literary awards

Why we need a new, truly global, prize for world literature

The Nobel committee does not singularly rule over the world republic of letters.

Another October, another Nobel for Literature, another round of controversy over the awardee.

Some years, we hardly know the person, so we scramble to find out something about them, looking for bits of their writing online. Other years, like 2016, it goes to a more prominent person. Some are elated, others find the choice intriguing, while still others express disappointment that it didn’t go to someone else they consider more deserving.

But it is only one prize given to a single person, and truth be told, every year there are dozens of valid contenders from around the world.

I believe that the weakest critique of the Nobel is the one that criticises it for not recognising someone outside the European mainstream. From there, a question naturally arises: Why do we – whether supporting the Nobel choice or opposing it – behave as if the Nobel Committee is the anointed arbiter of world literature? Why do we act as if it’s the Politburo of the World Republic of Letters?

Who picks the winner anyway?

In reality, the Swedish Nobel Committee is merely a handful of jurors from a small country of less than 10 million, speaking a language that is one of the smaller ones in the world. The current committee has five full members and two associates.

They are all writers, some of them also professors, but I don’t know a thing about them or their writing. They are probably all white, and, for sure, all European and Swedish. It looks like three of the seven are women.

Nominations come from writers and academics around the world, and the committee probably has staff that helps them select and read nominees.

But, at the end of the day, given who they are, given where they are based, they will no doubt have a certain predilection for European/European-origin writers, and, over the long haul, will privilege European languages. Sometimes, they break the pattern of what’s expected of them, and those are always the interesting choices.

I understand that the Nobel Committee set up the Literature Prize to be the first global literary prize. That was certainly gutsy of them. It helped that this was virgin territory, and perhaps because there were no other contenders, the Nobel Literature Prize would become known as the world’s premier award for literary work. Of course, it helped that the prize was based in a small, more or less neutral, European country, outside of the big-power divisions of world politics.

But did people immediately accept it as the premier award for letters? Or was it seen as an interesting new fad, with people reserving judgment until it curated a list of awardees?

I doubt people all rose to applaud when the first prize was announced in 1901 for the French poet René François Armand (Sully) Prudhomme.

Yes, who?

It’s the Euro Nobel

Though it broke new ground here and there – awarding the prize to Rabindranath Tagore in 1913, for example – and to some truly deserving writers, for most of its first half-century, the Nobel Prize was known more for its misses rather than for its hits. It was more notable for who it left out.

What did it mean when it awarded Boris Pasternak, who’d been published outside Soviet censorship? Or then about Pablo Neruda, who’d sympathised with Soviet communism?

It is probably after the Cold War sparks dimmed, and the Nobel broke ground reaching out to writers outside the mainstream, that many of us came to expect it as the arbiter of people of letters, only a small number were recognised. That’s vital to remember: Even in the Western tradition, more significant writers have been left out by the Nobel than recognised. And if we are to mention under-represented literatures, the Swedes must be among the unhappiest lot: Their Academy has only rewarded seven over the life of the prize.

Still, despite outliers – two Japanese, two Chinese, a few from Africa and the Caribbean – the Nobel mainly privileges Western European writers and languages. When it reaches beyond, those of us from the world beyond Europe and North America applaud. But when it doesn’t, we are unhappy.

How long has it been since the decolonisation of most of the colonised world?

How long has it been that Japan has emerged as a major economic power from its WWII defeat? Or a number of Asian countries to emerge as developed economies? Or some African nations to rise as powerful countries?

Time for an alternative

Why is it that no one outside the West, no one in the South or East, has come up with a literary prize that might be more open to recognising talent from other corners of the planet?

Look at the alternatives to the Nobel. There are few. The Neustadt Prize is really the only other international award, and that’s run out of the University of Oklahoma.

Both its jurors and its nominees are often quite interesting, but we don’t line up like clockwork every two years to await the Neustadt Prize like we do the Nobel.

There are a few other prizes – the Man Booker International Prize, the International Dublin – but those tend to privilege the language English or translations into English.

There are some prizes specific to other languages, such as French or Spanish, and there are also some regional prizes. In Asia, until 2008, there used to be a Magsaysay Prize in the Philippines for “journalism, literature, and creative communication arts.”

There are plenty of billionaires and millionaires from the South and East today. No doubt a few among them might even be partial to literature. Maybe. But why is it that no one has come forward to fund another international award that might be smarter than the Nobel?

In the end, I think we are all complicit in handing over the role of “world arbiter of literature” to the Nobel Committee. Let’s admit it – deep down, we all look towards Europe’s approval to decide what’s best in the world republic of letters. Our disappointment in the Nobel is a marker of our own insecurities, our lack of confidence.

No doubt this will change one day. Perhaps someone in a country of the South and East, not tied up in international power politics, someone with passion and integrity, will bring forth a more inclusive international prize. Not just a copy of the Nobel, but a smarter prize. Until that day, we will perk up our ears every October and either celebrate or gnash our teeth at the latest decision from Stockholm. And after a new prize arrives, we will switch our glee or ire to that new prize.

This article was first published in the Dhaka Tribune.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

In a first, some of the finest Indian theatre can now be seen on your screen

A new cinematic production brings to life thought-provoking plays as digital video.

Though we are a country besotted with cinema, theatre remains an original source of provocative stories, great actors, and the many deeply rooted traditions of the dramatic arts across India. CinePlay is a new, ambitious experiment to bring the two forms together.

These plays, ‘filmed’ as digital video, span classic drama genre as well as more experimental dark comedy and are available on Hotstar premium, as part of Hotstar’s Originals bouquet. “We love breaking norms. And CinePlay is an example of us serving our consumer’s multi-dimensional personality and trusting them to enjoy better stories, those that not only entertain but also tease the mind”, says Ajit Mohan, CEO, Hotstar.

The first collection of CinePlays feature stories from leading playwrights, like Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Dattani, Badal Sircar amongst others and directed by film directors like Santosh Sivan and Nagesh Kukunoor. They also star some of the most prolific names of the film and theatre world like Nandita Das, Shreyas Talpade, Saurabh Shukla, Mohan Agashe and Lillete Dubey.

The idea was conceptualised by Subodh Maskara and Nandita Das, the actor and director who had early experience with street theatre. “The conversation began with Subodh and me thinking how can we make theatre accessible to a lot more people” says Nandita Das. The philosophy is that ‘filmed’ theatre is a new form, not a replacement, and has the potential to reach millions instead of thousands of people. Hotstar takes the reach of these plays to theatre lovers across the country and also to newer audiences who may never have had access to quality theatre.

“CinePlay is merging the language of theatre and the language of cinema to create a third unique language” says Subodh. The technique for ‘filming’ plays has evolved after many iterations. Each play is shot over several days in a studio with multiple takes, and many angles just like cinema. Cinematic techniques such as light and sound effects are also used to enhance the drama. Since it combines the intimacy of theatre with the format of cinema, actors and directors have also had to adapt. “It was quite intimidating. Suddenly you have to take something that already exists, put some more creativity into it, some more of your own style, your own vision and not lose the essence” says Ritesh Menon who directed ‘Between the Lines’. Written by Nandita Das, the play is set in contemporary urban India with a lawyer couple as its protagonists. The couple ends up arguing on opposite sides of a criminal trial and the play delves into the tension it brings to their personal and professional lives.

Play

The actors too adapted their performance from the demands of the theatre to the requirements of a studio. While in the theatre, performers have to project their voice to reach a thousand odd members in the live audience, they now had the flexibility of being more understated. Namit Das, a popular television actor, who acts in the CinePlay ‘Bombay Talkies’ says, “It’s actually a film but yet we keep the characteristics of the play alive. For the camera, I can say, I need to tone down a lot.” Vickram Kapadia’s ‘Bombay Talkies’ takes the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions as seven personal stories unravel through powerful monologues, touching poignant themes such as child abuse, ridicule from a spouse, sacrifice, disillusionment and regret.

The new format also brought many new opportunities. In the play “Sometimes”, a dark comedy about three stressful days in a young urban professional’s life, the entire stage was designed to resemble a clock. The director Akarsh Khurana, was able to effectively recreate the same effect with light and sound design, and enhance it for on-screen viewers. In another comedy “The Job”, presented earlier in theatre as “The Interview”, viewers get to intimately observe, as the camera zooms in, the sinister expressions of the interviewers of a young man interviewing for a coveted job.

Besides the advantages of cinematic techniques, many of the artists also believe it will add to the longevity of plays and breathe new life into theatre as a medium. Adhir Bhat, the writer of ‘Sometimes’ says, “You make something and do a certain amount of shows and after that it phases out, but with this it can remain there.”

This should be welcome news, even for traditionalists, because unlike mainstream media, theatre speaks in and for alternative voices. Many of the plays in the collection are by Vijay Tendulkar, the man whose ability to speak truth to power and society is something a whole generation of Indians have not had a chance to experience. That alone should be reason enough to cheer for the whole project.

Play

Hotstar, India’s largest premium streaming platform, stands out with its Originals bouquet bringing completely new formats and stories, such as these plays, to its viewers. Twenty timeless stories from theatre will be available to its subscribers. Five CinePlays, “Between the lines”, “The Job”, “Sometimes”, “Bombay Talkies” and “Typecast”, are already available and a new one will release every week starting March. To watch these on Hotstar Premium, click here.

This article was produced on behalf of Hotstar by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.