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Sahitya Akademi is a failed Nehruvian project. Now it has to survive in a ‘digital’ India

Sahitya Akademi doesn’t make news today except for the annual announcement of awards. And events like Assam's Kokrajhar Literary Festival are ready for competition.

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There’s a revered Nehru-era literary institution in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi. It really doesn’t make news except for the annual announcement of Sahitya Akademi Awards. It also made news when people began to return their awards in 2015. But its silent march toward oblivion has gone largely unnoticed and unlamented. Like other Nehruvian ideas, Sahitya Akademi is also unable to keep up with the times. After the Covid pandemic struck, the Sahitya Akademi also tried to to change with YouTube and Zoom. But already, it was too little too late.

In the last two years, many institutions in India have attempted, and even successfully executed, their move to a digital medium as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Supreme Court began virtual hearings, schools and colleges moved online, and so did museums around the world. On 12 May 2020, the Sahitya Akademi organised the first of its ‘Webline’ series — one that would become synonymous with a surge in their literary events that are entirely online, conducted usually through Zoom meetings. To go along with this was, for the first time, a regular video output of online symposiums, recitations, literary forums, writers’ meets, and national seminars. The problem, however, is evident in its viewership, or more precisely, the lack of it.

Throughout the years, there have been many criticisms and praises for the Sahitya Akademi. While some have viewed the institution as the “literary mafia in Delhi” — pointing to favouritism and “traditions of backscratching”, others take a balanced view. Poets, academics and former members acknowledge the shortcomings of the institution but are staunch advocates of its autonomy and democratic make-up. They say it’s the Indian writers in English who find fault with the organisation precisely because they have access to the resources and opportunities that bhasha (vernacular language) writers don’t. But a crucial exclusion before passing a verdict has been that of its activities outside of awards and archival projects.

There is no argument against the fact that the literary awards given by Sahitya Akademi are considered one of the most “prestigious”, alongside the Jnanpith and Padma. It’s also beyond doubt that they have undertaken some of the most important work in documenting Indian literature. Publishing 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 buck stops. The Akademi is often viewed, at least by the general population, as a yearly award-giving institution. Little is said about the quality of their programmes and whether they significantly encourage young writers, readers, academics and littérateurs towards Indian literature in a more tangible, hands-on manner.

Seldom are the Sahitya Akademi’s programmes discussed in academic institutions or find themselves as essential reading/viewing in syllabi that have largely remained ‘canonical’. The national media never covers it, and the regional media’s coverage is only limited to the who, when, where and what of the events. Even niche magazines and ‘literary supplements’ have been largely silent about them.

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A Nehruvian project in New Delhi

After the Sahitya Akademi’s inauguration on 12 March 1954, Jawaharlal Nehru was elected as its first chairperson/president and held the position for a decade, till his death. Nehru, who was chosen because of his stature as a ‘writer and an author’, had set a clear precedent of the autonomy of the institution: “As President of that Akademi I may tell you quite frankly I would not like the Prime Minister to interfere with my work.” Sixty-six years after Nehru’s proclamation, the home page of Sahitya Akademi website now greets you with two notifications separated with the rest through a prominent red box. One reads: Deshbhakti Geet Writing Competition and the other, Lori Writing Competition, followed by “…as announced by the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India in Mann Ki Baat programme on 24 October 2021.”

As an institution that embraced Jawaharlal Nehru both in its values and leadership — Sahitya Akademi just hasn’t achieved what it set out to. It’s a failed Nehruvian project, much like many institutions in New Delhi that seem to be fatigued, losing their autonomy, lacking bold innovation and progress, and are understaffed and underfunded.

Cultural anthropologist Rashmi Sadana’s book English Heart, Hindi Heartland: The Political Life of Literature in India situates it within the politics of Indian languages: “And yet for all its attempts to fulfil the Nehruvian mantra of ‘unity in diversity,’ the Akademi reflects the political struggles over language, especially in regard to the competing hegemonic influences of Hindi and English. It is a quintessentially Delhi institution in this regard.”

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Recent trends, self publishing and social media

The Sahitya Akademi YouTube channel currently has 13,900 subscribers, averaging 386 views, two comments and 12 likes per post. An analysis of their Engagement Rate — a metric used to measure viewer’s interaction — reveals that only 0.101 per cent (the benchmark is 5 per cent) of their followers have interacted with the content per post. By the same metric, less than 0.069 per cent of people interact with their content on a daily basis and only 4.876 per cent of their viewers have interacted with all their content so far. A look at their Twitter and Facebook accounts reveal the same press releases, pictures of events and regional media coverage with no meaningful interaction and exchange.

In the era of social media, getting a readership/viewership of a few thousand is no biggie. The examples are right in front of you: from Rupi Kaur to Khawaja Musadiq and 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 that featured flash fiction.

The more “serious” fiction writers seek other avenues. Short-story writers seek out independent translators and publish their work in publications like almostisland and blaft anthologies, while those who want their publication to be in their language have published with regional literary magazines now available online on platforms like Magzter.

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

In the current market, the Sahitya Akademi cannot hope to survive without either competing or partnering with commercial publishers. In 2020, literary agent Anish Chandy laid out the areas that publishing houses need to succeed in the next decade: Bold publishing choices and publicity campaigns, digital subscription services, and audio and e-books. These predictions echo the call made by Abhijit Sengupta-led High Power Committee (HPC) report in 2014 to increase the Akademi’s funds for publicity and promotional activities. While the Akademi seems to now be offering digital subscriptions, it is yet to act on other recommendations.

While literary festivals have largely catered to Indian English literature, the recent Kokrajhar Literary Festival held in Assam — which featured writers from across a hundred Indian languages — could signal a shift from this tradition. Sahitya Akademi’s Festival of Letters might soon have competition across borders from increasingly empowered minor languages it seeks to represent.

A 2018 Hindustan Times article seems to indicate that the Akademi had started ‘modernising’ their approach with LGBTQ+ writers’ meets, new bookstores at Delhi metro stations and its village outreach programme ‘Gramlok’. These might just act as a shake-up that the organisation needs to kick on. But three years later, there is yet to be a comprehensive review of where the Sahitya Akademi has gone with them.

Also Read: Can the Hindi novel keep up with social media? Its new readers are signalling a revival

Reviewing the Sahitya Akademi

Decade after decade, the five review committees that have taken a look at Sahitya Akademi have passed the same judgement when it comes to India’s premier literary organisation. In the words of the Sitaram Yechury Parliamentary Standing Committee report in 2013, which reviewed the implementation of 1990 P.N. Haksar Committee report: “The issues 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 live up to the original mandates set out by their founding fathers.”

The last review of Sahitya Akademi came in 2014 by Sengupta HPC report that made similar observations to that of its precursors. Additionally, it also emphasised on increased digitisation, funding and transparency. It also called for allowing a reputed institution to conduct a performance audit of Akademi’s activities.

Although the organisation has constituted a Programmes and Publications Review Committee and a Performance Quality Audit Committee that meet once in two and three years, respectively, their assessments are yet to be made public.

In the age of ‘Digital India’, a larger question that looms over the Sahitya Akademi is whether it can keep up with the changing literary landscape of the country. Mere survival of the institution almost 70 years into its existence is not enough, Sahitya Akademi needs to take the next step — to sustain and flourish. As the only institution with the burden of carrying literature across hundreds of languages, it almost feels unfair to criticise it. But there is an increasing disconnect between youth and the Sahitya Akademi — a reality it needs to address.

With Sahitya Akademi, there’s never been a question of not doing enough. It’s a question of doing it well. As poet and editor Medha Singh echoes: “Be it the prize or the books, the journal or the events – it should mean something vital to engage with the Sahitya Akademi.” This subtlety is often lost on many critics of the organisation. Yet there is a need to ask questions when a scheme like ‘mentorship of young authors’ carries a nationalist tone and the prefix of ‘Prime Minister’ instead of ‘Sahitya Akademi’.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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