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On artistic freedom

Purushottam Agrawal’s letter to the Hindi Akademi of the Delhi government underlines the increasing attacks on artists and writers for ‘hurting sentiments’ or ‘hurting morality’ by their so-called acts of obscenity. Such intolerance, he points out, can turn democracy into a mere formality. The autonomy of creative pursuits and of the agencies dealing with them must be respected

The Hindi Akademi of the Government of Delhi annually honours writers with cash awards. The Shalaka Samman of Rs 150,000 is conferred on a senior writer as a kind of lifetime achievement award. The next category is the Sahityakar Samman. For the year 2008, the jury recommended Shri Krishna Baldeva Vaid for the Shalaka Samman, along with a couple of names for the Sahityakar Samman, and some more for other categories. Shri Vaid is a truly eminent writer. He is known for his penchant for experimenting with language and for probing the matrix of relationships between the sexes.

I was officially informed of the Akademi’s decision to confer the Sahityakar Samman on me on January 7, 2010. Soon afterwards, the media reported that a functionary of the ruling party had written to the chief minister of Delhi (in her ex-officio capacity as chairperson of the Akademi) protesting the Shalaka Samman decision on the grounds that Shri Vaid’s writings were (according to him) obscene.

Following the protest, the Akademi decided to withhold Shri Vaid’s award. This, despite the recommendations in his favour by a jury of writers and literary critics. Thereupon, I wrote to the secretary of the Akademi on March 12, pointing out the implications of this action and underlining the importance of respecting the autonomy of creative pursuits and of the agencies dealing with them. Following my letter, other writers such as the eminent Hindi poet Kedar Nath Singh (who was awarded the Shalaka Samman for 2009) also declined their awards.

The awards were given away on May 11, 2010. An English translation of the letter is given below.      

Letter begins:

Dear Parichaya Das ji,

I trust this finds you in the best of spirits.

On January 7, I received your letter regarding the Hindi Akademi’s decision to honour me with the Sahityakar Samman for 2008. At that point I assumed that recommendations of the jury were implemented as a matter of course, and I conveyed to you my acceptance. However, I now learn from press reports that the Akademi has decided not to confer the Shalaka Samman on Shri Krishna Baldeva Vaid in spite of the jury’s recommendation. The reports indicate that the Samman is being withheld from Shri Vaid on account of charges of so-called obscenity in his writings.

This disturbs me. Obscenity or propriety in literature and the arts cannot be determined in such a flat and insensitive manner. It is improper to permit extra-literary considerations to override the recommendations of a jury. Such actions manifest a lack of respect due to a senior writer, as well as to the pursuit of creative writing. We often hear well-meaning phrases about the writer’s social responsibility. I feel constrained to point out that institutions representing social and political power and authority should, on their part, respect the pursuit (sadhna) of thought, art, literature, knowledge, and their autonomy.

Of late, a disturbing rise in the level of intolerance has become visible in our society. This is so not only in the context of creative pursuits but beyond them too. Artists, writers, thinkers and scholars are often physically attacked -- sometimes for the so-named ‘offence’ of hurting sentiments, sometimes for hurting morality by their so-called acts of obscenity. Such intolerance can turn democracy into a mere formality. Respect for creativity is an imperative prerequisite for strengthening the temperament and practices of democracy in society. We should keep in mind that the official recognition of artists or writers is not an act of charity bestowed upon them, but a token of appreciation for their contribution towards making society more sensitive. Hence while awards given by various Akademis do indeed underline the significance of the awardee’s work, they also help create an atmosphere of tolerance in society at large.

Our society is blessed with an inspiring tradition of respect and even reverence for creative pursuits. It needs to be stressed that the standards of judgement implied in such respect and in the evaluation of a particular work of art have been drawn not from the lowest common denominator of prevalent commonsense, but from the recognition of the autonomy of creative pursuits and their contribution towards making society mature and sensitive. Inherited from an older Indian tradition, this vision was strengthened during our national movement. As a writer and a citizen of India, I am proud to belong to this tradition.

Let us never forget that the various academies of literature and the arts came into existence in independent India on account of the late Jawaharlal Nehru’s active interest. Jawaharlalji’s commitment to the freedom of artistic, literary and creative expression and his insistence on the autonomy of official institutions dealing with such activities is too well-known to bear repetition. A similar approach ought to serve as a compass for the conduct of such Akademis. To withhold an award that has been recommended by a competent jury reflects a flagrant violation of Jawaharlalji’s vision and commitment. It also conveys a disturbing departure from Indian cultural practice and from the values of our freedom movement. It is a departure that, in my view, the Akademi should avoid.

I am grateful for the recognition of my work implied by this Samman, and would have been happy to accept it along with my fellow awardees. However it seems inappropriate for me to accept it now that Shri Vaid is being denied the Shalaka Samman.

Once again I express my gratitude to the Hindi Akademi and to the jury. I shall accept my award if its recommendations are implemented without extraneous considerations and interventions.

Yours truly,
Purushottam Agrawal

Letter ends.

Editorial note: Extracts from this letter and comments on it were published in March 2010 in Jansatta and Dainik Hindustan. It was also discussed extensively in literary journals and the web

(Purushottam Agrawal is a renowned scholar, literary critic, author and public intellectual. He has taught Hindi literature at the University of Delhi and at JNU, and been a visiting scholar at the Collegio de Mexico and the Cambridge Faculty of Oriental Studies. His most recent work Akath Kahani Prem Ki: Kabir Ki Kavita Aur Unka Samay, (2009) has been re-published after wide acclaim )

Infochange News & Features, July 2011