The chief minister was right. She declared that Bengal had an “unlimited resource of talented personalities in every field”. She seems to have meant chiefly those fields that are regarded as creative, and among them the visible, audible or literary, but even there she had numbers of artists from different generations who could receive the mint-fresh Banga Bibhushan awards. Awards betoken recognition and this is undoubtedly welcome. But can everybody be recognized, or honoured, with labels and candies out of the same basket? That is the question that Ravi Shankar’s gentle refusal of the Banga Bibhushan award has raised. Reportedly, the senior artist was happy to hear about the award at first. It was only when he realized that he was part of a large list comprising artists one to two generations his junior that he politely excused himself, while congratulating the others, those “wonderful artistes who are like children or even grandchildren to me”.
It is not just seniority but also status, indicating an artist’s achievement and fame, that have to be taken into account when honouring him. Mr Ravi Shankar’s stature is extraordinary; his role in the globalizing of Indian classical music has historic dimensions that set him apart. No award is fitting unless it makes a distinction between different kinds of excellence and achievement, between impacts and influences. And this is apart from the value of lifelong practice of an art in pursuit of excellence. Since the West Bengal government has been so generous with its awards at a time when the state is professedly in straitened circumstances, perhaps towering artists such as Mr Ravi Shankar could have been given an award of a different label and value. No one can stop the “cultural capital of the world”, as the chief minister calls Bengal, from spending much of the little it has in its treasury by rewarding the creators of its treasured culture. But the least that can be expected of its mandarins is the ability to discriminate.