Madhya Pradesh culture minister Usha Thakur and chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan. In the background is a performance at the Khajuraho Dance Festival. Photos: PTI, Facebook and Flickr/Andre Mellagi (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

By M. Rajshekhar / The Wire

This is the first part of a two-part series on the curious ways in which Madhya Pradesh’s culture department functions. Part two will focus on what firms do once they bag a tender.

Bhopal: In April 2021, readers of local daily Swadesh found an astounding report in their newspaper.

Headined ‘Ustad Alauddin Khan Sangeet Evam Kala Academy ka Kaarnama (‘A Great Feat by the Ustad Alauddin Khan Music and Art Academy’)’, the newspaper reported that the Academy – set up by the Madhya Pradesh government in 1979 – had handed priceless recordings, dating back to 1962, including performances at the state’s famous cultural events like Tansen and Maihar Samarohs, for digitisation to a Bhopal-based firm without tendering or paperwork.

That was just the start. The firm, PP World (also known as Jhawak Bandhu, in Bhopal), had begun getting these recordings in 2012. By 2021, when Swadesh published its report, not one recording had been returned to the Academy.

Given the lack of paperwork, added Dainik Bhaskar, the Academy did not even have a list of all the recordings it had handed over. Both papers said PP World had not been paid. And so, pending payment, it was holding on to the recordings.

It was cavalier behaviour from the Academy. Capturing performances by exponents like Jasraj, Ravishankar, Shivkumar Sharma, Jitendra Abhisheki, Girija Devi and Kishori Amonkar, these recordings are a part of India’s cultural and civilisational history.

As outrage mounted, state culture minister Usha Thakur ordered an inquiry. When responsibility settled on Rahul Rastogi, a junior bureaucrat at the Academy who doubles up as its acting director, she punitively transferred him to a regional office at Chitrakoot.

He never went. As multiple sources in Madhya Pradesh’s culture department told The Wire, two senior RSS functionaries – Manish Pandey, who works as officer on special duty (OSD) to chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan and coordinates between his office and the RSS; and Hemant Muktibodh, the Sangh’s newly-appointed sah-kshetra karyavah in Madhya Pradesh (MP) and said to have special responsibility for culture – intervened on Rastogi’s behalf. The minister withdrew her order.

An official who had complained against Rastogi was transferred instead.

The Wire asked Thakur, Pandey and Muktibodh for their responses. None of them replied. And therein lies a tale.

A tale of favouritism?

Last November, The Wire got an email alleging corruption in MP’s culture department.

The sender, who wished to remain anonymous, alleged that while the state government is spending much more than before on cultural events like the Tansen Samaroh and Khajuraho Dance Festival, a large percentage of that amount is being siphoned by a clique of officials in the department.

Most tenders for organising these events go to a Bhopal-based proprietorship firm called Phoenix Networks, alleged the email. In tandem, it said, most performing slots at these functions go to a handful of artists, even as other musicians in the state struggle to survive.

The world of classical music is rife with factions and jealousy and claims of favouritism and patronage are not uncommon. Nevertheless, The Wire took a closer look at these allegations. A first round of interviews in November was followed by a reporting trip to Bhopal and further queries in Delhi in March; which in turn was supplemented with more phone interviews and secondary research, trying to test what the sender had written.

Here is what we found. A small group of artists does indeed perform frequently at these events. In 2021, Phoenix Networks did bag many tenders floated by the state culture department. As local media has reported as well, a set of clauses in those tenders makes it easy for bureaucrats to dissuade some firms from participating, and to favour some firms during bidding.

The images below show the names of firms which bagged its latest set of tenders. Six of 11 tenders went to Phoenix Networks.

At one level, this is an odd tale. When a company bags government contracts with inordinate frequency, we expect to find a politician or bureaucrat misusing his or her position. Alternatively, we think the firm has suborned the department. What we have in Madhya Pradesh is different.

Here, a clutch of junior bureaucrats are said to be slipping tenders to a firm they created.

Private gains, public losses

This annexation of tendering has come with wider collateral damage.

The missing recordings are just one instance. When it was created, MP’s culture department was meant to be a patron of the arts. Today, it’s a very different creature.

On one hand, supported by a spike in the state’s allocation for art and culture preservation from Rs 10.5 crore in 2011-12 to Rs 191.47 crore in 2022-23, the department is spending much more than before on events. “The budget for Tansen Samaroh used to be Rs 25 lakh,” said a Bhopal-based employee of the culture department. “That has now climbed to Rs 3.5 crore.”

Expenditure on salaries and scholarships, however, has barely budged. Take Chakradhar Dance Academy, set up in 1981 to revive Kathak. The salary of its guru (the academic head) is Rs 35,000 a month, said a person familiar with the academy on the condition of anonymity. “Students’ monthly scholarship is Rs 3,000. The musicians who play during practice get Rs 6,000 a month. How can anyone support a family on such a sum?”

Teaching aids are missing. “The library is gone,” he said. “If any researcher comes to us, we cannot point them towards any books. Saaz purey chale gaye. We had such a rich history – albums, photos – ab kuch nahin hain (now there is nothing). We had pictures and recordings of Mallikarjun Mansur, the Dagars, Birju Maharaj, Raja Chatrapati Singh. People like them used to come for our tests. Where are all those pictures and recordings?”

In other ways too, musical instruction is suffering. The Khayal Kendra is closed. So is the Sarangi Kendra. As is the Sangeet Vidyalaya. The Dhrupad Kendra is open but has no students. Chakradhar has students but even their meagre scholarships have not been paid for two years.

With a small number of artists bagging most slots at these festivals, even established musicians find it hard to make ends meet.“People close to them get lakhs,” said a Bhopal-based Dhrupad vocalist. “People like me eat chutney-roti.”

This decay started around 2011 when BJP leader Laxmikant Sharma became culture minister. It has, however, continued even after he left the department.

In subsequent years, even when demands for remedial action were made, as in the case of the recordings, corrective action was scuttled by senior government and Sangh officials.

How it all began

At first glance, MP’s Sanskriti Parishad sits in the middle of a bewildering flowchart.

It reports to the state culture department and has, in turn, as many as 13 cultural bodies – like the Ustad Alauddin Khan Academy and Adivasi Lok Kala Academy – spanning music, dance and literature reporting to it. These academies, in turn, are home to centres (kendras). The Alauddin Khan Academy, for instance, is home to the Dhrupad Kendra, Khayal Kendra and Chakradhar Dance Academy.

For decades now, these academies have organised cultural events and festivals. The Ustad Alauddin Khan Academy organises the Tansen Samaroh and Khajuraho Dance Festival. Apart from overseeing Bhopal’s tribal museum, the Lok Kala Academy organises festivals like Lokrang and Nimad Samaroh.

One afternoon in Delhi, needing to understand the logic underpinning this matrix of institutions and festivals, The Wire met Ashok Vajpeyi at his office near IIT Delhi. In the 1970s and 1980s, the now-retired IAS officer, working under Congress leader Arjun Singh, had created this arrangement.

Madhya Pradesh was created from the remnants of the Central Provinces after Vidarbha was given to Maharashtra, said Vajpeyi that afternoon. “We had Mahakaushal, Chhattisgarh, Vindhya Pradesh, Bhopal and Madhya Bharat. Each had its own cultural traditions. We had two major gharanas – Gwalior and Maihar. We had famous painters – M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza, M.S. Bendre. And yet, with the exception of tribal art from Bastar, MP did not feature in the cultural map of India.”

In 1972, Singh and Vajpeyi decided to try and change that. To this day, opinion is split over their motivations. Was this Nehruvian idealism, with the state seeking to expand people’s cultural horizons? Or, given that this was a time of tumult with price-rise agitations, the national railway strike, the JP Movement and the declaration of Emergency, was this an attempt at diversion? Or was this about Singh’s own political career? “He wanted to be seen as a patron of culture,” a Dhrupad singer in Bhopal told The Wire. “He hoped this would help him in his prime ministerial ambitions.”

By 1972, Vajpeyi had finished his tenure as collector and moved to Bhopal. Knowing his interest in culture, Singh, MP’s education minister at the time, made him a deputy secretary in the department with special responsibility for culture. “(Singh) did not understand classical music but thought it needed to be nurtured,” said Vajpeyi.

Over the next 18 years, the two created the institutional design we see till today.

The patron of arts

Academies and kendras were set up with specific mandates.

India’s tradition of Sanskrit theatre was on the wane – and so, the MP government created the Kalidasa Academy for research and renewal of Sanskrit traditions of theatre.

A similar impulse resulted in the Chakradhar Dance Academy. “Kathak was in danger of oblivion,” said Vajpeyi. “And so, this was a training institution.” Similarly, the Adivasi Kala Parishad was set up to focus on the state’s rich folk and tribal art traditions.

In each centre, the focus was on teaching. At the Dhrupad Kendra, the two great Dagar brothers – Zia Mohiuddin and Zia Fariduddin Dagar – were installed as gurus. Each year, five students would be inducted and trained in the tradition for four years.

Festivals played a complementary role. In music, the department created Aarambh and Tansen. Apart from these, divisional and district-level utsavs were started. These helped the state identify talent, and offered artists a way to establish themselves.

Talented youngsters would be invited to Aarambh. The ones who shone there would be invited to Tansen. “Whenever a person wasn’t ready for Tansen,” said Vajpeyi, “They would be taken to the district and divisional utsavs where they would be paired with a senior. The youngster would sing for maybe 45 minutes or an hour. The senior would sing for 1.5 to 2 hours.”

Similar arrangements worked elsewhere. “Every year, we would do an annual Kathak festival and seminar. That was Ghungroo,” said Vajpeyi. “If someone was very good, they would be invited to Khajuraho.”

In tandem, Vajpeyi insulated academies from political and administrative interference. Directors were chosen not by the government but by eminent artists. They did not report to bureaucrats in the culture department but to Vajpeyi directly.

Slowly, these institutions became extraordinary – drawing both talent and crowds. They hosted cultural figures like Nirmal Verma, Agyeya, J. Swaminathan, B.V. Karanth, Habib Tanvir, the Dagars, Mallikarjun Mansur,“ said the Dhrupad singer in Bhopal. “The who’s who of Indian art and culture came to MP.”

The press and academic circles took note. In 1982, when the Charles Correa-designed Bharat Bhawan opened in Bhopal, said Vajpeyi, as many as 100,000 people flocked to see it. Bhopal, at that time, had a population below 9 lakh.

Riddled with coteries and corruption, most state-sponsored art festivals in India are underwhelming events. For close to 18 years, Madhya Pradesh was an exemplar of what the state could achieve.

Then started the troubles

What is the useful life of an institution in India?

In the case of MP’s culture department, things ran more or less smoothly till 1990. Arjun Singh had become chief minister in 1980. He ceded space to Motilal Vora between 1985 and 1988 – and then reclaimed the chair till 1989. In 1990, Vajpeyi too left MP to join the Union government. With their exits, the department lost both autonomy and vision.

Less informed about culture, the bureaucrats who succeeded Vajpeyi tinkered with the original design. The Sanskriti Parishad was created, with a bureaucrat junior to the culture secretary heading it, and directors were told to report there.

Centres continued to organise their events. In the absence of tight supervision, however, corruption reared its head. But given the low allocations, it stayed small in scale.

Larger changes were afoot in MP – and India. In 1990, the BJP came to power in the state till it was dismissed in the post-Babri crackdown in December 1992. Digvijaya Singh became chief minister in 1993 and held power for two terms.

He wanted the culture department to be revived but didn’t allocate enough resources, said Vajpeyi.

Then came Uma Bharti in 2003. Under her, D.P. Sinha, a former bureaucrat who was also a part of the RSS’s Sanskar Bharti, became the new head of Bharat Bhawan. He had hit the headlines in 2000 for halting the filming of Deepa Mehta’s Water. He was also amongst those who assailed M.F. Husain for his paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses.

During his watch, bhajans were sung in Bharat Bhawan for two Hindu brothers killed in the post-Babri firings; rainwater “gushed” into the building’s storeroom damaging as many as 3,000 paintings by M.F. Husain, J. Swaminathan, Manjeet Bawa and others; and the institution saw a turf battle in 2007, which saw Sinha refusing to step down.

By then, Uma Bharti had been replaced as chief minister by Babulal Gaur, who in turn had been supplanted by Shivraj Singh Chouhan in 2005. Budget allocations, however, stayed low. Just Rs 2.42 crore in 2006-07. In the years ahead, they would rise.

A pernicious evolution in government tendering

What happened next weakened the department in a different way.

Under Gaur, Laxmikant Sharma became culture minister. He held this post till 2008 when he was given the higher education portfolio. The state witnessed the Vyapam scam while he was education minister.

During Sharma’s stint in culture, a clutch of junior bureaucrats became powerful. In The Wire’s conversations with artists, local event managers, employees and ex-employees of the culture department, four names come up most often – Shriram Tiwari, Sunil Mishra, Rahul Rastogi and Ashok Mishra.

Shriram Tiwari, said a litterateur in Bhopal, was an employee at the MP Film Development Corporation who was appointed trustee of the newly-formed Swaraj Bhawan by Sharma. Rahul Rastogi and Ashok Mishra were clerks in the Adivasi Lok Kala Parishad. As for Sunil Mishra, he worked in the culture department.

A senior executive in a Bhopal-based event management firm attributed the rise of these bureaucrats to a larger evolution in the political economy of government tendering in MP. The executive requested that his name be withheld.

When the BJP came to power, its ministers – like their predecessors in the Digvijaya Singh government – did not know much about their new assignments. This heightened their dependance on bureaucrats. “Every department has (mid-level) bureaucrats who know how to please their boss, the contractor and the political system,” said the executive. “With ministers – and senior bureaucrats – turning to them for trouble-shooting, such employees accumulated power.”

While awarding tenders, such bureaucrats had earned small commissions. This had slowly changed, said the executive. “These bureaucrats had begun thinking, ‘I get 3% from this businessman. What if I tell him to take my unemployed nephew as a partner?’.”

Businessmen went along – such arrangements bind officials to them.

Then came the next iteration. “Bureaucrats began thinking ‘I know how the business is done. I know the costs and the percentages’,” said the executive. “They began poaching employees from contractors, and floating their own companies.”

In some cases, they poached employees from existing vendors. In others, they bought tools of the trade, and began renting them out to bidders.

This happened, said the executive, in department after department. It happened in culture as well. Given its relatively esoteric nature, even senior bureaucrats were clueless about it.

The mid-level bureaucrats emerged as trouble-shooters.

The rise of Phoenix Networks

In the years that followed, the department saw some major changes.

The responsibility of organising events was taken away from the academies and centralised with the department. “Academies could no longer organise their own events,” said a RSS member who used to work in the department.

This decision is puzzling. In MP, government tendering for events is handled by Madhyam, a part of the Department of Public Relations. The culture department, however, managed to keep tendering with itself.

The Wire wrote to Usha Thakur, MP’s minister with responsibility for culture, state culture secretary Sheo Shekhar Shukla and Aditi Kumar Tripathi, who heads Sanskriti Parishad, asking them about the logic underpinning both these decisions – to centralise events with itself, and to resist further centralisation with Madhyam. This article will be updated when they answer.

In tandem, from 2012 onwards, said a former employee of the culture department, a company called Phoenix Networks began bagging most tenders floated by the department. It was set up in 2011 by Animesh Mishra.

Animesh Mishra, a former employee of the culture department told The Wire, used to earlier work with a company called Vision Force, an event management company in Bhopal. This is when he first came in touch with both Laxmikant Sharma and various bureaucrats in the department. Shortly thereafter, Phoenix Networks was started.

The Wire contacted Animesh Mishra asking him about the rise of Phoenix – and if Hemant Sharma is his partner. He did not respond.

When the Vyapam scam broke in 2013, The Wire was told, the junior bureaucrat Shriram Tiwari came under a cloud – along with Laxmikant Sharma – and wasn’t given an extension after retirement.

With that, control over tendering moved to Sunil Mishra, Ashok Mishra and Rahul Rastogi.

The Wire asked Ashok Mishra, Rahul Rastogi and Shriram Tiwari, to comment on these statements – Sunil Mishra is no more, he passed away after testing positive for COVID-19. The first two didn’t respond. Tiwari replied to The Wire’s email calling these questions inconsistent, factless and false. “Asangat, tathyaheen tatha mithya.” Sent an email for further elaboration, he did not elaborate further.

His response, however, militates against what a clutch of artists, current and former bureaucrats told The Wire.

The question of favouritism

Consider the department’s tenders in 2021.

It doesn’t float a single tender for an event. It floats 10-odd tenders, one for each aspect of an event – tents, stage, lights and photography.

And so, in December 2021, it floated 11 tenders. As the document pasted at the top shows, Phoenix won six of these. A clutch of other firms won the rest. But take a closer look and you will find common ownership in some of these firms.

Film Nice Photo Labs and Films, Bhopal.
Lighting Bijli Bhawan, Bhopal
Manpower supply Ujjain Dreams, Ujjain
Photography and Videography 1. Phoenix Networks, Bhopal;
2. Unique Communication and Advertising;
3. Tiranga Photo Point
Sound 1. Phoenix Networks;
2. Bijli Bhawan.
Tents 1. Phoenix Networks;
2. Sajawat Tent House, Bhopal
Website design CRISP Society, Bhopal
Printing 1. Phoenix Networks;
2. Suvidha Enterprises, Bhopal
Flex printing 1. Phoenix Networks;
2. Suvidha Enterprises
Stage decoration Phoenix Networks
Taxi services
No winner


Hemant Sharma also owns Suvidha Enterprises.

When contacted on phone, Sharma refused to share his e-mail address. He confirmed, however, that the Suvidha Enterprises located at Soumya Heritage is his company.

Both Bijli Bhawan and Sajawat Tent House are run by Satya Prakash Agrawal, his son Rajiv Agrawal and their family members. On the Justdial page for Sajawat Tenthouse, the phone number ending with 41273 belongs to S.P. Agrawal.

“He is close to Ashok Mishra and Rahul Rastogi,” said an employee of the culture department. The Wire asked Rastogi to comment. There was no response. When contacted, Satya Prakash Agrawal asked this reporter to take the firm’s email address from Rajiv Agrawal. The Wire asked the latter – on phone and message – for the email address. It was not shared.

In tandem, charged the event management executive, the culture department has resisted calls to float a single big tender. “Around 2018-19, there was a suggestion that the department club all these services into one tender,” he said. “But that would bring new competition into the fray. And so, they got that move scrapped.”

The Wire asked the department to respond. This article will be updated when it answers.

How to favour companies

This concentration of winners is a puzzle. MP doesn’t lack event management companies. And yet, a handful of firms like Phoenix win year after year.

To understand why, The Wire spoke to four individuals who have bid for culture department auctions.

The first two run flex printing businesses. The third is a photographer. The fourth provides manpower. Speaking on condition of anonymity, all four said the department tries to dissuade participation in its tenders.

“The Earnest Money Deposit is very high,” said one owner of the flex printing business. “It’s Rs 1 lakh for a Rs 10 lakh tender. The norm is about 2-5%.” The price of the tender document is high as well, he said. “It is not Rs 500 or Rs 1,000 but 5,000.”

In the document appended below, the tender value is Rs 75 lakh. The earnest money deposit? Rs 7.5 lakh.

Apart from these, he said, the department delays payments. “I am due Rs 60,000 but have been paid only Rs 20,000,” he said. He also complained of opacity. “We qualified on all parameters but we were rejected in the technical bid. No explanation was given.”

Tenders also come with clauses which support favouritism.

The Wire inspected 10 of the 11 tenders floated last year by the department. Six of these came with a striking clause: “Keeping the work’s importance in mind, the culture department reserves the right to get the work done by other firms which fulfilled the conditions for the tender. No opposition or claims by rival firms will be entertained in this regard.”

“They wanted us to give an affidavit agreeing to this condition,” said the flex printer. “I objected. What is the point of being L1? If I cannot do the work then give the work to L2. At the very least, though, I should have the right of first refusal.”

The Wire asked the department to respond. The Wire also asked why this clause can be seen only in flex printing, stage design, lighting, sound, tenting and taxis but not in photography, printing, manpower supply and film-making. This article will be updated when it responds.

Or take the department letter announcing the winners. Saying firms from across the world can bid for these tenders – notwithstanding the fact that all the documents The Wire saw were in Hindi – the committee said these tenders should be seen as global tenders.

For this reason, it says, if only one firm participates or qualifies in these bids, its bid should not be disqualified.

This assertion, which echoes the recent NDA decision that single bid tenders should not be summarily rejected, complements the first clause. A firm bagging a culture department tender might not get work. If they stop participating, the sole firm which participates can get the tender anyway.

The Wire asked the department to explain these two conditions. It also asked if tenders are floated in languages other than Hindi.

That is not all. As reported by The Sootr, an online journalism portal in Bhopal, the department also defines other bid conditions like financial eligibility and qualifying documentation in a manner that benefits some firms.

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