'It is shattering': Top artists told to vacate government-allotted homes

From Jatin Das to Birju Maharaj, many of them are Padma Shri awardees and have lived in these houses for over 40 years.

WrittenBy:Anna Priyadarshini
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In early October, the government served a notice to several eminent artists, asking them to evacuate their government-allocated accommodations in Delhi. The 20-odd artists — many of them Padma Shri awardees or holding national awards in dance, music and theatre — have lived in these accommodations for over 40 years.

The artists include painter Jatin Das, Kathak dancer Birju Maharaj, and Mohiniyattam dancer Bharati Shivaji. The government’s notice took them by surprise, especially in the middle of the ongoing Covid pandemic. Most of them are between 65 and 90 years of age.

On its part, the government cited “a series of irregularities by the allottees, which includes non-payment of rent and misuse of the premises”, the Wire reported, and said eviction proceedings will be initiated if the artists do not vacate by December 31.

The decision was taken on November 8 during a meeting of the cabinet committee on accommodation to regularise allotment of accommodation. These houses are allotted under the artists’ quota by the union housing ministry, and the guidelines state that the artists must be between 40 and 60 years of age, earning up to Rs 20,000 per month.

The Hindu quoted government sources as saying that the artists had “accumulated Rs 32.09 crore in damage charges from 2014, when their allotment period had ended, till September 30 this year”. This amount had been waived by the cabinet committee, but license fees of Rs 2 crore would still be collected.

Several artists told Newslaundry this was untrue: that rent had been “diligently paid” and accepted by the housing ministry. They had never been officially informed of any arrears or damages incurred, they said, and letters sent to the ministry received no response.

One of the letters, for example, was dated February 20 and said the artists were “very much concerned about our future security and continuance of our work as the proper assurance for our government accommodation is still pending with the Ministry of Culture”.

The letter dated February 4 to Prahlad Singh Patel.

Following the government’s notice, some of the artists sent letters asking for meetings with, among others, culture minister Prahlad Singh Patel and president Ram Nath Kovind.

The letter sent to the president on October 9.

One letter, dated November 5, said: “Forgive us if today we abandon official language and write to you as senior citizens...When parents get old, children leave them to their fate, they die neglected and without dignity. None of us are going to live forever, in fact may be a few years, is it necessary to evict us now? At the last stage of our lives, when we are actively working and promoting our traditional culture?”

The letter dated November 5 go Raghavendra Singh, the culture secretary.

Newslaundry reached out to some of these artists who have been asked to vacate their homes.

‘Where should we head during a pandemic?’

In 1987, Kuchipudi maestros Jayarama Rao and Vanashree Rao were allotted government accommodation at the Asian Games Village. Jayarama is a Padma Shri awardee, and the couple jointly received the Sahitya Akademi award. They have been asked to vacate their home by the end of December.

The notice on 'unauthorised occupation' sent to Jayarama Rao.

The couple told Newslaundry that in 2008, they were told that artists like them, who still practise their craft and do not own a house of their own, would be given an extension to stay in the accommodation. This policy was never officially revised. Vanashree Rao, along with other artists, appealed for the policy to be built on to give protection to existing beneficiaries with retrospective application.

Vanashree described the government’s eviction notice as “harsh” and “insensitive”.

“It is humiliating to be labelled as squatters and abusers of the policy,” she said. “They feel...we are just some thorns in the bodies of the government who are just holding onto these houses.” Calling the eviction notice “disrespectful”, she pointed out that artists serve the community by actively participating in government programmes.

Vanashree also said that many artists lost their livelihoods during the pandemic. She, for instance, depends on earnings by teaching 40-60 students at home. “The shows happen once in a while, of which 75 percent are for musicians,” she said. “For the past eight months, we have had no income as all events have been cancelled. In such a situation, purchasing a house is out of the question.”

Bharatanatyam dancer Kanaka Srinivasam, who is the recipient of the Padma Shri and the Sahitya Akademi award, has been living in a government-allocated house in Andrews Ganj since 2003. She said she has no alternative accommodation.

“It is shattering,” Srinivasan said. “The government should rethink and let us continue our work in the same place.”

Sunil Kothari, a dance historian, scholar and critic, said that at his age, he cannot fight the government. He called the government’s decision “draconian” and “inhumane”.

“I am a single man who is 88 years old,” said Kothari, who won both the Padma Shri and the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for his work. “I am a destitute who does not have anyone to fall back on. We are artists and not government officials who have retired. Where should we head during a pandemic? Do you think we can buy a house now, with the rent so high?”

Mohiniyattam dancer Bharati Shivaji, who was awarded both the Sangeet Natak Akademi award and the Padma Shri, said her identity is tied to the government house that she’s lived in since 1987. Moving will also cut short the dance classes that she conducts, which are a major source of income.

“Unlike government employees, we have no retirement and keep working in different roles,” Shivaji said. “Dance is a way of life for us, so the policy should be also according to the nature of our work. You can't apply the same policy to artists as the bureaucrats.”

Padma Shri awardee Faiyaz Wasifuddin Dagar, a dhrupad singer, pointed out that the government owns accommodations across Delhi, in places like Rohini. Why then, he asked, is the government so bothered about a handful of houses?

Dagar was allotted his home in 1996. Stating that eminence “doesn’t disappear in three years”, he said it’s wrong to assume that artists are highly paid, or can afford to move.


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