A (de)grading policy
Mahesh Sharma (left), our Minister of Culture and Tourism — seen here with V Narayanasamy, Chief Minister of Puducherry — could be rated D (for being dangerous) and E (for being embarrassing)
By Shanta Gokhale

So now artists are going to be graded. Instantly, I think eggs. I still resist the notion that governments — in this case the Ministry of Culture — should play a role in art. But then I remind myself that artists are “unproductive” human beings in a market-driven economy and need governmental patronage. The government has deep pockets and a long reach. It has the power to send artists out into the world to participate in festivals and cultural exchange programmes, bringing them acknowledgement, exposure and money. With this power comes the responsibility of selection. Selection must be done, to use a political catch-phrase, in a fair and transparent manner.

So the Ministry of Culture must first know which artist is doing what and how in which corner of the country. In short, a compendium of information must be compiled. The ministry calls this cultural mapping. Once this is done, it will have the data required to select and grade artists, who can then represent the country in government sponsored events abroad. The grades they will be stamped with are Outstanding (O), Promising (P) and Waiting (W), whatever that may mean. (Aside: If the ministry’s declared goal is to promote Hindi, should the grades not be Utkrushta (U), Ashajanak (A) and Pratiksharat (P)?)

However, besides my gut reaction to treating artists like eggs, I must admit to a deficit of trust (we’ve missed that lovely phrase in public discourse lately haven’t we?) in the agency that is to conduct the grading. Considering Shri Mahesh Sharma’s track record in public utterances and directors’ appointments to cultural bodies, I grade him Embarrassing (E) if I’m being charitable, and Dangerous (D) if I’m being outspoken. Dangerous because little knowledge is universally acknowledged to be a dangerous thing. A minister who makes a public statement that it is not in our culture for women to have nights out, does not know that the abhisarika nayika, so lovingly danced and painted by Indian artists, habitually stole out from her respectable home, in the dead of night, to meet her lover. There’s also a third grade that Shri Sharma deserves. Partisan (P), for showering 2.25 crore rupees on Sri Sri Ravi Shankar for a three-day ecology-destroying cultural extravaganza on the banks of the Yamuna when hard-working theatre groups across the country flailed like beached fish because their funds had been cut. But in all fairness, we must examine the proposed grading scheme without allowing the shadow of E-D-P to fall across it.

The scheme seeks to rid the official cultural space of the clique (C) that has been dominating it for years. Setting aside the carping thought that, had the clique been of the right colour, Shri Sharma might not have felt the urge to demolish it, let us admit that doing so is a democratic measure. Then the big question is, why centralise the project? Given that we are a federal system, should the States not be funded to grade their artists and submit their lists to the Centre?

Question number two: Who does the grading and what are the criteria? The pilot project that was conducted with 185 applicants does not provide reassuring answers. The grading then was done by bureaucrats and “selected artistes”. Let us assume the bureaucrats were chosen for their ability to tell a sitar from a tanpura and Bharatanatyam from Kuchipudi. But who were the “selected artistes”, and who selected them? Were they gurus? Were their disciples free to apply? Did this not create a conflict of interest?

The answer to the question about criteria raises even more doubts. The good minister has said the criteria are “Popularity, age and experience”. If “Popularity” means large audiences and readerships, then the artist has already been graded O. The ministry merely rides on the back of public opinion. The criterion of “Age” coupled with “Experience” suggests a preference for seasoned artistes, implying that the young may not expect to be graded O however good their art.

There is also a dubious corollary to the scheme that we must not overlook. In the minister’s words, “Artists will be sent to various events according to their grading.” This suggests that the ministry will grade events too, to match artists. So O goes to Washington and P to Timbuctoo. Does that sound like democracy or even good foreign policy? And yet, what is important is that many more artists will go, whether to W or to T. And thus democracy’s abomination, the clique, will stand demolished. http://www.mumbaimirror.com/columns/columnists/shanta-gokhale/A-degrading-policy/articleshow/53307955.cms