Posts Tagged ‘H.Y. Sharada Prasad’

‘Media standards not keeping pace with growth’

18 April 2011

Sanjaya Baru, editor of Business Standard and former media advisor to prime minister Manmohan Singh, delivered the second H.Y. Sharada Prasad memorial lecture on media, business and government at the India International Centre on Sunday, 17 April. This is the full text of his address:

***

By SANJAYA BARU

I first met H.Y. Sharada Prasad in 1982 in the very room in which I later sat in the Prime Minister’s Office. He knew me only as Rama’s husband!  I was in Delhi on a visit from Hyderabad where I was a University lecturer and went to call on him because Rama had asked me to.

I would meet him occasionally during my days at the Economic Times and Times of India and tried hard to get him to write for the editorial page of the TOI, when I was in charge of it in 1994-96. He always declined the invitation with a smile. Finally, when he chose to write a column I had already left TOI and it was M.J. Akbar who managed to get him to do so for The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle.

Perhaps as a consolation he called me one day and told me that he had informed Encyclopedia Britannica that he would stop writing the chapter on India that he had written every year for close to fifty years, and henceforth they should approach me for the chapter.

I was flabbergasted, flattered and honoured.

The editor of Britannica wrote me a warm letter saying that I must be someone very special because after a “life long” association with EB, “Mr Prasad has chosen you to inherit his annual contribution to the Britannica.” I have written that chapter since, every year.”

On 2 June 2004 I joined the PMO in the morning and called on “Shouri mama” (as Sharada Prasad was called by his friends and family) the same evening to seek his blessings and take his advice. He spoke to me at length about the office itself, and the significance of every nook and corner.

“You are sitting in the same room in which Jawaharlal Nehru first sat as Prime Minister,” he told me, referring to the corner room next to the cabinet room. Nehru had to wait for a month to move into what is now the PM’s room, since that room’s earlier occupant, Girija Shankar Bajpai, would not vacate it till the room assigned to him was ready, that being the present principal secretary’s room.

I too had occupied that very room briefly till I moved into the much larger adjacent room, the one Shouri had occupied with great distinction for almost two decades. After letting me know that I was sitting in Nehru’s first room in the PMO, he added with a mischievous smile, “of course Natwar (Singh) also sat there!”

He regaled me with stories about the various occupants of the PMO during his decade and a half there, about their egos and their foibles. He gave me valuable advice on how I should discharge my duties both as media advisor and speech writer that stood me in good stead throughout my four-and-a-half years in the job.

On a couple of occasions when I had difficulty convincing the PM and his senior aides about my media strategy in dealing with an issue, I would called Shouri and having received his endorsement of my plan inform the PM that Mr Sharada Prasad has approved my idea. The PM would instantly fall in line and allow me to go ahead, over ruling the dissenters. Securing Shourie’s imprimatur was enough.

For a man who wielded a powerful and elegant pen for the Prime Minister of India, who had the unquestioned trust and confidence of a powerful Prime Minister like Indira Gandhi, who had travelled around the world with her, hearing her read out his prose, whom generations of Indians had seen in Films Division documentaries and front page photographs sitting next to Mrs Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, here I was with him on my first day in the PMO in his two-room, Punjabi Bagh DDA flat.

Every day of my four-and-a-half years in the PMO, I would recall that first evening that I spent with Shouri.

Don’t fool yourself, I would tell myself, you may be here today, but one day you too will have a modest apartment to retire to. Shouri was among the very few who worked with Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi who had no Vasant Vihar or New friends Colony or Maharani Bagh house to leave for his children. It is the combination of his wisdom and simplicity, his prose and wit, his deep knowledge of both India and the world that makes him a truly unique occupant of that all powerful corner of Raisina Hill. This memorial lecture is dedicated as much to Shourie as to the values he embodied.

***

One of the things that Shouri said to me when I met him the evening of my first day at the PMO was that during his long tenure at the PMO he kept in regular, almost daily contact, with key interlocutors in just five newspapers – Hindustan Times, Indian Express, The Statesman, The Hindu and Times of India. That was a different world.

While India reported less than 500 newspapers in the years Shouri first came to deal with them, and only one television channel, by 1991 there were 923 newspapers and still only one TV channel. But Shouri regarded dealing with just the top five English dailies adequate to influence the rest of the media. These five, he presumably believed, set the tone and the agenda for all others to follow. It is also possible he believed having these five on one’s side is what mattered as far as the PM was concerned.

In 2008, the year I left PMO, the Registrar of Newspapers reported that 2,337 newspapers were in circulation in India. In 2004 there were already several news TV channels, but by 2008 the number had more than tripled. By the time I left my position in mid-2008 I would normally be dealing with at least a couple of dozen newspapers and TV channels every day.  The era when one could happily say that the PM’s media advisor kept in touch with just five top English newspapers was long gone. Not only had Indian language TV and print become more important, but even English language TV and print had burgeoned and the internet had arrived.

It was during my last days in office that I acquired a Facebook account and Outlook magazine put me on their cover, along with some celebrities, for being the first PMO official with a Facebook account. Twitter had not arrived by the time I left office. Today Shouri would not be able to recognise, much less relate, to the media scene in India. My 84-year-old parents take pride in letting me know that they neither watch TV news, nor spend more than a few minutes reading a newspaper. They have opted out of daily news.

But, the rest of India has not. Nowhere has there been a bigger boom in media than in India.

At the last World Association of Newspapers convention in Hyderabad in 2009, India was hailed as the great global hope for media, especially print. The WAN invitation to the Hyderabad convention said:

“Developing literacy and wealth are part of but far from all the story: Great credit needs also to be given to Indian newspaper professionals, who are re-inventing the newspaper to keep it vibrant and compelling in the digital age……. Although broadband and mobile are booming in India, print newspapers are growing right along with them. The country has more daily newspapers than any other nation and leads in paid-for daily circulation, surpassing China for the first time in 2008. Twenty of the world’s 100 largest newspapers are Indian. Newspaper circulation rose a further 8 percent last year.”

Salivating at the India numbers, News Corp top executive James Murdoch told a FICCI–Frames conference in Mumbai last month that “India’s media industry is a ‘sleeping tiger’  waiting to be awakened.” He described global media firms as “grey and tired”. “The impressive achievements of the last two decades have not even begun to fulfill the potential of this great land,” said the son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

This boom is witnessed in every language, with Hindi’s Dainik Jagran emerging as the great success story in print media. But with growth have come its wages. The quantitative expansion of Indian media continues to outpace its qualitative development. Extreme inequality in compensation structures means there are some journalists who get world class compensation that would be the envy of even developed economy media, and there is a mass of under-paid staff, many of whom with low skills and lower motivation.

Speaking at the Silver Jubilee of the Chandigarh Press Club in September 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said:

“With the rapid growth of media in recent times, qualitative development has not kept step with quantitative growth. In the race for capturing markets, journalists have been encouraged to cut corners, to take chances, to hit and run. I believe the time has come for journalists to take stock of how competition has impacted upon quality. Consider the fact that even one mistake, and a resultant accident, can debar an airline pilot from ever pursuing his career. Consider the case that one wrong operation leading to a life lost, and a doctor can no longer inspire the confidence of his patients. One night of sleeping on the job at a railway crossing, an avoidable train accident, and a railway man gets suspended. How many mistakes must a journalist make, how many wrong stories, and how many motivated columns before professional clamps are placed? How do the financial media deal with market moving stories that have no basis in fact? Investors gain and lose, markets rise and fall, but what happens to those reporters, analysts, editors who move and make markets? Are there professional codes of conduct that address these challenges? Is the Press Council the right organization to address these challenges? Can professional organizations of journalists play a role?”

Apart from the problem of quantitative growth outpacing qualitative development, there is also the challenge of conflicting objectives and a clash of cultures. News media has become subsumed into the larger business of information and entertainment. This is in large part a consequence of the growing dependence of media, especially news media, on advertisement revenues, though India still has a substantial segment of the market that is still willing to pay for news.

One of the consequences of this growing dependence on advertising revenues, as opposed to subscription revenue, and the competition from competing media is that news media has become increasingly a mish-mash of news, views and plain entertainment.

A recent  FICCI- KPMG report, Hitting the High Notes on the Indian media and Entertainment Industry in 2011 not only unabashedly refers to ‘media and entertainment’ as one industry, but also points to the growing inter-linkages between the two sides of business. News is entertainment and entertainment is news! And, the stakes are high.

According to KPMG, the Indian Media and Entertainment (M&E) industry stood at US$ 12.9 billion in 2009. Over the next five years the industry is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 13 per cent to reach the size of US$ 24.04 billion by 2014.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report titled ‘Indian Entertainment & Media Outlook 2010’ predicts that the industry is poised to return to double digit growth to touch US$ 22.28 billion growing cumulatively at a 12.4 per cent CAGR to 2014.

Apart from the phenomenal growth prospects, which have become the envy of media companies around the world, and therefore attracting many of them to India, it is important to also note that there has been a vertical and horizontal integration, along the technological spectrum, of news, entertainment and communication. Print, TV, radio, film, music, gaming, mobile telephony, internet and banking and finance are all getting integrated. New technologies will integrate the businesses and the markets even more.

The KPMG report adds, “While television and print continue to dominate the Indian M&E industry, sectors such as gaming, digital advertising, and animation VFX also show tremendous potential in the coming years. By 2015, television is expected to account for almost half of the Indian M&E industry revenues, and more than twice the size of print, the second largest media sector.  The contribution of advertising revenue to overall industry pie is expected to increase from 38 percent in 2007 to 42 percent in 2012.”

When news and entertainment become two sides of the same coin, indeed some would say the same side of one coin, with advertising revenue being the other side of the coin, and when the distinction between news and views gets blurred, journalism enters an uncharted territory where there are as yet no professional yardsticks to judge either purpose or performance. But it is not just the integration of businesses that is having an impact on media. It is the integration of business with politics and politics with business that is now shaping news media, and not just at the national level.

*** Read the rest of this entry »

A blank editorial, a black editorial & a footnote

12 October 2010

When Indira Gandhi introduced media censorship as part of the Emergency in 1975, Indian newspapers ran blank editorials as a form of protest.

The Kannada newspaper Vijaya Karnataka, belonging to The Times of India group, runs a blank (and black) editorial today, in protest against what happened in the State legislative assembly on Monday, during the trust vote moved by the chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa.

And in white type set on 60% black, editor Vishweshwar Bhat writes this small footnote at the bottom:

“The unseemly occurrences in the assembly on Monday should make every citizen bow his head in shame. The manner in which our elected representatives behaved is unpardonable. They have dealt a deadly blow to democracy. While criticising this, we symbolically represent the silent outrage of the people in this form.”

Also read: B.G. Verghese on the introduction of Emergency

Kuldeep Nayar: Hindu, HT were the worst offenders in 1975

H.Y. Sharada Prasad: Middle-class won’t understand Indira

People, not the press, are the real fourth estate in India

B.G. VERGHESE: The declaration of Emergency

5 October 2010

The former Indian Express and Hindustan Times editor B.G. Verghese has just released his memoirs, First Draft (Tranquebar). This excerpt, carried by HT last week, captures the declaration of Emergency and the introduction of press censorship by Indira Gandhi‘s regime in 1975.

***

By B.G. VERGHESE

A little before 2 am on June 26 [1975], the phone rang in my bedroom. It was Abhay Chajjlani, editor of Nai Dunia from Indore. Was anything happening in Delhi, he asked anxiously? I asked why he thought so. He said his premises, like those of other newspapers in Indore, had been raided, the presses stopped and all newspaper bundles seized. Political leaders had been arrested.

I said I would find out and call back if I could.

Another call followed immediately thereafter from Romesh Chandra of The Hind Samachar, Jullundur, sounding a similar alarm. I rang Romesh Thapar, who exclaimed, “My God, so it’s happened!”

I called the HT. The city edition was still in the midst of its first run. I asked the news editor to summon the bureau chief, chief reporter, photographers and all possible hands to scour the city and to alert our state correspondents and be prepared to run a new late edition or a special supplement. I would be coming over immediately.

…I got to the HT by 2.30 am by when one or two others had trickled in. We added a ‘stop press’ insertion to the late city edition under printing. We also prepared to bring out an early-morning supplement, to hit the streets as soon as possible with whatever news we could gather, and with whatever staff was available, as many sub-editors, compositors and press workers had gone off the night shift.

A reporter rang to say the Cabinet had been summoned for an urgent meeting at 6 am at the prime minister’s residence…. The promulgation of the internal Emergency was conveyed to a subdued Cabinet on the 26th morning with only Swaran Singh raising a mildly questioning voice.

Meanwhile, the first posters went up in the HT press noticeboards stating that the editor and a clique of anti-people journalists could not put the livelihood of the press workers and staff in jeopardy. By now the management was astir and had summoned the watch and ward to bar us from entry to the press, and shut it off.

With great difficulty we managed to get, maybe, a couple of hundred copies of our June 26 Emergency Supplement printed before the rotary ground to a halt. We collected those precious copies and carried them out for selective private distribution by journalist staff.

I retained a copy. It is probably now a collector’s item.

Photograph: Femina editor Vimla Patil interviews Indira Gandhi, with H.Y. Sharada Prasad, then the prime minister’s press secretary, in the background, in 1974 (courtesy Vimla Patil)

Also read: A deep mind with a straight spine who stands tall

Kuldeep Nayar: Hindu, HT were the worst offenders in 1975

H.Y. Sharada Prasad: Middle-class won’t understand Indira

People, not the press, are the real fourth estate in India

A deep mind with a straight spine who stands tall

1 October 2010

B.G. Verghese, the Magsaysay Award-winning editor, author and columnist, has penned his memoirs, First Draft, “a worm’s eye-view of history as an individual saw it“.

“George”, as Mr Verghese is better known, did a stint as media advisor to then prime minister Indira Gandhi. Appointed editor of the Congress-friendly Hindustan Times in 1969, he grew critical of her actions. When he suggested that “her annexation of Sikkim was less than proper”, the K.K. Birla-owned paper sacked him.

The veteran editor, author and columnist T.J.S. George pays tribute to a gentle giant who stands tall.

***

By T.J.S. GEORGE

Out of the blue, as it were, a new and wholly unexpected voice broke above the newspaper din in India in 1959.

In a politics-obsessed world, this voice began talking about development projects—Bhakra Nangal, Damodar valley, Hirakund, Nagarjunasagar—and then about “brand names of distinction” like HAL, HMT, BHEL, ONGC etc.

These were all new terms at that time and the overall picture that came through was that of a massive change under way in the thinking as well as structural composition of India.

It was as good as a scoop.

That was B.G. Verghese’s entry into public attention. He had entered journalism ten years earlier, unplanned and unprepared, and spent time writing editorial notes until he got himself transferred to reporting. His ground-breaking reportage on “the temples of Modern India” was a departure for journalism itself.

Verghese’s editors in the Times of India recognised this and published his series on the front page. (Those were days when the ToI was a NEWSpaper led by some of the finest journalists India has known.)

The freshness of his “Bharat Darshan” tours and the importance of the message his reports conveyed remained the trademarks of Verghese’s journalism ever since. It made him a unique institution not comparable to anybody else in the vast galaxy of Indian journalism.

It gave his career a historical edge.

Hence the relevance of his just-published autobiography, a big-ticket 573-page tome called First Draft: Witness to the Making of Modern India (Tranquebar).

Frank Moraes, once Verghese’s editor, titled his political autobiography Witness to an Era. Both men were witnesses to great events and both were professionals to the core. But there the comparison ends. Moraes was ideologically partisan: Pro-American, pro-big business, anti-communist.

Verghese has strong views, but no ideological hangups.

Verghese crammed several lives into one. He was a reporter, an editor, a traveller, a bureaucrat as information adviser to the Prime Minister, visiting professor at the Centre for Policy Research, fellow of the Administrative Staff College of India, Chairman of the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission and of course author.

The journalist prevails over all others in the writing of this autobiography. So his account of events, his references to the dramatis personae and his summing-up observations have the appeal of honesty, not the evasiveness of diplomacy.

His stint as adviser to Indira Gandhi allows him to speak frankly about the reality of high-level activities—how drafts for after-dinner speeches are finalised only after the dinner has started, how the Government does not work out a world view and relies instead on tired slogans, “the haphazard manner in which government functioned and the Prime Minister’s inexperience in so many matters”.

Verghese’ assessment of Indira Gandhi is a highlight of the book. He pays tribute to her qualities of leadership, the dignity of her deportment, her pride in India. But he is unsparing in his condemnation of the Emergency, the “savage and thoroughly illegal demolition orgy” of Sanjay Gandhi and of Indira’s own “split personality”.

B.G.Verghese is a serious person, concerned with serious, “un-sexy” topics like water resources. That makes his humour more appealing. The quality of his mind is reflected in the lightness with which he describes his introduction to the Prime Minister’s secretariat.

“There was no airconditioner in the room as the previous incumbent was a mere deputy secretary who ‘as per rules’ was not entitled to feel overly hot. The official theory was that the blood grew thinner with ascending seniority, entitling the officer to one, two or more airconditioners. The same theory worked for arm rests, back rests and foot rests….. Nor did I allow my chaprassi to hover around the car park in the morning to relieve me of my briefcase the moment I arrived. Official research had established that senior officers carry so much responsibility that the weight of a briefcase could do incalculable damage to their spine.”

His briefcase tightly held in his own hand, Verghese kept his spine straight and walked tall.

Photograph: B.G. Verghese with grand-daughters Naina and Diya at the launch of his memoirs, First Draft, in New Delhi on Wednesday (courtesy Oinam Anand/ The Indian Express)

Also read: As the year ends, a lament for the media

How Arun Shourie slighted B.G. Verghese et al

No Holes Barred when Express journalists reunite

19 March 2010

The late Indian Express chief sub-editor H.Y. Sharada Prasad—later, media advisor to three Indian prime ministers—wrote famously that “nostalgia is no longer what it used to be”. In other words, there is nothing more tiresome than someone who harks back to the “good old days”.

Nevertheless, journalists coming together is always a cause for much mirth, leg-pulling and tch-tching of how much better things were—although, like much else in Indian journalism, rarely documented.

Journalists of Sharada Prasad’s old paper—of the late 1980s to mid-1990s vintage—met recently at the press club in Bombay, an event captured evocatively by the paper’s former sports editor (and ace Facebook status updater), Natarajan Hariharan.

***

By H. NATARAJAN

The Express Reunion scored over the much-anticipated, much-hyped IPL3 opening night—according to media reports!

It was wonderful to see people readjusting their schedules and some travelling long distances to make it for the bash. Manjiri Gokhale came all the way from Pune. Masky, am told, came from Ahmedabad, Jaideep Marar cut short his Dubai trip.

Vijay Singh was planning to come all the way from Times of India next door; he didn’t because he felt it’s the thought that counts!

Many of the journos have meandered into other walks of life… The elusive Nitin Padte finally made an appearance after years in the hiding. Nitin is now an educationist: after a long stint at Kodai international school in Kodaikanal, he is now deputy head of secondary at the elite Ecole Mondiale world school in Mumbai.

Some others were “gainfully unemployed,” as Deepa Deosthale said.

It was nice to see Mrs Shireen Vakil and Mrs Talim–both looked almost the same as they were a decade back! Geeta Seshu, who left Express long before many of the gathering got into Express Towers, came and bonded with the rest.

With the press club terrace, apparently, taken away for screening the IPL game, the Express reunion was scheduled at the conference hall. The first impression one got on entering the hall was that it was a press conference rather than a press reunion party: chairs neatly laid out, with tabla and mike on a dais at one end!

I thought someone was going to get a DJ! But forget a DJ, we did not even have J. Dey!

Sadly, two people in the forefront of organizing the event, Swati Deshpande and Sai Suresh, could not be at the event because of medical emergencies. A few others like Sesha Sai, B.V. Rao, Sandeep Unnithan and Sujata Anandan wrote to tell that they could not make it.

But there were others who neither turned up nor informed us they could not come. Poor Shiv Kumar could not enjoy the party; all he did the entire evening was going around and collecting money like a bhai!

The latecomers walked in nonchalantly as if they were in time to make the dak edition, but within minutes they lifted the mood of the party. Yogesh Pawar was greeted with a roar. Instead of asking him how he was, people were more interested in his pole. No, no, not that pole!!! For the uninitiated, Yogesh is probably more known for his pole dancing than as a television journalist for NDTV.

And when journalists meet, can gossip and bitchiness be far behind?

The howlers of the past that created unwanted history were gleefully recalled. Yogesh related how Pankaj Updhayay asked a new girl to rush with whatever headline she could think of to beat the deadline and the young girl came up with a classic: “No holes barred…”

Yogesh also recalled how a sub-editor had used the spell check to replace the word “Sri” with “Mr” in accordance with the Indian Express stylebook and the next day the entire report had “Mr Lanka” instead of Sri Lanka!

I recalled a headline in the sports page. We had interviewed Rohini Khadilkar at a time when she was aiming to become India’s first woman’s chess grandmaster. The headline error in her interview saw it appear in print as “My ambition is to become a Bandmaster!”

Nilkanth Khadilkar, Rohini’s father and editor of Nava Kaal, was furious after reading the Indian Express. He rang up the sports desk . The chap who committed the mistake was probably snoring at home, but the guy who walked in first at the sports desk the next day was taken to the cleaners by Rohini’s dad.

“Band baja diya!” Well, it was time to face the music, anyway.

Yogesh played the role of a raconteur to perfection. He also recalled the time Chidanand Rajghatta walked in floral shorts a few days before he was to take over as the resident editor of the Mumbai edition, and walked up to where typists Rajan and Salian were sitting and introduced himself.

Rajan extended his hand and said: “U.R. Rajan.”

To which, Chidu apparently said, “No, I’m Chidanand Rajghatta!”

Then he went to Salian, who replied: “U.R. Salian.

Chidu again had to tell him that he was Chidanand Rajghatta. The IE desk within hearing distance was in splits and Chidu’s baptism by fiery madness at IE Mumbai left him wondering if the place was filled with loonies!

Fun and laughter walk hand in hand whenever Rama is around. Subdued by his standards, he still did some fine mimicking of Chandramohan Puppala, of course after he had left! Rama is now a truly multi-faceted personality—writer, author, director, producer, street theatre actor/activist—and “looking to do all kinds of work to make myself and my bank manager happy” as his Facebook profile proclaims.

I also learnt last night that he captained Maharashtra in three sports at the sub junior level: handball, basketball and chess. To the best of my knowledge, he was the only one among those who came for the party who left by his own chauffeur-driven car.

One man who was missed and very fondly recalled by all was the late D.N. Moorthy. He would have been the life and soul of this party as he was in any. The gathering raised a toast to the good soul who, am sure, would be his maverick self in the other world as well.

Photographs: Between 9.05 pm and 10.56 pm, the texture and composition of the Express reunion sees a dramatic  change. Those who made it to the reunion: Mrs Talim, Mrs Sherene Vakil, Vidyottama Sharma, Geeta Seshu, S. Ramachandran (Rama), Manjiri Gokhale, Shiv Kumar, Prasanna Khapre-Updhayay, Jaideep Marar, Anand Venkatraman, Arun Janardhan, Harish Nambiar, Mascarehnas (Masky), Dhaval Desai, Sandeep Sarkar, Yogesh Pawar, Deepa Deoshtalee, Dharmendra Jore, Seema Sinha, Sudeshna Chatterjee, Chandramohan Puppala, Nitin Padte, Kartik Upadhyay and H. Natarajan.

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 7,523 other followers

%d bloggers like this: