Rekha's honour, or insult?

Padma awards reflect the powers that be more than the merit of the award-winners

ashishs

Ashish Sharma | January 30, 2010


A still from Umrao Jaan
A still from Umrao Jaan

Rekha, Muzaffar Ali's immortal Umrao Jaan, has finally won the Padma Shri. The recognition may have come 29 years after her arguably most memorable screen performance, but she has joined a truly illustrious group. Sahir Ludhianvi, Hindustani cinema's social conscience and greatest poet, is a member. So are a few legends of screen acting, including Balraj Sahni and Suchitra Sen, as is the melodious music composer Sachin Dev Burman.

Just how big an honour it is for Rekha is evident from the fact that many of her far more deserving  predecessors, including Meena Kumari and Nutan, never made the cut. Neither did many of the all-time great music directors, including Roshan and Jaidev. Or even film directors' directors, such as Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt. Or, for that matter, Shailendra, the greatest of lyricists.

Rekha, then, has reason to feel at once proud and grateful.

Except, of course, the fact that the award-winners this year include Saif Ali Khan as well, even if we overlook a certain Sant Singh Chatwal for the moment.

Sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan was in a similar situation ten years ago, when he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, two notches above the Padma Shri and just a level below the highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna. Khan Saheb refused to accept the award and called it an “insult” because that year's list also included much inferior musicians, flutist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and vocalist Pandit Jasraj.

The sitar maestro, not unlike Rekha, could have taken pride in the fact that many of the all-time greats of classical music, including vocalists Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Ustad Amir Khan never managed to progress beyond the Padma Bhushan. However, a year earlier, Ustad Vilayat Khan's worthy contemporary and rival, Pandit Ravi Shankar had already been awarded the Bharat Ratna. So, the offer of a Padma Vibhushan in the company of lesser musicians was really less an honour and more of an “insult”, as the Ustad had pointed out.

Sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, the leading member of the trinity of Hindustani classical instrumentalists who was acknowledged as the greatest musician in the world by notable connoisseurs including Yehudi Menuhin, did accept his Padma Vibhushan in 1989, eight years after it had been conferred upon his equally gifted colleague Pandit Ravi Shankar.

But ten years later, in 1999, Pandit Ravi Shankar became a Bharat Ratna. And when Ustad Ali Akbar Khan passed away a decade later, in 2009, the government had to yet accord him similar recognition. Bharat Ratna stood demeaned then, just as has happened this year in the case of Sant Singh Chatwal's Padma Bhushan and Saif Ali Khan's Padma Shri.

Is it too much to expect of the authorities that such blunders could be redressed, and poet-lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, musicians' musician Ustad Amir Khan and actor Ashok Kumar, to name just a few stalwarts, could join the pantheon of Bharat Ratnas years after they passed away? Unfortunately, precedent suggests an answer in the affirmative, except perhaps in the case of political leaders. But even then, a Sardar Patel could be equated with a Rajiv Gandhi, as happened in 1991. 

And the travesty continues.

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