literary awards

Twenty-four Indian languages, 24 literary prizes that more people should know about

The Sahitya Akademi awards are a handy way to discover fine literature from all the major Indian languages, and not just English.

In his speech at the inaugural meeting of the Sahitya Akademi in 1954, Education Minister Abul Kalam Azad had announced that the government of India had accepted a scheme “to give prizes of Rs 5,000 every year, for the best work, in each of the 14 languages mentioned in the schedule to the Constitution”. Further, he had said that the awards were “to be made on the recommendations of the Academy of Letters” in order to “encourage men of letters”.

By 2004, the Sahitya Akademi had translated this into awards in 24 languages – and of course, to both men and women of letters. (In perhaps a quaint tradition, while men are presented a garland, along with the usual shawl, citation, trophy and cheque, now for Rs one lakh, women are given bouquets.)

Even though India is awash with literary prizes now, their predominant focus on works in English means that the Sahitya Akademi awards amount to a virtual pan-Indian discovery of the best literature in different languages. With a different jury for each language, the quality of the works that win is almost uniformly high. The writer and the work, therefore, can safely be considered among the best in each language for that particular year.

Here then are this year’s winners and their works.

Assamese: Fiction writer Arupa Patangia Kalita (b. 1956), for her collection of short stories Mariam Astin Athaba Hira Baruah. An academic, Patangiya Kalita is head of department of English at Tangla College in Udalgudi, and is best-known for her critically acclaimed novels Mriganabi (1987), Feloni (2003) and Tokora Bahar Sonar Beji (2014).

Bengali: Poet Utpal Kumar Basu (b. 1937) for his collection of verses Piya Mon Bhabe. The recipient of several awards, notably, the Ananda Puraskar (2006) and the Rabindra Puraskar (2011), Basu, who lives and works in Kolkata, is known for a terse, minimalist style, avoiding emotional excesses.

Bodo: Writer and poet Urkhao Gwra Brahma (b. 1963), for his poetry collection Udangnifrai Gidingfinnanwi, which represents changing currents in contemporary Bodo society. A Parliamentarian from Assam in the Rajya Sabha, Brahma has been a life-long activist, working for the advancement of the Bodo language. He lives in Dotama in the Kokrajhar district of Assam.

Dogri: Novelist Shailender Singh (b. 1968), a Senior Superintendent of Police, for his deeply moving first novel Hashiye Par, which offers a stark uncompromising portrayal of the lives of the very poor – fishermen, labourers, farm hands – in the Chenab valley of Jammu as it recounts the story of one family, caught in the vicissitudes of fortune. Singh is a resident of Jammu.

English: Adil Jussawalla (b. 1940), considered one of the foremost poets and critics working in the English language in India, for his collection of poems Trying to Say Goodbye (2012), which appeared thirty-six years after his feted Missing Person (1976) and fifty years after his first volume of poems was published, Land’s End (1962), but reflecting the stamp of felicity and confidence that marks a master craftsman working with the melancholy maturity of all his years. Jussawalla lives in Mumbai.

Gujarati: Ashvin Mehta (1931 - 2014), the noted photographer, for his unique book of essays, Chhabi Bhitarani, which examines the relationship between the various art forms, as well as the influence of art upon language.

Hindi: Ramesh Chandra Shah (b. 1937), former academic and author of novels, short stories, poetry, essays as well as plays, for his novel Vinayak. Vinayak might be considered a jump sequel to Shah’s first novel Gobar Ganesh, where the protagonist Vinayak first appears and lives out his youth.  Shah, who has been awarded a Padmashree, is a resident of Bhopal.

Kannada: Scholar-critic G.H. Nayak (b. 1935) for his seminal work Uttaradha, a collection of critical papers ranging in subject from profound analyses of Shivarama Karanth’s novels to biographical sketches of the writer Tejaswi and theatre personality Keremane Shambu Hegde. Hegde lives and works in Mysore.

Kashmiri: Poet and academic Shad Ramzan (b. 1956) for his volume of verses Kore Kakud Gome Pushrith, which are steeped in mysticism. He has won the Sahitya Akademi Translation Prize in 2009. Ramzan is a resident of Srinagar, where he heads the Department of Kashmiri at the University of Kashmir.

Konkani: Madhavi Sardesai (1962 - 2014), scholar, publisher and writer, as well as editor of the Konkani literary journal Jaag, who worked in the field of Konkani linguistics, for her collection of essays Manthan. Dealing with a wide range of subjects, such as linguistic identity, language-specific problems in education systems, colonial – and post-colonial – modernity, Manthan is an important contribution to Konkani studies.

Maithili: Novelist Asha Mishra (b. 1950), for her deeply moving novel, Uchaat. Mishra is a resident of Darbhanga.

Malayalam: Popular writer and journalist, Subhash Chandran (b. 1972), for his novel, the magnum opus Manushyanu Oru Aamukham, a grand saga reflecting the social and political changes that have shaped and reshaped the lives of an entire generation. Chandran lives and writes in Kozhikode.

Manipuri: Naorem Bidyadhar Singha (b. 1972), whose Khung-gang Amasung Refugee is a collection of 67 poems and is considered an important contribution to the genre of Manipuri poetry. Singha is a resident of Cachar in Assam.

Marathi: Astrophysicist Padma Vibhushan Jayant Vishnu Narliker (b. 1938), who had developed, along with Sir Fred Hoyle, the conformal gravity theory, commonly known as Hoyle-Narlikar theory, one of the key schools of thought opposed to the Big Bang Theory, for his autobiography Chaar Nagarantale Maze Vishwa, an outstanding memoir set in four cities: Benaras, Cambridge, Bombay and Pune. Narlikar is a resident of Pune.

Nepali: Nanda Hangkhim (b. 1944), writer and retired government servant, for Satta Grahan, a collection of short stories based on the deep injustices and inequaities of our everyday lives. Hangkhim is a resident of Darjeeling.

Odia: Gopal Krishna Rath (b. 1945), a professor of law and poet, for his latest collection of poetry Bipula Diganta.  Rath lives and writes in Bhubaneshwar.

Punjabi: Jaswinder (b.1956), a poet with a unique voice and perspective, for his recent collection Agarbatti, a collection of ghazals. Jaswinder is a resident of Kharar in Mohali district.

Rajasthani: Rampal Singh Rajpurohit (b. 1935), a retired school teacher and short story writer, for Sundar Nain Sudha, a collection of short stories.  Rajpurohit is a resident of Norwa village in the district of Jalore.

Sanskrit: Prabhu Nath Dwivedi (b. 1947), noted Sanskritist and social activist, for Kanakalocanah, a collection of fifteen short stories, set in contemporary times. Dwivedi is a resident of Varanasi.

Santali: Dramaturge Jamadar Kisku (b. 1949) for his play Mala Mudam, which reflects the changing values of a Santali family in the age of globalization. Kisku has been writing, acting and directing plays in Santali at Kherwal Opera, Kolkata, and is also the editor of a Santali literary magazine, Tapal. He lives in Hooghly in West Bengal.

Sindhi: Gope Kamal (b. 1948), a renowned poet and fiction writer, whose day job was as a civil engineer with the Dubai Municipality, for his collection of verses, Sijja Agiyaan Buku. He is now a resident of Pune.

Tamil: Novelist P. Manickavasagam (b. 1947) , popularly known as Poomani, for his epic Agngnaadi, one of the greatest historical novels to come out of Tamil Nadu in recent times, portraying the life and times of a small rather marginalised community living in the south western part of Tamil Nadu around two hundred years ago. Poomani is a resident of Kovilpatti, Tamil Nadu.

Telugu: Rachapalem Chandrasekhara Reddy (b. 1948), critic, translator, poet and editor in Telugu, for  Mana Navalalu Mana Kathaanikalu, a collection of 24 literary essays, which not only deal with themes and analysis of fiction, but also interrogate the creative process involved in the writerly life. Reddy is a resident of Kadapa, where he heads the C.P. Brown Centre for Languages.

Urdu: Poet Munawwar Rana (b. 1952) for his collection of ghazals and verses, Shahdaba. Rana is a resident of Lucknow, and has won many awards in the past, including the Saraswati Samaj Award (2004), the Amir Khusroo Award (2006) and the Ambassador of Peace Award (2013).

Devapriya Roy's new book, co-written with Saurav Jha is The Heat and Dust Project: The Broke Couple's Guide to Bharat, the story of an eccentric journey through India on a very very tight budget, and is slated for release on May 15.  

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