Recently, the National Film Awards were mired in a controversy. Breaking the tradition from 1967 onwards, the honourable President decided to give awards to a randomly selected 11 people of a total of 140 winners. The lesser fortunate awardees were informed at the last minute that Minister of Information and Broadcasting and Minister of State in the same department would award them in lieu of the President. This led to a revolt by 68 awardees and they refused to attend the function to register their heartbreak. The country is still debating the rights and wrongs of the event.
The question is whether an elected government should be awarding artists, actors and authors. In a monarchy, the king needed poets to sing his praises. It was difficult for even poets like Kalidasa to resist the lure of courtly gifts and royal presents. Abhijnana Shakunthalam is one of the greatest pieces of literature in the world. Kalidasa’s master piece, however, differs significantly from the tale of Shakuntala in Veda Vyasa’s Mahabharata in one aspect. In Veda Vyasa’s Mahabharata, Shakuntala is a fiercely independent woman. She brings up her son, Bharata, as a single mother.
It is when Bharata asks for his father that she takes him to the court of King Dushyanta. The king refuses to acknowledge her and says he had not married her. Shakuntala replies that she had brought her son before the king to show him his father and not to beg him accept her as his wife. A repentant Dushyanta accepts Shakuntala.
In Kalidasa’s Shakuntalam, there is a significant plot change. The poet brings a new character, sage Durvasa, who was notorious for his temper. The sage, finding that Shakuntala was deep in thought about her lover and had not extended him any courtesy, curses that the man who she was thinking about would forget her. When Shakuntala begs for forgiveness, the sage softens his curse by saying he would remember her if she shows him any signet given by her lover. Unfortunately, while crossing the river Ganga to go to Dushyant’s palace, the ring falls into water and it is swallowed by a fish. When a pregnant Shakuntala reaches the palace, he fails to recognise her. Kalidasa is at pains to explain away the cruel indifference of Dushyanta by attributing his act to Durvasa’s curse.
One often wonders why a great poet and dramatist like Kalidasa did such a clumsy plotting. Vyasa, by contrast, does not mince any words while showing the character of Dushyanta. The difference between the two lies in their means of livelihood. Kalidasa was dependent on the king’s patronage. He did not want to risk the displeasure of the king by saying that one of his ancestors had jilted a poor girl and made her pregnant.
So he took the elaborate ruse of bringing in an angry sage who gives a curse that is convenient to the plot. In contrast, Vyasa was a fiercely independent poet and a wandering mendicant, who did not depend on any king’s patronage. He had no one else to please other than his audience. So, despite Kalidasa’s superior word skills, Vyasa’s Shakuntala, like most of his other characters, stays in our mind longer. She looks more modern than any independent woman of now.
An artist should not be aiming for awards but immortality. Awards do not and should not mean anything. Any award is the opinion of a few people. How many of us remember the names of all Nobel Prize winners in literature, let alone read their works? Ever heard of Sully Prudhomme? He had beaten none other than Leo Tolstoy to win the first Nobel Prize. Tolstoy never won any major literary awards. The people who missed the Nobel Prize in literature would read like who’s who of literature. Tolstoy, Proust, John Updike, Chinua Achebe, Nabokov, James Joyce, RK Narayan, Virginia Wolf, Premchand, Basheer; the list is endless. Same goes about film awards, whether it is Oscars or our own National Awards. Shivaji Ganeshan never won a National Award for lead role. Does that take away his immortality?
Most awards are political and many a time, the awards are decided with zero transparency. I have often found many books that win famous awards unreadable beyond the first few pages. Some of these would not have sold more than a couple of hundred copies without the tag of the award. Such awards are mere marketing tool for such uninspiring art to con gullible public. Many award-winning films are somniferous and are often brutally rejected in the box office. One often wonders how such films are conceived, let alone let loose on unsuspecting viewers.
Awards give an intellectual aura on undeserving art. When the artists fail to communicate with the reader or the audience, one can understand the desperation to lobby for awards. Such artists are prostituting their art and will be susceptible to the political machinations of power brokers and pimps. We have seen awards and return of awards being used as a political tool. Government-sponsored awards for performing arts, films and literature have no place in a democracy.
The artist should not be working for any award, nor should he be for sale for the sake of a plaque and a cheque. The tax payers’ money should not be wasted in such farce. The democratic government need not run a durbar with fawning poets praising its wisdom and those missing out in this rat race criticising its bias. Let the audience and readers give the reward to the artist by cherishing his works and making his art enduring. firstname.lastname@example.org