‘National Akademies of Art and the Making of India’s Democracy: The Politics of Administering Aesthetics in Postcolonial India’

The National Akademies (comprising of Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA) for dance, music and theatre, Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA) for fine arts including painting and sculpture and Sahitya Akademi (SA) for literature, established in January 1953, August 1954 and March 1955 respectively) represented the foremost and the most definitive channelling of the postcolonial Indian state’s interest in ‘promoting and recognising the arts in the nation’s life and development.’ However, overtime they have sequestered behind high levels of institutional malaise, party spoils, or the ‘entertainment value’ that popular films began to offer for most of the latter half of the twentieth century, and in recent past by epistemic choices that favour developments in the commercial art world or responses to ascriptive identity politics over deliverance of basic governance. Yet, the significance of these Akademies remains indisputable because governments and administrators continue to play an important role in defining ‘Indian identity’ and ‘public taste’ in the arts, in disseminating a specific view of ‘Indian’ culture, even as new stakeholders emerge, classical art hierarchies give way to the ‘democratization of the arts’ through the advent of technology and through the entry of those hitherto excluded from both: the constitution of the state apparatus and the art world.

In this project, I seek to understand the political and intellectual origins and the trajectory of the National Akademies of Art on its own terms–its history and core principles, its internal contestations, and how its language, functioning and the ideological discourse supported interests of various state and central government policies, as much as shaping the complexities of the art world, and through it, ideas of citizenship and the public. Following a basic question–what did the Indian statesmen, particularly during the early years of India’s independence, want to do with the arts?–this work explores a critical sphere of state activity where art and politics coexist, compete but also in the process constitute one another, that is, in its role as an allocator: of resources, awards, buildings, legitimacy, among other things. Noticeably, there are no systematic studies on how postcolonial public institutions of art in India address these concerns, how to do they actually work–their calculations, their composition, their organisation–even the National Akademies of Art, established in the early 1950s as the most important, central agency mediating between the artistic (loosely imagined as a representation of the ‘public’) and the political (and that which constitutes the ‘public’).


Malvika Maheshwari is assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University. She holds degrees in the discipline from Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and completed her doctorate from Sciences Po, Paris, in 2011. Prior to joining Ashoka, she taught South Asian politics at Sciences Po (Paris & Le Havre), and was research associate at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

Her research lies at the intersection of political thought and art practice, especially as it relates to phenomena like violence, power, democracy and state capacity. Malvika’s first book, Art Attacks: Violence and Offence-taking India was published in 2019 (Oxford University Press) and her research articles have been published in journals Raisons Politiques, Studies in Indian Politics, Economic and Political Weekly, The Arts Politic among others. As a Charles Wallace India Trust fellow, she will be in Cambridge University during Fall 2022, working on her second book project, on the National Akademies of Art and the politics of administering aesthetics in postcolonial India.


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