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Bhopal: Last November, The Wire got an email alleging widespread corruption in the culture department of the government of Madhya Pradesh.
According to the sender, who wished to stay anonymous, while the state government is spending much more than before on cultural events like the Tansen Samaroh and Khajuraho Dance Festival, a large percentage of that amount is allegedly siphoned off by a clique of officials in the department. Most tenders they float go to a Bhopal-based proprietorship firm called Phoenix Networks and only a handful of artists get most of the performing slots at these functions.
Glitz, pomp and inflated bills
For the longest time, the Tansen Samaroh did not cost much to organise.
It was a relatively low-key event with the exponents sitting on a small platform and the audience sitting on dhurries. Till 2010, said a current employee of the state culture department, even this marquee festival did not cost more than Rs 25 lakh.
“That amount has now climbed to Rs 3.5 crore,” he said, on condition of anonymity. The Wire heard similar estimates from other ex-employees and contractors of the department.
One reason for the spike lies in the greater pomp and glitz on display. One outcome of the ‘event management’ capture of culture, a dance instructor in Bhopal said on the condition of anonymity, is a clear change in aesthetics.
As the photograph below shows, the arrangements now are much more lavish than before – complete with strobe lights and striking backdrops.
That said, lavishness may not be the whole reason for the ballooning expenses. In The Wire’s interviews with rival bidders, and current and former employees of the department, a few allegations came up repeatedly.
First, inflated bills. “For Tansen Samaroh, they will get 30-40 artists,” said a photographer who has worked on the festival. “These people will be put up in Oyo rooms for about Rs 800 a night – for four or so nights – but the bill will be for Rs 20 lakh.”
Second, firms chosen by the department subcontract the work, pay the vendor in cash, and bill the department a higher amount. “Till 2013, I used to get cheque payments. And then, I began to be paid in cash,” said the photographer. He was making about Rs 70,000 from each festival, he said, though an accountant in the department told him its allocation was close to Rs 8 lakh.
Subcontracting is prevalent, he said. “They get the dome made in Gwalior but show it as trucked from Bhopal.” Another vendor concurred. “For events in Jabalpur, work is done by locals but the bills suggest material was brought from Bhopal,” he said. “Kaam yaha hota hai aur billing waha ki hoti hai.”
Third, even when old material is reused, bills for new material are submitted. Take Phoenix Networks. The company bills the department for, say, the frames (flex posters) it makes. These frames, as the department said in an RTI response, are not retained by it but returned to Phoenix. “These frames should become a part of the stock,” said a flex printer. “They can be re-used, but that is not happening. Instead, for every event, Phoenix bills for new frames.”
Fourth, the cost-overruns are cited to extract yet more money. “Every year, the culture department creates a budget,” said an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) member who used to work in the department. “This includes the estimated cost of each festival. Each year, after the event, the bureaucrats submit a letter saying there has been additional expenditure and so, can they get another Rs 50-75 lakh?”
According to the RSS member, “If festivals like Tansen, Khajuraho, Lokrang were held without extravagance and corruption, MP could hold three-four times as many festivals.”
The Wire asked both Phoenix and the department to comment on these allegations. Within the latter, questions were sent to Usha Thakur, MP’s minister with responsibility for culture; state culture secretary Sheo Shekhar Shukla; and Aditi Kumar Tripathi, who heads Sanskriti Parishad. In addition, Jayant Bhise, the director of Alauddin Khan Academy; Rastogi; and Ashok Mishra were also asked to comment on these charges.
This article will be updated as and when they respond.
MP’s cumulative allocation to culture preservation between FY’11 and FY’23 stands at Rs 870 crore. Given low salaries and scholarships, most of this money has been spent on events.
At one level, in this land of large scams, this is a small number. At another level, however, its damage lies elsewhere.
It is hurting culture.
The ‘syndicate’ of artists
To work, such a capture needs support from musicians.
It is, after all, from artists that these festivals – and the department – get legitimacy.
On this front, the department is said to be favouring a handful of artists. In dance, Maitreyee Pahadi’s NGO, Lok Chhanda, gets invited to multiple events even as local dancers languish. “Instead of our students getting an opportunity,” said a person close to the Chakradhar Dance Academy, “People like Maitreyee Pahadi keep coming.”
The Wire wrote to the department – and to Pahadi – asking them to comment. This article will be updated when they respond.
In music, the name that comes up the most in this context is that of the Gundecha brothers.
After finishing their studies at the Dhrupad Kendra, the two elder brothers – Ramakant and Umakant – were hired by the department. This was ex-IAS officer Ashok Vajpeyi’s doing. He thought the brothers could help take care of music archives and events. “We were organising major events in music,” he said. “They slowly started getting in touch with the finest musicians in the country. This created contacts they began using.”
That story has not panned out as expected. The new construct is best understood as a symbiotic one, said a Dhrupad vocalist in Bhopal. The bureaucrats get access to musicians through the Gundechas – which helps them organise events. As for the Gundechas, critics say, proximity to power has helped them consolidate their position in the arts. “They want to dominate Dhrupad,” a dance teacher in Bhopal said about the Gundechas. “They also want to dominate Hindustani classical in Bhopal.”
Access to power, said a former teacher at Dhrupad Kendra, has created an outcome where those close to officials and their preferred artists bag most performing slots. “Artists are forced to be a part of these arrangements,” he said. “If you are not a part of this group, you might not get to participate in youth concerts or get on radio. This is how artists are controlled and milked.”
The Wire asked both the department and the Gundecha brothers to comment on these allegations. The department did not respond. In their response, the Gundechas described these allegations as “totally unwarranted” and containing “no truth”.
In an email, they said: “It seems that the people interviewed by you and especially the ones who made you draw the subject perception are not related either with classical music or especially with Dhrupad around the globe and in case if they are related, would be one of our contemporaries (who could naturally develop a sense of competition with us, who, for their own wrongful motives or reasons unknown), are trying to create a falsified perception about us which is as far from reality as possible.”
The brothers also denied having or using “any proximity to the Department of Culture, Government of Madhya Pradesh” or “acting as gatekeepers to the same”.
“The organisation of all the events and programs, and especially selection of any performing artists involved under the aegis of Department of Culture, Government of Madhya Pradesh is undertaken through a panel of reputed exponents of the field and concerned government officials on the basis of merit. Hence, we specifically deny that we, allegedly, have any syndicate and the people close to us get to perform,” they wrote.
This statement, however, is challenged by other artists. Even students from Dhrupad Kendra are not finding a place, a veena player told The Wire. “Imagine, you train for four years. You pass all your exams. Aap Dhrupad Kendra ke bachche ho but when you go there, you are asked to just leave your biodata and CV.”
As for state support, take the sexual harassment charges against Ramakant Gundecha and Akhilesh Gundecha in September 2020. Despite these, unlike other music festivals which dropped artists named in #MeToo, the culture department listed Akhilesh Gundecha in the 2020 line-up for the Tansen Samaroh.
As Firstpost reported about the line-up, “On being asked about the allegations against Gundecha, (Rahul) Rastogi ended the call and hasn’t responded to follow-up messages since.”
The costs of this capture
Higher expenditure needn’t translate into a good event.
As the department tries to cram more artists into each day of a festival, the time allotted to each is falling. “A performance normally runs for an hour and 15 minutes,” said the Bhopal-based dancer. “At Tansen, that is now down to 45 minutes in total.”
When The Wire mentioned this to Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna, he was stunned. “In Chennai’s music academy, the junior-juniorest – if there is such a thing – slot is 1.5 hours. More established singers get as much as 2.5 hours.”
On being asked to elaborate, he said: “Each art form requires a certain amount of time. Here, raga is central. We introduce a raga, enter its aural space and invite the audience into its realm. We are trying to find new explorations and display our capabilities. All this requires a minimum amount of time. This is not a performance consisting of a series of short songs. If you call yourself an important platform, you have to respect the aesthetic requirements of the art form.”
The overweening focus on events has been accompanied by not just the atrophication of salaries and scholarships but also pensions. “In Bhopal and Uttar Pradesh, old artists get a pension of Rs 8,000,” said a Bihar-based vocalist. “In MP, it’s Rs 1,500. Kamal Nath’s order, that it be hiked to Rs 5,000, has not been implemented.”
The old foundational pillar of the department – of finding fresh talent – is gone. “In the old days, if you did well in Aarambh or the Amir Khan Samaroh in Indore, you would be called to Tansen,” said the dance instructor. “Only someone outstandingly good would get filtered into Tansen. What we see now is direct selection.”
Instead of pushing other festivals – like Kalidasa Samaroh, Amir Khan Samaroh, Allauddin Khan Sangeet Samaroh – to the heights of Tansen, the state has left existing festivals enfeebled.
Take Tansen. “At one time, the Tansen Samman was a coveted honour for classical singers,” said Krishna. “Today, it doesn’t even appear in our imagination any longer. It’s another run-of-the-mill festival.”
The opportunity cost of this erosion cannot be quantified. Think of all the aspiring musicians that could have been taught by these institutions but weren’t – not to mention their potential contributions to these arts.
Essentially, the edifice created in the 1970s is a wreck now. Not only has the department failed to build on the successes of the past, its founding pillars – of taking culture to the people, and finding fresh talent – are gone. There is no more Aarambh. There are no more divisional/district level functions.
Much of this decay is visible. Unable to find opportunities, a clutch of musicians have left the state. Audience numbers are falling as well. “Log bhahiskaar kar rahey hain,” said the RSS member. “At the Lateef Khan Samaroh, there were more people on the stage than in the audience. Things are so bad that the culture secretary had to hold a meeting.”
The Wire asked Usha Thakur, Sheo Shekhar Shukla; Aditi Kumar Tripathi, Jayant Bhise, Rahul Rastogi; Ashok Mishra, Manish Pandey and Hemant Muktibodh to comment on these points. This article will be updated when they respond.
The defining trait of the Indian state is not ineffectiveness.
Whenever it wants, it can deliver decisively. And so, the crisis in MP’s culture department brings us to the inevitable question. Despite its large cultural costs, how has it continued for so long?
Questions need to be asked of the RSS in particular. Culture minister Usha Thakur belongs to the RSS. So does Jayant Bhise, the director of Alauddin Khan Academy. Manish Pandey, OSD to Shivraj Singh Chouhan, is also an RSS man. At the RSS, Hemant Muktibodh is said to oversee culture. As the first part of this series reported, he is also said to have intervened to halt Rastogi’s punitive transfer to Chitrakoot.
In its emails to Thakur, Bhise, Pandey and Muktibodh, The Wire repeated local artistes’ concern that the culture department’s focus on events – not to mention its favouritism towards a few firms and artistes – has resulted in it failing to take culture to the masses as well as preserving culture. The Wire asked if, despite multiple complaints, these irregularities have been investigated. By the time this article was published, neither the minister nor the bureaucrats had responded. Nor did Pandey.
As for Muktibodh, he messaged to say: “It would be better if you ask these questions to appropriate government authorities i.e. Minister of culture, Secretary and Director, Culture.” The Wire replied saying questions have been sent to all of them as well – and said the questions sent to Muktibodh pertain to his “position/responsibilities” at the RSS. Thereafter, he did not reply either.
The Wire also posed this question to the two RSS men interviewed for this report.
“(The RSS) can stop all this but it doesn’t want to (Woh rok saktey hain lekin rokna nahin chahtey),” said one of them. “With power, the wrong people have come into the RSS (Usme galat log judd gaye hain).”
The other was more scathing. “They don’t know but don’t listen to others either (Khud to jaantey nahin. Doosron ki maantey nahin,” he said. “In RSS training, what is in the interest of the community is never at the forefront (Jan paksha kabhi aagey nahin aaya). It’s whatever they decide that goes.”