October 23, 2015

Interview with Sadanand Menon: It’s Time to Go Not by the Letters but by the Spirit (Chitra Padmanabhan)

The Wire - 22 October 2015

Interview: It’s Time to Go Not by the Letters but by the Spirit
By Chitra Padmanabhan

On the eve of a meeting called by the Sahitya Akademi’s executive council to debate the novel situation created by the return of Akademi awards by leading litterateurs, noted cultural critic Sadanand Menon tells Chitra Padmanabhan that it is important to see whether the Akademi can be pushed to take that one step across the lakshman rekha which it has not taken until now – to prove they are separate from the state and can take an oppositional position when they see an arm of the state doing wrong.

Q: How do you look at the recent actions of literary figures from all over India returning their Sahitya Akademi awards in protest against the institution’s silence on the murder of Kannada writer MM Kalburgi as also the recent instances of intolerance in the country?

A: The critical question now seems to be what stand the executive council of the Sahitya Akademi (SA) will take in their meeting tomorrow, October 23. Influential writers Vikram Seth and Indira Parthasarathy have indicated that their own decisions on whether to return their awards or not will depend on the executive action of the Sahitya Akademi’s board.

The gesture of dissent that marks the return of awards or the stepping down from membership of cultural bodies by literary figures in the current context, leads to the question – what does it all add up to? A series of individual actions have been taken by artists – in this case specifically, litterateurs, claiming a call of the conscience – who are saying the time has come to speak out. They are also critiquing the inability of the SA to categorically condemn or speak up against the murder of writers like Malleshappa Kalburgi, who also happened to be a member of the Akademi.

For the media, which is quite diligently carrying the news and, in fact, searching for more and more artists who might want to take similar action, it is a novelty and part of the daily excitement that it craves for. But it is also possible that, in a fairly short while, this will become ‘stale news’ (‘just another resignation’). A kind of ennui will set in and the news will shift to the inside pages, and then less and less will be reported.

So the question needs repeating – what do these gestures of dissent add up to? Have they dented the stance of the government or made any difference to the workings of the culture ministry or its culturally challenged minister? Have they made any difference to the Akademis and institutions from which artists are resigning? Or will these institutions simply brush it away with, ‘kya fark padta hai’ (‘what difference does it make’)? If that will be the outcome of these acts of dissent, it will indeed be most unfortunate.

Do these gestures signify a new inflection point?

Each of these individual actions is certainly an important gesture, relatively new in our context. Not that people have not resigned earlier in protest. There has been a tradition of that since the days of the Raj and during various stages of the Indian republic – during the Emergency or after the 1984 pogrom against Sikhs or after the 2002 Gujarat pogrom against Muslims. People return their awards for various reasons. Even a couple of months ago, senior army officers were threatening to return their medals over the OROP stand-off with the Modi sarkar.

This, however, is a very specific moment where writers are asking the institution itself to speak out. The question is not the return of the awards or resignations from committees. The question really is – what is the nature of these institutions, why are they not able to reflect the angst or spirit of their constituents, the artists who are part of their constituency? Why is it that these institutions are not able to immediately speak out against the unspeakable horrors committed by other agents of the state and the silencing of independent voices? So the issue is this: Are we battering our heads against a wall that is not going to fall. Is it a futile exercise?

Is it?

Well, it certainly has released a new energy, some fresh adrenalin of self-respect among writers and artists. Coming on the heels of the ongoing protest of the students of the FTII, Pune, it could indicate that the coming struggle against communal fascism will be a cultural struggle led by the artist community, at a time when progressive or radical politics seems to be on the retreat. The Akademis, though, were framed within a Nehruvian structure of liberalism, which ostensibly acknowledged that they should constitute an autonomous space – a space for the artist and her voice. Nehru was the first president of the Sahitya Akademi and his famous statement has been quoted in the media recently: “As President of the Akademi I may tell you quite frankly I would not like the Prime Minister to interfere with my work.” In the idealistic flush of those origins, the notion was implicit that this is a space where dissent can happen or that this is an institution that does not necessarily hold the hands of the state. The state may have put in some resources to support it but, in principle, it was free and could voice its own opinion.

Can you recall any example when the Akademis did so?

In the history of post-independence India, we don’t see any example where this has happened. No artists belonging to the Lalit Kala Akademi, the Sahitya Akademi or the Sangeet Natak Akademi have ever institutionally opposed the state. They have received certain benefits from these institutions – awards, grants, fellowships, foreign travel once in a way for a festival or a book fair and so on. Besides being endorsers of these institutions and, by proxy, being endorsers of the state, they have hardly taken independent positions or spoken out like public intellectuals, exercising moral leadership and cautioning and restraining the state from taking violent and unconscionable steps in Kashmir and the North East or with regard to developing nuclear weapons or not checking the growth of casteist and communal forces. They have hardly been beacon lights or corrective forces. We don’t have examples of that.

But haven’t these institutions, at various points, been headed by acclaimed names?

Individually, the work of many artists has surely challenged some of the pet beliefs of the state. But their representative institutions have not shown any inclination to reveal their spine. Even with someone like UR Ananthamurthy as president, the Sahitya Akademi did not display any particularly independent stance. Nobody has tried, till now, to make the cultural bodies accountable to a larger public or to the notion of their own independence and status as an autonomous voice. This notion has really never been tested till now.

A Jean-Paul Sartre could decline his Nobel and thereby retain his status as an independent thinker and public intellectual – as someone who could talk back to the nation. We have not had such examples in recent times of those who have been part of these institutions and have talked back like that. A large number of people from different bhasha backgrounds are part of the Sahitya Akademi; also people from the performing arts, representing multiple art forms, are part of the Sangeet Natak Akademi; and artists representing the entire spectrum of visual and plastic arts are a part of the Lalit Kala Akademi. But they never have, individually or collectively, pushed these institutions to speak up against the depredations or repressions of the state.

This moment, therefore, where artists seem to be asking these institutions to be accountable – saying that as an institution the Sahitya Akademi should have condemned the murder of Kalburgi or at least have issued a statement against it, if not by the general council, at least by the officiating president – is a moment where I think a completely new turn can happen. That’s why it is important to see whether it can be pushed in a direction where the institution takes that one step across the lakshman rekha which it has not taken until now, and show and prove that it is separate from the state and can take an oppositional position when it sees some arm of the state doing wrong.

Does this moment have enough momentum for that new turn to happen?

This is the anticipation and the excitement – that these currently scattered gestures of dissent can snowball into a movement. My hunch is that on its own, left to itself, it might not happen – it will need the intervention of groups, organisations, institutions or just a collective of artists and thinkers whereby the frisson released by the resignations of at least 50 writers/artists by now adds up to the larger institution itself being able to speak out. That will be the moment when we will see a necessary contradiction emanating between the institution and the state – a healthy and vital contradiction, unlike the present charade of the SA constantly endorsing ‘nation building’ without supporting the questions which individual artists, poets, writers and thinkers have raised – from K.A. Abbas to Sahir Ludhianvi; from Kadamanitta Ramakrishnan to Namdeo Dhasal; from Mahasweta Devi to Arundhati Roy.

This is a moment when that possibility exists. If it can be worked on and negotiated, spoken, discussed, then this would be something that you would call momentous. Until then, it remains the decision of concerned individuals; the question of how these individual decisions, besides the initial congratulations we give to these individuals, which I too have done, figure in the larger canvas, still remains hanging.

Why, despite the fact that the Akademis were framed within a Nehruvian structure of liberalism, have these institutions not been able to develop an autonomous voice?

Difficult to say. Obviously, during the first decade-and-a-half after independence, it was considered churlish to critique the state because it was the inheritor of a positive freedom struggle. ‘Support’ was spontaneous, and many were ready to accept the new state uncritically. Interestingly, many writers retained a ‘critique’ in their own works but were willing to give more time to the institutions.

There were very few people like Sahir Ludhianvi and Kaifi Azmi who voiced their angst even within the first decade of national independence (exemplified in the lines from the film Pyaasa, ‘jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hain?’) already anticipating the coarsening of the state. Sadly, that never amplified into a tradition of institutional dissent.

Soon these institutions ossified and got identified as extensions of the state, extensions of a certain non-existent cultural policy. The old feudal and paternalistic device of giving awards and fellowships was equated with policy, with the result that the creation of a healthy policy for these institutions never took off. The institutions languished.

The past 25 years have seen yet another aberration when, as the markets grew post-liberalisation, many commercially successful writers and artists assumed a new kind of celebrity-hood and entered a new economy. That’s when many, what you might call mainstream market artists, who no longer needed state patronage, moved out of the Akademis. These institutions then became a refuge almost entirely for a new set of people who were the antithesis of the dissenting writer/artist and who merely wanted to leverage their being part of a state institution in their small ways in their own constituencies. It is a sense of proxy power, a sense of ‘recognition’ from the state, which creates the worst kind of feudal servitude possible.

On top of it, soon after the Modi sarkar took power in Delhi, they issued an unprecedented circular – fashioned as a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ – to all these institutions, converting them into ‘subordinate offices of the ministry’. It is interesting how the media completely ignored this development. That has effectively neutralised these institutions and turned them toothless. This, then, is certainly no climate for asking questions or talking back or talking to power.

Coming back to the gestures of dissent we are witnessing, even though these individual gestures are questioning the lack of autonomy of institutions, do you see them as implicitly critiquing the state also?

Whenever an artist/writer speaks up, it must be construed as a critique of the state. Right now it is a heroic, principled and bold gesture, but it has still not aggregated into a force that can provoke the larger institutions to take an independent stand, which will be an open and unequivocal critique of the state. Till that happens, these gestures will continue to be interpreted as a kind of romantic, heroic activity.

Interestingly, most of these artistes are in their sixties and above, and they reflect an older idealism. One doesn’t see a rush of blood among the younger lot; many of them have to negotiate with anxiety and fear about what such a gesture may entail. That is why institutional action is so important, where the institution becomes a shield and says, we support creative artists who, in fact, are extending the mandate of the institution by speaking out.

As long as that does not happen, this juncture too will be like a flashing moment in history. One just hopes it does not dilute or dissipate. Currently, the only friend these individuals have is the media, which is playing it up. Tomorrow, 10 people resign and if the media does not report it, it’s as if the event never happened. Therefore, it is all the more important for these artists to educate the media that support does not just mean breaking news; it also means understanding and upholding the larger principle of freedom of speech. The media needs to see the connections. If journalists can get a Nobel for literature, as Svetlana Alexievich’s achievement has demonstrated, media organisations should reflect on a connection that is so implicitly possible.