Culture is usually an uncontroversial sector, a product, frankly, of its insignificance. Appointments, though, at any of the 32 autonomous institutions, fully funded in most cases, within the protective fold of the Ministry of Culture, have always been a touchy business. And so it is with the latest controversy over the appointment of the next director of the National School of Drama (NSD).
Two weeks ago, 29 theatre persons came together to present a memorandum to the Culture Minister Chandresh Kumari Katoch (the fourth such change in as many years in the UPA’s second term). They were protesting the eight-month delay in the announcement of the NSD’s next director. A prioritised list had been submitted to the Ministry in November last year with recommendations that a duly constituted Search and Selection Committee had made to the NSD society (the apex administrative body of the NSD) and which the latter had accepted and endorsed. Amal Allana, chairperson of both the NSD and the search committee, had sent the list on to the Ministry of Culture.
It was an eminent panel with NSD society member, playwright and academic GP Deshpande alongside playwrights Girish Karnad and Satish Alekar and filmmaker Shyam Benegal. After advertisements for the post were placed and applications examined, the committee felt that the best candidate needed to be found elsewhere. Invoking a special clause, they invited Arundhati Nag, theatre actor and the founder of Rangashankara theatres in Bengaluru, for an interview to Delhi in November. At the heart of the controversy is the committee’s unanimous recommendation of Nag, naming her as the first and best choice for the NSD. The norm is for the committee to provide three names from which the government picks one.
Since two more candidates were required, the committee added the names of Waman Kendre, who has run the Academy of Theatre Arts at Mumbai University and Abdul Lateef Khatana from within the NSD, who runs the Theatre in Education company as their second and third choices for the post.
For months there was only silence and no plausible explanation for the delay from the government. It was only after the memorandum was presented by the theatre persons a fortnight ago that Katoch finally spoke up. The files, she said, were with the Cabinet and an announcement was expected soon, adding that the government was not bound to follow the prioritised recommendations made by the committee. Right from the start, though, there have been furious whispers about shadowy games being played by those displeased by the prospect of Nag becoming the next director. Strong rumours first emerged a couple of months ago that the third candidate, Khatana, known to be politically connected, might be the next director, despite the committee having found him inexperienced. Ministry officials have only recently broken their silence to attack the committee’s prioritised list.
Since the memorandum was handed over, the Ministry’s stand has only hardened. Press articles have quoted officials reiterating that the government will pick one of the three names as it pleases. It is also suggested that the committee’s mandate was to pick three people of more or less equal calibre. The reason for this, explained in a civil servant’s carefully bland language, is that the government sometimes needs to “take care of regional and other considerations”. It opens up a debate on the rights of an expert committee to make specific recommendations to institutions funded by the government and the government’s right to take the final call in all cases. Is this not an anomaly, especially when the institutions within the government fold are not examples of good governance? Unspecified recommendations encourage behind-the-scenes politicking. A system crying out for sharpness and definition instead is left to remain loose, arbitrary, lacking in transparency.
Besides, there appears to be no consistency regarding the rules. Members of search and selection committees are sometimes asked to list selections in alphabetical order, sometimes prioritised names or ranks, and sometimes just as three names. The basis on which these distinctions are made are not usually shared in detail with either the committee members or even the interested public. And sometimes the government decides to do its own thing anyway, disregarding the committee entirely. Last year, a search and selection committee was formed to select the chairman of the National Monuments Authority and interviewed six or seven candidates, finding all of them to be unsuitable, except for one who was very good but too old. The Ministry, exercising its right to make the final call, simply selected a candidate from those expressly rejected by the committee.
In the case of Arundhati Nag, it is clear that the Ministry is not comfortable with her as the NSD’s next director and it is using its power to refuse to accept the search committee’s endorsement of her. Accusing the government of being pusillanimous, Karnad says it “clearly lacks the capability to take part in an informed and open discussion on the merits of the case”. He points out that the committee searched widely, considering many others in the field before fixing on these three names; he maintains that the factors of region and community were addressed in their recommendation.
Benegal, also part of the search committee, accepts that the committee’s role is advisory, but rejects the notion of coming up with three candidates of more or less equal calibre. “The best cannot be three people. The best is always one. Were we not supposed to look for the best?” A prioritised list with ranks for each candidate and a rationale for that ranking is both specific and transparent. It foregrounds merit and capability. It’s not just about the NSD. The continual failure to find a head for the National Museum in Delhi is a reminder that the best talent in the country is not attracted to these posts, and that the search and selection process might be at least partly to blame. Other posts too lie vacant.
The NSD is, like many others, a difficult even ungovernable institution, but it has successful aspects too that need protecting. The separation of the good from the bad would challenge the capabilities of the best arts administrators. Setting aside the history of factional internal politics, Anuradha Kapoor, the last director at the NSD, made significant changes in the academic and training outlook of the institution. But the picture that emerges in her wake is worrying. Given the interference and internal politics, working with a government institution may not be attractive to professionals who have made a name for themselves in the wider world and can enliven these institutions. The well-known Marathi playwright Satish Alekar, who ran the Centre for Performing Arts at Pune University from 1996 to 2009, was earlier offered the directorship of the NSD, but turned it down. A plum post like the director of the NSD, the opportunity to partake of the power games in the capital and the spike in status that the post signifies may eventually appeal only to the careerists and keep away those who might have brought the benefit of their experience to the NSD.
It is clear that the Ministry would rather stick to the letter than the spirit of the rules it has created, which surely is to find the best people to lead our chronically sick cultural institutions. Even if the Ministry accepts the selection committee’s endorsement of Nag, this needless controversy is a reminder of the government’s propensity for high-handedness. By insisting on specific qualities and focussing on the best candidate the selection committee has performed the service of at least reopening the debate on the need for quality leadership.