Culture Ministry May Have Lowered Its Own Rating With the New Grading System For Artists

While the ministry’s new ‘Outstanding’ category of artists puts stalwarts alongside young practitioners for festivals of India abroad, the ‘Promising’ section has organisations that call themselves NGOs.

Sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi: Devaang Jain has reason to be thrilled. “This year has been particularly great,” he tells this correspondent from his home city, Jaipur.

Among the 185 artistes and others, which the union culture ministry has graded as per its new system for eligibility for participation in festivals of India abroad, Jain has been rated ‘O’ for outstanding.

Of the 46 rated ‘O’ by the ministry according to a June 2 memorandum uploaded on its website this week, he is perhaps the youngest in that category.

At 26, Jain shares space with some of the stalwarts of Indian cultural firmament – Carnbatic vocalist T. V. Gopalakrishnan, Bharatanatyam dancer Saroja Vaidyanathan, Gopal Sharman and Jalabala Vaidya’s Akshara Theatre, vocalist Sumitra Guha, Odissi dancers Mayadhar Raut and Ranjana Gauhar, Kathak dancers Shovana Narayan and Gitanjali Lal, Mohan Upreti’s Parvatiya Kala Kendra, et al.

Compared to these veterans, Jain is fairly unknown. He identifies himself as “a filmmaker who specialises in archeology, heritage and travel, a field rarely explored in India.” His claim to fame is two television series, which ran on Doordarshan last year.

“Yes, it is an honour to be selected in the outstanding category, but it is by dint of our quality work. Our company Sukhnidhey Films has made over 108 episodes for Doordarshan so far. The show ‘Bharat Darshan – Exploring the Unexplored’ ran for 52 episodes [and] so did our other program, ‘Jambudweep – A Journey Through Incredible India’. Yet another series, ‘Highway’ has begun  on Doordarshan Rajasthan,” said Jain.

A graduate of the Malaviya National Institute of Technology (MNIT), Jaipur, Jain has been making films for the past seven years.

“I started making films when I was studying in MNIT. This April, one of our films, Art from the Past, was screened in Johannesburg, while a film on the forts of Ranthambore will be screened this October in the International Archeology Film Festival in Italy,” he said.

Sharing space with him in the ministry’s ‘O’ list is young Kathakali exponent, Prabal Gupta.

A May 2014 review of a dance performance by Gupta in The Hindu says, “Prabal is in the process of maturing. He has a fair amount of technical virtuosity that includes footwork, arm movements and movements of the facial muscles. Though he does not carry the expertise, the stiffness and experience of seasoned ensemble artists, his sense of timing and dramatisation is impressive. He was able to hold his own during the performance.”

When The Wire contacted Bangalore-based Gupta, he was “busy conducting a workshop” but added that “ The fact that ministry has empanelled me as outstanding certainly means [that] I have the calibre for it. There are stalwarts in that group.”

Delhi-based Shivendra Kumar Singh’s Raaggiri features in the ‘O’ category as well. A former sports journalist with ABP News and Zee TV, Singh is the managing trustee of Raaggiri, which he describes as “a platform that works in two levels. One, to promote classical music by holding programmes of well known names and two, by imparting training in music to the underprivileged section of the society.”

Formed in 2015, Raaggiri has till date organised programmes by vocalists like Shubha Mudgal and Malini Awasthi among others, and runs music classes for visually impaired children in the city’s National Association for The Blind and for underprivileged children in a gurudwara in south Delhi. “Also, once in one or two months, we organise music programmes for old age homes,” he adds.

Singh is happy at the new categorisation system adopted by the ministry. “Classical music has been run by a group of 20-25 artistes. They are the big names. We respect them, but it is time for Indian classical music to go beyond them. If a big vocalist is selected for a festival of India, he will himself sing there and take along singers from his own gharana. But if we are invited, we will bring together artistes from various gharanas. Our aim will be to showcase those who hardly get a platform,” he told The Wire.

Here, Singh certainly reflects culture minister Mahesh Sharma’s stated sentiments on the working out of the new grading system.

Speaking to the Indian Express on July 18, Sharma said, “There was this usual allegation that only a selected few artistes or a group of artistes participated at various events. We want to send them [the newly graded artistes] to various places as per their grading. It will also fix their honorarium permanently. We will prepare an index. We can then invite them anytime and send them anywhere.”

Sharma’s ministry, in the process of grading artistes, may have adopted some rather odd categories – Outstanding (O), Promising (P) and Waiting (W) – but to rate an artist is not an eyebrow raising exercise in the country. It isn’t anything new.

All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan have been holding periodic auditions to grade artists for their programming for decades. It is a known fact that an ‘A’ grade from the AIR is a big advantage in a musician’s resume, besides providing access to better financial support.

Renowned music critic and literary commentator, Kuldeep Kumar, points out that “The auditions for AIR and Doordarshan are different from this new system because the government is not directly involved in the exercise. It has a selection committee comprising experts from the fields. There are no bureaucrats involved. At times, there are allegations of bias against particular artists but there is no denying that the experts know their subject well. They listen to the applicants, watch them perform live, ask them questions on theory of music and dance and then grade them.”

But, according to Kumar, “In this case, you have to fill up a very basic form which doesn’t reflect the artist’s work much. Then, all you need to do is upload a video.”

This new system, he fears, will enable anyone to call himself an international artist.

“Art needs years of dedicated work, not a mere music or a dance video. Even to get admission in Delhi University on [an] arts quota, an applicant has to perform live.”

The 185 artists who made it to the three categories had all responded to an advertisement issued by the ministry at the end of 2015. They were then graded “by a high powered committee of bureaucrats and selected artists.”

Raising another pertinent point, Kumar said, “Being invited by the government to perform at a festival of India event is a prestigious thing for an artist. It indicates that the artist’s work has been noticed without he/she needing to go to the government. It is different from seeking eligibility by filling up a form, which can be filled up by someone even with one year of experience. The difference in terms of age and experience in the ‘O’ category itself shows [that] fairly young practitioners of art have been put together with the gurus.”

As per the June 2 memorandum issued by the ministry, those marked ‘O’ or ‘P’ will be selected for festivals of India abroad and the ones with a ‘W’ will obviously have to wait, though it is unclear how long their waiting period will be. The memo says that there will be a cooling off period of two years before a participant can be selected for another government of India event abroad.

“No self-respecting artist with many years of work behind him/her would like to be a part of it. Some do because they need state patronage as unfortunately there is no other way of financing creative work,” said Kumar.

Perhaps for this reason, many senior artists that The Wire contacted – some of them in the Ministry’s O list – preferred to keep quiet on the new grading system.

“I have no comments on this subject. However, I would say every musician can live in the hearts of the people of India or the world, something that goes beyond the grades,” Sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan said.

The new grading system will also apply to those who indulge in “written literature”. However, the writers’ fraternity is not found wanting in on the issue.

Renowned writer Nayantara Sahgal, expressed her opinion on the issue on the Indian Cultural Forum (ICF), a New Delhi-based platform of readers and writers that celebrates India’s plural literary heritage, “This comes as no surprise. It has been government policy to control freedom of thought in every sphere – science, art, and literature. This particular measure, as I understand it, applies to ‘the official cultural space’, i.e. the events for which the government chooses participants. It cannot affect festivals of literature all over the world or film and other festivals for which participants are invited by the festival organisers themselves, and are not government-sponsored or controlled. It is, in any case, an appalling but expected measure, and one that artists, writers etc. who seek government patronage should deal with. We should make it clear we are not in that category and utterly reject this ridiculous fiat.”

Among others, former Sahitya Akademi secretary and celebrated Malayalam poet, K. Satchidanandan also wrote on ICF.

“It is a national shame. No self-respecting writer or artist can put in an application to be graded and included in festival teams. And the state has no business deciding the value of art and artists. That is something that time and the community of concerned sahrudayas and critics and the larger society do, and they do it constantly and variously. This is the sure way to favouritism, nepotism, corruption, and the play of professional jealousy and rivalry. I know that AIR and DD have been doing this to musicians and dancers to fix their honorarium. Even that was bad. Now all artists, and even writers, are being coaxed into this new servitude of a forced hierarchy. The community should say a big no to this stupid exercise. This is another example of the state entering autonomous cultural realms and playing the police and the nursery teacher.”

On being contacted by The Wire, Satchidanandan elaborated, “All the three akademis and the National School of Drama give annual awards to writers, artistes and theatre persons based on their work. These awards. Artistes have so far been selected for these festivals and other events based on such recognitions. By bringing in this new grading system, those awards are being undermined. In a way, the government is questioning the autonomous nature of these institutions set up during Jawaharlal Nehru’s time and want to become the ultimate judge of cultural practitioners.”

As per ministry officials, the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training (CCRT), an autonomous institution under the ministry, is the nodal agency for the grading project titled Cultural Mapping of India, and has already profiled nearly 70 lakh artistes and writers.

To implement the system as the norm henceforth, the Festival of India Cell of the ministry issued a fresh advertisement dated July 4 “seeking proposal/application for empanelment of artistes/events to take part in various festivals abroad” within a month’s time.

Of the present 185 participants, 46 have been graded ‘O’, 112 were given a ‘P’ and 27 a ‘W’. The culture minister might have told the media about the need to take the new grading system even to the villages, but a close look at the present exercise conducted by his ministry is clearly National Capital Region centric. Twenty of the 46 graded ‘O’ belong to Delhi and so do 46 of the 112 marked ‘P’. Four among these 112 names belong to Sharma’s constituency of Gautam Buddh Nagar.

Among the names found “Promising” are also quite a few organisations that describe themselves as NGOs.

A random check of the list brings to fore names like Indian Council for Social Welfare (ICSW) of Indirapuram (UP) and Su Samannaya of Kolkata.

While the website for ICSW doesn’t overtly show anything that relates it to culture, it has been selected for “dance production”.

Su Samannaya describes itself as “working in the area of aged and elderly, animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries, animal welfare, art & culture, children, civic issues, education and literacy, environment and natural resource management, health and nutrition, HIV/AIDS, legal awareness and aid, panchayati raj, rural development and poverty alleviation, sports, vocational training, women’s development and empowerment, youth Affairs, etc.” besides art and culture. It has been selected to take part in festivals of India for “praising the divine mother through the concept of Kavi guru Rabindranath Tagore” and for a performance on goddess Kali.

One of the 185 applicants was also Indore-based Shailendra Singh’s communication and branding agency, Ascent Group India.

His website counts the Bharatiya Janata Party as a client. Singh, whose agency also helped the recent Simhasta Kumbh Mela gain footfall, helped the Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh government launch the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao and Vikas Suchna Rath initiatives as well.

Though for now the Ascent Group has found itself in ‘Waiting’.