Archive for September, 2008

India’s greatest poet since the Bhakti movement?

8 September 2008

PRITAM SENGUPTA writes from New Delhi: As Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw showed, if you have to die, you must die somewhere in the vicinity of Delhi, so that the movers, shakers and brokers of the capital can easily assemble to “bid a tearful farewell”.

If you write a book, you must write do so somewhere between south and central Delhi, as Presidents (Abdul Kalam), former Union ministers (Lal Krishna Advani or Jaswant Singh), South Block mandarins (Pavan K. Varma, Vikas Swarup, Navtej Sarna and Nirupama Rao) have shown.

For, if you do, Jnanpith Award winning authors, Bollywood actors and lyricists will crawl out of the woodwork to read and recite your magnum opus. And the media, otherwise snapping like mad dogs at your feet, will gratefully roll over and allow itself to be given a nice little rub on its bloated underbelly.

Take the case of Kapil Sibal‘s ‘I Witness: Partial Observations‘ published by IndiaInk (Roli Books).

It’s a collection of 84 “poems”, mostly composed by the Union science and technology minister’s own admission “on the cellphone during long flights”. What you and I call SMS.

But looking at the red-carpet treatment the putative poet’s book has received from our supposedly “cynical media”, it would seem the greatest poems since the Bhakti movement have been penned on a Blackberry in the business class of British Airways before the babes brought in the booze.

# On NDTV 24×7, Sonia Singh assembles a half-hour show on the politician as poet.

# On CNBC-TV18, Karan Thapar, who otherwise eats politicians for dinner, actually looks lovingly into the eyes of the new prodigy on the block.

# In Outlook, there is a two-page profile of the “nano poet”, with the breathtaking line, “Bio-tech: scientific surgeon’s knife/ genetic investigator’s dream”.

# On NDTV 24×7, Shekhar Gupta does a full Walk the Talk with the “peripatetic poet”, and follows it up with a full-page of excerpts in The Indian Express.

On top of the specials, there is the routine too.

In Bangalore, The Times of India gleefully records the presence of actor Waheeda Rehman and Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw at the release.

In Delhi, The Hindustan Times grimly documents Sibal’s self-proclaimed “natural affinity for rhymes”.

Sure, the media’s duty is to shine the light on fresh new talent. Sure, as Sibal said in Bangalore: “We (politicians) too are sensitive. We too have feelings like any other ordinary mortals.” And sure, there is an element of surprise, if not an undercurrent of fun.

But where is the balance?

Do gems such as these qualify as poetry:

# A constitutional/guarantee?/No panacea/for inequality

# I never have understood/why so many of us/have to die

# TRPs of channels,/soap operas,/get hits for you./News that matters/serious content,/of limited value

# The Left has suffered for a lifetime now, of an ailment they can’t diagnose The symptom however that troubles them most is that they can’t see beyond their nose

Is this a book of poems, or the first book of SMSes?

Vijay Nambisan, a published poet, writes in The Hindu:

“Kapil Sibal is entirely justified in referring to these pieces as ‘partial observations’. But neither he, nor Shashi Tharoor on the back cover, nor even the more fulsome front inside-flap copy-writer, is justified in calling them poems.”

Maybe, if the media went about being so serious, it would be a very boring media. Maybe, there is a some laughs to be had out of all this just as we laugh at Lalu Prasad‘s chalisa. Maybe, this is just desserts for charming Mr Sibal, a fine lawyer with a fine sense of humour.

Maybe, it’s a publicity coup for his publishers. Maybe, it’s a small price to pay for editors and publishers who want to be on the right of Sibal. Just good PR, nothing lost in humouring a Union minister.

But…

But would a fresh young poet in Delhi, especially one aged 60, get such play in our media? Would a fresh young poet in some other part of the country, get such play? Would an out-of-power politician get such play? Would an out-of-power, non-Delhi, non-English poet get it?

Above all, is this stuff even halfway good?

Or just page 3 pap?

As Indrajit Hazra wrote in a piece accompanying a “review” in the Hindustan Times:

From the shores of a droll ministry
comes outpourings from a head.
Now, if it wasn’t Kapil Sibal
we would have left them unread….

Sudha Murthy, the wife of the Infosys chief mentor, N.R. Narayana Murthy, recently complained to a wellknown short story writer that the media wasn’t taking enough note of her literary output.

“I have been writing short stories for 50 years and nobody is taking note of me. And here is a rich but bored housewife who is writing short stories as a hobby demanding it as a matter of right,” the short story writer told her son out of exasperation.

India’s celebrities, it now appears, are secretly hoping that their every fetish and fancy be recorded for posterity. Funnily, it seems, a celebrity-driven media is unquestioningly falling for it.

Photograph: Karnataka Photo News (digitally altered)

Also read: How many poems can fetch a poet Rs 8.5 crore?

A box of poems is mightier than a sten-gun

Da Ra Bendre on why nitrogen is nonsense

Behind the magazine mailed from the future

7 September 2008

Kevin Kelly on how the iconic tech magazine Wired was conceptualised:

“We thought of it as a magazine that appeared as if it had been mailed from the future…. We created a magazine we wanted to read.”

Co-founder and former publisher Louis Rossetto

“We weren’t prisoners of objectivity. Our mission was to deliver reality…. We did get right that the internet would provide an alternative connection to reality that had previously been the monopoly of the media. The Russian revolution is a school yard game compared to the change that’s been driven by the digital revolution.”

Also read: The History of Wired

Link via Boing Boing

‘Journalism is still the world’s best profession’

6 September 2008

Columbian author and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a conversation with students and journalists in Monterey, Mexico. 

“We enjoy it when we find a jewel (of a story), but suffer like dogs when we see language used badly… but it is still the best profession.”

Photograph: courtesy AFP

Any number will do when the game is of numbers

5 September 2008

How does an English newspaper—a new entrant in a colourful, chaotic, “conservative”, cinema-mad, cutout-filled City—connect to the masses?

If you are The Hindu, you establish synergies with the prim and proper Madras Music Academy, and collaborate with some of its classical katcheris to the soft rustle of Kanjeevarams.

If you are The Times of India, you take a peppy ‘gaanasong born in the slums (Naka Mukka) from composer Vijay Anthony, from an upcoming Tamil movie (Kadhalil Vizhunthen, starring Nakul of Boys fame), tie it into your campaign, and even sponsor “The Making of Naka Mukka” on Sun TV on Ganesh Chathurthi.

Also read: When the Old Lady takes on the Mahavishnu

T.S. NAGARAJAN: The Sharada Prasad only I knew

4 September 2008

'A man of few words who was a master of words'

More than a few people have been intrigued by sans serif‘s description of H.Y. Sharada Prasad as the ultimate exemplar of the “Mysore School of Writing“—not too light, not too heavy. And the questions have come flying at us: Is there really such a thing as “Mysore School of Writing”, like the Mysore School of Dance or the Mysore School of Yoga? Has any scholar done some research on such writing? Why the double-quote marks? Who are the other practitioners? Etcetera.

We named R.K. Narayan, R.K. Laxman, and T.S. Satyan as good examples of the “Mysore School of Writing”. We could have added other luminaries like Raja Ramanna, M.N. Srinivas, and A.K. Ramanujan.

And T.S. Satyan’s brother, T.S. Nagarajan.

A former photographic officer in the photo division of the government of India—a job that saw him work closely with Sharada Prasad on Yojana mgazine—Nagarajan is best known as (probably) the only chronicler of the interiors of turn-of-the-century houses.

In this sans serif exclusive, Nagarajan remembers his days with “Shourie”.

***

By T.S. NAGARAJAN

While I was in Mysore, after my graduation, waiting to find my feet in life, I met H.Y. Sharada Prasad for the first time when he came to our home in Saraswathipuram to visit the family and especially to meet my mother whom he liked and respected.

He was dressed in khadi kurta and pyjama with a jacket to match and wore Kolhapuri chappals.

I had not yet taken to photography and journalism and so he didn’t interest me much. But I liked the way he talked and looked—like a bright young Gandhian. He measured his words when he spoke and gave brief answers to my mother’s queries as he enjoyed the the cup of tea that she made for him.

I didn’t know that after a few years, I would have the opportunity to work with him.

Sharada Prasad succeeded Khushwant Singh as the chief editor of Yojana, the journal of the Planning Commission.  By then, I had joined the journal as its photographer. Yojana was already two years old. My colleagues and I wondered whether the new editor could adequately fit into Khushwant’s place and make a success of the journal.

The bigger worry was whether Sharada Prasad with his reputation as “a man of few words and somewhat reserved” would be bossy and officious in dealing with his colleagues.

None of these happened.

Khushwant Singh produced a very lively and readable journal without resorting to the famous Khushwant formula which he successfully tried later as the editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India. His hope of making the journal the talk of the town in the country had failed miserably because of the utter inability of the government to organise a good network of distributors. He had left the journal an unhappy man.

It is against this background that Sharada Prasad, took over the reins of the journal.

Yojana had its office in Yojana Bhawan on Parliament Street. The chief editor had a spacious room on the second floor. The rest of the editorial and administrative staff was located on the fifth floor. I had a room for myself: Number 508.

By background and temperament Sharada Prasad was very different from Khushwant Singh.  But within weeks after he took over, he gave the impression that he found the job very satisfying. He retained most of the regular features that Khushwant had introduced as also the emphasis on field reports and their conversational tone but gave more space for discussion, debate and controversy.

He found Yojana Bhavan a ‘civilised’ place because of its atmosphere which resembled that of a university. It didn’t function like a government office. There was a total absence of bureaucratic stiffness. There were many men and women of ideas and achievement working within its portals. Instead of politicians, many celebrities and academicians, acclaimed internationally, came there to meet their Indian counterparts.

It was just the kind of environment that Sharada Prasad loved.

The editorial staff meeting in his room, once a fortnight, was more like a journalism class. He lost no opportunity to tell us how to edit articles and do field reports. He was an expert in wielding the ‘blue pencil’ and a miser with words, but had the unique ability to cut a long story short without in any way affecting its meaning or reducing its impact.

He advised us to read whatever we wrote, more than once, and rewrite, more than once, if necessary, until the piece was trimmed to its right length to make it interesting and effective.

“Beware of the introductory paragraph, make sure it is the best way to begin or else delete it. Most first paragraphs are often mere starters,” he would say.

He believed that writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them.

Among the new features he had introduced in Yojana was a talkative character called “Ignoraman”, who never failed to appear in every issue asking very inconvenient and often tongue-in-cheek questions.

For example he would ask: “Ignoraman wants to know what is needed? Centralised Civil Service, or Civilised Central Service?  The bespectacled genius, whose caricature was a creation of the Yojana artist R. Sarangan, looked like a Thanjavur intellectual. He was very popular not only among the readers but among politicians and bureaucrats too.

Sharada Prasad made Yojana, a journal well respected in university circles and among economists. Most economists who came to Yojana Bhavan didn’t leave without meeting him. His room or my room on the 5th floor, which was adjacent to an unit of the Indian Statistical Institute located on the same floor, would turn into a kitty lunch room for a group of economists who were friends of Yojana.

Most of them came in to the room  with their lunch boxes and shared the food with others. Among the regulars were B.S. Minhas, T.N. Srinivasan, Jagadish Bhagavati, and A. Vaidyanathan—all well-known economists. Many a time the lunch hour would turn into a debating session when important matters of economic policy were seriously debated upon. Thanks to Sharada Prasad and Yojana, I made lasting friendships with most of them.

Sharada Prasad was able to get away with publishing articles critical of the government in an official journal. When asked how he was able to manage this, his answer was “by not seeking anybody’s clearance or permission.” He made it a rule (which Khushwant Singh had also made) of publishing no photographs of ministers and officials, or of ceremonial inaugurations of projects.

The only time he published Nehru‘s photograph was when he passed away.

His stay with Yojana was suddenly cut short when Indira Gandhi became prime minister and chose him as her Information Advisor.

Even while at the South Block, he distinguished himself as a brilliant writer and a dependable consultant on matters of national policy. Even though he left Yojana, both of us kept in constant touch with each other. We edited some books together (mainly The Spirit of India) and worked on major expositions on India abroad.

I met Sharada Prasad frequently in his office room which was very close to that of the Prime Minister. On several occasions, while we were working, there would be a soft knock and the door would open a little. The prime minister would peep in and say, “Sharada Prasadji…”

He would excuse himself and leave the room.

Though he remained in the Prime Minister’s office for long, his close proximity to power  never changed the principles and motives that controlled his life.

He remained the same shy, graceful and a delicate gentleman all his life. Possibly elfin is a word that might describe him physically though it is inadequate to perceive his formidable and sometimes unadorned intelligence.

Ostentation never impressed him.

He hated acquiring things. His most precious possession was his pen.  His house resembled a library and reflected his personality in a way houses rarely do. Most certainly, he was the best-read man I have ever met.

No politician ever came into his home. Those that frequented his house and sometimes remained as house guests were either singers, dancers, artists or men of letters.

I talked with him on phone a few months ago to tell him how much I enjoyed reading his brilliant piece on Ustad Bismillah Khan. I liked the elegant way he had described the artist’s funeral in Varanasi. He wrote: “The newspapers made much of the fact that a state funeral was given to the Bharat Ratna. It must have sounded most incongruous that such a meek man, who symbolised melody, was laid to rest amidst gunfire.”

Sharada Prasad was a master of words.

Photograph: T.S. Nagarajan

Also By T.S. NAGARAJAN: My most unforgettable picture

The R.K. Narayan only I knew

The most memorable house I photographed-I

The most memorable house I photographed-II

Jiddu Krishnamurti on love, death, god, and more

Right people, wrong place, wrong time, right ho

The maharaja’s elephant made me a lensman

H.Y. SHARADA PRASAD PASSES AWAY IN DELHI

2 September 2008

sans serif announces with deep regret the passing away of Holenarsipur Yoganarasimha Sharada Prasad, aka H.Y. Sharada Prasad, the legendary Mysorean who served as media advisor to three prime ministers of India, in New Delhi, on Tuesday, 2 September 2008. He was 84 years old, and is survived by his wife Kamalamma, and two sons.

Shourie“, as Sharada Prasad was known to relatives and close friends, was born in Bangalore, educated at the University of Mysore and jailed during the Quit India movement. He joined the Indian Express group in Bombay in 1945, and was a Neiman fellow in journalism at Harvard University in 1955-56.

He edited Yojana, the journal of the Planning Commission, after which followed his stints at the prime minister’s office between 1966-78 and 1980-88, under Indira Gandhi and later Rajiv Gandhi. During the Janata government, he worked with Morarji Desai for a few months before being posted as director of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC).

The ultimate exemplar of the “Mysore School of Writing”—not too light, not too heavy—that R.K. Narayan, R.K. Laxman, T.S. Satyan among others exemplify, Sharada Prasad wrote books on Karnataka (Exploring Karnataka with Satyan), on the Rashtrapati Bhavan (The Story of the President’s House), and on Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (Selected Works).

***

M.N. Venkatachallaiah on Sharada Prasad:

“Sharada Prasad is an extraordinary life in our times. He is a 16-annas Mysorean, but he is also a 18-annas Indian. He is a great gift of Mysore to the country, who epitomizes sajjanike, saralate, panditya, humility and simplicity. But concealed behind all this is tremendous learning and the strength of great scholarship.

“In our simple but wonderful culture, connubial felicity used to be the thought behind a husband bringing Mysore mallige to his wife, a little Mysore pak, maybe even some Nanjangud rasabale. To that connubial felicity, we can add the graciousness of Sharada Prasad. Please do not think it as a triviality, it has deep meaning.

“He represents a kind of civilisational culture. A culture of sobriety, dignity, humility and enormous amounts of learning. I request Sharada Prasad to spend more time in Mysore and Bangalore. His presence will have a civilizing effect.”

Photograph: Saibal Das via Flickr

Also read: RAMACHANDRA GUHA on Sharada Prasad

T.S. SATYAN: Once upon a time, during the Quit India movement

The finest English passage on Karnataka

What your mango says about you

ANNOUNCEMENT: Cartoon exhibition and sale

1 September 2008

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 7,907 other followers

%d bloggers like this: