By Ila Ananya
Now, writers, you must have read JK Rowling. You know how in the beginning of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, there is a scene in which Hermione, Ron and Harry are standing in the kitchen at the Burrow, when they see three owls flying towards them with the results of their Ordinary Wizarding Levels exam? Hermione is terrified in the way that only Hermione can be terrified about exam results, and at the end of the scene, Hermione gets an Outstanding (O) grade in every subject but one, while Ron and Harry seem happy they’ve passed.
Now, when a decision by India’s Ministry of Culture can remind you of a novel with wands and flying broomsticks, you think there must be something wrong. But the ministry’s new decision to rate artists, dancers, and writers across the country and place them into three categories – Outstanding (O), Promising (P), and Waiting (W) is the most sensible thing I’ve heard today.
Are you worried that nobody knows what Waiting means (waiting for a breakthrough, waiting for food, waiting for the results of silly lists, obviously waiting for Godot)? Just the idea of a Bharatnatyam dancer or writer sitting by their door waiting for metaphorical owls to come and tell them how the government has graded them will give you fresh perspective on life, art and everything. Too often writers try to secede from the nation. Now they can rejoin the masses. I only wish they’d created one more category called Struggler/Open Mic Participant. Then there’d been a full picture.
The Ministry of Culture says that this rating will help them decide which artist or dancer is to be sent to participate in events or festivals, in the hope that it will prevent a clique from dominating the cultural space. The rating will be done by the ministry’s bureaucrats and a few selected artists, and only those who’ve been given an Outstanding or Promising grade will be allowed to attend international events. If you’re wondering how the process works, it’s very simple – artists just have to go to the Centre for Cultural Resource and Training (CCRT) website to fill in an online application form that’s modestly titled Bharat Ka Sanskritik Maanchitran (Cultural Mapping of India).
Put aside those old-fashioned ideas that art is extremely subjective, because the Ministry of Culture has very obviously considered this. Look at the form, and you will see that there are no questions about how large the body of work of these artists are, or even the more mainstream question of how many tickets they’ve sold. Instead, the artist must choose the art form that they practice, mention how many years they’ve been working in the field, and indicate whether the art form in question is dying, or is still being performed, and that’s all. You are now ready to be neatly fit into a shiny new compartment, when all you may have wanted to do in the first place was sing at an international festival for Hindustani musicians and meet new people there with whom you could talk about music.
Like us, if you can’t tell what to judge from this minimal information, don’t worry: the judges making these decisions probably really really know how to judge art from the questionnaire the artists have filled up. It doesn’t matter that this form is even vaguer than what Alfred Nobel is believed to have said about the Nobel Prize for Literature — it is to be given to the “most outstanding work in an ideal direction” — even though we may all have different ideas of this “ideal direction.”
Please ignore the fact that when committees are given relatively much less power they get things rather garbled. Perhaps you have heard stories like this one in 2012, when the Bharatiya Jnanpeeth first gave Hindi novelist Gaurav Solanki a young writer’s award and praised his book, before refusing to publish it because its stories “lacked true love” and had siblings who talked about sex — because this goes “against the sanskaar of readers” — and asked him to change the stories. Gossip has it that the Jnanpeeth folks offered him the workaround of making it cousins rather than siblings. Solanki said no, thanks. But forget all that. This is going to be great, obviously. It’s going to take the messy cliques, alliances, snobbery and affection of artistic communities and give it a good, robust system. It will be like an Aadhar for art, a biometrics card of the soul, an iris scan of emotions.
But maybe if you’re wondering where to place paintings by Durgabai Vyam, Ravi Paranjape and Yusuf Arakkal, this categorisation will help you — the painting by a woman who has an Outstanding grade will go above the man with the Promising grade, which will in turn go above the painting by a man with a Waiting grade. Don’t worry about the troubling decisions the ministry will have to take if two people had the same Promising grade: would you then put them next to each other, or one above the other, and not next to someone with a lower grade. The ministry knows all. Also art after all maya hai.
I once met a writer of detective fiction who said in one breath that exams terrify her, even as she dismissed my worry about them as silly because they never test anything. And it is true that so many artists and writers are bad at exams and were waiting to be done with exams for ever. Now they will learn the reality (not to mention realism) because avoiding tuitions never helped anyone.
As a writer you must have read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, when the famous line that everybody quotes appears, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others; and the pigs are seen walking around with whips like men used to, and Napoleon is seen strolling in the farm with a pipe in his mouth, wearing a black coat and leather leggings.”
From now on some writers will be more equal than others.
Perhaps you are worried that nothing is mentioned about being able to move between the three grades either, it’s like you’re stuck on the cultural map of India as a 23-year-old writer who has only won one award, and so you’re part of the Waiting category, even when you’re actually 40, and have received multiple writing fellowships and have published two books that you enjoyed writing more than other things you’ve written. This new system will only be as mysterious as trying to figure out what to wear to a book launch in Delhi, or once at the book launch, how to get featured in Mayank Austen Soofi’s blog (which in our grading system is already Outstanding).
In fact, as a writer you should be enthused by this tribute to probably one of your greatest sources of inspiration: Mother Russia. Back in the day, Russia also used to sensibly put all the writers in one colony. Imagine Boris Pasternak and Isaac Babel all living next door to each other in government-built homes called dachas costing lakhs of rubles. Of course sometimes writers behaved badly and then they had to go live in Siberia in another kind of housing called gulag. But that is life, that is reality, that is all grist for the literary mill. Suffering is good for art.
The Ladies Finger is a leading online feminist magazine.