Exclusive Interview with Dr. K. Sreenivasarao, Secretary, Sahitya Akademi
By Onkareshwar Pandey
Sahitya Akademi, India’s premiere literary institution for the development of Indian literature was formed on March 12, 1954, with an aim to establish high literary standards, nurture, support and promote literary activities in Indian languages of India, was in the veil of controversy after the returning of awards by some writers in protest against the murder of writer MM Kalburgi in 2015. After four years of the award return controversy, Dr. K. Sreenivasarao, Secretary, Sahitya Akademi talks to Onkareshwar Pandey on the problems, challenges, and achievements of the Sahitya Akademi in a freewheeling interview.
Excerpts from the interview:
To begin with, please tell us about the purpose of establishing this institution. It was established in the time of Nehru ji and how has its journey been so far?
Sahitya Akademi was established to work actively for the development of Indian letters and to set high literary standards, to foster and co-ordinate literary activities in all the Indian languages and to promote through them all the cultural unity of the country. This was essential as India is a culturally diverse country. Such unison performed through linking varied literary traditions of the country is Sahitya Akademi’s contribution, literary contribution to national integration and nation development.
We have been abiding by that mandate for the past sixty-five years by carrying best of Indian literature from one language and region to other languages and regions and by organizing regional and national multilingual programmes. The journey over six and a half decades is highly satisfying but as with all other humans endeavors, there is always scope for improvement in all departments.
Presently, at what rate the number of programs, awards, publications, etc., are increasing?
In the first decade, the Akademi published few books. But the decade was marked by indirect publications through private publishers. Over a period of time, several committees were set up and Akademi started publishing and selling books on its own. The number of languages in which books were published was also limited. Compared to that, today we publish over 600 titles in all the 24 languages recognized by the Akademi.
As for the Awards are concerned, it has to do with the number of languages recognized which in turn has to be in tune with the number of languages recognized under 8th schedule. But we have also recognized Rajasthani which is not part of recognized ones under 8th schedule. So we have increased the number of Awards from 12 to 18 to 24 languages.
But then aspiration of all transcends the barriers of languages recognized under 8th schedule. India is a linguistically dense and diverse country. There are hundreds of languages and the amount of literature produced in them is mindboggling. Many of them are unwritten too. To encourage literary production in those languages, Sahitya Akademi has instituted Bhasha Samman and also organizes periodically language conventions.A very interesting growth is in the programme’s segment. Not only the number of programmes has gone over 500 per annum, the types of programmes which the Akademi organizes have also increased. Earlier, we used to have seminars and few literary interactions every year. But, today we have seminars and symposia at the regional and national levels, yuva sahiti (for young writers of the country), nari Chetna (for women writers of the country), Asmita (for writers from marginalized sections of the society), kavisandhi, katha sandhi, meet the author, people and books, translation and creative writing workshops, mulakat, purvottari, gramalok (village outreach programme), poets’ meets at regional and national level, zonal level meets involving writers from North East and other regions of the country and much more. When did you think we should start our publication?
The first publication of Akademi came out in 1956, Hindi translation of Bhagavan Buddha by D.D. Kosambi wrote in Marathi. Since the Akademi did not have resources and expertise in printing and selling books in the first decade, the Akademi printed and sold books through private publishers as co-published publications. As the number of languages increased, the number of Akademi offices grew from one (Delhi) to three (Delhi, Calcutta and Madras) and the demand for publications grew, Akademi set up committees and started printing and selling its publications.
Again, the Akademi evolved with the content of publications also. Today, the majority of Akademi publications are translations. This is in tune with the mandate provided by the founding fathers of the Akademi – to unite varied literary and cultural traditions of the country. Today, we can be proud of the fact that Sahitya Akademi is the only institution which publishes translations from so many languages on a constant basis without any interruption. Again, even in translations, we focus more on Award-winning titles. After all, these Award-winning titles are the ones which are declared best by the writers’ communities and it is the duty of Akademi to carry them to every nook and corner of the country in local languages.
What are the benefits of undertaking such translations?
You see, translations are inevitable in the world, especially in a multilingual society like India. Many a time, translations are essential even for carrying out day to day business – from literary activity to trading to science and technology. Given such importance of translations, it is all the more critical that any institution which strives to promote literature in a number of languages like Sahitya Akademi does, translation has to be at the core of its activity.
The primary benefit and which is there for everyone to see is making available best of literature to a large number of people across cultural traditions, regions and linguistic spectrum. This would be impossible without translational activity.
More than anything else, translational activity as promoted by Sahitya Akademi, which is beginning to be adopted by a number of institutions for quite some time now, is to empower regional writers. It is through translation a large number of regional writers have attained national importance – whether they are already well-known in the regional languages or obscure, an aspiring writer in a local language.
Last but not the least, translation widens the horizons of people, enhances the awareness of others and their traditions and beliefs, and increases the knowledge base of people.
How many writers and literary connoisseurs are currently associated with the Akademi?
Thousands of writers in all the languages have been associated with the Akademi over a period of last six and a half decades. If you look at the number of Awardees the figure would be in excess of 2000. The number of writers, poets, translators and critics who participate every year in Akademi’s programmes, the number of such writers over a period of time would be huge. Also, the number of writers who are involved in the Award process would also be large. Although it is quite difficult to pinpoint at one number, I would say that the Akademi has been thickly associated with thousands of writers in all the languages.
Regarding literary connoisseurs, it is difficult to measure. Would be in lakhs if we start counting from the inception and include literary lovers who have been buying our publications and attending our programmes in all the regions and those who have been using our library services.
Are only printed books awarded?
At the moment yes. Only printed books are awarded in 24 languages. There are 4 categories in which these awards are presented and in each category 24 languages are there. So, annually 96 books are selected for the Akademi Awards.
Are there languages in which translators are not available? What are the implications for Akademi in terms of the number of translators in a language?
It would be wrong to say that translators are not available in a given language. Even in the unrecognized or minor languages, there would be a translator who translates from/to a neighbor language(s).
If one were to just look at the translation scenario numerically one would conclude that there is a number of translators than ever before. Hence such a person would conclude that translation in India is at its best. But, this kind of perception is highly misleading.
See, if we are to compare the current situation with the situation, say, forty or fifty years ago, the scenario was very different. There were translators who can translate from Bengali to Tamil or Gujarati to Odia or Assamese to Marathi or Sindhi to Telugu etc directly without depending on any intermediary language. Today, there is hardly anyone who can link the traditions of remote regions through direct translations.
Sahitya Akademi too benefited for decades by the presence of such direct translators and many classics we published in translations were the results of their efforts. Today many translations linking two languages from regions vastly dislocated from each other take place through Hindi or English. I am not saying it is the case always. There are translators who can still translate from Malayalam to Nepali or Gujarati to Odia or Bengali to Tamil. But these are exceptions.
Sahitya Akademi would like to see this situation change. Our intention in carrying good translations to various territories is that in one way or another such translations may inspire translators to learn and master new languages of the country.
Can you tell us about Akademi monograph series, Makers of Indian Literature?
Well, Makers of Indian Literature is meant for scholars, students, and laymen alike. The principal aim of Makers of Indian Literature monographs is to introduce distinguished litterateurs of India who made a lasting impression on the literary scenario to a larger audience. So, through this one series, a person can get to know distinguished writers from 24 Indian languages.
These monographs are pithy but a lot of research goes into their preparation and are presented in a lucid language so that even laymen can read and benefit from these monographs.
Akademi is not the first publishing institution to attempt this nor will it be last. But, our success is in that we have been able to bring these monographs in many languages and as such have succeeded in introducing distinguished litterateurs of the country to a wider and larger audience.
Akademi is also doing a lot of work on literature in unwritten languages …
Of course, the Akademi, through its two centers in Delhi and Agartala, has been striving to preserve and promote oral and tribal literature of the country. Through these centers and also through our language advisory boards, we organize literary programmes and bring out publications pertaining to oral literature of the country.
Our recent publications on these include books on Toda, Kalahandi, Halbi, Chhattisgarhi, Unwritten Languages of India, Chakma, Saora etc. For the first time we organized two regional level tribal programmes in South India and soon would expand the series to other zones of India.
Of course, we have been doing the work in this direction, but a lot more can be done towards unwritten languages and oral traditions of the country. I mentioned about Bhasha Samman. Through Bhasha Samman we not only encourage scholars who make an immense contribution to the enrichment of such languages but also contribute immensely towards the promotion of classical and medieval literature. We also organize language conventions primarily targeting unrecognized languages.
Sahitya Akademi has some initiatives for young writers ….
Yeah, Sahitya Akademi has a number of schemes and programmes for young writers of the country.
Primary among them is the Navodaya scheme. Under this scheme, any young writer from any of the 24 recognized languages can submit his or her first publication in original to Akademi. After experts select a particular submission, Akademi publishes those manuscripts and also pay royalty to the young authors.
Another is Travel Grants. Akademi has a provision of issuing about 100 travel grants in all (each amounting to ₹ 15,000) in 24 languages put together. This grant is to enable a young writer to visit a particular region in the country to gain firsthand knowledge of a particular tradition on which the writer is working on.
We have a programme series called Yuva Sahiti, a platform for young writers of the country to participate and express themselves. This is also in all the 24 languages.
Of course everyone knows about Yuva Puraskar which is conferred on 24 best literary productions of the country annually written by the young authors who are 35 or below in age. The Prize money for each award is ₹ 50,000 and is presented along with a plaque and citation.
You have a programme series for writers of Indian origin …
Yeah, it is called Pravasi Manch. It is a platform under which the Akademi invites writers of Indian origin who have made a continued contribution for the enrichment of Indian literature though many of them might have been living in other lands for a long time. This platform provides opportunities for such writers to reconnect with Indian readers and fellow authors but also provide rare firsthand experience to Indian readers and literary connoisseurs about Indian Diaspora writing. Some of them are pure migrant literature but many are about living in lands but settled and adopted and assimilated in other cultures yet aspiring to reconnect with the land of ancestors, lives of settled population etc.
Can you tell us about any newly launched literary programmes?
One is Gramalok. It is Akademi’s Village Outreach programme. So far we have covered about 60 villages in the country and in the coming years we want to see that number go up drastically. The main aim of this programme series is to unearth the literary talent in the rural spaces of India and to promote them.
Another is Book Discussion. Often book discussion programmes tend to focus on critics and seldom involve readers and authors. Our book discussion programmes feature the author herself/himself along with a critic and discussion with the discerning readers and literary lovers. This programme is a success in our Chennai office where at least two book discussion programmes happen every month and we are expanding this platform to other offices too.
Regarding the controversy surrounding Award wapsi episode, can you please tell us how many award winners actually returned the awards? What has been the writers’ relationship with the Akademi after the controversy?
Total number of Awardees is about 2000. In that, 39 award winners wrote informing us that they will be returning the awards. 36 among 39 returned the prize money and 13 people returned the plaque too. Even among those who returned the awards, some withdrew like Nand Bhardwaj. But, more importantly, we have written to all the 39 requesting them to take back their offer to return the awards since there is no provision in Akademi rules to take back the awards conferred. We have not deposited any of the prize money returned.
See, Sahitya Akademi is an institution of the writers and for the writers. This is not a mere slogan. Our very structure and functioning is based on that. Even the award process is based on writers. Sadly, this bit of information was lost in all the din.
There is a lot of interest and discussion about the digitization process. Can you please tell us something about it?
As for the digitization is concerned, we have completely digitized our library catalogs. There are about 2.4 lakh books in all our libraries and readers from all over the world can access them.
Regarding digitization of books and launch of electronic books are concerned, we have initiated the process. In the same way how we have created a name for ourselves in the print books sector, we want to make a lasting impression in the electronic books sector as well.
Making the catalogs digital online, production of electronic and digital books and similar initiatives are on the anvil so that services of Sahitya Akademi are available to all throughout the world and 24 X 7.
Even in social media, we want to use the platform more service-oriented apart from the purpose of it being a tool of dissemination.
Can you please tell us about the employee structure of the institution, what is the annual budgetary outlay and how self-sufficient the Akademi is?
Our sanctioned staff strength is 175 and at present, about 15-20 posts are vacant primarily because 4-5 people have been retiring annually over the past few years. This sanctioned strength was for the amount of work we were doing earlier. But the number of programmes and publications has increased manifold. So, it is natural that we, from time to time, hire people on contract for seamless working. Regarding budgetary outlay, it is around 39 crores and it is divided as per the rules and regulations in force from time to time. Self-sufficiency … on average we generate internal revenue to the tune of 2-3 crores. Some years the figure may go higher like last year our internal revenue was around 4.4 crores. The internal revenue is purely through sale of books. Apart from salary and pension, expenditure for programmes and publications besides statutory expenditure, we pay a royalty to authors, provide grant-in-aid to authors and institutions, issue travel grants etc.
Every now and then, there is general talk of governmental pressure on autonomous organizations …
We never faced any pressure of any kind from the government till date. The Ministry of Culture has been very supportive to all our initiatives
You have been at the helm for almost 6 years now. Can you please list the achievements of Akademi during your tenure so far?
See, the number of publications per annum has gone up from around 250 to 500, the number of programmes from around 300-330 to 600 now, the internal revenue used to be around 1.3 to 1.5 crores compared to the present 3 crores. More than all this, we have launched many new programmes for the benefit of writers and literary lovers across the country such as Nari Chetna (for women writers of India), Yuva Sahiti (for young writers of India), Purvottari (for writers from Northeast regions of the country), Gramalok (Village Outreach programme), Bhashantara Anubhava (Multilingual reading programme), Book Discussion, Transgender Writers’ and Poets’ Meets in several places, among others. Again we have opened to bookshops in Kashmere Gate and Vishwavidyalaya metro stations in New Delhi. We have opened two centers for tribal and oral literature – COTLIT in Delhi and NECOL in Agartala. We have taken best of literature and writers to hitherto uncovered regions such as Kargil, Andaman, Kohima, Aizawl, Lakshadweep etc. Again compared to 6 years ago, in the last 6 years we participate annually in about 180-190 book fairs and exhibitions across India.
Dr. K. Sreenivasarao
Born in 1965, Dr. K. Sreenivasarao has served the Sahitya Akademi for more than two and a half decades. Dr. Rao had earlier worked on various positions like Deputy Secretary, Regional Secretary and Officer on Special Duty. Dr. Rao has handled several prestigious projects such as the Encyclopedia of Indian Poetics, the Encyclopedia of Indian Literature, the National Bibliography of Indian Literature, Indian Archives etc. He has also represented the Sahitya Akademi on many international platforms, including the General Assembly of Union Academique Internationale in Brussels and also has led literary delegations to many countries.