Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Writer Ashok Vajpeyi reflects on the state of culture

By Shrinkhla Sahai

The relationship between the state and culture has been deeply vexed. ‘Between Hope and Despair’ was the title of the talk delivered by Ashok Vajpeyi at the Ila Dalmia Memorial Lecture at the School of Arts and Aesthetics in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Reflecting on the waxing and waning coalition between polity, policy and the arts, Ashok Vajpeyi shared his experiences as a former civil servant and the development (or the lack of it) on the cultural scene in the decades of the 1970s and 80s. An acclaimed poet, critic and connoisseur of the arts, he has recently been in the news for returning state accolades as an ideological position. In 2015 he was one of the writers who initiated the movement to return their Sahitya Akademi awards in protest against intolerance that eventually arm-wrested the Akademi into taking a stand on the issue.This year, following the suicide of Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula in connection with the bitter battle with the Hyderabad Central University administration, Vajpeyi has also returned the D Litt conferred on him by the same university. 

Tracing what he called, “the hope that was and the despair that is,” he turned to his personal trajectory in the 1970s when the links between the state and the field of culture were gradually disconnecting. Presenting an overview of the situation from the perspective of a civil servant at that time, he mentioned that the states were reluctant to take serious action in the field of culture and many of the states till date do not have state akademis; the number of well-informed bureaucrats with an interest in culture was dwindling; the academic world had not deeply studied the dynamics of the relationship between the state and culture; and the artistic community remained fragmented. He observed that the state largely viewed the notion of ‘culture’ as the responsibility of the community, and mainly took up the agenda of preservation of heritage, which then, emerged as a challenge to contemporary creativity. 

Ashok Vajpeyi has played a significant role in in the fields of culture and education, establishing institutions like Bharat Bhavan Bhopal, Kalidas Akademi, Dhrupad Kendra, MP Adivasi Lok Kala Parishad and Chakradhar Nritya Kendra. He was also the Chairman of Lalit Kala Akademi (2008-2011). As an insider to the bureaucratic machinery, he pointed out that in terms of appointment of efficient resource persons, the Akademis are often caught between the goals of representation versus excellence.

Critiquing the colonial legacy that led to the bifurcation between arts (as esoteric and transcendental) and crafts (focusing on skill and labour), as well as the binary between the classical (largely music and dance) and the modern (mainly literature, theatre and visual arts), Vajpeyi suggested that it was important to have an exchange between various forms. He concluded the talk strongly advocating for a lobby for the arts and the need to address systemic issues within cultural institutions like a clear policy of succession, professionalism, autonomy and synergy between vision and action.

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