The madness and mayhem of the Sangeet Natak Akademi 

May 13, 2005 

For many weeks, has been observing the events and incidents that have slowly brought the esteemed Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi to a grinding halt and the laughing stock of the Indian people. Numerous columns in national media - both print and electronic - have cited the sequence of events and shown artistes of national repute spewing angry epithets at the current Chairperson. Then came the latest comminique from the Ministry of Culture - the 'postponement' of the national awards ceremony. For our readers who are eager to have an update on this on-going saga of ego and power struggle, we bring you a summary and hope for a quick and speedy resolution.    

On December 19, 2003, during the previous National Democratic Alliance government, renowned Odissi dancer Sonal Mansingh was appointed Chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, an arts body meant for the promotion of dance, music and theatre in India. Since her tenure started, the artist fraternity have ‘observed’ many developments that they feel is unbecoming of one who holds such a high post as head of an eminent governing body like the SNA.  

Some of the charges leveled against her are: 1. Mansingh’s performance opportunities have multiplied phenomenally. 2.She has taken arbitrary decisions without consulting the General Council. 3. She has used her post for self-promotion and used divisive methods. 4. Most importantly, gives preference to dance forms above other art forms, even to the extent of proposing a name change from Sangeet Natak Akademi to Sangeet Nritya Akademi. Nritya means only dance whereas Natak encompasses dance as well as theatre. This has caused outrage since the Akademi was established around 1952 and many states have subsequently set up their own Sangeet Natak Akademies.  

In an interview with The Pioneer, New Delhi, Mansingh has stated, "Does no one even have a right to make changes in a 50 year old institution? There have been changes in the Sahitya Akademi logo and so on. People have now gone complaining to the President and the concerned ministry. During my tenure, for the first time, the World Theatre Day was celebrated at seven places. Where am I curbing theatre?" 

Mansingh has also been accused of conducting herself in an 'unconstitutional, undemocratic, unethical, unwarranted and unbecoming' manner. The simmering protests erupted into a flurry of resignations by members of the General Council and Executive Board of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, who strongly believe that the institution is larger than the individual. Carnatic musician M Balamuralikrishna was the first to resign, followed by its vice-chairman Kavalam Narayana Panikkar on April 23, 2005. Hindustani vocalist Ajoy Chakraborty, Bombay Jayasree, C V Chandrasekhar, Manipuri theatre personality Savitri Heisnam and other eminent artistes from the field of the arts also resigned from the Akademi’s executive board in protest against Mansingh’s 'autocratic way of functioning.' 

The artistes have submitted petitions to President A P J Abdul Kalam and to Information and Broadcasting Minister S Jaipal Reddy to relieve Mansingh from her post as Chairperson of the SNA in order to preserve the sanctity of the institution and for the betterment of the Indian cultural scene. Mansingh’s term comes to an end in December 2008.  
From Chennai, the Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India (ABHAI) under the leadership of Narasimhachari, have also submitted a signed petition requesting the President for a swift end to this embarrassing episode. Eminent artistes like the Dhananjayans, Sudharani Raghupathy, Chitra Visweswaran, KJ Sarasa, Indira Rajan, Lakshmi Viswanathan and many others joined together to voice their distress at the deepening crisis.   
Mansingh terms this a  'vilification campaign' against her, partly because 'she is a woman' and she on her part is presenting her side of the story to the authorities. About the criticisms leveled against her, she says, "Panikkar almost told me that he cannot work under a woman. Then they have this problem with the age factor. You are this younger, I am older. Now, if some artist is born a few years later, it’s not my problem. Then there are ego hassles among the dancers. This is not the first time that such drama is unfolding at the Akademi." (Pioneer, April 22, 2005) 

While it seems as though everyone is against her, a few, like former SNA chairperson Girish Karnad, have voiced the opinion that such accusations are a work hazard for one holding a post and to 'give her a chance.'  

As the controversies continue to rage, the SNA annual awards function, which was to have taken place on May 13, 2005 has been postponed. This has been done on indication that artistes intended to use the function to voice their protest and wear black armbands. 

What remains to be seen is if Sonal Mansingh is able to weather this major crisis and instill confidence in her leadership abilities with the present government. While many of us cheered her appointment five months ago, citing that it was the first time that a dancer was appointed to the head of this eminent cultural body, we are now appalled to see how Dance, always embattled, has now assumed center stage as an embarrassing reminder of the fragility of artistes’ ego.