Renowned poet Yashwant Manohar’s last-minute refusal to accept the “Jeevanvrati” award over the customary Saraswati pujan at the proposed programme has stirred up a controversy in Marathi literary circles.
Manohar, who claims to be a rationalist and a non-believer, said that the customary Saraswati pujan at the award-distribution programme was unacceptable to him and that he had conveyed to the literary body that he would not be able to accept it if the organisation would be holding Saraswati pujan at the programme.
The award is given by Vidarbha Sahitya Sangh (VSS). a regional literary body affiliated to Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Mahamandal.
The organisation, however, claimed that Manohar’s refusal came at the last-minute on January 14 when the event was underway.
“I swear by India’s constitution and VSS knows my position very well. When VSS president Manohar Mhaisalkar called me to convey the offer of the award, I accepted it. But later, I conveyed to them that I would not be able to accept the award in case Saraswati pujan would be a part of the programme. They said, it would not be possible to drop Saraswati pujan from the schedule since it was a matter of their faith. I fully respect their position and hence I very politely declined to accept the award,” Manohar told The Indian Express.
Mhaisalkar, however, said he had personally called the poet to convey that VSS had chosen him for the award. “At that time he happily accepted the offer. We went ahead with the programme on January 14, VSS foundation day. But even as the programme was going ahead, Indrajit Orke, one of the members of the literary body, showed me a Whatsapp message from Manohar where he said he couldn’t accept the award because of the Saraswati pujan part of the programme. This was unacceptable to us and hence we decided not to give the award to him.”He added, “If he had conveyed this to us at the time of giving him the offer, this whole controversy could have been avoided. Saraswati is a symbol of knowledge and literature and hence is also a symbol of faith. We couldn’t have dispensed with it because Manohar wanted us to do that.”
Manohar said that in 2011, he had refused an offer to preside over the Vidarbha Sahitya Sammelan held at Wardha for the same reason. “And yet, when they offered me the Jeevanvrati award, I presumed that they would remember the 2011 episode. And I thought that they might have changed their own position when they thought of giving me this offer,” he said.
Mhaisalkar, VSS president for the past 15 years, however, has a different recollection. “What I remember is that Manohar had declined it saying it was a small programme and that he would be looking forward to presiding over the Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan.”
Asked why he took the rigid stand, Manohar said, “I have been taking this principled position in a very strong way (kankhar) since past many years. But it could well have been that both could have taken a step back and arrived at some honourable solution by respecting each other’s feelings. But about 2-3 days before the programme, VSS secretary Vilas Manekar conveyed to me that it would not be possible to do without Saraswati pujan. So, my refusal to accept the award was inevitable.”
Manohar further says that literary bodies should have its symbol as great litterateurs, not of any “abstract things”. “I won’t mind having photographs of great Marathi litterateurs like Kusumagraj, P L Deshpande, Indira Sant, Vinda Karandikar and Keshavsut. I respect them all a lot. Literary bodies get government funds worth lakhs of rupees and hence they must remain secular,” he said.
Mhaisalkar, however, said the VSS hardly gets Rs 1 lakh annually from the government. “We are yet to receive last year’s grant.”
Manohar doesn’t have any regret about the turn of events. “With this episode, it has been underlined that this is a battle between values and one will have to take position in this battle.”