February 8, 2011
In 1988 Bharatanatyam dancer Sudharani Raghupathy was sitting on the roadside in Karnataka sipping tea, a day after her performance. Her van had broken down and the mechanic was on his way. The teashop owner recognized her face from the photo in the morning newspaper. "Are you Sudharani Raghupathy? I am honoured to meet a Padma Shri." That was how this dedicated dancer was told about her national honour. She was 44 years old. When she returned to her Mylapore home it was to a room full of telegrams and flowers. There was not a murmur about her merit and talent.
Over the past ten years, the Padma awards have ceased to reflect the intended patina of honour. For one, the net has been widened to include the fields of business, medicine and public service. While this is certainly commendable, the honouring of film stars who have done nothing for the medium is only devaluing the award. Rekha, the eternal diva, was honoured as late as last year along with film brat Saif Ali Khan! Both received the Padma Shri. Many times the list includes those who are in their nineties and often unable to stand or walk to receive the award from the President of India. Like RK Srikantan who is now 92 years old and finally recognized for his superb contribution to Carnatic music.
This year the inclusion of design guru Dasrath Patel for the Padma awards was bittersweet since Patel had passed away 9 weeks earlier to the announcement on Republic Day. Obviously nobody in the Home Ministry bothered to check on the names after they had been cleared. Remember the furore last year over controversial NRI hotelier Sant Chatwal receiving the Padma Bhushan? Was that really deserved? Were there other pressures involved? The Padma awards are not supposed to be mentioned, according to the Supreme Court declaration, as a title in visiting cards and stationery. That does not stop many awardees from printing this national honour in bold letters on any given opportunity.
Through the RIGHT TO INFORMATION ACT, the complete list of more than 1000 names who were nominated for the Padma awards this year was available to all. The list revealed the huge disparity in collating the so called "deserving" individuals for the various Padma honours. A 35 year old Carnatic singer was competing with an 80 year old Bharatanatyam dancer. Fortunately the dancer received the award this year. Lobbying and jockeying for awards has become so common that some dancers and musicians are inviting former awardees as chief guests to their functions and gifting them with gold jewellery in return for the award.
Tamilnadu government's recent list of state awards called the KALAIMAMANI also reveals discrepancies. Kollywood starlets like Anushka and Tamannah receive the award alongside veterans like actor Revathy Sankkaran and theatre director Prasanna Ramaswamy! And to top it all, two committee members on a national government cultural department gave themselves awards while selecting others! Only in India can we see such blatant conflict of interest. It is like the wife directs a play, her daughter acts in it and her husband writes about the event in the media. The public reads this and actually believes the report to be objective and unbiased!
While awards, like life, can never satisfy everyone and be totally just, it is only fair that we as citizens of a democracy can expect to admire true achievers who have distinguished themselves in their chosen field of endeavour and enhanced India's profile in the world. Not upstarts and publicity junkies who play the game and masquerade temperament for talent!