When any institution has functioned for a considerable length of time of 30 years, it calls for an examination of its successes and failures. From that point of view, Prof. Umashankar Joshi, the former President of the Sahitya Akademi, was perfectly justified when he stressed on the assessment of 25 years of its existence the need to have ‘a close, even a hard, look’ at the working of the Akademi.
D.S. Rao, who has been with the Akademi for as many years and is currently its Deputy Secretary, has waded through a sea of facts and figures and annual reports to do a searching job. The result is the book under review which, in the words of V.K. Gokak, (the Akademi’s present Chairman) is ‘an interesting survey of the achievements of the Akademi and the prospects opening before it.’
The Sahitya Akademi, along with the Lalit Kala Akademi and the Sangeet Natak Akademi, is the child of Indian Independence, though the idea of having a ‘National Cultural Trust’ was originally mooted by the Royal Asiatic Society of Calcutta and was accepted by the British Government way back in 1944.
Later, there was a consensus in favour of setting up three National Akademies of Letters, Visual Arts and Dance Drama and Music. Following the resolution of 1952 the Sahitya Akademi was formally inaugurated as an autonomous body in 1954 with Jawaharlal Nehru, then the Prime Minister, as its first President.
Since then, the primary objectives of the Akademi have been, a) To promote creative writing, b) Integrate Indian literatures through regular inter-action, and c) interpret Indian literature through translations of Indian classics, critical histories, monographs on the Makers of Indian Literature (MIL) series, anthologies of poems, short stories, etc.
The Akademi’s annual budget has gone up from Rs 16,00,000 in 1954-55 to Rs 56,72,000 in 1982-83. The number of annual Awards to writers in 21 languages, recognized by the Akademi has been raised from Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 for each writer. Through its journals, Indian Literature and Samakaleen Bharatiya Sahitya the Akademi keeps the readers informed about the current-happenings in the literary fields of India.
It has not been a particularly smooth sailing for the Sahitya Akademi. With the best of intentions, it has been caught in .bureaucratic tangles and quite often, unimaginative and slack functioning which has brought the institution under disrepute. But, with all that the Akademi may have failed to achieve, it should be possible to agree with the author, D.S. Rao, that it is ‘to the credit of Sahitya Akademi that it has been able to create an awareness of Indian literature by cutting across the barriers of languages and script.’
In its routine functioning, the Akademi follows a democratic procedure with the General Council having the supreme authority. The Executive Board consisting of eminent men of letters is elected every five years. From its original modest headquarters at Theatre Communications Building, (now demolished for Palika Bazar) it has moved to the sprawling Rabindra Bhavan designed to house all the three Akademies.
The Sahitya Akademi is a three-tier association of writers, consisting of (a) Fellows who are ‘men of achievement in the letters’, (b) Award-winners, who are ‘men of promise in letters’ and (c) Members of the various literary bodies all over the country associated with the State Literary Akademies who plan and guide its programmes.
Dr. S. Radhakrishnan was the first Fellow of the Akademi (1968), followed by other literary figures like Kaka Saheb Kalelkar, Kalindi Charan Panigrahi, Sukumar Sen, Vishnuprasad Trivedi, Jainendra Kumar, Mahadevi Verma, Leopold Sedar Senghor the poet of Negritude who became the President of Senegal, Sivaram Karanth, K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar and Umashankar Joshi.
The annual Awards, though essentially given to works of literature, are sometimes extended to the Humanities if a particular work is in a creative strain and is an outstanding contribution to a particular language and its literature and knowledge.
However, the Awards of the Sahitya Akademi (and also of the other two Akademies) have been a subject of a hot controversy. It is often pointed out that the Awards are given to ‘spent forces’ and that they help the ‘creation of substandard literature.’ Ostensibly, for these or similar reasons, many writers have rejected and even returned the Awards!
Yet, the Awards, though not as munificent as Jnanpeeth awards, have brought to many writers national as well as international recognition. One significant example is Thakazi Sivasankar Pillai, who became an international literary figure with his award-winning novel Chemeen, long before he was recognized by the Jnanpeeth Raja Rao’s novel The Serpent and the Rope is yet another example.
The Sahitya Akademi has frequently organized national and international seminars in which eminent writers and scholars have participated. The Tagore Centenary Seminar was attended by 25 eminent foreign writers including Martin Wickremasinghe (Sri Lanka) Aldous Hexley, (U.K.) and Louis Untermeyer (USA), Among the Indian delegates were Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Umashankar Joshi, Kaka Saheb Kalelkar, Dinkar and Jainendra Kumar.
The Akademi also organized international Ramayana Seminar as well as the seminars on Premchand, Subramania Bharati, Saratchandra, Gopabandhu Das, Vallathol and others. On the occasion of its silver jubilee (1980), the Akademi organized a writers’ meet to discuss ‘National and Global Awareness in post-Independence Indian Writing.’
The Akademi has organized several workshops and literary forums and has enabled writers to come into contact with writers from other regions by providing travel grants.
The publication progamme of the Akademi deserves attention, particularly because of the constraints under which it has to function. It has encouraged inter-translations of Indian writings and also brought out special editions of original works. It has provided grants to facilitate writers in their scholarly pursuits. It has brought out histories of litera¬ture in different languages (14) and has brought out 120 monographs in the ‘Makers of Indian Literature’ series. It has published many anthologies of short stories, poetry, essay, one-act plays from many languages. The massive project of a 3,000-page Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature in three volumes is under way.
The Akademi has so far published 1212 books in 23 languages, of which 25 are in English and French (in cooperation with the UNESCO). It runs a fairly well-stocked library of books in all the recognized languages.
An accusing finger is often pointed at the Akademi for accumulating huge stocks of unsold books. Against this, Rao points out that the total picture is not too depressing, for, 59 per cent books have been sold, 6 per cent are distributed free, and 35 per cent are in balance stock. One may still find fault with the Akademi’s business sense. But that way, many publishers, despite their fool-proof distribution system, do manage to have stocks of unsold books—finally disposed of by weight!
Rao has tried to give a truthful picture of the functioning of the Akademi and has not failed to mention its shortcomings. He has succeeded in writing objectively about the institution of which he is an important functionary. On the whole, he has saved himself from the temptation of indulging in superlatives.
The book provides very useful information about India’s National Akademi of Letters. The Appendices include the Constitution of this autonomous body, the administrative set-up, the list of the members of the Akademi and the Award-winners, (both in alpha-betical order), which add to the reference value of book.
Sarala Jag Mohan