Indian literature is the richer for the election of Chandrasekhara Kambar as President of the Sahitya Akademi. The sad part of the story is that the distinguished Oriya writer, Pratibha Ray, was put up as a political opponent and was defeated at the polls. A novelist and academician of international fame, her commitment to a classless, casteless social order had led to her being called a Communist at one stage. How such a person ended up as part of the Sangh Parivar’s scheme to capture the Sahitya Akademi is symptomatic of our times.
The usual practice at the Akademi is to choose the vice president as the president—and Kambar has been vice president since 2013. (Back in 1993, the redoubtable U R Ananthamurthy had become president through a contest. In 2003, a Leftist-Rightist confrontation developed with Mahasweta Devi competing against Vice President Gopi Chand Narang for the presidency. Despite her unmatched standing as a writer and champion of tribals’ rights, Mahasweta lost).What surfaced this time was a concerted attempt to take over the Akademi lock, stock and barrel. Even the convener’s post was contested by BJP-backed candidates. But this time the swing did not favour the Rightists. Card-carrying communists got elected, such as Kerala’s Prabha Varma, an award-winning poet.
The iconic stature of Chandrasekhara Kambar must have been a contributory factor in this victory of the deserving. With 11 anthologies, he is a poet who ranks with the best. With 25 plays, quite a few of them masterpieces, he is a dramatist of the first order. He is an admired folklorist. He is a film director with some outstanding productions. None of these achievements come anywhere near his feat as a visionary educationist. The Kannada University in Hampi is proof of that.
That house of learning was his baby. He visualised its exterior forms as well as its soul-force. He picked the spots for the buildings, supervised the architectural forms to suit the culture the university represented, picked the stones and the colours and the shapes of the archways and gates. He worked out the intellectual contents of the courses on offer, decided how the graduate and post-graduate studies should mesh together. He paid meticulous attention to the selection of faculty and the organisation of academic activities. He functioned as founding vice-chancellor for two three-year terms. And then he handed over the reins to a scholar he hand-picked, M M Kalburgi. Yes, the same distinguished thinker who was shot dead in 2015 by India’s new-generation patriots.
Which gives a disturbing dimension to the Sangh Parivar’s moves to capture the Sahitya Akademi. They did not succeed this time, but the danger remains real because capturing all cultural organisations has been a stated objective of the parivar. There is no attempt to conceal this objective. Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma had said soon after he assumed power that cultural institutions in India “are in total ruins” and the BJP Government was determined to “give them a facelift”.
He did—and how! A new chairperson was appointed to run the Sangeet Natak Akademi. The board of trustees of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts was disbanded and a former ABVP president was appointed its chief. The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library was pushed around until its respected chief, Rangarajan, quit. It remains rudderless. The National Gallery of Modern Art, the National Archives of India are headless, run by government secretaries. The worst affected was the National Museum, perhaps because it was run with noticeable efficiency. The man in charge was removed by the Culture Ministry. Distinguished cultural leaders of the country protested and asked the government to reinstate him. The government ignored them.
This is Culture Minister Sharma’s way of face-lifting our institutions. Remember, he is the man who promised to “cleanse every area of public discourse that has been westernised”. (No wonder he recently asked tourists not to wear skirts). He is also the minister who was kind enough to concede that “APJ Abdul Kalam, despite being a Muslim, was a nationalist.” When such are the minds that rule our country, should we be surprised if an undistinguished Gajendra Chauhan is made chief of Film and Television Institute? Should we be surprised if a Lokesh Chandra, named head of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations, describes Narendra Modi as an incarnation of God? Or if a Sudershan Rao, made chief of Indian Council of Historical Research, supports the caste system? That Chandrasekhara Kambar won is, in the circumstances, a surprise. Cheers for that.