History & Culture

No place for artistes in Delhi

Kathak maestro Pt. Birju Maharaj   | Photo Credit: V_Sudershan

Early last week, some senior artistes, several of them decorated by successive governments with Padma awards, were handed notices for overstaying in the flats and bungalows allotted to them by the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. They have been asked to leave their homes by December 3, failing which eviction notices are to be pasted on the walls of their homes. All this has happened during what is being called the secondwave of the COVID-19 pandemic. As all of us negotiate our lives in this swiftly changing new reality, artistes are no exception. With no theatres and no audience for their art, they are in a limbo. Many have gone online in a bid to stay relevant and visible, many are taking classes, many are unable to do either.

Among the 27 artistes who have been asked to vacate the homes they have occupied for many decades are veteran Odissi exponent Mayadhar Raut, Kathak maestro Birju Maharaj, dance critic Sunil Kothari, painter Jatin Das, dancer Bharati Shivaji, and several others in descending order of their age. Raut, master Odissi teacher, is in his 90s. Birju Maharaj, in his mid-80s, was decorated with the Padma Vibhushan in 1986. These artistes are past their prime in age and health. The eviction order by the government at this difficult time is thus viewed as particularly insensitive.

The notices stem from a November 8 decision of the Cabinet Committee of Accommodation, which hints at irregularities and misuse of the accommodation leased by the government. Charges the artistes vehemently deny. A daughter of one maestro said that rents have been paid regularly. The accommodation was initially allotted to artistes for five years, and then extensions were granted by each successive government, regardless of the political party in power. These extensions were usually reissued every three years. “Governments have been extending it for as long as we can remember,” said one artiste.

Now, some of them have written to the Prime Minister for his intervention while some artistes like Birju Maharaj have threatened to return their state awards if evicted.

State patronage of the arts is essential, but it needs to be handled with some degree of standardisation and efficiency. After the princes and royal families, it was All India Radio that was the first government platform to emerge as the premier patron of musicians; Doordarshan followed suit with the National Programme of Music and Dance. It was with a similar idea that the practice of allotted accommodation for artistes was begun sometime in the 70s. Close to 40 homes in the Asiad Village and on Shahjahan Road were earmarked for artistes younger than 60 and with incomes no more than Rs. 20,000 per month, but the spirit of the idea has been somewhat lost in the mists of time.

No place for artistes in Delhi

The period of five years was meant as a stepping stone, and once artistes stabilised their careers, they should have been encouraged to yield their accommodation to younger and needier artistes. Instead, by granting extensions indiscriminately, these artistes were allowed to assume that the accommodation was a lifelong grant. Now, in their twilight years they are ill-prepared to face the spectre of eviction.

A quick perusal of the several schemes announced on the Ministry of Culture website reveals that there is not a single scheme that addresses old artistes. There is no pension, no health coverage, and no official accommodation plan. In short, the government has no culture policy in place for the welfare of artistes. The only thing so far has been the pro tem flats and bungalows allotted by well-meaning but short-sighted governments.

It cannot be very difficult for the government to ask the DDA and other municipal authorities to allocate land and house for artistes after laying down conditions for eligibility that are strictly followed. Nor can it be impossible to create a pension or subsidised health insurance scheme. These are the questions the Ministry of Culture needs to engage with to come up with a lasting solution. Removing 27-odd artistes from their homes is at best a short-term solution. Despite requests, Ministry officials refused to comment on the subject.

India’s culture policies are in sharp contrast to countries like France and Germany, where not only is state patronage of arts and artistes a given but culture itself is given primacy without stifling it within government regulations. A government that pays so much importance to ‘soft power’ and ‘ancient Indian culture’ is expected to be more sympathetic to the real issues that artistes face on the ground.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2021 5:13:04 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/no-place-for-artistes-in-delhi/article33186229.ece

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