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शुक्रवार, 5 जुलाई 2013

Headless NSD swirls the theatre world

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre

More than the delay in the appointment of the director of the National School of Drama that has disturbed a host of theatre practitioners and academicians (including illustrious thespians from Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur), what is surprising is the apathy with which the artists' protest has been treated. 
Neither a verbal assurance, nor a hint of action has come from the ministry till date even after 29 theatre practitioners -- like actress Seema Biswas, playwright Ramu Ramnathan, scholar Shanta Gokhale, director Anamika Haksar -- have signed a memorandum asking the government to honour the unanimous decision made by its selection committee to appoint Arundhati Nag as the director. While the signatories wonder why the culture ministry does not endorse the decision made by its committee that comprises highly respected personalities in the field of Indian culture like Shyam Benegal, Girish Karnad, Satish Alekar, Govind Deshpande and Amal Allana, -- the stalwarts are thinking of ways to make a dent in the government's current response. 
The signatories maintain that while all the necessary procedures were put in place, as far back as November 2012, the government merely gives them a routine answer: "the file has been forwarded to the right department." They however suspect a larger unaddressed issue of cultural autonomy in the ministry's disinclination towards declaring the chosen candidate. 
Says artist Maya Rao, one of the signatories: "It is not just the delay that we are against. If an eminent panel scrutinises all applications and then places Nag -- an invited applicant -- on the top of a prioritised list of three names, there is no reason why the decision should not be respected. And worse is the fact that now it is openly stating that it is not bound by a recommendation of priority in the panel of selected candidates." 
The signatories state that the ministry's indecision gives rise to several conspiracy theories, which is demoralising for those working in the reputed drama school. It vitiates the cultural atmosphere and emanates negative media coverage about the back-stage intrigue and the possibility of the appointment of a bureaucrat at the helm. The press reports about lobbies and counter-lobbies that influence the appointment are particularly damning. 
Playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar states: "I find this delay highly unethical. The selection committee is a body that can make an informed decision. Nag has founded and led Bangalore's Rangshankara theatre and she has wide experience as an actress. She was therefore chosen to lead NSD. I think the government should not form selection committees, if their decision is not to be heeded? Why waste their time and effort?"
Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that while artists are agitated about the delay and seeming drift on the part of the Ministry of Culture, playwright Alekar (a member of the selection committee) has a different view to offer about NSD's autonomy. In an interview with Mirror, Alekar reiterated his feelings: "It is very clearly stated in NSD's constitution that the body has only limited functional autonomy. In the past, the government has accepted the selection committee's suggestions without an argument. That was nice. But that is not to be taken for granted." Alekar therefore upholds the ministry's decision to scramble the ranking order of the committee. 
Another committee member, film maker Shyam Benegal, puts it differently to Mirror: "Of course the government has the right to finally zero in on a candidate. But there is a well-meaning way in which they could have dealt with it. What about the trust the government reposed in a carefully constituted competent committee? Are we to presume that they consider us incompetent to choose the director? And even if they do find us incompetent in choosing the best candidate, shouldn't the ministry quickly appoint another body to expedite the appointment? In the interest of transparency, it should not delay the process for so long." 
Rao also feels that if the ministry does ultimately decide to disregard the committee's recommendations, it will be setting a bad precedent. "As cultural practitioners, we need to oppose this trend. If we remain silent, whether we are insiders or outsiders, we will only be allowing the government, not the artists' community, to decide on the qualifications, experience and capability of a head of a national arts institute." 

Meanwhile, Mumbai-based director Sunil Shanbag said: "Oh really, I didn't know theatre artists were affected by the lack of a head in the NSD? I feel we are giving too much importance to NSD, which has very little impact on the cultural life of our country. It is an insignificant player in the theatre scene, except for the fact that it has a huge disproportionate budget." He says he is surprised to see Mumbai and Pune practitioners at the forefront of this campaign. "When has the NSD, (mired in its own power politics) ever supported any one of us? We have created our own spaces in Mumbai and we have fought for our own autonomy? Mumbai's vibrant theatre stands on its own. About the culture ministry, I am not even surprised by their delay in the decision. Did we expect something better?

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