Friday, 28 November 2008

Honours for Musicians: A History of Bureaucratic Whimsy

Honours for Musicians: A History of Bureaucratic Whimsy

[This article was originally written for the Pragoti website, and first appeared here.]

1. Introduction

Awarding vocalist Bhimsen Joshi the Bharat Ratna is surely a welcome step. It has been uniformly welcomed by the music fraternity, the media, and of course the public at large. About the only question raised is whether it has not been too long overdue. The 86-year-old maestro is in very weak health (though according to sources close to him, he intends to perform at this year’s Sawai Gandharva Festival in December). Conferring accolades at this late stage in life, when one is too old and infirm to appreciate in due form, does seem rather pointless.

Certainly this year’s conferment did not evoke the kind of ugly controversy it did back in 1999, when Sitar exponent Ravi Shankar was accorded the honour. Vocalist Jasraj publicly questioned its appropriateness. According to him, some time earlier Shankar had contemplated settling abroad which, in Jasraj’s view, rendered suspect his loyalty to the nation. He went on to suggest Lata Mangeshkar was a more deserving candidate, and also asserted conferment of these awards was the result of hectic lobbying rather than the intrinsic merit of the candidates.

Ravi Shankar’s reaction was predictably one of shock and disgust. More interestingly, Mangeshkar herself joined Kishori Amonkar in dismissing outright Jasraj’s suggestion. She welcomed the decision to award Ravi Shankar, and even said this should have been done long ago. The pitch was queered still further when guitar exponent Vishwa Mohan Bhatt first criticised Jasraj for not taking up his (Bhatt's) case, and then alleged that a Delhi-based music mafia, comprising the likes of Amjad Ali Khan and Zakir Hussain (who for the record is Mumbai-based), was monopolising the music world.

Allegations of this sort are common to most prizes and accolades, not just our National Awards. Dwelling on how true or valid they are is not likely to lead us anywhere much. Given the paucity of confirmed facts available to us, we can only speculate and hypothesise. Instead, here I seek to examine another aspect of this system of awards.

Though our government spent much time and effort in initiatives to sustain our culture, they rank among our more conspicuous failures. Egregious handling by state bodies actually served to lessen the relevance of these tradition in popular perception. And moreover, they also bred a culture of nepotism and claques or "lobbies".

Our National Awards sit oddly within this unwieldly framework. Looking at the Padma awards doled out to musicians in the last fifty-odd years, it is difficult to determine what underlying purpose, if at all any, determined their conferment. And now forty-four years after the awards were instituted, the government seems to have suddenly woken up to the possibility of awarding musicians the Bharat Ratna!

This article examines these developments in the context of the Hindustani classical music tradition of northern India. In particular it addresses questions like whether the awards were intended towards any discernible purpose, and how successful they have been in giving effect to that purpose. It also looks at recent trends where conferment of first the Padma Vibhushan and now the Bhart Ratna on musicians has become customary.

2. Antecedents of National Awards

Article 18 (1) of the Indian Constitution prohibits the State from conferring titles that are not military or academic distinctions. Several reasons exist why this provision was incorporated into the Constitution. One is surely the feudal origins of hereditary titles – this was the time when dismantling Zamindari and other feudal systems of landholding was accorded some priority. In any case, both when our National Awards were instituted in 1945 and in the Supreme Court judgment Balaji Raghavan v. Union of India, it was emphasised that these awards were not in the nature of titles.

It is another matter that very soon after the National Awards were instituted in 1954, recepients began to use them in the manner of titles. So much so that in 1968, a note had to be circulated asking recepients to stop prefixing or suffixing these awards to their names, or mentioning them on letterheads, invitation cards and so on.

Such misuse was perhaps inevitable. Notwithstanding the government’s strenuous assertions to the contrary, the National Awards scheme did bear startling resemblances with British chivalric orders. For example, most such orders have three classes of membership. The Order of the Bath, used to decorate senior civil servants and military officers, comprises the following categories: Knight Grand Cross (GCB), Knight Commander (KCB), and Companion (CB). Similarly our National Awards: the Padma Vibhushan, the Padma Bhushan, and the Padma Shri.

Another resemblance involves the disproportionate representation given to civil servants. As the British television series Yes Minister lampoons it so memorably: "Did you know, twenty percent of all honours go to civil servants? . . . The rest of the population has to do something extra to get an honour, something special. They work for twenty-seven years with mentally handicapped children, six nights a week, to get an MBE. Your knighthoods simply come up with the rations."

So it is with our National Awards. Even the 1954 notification states the Padma Awards are intended to recognise varying levels of service " . . . in any field including service rendered by Govt. [sic] servants." (italics mine) Predictably, civil servants, and also politicians and military officers, proceeded to collar the lion’s share of Awards, that too as a matter of routine - "with the rations", as it were.

This is not to suggest representatives of other walks of life were relegated to an afterthought. Right from the inception of the inception of these awards, academics, artists and sportspersons among others were counted among the recepients. The 1954 Padma Vibhushan awardees, for example, comprised four public figures (Zakir Hussain, BG Kher, VK Krishna Menon and King Jigme Dorje Wangchuk of Bhutan), the physicist Satyen Bose, and the painter Nandalal Bose.

The actual malaise lay at a deeper level. With the Indian bureaucracy being as opaque as it was and still is, determining "distingushed service" became a hush-hush affair, largely shielded from public scrutiny. What may euphemistically be termed "subjective considerations" began to play an increasingly significant role in this process.

It did not take long for this opaque (and frequently subjective) method of assessment to extend to other areas such as music, our main topic. However, this has to be appreciated in the light of another consideration, namely our government’s post-independence endeavours in sustaining our musical traditions.

3. Government as Patron of Music

Classical music flourished in northern India largely due to the patronage extended to it and its practitioners by the feudal aristocracy. Independence in 1947 brought in its wake phenomena such as the merging of the princely states and the abolition of Zamindari, which in turn dismantled the srtructure of patronage that our musicians depended upon.

The state sought to step into the breach, rather ham-handedly. It did so through several schemes and institutions. Bodies like the Sangeet Natak Akademi sought to stimulate research and performance in music, dance and the dramatic arts. Universities and schools of music imparted musical education in an organised, systematic manner, in marked contrast to older traditions of pedagogy which depended entirely on the idiosyncrasies of the mentor. Most importantly, state-controlled media like radio regularly and systematically commissioned classical music recitals.

There is a reason why I used the words "systematic" and "systematically" in close succession in the previous paragraph. This is actually where the weakness of these initiatives lay – they were simply too systematic or, to be precise, too formalist in their approach.

The radio introduced a system where all artistes were to be graded according to their competence. "Audition boards" have become power-centres in their own right. Even in their early days, their methods were frequently questionable. They persisted in asking theory-oriented questions to traditional musicians. This when traditional pedagogic systems valued experiental understanding and demonstration, and rejected theory for its own sake as sterile and abstract. In later years the system deteriorated beyond all recognition, as the professionalism of the early years gave way to bureaucratisation, and then the consolidation of vested interests. Even if one discounts this latter-day degeneration, questions have been raised whether the formalism inherent to the gradation scheme was at all appropriate to a musical tradition that valued received knowledge and extempore improvisation over formal study.

This formalism has proved the downfall of other initiatives as well. Universities and music schools emphasised completion of syllabi and curricula at the cost of ensuring proper assimilation of imparted knowledge. As a result, students became familiar with only the superficialities of musical concepts, and gained no insights into what they actually meant, or how they were to be developed further.

A favourite anecdote of mine involves a friend who once sat in some sort of a selection committee. One candidate claimed she had cleared the sixth-year examinations in music. My friend commented she must have studied Poorvi and Pooriya Dhanashri (two Ragas that share certain strong structural similarities); the candidate replied yes, she had. So my friend asked her to explain the difference between them. After a long, agonised pause she ventured the following: "The only difference I can recall is that Pooriya Dhanashri is in the fourth-year syllabus, and Poorvi is a fifth-year Raga."

4. National Awards and Hindustani Music

One would have expected the conferment of National Awards to be rigidly controlled along formalistic and bureaucratic lines. However, a cursory perusal of the awards lists suggests just the contrary. Over the years there have regularly occurred some strange conferments, and some even more explicable omissions.

In the initial years, the awards were conferred along somewhat regularised lines. Leading musicians of the day were given the Padma Bhushan, and others the Padma Shri. In 1957, Mushtaq Hussain Khan and S N Ratanjankar became the first Hindustani musicians to be awarded the Padma Bhushan (M S Subbulakshmi had won it back in 1954). They were followed by the likes of Allauddin Khan (1958), Hafiz Ali Khan (1960), Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (1962), Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan (1967), Bismillah Khan (1968), Rahimuddin Dagar and Kesarbai Kerkar (1969), Ahmedjan Thirakwa and Hirabai Barodekar (1970), Amir Khan, Gangubai Hangal, Nissar Hussain Khan and “Master” Krishnarao Phulambrikar (1971), and Vinayakrao Patwardhan (1972) among others.

Despite the considerable cultural significance of the Dhrupad genre, its practitioners have so far been been either unlucky or unworthy of selection committes’ approbation. So far, four Dhrupadiyas have been awarded the Padma Bhushan – Rahimuddin Dagar (1969), Aminuddin Dagar (1976), Rahimuddin’s son Fahimuddin Dagar, and the Rudra Veena exponent Asad Ali Khan (both 2008). Inexplicably, maestroes Ram Chatur Mallick and Siyaram Tiwari were relegated to Padma Shri status (conferred in 1970 and 1971 respectively).

Ignored so far are the two brothers Zia Fariduddin and the late Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, who have contributed to music not only as top-notch performers but also pedagogues of extraordinary merit. They have freely given of their knowledge, produced several excellent disciples, and continue to run a gurukul in their own house and at their own expense. All this when Dhrupad exponents are generally notorious for being indifferent to students from outside their family.

Zia Mohiuddin Dagar is noted for his seminal contributions towards the near-extinct Rudra Veena. Asad Ali Khan (Padma Bhushan 2008) became the first practitioner of this rare instrument to receive a National Award. Other noted exponents include Shamsuddin Faridi, Bindu Madhav Pathak, Eknath Pandit and Dabir Khan among others. None of them have received even a Padma Shri so far.

Pakhawaj exponents have been similarly neglected. Ayodhya Prasad was given the Padma Shri in 1968, Purushottam Das in 1984, and Shankarrao Shinde Apegaonkar in 1986. Omissions include the late Raja Chhatrapati Singh, veteran Ram Ashish Pathak, and contemporary performers Manik Munde and Shrikant Mishra.

Even among practitioners of the mainstream Khayal genre, shocking omissions abound. These include vocalists Narayanrao Vyas, Vasantrao Deshpande, Vilayat Hussain Khan, his son Yunus Hussain Khan, Rajabhaiya Poochwale, his son Balasaheb Poochwale, Munawar Ali Khan, Gajananrao Joshi, and his disciple Ulhas Kashalkar (arguably the finest vocalist around today); Sarod exponent Radhika Mohan Maitra; and Sitar exponent Balaram Pathak. Vocalist Jitendra Abhisheki and Tabla maestro Allah Rakha were awarded only Padma Shris (in 1988 and 1977 respectively). [Update: Kashalkar received the Padma Shri in 2010]

While S N Ratanjankar was one of the first recepients of the Padma Bhushan way back in 1957, his very able disciples have been ignored. K G Ginde and S C R Bhat dedicated their lives to the propagation of music. Apart from being excellent performers, they were also known for their immense scholarship. Dinkar Kaikini spent most of his life with All India Radio, and then as a preceptor with the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. The trio have not even a Padma Shri between them.

Indeed, those who dedicated themselves (and often sacrificed their performative careers) to the propagation of and research in music have generally fared very badly in the National Awards game. Sumati Mutatkar was given the Padma Shri in 1999, when she was 83. The much-venerated Thakur Jaidev Singh, Prem Lata Sharma, Vamanrao Deshpande, Lalmani Mishra (also a respected Vichitra Veena and Sitar exponent), B R Deodhar and Ramashreya Jha "Ramrang" have achieved not even that.

5. Awards and the Public Eye

On the other hand, let us look at who have prominently benefited from the awards system. Allauddin Khan was the first Hindustani musician to receive the Padma Vibhushan. Since then, he has been joined by fourteen more. While no major controversies have been created about their conferment, there have been some eyebrows raised now and then in musical circles. Vocalist Jasraj, flautist Hari Prasad Chaurasia (both 2000), Sarod exponent Amjad Ali Khan, and Santoor exponent Shiv Kumar Sharma (both 2001) are renowned musicians, and the object of much veneration among laypersons and the cognoscenti alike. At the same time, they have also been accused of compromising their musical standards so as to enhancing their popular appeal.

[I personally believe that despite immense efforts made by its purveyors, the Santoor is inherently and severely constricted as a classical instrument. It allows for only abrupt, discrete transition betweeen notes, and is incapable of generating the meend (or glides, frequently mistranslated as glissando but actually closer to portamento in western musical terminology) so essential to our music.]

This is not to suggest that Padma Awards, or its upper echelons, have gone only to those who have courted the public eye. Among Padma Vibhushan awardees, Gangubai Hangal (2002) and Mallikarjun Mansur (1992) are highly respected in all quarters as both uncompromising musicians and exemplary human beings. The maverick genius Kumar Gandharva received it as long ago as 1990. Kishori Amonkar (2002) is well known also for her somewhat idiosyncratic behaviour, but nobody can accuse her of diluting her music. And then we have those who were subsequently awarded the Bharat Ratna, to whom we shall revert in a while.

Even the other awards have seen a few truly inspired decisions. Vocalist Khadim Hussain Khan, prodigiously learned as he was modest to a fault, was given the Padma Bhushan in 1982, and the reclusive Annapurna Devi in 1979. But surely these stray instances cannot outweigh the shabby treatment meted out to so many notable figures in the realm of our music.

6. Conclusion: Music and the Bharat Ratna

The list of musicians awarded the Bharat Ratna is set to increase for certain. Rumour has it that Kishori Amonkar, Mallikarjun Mansur, Sarod exponent Ali Akbar Khan, Carnatic vocalist M Balamuralikrishna and Odissi exponent the late Kelucharan Mohapatra are possible contenders. Days before the award to Bhimsen Joshi was officially announced, Jasraj went on record calling himself a recluse, a madman, and an arrogant, whimsical, foul-mouthed maverick (and thus presumably indifferent to awards and other recognition).

Nobody can say what the future holds, but so far the awarding of the Bharat Ratna has evoked largely positive responses. Even the controversy surrounding Ravi Shankar died a quick death as it became increasingly clear that the diatribe against him was not undiluted by personal motives.

Admittedly, he and also Lata Mangeshkar have not been entirely uncontroversial figures. Among other things, some have accused them of plotting to undermine their rivals’ careers. But such rumours should not, cannot detract from their immense contribution to music. Incidentally the other awardees, Bismillah Khan, M S Subbulakshmi, and of course Bhimsen Joshi, are recognised non-controversial figures who, once again, have made immense contributions to music.

One wonders how is it that the awards committe got it right so consistently. For that matter, why open up the Bharat Ratna to musicians all of a sudden in 1998, 44 years after it was instituted? It is nobody’s case (well, almost nobody’s case) that Ravi Shankar, Bismillah Khan or Bhimsen Joshi do not deserve the Bharat Ratna. But surely, can anyone argue the maestroes of yesteryear were any less deserving of the accolade?

Matters are made even more confusing if we keep in mind that (a) in the last fifty-odd years ghastliest lapses have been committed in respect of other awards, and (b) the government’s own efforts towards the betterment of music have been dismal flops. Or does it? To my mind, these two factors themselves suggest a possible solution.

At this time, the government’s credibility in respect of cultural interventions has sunk to an all-time low. Now, the best way to restore this tarnished credibility is surely through taking decisions that lie beyond reproach. Isn’t that just what the government doing here? It does look like a possible solution, but whether it is the right solution, or even a right solution, can only be speculated upon.


Arnab Chakrabarty said...

This made excellent reading, Abhik. The common perception of "who's who" of HCM is in such lamentable straits that it will require a thorough "demystification" drive to educate the government, institutions and the public at large. Unfortunately, most musicians lack the courage to take an activist stand on the matter and prefer to let things remain the way they are, jumping on the bandwagon of artistic dishonesty and compromise (evidently to keep the greenbacks rolling) that many of us have come to loathe. While the grounds for V M Bhatt's contention for a Bharat Ratna are indeed highly questionable, he is not entirely incorrect that the realm of HCM is indeed ruled by a number of cartels, consisting mainly of artistically and aesthetically dishonest musicians, who are too insecure about their own abilities and those of their progeny, to give competitiveness a chance.



james said...

Seriously Abhik, Are you suggesting that the padma system has a chance of redeeming itself? And if the bureaucrats delve into the past and present posthumous awards things would get very messy. I wish they would do away with the whole idiotic system which seems to bring out the worst of greed, envy, and disgusting ego displays. As for Arnab's complaint about musicians lacking the courage to take and activist stand, I just do not see how or where they could do something if they wanted to. I also do not understand what he means by "the bandwagon of artistic dishonesty and compromise." James

Bhuvanesh said...

Thanks for the interesting article :)

I personally don't see much of a point in presenting posthumous awards. You can't really recognize an artist when he is not alive. In my opinion, the right time for an award is when the artist seems at or close to their peak (this is admittedly somewhat subjective), and in reasonably good health.

Suvir said...

Well, it is just a tip of the iceberg.
Much more happens with AIR empaneling committees, ICCR tours program managements, curtains of Habitat and Kamani auditorium, corridors of cultural babus and the Universities.
You can write novels about the various cultural power centres and the mafias.
Most of the time the young performers just joins these power centres in order to find their survival space.
Unfortunately, there is so little money involved that some times one feels sad for all the efforts that the we musicians are making to be there.
It would have made sense if we were in bollywood and earning respectably for the creative efforts.
But all this politicizing for a few tours abroad, a few AIR concerts an year makes one really sad!!

Abhik Majumdar said...

Suvir, you should write about all this! We so badly need some dope from an insider viewpoint, and you are ideally situated, also privy to all this juicy information.

Arijit Mahalanabis said...

Hmmm....a good article indeed. It really gets at the confluence of the insanity of many HCMers and the total ineptitude of governmental bureaucracy. It also makes me realize the truth of Z. M. Dagarsaheb's frequent admonition to his students, "Dusro ka mat socho, apna kaam karo!" Ultimately we are known by the quality of our music and our work when we leave this world, whether the GoI wants to hand us a Padma or not. Oh BTW Abhik, no mention of Ustad Vilayat Khansaheb and his travails with Indian bureaucracy? Just wondering.

Abhiram said...

PLEASE write more!