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A magnificent obsession

A fallacy to which we often fall is that Bharat Bhavan had every thing great about it in the past. It is a facetious argument that puts a lid on ideological biases, megalomaniac visions, capricious projects, scandalous extravaganzas and scintillating nothingness that also marked the ?golden period? of the multi-art complex. It glittered in the frequent assemblages of big names from art and culture but failed to leave a legacy to be proud of.

india Updated: Nov 21, 2006 17:39 IST

A fallacy to which we often fall is that Bharat Bhavan had every thing great about it in the past. It is a facetious argument that puts a lid on ideological biases, megalomaniac visions, capricious projects, scandalous extravaganzas and scintillating nothingness that also marked the ‘golden period’ of the multi-art complex. It glittered in the frequent assemblages of big names from art and culture but failed to leave a legacy to be proud of.

Bharat Bhavan’s present helmsmen would do well to remember that redemption of its past is neither possible nor desirable. Dynamism of culture best manifests itself in the contemporary milieu.

It must, however, be admitted that Bharat Bhavan was a grand vision executed in grand style with liberal dose of governmental aid. It was Ashok Vajpeyi’s magnificent obsession. He succeeded in getting the multi-art complex international fame because the poet-bureaucrat was the right man in the right place at the right time. Such a rare coincidence is now virtually impossible. Why?

When Bharat Bhavan came into being in early eighties, Bhopal was a placid, languid twin-city, still groping for a cultural identity. The old city reverberated with Shero-Shairy that transcended the liquor-stunk, smoke-filled ‘Mehfils’ in a few well-known houses to sprawling patias for nocturnal pleasure.

In the new Bhopal, a new class of capital’s cognoscenti was shaping up. This class longed to see dance, drama and music like their counterparts in other capitals. But the new city’s cultural horizon was dominated by only literature and, to some extent, amateur theatre.

Progressive writing was at its peak. The burgeoning litterateurs were also yearning for some kind of a bigger forum than claustrophobic four-walled private or government buildings to reach out to the readers. Bharat Bhavan promised a grand vision for all ‘culturally minded’ people of the capital to savour their kind of artistic genre in style hitherto unseen.

Culture secretary Ashok Vajpeyi was a man eminently suited for the task. He was poet himself, his wife Rashmi was a danseuse and his father-in-law Nemi Chand Jain a well-known doyen of culture in New Delhi.

Moreover, Vajpeyi had in Arjun Singh a culturally refined chief minister. Both knew each other well. Thus Arjun-Ashok pair captured the institution as lifetime chairman and secretary. Eminent artistes were also co-opted in the game as member trustee.  Arjun Singh too needed such a project to shine his image at the national level. He was aware of his leader Indira Gandhi’s fondness for culture.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi inaugurated Bharat Bhavan on February 13, 1982. She termed Bhopal as the new cultural capital of India. Others forgot her description as a politician’s penchant for hyperbole soon, but Ashok Vajpeyi took it seriously. Having brought the best possible artistes to head Bharat Bhavan’s various wings, he worked tirelessly to ensure that it shone across the country.

He succeeded to a great extent. Rangmandal under B V Karanth mesmerised the audience; Rupankar under painter J Swaminathan explored vast, unexplored nuances of painting, especially tribal painting and great thinker-writer Nirmal Verma lent huge prestige to Vagarth, the literary wing of Bharat Bhavan.

All of them had come from Delhi. With them the epicentre of Indian art and culture virtually shifted to Bhopal. As Bharat Bhavan basked in the reflected glory of the great virtuosos, Ashok Vajpeyi’s vision went global.

International poetry and Asia theatre festivals followed. Foreign poets, artistes and painters made frequent visits.  For national artistes, Bharat Bhavan had become a favoutire stage to perform. In the first five years, hardly a big name in the world of art and culture was left that had not accepted the hospitality of Bharat Bhavan.

The enhanced status fuelled some contempt in Ashok Vajpeyi for local media. The stream of top class artistes  kept caressing his ego. He would some times brush aside harsh criticism in the local papers with jokes on journalists’ ignorance.

The media was waiting to hit back. It got first opportunity to go for the jugular after Vajpeyi  infamously remarked in the aftermath of the Bhopal gas tragedy that “living people don’t die with corpses.” 

The media had a bigger opportunity to hit out at the Bharat Bhavan when B V Karanth allegedly tried to burn his disciple Vibha Mishra. The incident outraged the entire country. Now people would lend ears to Bharat Bhavan criticism with greater credulity, even if it were heresy.

The incident marked downslide of the institution. It never recovered since. Then chief minister Motilal Vora had no love for Bharat Bhavan and its managers. But Arjun Singh was still powerful. So, Ashok Vajpeyi managed to cruise on, albeit with a markedly lower profile

The BJP Government in 1991 pushed Bharat Bhavan again into the eye of a massive political storm. Chief minister Sundarlal Patwa brought a bill to change the Bharat Bhavan Trust’s composition. Patwa had his own design for the institute. He wanted to ‘Indianise’ the Bharat Bhavan. For the Congress, this meant blatant saffronisation. The Vidhan Sabha echoed for hours with the fierce debate on the bill. BJP member (now Chief Minister) Shivraj Singh Chouhan defended instilling spiritual inputs in the Bharat Bhavan programmes for the sake of presentation of  “completeness of truth”.

“If Patwaji wishes to convert Bharat Bhavan into a place of Atma Se Parmatma Ka Milan, I welcome it,”  the MLA from Budhni said.

The then chief executive officer (now chairman) of the Bharat Bhavan D P Sinha was only too willing to implement the diktat of the political regime. He bolted the doors of Bharat Bhavan for artistes supposedly opposed to the BJP ideology.

The move pleased the political masters but infuriated the art and culture world. Sinha’s problem was that he had to invite mediocre people to keep the institution running. For an artist to be associated with the RSS and still be great is still somewhat incompatible. Litterateurs like late Vishnukant Shastri and Vidya Niwas Mishra were a few exceptions though.

Amid allegations of saffronisation, Sinha apparently reconciled to Bharat Bhavan’s climb down from international stature. He promoted in-house talent including his own. Sinha’s play ‘Sidhiyan’ turned out to be one of the most staged plays in
those days. 

Congress’ return to power rekindled hopes for revival. Chief Minister Digvijay Singh knew Bharat Bhavan quite well. However, by and by, it turned out that he knew the institution rather too well to put any money on its programmes.

He cleverly acceded to the artistes’ demand for autonomy to Bharat Bhavan. The move provided him moral stand to refuse government aid. The artistes had not bargained for such a denouement of their autonomy clamour. But they  were helpless.        
In the ten years of his rule  Digvijay ran Bharat Bhavan like an event manager.

The repertory was closed down and other wings were also defunct for all practical purposes. Habib Tanvir as Chairman and Manjit Bawa as Rupankar director were big names associated with it but they never got adequate support from the government to make Bharat Bhavan a vibrant national centre. Exasperated, both became indifferent to their jobs.

With BJP coming to power, the fears of exclusivist culture reigning supreme in Bharat Bhavan returned. But the first Bharat Bhavan secretary in the BJP rule, Pawan Jain, IPS, allayed such apprehensions to an extent.

He was incapable of thinking as big as Vajpeyi, but Jain proved to have had a fairly discerning mind. His adherence to catholicity in inviting artistes for performance pleasantly surprised BJP’s detractors. But RSS didn’t like that. He was summoned to Delhi to explain why ‘ so and so’ people with barely concealed antagonism to the RSS were entertained in Bharat Bhavan.

Jain lost the post to Pankaj Rag, an IAS officer. The incumbent Bharat Bhavan secretary has chosen not to meddle in the RSS agenda for the institute. He, instead, is seeking to strike a balance between saffron push and artistic excellence in chalking out programmes for Bharat Bhavan. His Minister Laxmikant Sharma too seems to appreciate, if not endorse, Rag’s tightrope walk.           

However, with new trust having taken over, things might not be as smooth for the institute any more.