No end to drama over selection of NSD director

Late last year a five-member committee was formed to select the next director of the National School of Drama (NSD). At the time this was considered a sufficient period in which to identify a new director to take over from Anuradha Kapoor who retired in April 2013. The NSD is India’s premier theatre performance and education institution and one of the leading “autonomous” cultural bodies functioning under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture since 1975 though it has existed since 1959.  With a total  annual grant of Rs 38.50 crore (2011-2012),  a high-profile annual festival – the Bharat Rang Mahotsav — running for the last 15 years and its Ebrahim Alkazi legacy from the 1960s when the legendary theatre director moved from Mumbai to Delhi and shaped the school in its early years, the NSD is a major institution of Indian cultural life. Among the actors to have graduated from it are Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Manohar Singh, Surekha Sikri, Pankaj Kapoor, followed by Seema Biswas, Mita Vasisht, and most recently, Irfan Khan.

The post of its director is a challenging assignment. As per the rules and regulations devised by the Culture Ministry and implemented by the NSD Society, a five-member selection committee was formed. There was Amal Allana (NSD chairperson, who retires after two terms on June 14), an NSD Society member, the playwright GP Deshpande, and three experts from the field – the playwrights Satish Alekar and Girish Karnad, as well as filmmaker Shyam Benegal. After sifting through the applications received in response to an advertisement, the committee used a special clause that allows it to invite a candidate (if it believes that the best people had not been identified through the application process), and called Arundhati Nag for an interview to Delhi in November 2012.

A well known actor with over 40 years of experience in Hindi, Marathi, Kannada and Gujarati theatre, Nag is also the founder of Bangalore’s vibrant Ranga Shankara theatre and has run it successfully for over a decade. She was unanimously accepted by the selection committee as the best candidate for the job. This decision was also unanimously accepted by the NSD Society on which the Ministry of Culture has a nominee. In 2007 too, as director Devendra Raj Ankur’s term was coming to an end, a three member committee with Allana, Karnad and theatre and film critic Samik Bandopadhyay had gone through a set of applicants before similarly inviting theatre director Anuradha Kapoor for an interview and recommending her for the post. The Ministry had accepted that recommendation without any argument.   

But this time, things have turned out differently.

Says Girish Karnad, “We all felt that Arundhati who has a body of work in theatre and has founded and run Ranga Shankara, one of the few theatres in India to have a show every day, was the ideal candidate for the job. We also felt an outsider would bring the kind of fresh perspective the NSD needs.” The news was welcomed by most in the theatre community. Bringing in an outsider would, everyone hoped, be a mandate for change and transparency and allow the NSD to free itself of the cultural politics and infighting that has dogged it for years. 

But after the files were sent to the Ministry of Culture around January 2013, for what everyone assumed were routine clearances, there has been only an uneasy silence. Meanwhile rumours of backstage manoeuvres by those unhappy with Nag’s selection have grown.

The Culture Ministry insists the committee’s recommendations are with the Department of Personnel and Training pending clearances. At the moment, a month after Kapoor retired, the NSD’s professor in acting Tripurari Sharma has taken additional charge as the director.       

Since the rules required the committee to suggest three names, theatre director Waman Kendre who has been director of the Academy of Theatre Arts, University of Mumbai for years and had applied for the post, was ranked second. Abdul Lateef Khatana who heads the NSD’s Theatre in Education repertory was third.

According to Karnad, they made it very clear that the other two were “not the ideal candidate, Nag was,” says Karnad. “Everyone agreed emphatically with this, including the NSD’s Amal Allana,” he added.

But Allana, speaking to The Hindu, insists she has always been neutral. She adds that the ministry is well within its power to scramble the ranking of the committee and its specific recommendations. “They asked for three names, that is all. It is their prerogative to change the order and pick who they please,” she says, defending the government’s role as the final arbiter. Alekar, too, endorses this position and refuses to even discuss the candidates or his opinion on their suitability or the lack of it. “The committee is only a recommendatory body. The NSD is a 100 and 1 percent government owned body, so it has the right to pick its director.” What about cultural autonomy and institutional independence? Should state control over the institutions it supports financially be accepted as a principle in an open and pluralistic democracy? “Oh, but they have functional autonomy don’t they?” replies Alekar.

Playwright GP Deshpande too asserts that while he agrees with granting autonomy to institutions as a principle, it is not something that can be randomly invoked and applied at the time of a particular crisis like the present one. Insisting that government rules (of which they were aware prior to the selection process) apply, Deshpande says he won’t complain if the government were to choose a candidate other than the one unanimously chosen by the committee he was part of.

Karnad insists that if the order of the candidates is scrambled, this is as good as rendering the committee’s search for the ideal candidate meaningless. “The ideal candidate is one candidate. How can you have three ideal candidates? There is a reason why we found one to be the best,” says Karnad. But a senior Culture Ministry official who does not wish to be named, disagrees. “If we opt to strictly follow the rule book, then all that the committee was supposed to do was to give us 3 names. They were never required to give us a ranking. They may have exceeded their brief.”

Benegal agrees that under the existing rules the committee can only recommend the three names.  However, in view of the fact that it is a committee of experts and has been invited by the government there is a tacit understanding that its views will be respected and accepted. “If they don’t accept our views and the order of our recommendation which is critical to our view on the suitability of the candidates, then they should explain why our opinion is being set aside. There should be a very good reason for doing so. Otherwise our credibility in the public domain is questioned too and that is not fair to us,” he argues.

As the matter drags on, the cultural world is swirling with darker rumours about how the government is just waiting to ride out the six month period after which the recommendations from the committee could lapse. This will probably happen in July 2013. It could then make use of a recently stepped up probe into certain long standing issues of alleged financial irregularity and overspending at the NSD -- all of which occurred under the close watch of the Ministry of Culture -- to insist the institution needs the kind of  monitoring that only a ministry approved bureaucrat can provide.  

Perhaps there is a pattern to this after all. In recent years, key posts at cultural institutions like the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Lalit Kala Akademi, Kalakshetra, National Museum, National Monuments Authority and the Sahitya Akademi have been lying vacant, sometimes even after selection committees have recommended specific candidates. The FTII and National Film Archives in Pune as well as the IGNCA in Delhi are now headed by bureaucrats. Given the intrigue over a straightforward appointment of the next NSD director despite the committee’s unanimous recommendation, could the NSD too be heading towards that end?