, the former curator of the Victoria Memorial, last June, reportedly for a one-year term. If not a “facelift”, this move is certainly a face saver for the ministry.

Sahitya Akademi

The Sahitya Akademi holds one of the most important multi-lingual libraries in India, with a collection of over two lakh books. The institute was in the news recently when many top writers and poets returned their Akademi awards, and some others tendered their resignation from its various committees, in protest against its “failure to stand by the writers’ freedom of expression”.

One such celebrated critic who resigned from the Akademi committees is K. Satchidanandan. Speaking to The Wire, the acclaimed Malayalam author, who once served as the secretary of the Akademi, particularly points out the ministry’s failure to give a boost to the Indian Literature Abroad (ILA), an ambitious government plan started in 2010 that involved some of the finest writers to project the country’s literary canon on the international stage. The idea was conceived by Ashok Vajpeyi along the lines of what former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee envisioned. The mandate was to translate Indian regional literature into eight foreign languages recognised by UNESCO.

“Now, none of the people involved in the project seem to know its status,” says Satchidanandan, also a part of ILA.

Sharma has also paid no attention to filling posts that have been lying vacant at the Akademi, although Satchidanandan’s position has been filled by Malashri Lal. Instead, the corridors of the Akademi are abuzz with talk of “continuous ministry and Rashtriya Sawayamsevak Sangh interference in every meeting” even though it is an autonomous body. Satchidandan reacts, “I can’t say about now but I was the secretary during the Vajpayee government and can’t recall any incident where I was told to do the government’s bidding.”

Other institutes

Last year, the Sangeet Natak Akademi too saw a new chairperson. Four months after the previous government’s nominee, Leela Samson, resigned from the post, Shekhar Sen, a Bhajan singer who had also done mono-acts on Vivekananda, Surdas and Kabir among others, was chosen as the new chairperson in January. Sen was also conferred the Padma Shri by the government in 2015.

Last year, Sharma removed the National Museum’s director general Venu Vasudevan, who was halfway through his three-year term at that time. Vasudevan is credited with bringing in a much-needed vibrancy to the museum. It was during his time that four galleries were revived, a new garden café began, the museum’s outreach programme was strengthened and the premise was let open to scholars and interested students for research. Among other crucial changes, he also put up landmark exhibitions like ‘Nauras’ and ‘Body of Indian Art’, and planned a section for the visually impaired – the first by any government-owned museum. Some media reports say Vasudevan’s measures led to a 30% increase in visitors within a year and a 112% increase in merchandise sale.

Protesting Vasudevan’s removal, many prominent people from the field of culture, including Gulzar, Romila Thapar, Ranjit Hoskote, Girish Karnad and Vajpeyi, petitioned the ministry to reinstate him. Noted art historian B. N. Goswamy, who was part of the selection committee that picked Vasudevan, said, “I wrote to the Prime Minister urging him to allow him to finish his term as he was brought under that understanding from the ministry and also that he will not hold a dual charge but I failed to get a reply.” Joint Secretary Sanjeev Mittal was given dual charge for some time until bureaucrat Sonia Sethi was brought in as the National Museum’s new director general.

Although Sethi’s name appears as the National Museum’s new director general, Sharma, in a written reply  to the Lok Sabha on April 25, named it among the five museums that are presently headless due to “non-availability of suitable candidates” and “litigation”.

Besides the National Museum, he said the post of directors are lying vacant in the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai and Bengaluru, the Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad, and also the Indian Museum.

The National Archives of India is also being run by a joint secretary on dual charge. Pankaj Rag was given additional duty in December last year.

Sharma has three more years to go. One can only hope that at least all vacancies in these institutions are filled before he releases any future self-signed progress reports.