Sahitya Akademi is a failed Nehruvian project. Now he must survive in a “digital” India


There is a revered literary institution of the Nehru era in the heart of Delhi in Lutyens. It really doesn’t make the news, except for the annual Sahitya Akademi Awards announcement. He also made the news when people started handing in their awards in 2015. But his silent march into oblivion has gone largely unnoticed and without regret. Like other Nehruvian ideas, Sahitya Akademi is also unable to keep pace. After the Covid pandemic struck, the Sahitya Akademi also attempted to change with YouTube and Zoom. But already, it was too little too late.

Over the past two years, many institutions in India have attempted, and even successfully executed, their switch to digital media in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Supreme Court has started virtual hearings, schools and colleges have gone online, as have museums around the world. On May 12, 2020, the Sahitya Akademi hosted the premiere of their “Webline” series – one that would become synonymous with an increase in their fully online literary events, usually held through Zoom meetings. To accompany this, for the first time, a regular video release of online symposia, recitations, literary forums, writers’ meetings and national seminars. The problem, however, is evident in its hearing, or more precisely, its absence.

Over the years, there have been many criticisms and praise for the Sahitya Akademi. While some have viewed the institution as the “literary mafia in Delhi” – pointing to favoritism and “back scratching traditions”, others have a balanced view. Poets, academics and former members recognize the institution’s shortcomings but are staunch defenders of its autonomy and democratic constitution. They say it is Indian English writers who find fault with the organization precisely because they have access to the resources and opportunities that bhascha (vernacular) writers don’t. But a crucial exclusion before delivering a verdict was that of its activities outside of awards and archival projects.

There is no argument against the fact that the literary prizes awarded by Sahitya Akademi are considered one of the most “prestigious”, alongside the Jnanpith and the Padma. There is also no doubt that they have undertaken some of the most important work in the documentation of Indian literature. The publication of three volumes of History of English Literature and the National Bibliography of Indian Literature, among others, are some of the achievements of the Sahitya Akademi. However, for most people, this is where the money ends. The Akademi is often regarded, at least by the general population, as an institution which awards prizes each year. Not much is said about the quality of their programs and whether they significantly encourage young writers, readers, scholars and literati towards Indian literature in a more concrete and practical way.

Sahitya Akademi programs are seldom discussed in academic institutions or end up as essential reading / visualization in programs that have largely remained “canonical”. National media never cover it, and regional media coverage is limited only to the who, when, where and what of events. Even trade magazines and “literary supplements” have remained largely silent about them.

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A Nehruvian project in New Delhi

After the inauguration of the Sahitya Akademi on March 12, 1954, Jawaharlal Nehru was elected as the first president / president and held this post for a decade, until his death. Nehru, who was chosen because of his stature as a “writer and author”, had set a clear precedent for the autonomy of the institution: “As president of this Akademi, I can tell you quite frankly that I wouldn’t want the Prime Minister to interfere with my work. Sixty-six years after Nehru’s proclamation, the homepage of the Sahitya Akademi website now greets you with two notifications separated from the rest by a conspicuous red box. We read : Deshbhakti Geet writing competition and the other, Lori writing competition, followed by “… as announced by the Honorable Prime Minister of India in Mann ki baat program on October 24, 2021.

As an institution that has embraced Jawaharlal Nehru in both its values ​​and leadership, Sahitya Akademi has simply failed to achieve its goal. It is a failed Nehruvian project, as are many institutions in New Delhi that appear to be tired, losing their autonomy, lacking in innovation and bold progress, and are understaffed and underfunded.

The book of cultural anthropologist Rashmi Sadana English Heart, Hindi Heartland: The Political Life of Literature in India situates it in Indian language politics: “And yet, despite all its attempts to fulfill Nehruvian’s mantra of ‘unity in diversity’, the Akademi reflects political struggles over language, particularly with regard to competing hegemonic influences of Hindi and English. It is a Delhi institution par excellence in this regard.

Also read: The real crisis in Indian literature is the pyramid of translations. Bangla is at the top

Recent trends, self-publishing and social media

The Sahitya Akademi YouTube channel currently has 13,900 subscribers, with an average of 386 views, two comments and 12 likes per post. An analysis of their engagement rate – a metric used to measure viewer interaction – reveals that only 0.101 percent (the benchmark is 5 percent) of their subscribers interacted with content per post. By the same measure, less than 0.069% of people interact with their content on a daily basis and only 4.876% of their viewers have so far interacted with all of their content. A look at their Twitter and Facebook accounts reveal the same press releases, event photos and regional media coverage without significant interaction or exchange.

In the age of social media, getting a readership of a few thousand is no big deal. The examples are right in front of you: from Rupi Kaur to Khawaja Musadiq and from Akhil Katyal to Swastikaa Rajput. While most poets earn their street cred on platforms like Instagram, don’t forget the meteoric rise of platforms like Terribly Tiny Tales which featured flash fiction.

The most “serious” novelists seek other avenues. Short stories writers seek freelance translators and publish their work in publications like the Nearisland and Blaft anthologies, while those who want their publication to be in their language have published in regional literary magazines now available online on platforms like Magzter.

While Sahitya Akademi’s efforts to publish various writers from economic and social backgrounds, especially in terms of “minor languages”, are still unprecedented, writers have also turned to self-publishing, which is a much faster process in comparison. Platforms like NotionPress, BlueRose Publishers, White Falcon Publishing, and StoryMirror prove to be viable alternatives, even for bhasha writers. Meanwhile, the Sahitya Akademi, by its own admission, claims that large stocks of books written in minor languages ​​remain unsold.

In today’s market, the Sahitya Akademi cannot hope to survive without competition and partnership with commercial publishers. In 2020, literary agent Anish Chandy defined the areas publishing houses need to be successful over the next decade: bold publishing choices and ad campaigns, digital subscription services, and audiobooks and e-books. These predictions echo the call made by the High Power Committee (HPC) report led by Abhijit Sengupta in 2014 to increase Akademi funds for advertising and promotional activities. While the Akademi now appears to be offering digital subscriptions, it has yet to act on other recommendations.

While literary festivals have largely concerned Indian English literature, the recent Kokrajhar Literary Festival held in Assam – which brought together writers from over 100 Indian languages ​​- may signal a shift from this tradition. The Sahitya Akademi Festival of Letters may soon be faced with cross-border competition from the increasingly autonomous minor languages ​​it seeks to represent.

A 2018 Hindustan times The article seems to indicate that the Akademi had started to “modernize” its approach with meetings of LGBTQ + writers, new bookstores in Delhi metro stations and its “Gramlok” village outreach program. These might just act as an upheaval for the organization to initiate. But three years later, there has yet to be a full review of the Sahitya Akademi’s destination with them.

Also read: Can the Hindi novel keep up with social media? Its new readers signal a revival

Review of the Sahitya Akademi

Decade after decade, the five review boards that looked at Sahitya Akademi delivered the same judgment regarding India’s premier literary organization. In the words of the report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee Sitaram Yechury in 2013, which examined the implementation of the report of the PN Haksar Committee of 1990: “The problems ranged from their constitution, composition, mandate and mainly their general functioning. It was felt that most of these institutions (Sahitya Akademi, Sangeet Natak Akademi and Lalit Kala Akademi) were not able to meet the initial mandates defined by their founding fathers.

The last review of Sahitya Akademi came in 2014 by the Sengupta HPC report which made similar observations to that of its precursors. In addition, he also focused on increased digitization, funding and transparency. He also called for authorizing a reputable institution to conduct a performance audit of Akademi activities.

Although the organization has established a Program and Publications Review Committee and a Performance Quality Audit Committee that meet once every two and three years, respectively, their evaluations have yet to be made. public.

In the era of “digital India”, a larger question hanging over the Sahitya Akademi is whether it can keep pace with the changing literary landscape of the country. The mere survival of the institution, almost 70 years after its existence, is not enough, Sahitya Akademi must take a new step: to maintain and prosper. As the only institution responsible for transporting literature in hundreds of languages, it seems almost unfair to criticize it. But there is a growing disconnect between young people and the Sahitya Akademi – a reality that it must address.

With Sahitya Akademi, it was never about not doing enough. It’s about doing it well. As the poet and editor Medha Singh echoes: “Whether it is the award or the books, the diary or the events, it should mean something vital to engage with the Sahitya Akademi. This subtlety is often lost on many critics of the organization. Still, it is necessary to ask questions when a program like “the mentoring of young authors” carries a nationalist tone and the prefix “Prime Minister” instead of “Sahitya Akademi”.

Opinions are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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