Lost in Translation: The tragedy of Kashmir’s Cultural Academy

Amid the growing Leftist impact and a massive plebiscite campaign during Bakshi era, the Cultural Academy found roots in the valley. As a signpost of state-patronized literary and cultural activities, the body was supposed to speak for commoners. But 56 years later, the Academy seems to have lost both its plot and patronage.

Sitting next to SP Museum on the Lal Mandi promenade in Srinagar, the office of the JK Academy of Art, Culture and Languages (JKAACL) bears a sombre look. The uninitiated would expect the organisation colloquially known as the Cultural Academy, to be brimming with exciting activity on a daily basis. Though one may counter-claim such expectations to be unrealistic, in the past decade or so, the Academy has certainly become a mere shadow of its “glory days”.

Established in 1963, the institution is an “autonomous body”, whose primary objectives are ‘to encourage the exchange of ideas’, ‘to sponsor or organise cultural exchanges’, ‘to promote and publish…literature’ and ‘to award prizes, confer distinctions, grant stipends, allowances or other financial aid’, to name a few.

If certain opinions on the Academy’s early day objectives are to go by, the institution did tend to other clandestine entries on its agenda. The creation of the Academy reportedly fell in tandem with the agendas of the influential Left-leaning leaders of the time – both politically and culturally.

“Leftists have always believed that Literature and Culture serve certain interests, too,” speculates Mushtaq Haq, Srinagar-based political analyst. “Indian communists felt the same and probably that’s how the Academy was established.”

The Academy was established when Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad was Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Its main motive, Haq says, was to bring forth issues of the poor. Kashmiri poets and writers who were part of the famous Progressive Writers Movement contributed in it.

“Those writers and poets were the part of the Leftist influx that the state had witnessed in the 1940s,” points out Haq. Resonating with this claim, is the fact that the Naya Kashmir blueprint that was introduced within the very same broad time period was deemed by many as brimming with ‘communist ideas’.

But when the Academy was founded in the vale—then echoing with riashumari (plebiscite) chants, many surmised that it’s aimed at diluting the politically-charged environment of the times and pushing into oblivion the charisma and pull of certain political leaders of the day.

Back then, the valley under Bakshi rule would witness Jashn-e-Kashmir events. “All these cultural activities were started on festive note to take people far from their political pursuits,” Haq continues.

Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad attending a Jashn-e-Kashmir event.

Later, the same Cultural Academy would be credited for the controversial concept called Kashmiriyat – a term made popular in the mid-1970s to denote the indigenous secularism of Kashmir, albeit with political connotations.

“The term Kashmiriyat was presumably used to replace the rallying cry of Plebiscite,” says Haq. “It was mostly used by Sheikh Abdullah, post his 1975 accord. This is where the Academy fell in line, with the overall State-sanctioned political ambition of the time.”

As of today, however, the Cultural Academy tends to a variety of schemes and initiatives poised to protect and promote the art, culture and language of Jammu and Kashmir.

According to the previous year’s Annual Report of the Academy, the institution has held a number of programmes such as a an exhibition of Quranic manuscripts, annual conferences of a number of languages including Dogri, Punjabi and Hindi, summer workshops for children and the annual drama festivals. The Academy is also expected to organise theatre workshops, writers’ camps, inter-state cultural exchange programmes, artists and sculptors camps and art exhibitions amongst a plethora of other schemes.

The Academy particularly prides itself on its principled practice of providing subsidy and other kinds of financial aid to deserving authors, painters and voluntary organisations involved in the promotion of languages and literature, performing arts, etc. Similarly, awards are also handed out for exemplary achievers in writing, photography, script writing, to name a few.

“We’ve actually had other Cultural Academies visiting us to learn from our initiatives,” says Mohammad Yousuf Taing, the Sahitya Akademi Award-winning octogenarian, who headed the Academy as its Secretary for a good two decades from 1973 to 1993.

Mohammad Yousuf Taing.

During Taing’s Secretaryship, the Academy also set up the Srinagar-outlet of Kitab Ghar – a bookstore dedicated to the Academy’s monthly, bi-monthly and annual literary outings and other publications. The prominent of the lot are the four-set volume of Encyclopaedia Kashmiriana – in the areas of archeology, architecture, handicrafts and literature among the rest. Besides, the organisation also publishes a string of monthly and bi-monthly journals under the titles Sheeraza in a variety of languages.

However, the Kitab Ghar on Srinagar’s M.A. Road today, is a telling sign of the Academy’s current state of affairs.

For starters, the Academy does not really have a recent edition of the Sheeraza in any of the listed languages available in the bookstore or on their evidently out-dated official website.

But according to Mohammad Ashraf Tak, Editor of the Urdu section in the Academy, the institute consciously does not publicise its initiatives on their website in order to avoid voluminous entries that surpass the abilities of the limited logistics.

“We try and keep our announcements and our calls for entries as local as possible – in the newspapers, on our notice boards and within our networks. Those who are interested always get in touch,” he says.

Accompanying the dust-settled state of affairs of the institution are opinions of artists and practitioners in the cultural milieu of Srinagar.

“We feel that from the past five years, the academy’s activities have been restricted to do two or three events, most of which are book releases,” says Abrar Ali, co-founder of Srinagar-based event management company, Funtoosh.

Until some time back, the company used to organise theatre events of their own. “The Academy’s responsibility to associate with organisations that work with theatre and music among others, has fallen short,” Ali says.

Echoing this sentiment is cultural activist, Mushtaq Ali Ahmad Khan. “The youth of Kashmir need a hobby,” he stresses.

But the Academy’s customary defence for all this has been the uncertainty in Valley, owing to the prolonged tense period of conflict and strife.

“Given the times we live in, first comes survival, then comes culture and so on,” says Tak. For example, he says, even when programmes are organised in the evening, they need to be wrapped up by 6 pm.

Under such circumstances, Khan feels the responsibility of the institute only becomes more crucial. “I’m organising theatre and film festivals in Kashmir itself and managing it somehow. If individual artists can do it, why can’t an autonomous body like the Academy?”

Another complaint against the Academy is its lack of infrastructure.

With the sole Tagore Hall in the city for cultural programmes and a modest seminar hall in the premises of the Academy’s head office, the organisation has little else to boast of.

The Strong Room in the office premises houses works of the legends, like M.F Hussain and N.S. Bendre. Even then, the Academy usually uses makeshift venues to exhibit such stellar artworks. Similarly, the Academy’s library, though home to prolific publications, is in disarray. Though not open to the general public, the library exists sans qualified personnel to organise it.

The issues plaguing the Cultural Academy, however, seem to seep deeper than simply the lack of sufficient logistics and infrastructure. The Academy has been struggling with litigation and red-tapism.

To begin with, the Cultural Academy is yet to find itself a Secretary – the position left vacant for close to a year now, again a result of internal bickering and ongoing court cases.

The appointment to the position of the Secretary was also reportedly handled haphazardly. For instance, the governor’s administration in the state has set a search committee to appoint a secretary when it is not a prerequisite to do so constitutionally.

An official notification was issued earlier this year, inviting applications for the position. The announcement, however, was devoid of any application criteria. A court stay order was later sought and applied against the appointment process owing to the evident discrepancies.

A Special Division Bench of the State High Court has reportedly directed the State Government to cease the finalisation of the selection process until the next date of hearing in the case, that is July 8, 2019. This also elicited a sharp response from a collective of literary bodies of Jammu such as ACMAA, Nami Dogri Sanstha and Duggar Manch blaming ‘vested interests’ at play, behind the stalling of the selection process.

Employees of the Cultural Academy protest in Jammu.

Similarly, other appointments to various positions in the Academy are also under the scanner, with some of them allegedly being blatant cases of nepotistic favours.

Adding to the troubles of the Academy are the administrative and authoritative clashes it faces with the Department of Culture, Government of Jammu and Kashmir that was set up in 2008.

Reportedly, the Academy, for all practical reasons, is handled by the Secretariat of the Department of Culture. This has perhaps led to the entry of the bureaucratic approach to the running of the institute as well – an opinion reiterated by Khan.

“There definitely is a kind of Babu culture prevalent in the Academy,” he says.

All of these unfortunate developments have together impacted the day-to-day functioning of the institute. For example, a majority of the publications of the Academy have been collecting dust in the pipeline owing to issues such as lack of contributors, arbitrary prerequisites before matter finally goes to print or simply, a prolonged and inefficient passage of approvals and permissions through the hierarchy.

There’s also a general feeling amongst employees that the state government does not prioritize culture. For example, most the categories under the publication tab on the Academy’s official website throws up outdated results. Digitizing books, manuscripts and publications demands a dedicated professional adept in knowledge of the process – again, one of the many existing logistical inadequacies.

If nothing, the current-day reality of the Cultural Academy has induced a sense of helplessness in majority of its employees, rendering them demotivated.

Despite all this, the biographer of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Mohammad Yousuf Taing says it’s unfair to corner the Academy and label it apathetic.

“You can’t expect every organisation to be at its best all the time,” he says. “New leaders and secretaries also have their own vision to follow.”

Taing with Sheikh Abdullah and his wife Begum Akbar Jehan.

Expanding on the conflict-narrative, he recollects the time when he had to stay in exile in Jammu for close to a decade when a “fundamentalist organisation” took offence to a programme organised by the Academy. “There’re always ups and downs,” he says. “It’s a cycle really.”

But to land an impact on the lines of the objectives that the Academy was originally set up to serve, many say, the organisation needs able, competent and passionate leaders who have their pulse right in place. However, the Academy’s tragedy remains its inability to have the right people, for the right place.


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