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Ashok R. Kelkar



Creativity and Society


Reflections 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 State intervention.


            Perhaps 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 confusion.


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.


First, 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 arrogance.


            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 guṇam 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 society.


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.