On 22nd May, 1961, the fiftieth birthday of Sahu Shanti Prasad Jain, the founder of the Bharatiya Jnanpith, members of his family thought that some unique scheme, commanding national prestige and of international standard, should be started in literary or cultural field. Consequently, when on 16th September, 1961, the Board of Trustees was considering matters relating to the ‘Rashtrabharati Granthamala', which brings out Hindi translations of outstanding works of other Indian languages, Smt. Rama Jain, the Founder President of the Jnanpith, queried whether it was possible to select the best book out of the publications in Indian languages for a big award.
A discussion on the question was initiated by Smt. Rama Jain herself when she invited some of the leading litterateurs at her residence in Calcutta on 22nd November, 1961. Kaka Kalelkar, Harivansh Rai ‘Bachchan', Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar', Jainendra Kumar, Jagdish Chandra Mathur, Prabhakar Machwe, Akshaya Kumar Jain and Lakshmi Chandra Jain discussed various aspects of the idea. Two days later, a primary plan was presented by Sahu Shanti Prasad Jain to Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the President of India, who liked the idea greatly and promised to help in its implementation.
The idea was then discussed with writers of different languages. Eminent Bengali writers and critics of Calcutta discussed it on 6th December, 1961. On 1st January, 1962 discussions took place amongst the 72 writers who had assembled at Calcutta for the annual sessions of the All India Gujarati Sahitya Parishad and the Bharatiya Bhasha Parishad. In the meantime, four thousand copies of the plan were sent for comments to various literary institutions and writers of the country.
To give a final shape to the plan a big symposium with nearly 300 outstanding writers of various languages of the country was convened on 2nd April, 1962 in Delhi under the joint auspices of the Bharatiya Jnanpith and The Times of India. Presided over by Dr. V. Raghavan and Bhagwati Charan Verma respectively, the two sessions of the symposium were conducted by Dr. Dharmavir Bharati. Kaka Kalelkar, Hare Krishna Mehtab, Nissim Ezekiel, Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, Dr. Mulk Raj Anand, Surendra Mohanti, Debesh Das, Siyaram Saran Gupta, Ramdhari Singh `Dinkar', Udai Shankar Bhatt, Jagdish Chandra Mathur, Dr. Nagendra, Dr. D.R. Bendre, Jainendra Kumar, Manmath Nath Gupta and Lakshmi Chandra Jain, were some of the prominent participants in this discussion.
The plan was placed before Dr. Rajendra Prasad, with a request to head the Selection Board (Pravara Parishad) of the Jnanpith Award. He fixed 16th March, 1963 for the first meeting of the Pravara Parishad over which he would have presided, but, due to his untimely demise in the meantime, the meeting was chaired by Kaka Kalelkar and the Pravara Parishad was thereafter headed by Dr. Sampurnanand.
Selecting the most outstanding work (as was the rule for the first seventeen awards) or the writer (according to the revised rule since the eighteenth award) from so many languages for such an award is a difficult and stupendous task. Such a selection within one language itself presents problems and very often raises controversies and criticism. What then would be the case when languages are as many as fifteen or more? Was it not almost impossible to get a team of versatile scholars who would be masters of many languages?
The experience over the years has, however, shown that, given the goodwill and an objective approach, remarkable results are possible even in such a challenging task. The process of selection begins with the submission of proposals by a large number of litterateurs, teachers, critics and discriminating readers, also from various universities, literary and language associations and other similar organisations. (As per the rules of the award, once a language gets the award, it is not eligible for consideration during the next three years. Thus three languages are out of reckoning for the award every year).
There is an Advisory Committee for each language, consisting of three eminent literary critics and scholars. These committees are reconstituted every three years. The proposals received are scrutinised by the concerned Language Advisory Committee. A Language Advisory Committee is not obliged to make its recommendations out of these proposals only. It is free to consider other writers before making its recommendation for the award. In fact, a Language Advisory Committee is expected to ensure that no deserving writer of the language concerned is left out of its consideration. A committee is expected to take into account the entire literary creativity of the author and evaluate it in the background of contemporary writing.
The rule has been slightly revised since the 18th Award. The works of a writer during the period of last 20 years, excluding the year for which the award is to be given, are taken into account for the award.
The recommendations of various Language Advisory Committees are placed before the Selection Board. The Board consists of not less than seven and not more than eleven members, who are all of high repute and integrity.
The Board, to begin with, was constituted by the Bharatiya Jnanpith Trust but, subsequently, vacancies continue to be filled in on the recommendations of the Selection Board itself. Each member has a term of three years but is eligible to continue for a further period of two more terms. Eminent scholars and writers of the country have become chairman or members of the Selection Board.
The Selection Board makes a comparative evaluation of the recommendations of the Language Advisory Committees. The final selection is the result of comprehensive and in depth deliberations of the Selection Board. The entire responsibility for selection is that of the Selection Board and Bharatiya Jnanpith Trust has no hand in it whatsoever.
It is a matter of gratification that the objectivity of this painstaking process is well recognised and the selections have been widely endorsed. That is how the Jnanpith Award has acquired an unparalleled prestige in Indian literature. The Award has, in fact, come to symbolise the comprehensive vision of Indian literature and national integrity.
Dr. Sampurnanand (Chairman), Kaka Kalelker, Dr. Nihar Ranjan Ray (Chairman), Dr. V. Gopal Reddy (Chairman), Dr. Karan Singh (Chairman), Dr. Harekrishan Mahatab, Dr. V. Raghavan, Smt. Rama Jain, Shri Lakshmi Chandra Jain (Ex-officio), Dr. Ranganath R. Diwakar, Dr. K.G. Saiyidain, Shri G.S. Kurup, Dr. Adityanath Jha, Dr. Bezwada G. Reddy (Chairman), Dr. Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Dr. Umashankar Joshi (Chairman),Dr. Vinayak K. Gokak (Chairman), Shri Jagadish C. Mathur, Dr. Debi P. Pattanayak, Prof. M.V. Rajadhyaksha, Dr. M. Varadarajan, Shri B.K. Rao, Prof. Jayalal Kaul, Dr. R.K. Dasgupta, Dr. Masud Husain, Shri Shanti Prasad Jain, Dr. Maheswara Neog, Dr. Narayana Menon, Smt. Durga Jain, Dr. Devendra Nath Sharma, Shri Sitakant Mahapatra, Shri Anantrai M. Rawal, Prof. Gurbachan S. Talib, Shri K.B. Jagannathan, Shri P.V. Narasimha Rao (Chairman), Shri Gulabdas Broker, Shri Hayatullah Ansari, Dr. H.M. Nayak, Prof. V.I. Subramoniam, Prof. Sisir Kumar Das, Dr. (Mrs.) V. Rajadhyaksha, Prof. G.N. Reddy, Prof. S.C. Dube, Smt. Alka Jalan, Prof. Vidya Niwas Mishra, Dr. B.K. Bhattacharya, Dr. Prabhakar Machwe, Dr. Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Dr. K.M. George, Dr. I. Panduranga Rao (Ex-officio), Prof. Shantinath K. Desai, Smt. Amrita Pritam, Ms. Qurratulain Hyder, Prof. Namwar Singh, Prof. P.L. Gadgil, Prof. Dinesh Misra (Ex-officio), Dr. L.M. Singhvi (Chairman), Prof. U.R. Anantha Murthy, Shri M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Smt. Mahasveta Devi, Shri Ashok Vajpeyi, Prof. C.T. Indra, Dr. Sitanshu Yashaschandra, Dr. Motilal Jotwani, Prof. Vidya Niwas Mishra, Shri Ramakant Rath, Dr. Prabhakar Shrotriya (Ex-officio), Dr. K. Satchidanandan, Shri Gurdial Singh, Shri Keshubhai Desai, Shri Manager Pandey, Dr. Gopi Chand Narang, Dr. Sitakant Mahapatra (Chairman), Amiya Deb, Shri Shankar Sarda, Prof. Dinesh Singh, Shri Nityanand Tiwari, Shri R. Shourie Rajan ,
1. Prof. Namwar Singh (Chairman)
2. Prof. Girishwar Mishra
3. Prof. Shamim Hanfi
4. Prof.Suranjan Das
5. Shri Chandrakant Patil
6. Prof. Alok Rai
7. Shri Harish Trivedi
8. Shri Ramakant Rath
9. Shri C. Radhakrishnan
10. Shri Dinesh Misra (Ex-officio)
11. Shri Leeladhar Mandloi (Ex-officio)