The awards have lost their original lustre and prestige, bogged in controversies year after year. Once considered the most fitting recognition of eminent men and women from different walks of life for their outstanding contribution, the awards are increasingly viewed as rewards for loyalty to the establishment or fruits of intense lobbying by aspirants or their sponsors gifted with excellent networking skills.
Recent exercises under the Right to Information Act yielded damning evidence of favouritism, nepotism and partisanship, apart from violation of norms and dilution of the spirit behind the concept. This has led to media criticism and rejection of the awards by the nominees for one reason or the other.
The award is not conferment of a colonial title like Raja Bahadur or Dewan Bahadur that the recipient can strut about wearing it on his sleeve or cap. Some recipients appeared to have affixed it to their names as if they were so christened at birth. The High Court of Andhra Pradesh has recently indicted actors Mohan Babu and Brahmanandam for prefixing Padma Shri to their names in the titles for the movie ‘Denikaina Ready’ and even directed them to return the award.
A sad feature of film journalism, particularly in the South, is rampant image-building and even deification of artistes. Fans associations and cultural organisations confer titles like Nata Sarvabhouma, Nata Ratna, Nata Samrat, Nadigar Thilagam, Puraitchi Thalavi and so on upon leading artistes and in no time, they become part of the names their parents gave them. We have other appendages too like Superstar, People’s Star, Power Star, Rebel Star, Real Star, Sahaja Nati, Agra nati etc. A film personality becomes ‘Dr’ the moment he or she is awarded honorary doctorate by a university. We have a lyricist whose name is never mentioned in the papers without the prestigious literary award he had received many years ago. Felicitation culture has evolved into a flourishing industry. By and large, Hindi actors do not flaunt awards.
RTI disclosures point to favouritism at the high level. Some Congress leaders recommended up to 25 names each for nominations. Congress MP T Subbarami Reddy and Hindustani classical vocalist Pandit Jasraj have recommended over a dozen names. Lata Mangeshkar had recommended sibling Usha for the award while Ustad Amjad Khan his two sons. It was said that US-based Sant Singh Chatwal got Padmabhushan for successfully lobbying for the Indo-US nuclear agreement, cited by Dr Manmohan Singh as his major achievement. The surgeon who had performed knee surgery on former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee also was rewarded suitably. India’s first president, Rajendra Prasad was said to have recommended his nurse and Rajiv Gandhi his school principal for Padma award.
Political considerations too come into play. Many eye brows were raised when the Central Government had conferred Bharat Ratna, country’s highest award, on MG Ramachandran. The Congress party desperately needed an ally in Tamil Nadu. It is again for political reasons the Central Government is sleeping over the persistent demand for similar recognition to Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao. How can we ignore the link between the Manmohan Singh government conferring Padma Vibhushan, the nation’s second-highest civilian honour, on Brijesh Mishra, senior policy advisor to Vajpayee, after he had left BJP and supported the UPA line on the nuclear issue? It is also difficult to digest the award of Padma Shri for a Bollywood actor charged with poaching the endangered black buck and for a surrendered Kashmiri militant against whom cases of extortion and attempted murder are pending.
The Telugus had rejoiced when the Government conferred Padma Shri on their screen idols Akkineni Nageswara Rao and Rama Rao in 1968, though long after their counterparts in Tamil film industry, MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, received them. It was believed that the Government had at the time done a fine balancing act in selecting ANR and NTR, both of whom had a huge fan following. Choosing one would have certainly offended the fans of the other. Government played it safe.
Similarly composers AR Rahman and Ilayaraaja were conferred Padma Bhushan in 2010. The latter was miffed that Rahman, much junior to him, was clubbed with him for the award. To add salt to injury, the print media focus was on Oscar-winner Rahman while Ilayaraaja was reduced to an also-won.
Singer S Janaki, winner of many awards, refused Padmabhushan award last year saying she deserved something better, Bharat Ratna. Malayalam actor Madhavan Nair was recommended Padmabhushan, but accepted Padma Shri without a protest.
The selection committee comes in for criticism not just for its sins of commission, but also for the sins of omission. Acknowledgment of their contribution continues to elude a number of eminent persons richly deserving them.
Let us hope that the 60th edition of the awards will be free of controversy or bias.
(The writer is former Chief of Bureau, The Hindu, Hyderabad) dasukesavarao@ gmail.com, dasukesavarao@ yahoo.com