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Gulzar, Jagadguru Swami Rambhadracharya, and the Downfall of the Jnanpith Award

Questions are being raised about the integrity of Jnanpith after the announcement of this year's recipients, with many wondering if it has chosen to compromise.
Swami Rambhadracharya (L) Gulzar (R). In the background is the Jnanpith Award. Illustration: Canva

‘Two eminent writers’ – Sanskrit scholar Jagadguru Swami Rambhadracharya and renowned lyricist Sampooran Singh Kalra, better known as Gulzar – have been selected to receive the country’s highest literary honour, the Jnanpith Award, this year.

The award, usually awarded to only one litterateur per year, has sparked controversy whenever it has been awarded jointly. Shrilal Shukla and Amarkant were honoured together 15 years ago in 2009 while Gurdial Singh shared the award with Nirmal Verma in 1999.

The Jnanpith Award was instituted in 1965 and is operated by the Jain family that runs the Times of India. The task of publication and awards is handled by a trust.

The latest announcement made for the Jnanpith Award for 2023 echoes the much-hyped ‘Amrit Kaal’. The work of academies is often shadowed by governments. However, government interference is  generally a hushed affair. However, this year’s announcement has sent ripples down the literary community. Questions are being raised about the integrity of Jnanpith with many wondering if it has chosen to compromise.

Describing Swami Rambhadracharya as a ‘renowned scholar, educationist, philosopher, preacher and religious leader’, the award committee has given details of his association with the Ramanand sect and his religious positions.

It is further stated that he knows 22 languages, is a ‘poet and writer’ of many languages including Sanskrit, Hindi, Awadhi, and Maithili, and has authored more than 240 books. He is said to have composed four epics, two of which are in Hindi, and has written commentaries on religious texts and is a well-known expert on Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas. Modi government honoured him with Padma Vibhushan in 2015.

I fail to understand why the Jnanpith announcement did not mention that Swamiji has continuously faced physical challenges because he lost his eyesight when he was two months old. There is also no mention that he is close to the prime minister who flew to Chitrakoot to inaugurate his 10,000-page Ashtadhyay commentary.

Swamiji had testified in favour of Ramlala Virajman in the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute. He was among the initial ‘warriors’ of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, was at the forefront of the campaign to demolish the ‘tainted structure’, and went to jail too. He denigrates the leaders of Shiv Sena, Samajwadi Party and Congress by name and calls them ‘fools’.

He is also known to make controversial statements regarding Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). Recently, he was appointed the guardian of Ramjanmabhoomi Pranpratistha. He retaliated against Jyotirmoy Shankaracharya for calling the pratishtha not scriptural. The temple trust also kept reiterating that the consecration is taking place under the guidance of Ramanandi sect.

I tried to sift through online sources to search Swamiji’s work and found one of his partly Hindi poems which has been translated into English and Russian by a foreign disciple of his. The entire poem, which is Swamiji’s version of one of Ramcharitmanas’s quotes, is available on Swamiji’s official Facebook page. 

I admit that I have not read the Sanskrit or Hindi literary works of Swami Rambhadracharya. However, I did listen to one of his sermons on YouTube and it failed to impress me.

The compiled lectures (not writings) of speakers like Swami Akhandanand, Swami Ramsukhdas, Acharya Tulsi and Maulana Waheeduddin Khan were far more convincing. Rajneesh-Osho’s storytelling is also full of literary quotes and jokes. Therefore, it does not seem logical to pit a saint, who was at the forefront of the temple movement, against literary figures on the basis of sermons or commentary. This is disrespectful even of a saint.

Ironically, Swamiji’s nomination for the Jnanpith award was welcomed not by the literary community but by controversial figures like Baba Bageshwar Dham and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Shivraj Singh Chauhan.

Also read: Names of ‘Indira’ and ‘Nargis’ Dropped From National Film Awards

Meanwhile Gulzar, the second nominee for the Jnanpith, is a prominent personality of Hindi cinema. He is a successful filmmaker who has made many interesting films and has expertise in scriptwriting and songs.

He has received the Filmfare Award 22 times, National Film Award six times, Dadasaheb Phalke Award, Padma Bhushan and even a Grammy and Oscar (with AR Rahman) for song-writing. He is a popular cine-lyricist and his poetry gained great fame after receiving the Sahitya Akademi Award for an Urdu short story collection in 2002.

In the last few years, he has emerged as a popular face of literature festivals in Jaipur and other cities. The series of so-called literary festivals has set up a market with mainly English publishers, writers’ agents and renowned writers, politicians, actors, singers, and anchors. The market itself bears their expenses.

Like the glittering world of cinema, in these ‘literary’ fairs too, people are more interested in getting a glimpse of popular figures, taking selfies with them or displaying their fashion sense, rather than expressing their love for literature (or rather books, because even a cookery book can be ‘launched’ there).

The only concern is that perhaps the semblance of lit-fests has started influencing serious literary awards.

I have been reading Gulzar sahab ever since his poetry collection was published in Hindi by his best friend Bhushan Banmali in the 1970s. At that time, romantic literature of Urdu and Punjabi had its own charm. But later, after the emotional phase of songs like ‘Jab bhi ye dil udaas hota, Jaane kaun aas paas hota hai’ or ‘Shaam ki aankh mein nami si hai, aaj phir aap ki kami si hai’, the lack of some deep poetry was felt.

This yearning never ceased. The turmoil of society and politics did not become the concern of his ghazals or poems. Even in romanticism, there was reiteration in different forms.

Bharatiya Jnanpith mentioned Swamiji’s birthplace as Jaunpur in its announcement but Gulzar sahab’s birthplace (Dina, Pakistan) was left out. In the introduction, his identity as an Urdu poet has been downplayed and mentioned only after Hindi. The introduction goes: ‘Sampooran Singh Kalra, popularly known as Gulzar, is a famous lyricist of Hindi films. Apart from this, he is a poet, screenwriter, film director, playwright and a famous poet.” 

“His works are mainly in Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi… Gulzar has been setting new milestones in the field of literature. In poetry, he invented a new genre “Triveni” which is a non-mukaffa poem of three lines.”

Trivenis were regularly published in Sarika in the 1970s, when Kamleshwar was the editor. Gulzar used to give the third verse a shocking twist which became like a game at times.

While he is a good man, an accomplished filmmaker and a popular lyricist, there are more profound creators in literature than him. There has been some discussion on social media about this, though not enough.

Hindi poet and editor Vishnu Nagar posted on Facebook that the neglect of Vinod Kumar Shukla, and other writers who have done great work and carved a niche in Hindi fiction, poetry and children’s literature, is disappointing. However, apart from Hindi, many prominent writers in other Indian languages are still beyond the realm of Jnanpith.

Critic Shambhunath has called it the ‘downfall of the Jnanpith Award’. Virendra Yadav believes that the devaluation of Jnanpith began when Shahryar was handed the award by Amitabh Bachchan. ‘In status, it has now become like a dustbin’s beauty.’

After reading ‘lyricist Gulzar’ written in the release of Jnanpith press release, writers began comparing the announcement with Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize. It does not seem appropriate at all.

During his time, Dylan had shaken the conservative mentality of America with ideological excitement. Paired with American traditional music, his songs created a new political idiom.

Bob Dylan raised his voice in favour of freedom, peace and justice. He wrote against war, nuclear threat, racism and slavery, sang against contempt and violence against the African-American community at the hands of whites, stood in support of protesters and their demonstrations in his compositions and gave strength to the voice of civil rights.

Dylan, in his entirety, was a voice of resistance. American society was in dire need of voices that could call out and say:

“Yes, and how many times must a man look up

Before he can see the sky?

And how many ears must one man have

Before he can hear people cry?

Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’til he knows

That too many people have died?

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind!”

I respect Gulzar sahab as an evergreen filmmaker and he is very fond of me. We often have many long chats regarding Kedarji (late Kedarnath Singh) and lit-fests. But in my 50 years of journalism and 35 as editor – where I had the privilege of publishing a vast amount of literature in Hindi which required a close reading – I never saw Gulzar sahab taking on transformative concern and talk of the ills of society and politics in his songs. Romanticism can bring joy but after a certain period it becomes dull.

However, it is not necessary that a courageous attitude in the subject one writes about would do away with the shortcomings of the craft. Only after such works get published can learned critics decide how much of it is poetry and how much is noise.

Gulzar would also agree that there are poets among us who write in different languages of the country, who have a stronger claim on the literary scale. By honouring them, the awards will gain recognition and credibility and boost their own pride. The rich tradition of Jnanpith has been no different but the recent turn of events has left it in darkness.

Perhaps it is the era of ‘New India’, in which lyricists, stage poets, religious narrators (one can even find all these qualities in one person) are awarded.

Awards are not offered but procured nowadays.

Om Thanvi is a senior journalist who retired as editor of Jansatta, a Hindi daily of the Indian Express group, in 2015. He was the founding Vice Chancellor of HJ University of Journalism and Mass Communication, Jaipur.

Translated from the Hindi orginal by Naushin Rehman. 

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