Amid the raging row, the Sangeet Natak Akademi, an autonomous body of the culture ministry, put on hold announcement of the list of 42 award winners for 2017 including Shanbag till June 20.
Unseen by audiences at large, a tense drama erupted behind the scenes over the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s decision to honour theatre director Sunil Shanbag with its prestigious award this year.

Senior leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as well as the ruling BJP sought to prevail upon the national academy for performing arts to withdraw Shanbag’s name from the list of awardees because they felt honouring such an artiste would defeat the purpose of “building a strong ecosystem based on ideals of nationalism and Hindu values”.

Shanbag, according to many people in the RSS’ cultural wing, Sanskar Bharti, was part of the ‘award wapsi’ campaign in late 2015 to return government awards to protest against alleged growth in intolerance under the BJP regime. They said Shanbag had also publicly criticised the government’s hold over cultural institutions. Some people even complained that Shanbag was related to Maoist leaders Anuradha and Kobad Ghandy, ET has learnt.

Amid the raging row, the Sangeet Natak Akademi, an autonomous body of the culture ministry, put on hold announcement of the list of 42 award winners for 2017 including Shanbag till June 20, although the winners had been decided by its general council in a meeting in Imphal on June 8, said people aware of the matter.

Shekhar Sen, the president of Sangeet Natak Akademi, told ET that national awards once decided cannot be announced immediately as certain checks have to be made first. “In this case, there were allegations against a particular (Shanbag’s) name, all of which were found to be false. Hence we decided to go ahead with the council’s decision and make the announcement,” he said.

The Sangeet Natak Akademi Award is the highest national recognition given to practising artistes, gurus and scholars, and it carries a purse money of Rs 1 lakh, a shawl, and a tamrapatra (a brass plaque). One of the two representatives of the Akademi on the council, theatre director and playwright Bhanu Bharti, said that “every award at the Imphal meeting was decided after much discussion and thought and was given only to deserving candidates”.

She said, “In theatre especially, Shanbag is a fine artist who has been on the shortlist for several years. He should have been honoured much earlier.” Theatre director, screenwriter and filmmaker Shanbag, 61, has worked extensively with theatre icon Satyadev Dubey and with celebrated film director Shyam Benegal and was a co-author for the television serials Yatra and Bharat Ek Khoj. He directed plays criticising censorship even under the previous UPA government.

Shanbag could not be reached for comment on the controversy over the award. The general council of the Sangeet Natak Akademi comprises more than 68 members including representatives from ministries, one nominated artist representing every state in the country and one person from every institution that comes under the culture ministry. Sanskar Bharti members said that the RSS and BJP could not prevail upon the Sangeet Natak Akademi in this instance because the council is largely filled with old members who are “heavily leftleaning” and hence when it comes to voting, the interests of the government never get heard.

Pranjal Saikia, a member of the council from Assam, said that the process of selection of winners is skewed since it depends on how the general council members vote. “There was argument over this (Shanbag’s) name too. Sadly, the process is such that many deserving artists from the hinterlands of India never make it even to the discussion table as voices of artists in states such as Punjab, Delhi and Maharashtra are very strong. The other voices are not heard in that din,” he said.

Shanbag had recently boycotted the ‘theatre olympics’ organised by the National School of Drama, which comes under the culture ministry, calling it “a grand ceremony dominated by politicians calling it an extravaganza”. The theatre festival was held in 17 Indian cities with 450-odd performances, seminars and youth forums in which 25,000 artists from 31countries participated.

Saying artists such as him were staying away from the government festival on principle, Shanbag had said that while some theatre practitioners had not been invited to the event, others had found the organisers unwilling to work outside a one-budget-fits-all template.

He had said that Indian governments had done nothing to improve the cultural ecosystem in the country and that artists such as him did not wish to be part of an effort by the government to appropriate cultural capital built by individual and groups of theatre producers against great odds. He had also taken a dig at the goods and services tax of 15% slapped on tickets above Rs 250, saying this was a blow to the economics of theatre.