Awards or Rewards?

Carnatic musician TV Sankaranarayanan (Wikipedia image)

Here is an exceptional story from the Carnatic musician, TV Sankaranarayanan. While chatting with MS Subbulakshmi, long before he got the coveted title, she suddenly said, “Papa, I think you should have been awarded the Sangeetha Kalanidhi!” 

TVS replied, “I did get it, Amma!”

She asked him when, and he answered, “Just now! You gave it to me!”

In a country where people scramble for awards and go to any lengths to get one, this conversation between two well-known musicians speaks volumes. Especially in the world of performing arts, artists of all genres struggle to get these titles. The awards get them more sponsors, more programmes and invitations from other countries. These, in turn, fetch more awards. Sad that their reputation should depend on titles rather than their own creativity. Not surprisingly, one does not find the names of many gifted artists in these lists.

An exception to award chasing was that amazing sitarist, Vilayat Khan, who recorded his first disc at the age of eight and who performed his last concert when he was dying of cancer at the age of 75. He was an extraordinary artist who turned down a thousand pounds from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra saying “Accept me as I come, or reject me!” A tribute from The Guardian calling him “a maverick musician who famously turned down awards that others lusted after” is a telling comment on artists and their awards.

Even more coveted than the Sangeetha Kalanidhi is the Sangeet Natak Academy Puraskar awarded by the National Academy of Music, Dance and Drama. Known to be the highest recognition of practising artists, actors or writers, it has spawned a rat race among those vying for the honour. It also leaves lasting hostility among those who lost the race.

It is the same with state level awards that are given to “distinguished” persons who are supposed to have excelled in their field.

The Rajyotsava Award given by the Karnataka government on the first day of November to coincide with Kannada Rajyotsava Day, is one such recognition that is largely politicized. It is supposed to recognize contributions made in various fields of activity such as the Arts, Literature, Education, Sports and Social Service. But, the tremendous pressure on the government to include every area, every caste, every religion has resulted in rewarding all and sundry in a jumbo festival year after year. It is the same with the central government awards starting with the Bharat Ratna which is a recognition of service “in any field of human endeavour,” but has lost its sheen by becoming a tool of political patronage. Besides, the inclusion of past presidents, prime ministers and members of the Rajya Sabha has made the Bharat Ratna another meaningless political gimmick.

International awards are no less controversial. The latest Booker award shared by two authors has generated a lot of flak. More so as one of the winners is a black woman writer who has written a “phenomenal” book that got sidelined for being clubbed with another of lesser literary merit. When the winner was also the first black woman writer to make it to the finalist’s list, the judges’ decision to give her “half a Booker” speaks of racial bias in a contest that is supposed to be all about aesthetic values.

As for the Nobel Prize, instances are not lacking when lobbying and partiality have dictated its choice. When the Swedish industrialist, Alfred Nobel, established this prize, he had specified in his will that it should be a reward to “those who have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”

Whether they are scientists, inventors, writers or artists, their lifetime work should be recognized as service to humanity. But, even here, the prize has been dogged by controversies and accusations of bias. Some of the most infamous controversies have surrounded prizes for literature.

While renowned writers like Tolstoy or R K Narayan, who captured life’s tragedies and comedies in stories so unbelievably simple and straightforward, failed to impress the Nobel Committee, a “mere songster” gets it for reasons unknown. Just like the prize for peace eluded its greatest advocate and practitioner, Gandhi. This last omission was a monumental lapse which the Nobel Committee regretfully admitted long after his assassination.

“The greatest omission in our 106-year history is undoubtedly that Mahatma Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace prize. Gandhi could do without the Nobel Peace prize, whether Nobel committee can do without Gandhi is the question.”

Perhaps the best assessment of awards comes from a well-known harikatha scholar in Bengaluru. When told that people were wondering why he did not get the Rajyotsava Award, his answer said it all.

“I am happy they did not ask “Why did he get the award?”

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