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Ashok R. Kelkar
Creativity and Society
on the Maharashtra State Literary Awards Affair
THE GOVERNMENT OF MAHARASTRA has instituted yearly awards
for the best works in different areas of Marathi literature.
For the 1980 awards the Antulay Government took the unprecedented
step of using its final authority in withholding awards from three
books, Arun Sadhu’s novel Simhasan, Vinay Hardikar’s piece
of reportage Janancha pravaho chalila, and B. N. Rajahans’s
Loknayak Jayprakash on political grounds and setting aside the
unanimous recommendations of the Expert Selection Committee of six
headed by Gangdhar Gadgil, the noted Marathi writer and critic.
The news trickled out in November 1980.
I wish I could say there was a wave of indignation and protests.
There were merely some ripples---six authors selected for awards
declined them, two persons nominated to the newly reconstituted State
Board for Literature and Culture declined the membership in protest,
one author resigned from one other
state advisory committee, Mr. Gadgil expressed his unhappiness
over the whole affair, there were meetings, articles, letters to the
readers’ columns and of course questions in the State Legislature.
The Government in defending its stand further revealed that
when they had their doubts about the wisdom of selecting these books,
they sought advice. The three experts consulted included Dr. S.
S. Barlingay, who was later appointed the Chairman of the Board for
Literature and Culture which was not otherwise involved with the literary
awards. This advice was said to have confirmed their
doubts. Much was expected
from the yearly Marathi Literary Conference held at Akola in February
1981 and its president, the novelist G. N. Dandekar.
Mr. Vasant Sathe, the Union Minister and member of the reception
committee ‘convinced’ the organizers of the folly of moving a resolution
condemning the Government. The
dissidents did put up a good fight, however. Ironically, the film
based on the novel Simhasan has won awards from both the central
and the state governments.
Naturally the controversy that was conducted from the platform
and through the press was not so much on the literary merits of the
books as on whether the Government was justified in taking the action
it did and, if not, what sort of action would have been justified.
The defenders of the Government action argue: “You must count
yourselves lucky that we allow the people to talk against the government;
on top of it do you expect a reward from the government for doing
so? The nerve!” (I have of course de-edited it, removed the velvet
gloves so to speak, leaving the mailed fist exposed.)
The champions of the freedom of the literary artist retort:
“Look, ‘award’ is the word, not ‘reward’. The Government is not doing a favour, it is
doing the duty of any civilized government.
And make no mistake, the prize money is not your private property,
it is the tax-payer’s money.” (A
peevish voice in the wings: “Serves you right for entering the books
in the award scheme! Didn’t I tell you authors to stay away from Government
schemes of any kind?”). How
could the taxpayer refrain from joining the fray? “You are quite right,
of course”, he says, “in saying that the prize money is my money,
and so it’s for me to decide which literature to applaud and which
to punish. (Of course we may
choose to do both these things through our government.) But let me put a question or two to these libertarians.
These literary artists are such abject cowards any way; they
have put up with a lot of concealed government pressures all these
days, lobbying for the prizes. You can see what a benign calm has settled
over self-declared rebels like the Dalits! You have taken upon yourself
an impossible job, gentlemen, putting some spine into the authors.” (Of course the sarcasm may be toned down here
and there in public utterance, but the barb goes home all the same.) So much by way of an informal summary of the
arguments bandied back and forth.
But it is an ill wind that blows nobody good, as the proverb
has it, and I don’t mean merely the increased circulation of the rejected
books that seems to have come about.
More seriously, this affair did help to focus general attention
on this problem. Even the president of the Marathi Literary Conference felt like
urging that this problem of literary awards be resolved once and for
all. What is more, others realized that this is
not merely the limited issue of State awards and so a matter of passing
import but rather one that has wider ramifications.
Many recalled the controversy that has surrounded the play
Ghashiram Kotwal in Marathi (also staged in Hindi) culminating
in the attempts of some to thwart the troupe’s departure for Europe
for participating in the theatre festival in Berlin by calling for
it may not be inapposite to recall here another similar issue—the
Constitution of India lays down in Article 18 that the State shall
confer no titles. Even so the Government of India right from
Nehru’s times has been conferring honors twice a year. Legalities apart, the sprit of the original
proscription has certainly been violated.
This practice was done away with by the Janata Party government,
only to be restored by the Congress (I) government when it returned
to power. Essentially the same issue if involved in this
as with the state literary awards.
Only, since no money changes hands, the issue stands out more
clearly. For that very reason
perhaps, the issue in relation to Article 18 stands neglected.
THE WHOLE QUESTION has exercised my mind for quite some time,
but more persistently so because of this controversial affair.
Using the latter merely as a point of departure I propose to
bring the reader face to face with some deeper and wider questions
underlying the issue through four successive steps.
Step One: Creativity
The plaintiff in this case is not just the literary artist
but any creative person—let him be a nonliterary artist, a scientist
or a scholar, a philosopher or a thinker, let him even be an engineer
of genius like Vishveshvarayya. (A physician is called a kaviraj [poet],
a singer, a pandit, or vidvan [scholar]; all of these
used to be called gunijana, men of quality…this is not terminological
inexactitude, but a simple recognition on the part of traditional
India of the essential unity of creative genius.)
The scientist Galileo was persecuted, the Indian astronomers
who had discovered the true explanation of eclipses had to take their
propitiatory dip in the Ganga along with the rest, the dharmashastra
looked askance at ayurveda (as documented by Deviprasad Chattopadhyaya
in the Barlingay felicitation volume) — all this is past history,
unfortunately not all that past. We have only to recall the Lysenko and Marr
affairs and the early hostility to Einstein’s relativity theory in
the Soviet Union, the opposition to population control by doctrinaire
Chinese leaders, fundamentalist Christians asking for a ban on Darwinism
in the school system, there is nothing past about that history. But, on the whole, powers that be seem to have realized that suppression
of science is not in their best interests.
When we think of the creativity of a Shakespeare, a Goethe,
an Einstein, a Plato, we feel like using the term genius.
But we need not identify the two.
Creative imagination and intellect may be great or small. Indeed even to recognize it in another calls for a spark of creativity
in oneself. A spark may be
a spark, but let us not forget that it is also fire. If one realizes suddenly that one has creativity, be it only a spark,
one certainly does not shout it from the housetop but at the same
time one should accept this realization without panic. One mustn’t say, how could unworthy me possess such a gift? Rather
one should guard with one’s life what little one has.
The fire apart, the creative person is only human in other
matters, he has his loves and hates, timidity and cupidity—no, it
won’t do to expect him to be superhuman.
That is why one should plead for creativity as such rather
than for the creative person. That will save us from a lot of intellectual
Step Two: Society
By the same token, one must realize that the respondent to
creativity in this dispute is not merely the state, not even just
the taxpayer, but the whole society.
Even if the mechanism of the literary awards is transferred
from the Government to some literary body, the problem will remain
(As some have been quick to point out) because the literary body will
have its own version of politics.
I would even go further and claim that the problem has been
with us in a milder if concealed manner even outside the pale of state
power. I shall here no more than record two or three
issues whose existence implicates the whole society in this dispute.
the demand for social commitment is very much in the air. The scientist shouldn’t ‘indulge’ (mark this word) in pure science,
he should give consideration to practical cost and benefit first. A poor country can’t afford the luxury of pure
mathematics; applied mathematics is enough. The artist shouldn’t lose himself in art. He should entertain society, and perhaps instruct
it also if he could. Bright
young Indians should become doctors or engineers, but they have no
business to settle abroad. The
man of letters should give talks, and autographs too.
And so on and on.
Secondly, there is the glorification of popularity and the
insistence on popular accessibility. The school curriculum mustn’t be too heavy,
but well within the child’s capacity.
Poems, pictures, music mustn’t be too difficult or obscure. Balagandharva, Somerset Manugham, G. D. Madgulkar
were all undoubtedly popular, then why withhold the final accolade
of critical acclaim? And so on and on.
Thirdly, there is the call not to upset and hurt the people’s
sensibilities. Quite apart from state censorship and the law
of libel, social censorship is a very real thing. No character assassination, no profanation of the sacred cows, bawdiness
yes but obscure obscenity no, no propogation of counterbiblical science.
Of course you are welcome to hit hard at society, but (as an
Oriya proverb goes) just so that the snake is not killed and the stick
does not snap. Don’t propogate
atheism. And so on and on.
I am here to record the claims, and not to give awards. My purpose is limited, namely, to bring home to you that it is not
as if the creative person is plaintiff, the government his respondent,
and the taxpayer the judge.
In all these and other such disputes creativity and society
are set against each other—sometimes they find themselves in direct
confrontation, sometimes in dodging manoeuvres.
How does this sort of thing come about?
Step Three: Creativity as a Gift and a Demand
Recognizing and honouring creativity calls for at least minimal
creativity in oneself, and even this spark is missing in many.
Naturally the others find it difficult to accept it without
a good measure of amazement and a small one if jealousy. So far not so bad. (When
this jealousy gets out of hand, hell breaks loose as in many an Indian
academic research, and administrative establishment.
One has only to recall here what the Nobel-prize-winning Dr.
Khurana had to go through before he left India for good—yes, for his
and the world’s good.) But
all this jealousy is really misplaced jealousy—if only the ordinary
person knew that creativity is as much a curse as it is a gift.
Indeed the creative person is only human and finds it difficult
to cope with this gift.
Creativity puts into an ecstasy not only the artist, but also
an Archimedes running naked and dripping, shouting “I found it! I
found it!” and even a sober thinker. But then who thinks of the malaise prior to
creation, the abject misery when the problem is yet defying solution?
A whale of a genius may suffer from a whale of a malaise, but the
minor genius equally suffers from his own version of malaise.
Why does one ever so often come across the grateful acknowledgement
to the author’s spouse and children for sharing the agonies of creation?
Yes, of course there is the joy of creation, but like truth it prevails
in the end. No wonder the
creative person shows a magnificent egoism (there is the Marathi poet
Keshavsut’s poem beginning “Who
are we?”) alternating with an excruciating modesty (seen in Newton’s
comparing himself to a boy playing on the seashore delighted with
the pebble or two he has found).
Creativity gives with one hand only to demand with the other. The mistress exacts loyalty. The
players pledge to themselves that “The play must go on!”, and so do
the artists, the scientists, the philosophers.
At this point there would be raised a perfectly simple and
perfectly fair question. How
does one know the difference between creativity and its spurious analogue?
And assuming it is not spurious how does one know which one of its
products is genuine and which not? It is a fair question, since it
is not pleasant to entertain a doubt whether one is not applauding
the spurious thing. This simple
question has an equally simple answer—yes, if the burden of creativity
is great, so is the burden of the criticism of creativity. It is not for any old person to assess a work
of art, a scientific theory, a proposed thought. But then this question has another complementary answer too.
This other answer is the simple practical wisdom—let a hundred
flowers bloom, else none will. The
liberty of a creative person is no mere liberty of another citizen,
it has a special value and force.
That is the reason why we cannot bear to look upon the creative
person’s self-abasement or self-prostitution.
Not only does it make us sad, but it makes us angry, and it
is well it does.
Step Four: The Debt of Society
Why does a self-abasing genius fill us with rage? Because his
accepting such a low state amounts to insulting his own creativity,
to overlooking that society owes him some debt.
It is important to remind society of what society owes to creativity. The history of mankind reveals that this is slowly dawning upon
human societies. Thus in most
societies it is taught that teachers be honoured or that a poet’s
creativity has a divine element in it.
All along the artist and the craftsman have been traditionally
thought of as servants under patronage.
Today both are gaining social stature.
(In Maharashtra the transformation of the stagehand into the
stage artiste is recent history.) The absent-minded, eccentric professor emerged
as the amusing but beloved figure in nineteenth-century Germany. In former times Brahmans were gifted lands
with the explicit expectation that the scholar-priest should wish
the ruler well. When today’s
rulers like Nehru pay their respects to the gifted, it need not be
seen as pure political chicanery—indeed even in cases where it is
chicanery, one can draw some consolation from the interesting fact
that society finds comfort in the gesture when taken at its face value.
All the same it cannot be denied that many in the centers of
power continue to think in feudal terms that their support to creativity
is a favour. (The ruling group’s stand in the current dispute
comes as no surprise, but it remains a retrograde step and therefore
all the more ominous.)
When society does accept this debt without any hesitation,
it simply looks upon its repayment as good investment with returns
expected. Many modern societies have now realized that the scientific enterprise
needs not only to be tolerated but also generously supported. Any failure to do this is sheer folly. But going one step further, some of them have
further realized that there cannot be a simple quid pro quo
relationship between investment and returns.
Even hard-headed businessmen are willing to support research
for which nobody has seen practical application.
Unfortunately even in this limited area Indian practical wisdom
remains woefully underdeveloped—both of
Indian business and of the citizen at large.
The real point is that society’s debt to creativity cannot
just be thought of as some kind of a bargain.
As long as the bargaining stance is not left behind, matters
remain at this primitive level. He
who pays the piper calls the tune! Only someone who has not seen the
true place of creativity in man’s life can be guilty of such gross
The creative persons and the leaders of society who see the
danger in this arrogance and the possible confrontation then propose
an honourable compromise: to judge of the gifted is given only to
the gifted (guṇīh
vetti). The creative
person should, like the poet Bhavabhuti, remain in search of the like-minded,
he should not expect too much from society. The leader of society should leave the judgement
of the gifted to their peers and refrain from poking his nose into
this tricky business. To put
it bluntly, a sort of mutual non-agression pact is proposed between
creativity and society.
But there is a still bolder and sounder approach to this problem
that has been proposed by—Ezra Pound or Auden—I am not sure who and
I am subject to correction here.
He says; ‘What should the state do for the artist? Everything!
And what may the artist do for the state? Nothing!” Let us substitute
society for the state here and the creative person for the artist
for our purposes. There is
not the faintest suggestion of any bargain, any quid pro quo now.
At first sight it would be difficult to accept and digest this
straight proposition. Even the creatively gifted will hesitate to
accept it. It just goes against
the grain—the normal human sense of no favours without favours in
return. A couple of considerations should, however,
serve to disspell the doubts. First,
the place of creativity in human life is simply unique, human life
gains in richness and stature by virtue of human creativity. Not to nurture creativity will be suicidal on the part of society.
Secondly, in view of the immense burden and strain that turns
the gift almost into a curse, this one-sided demand is being made
only in the name of fairplay and brotherhood. And thirdly, if the creative person accepts
social commitment at all he may do it only as an inner demand and
need of his creativity. Otherwise
to remain faithful to creativity is his only commitment to society.
However, considering how underdeveloped Indian civilization
today is, the acceptance of this pristine principle would seem a far
cry if not a cry in the wilderness.
But surely it is not beyond our reach to move beyond the crude
arrogance of tune-calling to the middle level of the non-aggression
pact. The sorry state of things
in our country is to be explained at least in part from the sorry
lot of the creative person in our midst—his life is poisoned either
by jealousy or arrogant contempt from the rest, his activity is at
best a thankless job. He either
isolates himself or succumbs.
No, it is not merely the question of the Maharashtra state
literary awards. It is a question of life and death for Indian
A Backward Glance
What do we see from the vantage point we have now reached when
we look at our starting point? It must be said that we have conducted
this controversy at a jejune level (you said it! I didn’t!), in a
frivolous manner (why don’t they resign their professorships too?),
and with a pusillanimous concern for technicalities (after all the
Board for Literature and Culture was not in charge of the awards—but
some other arm of the Government was). There is every reason to wonder whether the
men of letters themselves have even inwardly accepted the dignity
of their creativity. I am
not excessively worried about the human weaknesses of the literary
artists, but I am worried that they should be oblivious of who they
really are. I am worried that even as society is beginning to wake up to the
dignity of the artist, the laws of the market place are taking over. (The stagehand has become the stage artiste—only
to ply the theatre business in turn.) But perhaps I am expecting too much, perhaps I should be grateful
that the controversy took place at all.
(I was quickly brought to my senses when some of my non-Maharashtrian
friends pointed out that in their state any government action of this
sort would not have caused even a ripple—it would be all in the game
for everybody concerned.)
I didn’t accept the membership of the Maharashtra State Board
for Literature and Culture and recorded my protest.
But I didn’t record my worry and sorrow then.
I am doing so now in this piece of loud thinking.
This attempt to tease out matters of principle involved in
a public episode in Marathi literature in 1980-81 was published in
New Quest no. 28, July-August 1981, The episode in a way arose
out of the Emergency.