A report in today’s Indian Express had us stumped. It said the Indian culture ministry is in the process of grading a massive one crore artistes across India – dancers, singers, painters, sculptors, actors, et al – under three board categories: Outstanding, promising and in waiting. 

This will ‘allow’ the ministry to choose which artiste or group to send for the various ‘festivals of India’ events abroad, based on this accreditation.

The ministry headed by Dr Mahesh Sharma is calling this a “culture mapping” of India and has uploaded a form on its website so any artiste can formally apply for it. About one crore artistes have reportedly uploaded their entries.

Which made us wonder if art can be graded like this? Who are the evaluators, and is the ministry right in keeping the deciding factors as popularity and experience?

So we called up Delhi’s famous Akshara theatre group which, as per the report, has got an ‘outstanding’ grading from the ministry.

But the response from the 44-year-old iconic group left us even more stumped.

To begin with, Akshara never applied for the accreditation. Anasuya Vaidya, the daughter of group-founders Jalabala Vaidya (actress) and Gopal Sharman (playwright-director), said she did not know anything about the grading policy or the fact that they have been graded ‘outstanding’ until the newspaper report today.

b’Anasuya Vaidya (in blue) with the theatre group / Facebook’

She said, “Last November, the ministry had advertised that they were looking for a panel of artistes to perform abroad and entries were invited. I responded and received an email about a scheduled meeting with the culture ministry representatives and various other artistes. It was at Teen Murti Hall. I went and found hundreds of performers like us who had travelled all across from India.”

Vaidya said the meeting went well with an interesting brainstorming session on how to open up and revamp the process of choosing artistes to be sent abroad. “I remember a woman classical dancer who was employed with the railways suggesting an accreditation policy. She argued that she had a number of performances to her credit and had been the recipient of several awards, and she needed to be put on a higher pedestal than others for such considerations.”

Personally, said Vaidya, she didn’t like the suggestion. “Even today, when I get to know we are ‘outstanding’, I am principally opposed to it. Just who are the graders? How will the ministry ensure transparency? I as an artiste know that no matter what the process is, mediocre talent stand to get the best rating through connections. And that defeats the whole purpose.”

b’Dr Mahesh Sharma’

But if Akshara never asked for the grading, how did it all come about? “Firstly, the funny thing is that despite being rated ‘outstanding’, we haven’t heard from the ministry all these months regarding any festival abroad. Secondly, there was no process. There was a customary email after that Teen Murti meeting asking us to send videos of our performances. We did. We never heard from them again. Until of course today, when we find in the papers that we are ‘outstanding’.

Vaidya added that it would be nice if this tag opens up any door for them to perform for the government. “The ministry, as quoted in the report, says it’s doing it so the existing cabal of performers doesn’t continue to dominate the cultural space. It sounds like a very welcome move. So if it gives us a chance, why not? So far, we have been blissfully away from that coterie.”

So does this tag man anything to Akshara? “Not really. I mean we don’t need a certificate – which also we haven’t got – from the ministry that we are awesome,’ she said.