An article about the culture ministry categorising artists as "outstanding", "promising" and "waiting" in order to decide who gets sponsorship for performances and visits abroad is providing grist to the outrage mill this week. The piece in the Indian Express was a news item, but its writer editorialised from the outset, calling the ministry’s classification drive a “bizarre step”.

Other commentators went further, condemning it as a caste system in the making, an Orwellian tactic that would make some artists more equal than others Animal Farm style, and even a fascist ploy.

Whatever the deep motive or the outcome of the culture ministry’s classification project, its critics have ignored the fact that this sort of official pecking order is not a new development at all. Artists have been graded in India for decades, notably by All India Radio, which has an established four-tier hierarchy in which vocalists and instrumentalists are assigned a B, B-High, A, or Top grade. The grades are determined by local, regional and central auditioning boards composed of well-known musicians, and the system has worked reasonably well for over 50 years.

In 2004, AIR created a kind of emeritus honour, classifying 23 of the country’s most important musicians as "national artists". They could have found a better title, but one can’t expect much creativity from the organisation given its established categorisation. I’m not thrilled with the culture ministry’s "outstanding", "promising" and "waiting", but that nomenclature is a darn sight better than B, BH, A and Top.

Meanwhile, at the ICCR...

The Indian Council for Cultural Relations has a classification of its own, which is slightly better sounding. It divides performing artists into "outstanding", "established", and "proficient". Going through the list of performers and organisations empanelled by the ICCR provides a hint of the range of art the Indian government patronises. Many of the groups and individuals rated in the ICCR catalogue would not have been able to carry forward their art without state aid. Indeed, a number of folk forms would have perished years ago had the government not supported them.

Assuming one is in favour of some state support for the arts, how is that support to be delivered? What measures can be put in place to ensure only the deserving get aid and that fakers do not game the system? To begin with, some form of hierarchy is inevitable. The only alternative to that is a lottery giving each individual who applies an equal chance of selection, which would be utterly ridiculous. That’s not how we select Olympics teams, or employees in a start-up, and shouldn’t be how we decide who represents India in festivals of art abroad.

It is true that there are more objective standards of judgement in sports than in art. But the absence of objectivity is not the presence of randomness. Each domain develops its own systems of judging excellence, and the arts are no different. In most cases, these systems achieve a high degree of consensus. You will find very few experts who consider Birju Maharaj inexpressive, or Kelucharan Mahapatra wooden, or Kumar Gandharva unimaginative. That’s not a conspiracy to manufacture consent but a common understanding among those familiar with the rules of a game about who plays the game best.

Transparency is essential

To build a structure of patronage around an already-existing understanding of the rules of the game, we need transparent criteria, the consultation of people about whose excellence there is a high degree of consensus, and some checks and balances to prevent corruption. The new policy enunciated by the culture ministry appears to establish the latter: a system of rotation that ensures no individual gets disproportionate benefits. Delhi, in particular, is infested with talentless artists who have mastered the lobbying game and cornered the government patronage market. The new steps will hopefully end the reign of those mediocrities, but they fail on the first two grounds. There are no criteria laid out, nor any indication of the composition of juries.

Without openness about who is doing the selection, the motives of the government will remain suspect. The rankings announced in the first list of 185 candidates contain few surprises. The names I recognised all seem to have been placed in the correct slot. However, as the project’s scope increases, it’s entirely possible that an ideological slant will emerge, given that this administration clearly prizes loyalty over excellence. Not only has it dismissed some of the best arts administrators in the country, it has appointed a bunch of unqualified functionaries to top posts.

The Chauhan paradox

And that leads to the paradox of the current situation. For months, critics of the government have been lamenting appointments like that of Gajendra Chauhan at the Film and Television Institute of India. I entirely sympathise with these critics and have composed a couple of rants myself. Chauhan, in this view, is unqualified to be FTII chairman because his career is insufficiently distinguished. To assert he is unqualified is to imply an identifiable hierarchy of artistic achievement. It is strange to see some of the people now suggesting that any hierarchy in art is inherently undemocratic. They seem to be adopting a position close to that of the BJP’s defenders in the Chauhan case, who assailed critics as elitist. Who is to judge excellence, they asked rhetorically. Who is to say that Gajendra Chauhan is not as distinguished an actor as, say, Dilip Kumar?

The answer is obvious: the ranking of Dilip Kumar above Gajendra Chauhan is a consensus among those familiar with the rules of the game. Since more people are familiar with the rules of the film acting game than of the Bharatnatyam game, pretty much the entire population of India is part of that consensus. Dilip Kumar would be on All India Radio’s list of "national artists" were such a category created for actors. Chauhan would make it to A grade, but struggle to get to Top.

Unless, of course, the judgement was politically biased. Rather than dismiss the culture ministry’s attempt to grade artists who apply for grants, which is both necessary and part of an established tradition, we should demand greater transparency and ideological neutrality to ensure the best select the best.