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India is a confluence of a billion life stories, an expansive narrative whose structural variations are only matched by its thematic abundance. Get into it and be swayed by the whirl of passions, paradoxes and ironies. So it is not surprising that, in the panegyrics of geopolitics and globalism, India is the exclamation mark of the East. Its democracy is the only reassuring drama in a region where the show is still about less evolved civil societies. Its marketplace has already shed all those socialist inhibitions and become the playground of the so-called wealth multipliers. And in the digital planet, Indian is an adjective to be reckoned with. When India performs at its best, in words or on the screen, the world is transfixed—and such moments are not rare. We are not some remote oriental exotica any longer. We are an interesting bunch of people, capable of a few miracles. We are here because our national back story is populated by people who are more interesting. Canonised by history, exaggerated by memory, they are not just the protagonists of a great yesterday. They are the ones who set the stage for those who came after them to play out their romance. Pioneers, warriors, revolutionaries, innovators, dreamers, adventurers and creators, they stretched the limits of the freedom they were born into. They challenged the dead certainties of their times with the power of ideas, conviction—and faith in themselves. They shattered the idyll of consensus and pitted their own will against the scepticism of the majority. Some of them played god as they gave themselves to the temptations of the alternative. Some of them pointed their accusatory fingers toward the self-styled gods of the era. And all of them, in varying degrees of originality and audacity, acknowledged the indispensability of questions— and the uses of dissent. They are the men and women who have made India a place of perpetual astonishment, a country whose stability is built on a million imperfections. Most of them are the people we read about in textbooks. They are the permanent residents of the mythology we make out of hero-worship. (See graphic: Poll survey — Top 10 greatest Indian leaders ) They are known by a simple word: great. It is an adjective overused in history books and by popular media. It is not necessarily synonymous with fame; it is given to a chosen few in gratitude, by a people indebted. It evokes awe and admiration, and owes its origin to achievement. The India Today list of the 60 Greatest Indians does more than showcase the familiar. Nevertheless, they are all there, certainly, from those who were in the vanguard of the freedom struggle to those who managed the freedom. From those who stood up to the Empire to those who built empires of their own—of the mind and the money. From those who have made politics and morality seamlessly compatible to those who have redeemed India in their imagination. This list captures the evolution of the Indian story in portraits of individual exceptionalism. It is the history of a nation personified, and a celebration of the spirit that breaches borders.
The poll began on March 14 and ran for three weeks through the India Today website and SMS. A total of 18,928 votes came in, with Bhagat Singh leading with 6,982 votes, Subhas Chandra Bose coming second with 5,193 votes and Mahatma Gandhi trailing at 2,457 votes. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who forever stepped aside for Jawaharlal Nehru, has been redeemed in posterity, at fourth position with 8 per cent of the votes, compared to just 2 per cent for Nehru. Another steely nationalist, Indira Gandhi, is sixth, with 3 per cent of the votes. It is, most tellingly, a reflection of the changing perception of those who are remembering. Greatness, it seems, is not static, or absolute. It continues to be reappraised in the mind of the indebted. The one who tops the India Today list is not the most obvious, the Mahatma, but the Martyr. In our poll, the action hero who struggled to give a revolutionary rejoinder to the British Empire pushes the savant of passive resistance to the third position. And next to Bhagat Singh is another rebel and adventurer who too didn’t take the Gandhian road to national liberation: Subhas Chandra Bose. The top 10 subvert many assumptions about greatness and how it is perceived by a generation that is not entirely conditioned by the one-dimensional wisdom of the classroom. The pioneer, the poet and the scientist coexist with leaders who were not conformists; and surprisingly, Nehru— nation-builder, moderniser, secularist, socialist—is at the ninth position, between Homi Bhabha and Jayaprakash Narayan. With Sardar Patel at the fourth and Indira Gandhi at the sixth positions, the list is a celebration of nationalists with iron in their soul—or in their fist. Is it that, as India, which at any rate is hardly Gandhian or Nehruvian in its political expression, strives for global power status, someone out there, someone disillusioned with the conformism of a smug state, is missing the romance of the revolutionary leap—and the martyr’s war cry, Inquilab Zindabad? Is it that the mystique of the deviant, the transcontinental adventurism of the rebellious, is more alluring than the intimate humanism of the fakir? Is it that a steely nationalist like Patel and a strong, overpowering helmswoman like Mrs G are missing in an India of wishy-washy pretenders to the throne? Is it that India is nostalgic about the moral power of a JP at a time when the so-called socialists, products of his ‘total revolution’, are an embarrassment to his memory? The hierarchy of greatness on the list reveals the mind of India. It brings out the way in which a nation comes to terms with its past and how it argues with the present. Its iconography essays a people’s aspiration, their nostalgia, their disillusion, their hope, their joy—and the gaping absences in the bestselling story of India Rising. Greatness, in the end, is a creation of the beholder. It is not the suspension of judgement that ensures the durability of the greatest. As in the following pages, the march of the 60 greatest is led by the questioning mind of an India inspired.
List of the 60 greatest Indians
Amartya Sen — Global Indian Mulk Raj Anand — Free radical Amrita Sher-Gill — Brush with beauty Munshi Premchand — Pen drive writer C.N. Annadurai — Letter and spirit Jawaharlal Nehru — The architect Baba Amte — Man of action P.C. Mahalanobis — The plan man Bal Gangadhar Tilak — Street fighter Dhundiraj Govind Phalke — First showman B.C. Roy — Bengal tiger Ravi Shankar — Sultan of string Begum Akhtar — Queen of melody Prakash Padukone — Feather touch Bhagat Singh — The patriot R.K. Narayan — Tale spinner S.S. Bhatnagar — The catalyst Raj Kapoor — Dynasty’s child Bhimsen Joshi — Song and trance Raja Ravi Varma — Royal touch Bimal Roy — Romantic realist Raja Ram Mohan Roy — The modernist Bismillah Khan — The enchanter Raja Ramanna — The energiser B.R. Ambedkar — Eternal fighter Rajendra Prasad — Son of the soil C.V. Raman — Bright spark S. Ramanujan — Perfect equation Dhirubhai Ambani — Guru of growth Ramnath Goenka — The kingmaker Dhyan Chand — Sorcerer’s score Rukmini Devi Arundale — Poetry in motion E.M.S. Namboodiripad — The pragmatist Sarojini Naidu — Civil crusader Homi Bhabha — Nuclear maharaja S. Radhakrishnan — Guiding light Indira Gandhi — Triumph of will Sachin Tendulkar — Beyond the boundary J.C. Bose — Ahead of the curve Sam Manekshaw — Warrior king Jayaprakash Narayan — Lead factor Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel — Iron in his soul J.R.D. Tata — Steel in his spine Satyajit Ray — Universal eye A.P.J. Abdul Kalam — The visionary Subhas Chandra Bose — Supreme soldier Lata Mangeshkar — Voice of India S. Tripathi Nirala — Freedom’s verse Ram Manohar Lohia — The provocateur Rabindranath Tagore — At home in the world M.S. Subbulakshmi — Endless echo Viswanathan Anand — Lightning kid M.S. Swaminathan — Roots of change Verghese Kurien — White knight
Mahatma Gandhi — To Bapu, with love A.B. Vajpayee — Renaissance man Milkha Singh — Fast and gentle Vikram Sarabhai — Master mind Mother Teresa — Mission possible Zubin Mehta — Baron of baton
C.N. ANNADURAI — POLITICIAN, 1909-1969
When Conjeevaram Natarajan Annadurai died, his funeral, attended by many lakhs of people, was one of the largest the country had seen—and as Indians are often fond of claiming—it is supposed to be a Guinness record. Anna, not only the diminutive of his name but which means “respected elder brother” as well in Tamil (an ambiguity capitalised on by the Dravidian movement), was born of rather undistinguished parentage for which he was often ridiculed by petty-minded political rivals. In the rise of this barely five-and-a-quarter feet man with a balding pate, tobacco-stained teeth, stubbled chin and a captivating husky voice to prominence lies the story of modern Tamil Nadu. Anna was the first leader of post Independence India who did not play a role in the freedom struggle. Education—an M.A. proudly tagged to his name—was his only claim to respect and he cut his political teeth in the non-Brahmin Justice Party, translating into Tamil the high-flown public speeches of its leaders. The first anti-Hindi agitation of 1937–39 clearly established his skills with language—on the platform and with the pen to which he later added film script writing. In him Periyar E.V. Ramasamy found the lieutenant who would, however, soon upstage him.
C.N. Annadurai In 1944, with freedom only a matter of time, Anna gave the crucial reorientation to the non-Brahmin movement, which would rid it of the stigma of loyalism. Rechristened the Dravidar Kazhagam, he prepared it for challenges of a newly independent nation state. His alliterative rhetoric, radically new to the Tamil language, changed Tamil public speaking forever. Combined with his voracious reading in western rationalism, his linguistic skills greatly enamoured the Tamil youth from upwardly mobile non-Brahmin families. What perhaps contributed to Anna’s ultimate success was his ability to harness and tame the ideas and energies let lose by Periyar. Given his controversial and radical ideas on nation, caste, religion, women and language, understandably Periyar eschewed electoral politics. In Anna, the emergent backward castes saw a leader who could take them to political power. He skilfully repackaged Periyar’s iconoclastic ideas to make them palatable in the public domain. Periyar’s rustic atheism became “Onre Kulam, Oruvane Devan” (One God, One Quick take Community) in a skilful appropriation of the venerated medieval Tamil saint Tirumular. When Q: What did he do before joining Periyar went about breaking the idols of Pillaiyar politics? (Ganapati) Anna famously observed that he would A:Wrote film scripts and dialogues neither break the idol nor the coconut (in worship). Q: Which state did he rename? A: Tamil Nadu. Earlier known as Madras The first open sign of break came when Periyar declared August 15, 1947, as a day of mourning. In perceptively judging the public mood—a trait he was to display many times in his political career— Anna declared that there was now one enemy less (the British).
Q: How many publications did he start? A: Three—Dravida Nadu, A Tamil weekly in 1942 and two in English— homeland (1957), Home Rule (1966) Periyar’s mismatched marriage in 1949 with a young Maniammai provided the pretext for the birth of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Q: What did he die of? A: Oral cancer as he used to chew tobacco Q: What was unusual about his funeral in 1969? A: About 1.5 million people attended it, a record
Over the 1950s he built a party which expressed the dissatisfaction of Tamils with the Indian state, especially the imposition of Hindi. The Congress’s well-planned defeat of Anna in the 1962 assembly elections led him into the Rajya Sabha. The abdication of the secessionist demand in the wake of the Chinese aggression was yet another indication of his political acumen. DMK pretty much set the terms of the debate in early post-1947 Tamil Nadu. In a, perhaps now justly forgotten, book called India: the Most Dangerous Decade (1960), a US analyst Selig Harrison observed of Anna: “There is no doubt that this powerful orator is the single-most popular mass figure in the region”—a point completely missed by his political rivals. And when DMK swept the polls— cobbling up a coalition with C. Rajagopalachari’s Swatantra Party, the Communists and the Muslim League, thereby gaining political acceptability across the board—in 1967 effectively ending Congress dominance in the state, it surprised no one except the Congress. But the electoral success disturbed no one more than Anna himself, for he feared that success had come a little too early—DMK’s first cabinet was the youngest in India then. He had assiduously built up a party apparatus that spread to every corner of the state through a wide and democratic network of reading rooms that doubled up as party offices. A magnanimous man who was generous to a fault, Anna had also groomed a distinguished line of second rung leaders by whom he never felt threatened—a lesson that every party leader in India should learn. The dazzling rise of Anna was cut short by death. He was not yet 60. The Indian nation state owes much to him for safely accommodating Tamil nationalism within it. — The author is a historian and Tamil writer
BABA AMTE — ACTIVIST, 1914-2008
The nonagenarian social worker leaves behind a tradition of struggle and reconstruction devoted to the uplift of society and empowerment of the disabled. A man with a spirited vision of building a just and sustainable society, he had deep faith in nature and humanity. Every individual, whether impaired, physically disabled or a kushthrogi (leprosy patient) was for him a source of energy that needed to be harnessed. “Youth is he who rises to the sky limit and allows himself to sublime,” was Baba’s understanding and also a basic tenet of his inimitable relationship with the blooming generation. Anandvan—an ashram set up for leprosy patients in Chandrapur, Somnath camp—a source of inspiration for youth, Hemal Kasa—a centre for adivasis in Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra, today stand as successes that can weave the micro into the macro vision of transformation.
Born as Muralidhar Devdas Amte and an advocate by profession, he not only had a firm belief in the ideologies of Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, and other humanitarian philosophers, but also a unique ability to transform their ideals into practice. He spent his entire life with a family—that of kushthrogis, who proved social assets.
Baba Amte A right choice of technology and contribution of innovative ways of managing resources were the strength of his approach. He was firmly opposed to large dams, which made him camp on the Narmada bank for a decade with a courageous position and committed involvement. Even in the face of patently false allegations and repressive force used against the people of the Narmada valley and their twodecade-long struggle, Baba challenged the State and took to streets with farmers, labourers and adivasis. His activism was a reflection of his faith in action, not just words. He was in the thick of things when violence struck Punjab or riots took place in Mumbai or Bhagalpur. His plea for Bharat Jodo touched the hearts of millions because it was a sincere, confident attempt to bury evils that divided humankind. Development for life and livelihood was Baba’s dream that made him a supporter of people’s movements like those for saving land and resources. He supported adivasis against the Quick take Ichampalli Bhopalapatnam dam, not caring about being branded a naxalite or an anti-national. A Q: What did he do under the Bharat Jodo campaign in the ’80s? messiah of non-violence, his spirit was militant which he exhibited in his critique as well as A: Marched across the country rejection of awards over the Narmada issue. Yet, Q: How did he get the name Baba? Baba was bestowed with many awards by power holders, probably to cleanse their own conscience. A: It was a moniker given by his parents I still remember Baba’s support to every fast of mine and our activists, and yet he staunchly Q: Who were his famous friends opposed our sitting on jal samadhi. He was against from Hollywood? A: Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer fasting since he knew about its physical impacts as well. Yet he never stopped me and others. He was Q: Which awards did he refuse to always an inspirer, a facilitator but never a dictator. accept? A: Padma Shri and Padma Vibhushan Q: How many ashrams did he set up for the under-privileged? A: Three
Despite their worries and concerns, he and his wife Sadhana Tai, would wish us well. His ways were never apolitical, yet his response to the vulgar moves of the politicians of Gujarat was to join our satyagraha. But he also shared with us that he had dreamt of our going under water, hitting the dam wall. Baba’s unique stature made him a true companion of eminent scientists, artists, intellectuals, activists and philosophers, including the Dalai Lama, P.L. Deshpande and others from abroad. Even when he was bedridden for years, he was abreast of the latest events, happenings and conflicts around the world. He was sensitive to even the slightest of turmoil, not to speak of wars and calamities. Baba’s poetic as well as political statements and radical plans infected all those who were sensitive enough to take the bits of his vision into their own careers and life. Baba left the world amidst commotion, created by the state and elite sections of society— a consequence of value degradation in politics and in the economy with a materialistic perspective of progress, as well as the resultant enslavement of society. He used to fiercely critique all this and yet transmitted hope with every seed of thought and action that he had sown. His soul may or may not have rested in peace when his body, wrapped in plantain leaves, merged with the earth, rejecting all rites and rituals, on February 10. He, however, did not miss any of his worldly duties, including sharing not just love, but respect for his wife, and all women, as also caring for the family, with his great sons, Vikas and Prakash, daughters, grandsons, all enveloped in his missionary bondage. The larger family of Baba’s biradari, activists and local to global humane citizenry, too has to take a pledge to take his legacy forward to build the nation as he would have wanted to. — The author is the founder of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and co-founder of the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements
BAL GANGADHAR TILAK — FREEDOM FIGHTER, 1856-1920
Bal Gangadhar Tilak was a charismatic and forceful politician and was one of the first popular leaders of Indian Independence. He became known as the Lokamanya (revered by the people) because of his trenchant criticism of British rule and his personal role in resisting it. The son of a schoolteacher, Tilak was born in the Konkan district of Ratnagiri. Many stories from his childhood attest to his precociousness, petulance and independent character.
He enrolled at Deccan College, Pune, where he excelled at mathematics and was nicknamed “Blunt” by his fellow collegians, while at college he undertook a daily exercise programme of gymnastics, wrestling, rowing and swimming to strengthen his body. After graduation, he taught mathematics in Pune before becoming involved in nationalistic educational societies. He then established two nationalist newspapers in the early 1880s, the English-language Mahratta and the Marathi-language, Kesari. His writing was pointed and pithy and sternly logical. It was during this decade that a split developed in the Congress between the moderates and extremists.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak The former attempted to appeal to liberal British interests to progressively share power with the western-educated Indian elite. Tilak gravitated towards and became the leader of the second group that rejected the mendicant tactics of moderates, arguing forthrightly for self-rule and contending that the British would only make real concessions when they were forced to do so. Tilak developed innovative tactics to advance the cause of the extremists. Instead of making speeches in council halls and composing endless petitions to the British, he developed innovative campaigns that took the Congress cause to the streets. The aim of this campaign was to raise the profile of the Congress party, to give it more clout and to ground the secular and western independence movement more in Indian tradition and culture. In 1893, for instance, he attempted to add a political dimension to the popular Ganapati festival. In 1895 he organised a movement to honour the great 17th century Maharashtrian Quick take leader, Shivaji, who wrested territory from the Mughals in western India. Q: To which university was he elected as a fellow? The British believed that Tilak— famously referred A: Bombay University to as “the father of the Indian unrest” by Valentine Q: Which book did he write in prison in Mandalay? A: Gita Rahasya Q: Which society did he form to educate the youth? A: Deccan Education Society in Pune
Chirol—incited terrorism by what they regarded as inflammatory articles in Kesari and he was jailed for 18 months in 1897. Tilak emerged unrepentant and on his release uttered the memorable phrase: “Swaraj (self-rule) is my birthright and I shall have it”. He was tried again for sedition in 1908 when, recognising that the court provided him a political theatre, he defended himself in a 21-hour speech. Tilak had a loud voice and was a powerful orator. When he was sentenced to six years’ transportation to Mandalay, Burma, the Bombay workers went on a strike. When he re-emerged in 1914, he brought regional politics to the all-India stage. He helped found the All India Home Rule League in 1916 with English theosophist Annie Besant and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the architect of Pakistan. While some have viewed Tilak as a Maratha protagonist and a Hindu nationalist, his political views were rather more complex and evolved over time. Although socially conservative in many respects, Tilak, in later life, expressed an admiration for Lenin after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Although he became popular outside Maharashtra, he never became a national politician in the sense that Mahatma Gandhi did. Tilak was constrained by the limited means of communication and transportation. There could be no greater contrast between the proud, strong and this-worldly Maharashtrian and the ascetically-inclined Gandhi—Tilak was a scholar, who published a work on The Artic Home of the Vedas, whereas Gandhi was not. Tilak also had reservations about Gandhi’s tactics of non-violence. His bold stance and innovative campaigns to enlist people paved the way for Gandhi. When Tilak died in 1920 and Gandhi joined some 2,00,000 mourners in Bombay for his cremation, he said Tilak was “the maker of modern India”. — The author is an adjunct professor at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has written The Myth of the Lokamanya: Tilak and Mass Politics in Maharashtra (1975).
B.C. ROY — PHYSICIAN, POLITICIAN, 1882-1962
Bidhan Chandra Roy was one of the foremost national leaders of the 20th century India. A legendary physician, a distinguished Congress leader, an educationist and a philanthropist, Roy became the chief minister of West Bengal and transformed it from a problem state into a prosperous one. He was a leader whose advice Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel always relied upon. From the time he defeated the formidable Surendranath Bannerjea in an election in the early 1920s, there was no looking back as he successfully occupied important positions.
He was mayor of Calcutta, vice-chancellor of Calcutta University and member of the Congress Working Committee. In 1948, he declined the position of governor of Uttar Pradesh for which he was approved by King George VI, because he wanted to be in active politics. Shortly thereafter, he assumed the stewardship of West Bengal.
B.C. Roy How refreshingly free he was from ideological controversies is exemplified by the fact that in 1957, when Nehru and P. C. Mahalanobis were all set to introduce Soviet style planning with emphasis on creating basic and heavy industries and financing them by curtailing consumption, Roy chose to cross swords with Mahalanobis with his sophisticated econometric models and recommended a policy where primary emphasis was to be given initially to agriculture. Industrial development was to take place from out of the surplus generated by agriculture. He was totally opposed to import control or foreign exchange control. But he did not turn his views into polemics and submitted to the majority opinion when he was overruled by Nehru and Mahalanobis. Quick take Two other aspects which are almost forgotten are Roy’s role as an industrialist and as a journalist. As an industrialist he promoted the Shillong HydroElectricity Corporation and Airways India.
Q: Howmany admission requests did he send to the dean at St.Bartholomew in England before As a journalist he took the responsibility of some he was finally accepted? journals started by Chittaranjan Das, namely, A: 29 Forward, Bangabasi and Atmasakti. He edited another journal called Liberty and was the founding Q: How is his birthday, July 1, chairman of the United Press of India. celebrated in India? A: As Doctor’s Day A true karamayogi, he died working almost till the last hour of his life on July 1, 1962, which also Q: Which was his favourite song? happened to be his birthday. He sang it even on the day of his death. A: The Brahmo Geet
— The author is a former Lok Sabha MP
BEGUM AKHTAR — SINGER, 1914-1974
Music can be a powerful form of communication. And Begum Akhtar, in my opinion, was one of the first effective communicators. Sixty years ago, she realised the power of the medium and its ability to convey a message. Her notes carried a rare pathos which she zealously guarded as a stamp of her inimitable style and identity. Today, at a time when classical music has fewer and fewer takers, Akhtar continues to be a rage. It has been 34 years since she passed away, but her recordings are still best-sellers. While poets recited ghazals, she brought them to the classical stage and made classical music accessible to the common man. She remains immortal for the sheer aestheticism of her vocal style. The reason why Akhtar’s music has endured is simple: she knew how to communicate with her audience. She was as careful in choosing the lyrics of her renderings as she was in delivering them in terms of diction and tonalilty.
Begum Akhtar Having mastered the art of simplicity, she derived great satisfaction from the fact that her audiences expected nothing short of perfection from her.
There was a personal rapport that Akhtar managed to achieve with each member of her audience, almost as if she was singing exclusively for an individual listener. I once asked her how she looked so beautiful on the stage. She replied, “Main unko dekhti hoon (I see the Lord while singing)”. That was the level of bhakti in her music—and life. She was a true Sufi. Akhtar was born in 1914 in Faizabad of Uttar Pradesh. Her musical training began under Atta Ahmed Khan of Patiala. She not only learnt classical music but also the semiclassical forms like ghazals, bhajans, thumris and dadras. A broad-minded person who shunned the shackles of tradition, she believed in the empowerment of women. I happened to be taking lessons from the thumri queen, Sidheshwari Devi. But one day, Ammi (as I fondly addressed her) approached Devi and asked her if she could have me as her disciple. Once Devi agreed, she took me under her wings. There and then, the ganda bandh (tying of the thread) ceremony was performed, with Devi making me wear her own Banaras silk sari for the ritual. The ganda bandh ceremony was the preserve of male students in those days, but that day, the tradition was broken. Quick take Q: What was Begum Akhtar’s real name? A: Akhtaribai Faizabadi Q: When did she give her first performance? A: When she was 15-years-old Q: For which company did she cut her first record? A: Megaphone Record Company Q: Which was the first movie she acted in? A: umtaz Begum in 1934 Akhtar was a reformer who was well ahead of her times. I remember the day when she took me to Cuttack to meet the famous guru of Indore, Ustad Amir Khan, so that he could train me in voice culture. It is unthinkable today for a guru to think of all-round development of his or her students. She believed in promoting her shishyas. I also remember how on a concert trip to Srinagar, she told me that I will be giving a solo performance on stage. I was stunned. She also told me not to sing from her repertory. I was speechless. All through the concert, she sat behind me. It was her unique way of promoting her students.
Akhtar was a secularist and a nationalist. After she received the Padma Shri, a few maulvis came to meet her. As she was a state awardee, the maulvis thought she was close to the government and could Q: She stopped performing for five put in a word for their cause. They complained that years after marriage. How did she their masjid at Barabanki had been taken over by start again? Hindus, who were performing puja at the site. A: She fell ill and music was prescribed as the only remedy
Ammi heard them out and asked to be excused. “After all, it is ibadat (prayers) that is being held there,” she said. Even during the 1971, she would urge neighbours to switch off the lights at night. And when she heard the National Anthem on the radio, she would stand up. She was a true patriot. — The author, a renowned theatre artiste and singer, was a disciple of Begum Akhtar
BHAGAT SINGH — FREEDOM FIGHTER, 1907-1931
The question that bothered me the most when I began my research to write the script for The Legend of Bhagat Singh was the most obvious one. Why did he want to die? He was a young healthy man of 23, with a sunny personality, was loved by all who knew him, intelligent and witty with a great fondness for all that life had to offer from literature to rasagullas, and everything in between. He lived every moment to the fullest. An-hour-anda-half before he was to be hanged, he was eagerly devouring Lenin’s latest biography. So, why then was he so keen on dying? For this, it was important to meet the man behind the legend, to trace his emotional arc. I decided to journey his life with him as an observer. Born into a politically active family, even as a child he knew that India was under foreign rule. But the gruesome implications of this fact kicked in only after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Overcome with grief, he ran away from school to Amritsar to visit the site. So moved was he that he gathered up some blood-soaked mud into a little bottle. This reminder of the horrendous cruelty that is inevitable when people’s freedom is taken away would remain with him all his life. And it was then, while staring at those bullet-ridden walls, that this boy of 11 knew what he wanted more than anything else in the world. He wanted his country to be free.
Bhagat Singh And Gandhi was showing the way. When he called for non-cooperation, Bhagat became his energetic soldier. But unable to comprehend the maturity of Gandhi’s decision to abort the campaign after the Chauri-Chaura violence, young Bhagat felt acutely let down. He had to now seek his own answer—how does one fight for freedom? He found his answer in Marxism, revolutionary struggle. But the enquiry took him beyond mere freedom—towards nation-building. At the age of 16, Bhagat’s ideal grew and strengthened into a mature vision for a new India—based on the principles of socialism and secularism. That is what he would strive for now. When Lala Lajpat Rai died due to blows inflicted by British policemen’s lathi charge, Bhagat had a militant reaction. The oppressor’s violence had to be met with revolutionary counter-violence. With his comrades, he pumped four bullets into the offending officer. It turned out to be a turning point of his life, impelling him to question his own strategy. Two years of honest introspection led to the resolution that violence was not the answer to oppression. Building a people’s movement to struggle for a new society was. But as a fugitive Quick take himself how was he to reach the people? Q: Which organisation was Bhagat A spectacular idea struck him: Throw a bomb in the Singh a part of? National Assembly! Assuming that this was to A: Hindustan Socialist Republican massacre politicians, Chandrashekhar Azad was Association delighted. But Bhagat didn’t want to hurt anyone. “It takes a loud noise to make the deaf hear,” he Q: Why did he run away from said. Once arrested, he would use the court room as home? a platform to speak to the people. A: To avoid an early marriage Q: Which book appealed him the most in his search on atheism? A: Niralamba Swami's Common Sense Q: Who was his inspiration? A: Kartar Singh Sarabha, a revolutionary involved in the Lahore conspiracy case Q: Who was Bhagat Singh’s favourite poet? A: Allama Iqbal from Sialkot Using his words, his comrades would create a people’s movement. It was a remarkably sophisticated strategy. The decision to kill the police officer had been a reaction to British oppression, throwing the bomb was a mature response to it.
The catch of course was that the government would hang him for the British officer’s murder. But that didn’t matter to him. All that mattered was his ideal—a genuinely free India. And for that, his life—or death—was merely an instrument. At 23, Bhagat Singh had become a complete idealist. His cause was above his own life. I tried to imagine what it must be to feel like this. To want to die—not for a loved one, but for a cause, for an ideal, with joy and josh. Frankly, I don’t really know still. And my tepid script reflected that. But within weeks of his arrest, all his comrades were caught, destroying any chance of a people’s movement. But Bhagat was now firmly on the heroic path. And heroes never give up on their cause. With courageous and powerful speeches in the court, he made his voice heard and articulated his vision for a free India. When he undertook a fast for 63 days to protest against discrimination in jail, he was hammered daily. He never hit back. Violence was no longer an option, no matter what the provocation was. In his growth, I began seeing shades of Vivekananda and Buddha. And ironically, also of his great political adversary, Mahatma Gandhi. Today, everyone wants a piece of Bhagat Singh. Even the Sangh Parivar, whose politics he was dead against. People vote for him as the greatest Indian. His reference is used to accord substance and legitimacy to confused heroes in popular films. But to appreciate him is to understand the true essence of his heroism. It didn’t lie in his use of the gun once but in the aggressive harmony of his beliefs and his actions. — The author is one of the country’s foremost scriptwriters
S.S. BHATNAGAR — SCIENTIST, 1894-1955
During the Second World War, in view of the snapping of communication lines, the colonial rulers asked the Indian government to take up the task of “supplying the technical equipment of a modern army”. The government decided to conduct research under its own auspices, and more importantly, to fund scientific and industrial research in centres outside its system. History chose the hour and the hour produced the hero. Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, then a professor at Punjab University, Lahore, was appointed the director of scientific and industrial research in 1940. The same year an advisory board of scientific and industrial research was set up to receive and appraise research proposals from universities, industry and trade.
On March 12, 1942, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research was established, which was later transformed into a vehicle for industrial development by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The old timers would recall with a chuckle how Bhatnagar would meet Nehru during the latter’s morning walk, get approval for a new laboratory and have the paper work ready by the time office opened.
S.S. Bhatnagar Bhatnagar held a number of important posts. He was secretary to the government in the ministry of natural resources and scientific research, secretary of atomic energy research and chairman of the University Grants Commission. He was a bridge between two cultures and two eras. He was a chemist as also the author of the ceremonial Sanskrit hymn of the Banaras Hindu University. He was proud of the honours bestowed upon him by the British government while, as a government servant, he had the courage to publicly touch the feet of the Congress president in 1942. If science was his passion, Urdu poetry was his refuge. Quick take Q: Bhatnagar was an avid writer. What did he write? A: Urdu poetry He was greatly influenced by the Brahmo Samaj in his formative years. He was very attached to his wife, Lajwanti. A romantic at heart, he nursed the hope that he would take to farming after retirement and his wife would bring him lunch and a pot of butter milk in the fields.
Q: What was his reaction when he learnt about plagiarism by a fellow professor in BHU? — The author is former director of the National A: He leapt on him and gave him a Institute of Science, Technology and Development good drubbing Studies Q: Who called his association with Jawaharlal Nehru the “NehruBhatnagar Effect”? A: Sir C.V. Raman
BHIMSEN JOSHI — VOCALIST, 1922
Bhimsen Joshi is the most prominent Hindustani vocalist living today. As the best known of the many great disciples of Savai Gandharva, he has made Dharwad (in north Karnataka) home to Hindustani music. Along with Mallikarjun Mansur, Gangubai Hangal, Kumar Gandharva and Basav Rao Rajguru, he has ushered music into its golden age. Joshi was born into a Brahmin family of Gadag in Karnataka. As a child he was passionate about music, to the chagrin of his father who wanted him to become a doctor or an engineer. He left home in search of a guru at the age of 11. His search took him to Kundgol, to Savai Gandharva, a disciple of Abdul Karim Khan, the founder of the Kirana Gharana.
Bhimsen Joshi But the guru rejected him, saying his voice was not good enough. The guru took him on only after seeing his determination and upon the recommendation of another student, Hangal. From then on, Joshi absorbed raga after raga, imbibing the best of the gharana. He also learnt other styles of music, quickly becoming one of the most-sought-after performers.
Especially after the untimely death of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan in 1968 and Ustad Amir Khan in 1974. Quick take Q: When did he first perform on stage? A: When he was 19 A versatile singer, Joshi’s lilting thumris, bhajans in Hindi and Marathi and his abhangs are instances in point. A divine miracle, his tremendous accomplishments are proof of his musical genius.
Q: Which famous music festival did — The author is a voice instructor at the he institute? University of Alberta, Canada A: Savai Gandharva Sangeet Mahotsav Q: Which book, written by his father Gururaj, chronicles the life story of his illustrious son? A: Naad-Putra, in Kannada
BIMAL ROY — FILMMAKER, 1909-1966
I remember as a young child being in rooms full of books and films. My two siblings and I would keep devouring the written word and imbibing images of the world. Often my father would invite guests and my mother would go into a frenzy over preparations for dinner. Not surprisingly, she was famed for her Bengali dishes. Fuelled by her cooking there would be long sessions of engaging discussions at home. There was a certain cultural ferment at home. Strangely Bimal Roy, the man, was unlike what people expected him to be. We were never encouraged to be in filmmaking. It was a passion for my father and perhaps incomprehensible to him that his own sons and daughters would want a future in it. More than cinema it was culture as a whole that existed at home. I remember, after a trip to Beirut, Lebanon, he got home a music player and some records. As a child I was astounded with the magic of music. I used to request him to put on the gramophone and would sit quietly with him. Seeing this, he would let me listen to it and would often introduce me to new records. He was always like that. Wherever he saw zeal he would encourage it.
The legacy of my father has been a power to me that has pushed me to explore his work as I was very young when he passed away.
Bimal Roy What started as a project on his undisclosed movie clips became a journey for me to discover what my father’s cinema was all about—the implacability of suffering and the universality of human emotions. To understand his cinema, it is important to understand his background. Coming from a zamindar family he was dispossessed when his family was cheated on, and hence was left with just one obsession— making films. I often wonder why people call him a landmark filmmaker of the 1960s—his career actually started way back in 1932, when he was a film photographer. Quick take Q: Where was Bimal Roy born? A: Dhaka, now in Bangladesh Q: Which documentary of his was praised for its “plastic and moral beauty” at the Cannes in 1956? A: Gotama the Buddha Q: What was the name of his feature film debut? A: Udayer Pathey,1944 Q: Who gave him first break in filmmaking and as what? A: P.C.Barua, as a publicity photographer It was then that he started transporting his emotions into his creations, something that is very vividly seen in his movies. I think when one sees Do Bigha Zameen, it is his personal experience of injustice that seeps through to give such an evocative creation to his audience. He never thought about the market or audience. I remember one instance—even though I was just nine—during Bandini, when the producers wanted a befitting end where Bandini would go to the right man, whom she loved, to cater to popular tastes. My father was aghast. He said to my mother, “How can Bandini go to a person for whom she had murdered?” It didn’t match his worldview. His films were his honest efforts and showed exactly what he thought and felt.
There were no material privileges in belonging to Q: Which song of Madhumati, the Roy household. My father was concerned more which inspired Om Shanti Om, was initially rejected by Roy? A: Aaja re pardesi, music by Salil Chowdhury, sung by Lata Mangeshkar
with how we would evolve into responsible human beings. Our home was stark with only the basic necessities. He used all his resources for films. We lived in a rent accommodation all along but travelled the world through the films, music and books that our parents brought home. It was his quest for perfection that took up his energy and time. I remember how one early morning I saw my father sitting quietly near one of the windows at home. When I went near him, I was shushed. Several mornings went by but finally my curiosity got the better of me. It was then that he showed me how he was recording the sound of a koel (cuckoo) for a sequence in a movie. He wanted the exact sound of the early morning cooing and wouldn’t settle for less. It was such attention to detail that perhaps keeps his work so relevant even today. (as told to Bushra Ahmed) — The author is Bimal Roy’s son and made the documentary Remembering Bimal Roy
BISMILLAH KHAN — SHEHNAI PLAYER, 1916-2006
He was an ordinary man yet an extraordinary artiste; he was simple yet his melody was ornamental; he was a five-time namazi yet he did his sadhana in the temples of Varanasi. He was Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan, the shehnai maestro, who took the mangal dhvani vadya to unprecedented heights. Born in Dumrao, Bihar, Khan was fashioned by God to serve the cause of Indian music. His swaras seeped into the heart and soul of the audience with moments of ekikarana (union). My first memory of the Ustad goes back to the 1950s at the Allahabad music conference. When his name was announced, there was huge applause and then hushed silence. The spell was broken by the swaras of the shehnai floating in the air. The maestro with his group of accompanists was taking long-drawn breaths to do the alap dexterously.
Bismillah Khan Khan came on the scene when the shehnai was just an instrument played on all auspicious occasions. Shehnai players would sit at the entrance of the building and play from the early hours of the morning into late night. His chief contribution was to take the instrument to the centre of the proscenium. For many years, no music conference would start without his shehnai. The dynamics of Hindustani music has always been experimental. Khan was sensitive, creative and intelligent. He experimented with ragas on the shehnai and his success story starts from here. He caught the eye of classical artistes and connoisseurs. He was also fully aware of the impact of Indian cinema. At a time when not many wanted to be associated with it, he was bold enough to do so. He was generous and promoted many artistes by playing duets with them. In an era when performing artistes were moving towards Q: Which Hindu deity was Khan a metropolitan centres and the West for better devotee of? opportunities, Khan decided to stay on in his own A: Goddess Saraswati city. Quick take Q: Which was the only movie in which he acted? A: Jalsaghar by Satyajit Ray He would tour foreign countries, yet would always return to the banks of the river Ganges. A savant of the Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb, his music was for everyone. But he belonged to Varanasi alone. Q: What, according to him, was his Today the lute is silent. The Ustad sleeps only vice? peacefully in the Fatiman in Varanasi. But his A: He smoked Wills cigarettes music plays on. — The author is former dean, faculty of performing arts, Banaras Hindu University
B.R. AMBEDKAR — LAWYER, 1891-1956
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar rose from the Dalit “undercaste” community (“untouchables” who were known as “depressed classes” and later called “Scheduled Castes”) in India. He received his education in India and the West and became a national leader in the country’s struggle for equality and justice. In Independent India, Ambedkar was appointed the first law minister. He framed the nation’s Constitution, making it a secular state and provided ideas for national emblems such as the Ashoka lions and the dharma wheel on the national flag. Ambedkar lived a sheltered childhood on a military base in the late 19th century British India, not really comprehending being an undercaste. Since untouchable children were forbidden education, it was one high caste teacher who noticed his intelligence, guided him, and eventually gave him his own name Ambedkar. In school, he suffered insults and humiliation from other students, yet overcame that to become the first graduate of his community. The Maharaja of Baroda noticed his brilliance and gave him a scholarship to Columbia University where he encountered the Afro-American community in Harlem, the United States’s 14th Amendment to Constitution granting equality to all and the views of professors such as John Dewey, who was an American philosopher and education reformer. All these propelled him to campaign for human rights.
The messiah of the oppressed After his doctoral studies in economics at Columbia University, he went to England to achieve similar success at the London School of Economics and passed the Bar at Gray’s Inn. Upon his return to India in 1917, his patron, the Maharaja of Baroda, awarded him a high position in government. He felt obligated at first, but because no other staff in the government office would deal with him as an untouchable, and no lodging was provided to him, he was forced to resign from the post. Later in Bombay, he found low-cost government housing consisting of a small room. He tried his luck in law, but his attention quickly turned to the sufferings of the millions of untouchables.
Ambedkar worked against injustice wherever it existed. His slogan was: educate, organise, agitate. To educate, he taught in colleges, and later built institutions of high learning in Bombay and across Maharashtra. To organise, he became a writer, publisher, social and labour leader, and established political parties. Quick take Q: What was Ambedkar’s real name? A: Bhimrao Ramji Sakpal Q: What was the name of his own publication? A: Mooknayak, a weekly Q: Which US university did he get his PhD from? A: Columbia University To agitate, he sparred with other leaders of his time. From 1930-1932, Ambedkar represented the “untouchable population” at the three Round Table Conferences held in London which guaranteed a separate voting franchise to the undercaste from that of the Hindus in 1932. However, Mahatma Gandhi stood against political separation and decided to go on a fast in protest. Gandhi sought indivisible rights for untouchables as part of Hindu society while Ambedkar wanted separate political rights and social reform. As Gandhi fasted, the Poona Pact was reached allowing general voting rights, and not a separate franchise for untouchables.
Q: When did he embrace Buddhism? Ambedkar’s life was dedicated to reform in society. A: October 14,1956, coinciding with He championed a moral social order against the anniversary of Ashoka’s initiation exploitation of people. into Buddhism and the 2,500th Buddha Jayanti This egalitarian quest led him to explore various beliefs. He was impressed by Buddha’s teachings Q: When did he resign as law and viewed Buddhism as a means of bringing about minister? Why? social change based on individual practice and A: In 1951, due to the stalling of his service to society. draft of the Hindu Code Bill in Parliament He showed the way to his community by embracing Buddhism at Nagpur, Maharashtra, in 1956. He passed away in the same year. The world community has much to gain from understanding his life and his conviction to bring about a social revolution for the dispossessed. — The author earned his doctorate in anthropology at the University of California and is currently at the National Chengchi University, Taiwan. He is working on a film on Ambedkar.
C.V. RAMAN — PHYSICIST, 1888-1970
When the Republic Day Awards were instituted in 1954, C.V. Raman was bestowed with the Bharat Ratna, the very first to be given it, indicative of his standing among all the great personalities of the country of that time. His was already a household name by then.
When it was decided to observe a National Science Day, the date chosen was February 28, when the Raman Effect was discovered. Raman is the only scientist whose work, entirely carried out in India, got him the Nobel Prize in physics in 1930. I first met him in Jodhpur when my father had invited him for a meal. I was then studying for my B.Sc. (1944-46). For a person in the midteens, it was quite an experience to meet someone like him. He was exuberant and completely focused. He thumped the table and said, “the greatest thing for you to do in life would be to do science”. He insisted that I should go on to do research in physics—a subject I was good at. Anyone who came in contact with him would be infected by his ideas, his sense of excitement and enthusiasm. Many years later, in 1967, at the annual meeting of the Indian Academy of Sciences in Madras, just before his presidential address, Raman turned around and said, “Menon, Ramanna, you see this great hall packed with people who have all come to hear me. Can you fill this hall with such an audience?” He was proud of the fact that for a science lecture there could be such a large audience.
C.V. Raman But he also displayed humility when he spoke about others whom he admired, such as Newton, Einstein, Rutherford, Rayleigh and Boltzmann. He was in the line of these great classical scientists—a dwindling band. The richness of his life and discoveries, and his outstanding qualities covered the canvas of Indian science in dominating fashion for six decades. Raman was a self-made man; he was a precocious student, and did extremely well in his studies throughout. He had a flair for science and also an unusual appreciation of English literature. As a result, he was one of the most brilliant lecturers on science one could listen to. I recall the annual session of the Indian Academy of Sciences in Ahmedabad in 1968, to celebrate his 80th birthday, when he stood under a tree talking to a huge crowd of
children. There was no blackboard and, indeed, no one could have seen anything written from the distance where the children were sitting. There was only one microphone to reach out to the crowd. He looked up to the sky above and asked them, “why is the sky blue in colour?” He then spent the next hour expounding on that and held them all spellbound. Quick take Q: How did C.V.Raman begin his career? A: In the finance department as an assistant accountant general in Calcutta in 1906 He was fascinated by colour, form and geometry. Often, when giving lectures, he would look at the bright saris of the women in the audience, and remark on them in his inimitable jocular style.
His admiration for beauty and the understanding of the scientific essence comes out in what he said: “The beautiful silky hair which is the crowning ornament of a woman’s head owes its geometrical Q: His Nobel Prize win gave him character of a long continuous fibre to the structure which other distinction? of a certain type of protein molecule. The glory of A: It made him the first Asian to win human hair thus stands revealed as a special effort the Nobel for physics in protein chemistry made by nature.” Q: Which book influenced Raman Unbounded curiosity, singleminded devotion and the most? commitment, deep physical insight, supreme A: Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia selfconfidence and courage of his convictions were the hallmarks of his character. Q: What was unique about Raman’s stint at the Royal Society He appeared for a competitive examination when of London? he was 18 and got selected for the finance A: He is the only Indian who department. On his way to work by tram in resigned from its fellowship Calcutta, he saw a signboard which read: “Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science”. He Q: What is a lesser known field of started working in the laboratory of the institution Raman’s work? set up by Mahendra Lal Sircar in 1876. This A: He also worked on the acoustics resulted in work of very high quality in the fields of of musical instruments acoustics and optics. On an offer by Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee of the University of Calcutta, Raman left government service to become the first Palit professor of physics. In Calcutta, he collected a very large number of younger scientists who came to work with him. After retirement from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, he set up the Raman Research Institute, where he spent the last years of his life. Not only did he do great science himself but he also made others do great science. It is difficult to think of another who had so many qualities. — The author is a physicist and former Union minister of state for science and technology
DHIRUBHAI AMBANI — INDUSTRIALIST, 1932-2002
My association with Dhirubhai Ambani goes back to 1971-72. Those were tough days for anyone in business, and tougher for entrepreneurs. In all that I came across someone who not only thought beyond the immediate but even more rare for me, took on everything only to succeed. He was for me a continuous discovery. He was a lateral thinker. I remember during those days how Reliance, still a very small firm, had a funding of Rs 25 to 30 lakh. At a time when others would ship equipment, Dhirubhai would fly in his. Not only did this save the two-month-long wait that businesses faced but also cut down on long-term costs as well. His early success would in general situations mean a greater vulnerability but his firm continued to grow. On thinking back, perhaps there were times very early on, around 1973 when we were still young, and I would think of the impossibility of the future he imagined. But then the very next moment, I would be proved wrong. The Patalganga project, the first facility of Reliance that took off in the ’80s, was a testimony to his ability to achieve global scale and then as history shows, the Reliance refinery. True entrepreneurship is actually when people start from nothing at all. Everything starts from an aspiration and that’s where one saw the adrenaline rush Dhirubhai got every time he accomplished the impossible.
Dhirubhai Ambani He established the equity culture in the formative years of Indian business. From 1976, as he consolidated the company, he also convinced people that their investment would bring returns.
I watched amazed as people came forward in hordes and soon general meetings were being held at stadiums due to the sheer number of investors. He always delivered. That was the key to his success. His vision remained one of overreaching, both for himself and for his country. I remember how he would talk of getting the nation past the level of $500 per capita income. He envisioned a rapid pace for India. And his constant conjecture of “more to be done” resounded every time. Even now one can see his pioneering spirit in his ventures, his ideas and his concepts. Quick take Q: At what age did he move to Aden,Yemen? A: At 16 Q: Who was his partner when he started business in 1962? A: His cousin Champaklal Damani.The partnership ended in 1965. Q: Where did Reliance set up its first office? A: A350 sq ft room with a phone, a table and three chairs in Mumbai Q: Who did he name his textile brand Vimal after? A: Elder brother Ramaniklal’s son Vimal Q: When was Reliance’s maiden public offer launched? A: In 1977 Dhirubhai perhaps best epitomises India, in its transition and its growth. Always conscious of his roots and beginnings, he would aim at breaking every glass ceiling that was there. Surely, it takes people like him to build modern India. (as told to Bushra Ahmed) — The author is MD & CEO, ICICI Bank
DHYAN CHAND — HOCKEY PLAYER, 1905-1979
India’s glorious hockey journey—a medal in the Olympics from 1928 to 1980 except once in 1976, including eight gold—would not have started but for a friendship between two British colonels who were part of Gallipoli tragedy during the First World War. Their friendly gesture in 1926, an Indian Army hockey team’s first tour of New Zealand —also a maiden foreign visit by any Indian hockey team—dug a bonanza. Even as the hosts were amazed at the classic hockey being showcased in front of their eyes, the visitors also realised that they were indeed a world apart. One man who mesmerised the Kiwis and whose extraordinary skills spontaneously led the Indians think of taking part in the Olympics, was Dhyan Chand. In that epoch making motley group of 16 stick artistes, the 18-year-old “other rank” soldier from the Brahmin Regiment stood out. Not because he scored the most goals, but for the grace and ease with which he could do them. Each of the goals he scored was a hockey lesson in itself. At the next three Olympics between 1928 and 1936, in which India strode like a colossus, Dhyan Chand lived up to his reputation and the faith reposed by the Indian Hockey Federation—it never called him for selection trials. The defending champion England, after entering the 1928 Olympics, made a hasty retreat after seeing Dhyan Chand at the Folkstone Festival Hockey en route Amsterdam. It was a rare historical occurrence that a colonial country could keep out one as mighty as the British Empire from a particular sport for three Olympics. It is ironical that the same British, 80 years later, would defeat India in the Chile qualifier and thus ensure their tormenter’s first exit from Olympic hockey in 80 years. Jesse Owen’s exploits at the 1936 Berlin Olympics came in for a cornucopia of accolades, filling every Olympic historian’s work, as his feats were considered challenging, a worthy rebuff to the emerging Nazi tendencies.
Dhyan Chand What about Dhyan Chand? The ‘Non Aryan’ had not only scored 20 goals in the previous two Olympics, but a mind boggling number at Berlin too, including three in the final (Olympic records credit him with six out of eight goals that India scored in the final, but in his autobiography Goal he claims only three, and this honesty is his greatness) against Germany, pricking their ego in a big way. The global impact of Dhyan Chand needs a thorough multidimensional research. Equally interesting is how this ordinary Indian, who “could just read and write”—this is how he describes himself in Goal—wrote the destiny of global hockey, while also breaking the mental block of those who managed sports in his era. Only high-profile players were made the team leaders. Jaipal Singh, the 1928 Olympic captain, was not even in India, but was a student at Oxford University when he got this honour. His successor at the 1932 event, Lal Shah Bokhari, could hardly match the calibre of other players in the team which included brothers Roop Singh and Dhyan Chand and a half dozen others in their second Olympics. But the greenhorn, who would later become Pakistan’s High Commissioner in Ceylon, got the nod. That neither Jaipal nor Bokhari played their second Olympics is the case in point. Therefore, when he was made the captain for the Berlin Olympics, Dhyan Chand considered it a greater moment in his life than when he was selected for the first Olympics. Dhyan Chand’s legacy is not just confined to the pre-Independence era. It continued. After the “World’s Biggest Divorce”, to quote from Freedom Q: Where can one find a statue of at Midnight, when even furniture in government Dhyan Chand with four hands and offices was counted and allocated between the four sticks to signify wizardry? divorcees during the Partition, strong claims were A: At a sports club in Vienna made to declare India’s three Olympic golds neutral, like British India or Undivided India. They Q: His real name was Dhyan Singh. had a strong case. Where did he pick up Chand? A: His coach Pankaj Gupta named The 1936 Berlin Olympic Indian team of 18, for him Chand predicting that he would instance, had eight Anglo Indians, four Muslims one day shine like the chand or moon and two Hindus from Pakistan. But free India won that psychological war as all of those 14 souls Q: How is his birthday,August 29, dwarfed against the towering dinosaur, Dhyan celebrated in India? Chand. A: As National Sports Day Quick take Q: What other sport did he love? A: Billiards Q: After watching him play, who told him,“You score goals like runs in cricket”? A: Sir Donald Bradman And this man, oblivious of his significance, claims in Goal: “I realise that I am not a very important
man, good enough to write an autobiography.” Will such a soul ever cease to radiate or fail to illuminate Indian nationhood? — The author is an expert on Indian hockey and editor of www.stick2hockey.com
E.M.S. NAMBOODIRIPAD — COMMUNIST LEADER, 1909-1998
Despite world wars, fascism, genocides and predatory capitalism, 20th century’s defining hallmark was the spirit of freedom and the triumph of democracy. Communism also was proved unsustainable if it refused to recognise the significance of individual freedom, democracy and dissent. Perhaps the Indian communists’ greatest contribution in the last century was the lesson they provided on functioning within a democratic system even as they maintained its Marxist-Leninist core. Much before the world’s communist parties began their problematic engagement with democracy, the Communist Party of India (CPI) had begun this tryst, right after Independence. In many ways, Elamkulam Manakkal Sankaran Namboodiripad personifies Indian communism’s tryst with democracy. In 1957 he created history by becoming India’s first communist chief minister heading the world’s first democratically-elected Marxist government in Kerala. It is a testimony to his commitment to democracy that he never got carried away by the euphoria over its formation. As chief minister, his first proclamation was that his government would not attempt to bring about socialism. Instead it would try to mitigate the miseries faced by common people. Even during those days EMS showed boldness in inviting private entrepreneurs to invest in the state.
E.M.S. Namboodiripad Born and brought up in an orthodox Brahmin family, EMS’s baptism in public life was by fighting the regressive ways of his own community.
After a boyhood spent among scriptures, he chose to walk to the other end. The scion of a rich feudal family, he took the lead in ending landlordism. In the Congress, he fought against the dominant ideologies to give birth to the Communist party; within the Communist party he kept democracy alive and waged an unrelenting struggle against its Right and Left forces. His first ministry’s greatest achievement was in universal literacy, gender justice, public health and comprehensive land reforms which revolutionised Q: Which movement did he launch the society in Kerala and tore up its feudal fabric. after Independence? A: The Aikya Kerala or United A true Renaissance man, EMS not only rewrote the Kerala state’s political and social equations but his positions have also remained reference points on Q: He was defeated only once in subjects like the arts, culture, literature and general elections.When? philosophy. A: In 1952 by K.P. Kuttikrishnan Nair EMS could be credited with being one of the architects of CPI(M)’s independent line which Q: He was the editor of which militated against both the Right and Left forces that publication? pulled the party. A: The Left newspaper, Deshabhimani CPI’s illusions vanished with the onset of Emergency when its ally, the Congress, shed its Q: What was he affectionately democratic facade and revealed its dictatorial called at home? fangs. A: Kunju, the little one Quick take Q: Which novel did he criticise for its ‘deviant’ sexuality? A: The God of Small Things On the other side, the Naxalite movement fizzled out as its bankrupt and militant politics were exposed where ever the CPI (M) was dominant.
EMS’s tenure as the party general secretary from 1978 to the late ’80s witnessed the party weathering its worst crisis when it was subjected to persecution by both the Right and the Left within the country and assault from the Soviet Union and China internationally. In the late ’80s, poor health and advancing age made EMS return to Kerala for a wellearned rest and recuperation. But instead he set himself another busy agenda. Through his writings, he gave a clarion call to Keralites to rise above their differences over caste, religion and politics. His final days were devoted to the People’s Planning Programme, India’s most comprehensive decentralisation programme. One of the legitimate criticisms against EMS was his reluctance to theorise innovative experiments which formulated Indian Communist practice.
Though a prolific writer, whose collected works are to come out in 150 volumes, he is often accused of sticking to positions dubbed dogmatic. But then, hasn’t the absence of theory been more than compensated by his praxis? — The writer is a CPI(M) ideologue and a former editor of Deshabhimani
HOMI BHABHA — SCIENTIST, 1909–1966
Homi Jehangir Bhabha, the architect of India’s nuclear power programme, went to England to pursue an engineering degree. But his first love was basic research in science. He once said, “No country which wishes to play a leading role in the world can afford to neglect pure or long-term research.” As a first step in his mission to make India a nuclear power, he set up the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR)—a centre of excellence in basic science, in 1945. He went on to create the atomic energy programme of India in 1948. Thanks to him, India had the privilege of designing and constructing a research reactor almost 50 years ago. Besides the atomic energy programme, he was also instrumental in initiating and nurturing India’s space programme in the formative years. Bhabha could achieve his dream of India becoming a nuclear power as he had strong support and single-point clearance from the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He also acknowledged this fact: “Provided proper appreciation and financial support are forthcoming, it is one’s duty to stay in one’s own country and build schools comparable with those that other countries are fortunate in possessing.”
Homi Bhabha When a reporter once asked Bhabha about his marriage, he said, “I am married to creativity”. It was his style to create institutions of excellence around accomplished individuals.
In a fitting tribute, the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay, was named Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) after him. He was a multifaceted personality, as fluent with complex mathematics as he was with the nuances of western music. He was an artist and architect. He took a keen interest in the construction of laboratories and buildings which came up at BARC so that they appeared aesthetically appealing. Quick take Q: Which British university did Bhabha do his mechanical engineering from? A: Cambridge University His paintings are on display at the TIFR and BARC campuses. Cruel fate snatched this illustrious son of our country at a critical phase of our atomic energy programme in a plane crash in 1966. He was a great patriot and always proud to be an Indian.
Q: In January 1966, he died in a — The author is the director of BARC plane crash near Mont Blanc, while heading to Vienna. What was the name of the aircraft in which he was travelling? A: Kanchenjunga, Air India Boeing 707 Q: Under which Nobel laureate did Bhabha work first when he came back to India in 1939? A: Sir C.V. Raman Q: Bhabha recognised heavy electron particles in cosmic rays. What did he call them? A: Meson Q: Which prestigious UN conference did he preside over? A: The first UN conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, held in Geneva in 1955
INDIRA GANDHI — FORMER PRIME MINISTER, 1917-1984
In many ways, she was and she was not. She was perhaps the most populist prime minister we have had so far, who expanded the role of the government in public life and ruled through a mixture of populist anti-poverty and anti-West rhetoric and a certain strategic alliance, internally, with the Indian Left and, externally, with the Soviet Union.
She took to an extreme what were once the Leftist and anti-imperialist tenets in Nehru’s policies. But it is significant that once she was gone, India—even under her son Rajiv—changed course quite radically and started opening up to the West. The broad consensus about liberalising and globalising the Indian economy that has underlain both BJP and Congress-led coalitions in Delhi in the last decade or so, marks, if anything, a complete departure from Indira Gandhi’s policies and worldview. She was not the middle ground, as it were, between Nehru’s “socialistic” and today’s “globalised” India. If anything, she belonged to a period that did not act as a corridor connecting the present to the past and the future. It was a period that stood at an angle to both what came before and after. Indira was, globally speaking, a part of the last phase of the Cold War, when that war was at its ‘coldest’, representing two sides of a sharply-drawn but frozen border with little or no room for any middle ground in global politics, such as the one that the Non-Aligned Movement of the 1950s once signified.
Indira Gandhi But it is not that nothing of the house that Indira built survives today. The dynastic element is still very much there in our politics. The kind of corruption that was enabled by the larger intrusion of the state into the economy—bank nationalisation, for example—only seems to have increased under later dispensations. The small-savings and taxavoidance schemes that Indira introduced to stabilise and subsidise the lives of the middle classes—and thus co-opt them into the ruling compact— appear to have become an enduring feature of the political-economic scene that politicians can ignore only at their own peril. CPI(M) and CPI in Delhi still exist and operate as a rump of the past, their elites dreaming of returning to Indira’s days (while the CPI(M) units in the states appear to be reciting globalisation mantras).
Quick take Q: When did Indira Gandhi make her foray into politics? A: At 12, with the Monkey Brigade Q: For how long was she in jail during the Quit India Movement? A: 243 days Q: Who was her role model while growing up? A: Joan of Arc
On some other fronts too, her legacies, both good and bad, continue to be influential. The Congress as a party has never recovered from the blow it received from her. Her tendency to concentrate power in her own hands within the party and to mow down all regional bosses surely helped to produce a Congress party bereft of any federal or democratic process or spirit infusing its organisational machinery.
But the very creation and functioning of Bangladesh remains a testimony to the leadership she provided the region at a time of serious Q: What did she smuggle out of her political crisis. house when young? A: Plan for a revolutionary initiative Her capacity to stand up to the Americans, her backing of the Green Revolution (though not an Q: What was her first portfolio in unproblematic achievement), and her emphasis on government? sovereignty in space, military, and scientific A: I&B Ministry in 1964 research have definitely stood the country in good stead. She was, as many have said, deeply contradictory in her personality and faith. The Emergency itself brought out some of these contradictions. She will no doubt be remembered and resented for imposing the only Emergency and suspension of democratic rights that Indians have suffered since Independence. But her voluntary decision to end the Emergency and face the electorate (and be defeated) in 1977 completely confounded and proved wrong all those experts who had proclaimed the Emergency to be the final burial of a democracy that they had long judged ‘dead’. There was no doubting her deep sense of patriotism or her commitment to the nation as a whole. It is, after all, a profoundly moving fact that, even after she had been advised of the risks involved, she refused to bar Sikhs from employment in her personal security staff (unless there was concrete evidence against them) on the ground that she was their prime minister too. That she died of this risk that she knowingly took speaks volumes of the heroic courage and commitments of this complex but remarkable person. — The author is professor of History and South Asian Studies at University of Chicago, USA
J.C. BOSE — PHYSICIST, 1858-1937
Jagadish Chandra Bose was one of the greatest pioneers of modern science in preIndependent India. The controversy that arose in 1998, more than 60 years after his death, shows vividly the glory of Indian science in his time. A newspaper carried the headline ‘Bose invented Marconi’s wireless’. The story was based on a report that the detecting device, called coherer, an instrument invented by Bose two years earlier, was used by Guglielmo Marconi to develop the wireless radio in 1902. Bose believed in the free exchange of scientific knowledge and in sharing it with fellow scientists. In 1901, he wrote to his friend Rabindranath Tagore: “The proprietor of a reputed telegraph company came with a patent form in hand. He proposed to take half of the profit and finance the business in return. This multi-millionaire came to me begging. My friend, I wish you could see that terrible attachment for gain in this country, that all engaging lucre, that lust for money. Once caught in that trap there would have been no way out for me.”
J.C. Bose Bose was the first to use a semiconductor junction to detect radio waves. He invented various, now commonplace, microwave components. Nobel laureate Sir Neville Mott said, “Bose was 60 years ahead of his time. In fact, he had anticipated the existence of P-type and N-type semi-conductor.” After 1900, Bose began pursuing another long-time interest—animal and plant physiology. He believed that by focusing on the boundaries between physical and biological sciences, he would be able to demonstrate the underlying unity of all things. In 1917, he founded the Bose Research Institute in Calcutta, which was India’s first scientific research institute.
Quick take Q: Bose wrote stories too. Which was his first? A: Polatok Tufan in Obbakto
A knighthood was conferred on him the same year and in 1920, he became the first Indian scientist to be elected to Great Britain’s prestigious Royal Society. A pioneer, Bose’s legacy is truly inspirational for Indian science.
Q: What is his most famous first? A: Acquiring a patent for the detector — The author is former director-general of the of electrical disturbances Council of Scientific & Industrial Research Q: How did he fight racism at Presidency College? A: Worked without pay for three years till he was made permanent
JAYAPRAKASH NARAYAN — POLITICAL ACTIVIST, 19021979
Times come and go, with people leaving their footprints on history. But Jayaprakash Narayan’s life was a history of his times. He had such an impact on people that I still remember him vividly after all these years. He was the greatest orator I have ever seen. Wherever he went, there would be thousands of people waiting to listen to him. Yet that was only one side of him. The other was of a quiet man who would devour books on Marxism, and for whom freedom was to later become a call for sampoorna kranti. JP, as he was popularly known, was a product of the varied experiences he had in life. He was born in Lalatoli, a small village in Bihar, and his father worked in the state’s irrigation department. From small town Bihar, it was a whole world of discovery when he went to the US for higher studies. While in college, he worked in a packaging company to finance his studies. That is where his tryst with Marxism began, through books written by M.N. Roy. On his return, he met Mahatma Gandhi who became his mentor. He was part of the Congress for a long time but later felt his ideology was completely different. It was then that JP, along with his friends Yusuf Desai and Ram Manohar Lohia, formed the Congress Socialist Party within the Congress. It was indeed surprising that JP being a defender of radical Marxism was influenced by Gandhi’s non-violence.
Jayaprakash Narayan I remember an episode in JP’s life which shows his great spirit. It was in 1942, when he was imprisoned in Hazaribagh and all his other associates were also in jail. JP was worried about the movement and wanted to participate in the call for freedom. He devised an escape plan which is one of the most audacious I have ever heard. Along with his friends Yogendra Shukla, Ram Nandan Mishra and Gulali Sonar, he planned to stage a play during lunch time, to distract the jailor’s attention. The whole of that day JP pretended to be ill. As the play commenced, he along with his comrades made a run for it, succeeding in jumping over the fence. There are accounts of how JP was much more sheltered than his friends perhaps because of his years spent abroad. Tales abound of shoes and clothes being especially arranged so that he Quick take could survive the harsh outdoors. It is said that during his escape from the prison he had hurt his Q: When did JP’s brush with foot and his friend Shukla carried him on his back Marxism begin? A: While studying at the University through the rest of the journey. They escaped unscathed in the end, and for us, the tale embodies of Wisconsin-Madison under his uncommon courage. sociologist Edward A.Ross Q: Which organisations did he establish? A: Citizens for Democracy in 1974 and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in 1976 JP’s involvement in the political scene later became more pronounced. The call of Congress chhodo (quit) resounded, leading to the formation of the Socialist Party. The party broke away from the Congress and stood in opposition. JP was known for his organisational skills.
Q: When did he call for sampoorna He was someone who could get his views across to kranti (total revolution)? the crowd as no one else could. I remember people A: In 1975, at a students’ rally in screaming “Jayaprakash” in unison when he faced Patna congregations. Q: His death was erroneously announced by the then PM in March 1979. When did JP pass away? A: October 8, 1979 Q: Which university has been set up in his memory? A: JP University,Chhapra, Bihar
By 1974, there was immense political tension. The Congress secured a landslide victory in 1971 but by then the sheen had worn off and the chinks were beginning to show. The mass discontent coupled with the Allahabad High Court verdict against Indira Gandhi consolidated the whole energy into one mass movement. And there could be no greater testimony to JP’s appeal than the student protests that broke out across Bihar in 1974. The reasons were close to his heart: corruption, unemployment and inhumanity. One particular protest remains etched in my mind: JP leading hordes of students on a silent march through the streets, with everyone’s mouths covered and their hands tied behind their backs. It was a protest that left a deep impact on everyone. From then, the sobriquet Lok Nayak sat comfortably on him. I was in college at that time. It was a charged atmosphere. I met him at a dharna. A couple of us were introduced to him. It was perhaps one of the greatest moments of my life when he looked at me and said, “I have heard a lot about you.” The next time I met him was during the Emergency when he was practically on the run. He smiled and said, “Everyone’s in, how come you are left out?” I felt the power of his political beliefs then. JP for everyone was an icon. He swam against the tide and did whatever he believed in. It is that which continues to inspire thousands of Indians now. He lived for his beliefs and did not mind dying for them. For him losing freedom was tolerable if the nation breathed free. (as told to Bushra Ahmed) — The author is the Union minister for rural development
J.R.D. TATA — INDUSTRIALIST, 1904-1993
J.R.D. Tata’s life spanned almost the entire 20th century. He was born soon after the Wright Brothers made their first flight, and lived to see Manmohan Singh introduce liberalisation in 1991. In 1932, when aviation was a rich man’s toy, he launched Tata Airlines. A hundred days later, speaking at the Rotary Club, he said that a day would come when one would not think of travelling by any other means than air. We are just witnessing the boom in aviation he foresaw 75 years ago. When the Nazis were inflicting atrocities on the world, he was thinking about how to take India forward after the war. He called together top industrialists like G.D. Birla, Kasturbhai Lalbhai and others which resulted in the Bombay Plan. In 1945, he started TELCO, originally for engineering and locomotives. It was his vision to set up a great engineering company for India. With the launch of a Rs 1-lakh people’s
car Nano by his successor as chairman of Tata Sons, Ratan Tata, in January, the world has woken up to the real potential of the company he started. In 1948, he started Air India International, the first Asian airline to fly to the West. He proposed that the Union government partner with the Tatas. And they did. His dream was that private enterprise and public enterprise would be the two wheels that would take India forward. Alas, soon the virus of state capitalism had entered into Nehru’s thinking and Air India International was the first and last venture of its kind.
J.R.D. Tata Thereafter, Nehru and his daughter, Indira, respected JRD for his competence at aviation and valued him as a friend but due to differences in ideology, Nehru never consulted him on Indian economy and industrialisation. When I said to him that Nehru’s death was the end of an era for India, JRD replied, “And for me too. I was very fond of him.” I n the licencepermit raj, the Tatas would not manipulate and though they grew, their growth was not as spectacular as that of newer groups. In 1979, when I asked him about it he said, “I have often thought of it. Had we adopted some of the means that others did, we would have been twice as big as we are today. But we wouldn’t want it any other way.” On the management side he was proud that he had dealt with a hundred directors in his lifetime making allowances for their idiosyncrasies to get the best out of them. He said: “To lead men you have to lead them with affection.” A year after he died, I told Ratan: “I don’t miss him as my chairman but I do miss his affection.” Ratan replied: “So do I.” Few realise that when Homi Bhabha was stranded in India as the Second World War broke out, JRD had a special Department of Cosmic Energy started in Bangalore at the
Indian Institute of Science so that Bhabha could continue his work which he did at Cambridge. Quick take Q: What did his aircraft licence number read? A: Number 1. His first journey was from India to England in 1930 Q: Which army was he drafted into? A: The French Army Four years later, he had the vision to support Bhabha’s plan for a Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, which became, as Bhabha said, the cradle of India’s atomic energy programme. Twenty months before he passed away, he was awarded the Bharat Ratna. In response to a felicitation in March 1992, he said: “An American economist says that in the next century, India will be an economic superpower. I don’t want India to be an economic superpower. I want India to be a happy country.”
Q: Born and brought up in France, in which year did he join Tata — The author is a veteran journalist and has Sons? written Beyond the Last Blue Mountain: A Life of A: He joined Tata Sons as an unpaid J.R.D. Tata apprentice in 1925 Q: What did he make sure to do when at home? A: Always answer the phone himself Q: Which firsts did he introduce at Tata Steel? A: He introduced the eight-hour day,paid leave and provident fund
A.P.J. ABDUL KALAM — FORMER PRESIDENT, 1931
Born on Rameswaram island in a Tamil-Muslim family, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has covered a great distance to become the 11th President of the Indian Republic. He left the security of his family at the age of 10 as there was no high school on the island. He stopped eating non-vegetarian food at the age of 15 when he found the school mess bill unaffordable. He studied B.Sc. as there was no one to guide him on how to get in to engineering after his intermediate examination.
He became an aeronautical engineer in the pursuit of his passion of flying an aircraft. Rejected by the Indian Air Force for a pilot’s job, he continued to remain close to flying machines in the defence aeronautical establishment. Till this point, his life had been like that of any other small-town-lowermiddle class Indian youth. The first turning point came when the National Committee for Space Research (INSCOPAR) was formed in the early ’60s and a talent pool of good aeronautical engineers was created to set up what later became the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Kalam got an exposure to a purposeful life when he was sent to the US for a short training programme and was blessed with great teachers: Vikram Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan. He was chosen to lead the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) project amongst many more distinguished peers.
A.P.J. Abdul Kalam A decade of hard work saw India moving into successful space research with the launch of SLV-3 in 1980. This experience shaped him into a formidable leader. He was decorated with the Padma Bhushan in 1981 and was given the task of developing indigenous missile capabilities. The ’80s witnessed massive recruitment of hundreds of young engineers from campuses, grooming them into missile scientists. Academic institutes and private industry became partners in defence projects. He was decorated in 1990 with the Padma Vibhushan and rose to become the chief of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in 1992. He then dreamt of civilian spin-offs of defence technology to benefit the common man with huge public investments and articulated the vision of a developed India by 2020—of a nation that is one of the best places to live in, through creative and effective leadership in Parliament, assemblies and other institutions of the state.
Quick take Q: Which is the work Kalam most likes to quote from? A: Thirukkural, authored by Thiruvalluvar
Kalam was responsible for freeing the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project from the indecision of choosing technology partners. He received the Bharat Ratna in 1997. He oversaw the nuclear tests and was later appointed principal scientific advisor to the government with a cabinet rank.
Q: Who was Kalam’s mentor? A: Vikram Sarabhai, who told him to He retired on his 71st birthday and went to the always reach for the stars Anna University to teach technology and societal transformation. Q: Which musical instrument does he play? Till this point his life had been an example of the A: He is an ardent music lover and success of a hard working, upright scientific leader plays the veena and administrator. Q: Which missiles did Kalam help develop? A: Nag,Prithvi,Akash, Trishul and Agni The second turning point in his life came in 2002 when he was approached by the ruling NDA Government to be its presidential candidate.
For whatever reason the offer was made, it took the nation by storm and public jubilation marked his ascent to the highest office in the country. He used his years in the Rashtrapati Bhavan to travel extensively and connect with children who he saw as the citizens of a developed India. Kalam’s autobiography Wings of Fire became an all-time bestseller and found its place in school books and university curriculum. He remains simple, a teetotaller, vegetarian and celibate without any personal property or possessions. In him, 600 million youth of India see inspiration as well as aspiration. His recent book You are Born to Blossom says just that. And he remains humble to the core. At a book launch by a top BJP leader in Delhi, the former President was caught in a traffic snarl near the venue. He got out of his car and walked to the event accompanied by his security staff. Kalam imbibes the simplicity of Mahatma Gandhi in his personal life and considers Caliph Omar as a model ruler. He still remains unaffected and unstained by the temptations and privileges that the world has offered him. He was, and remains, a traveller of life. — The writer co-authored Wings of Fire with Kalam
LATA MANGESHKAR — SINGER, 1929
Every music composer always has something specific in mind while devising a tune and wants the singer to deliver accordingly. The mark of a perfect singer is when he or she understands this intuitively. Lata Mangeshkar is one such singer—a composer’s dream. Whenever I hear her sing I always feel that the Almighty has especially bestowed her with a magical voice. I remember the film that made people sit up and take notice of her. It was Bombay Talkies’ Majboor in 1948. The music director was Master Ghulam Haider and the two songs that he made a very young Lata sing were Piya milne ko aa and Dil mera toda. She had sung some Marathi and Hindi songs before that but they had gone largely unnoticed. But when the great maestro Haider chose her, everybody got curious. I was one of them. One day I asked him what he thought the future held for this new singer. He said with her undoubted talent, assignments would come her way but she would have to remain level headed if she wanted to excel. That is exactly how she remained—humble. It was another film by another great that brought out the magical quality inherent in her voice. The film was Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal and the song was the immortal Aayega aanewala. Real life almost imitated reel life after this film. Just as Ashok Kumar was drawn to Madhubala’s mesmerising voice in the film, the audience became enchanted by Lata’s rendition. After the film’s stupendous success she became the voice of Madhubala.
Lata Mangeshkar Soon every actor wanted her voice. But she was always busy and only a few fortunate music directors got the chance to make her sing. I approached her many times but she remained unavailable due to prior appointments.
I finally got to work with her in Nargis Arts’ Pyaar Ki Baatein in 1951, in which she sung two songs. But it was with Amrohi’s 12-years-in-the-making Razia Sultan that our pairing became successful. The first song we recorded for the film was Ae dil-e-nadaan and such was the magic of her voice that even before the film was released, the entire industry was talking about it. Once, quite late in the night, Jaya Bachchan and actor Shammi came to my house because Amitabh had been pestering the two to get him the song. Soon after this incident, Yash Chopra asked me to compose the music for Kabhi Kabhie. Till Kabhi Kabhie the films I had given music for had become hits and I had got recognition but this one was the first golden jubilee of my career. I recall asking Lata to pray for the film to be a success. In her trademark voice she told me my prayers would be answered—and indeed they were. Every music director, however big or small, is the same for her. She rehearses for every song with equal dedication. Even when she is extremely happy with a tune she never overtly expresses her joy. Whenever she really likes a song, she breaks into a slight smile and starts blushing. These two are the only indicators of her really liking a tune. She never says anything; it’s her eyes that light up. Quick take Q: What was she named at birth? A: Hema. Her parents later renamed her Lata after a female character Latika in one of her father’s plays, Bhaawbandhan Q: When did she set out to get her Urdu accent right? A: When Dilip Kumar remarked on her “very Maharashtrian”accent, she took lessons in Urdu from a maulvi Q: What is said to be the secret of her sweet voice? A: Chillies Q: Who are her famous musical siblings? A: Hridayanath, Asha, Usha and Meena Q: Where was she born? A: Sikh mohalla, Indore I have had the good fortune to work with a living legend— someone who is not only renowned in India but whose fame has now spread to the entire world. Till the time she can, Lata should sing. (as told to Jhilmil Motihar) — The author worked with Mangeshkar on films like Razia Sultan and Kabhi Kabhie
RAM MANOHAR LOHIA — FREEDOM FIGHTER, 1910-1967
"The skill of a great leader”, wrote Ram Manohar Lohia, “lies in narrowing the numbers of those whom he angers and the duration of their anger. But anger them he must (and) risk his popularity with them…Mahatma Gandhi (did this). He had a calf, the child of the sacred cow, injected to death in a certain situation. He had a monkey shot, he took Harijans to temples, he refused to attend weddings unless they were inter-caste, he sanctioned divorce, he had the large sum of Rs 55 crore and more given to Pakistan at a time when Hindus held that treasonable, he acted and not spoke alone against property. In brief, he hardly ever missed doing anything that brought new life to the nation even if it brought calumny and danger to him. In this passage (from his 1958 essay, Caste), Lohia captured a little of the secret to the Gandhi magic, showing the chasm that separates the pristine from the merely pious. It was also a lesson Lohia took to heart —as his own incessant political and personal risktaking would indicate; I read somewhere that he was imprisoned 20 times in his life of 57 years. Unlike with most other leaders of the freedom struggle, August 15, 1947, did not signal for Lohia (as it didn’t for his comrade, Jayaprakash Narayan) an emeritus status from which to write lofty articles for Delhi papers evoking the grand old days of struggle. Instead it meant continuing the fight for the poor, the dispossessed, the caste-victims, women and others society had spurned or trod upon. No surprise, then, that 12 of those 20 prison terms were in free India. One of the best read (and travelled) politicians of any time, “Dr” Lohia (the degree was real, a Ph.D in economics from Berlin, awarded when he was 23 for a thesis written in German—he refused to consider studying in Britain) could hold forth with equal fervour (or virulence, to his detractors) on caste, race, religion, politics, economics, constitution, law, music, art, literature.
Ram Manohar Lohia He kept open house at his home on Rakabganj Road in Delhi and anyone could walk in and strike up a conversation. My dad was an infrequent caller, but would come back each time enchanted by Lohia’s brilliant formulations. He could speak Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, French, German and—despite all his opposition to the language as the whip-hand that held the Indian people down—delectable English. To read his writings is to marvel at the sweep of his intellect. Quite properly, one of his books is called Fragments of a World Mind. Every piece of information was fodder for his theses: the originality of his analysis of the Olympics medal tally could put Hercule Poirot’s deductions in Cards on the Table to shame. He wrote to the minister of jails, Uttar Pradesh (a former freedom movement colleague), from his jail cell in 1957, “…In our country animals are butchered mercilessly. I was shocked to hear that portions of live tortoises are sold in the Calcutta market. Limb after limb is severed and sold, and the poor creature is all the time writhing in agony…the current Indian mind has become wantonly cruel. If animals are the recipients of such beastly torture, men like me cannot escape at least a part of it.” What would Lohia have thought of today’s India? Well, here’s what he wrote: “Inequality between little and big men is there in all the world, but in India this difference is killing. In white countries, whether communist or capitalist, differences in income are two, five or seven times. In India this difference is generally fifty hundred or three hundred times. As a result, there is no food or clothing on one hand and there is always increasing play of modernism and luxury on the other.”
Quick take Q: What was the subject of his Ph.d thesis at the Berlin University? A: Salt Satyagraha, focusing on Gandhi’s socio-economic theory Q: Which political party did he form? A: Congress Socialist Party Q: Who was his long-time friend and comrade during and after the freedom struggle? A: Jayaprakash Narayan Q: What was his first contribution to the freedom struggle? A: Organising a protest on the death of Lokmanya Tilak Q: Which Delhi hospital was named after him? A: Willingdon Hospital
It was Lohia who raised the 3-anna/15-anna controversy in his maiden speech in Parliament, and wrote the pamphlet 25,000 Rupees a Day, a commentary on the prime minister’s security budget, in a poor country. Like Gandhi, Lohia had a sense of outrage and shame. It was Gandhi who wrote: “The poor sisters of Orissa have no saris; they are in rags. Yet they have not lost all sense of decency; but, I assure you, we have. We are naked in spite of our clothing and they are clothed in spite of their nakedness.” If Lohia was alive today, one can only guess what he would have said, but I’m pretty sure I know where he would (want to) be—in jail. — The author, whose father was Lohia’s colleague in the Congress Socialist Party, is working on a website, drlohia.com, to mark Lohia’s birth centenary
M.S. SUBBULAKSHMI — SINGER, 1916-2004
In 1947, Mahatma Gandhi famously said he would rather listen to M.S. Subbulakshmi recite the Meera bhajan Hari thum haro, than hear it sung by anyone else. Today, we might wonder at the profundity of that wish as Gandhi was no great connoisseur of music. What we do know is that he was a very devout man. He said of Subbulakshmi’s music: “Her voice is exceedingly sweet. She loses herself in the bhajan. During prayer one must lose oneself to God. To sing a bhajan is one thing; to sing it by losing oneself to God is quite different.” That encapsulates the essence of her music. Subbulakshmi’s life began modestly in the Tamil temple town of Madurai in 1916. Her mother Veena Shanmukavadivu was a musician and mentored her in her early life.
Subbulakshmi followed a predestined path as a child artiste, in keeping with the tradition of her family. The world of music sat up to hear her voice when the 16-year-old stormed the male bastion of the Music Academy in Madras, proving her musical credentials in the midst of the stalwarts of the day. Cinema propelled her to new heights, for her gorgeous voice was now paired with her exquisite features. After her second film came her marriage to T. Sadasivam, a journalist and music buff. The singer had found a mentor she trusted and whose opinion she valued. He was a worldly man who had significant contacts around the country and helped chart the course of her career. Acting as princess-turned-saint Meera in a film produced by him, Subbulakshmi established herself as an icon of both popular and genteel culture. Thereafter, she did not act in films, but concentrated on her music and reached out to a pan-Indian audience. Helped by senior statesman C. Rajagopalachari, Subbulakshmi and Sadasivam were at the centre of a cultural renaissance in the country. She sang widely for charity, and won the hearts of grateful admirers. Among them was Jawaharlal Nehru who remarked at a fund-raising concert by Subbulakshmi, “Who am I, but a mere prime minister, to speak in the presence of the queen of music?” She mastered the songs of great composers, made them her own, and took the level of music appreciation to new heights. From the Padma Bhushan in 1954 to the Bharat Ratna in 1998, there were very few awards that were not bestowed on Subbulakshmi.
M.S. Subbulakshmi She was the first woman to be honoured with the title Sangita Kalanidhi, considered the Nobel of Carnatic music, by the Music Academy in 1968.
For taking the spiritual message of music to the masses, she received international recognition and was presented with the Ramon Magsaysay award in 1974. Subbulakshmi’s most unique contribution is her series of recordings of purely spiritual verses and chants. Her recordings of the Venkatesa Suprabhatam, Bhajagovindam of saint Adi Sankara, and Vishnu Sahasranamam were inspirational, mirroring the intensely personal aspirations of a vast multitude. Today, they continue to resonate in temples and homes, giving her voice a permanent place in the lives of ordinary people. I grew up listening to her gramophone records and attending her concerts in Mylapore in Chennai. The affection she felt for my mother was reflected in her attitude towards me. It was a life-long bond, strengthened by the unspoken word. She had style and was always elegantly attired in hand-woven silk sarees with jasmine flowers adorning her hair and diamond nose-rings that matched the glint in her eyes. She epitomised the traditional Indian woman but her modesty veiled a determination to excel in her chosen art. Her life was her music. She knew it and touched the hearts of many with the magic of her unique voice. I was fortunate to have been embraced by the love of such a great personality. That delicate touch sweetened by just a knowing smile that spoke Q: When did Subbulakshmi release volumes characterised Subbulakshmi’s display of her first musical album? personal affection for me. A: At the age of 10 Quick take Q: Who trained her in Hindustani classical music? A: Pandit Narayan Rao Vyas Q: What did her fellow musicians know her as? A: Kunjakka, little sister Q: Which film did she act in to raise funds for a publishing venture? A: Savitri (1941) directed by Y.V.Rao Q: How many copies does her album Venkatesa Suprabhatam sell annually? A: Two lakh
M.S. SWAMINATHAN — SCIENTIST, 1925
The memory of those encounters will linger forever, as it, perhaps, will for the many others who have experienced it. — The author has written Subbulakshmi’s biography Kunjamma: Ode to a Nightingale
He has his roots in the idyllic island village of Monkombu in the Kuttanad rice bowl of Kerala. But his distinction is his pioneering contribution as a plant geneticist mixing Mexican seeds with home grown varieties in Punjab in 1966 to develop high yield cross-bred wheat seeds—not rice—for bountiful harvests. In an era when cereals were in short supply, necessitating huge imports, Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan broke free of the shackles of a conventional agricultural scientist who is laboratorybound except for occasional visits to demonstration plots. After the initial success with wheat, he did not rest on his laurels. His concerns widened to find out how farm researchers could cope with the emerging challenges to increase productivity, improve the soil and moisture conditions, protect crops from pests, provide better nutrients and, most importantly, motivate those working in different institutes to deliver. Swamy, as contemporaries in the world of science call him, used his powers of persuasion to make agricultural research a romantic experience, attracting young minds to agricultural universities across the country. To him, the gains in the laboratory have to be transferred into grains on the ground. His work at the International Rice Research Institute in Manila, Philippines, triggered a similar revolution in rice cultivation. It impressed Indira Gandhi enough to induct him into the Planning Commission.
M.S. Swaminathan It is not just seeds but all other inputs used by farmer that are superior to those used 50 years ago. Now he is working for greater food security that is threatened by climate change and loss of bio-diversity.
Swaminathan credits both his father and Mahatma Gandhi—whom he met in his childhood during India’s Independence struggle—with inspiring him toward a life of public service. “Inspiration for a scientist like me comes from the realisation that my knowledge or my life can change the lives of many people,” is how he describes the innate drive. Quick take Q: He is the first citizen of a developing country to hold which post? A: The presidency of the Pugwash Conferences Q: How many honorary doctorates does he have? A: 46,from universities across the world Q: When was he nominated to the Rajya Sabha? A: In 2007 at the age of 82
MAHATMA GANDHI — FREEDOM FIGHTER, 1869-1948
“Agriculture is an achievement of really hardworking men and women, toiling in the sun and rain, to produce food for us. As scientists, we can only help them,” he explains, as modest as always.
Dearest Dada, First, a piece of news : you have made it to India’s top 60. And, then, a lark: I have been asked to present you in 700 words. I might explain heat in 70 words, or light in seven. Can the crisp writer in you please e-mail me that piece on yourself? You have, I am sure, a laptop wherever you are, to keep in touch with people humming like you did with your charkha. You did not waste cotton when spinning, you will write thriftily. Only you could have summed up the Indian elite’s ignorance of the poor in 16 words of one syllable each: “Those in whose name we speak we do not know, and they do not know us”. You wrote that in 1909; that stays true a hundred years later. “A nameless fear has seized me that all is not well”. You wrote that in June 1946 when we stood at freedom’s door. That, too, holds 60 years on. Yet, you could transform fear into energy. An odd energy, sometimes. One of the unusual things you did was to adopt countless sons and daughters, feeling for them, with them, drawing them into your restless intensities.
Which is why millions took to you as to a father. How did you manage, day after packed day, to write letters—from prison, train, wherever—to scores of people? The children of your flesh—Harilal, the eldest, and his three brothers—saw large portions of your heart and time diverted to your adopted children. They were wonderful sons, those four. They realised, not without effort, that you and your adopted children constituted a mighty family at work. If you and your ‘birth’ family, had clung marsupially to each other, would India have been changed and the world shaken as it was? It would not have. You saved the coppers of a householder to lavish gold on humanity. You renounced to redeem. But you were not always a sombre renunciate, were you? You told one of your adopted sons Dattatreya ‘Kaka’ Kalelkar of two ‘loves’ renouncing which you regretted. One, the love of travel. You must have meant travel to far off lands, for no one criss-crossed India as you did. The other—joy from literature. I wish you had expanded on that and on what. Before my parents Devadas and Lakshmi got married, you told Nana. Discussing their romance, you said to Rajaji, your eyes shining, that the Ramayana too was a love story. Speaking of romance did you ever read Anna Karenina? Or did you confine yourself, where Tolstoy was concerned, only to The Kingdom of God Within You and Confessions? I hope you did not, for ever so often, reading you, I run into sentences that could come from a novelist. You, who saw into the heart of a large nation (actually two nations— India and Britain) could also sketch people vividly. You have described your landlady’s daughter who took you, then a 20-year-old student in London, to the lovely hills around Ventnor. “She was flying like a bird…in spite of her high-heeled boots, this sprightly young lady of 25 dashed down the hill like an arrow…I somehow managed to scramble to the bottom. She loudly laughed ‘bravo’ and shamed me all the more….” Today, your ideas dart like arrows around the world. Your scorching love shames brute force, shows up hypocrisy and shakes up callousness towards fellow beings, towards nature. And humanity shouts bravo. There are those who say you solved some problems, left others unresolved. They could well say that of God. You were a human being like any other. But gifted. Gifted with an ability to test your powerful intuition against the touchstones of love and reason. The test cleared, you turned those intuitions into convictions and, whenever needed, you ‘walked alone’.
Quick take Q: Which weekly magazine did he launch to replace Young India? A: Harijan, in 1933 Q: When did he give up wearing western clothes and resolved to wear only a loin-cloth? A: In 1921 Q: Was he ever nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize? A: Yes, five times between 1937 and 1948, though he never won it Q: How long did he stay in South Africa? A: 21 years Q: Did Mahatma Gandhi wear false teeth? A: Yes, only while eating. He carried his dentures in a fold of his loin cloth.
Which perhaps is why not a day passes without someone somewhere in the world wondering, breath held in awe, how you did it. “Top 60? No, in the last six.” Your e-mail reply comes in. I asked for 700 words, you have said it all in just seven. Pranams to Dadi-Ba and to you, Dada, with my faith everlastingly. Gopu (Gopalkrishna Gandhi) — The author is Gandhi’s youngest grandson. He is currently the Governor of West Bengal
MILKHA SINGH — ATHLETE, 1935
Indian athletics has been through numerous ups and downs from the very beginning, right since the ’20s. Still, there have been a small number of athletes who have livened up the scene at the national and the international level.
If Milkha Singh stands out as an exceptional track and field person, the credit goes to his determination to become world class. He held the national records in 200 and 400 m for over 38 years and bettered the Olympic mark of 45.6 seconds at the Rome Olympics in 1960. Born in 1935, he enjoyed a long career till the late 1960s when he turned his attention to golf, grooming his golfer son Jeev Milkha Singh. I first met him in 1958 at the Commonwealth Games at Cardiff in Wales. He won the 440 yards comfortably and from then on it was steady success for him. He reigned supreme in Asia, dominating the 400 m races. He was disappointed at finishing fourth in the final at the Rome Olympics and struggled to repeat his Rome performance for the next eight years. Later, he turned his attention to administrative work as the director of sports at Chandigarh.
His first major success as a promoter of sports came when he organised the National Open Cross Country races in Punjab which helped build a running movement in the country and brought in promoters. Singh became the nation’s sporting ambassador and was in demand as a patron of major events. At this stage he began to divide his time between athletics and golf. “The latter,” he observed, “enjoyed a greater standing on the national sports scene.”
Milkha Singh He continues to play golf regularly but has not given up his interest in athletics. “My most challenging years were as an athlete,” he says. “I made my best friends through participation as an athlete, and I always enjoy meeting fellow athletes.” I have pleasant memories of Nairobi in 1984 when Singh and I were asked to carry the Commonwealth Games torch. Massive crowds followed the route right up to our hotel. It would be true to say that no Indian athlete has made as great an impact in athletics as he has. In 1950s and 1960s, athletics in India was dominated by the army regimental centres, which mass produced outstanding athletes. The army was keen to get the best out of its stars, so it started sending its leading athletes to England to participate in international competitions. The army athletes, led by Singh, spearheaded a movement through which athletics thrived in the country. The athletics scenario has undergone a sea change. Now the emphasis is on training rather than competition.
Quick take Q: Why was Singh so popular at the 1960 Rome Olympics? A: Because of his long hair and beard, many thought he was a saint who also ran Q: Who called him the Flying Sikh? A: Pakistan president Ayub Khan, after he defeated leading athlete Abdul Khaliq Q: For how long was his 400 m national record of 45.6 seconds undefeated? A: 38 years Q: How much money did he promise to any athlete who could break his record? A: Rs 2 lakh Q: Whom did Singh donate all his medals and trophies to? A: National Sports Museum at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Delhi
To Singh, the picture is somewhat confusing. He misses the crowds at the stadium: “I can understand athletics being taken more seriously than before, but with emphasis on drug taking, the scenario has undergone a change.” The competitions have made way for time trials and invitation meets. One would also not mind the collapse of the Berlin Wall—it opened doors to free athletics, but introduced phenomena like drug taking. “There is no joy in competition if it is to be unfair,” says Singh. It is something that worries him a lot. — The author taught Maths at St. Stephens and ran the 5,000 m at the 1960 Rome Olympics
MOTHER TERESA — MISSIONARY, 1910-1997
Mother Teresa was a diminutive figure who strode her century like a colossus, and in the process made her name a synonym for goodness and compassion the world over.
She was invariably received in the halls of power, but her mission lay in the meanest streets and slums over all the continents. She built brick by brick, a global infrastructure with the help of five thousand Sisters and Brothers of her Order, and also had the capacity to enjoin millions of ordinary people, who came forward to help her in her mission to alleviate loneliness, hunger and suffering. By the time she passed away in 1997, she had established a multinational organisation that operated in over 123 countries and served her special constituency of the destitute, the abandoned, homeless, hungry and dying. In the process she became one of the principal consciencekeepers of her time. “I am unworthy,” was her first reaction when she was named the recipient of the ultimate accolade, the Noble Prize for Peace in 1979.
She sent word to the organisers that she would accept the award “in the name of the poor”. Many people had earlier been disappointed by some of the awardees, for not all were doves of peace.
Mother Teresa There were many who believed that it was Mother Teresa who had, with her acceptance, enhanced the stature of the award. At the ceremony in Oslo, the then-chairman of the Nobel Committee John Sanness summed up her work with these words: “The hallmark of her work has been respect for the individual and the individual’s worth and dignity. The loneliest and the most wretched, the dying destitute, the abandoned lepers, have all been received by her and her Sisters with warm compassion devoid of condescension, based on this reverence for Christ in Man… "In her eyes the person who, in the accepted sense, is the recipient, is also the giver and the one who gives the most. Giving—giving something of oneself—is what confers real joy, and the person who is allowed to give is the one who receives the most precious gift. This is the life of Mother Teresa and her Sisters—a life of strict poverty and long days and nights of toil, a life that affords little room for other joys but the most precious.” Although she herself remained fiercely Catholic, her brand of faith was not exclusive. Convinced that each person she ministered to was Christ in suffering, she reached out to people of all religions. The very faith that sustained her infuriated her detractors, who saw her as a symbol of a right-wing conspiracy and, worse, the principal mouthpiece of the Vatican’s well-known views against abortion. Interestingly, such criticism went largely unnoticed in India, where she was widely revered. I once called her the most powerful woman in the world. Mother Teresa replied: “Where? If I was, I would bring peace to the world.” I asked her why she did not use her undeniable influence to lessen war. She replied: “War is the fruit of politics. If I get stuck in politics, I will stop loving because I will have to stand by one, not by all.” As a Hindu, armed only with a certain sense of eclecticism, it took me longer than most to understand that Mother Teresa was with Christ in each conscious hour, whether at
Mass or with each of those whom she tended. It was not a different Christ on her crucifix and a different one which lay dying at her hospice in Kalighat, Kolkata. Neither existed without the other; they were bonded together as one. There could be no contradiction in her oft-repeated words of wisdom Q: When did Mother Teresa decide that one must reach out to one’s neighbour. For to become a missionary? Mother Teresa, to love one’s neighbour was to love A: In 1928, at the age of 18 God. Quick take Q: Where did she base her nursing This is what was essential to her, not the size of her home Nirmal Hriday? mission or the power others perceived in her. A: Aderelict temple in Kalighat Q: Where was she working before she set up her order? A: St. Mary's High School, Kolkata She once explained this to me simply but meaningfully when she said, “We are called upon not to be successful, but to be faithful.” In her life, Mother Teresa had exemplified that faith: faith in prayer, in love, in service and in peace.
Q: What inspired her to set up the Missionaries of Charity? — The author is Election Commissioner of India A: A revelation from Jesus asking her and has written the authorised biography of to “come be my light” Mother Teresa Q: What was Mother Teresa’s real name? A: Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu
MULK RAJ ANAND — WRITER, 1905-2004
In the final pages of Mulk Raj Anand’s most famous novel, Untouchable, a poet describes the essential character of Indians that would allow them to succeed where the British had failed: “We know life. We know its secret flow. We have danced to its rhythms. We have loved it, not sentimentally through personal feelings, but pervasively, stretching ourselves from our hearts outwards so far, oh, so far, that life seemed to have no limits, that miracles seemed possible.” Anand was, of course, responding to the widely-held British belief that Indians were not only incapable of governing themselves but were also so hidebound and conservative as to be ill-equipped to deal with the problems and conditions of modernity. But he went farther, in his art and his thought, than simple polemics: the entirety of his work was committed to the idea that humanity in all of its manifestations was capable of the most profound changes and accomplishments.
Anand’s novels lent voice to the voiceless—untouchables, peasants, women—and his criticism made the extraordinary history of Indian art accessible to countless people in new and exciting ways. He was not unique among the people of his generation, who were deeply touched by the movement for Indian Independence and began tackling the important social and political questions of the day in radical ways. What made Anand unique was the longevity and consistency of his commitment to build an independent India, which would fulfill its promises to all of its citizens and the rest of the world. Born in Peshawar in 1905, Anand went to Khalsa College in Amritsar. In the 1920s, he participated in a student strike against the transfer of a nationalist principal after Annie Besant had been invited to give a talk. The strike landed him in jail for a month and immediately created tensions with his loyalist father, eventually forcing him to leave home. With the help of Muhammad Iqbal, Anand earned a scholarship to attend London University where he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy. In England, he circulated around the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group and other modernist writers and thinkers: he met Leonard and Virginia Woolf; worked for T.S. Eliot’s Criterion, and befriended E.M. Forster and George Orwell. Anand went on to teach at a number of English universities and work as a broadcaster and scriptwriter for the BBC during the Second World War.
Mulk Raj Anand It was in the headiness of this political and literary milieu that Anand composed the two novels for which he is most famous: Untouchable (1935) and Coolie (1936). These novels—along with Raja Rao’s Kanthapura, R.K. Narayan’s Swami and Friends, and Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi— inaugurated an Indian fiction in English whose heirs have achieved remarkable heights in the terrain opened up by a few pioneers.
At the same time, Anand was also a remarkable polemicist for Indian Independence. He wrote Letters on India (1942) and Apology for Heroism (1946), two pamphlets which were designed to make the case to British readers for an end to British rule as well as the case for radical social justice and internationalism. He returned to India after the Second World War where he became an important part of the Indian literary and artistic communities. He intervened heavily in the debates about keeping English as a national language, worked to promote English departments across the country and spoke at numerous conferences about the relevance of Indian literature and art. He founded Marg, the publication of the Modern Architectural Research Group, which became one of the premier journals on art and architectural history in India. He was a fellow of the Lalit Kala Akademi and the Sahitya Akademi, a laureate of the International Peace Prize, and a Padma Bhushan. Quick take He also became involved with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association (AIPWA), both of which promoted radical art and experimentation in the service of social change.
Q: What was his first piece of writing? A: His letter to God as an 11-yearold asking why his nineyear old cousin Anand died in 2004 at the ripe age of 99, having had died left a remarkable legacy of activism, creativity, and internationalism. Stokely Carmichael, an AfricanQ: Which of his works is American and leader of the Black Panther Party, semiautobiographical in nature? said it was Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable which A: The Private Life of an Indian best explained the psychological and personal Prince (1953) effects of racism in America. Carmichael’s comment best explains the work of Anand and his Q: Which incident influenced his importance to a modern India. early writing the most? A: The suicide by an aunt, who was — The author is a scholar at the University of excommunicated for dining with a California, Berkeley Muslim woman Q: Where did he write the first draft of his novel Untouchable? A: At Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha Q: He is compared to which famous Victorian novelist? A: Charles Dickens
MUNSHI PREMCHAND — WRITER, 1880-1936
Dhanpat Rai, better known as Munshi Premchand, may well be credited with the Lukacsian nomenclature—a socialist realist writer. He mercilessly exposed the structures of oppression that afflicted rural India—poverty, exploitation of Dalits, superstition, religious rituals, patriarchy, zamindari system, colonialism and communalism. Before Premchand, writing in Hindi was highly Sanskritised and had little relation to reality. He reversed this by writing about common people and in a simple, colloquial dialect. Often, Premchand is mistaken for a Gandhian. Early in his career, he envisaged a Gandhian scenario where the oppressors would, almost through magical intervention, cease their crimes against humanity. But his later writings show a shift to socialist ideology. In a conversation with Marathi writer T. Tikekar, he declared: “I am a communist, but my communism is limited only to the extent that the zamindars, seths and others, the exploiters of the peasants, should cease to exist.” Similarly, Premchand’s attitude towards the Indian national movement was neither uncritical nor blindly lauding. As noted critic Sudhir Chandra argues, if in his short stories like Tavan (1931) and Ahuti (1930) nationalism is depicted as “attractive and inspiring” then in his novels like Rangbhumi (1925) and Karmabhumi (1932) he unveils the “sordid reality behind the ideological facade”. He was critical of the movement turning into an occasion for the dominant class to propagate its class interests.
Munshi Premchand From the feminist perspective, Premchand has received strong criticism. Charu Gupta accuses him of categorising his women protagonists into simplistic binaries. On one hand, they represent the ideal, suffering mother figures who become upholders of a feudal value system that valorises chastity and feminine passivity.
On the other hand, the antithesis to the ideal woman is the “counter-model” of the westernised woman—assertive, independent and sexualised. While this critique is legitimate he was aware that if poor men suffered then their women counterparts suffered twice over. His novels Godan, Gaban and Nirmala are hard-hitting while his short stories are a scathing attack on the forces of subjugation in colonial India. Quick take Q: On whose call did he quit his job as teacher? A: Mahatma Gandhi Q: Name his works filmed by Satyajit Ray. A: Shatranj ke Khiladi, Sadgati Q: Which anthology was labelled seditious by the British? A: Soz-e-Watan What is most striking, and perhaps the cause of Premchand’s continuing relevance, is that the issues he raised as challenges for India, continue to daunt us even today. — The writer teaches at Lady Sri Ram College, Delhi University
JAWAHARLAL NEHRU — FIRST PRIME MINISTER OF INDIA, 1889-1964
For the first 17 years of India’s Independence, the paradox-ridden Jawaharlal Nehru—a moody, idealist intellectual who felt an almost mystical empathy with the toiling peasant masses; an aristocrat, accustomed to privilege, who had passionate socialist convictions; an Anglicised product of Harrow and Cambridge who spent over 10 years in British jails; an agnostic radical who became an unlikely protégé of the saintly Mahatma Gandhi—was India. Upon Gandhi’s assassination, Nehru became the keeper of the national flame, the most visible embodiment of India’s struggle for freedom. Incorruptible, visionary, ecumenical, a politician above politics, Nehru’s stature was so great that the country he led seemed inconceivable without him. A year before his death, a leading American journalist published a book entitled After Nehru, Who? The unspoken question around the world was: “After Nehru, what?” Today, more than four decades after his death, we have something of an answer to the latter question. As an India still seemingly clad in the trappings of Nehruvianism steps out into the 21st century, little of Nehru’s legacy appears intact. India has moved away from much of it, and so (in different ways) has the rest of the developing world for which Nehruvianism once spoke. As India begins the seventh decade of its Independence from the British Raj, a transformation—still incomplete—has taken place that, in its essentials, has changed the basic Nehruvian assumptions of post-colonial nationhood.
Jawaharlal Nehru The principal pillars of Nehru’s legacy to India—democratic institution-building, staunch pan-Indian secularism, socialist economics at home and a foreign policy of nonalignment — were integral to a vision of Indianness that sustained India for decades, but is contested today. Nehruvian secularism is challenged today by those who see it as a Westernised affectation that denies India’s Hindu heritage.
But Nehru was steeped in the composite Hindu-Muslim culture of north India, and his secularism was authentically rooted in millennial Indian traditions of tolerance for different ways of being. His socialism seems dated today, a product of Fabian ideas long discredited by decades of failure in practice. But even if he ushered in the licencepermit-quota Raj that India is dismantling today, Nehru built much of the infrastructure in science and Q: Originally Kauls, why did his engineering that has provided the platform for family adopt Nehru as a surname? India’s IT revolution of the 1990s. A: An ancestor was gifted land near a nehar (canal) in Delhi Nehru developed a role for India in the world based almost entirely on its civilisational history and Q: Which was Nehru’s first public moral standing, making it the voice of the office? oppressed and the marginalised. A: He became president of the Allahabad Municipal Corporation in This gave the country enormous prestige across the 1924 world for some years, but the humiliation of the 1962 war with China demonstrated its crippling Q: Which incident in 1919 inspired limitations. Nehru died a broken man, his spirit him to fight the British? shattered. A: On a train journey he overheard General Dyer gloating over the Democracy remains Nehru’s most enduring Jallianwala Bagh massacre. contribution to India. Gandhi’s death could have led a lesser man to assume untrammeled power. Q: Who described him as the last Instead, he spent a lifetime trying to instill the Englishman to rule India? habits of democracy in his people—a disdain for A: Nehru himself dictators, a respect for parliamentary procedures, an abiding faith in the constitutional system. Q: In addition to his famous baby elephant Indira, which other He himself was such a convinced democrat that, at animals did Nehru keep? the crest of his rise, he authored an anonymous A: Two tiger cubs article warning Indians of the dangers of giving dictatorial temptations to Nehru. Quick take “He must be checked,” he wrote of himself. “We want no Caesars.” During his 17 years as prime minister, democratic values became so entrenched that when his daughter Indira suspended India’s freedoms with a state of Emergency for 21 months, she felt compelled to return to the people for vindication, held an election, and lost it. Nehru was that rare kind of leader who is not diminished by the inadequacies of his followers, let alone his own limitations. The American editor Norman Cousins once asked Nehru what he hoped his legacy to India would be.
“Four hundred million people capable of governing themselves,” Nehru replied. The numbers have grown, but the very fact that each day over a billion Indians govern themselves in a pluralist democracy is testimony to the deeds and words of this extraordinary man. — The writer has authored the book Nehru: The Invention of India
P.C. MAHALANOBIS — STATISTICIAN, 1893-1972
Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis is popularly known among Indians for his draft of the Second Five Year Plan which he submitted to the National Development Council in 1955. Soon after Independence, he was appointed the statistical advisor to the newly formed Cabinet and the Plan was formulated to meet the state’s principal objective of eliminating unemployment through rapidly rising industrial production. Based on a growth model for the Indian economy—and his observation that the production of steel, more than any other single factor, explained the differences in incomes across countries—Mahalanobis recommended the large investments in heavy industry that created the steel cities of central and eastern India. As is often the case, the greatest achievements of creative minds are not the most widely known, and this was true for Mahalanobis. He was not trained as an economist and his approach to planning was largely a reflection of the prevailing views of economic development during his time. Growth models of the ’30s and ’40s assumed labour surplus economies that were constrained by the speed at which they could create machines and factories for the unemployed and the Soviet Gosplans set the tone for India’s attempts a couple of decades later.
P. C. Mahalanobis By the early ’70s, these ideas had lost much of their legitimacy. It was recognised that the investments undertaken by the state had not effectively eliminated poverty and political agendas as well as economic policies began to directly address rural backwardness.
Mahalanobis’s most remarkable and lasting contributions were the setting up of largescale surveys, the application of statistical theory to a variety of Indian problems and the creation of institutions within which such work could be continued during and after his lifetime. After studying mathematics and physics at Cambridge, England, he returned to Calcutta in 1915 and began teaching physics at Presidency College. He was fascinated by statistical methods, began studying these intensively and started a small statistical laboratory in the college. This evolved into the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in 1932. He established the journal Sankhya in 1933 and as statistical advisor to the Cabinet, he founded the National Sample Survey (NSS) in 1950 and the Central Statistical Organisation in 1951. Mahanlanobis used statistical methods to better understand an enormous range of social and physical phenomena. In the early ’20s, he used data from the Anglo-Indian community in Calcutta to arrive at measures of differences in the physical characteristics of communities. Quick take Q: What was the name of the famous paper on which the Mahalanobis model was based? A: The Operational Research Approach to Planning in India Q: When did he establish the ISI? A: December 1932 Q: What did he gift to the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru after his China visit? A: A rare self-written monograph of his impressions of China Q: From which college did he complete his Tripos degree in Physics? A: King’s College,Cambridge Q: How was he connected with Rabindranath Tagore? A: He was the earliest bibliographer of his literary output Q: What did he gift to the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru after his China visit? A: A rare self-written monograph of his impressions of China In the mid-’30s, he was asked by the Central Jute Committee to conduct a survey to estimate jute yield for the whole of Bengal. It was this largescale survey that set the stage for the first round of NSS in 1950. These NSS rounds continue largely unchanged and are the primary source of data for studies on Indian living standards and poverty. What makes this list of achievements remarkable? When the NSSO began, there were simply no largescale surveys of its kind anywhere, let alone in the poorer parts of the world. More than four-fifths of the Indian population lived in villages and yet less than a third of these were connected by paved roads. In this setting, the NSS attempted a low-cost survey to gather nationally representative data on the social conditions of households, many of whom could only be reached by enumerators passing through miles of forest.
This could not have happened without the combination of technical expertise, energy, tenacity, and leadership that characterised Mahalanobis. India has now produced several famous statisticians, most of whom have been associated with the ISI and some have made truly fundamental contributions to the field of statistics. What distinguished Mahalanobis was the range of practical questions he was interested in and the seriousness with which he applied scientific methods to their exploration. — The author is professor of economics, Delhi School of Economics
DHUNDIRAJ GOVIND PHALKE — FILMMAKER, 1870-1944
Though energised by a near messianic zeal to establish an indigenous film industry in colonial India, even D.G. Phalke would be surprised by the overwhelming cultural supremacy—or at least the ubiquity—of cinema and television today. His project, conceived as a fusion of artisanal impulses, fascination with modernity as well as industrial techniques and a swadeshi-inspired desire to create Indian images for Indian audiences, has translated into the writing and making of history. Culture historians acknowledge this as the lasting legacy of Phalke and other pioneers of popular Indian visual art. Born in a Maharashtrian Brahmin family in 1870 and educated at Bombay’s J.J. School of Art and Baroda’s Kalabhavan, he learnt drawing, photography, lithography and drama before joining Raja Ravi Varma’s press in Lonavala. He also learnt magic, which he later considered an essential qualification for filmmakers. A naturally gifted entrepreneur, he soon established his own printing and engraving press in Bombay and produced chromolithographs as well as illustrated booklets that were to become the blueprint of his early mythological films. In 1910, he saw a film titled The Life of Christ and described its impact on him in a famous passage written in 1917, “I must have seen films on many occasions before this but that day, that Christmas Saturday, marked the beginning of a revolutionary change in my life... While The Life of Christ was rolling fast before my eyes, I was mentally visualising the gods, Sri Krishna, Sri Ramchandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya… Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen?” After studying cinematography, Phalke travelled to England to purchase equipment and familiarise himself with filmmaking.
On returning to Bombay, he launched his own production company, Phalke Film Co., and made Raja Harishchandra, which was released in 1913 and is regarded as India’s first feature film. With Lanka Dahan (1917), his greatest success, the late 19th century phenomenon of mass-produced images assumed a darshanic (philosophical) force and temple icons were further consolidated as a norm in popular Indian visual art. And, arguably, this quasi-religious aura has never been shed in our mass visual culture.
Dhundiraj Govind Phalke However, the most famous illustration of this is Phalke’s production of Kaliya Mardan (1919) where the struggle between child god Krishna and serpent demon Kaliya, which was done in a superb special effects sequence, drew a strong religious and nationalist response from audiences who identified Kaliya with the oppressive British rule. This trope of mingling religion and politics to the point of interpenetration—even substituting one for the other—has become a fundamental trait of Indian public culture. Quick take The Indian images struck a deep chord in the psyche of the spectators.
Q: Which male actor played queen Taramati in Raja Harishchandra? They recognised and instantly welcomed his integration of India’s centuries-old narratives with A: A. Salunke. He was a cook the emerging medium of cinema, finding in it a Q: Which was Phalke’s first film? new self or identity in the modern context. A: No, not Raja Harishchandra, but As Christopher Pinney argues, “It was only a Growth of a Pea Plant in 1911 matter of time before the worshipping of gods in mass-disseminated images paved the way to Q:Who influenced him to choose affirming political leaders and recently forged antiIndian mythology as his subject? colonial and proto-revivalist national identities.” A: Painter Raja Ravi Varma Q: What careers did he dabble in before settling upon filmmaking? A: Photography. He then became a draftsman, and later a printer Q: In which film did he first use animation? A: In The Growth of a Pea Plant
Other film pioneers in Calcutta and Madras were quick to follow Phalke’s example. Cinema and visual art became an integral part of the Indian landscape in the 20th century. In spite of his prolific output over the next decade, Phalke came to be forgotten. He has now come to acquire an iconic status. Today the most coveted award for lifetime achievement in Indian cinema is the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the equivalent of the Bharat Ratna. That such a comparison can be made is a tribute to Phalke’s visionary engagement with image-making and the social and historical struggles witnessed by the last few generations of Indians. — The author is a film historian and professor of film appreciation at Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India
RAVI SHANKAR — SITARIST, 1920
Each epoch and all lands have their individual greats whose contributions to their country’s culture win for them a place in history. Some transcend even that lofty bar to influence all times across all lands and all cultures. For no one so fundamentally influenced the world’s understanding of music—and by extension culture itself—as did this frail Bengali Brahmin from Varanasi. As the avant garde American composer Philip Glass unambiguously puts it: “I can say without hesitation or exaggeration that Ravi Shankar is the godfather, the mother and the father of what is called the world music movement today.” In this sense, Shankar’s influence and contribution go far beyond that of his other great Indian contemporaries like, say, a Satyajit Ray or a Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Both Ray and the much-revered Yogi left a deep and wide-ranging impact through their works. But their legacy did not quite change global attitudes towards filmmaking or spirituality as completely as Shankar’s did on the music scene. Even the most conservative of Western composers today cannot claim to be untouched by or unaware of the contribution of Ravi Shankar. More significantly, by exerting such a fundamental influence on global musical tastes, he has made Indian culture itself acceptable and better understood all over the world.
Ravi Shankar He is, after Mahatma Gandhi, the second truly global icon to emerge from 20th century India. But Shankar’s greatness does not lie fettered to his global success alone. From the first stroke of the introductory alaap to the last climax of his thundering jhaala, his model for a classical music concert has in his lifetime become the norm for not only sitar players but for all Indian instrumentalists whether they play the sarod, the flute or the santoor. With a number of vocal compositions, and several vocalists as his students, he has left his mark on the nation’s music scene too. Despite his detractors in India, he remains even at 88, the best example of the most orthodox exponent of the raga and the tala, if not the sitar itself. Quick take And what is truly amazing is that after all his many illnesses and advanced age, he still graces the concert platform.
Q: For which soundtrack was he nominated for an Academy award? Just to see him strum a single note is revelation, to A: For Gandhi, in 1982 hear him play a full piece is sheer bliss. Q: He is the disciple of which — The author is a senior journalist famous musician? A: Baba Allauddin Khan, whose daughter Annapurna Devi, he married Q: For which term was he nominated to the Rajya Sabha? A: 1986-92
PRAKASH PADUKONE — BADMINTON PLAYER, 1955
In July 2005, a packed hall of Indonesians gave a thundering ovation to an Indian badminton player in Jakarta more than a decade after he had last played there. What was it, I wondered, about Prakash Padukone that endeared him to a people whose language he couldn’t even speak?
The Indonesians, unbeatable in the ’60s and ’70s, were toppled by the Chinese who came out of international isolation in May 1981. They stunned everybody with their speed and power, and Padukone first showed how they could be countered. Using control and precision, he would slow the game to his pace and his deception would keep them offbalance. People still recall the 15-0 thrashing of Han Jian in the 1981 World Cup final at Kuala Lumpur. “I didn’t know what happened,” said Han Jian recently. Padukone was there at the right place at the right time.
Prakash Padukone He was there when the era of prize money tournaments began (he won the first Open tournament—the London Masters in 1979) and he was there when television arrived. Among the uncommunicative badminton community, only he and Denmark’s Morten Frost could articulate the players’ perspective to the English media. He was Oriental and Occidental—Asian by upbringing, but at home in Europe. His best friend was Frost, and the two trained and hung out together. What is it about his game that no Indian has been able to replicate with equal success thus far? Quick take Only Pullela Gopichand has cracked the world’s top ten, and that too for two years, but Padukone Q: Which was his first major was there for a decade. international title? A: Gold at the Commonwealth Never in his prime did he lose to a no-namer and Games never did he let the country down in team matches. Q: Who was the Danish player with whom he used to train? A: Morten Frost Hansen Q: When did Padukone win the Grand Slam? A: In 1980
There have been great singles players in India but Padukone had the biggest impact on the world’s perception of Indian badminton. — The author has written Touch Play, the biography of Prakash Padukone
R.K. NARAYAN — WRITER, 1906-2001
Present day India boasts of a robust and diverse literature in the English language, and one of the greats who started it all was the fine storyteller Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayan. Born in Madras in 1906, he was the third of eight surviving children and eldest brother to the famous cartoonist R.K. Laxman. Sent as an infant to live with his maternal grandmother and uncle until he was a teenager, he moved back to his parents when his father was appointed headmaster of Maharaja’s High School in Mysore. Narayan was an indifferent student and after graduating from high school, he failed the college entrance examination in English because he found the textbook too boring to read. He took the examination again and eventually obtained his bachelor’s degree from the University of Mysore. He began his writing career in 1935 with Swami and Friends, where he created the imaginary small town of Malgudi, which was to be the backdrop for several succeeding novels, including The Bachelor of Arts, The English Teacher, Mr Sampath, The Financial Expert, The Vendor of Sweets, The Painter of Signs and A Tiger for Malgudi. An energetic, colourful albeit slightly eccentric place, it enabled Narayan to create wonderful characters and uncover simple universal truths. After Narayan failed to find a publisher for Swami and Friends, the draft was shown to Graham Greene, who liked it and arranged for its publication. Greene, like E.M. Forster and Somerset Maugham, was to become a close friend and admirer. Following the realist tradition, Narayan’s novels tell apparently simple tales of simple folk trying to live out their ordinary lives in a changing world where they struggle to accommodate tradition with modernity, often with tragi-comic consequences.
R. K. Narayan His works are rooted in the everyday lives of Indians, giving his writing a certain unique flavour, as if he were writing in his native tongue. Autobiographical content also forms a significant part of some of his novels. The events surrounding the death of his wife from typhoid formed the basis of The English Teacher. At the same time, there is a certain cosmopolitan vision in his writing. Though immersed in the local, he observes his characters and their concerns dispassionately, almost like an outsider, often giving an ironic twist to his tales, as in The Guide. What makes him so popular with the masses is his easy-to-read style, his unpretentious prose laced with wit, compassion and gentle humour. (He is also a great favourite of syllabus planners at both the school and college levels). Quick take However, it is this very quality of simplicity which has not found favour with some critics— Shashi Tharoor, for instance, while praising Narayan for his meticulous recording of the ironies of human life, feels that his apparent charm masked the Q: When was his first trip abroad? “banality of (his) concerns, the narrowness of his A: In 1956, on being selected by the vision, the predictability of his prose, and the shallowness of (his) pool of experience.” Rockefeller Foundation for a grant Q: When did he shorten his name to R.K. Narayan? A: In 1935, on Graham Greene’s advice Q: How many works of fiction did Others liken him to William Faulkner and Anton Chekhov for his humour, compassionate insights he author? A: Fifteen novels and five volumes of and “celebration of simple folk”. short stories His stories and novels touched the core of the Indian heart and several of them were adapted as Q: Which was his first published films and television serials. work? A: A review of Development of Guide was a huge commercial success, though Maritime Laws of 17th-century Narayan himself was not happy with the screen England Q: Under what title was The English Teacher published in the US? A: Grateful to Life and Death
adaptation. Many of us fondly remember Malgudi Days, a popular tele-adaptation of Swami and Friends and other stories by the late actordirector Shankar Nag. Narayan won numerous honours for his works. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award for The Guide in 1958. In 1980, he was awarded the A.C. Benson Medal by the Royal Society of Literature. Narayan was elected honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1982 and awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2000. Narayan may not surprise us with great innovation or even great complexity and in that sense he certainly has not “charted new territory in his fiction”, but he has created characters we remember from our own lives and reminded us of the simple truths that we, more often than not, tend to forget. — The author teaches English at IGNOU
RAJ KAPOOR — ACTOR, PRODUCER, DIRECTOR, 1924-1988
Raj Kapoor just won’t die. The latest to grab a chunk of the legacy of the blue-eyed actordirector is Sanjay Leela Bhansali. His Saawariya is an ode to Kapoor—from the inception of the film to the recurring images and allusions to the cinema of Kapoor. Bhansali took off from the 1959 film Anari, in which Kapoor plays a rather naïve painter who comes to the city and lodges with a generous Christian landlady. Bhansali replaces the paintbrush with a guitar: he makes his protagonist, Kapoor scion Ranbir Kapoor, a musician. The tantalising, infamous towel scene with the now-you-see-it-nowyou-don’t (Ranbir’s) butt that made cinematic history is an ode to Bobby— to the scene in which Aruna Irani walks into young Rishi Kapoor’s room. He comes out of the bathroom and drops his towel in surprise. Raj Kapoor’s camera in the more restrained 1970s turned away at that point, keeping it all above the belt. Kapoor’s acting skills were formidable, equally convincing in his Charlie Chaplin-esque “little man” roles in films like Shree 420 and Teesri Kasam or his portrayals of a man propelled by searing intensity (Aag and Awara).
Raj Kapoor Yet, it is his directorial avatar that continues to inhabit the imagination of and inspire successive generations of film directors. Kapoor set the template for many who came after him—from the Nehruvian socialism of a newly independent India in the R.K. banner’s early films predominantly characterised by smaller-than-life heroes and mostly written by K.A. Abbas (Awara, Shree 420 and Jaagte Raho) to his fresh treatment of adolescent, star-crossed love in Bobby and the cinematic rendering of a mature love story that didn’t shy away from articulating passion and lust in films like Barsaat and Sangam. Kapoor was, arguably, the first to have his hero slap his heroine. The slap across Nargis’s face in Awara still resounds: it had shocked the audience. Kapoor was also the first Indian director to shoot abroad. Perhaps it was the original showman’s portrayal of Bombay in his films that continues to endear Q: How many musical instruments Kapoor to cineastes—particularly in Shree 420. could Raj Kapoor play? Kapoor’s storyboard was usually his own life, with A: Five—harmonium, piano, him as the protagonist of most of his films. accordion, tabla, and bulbul tarang Quick take Q: Which film marked his directorial debut? A: Aag, he acted in it and produced it too Q: What quirk did he have about his movie titles? A: Got them re-registered every 10 years But after the box office failure of Mera Naam Joker, he handed over the R.K banner’s mantle of hero to his son Rishi Kapoor, who became his alter ego on the screen. “In Bobby, it was him, I was the body in which he put all kinds of colours,” Rishi Kapoor told me.
The stories about Kapoor’s popularity in the USSR and the Middle East are legendary: apparently Joseph Stalin asked Jawaharlal Nehru who this Q: Which movie did he act in when Kapoor, he was hearing so much about, was. he was 11? Less known is the extent to which his films were A: Inquilab in 1935 loved in China. Vikram Seth recounts from his Q: What was the turning point of his career? A: When director Kedar Sharma slapped him, making him serious about his work
travels as a student through China in the early 1980s that some students cried upon meeting him, as they were mourning the death of “Lita”—Rita, the name of Nargis’s character in Awara—and the actor had recently passed away. Remember the cigarette holder that Nadira so eloquently put between her teeth in Shree 420? Nadira told me the prime minister of Israel at the time wanted it. As always, Raj Kapoor obliged. — The author is a senior freelance journalist and has written The Kapoors: The First Family of Indian Cinema
RAJA RAVI VARMA — PAINTER, 1848-1906
The first to make art fashionable was the gentleman artist Ravi Varma who was sought both by the British and the princely courts. His elegant and lustrous paintings cast a spell on the rest of India as he went on to break the monopoly of British artists. What was remarkable was that he was mostly self-taught. He had been introduced to the Maharaja of Travancore who wanted the court artist to teach him. But neither he nor the Dutch artist Theodore Jensen present in court wanted to impart him their skills. He learnt mostly by watching them paint in the new medium of oil. Varma’s skills first came to light when he painted the portrait of the governor of Madras. Later, his Nair Woman with Jasmine Flowers in her Hair won him a gold medal at the Madras show and an art competition in Vienna in 1887. The medium of oil allowed him to sensuously model his women as fullbodied presences. A distinctive feature of a work like Malabar Beauty, for instance, was that it transcended its settings to become a national emblem. This painting was part of a repertoire of 10 works which represented India at the World Columbian Order of 1893 and went on to win an award. It was, however, his historical paintings which won him widespread recognition. The epic tales from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranic texts became fodder for this new art. His lyrical works like Hansa-Damayanti or Rama Vanquishing the Sea became prototypes of innumerable printed images. Based on the proscenium stage and the settings of the Parsi theatre, they depended on the melodramatic moment where the protagonist would face the audience as it were. If there were flaws in the naturalistic rendering, they were offset by the spectacle created by Victorian style columns, architecture and the lavish costumes.
Raja Ravi Varma The penchant for the dramatic and the sentimental set into motion the basic recipe for the earliest films made by Dadasaheb Phalke and others. The ingredients of popular Hindi cinema, as we know it today, had their origins in the theatrical performances of the master artist. Their popularity made the royal houses of Baroda, Mysore and Trivandrum commission large-scale mythological works which were history fashioned as melodrama. He brought about these by using the vocabulary of western academic tradition, blended with his influence of the Tanjore paintings and a lustrous sheen which was entirely his own. Quick take Q: When did he first step out of South India? A: In 1881, to paint a portrait of the 18-yearold Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda Q: Whom did he draw inspiration from in his later days? A: Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse and Bacon Q: When did he start drawing? A: At the age of seven on the palace walls using charcoal Q: Which story depictions was Varma most famous for? A: Episodes from Abhijnanasakuntalam Q: Whom did he paint when he was thwarted by the lack of femalenudes? A: The nubile milkmaids of Vrindavan Varma’s popularity reached its peak when he established a lithographic press in Bombay in 1892 where he was assisted by two German experts. The oleographs reproduced his paintings with a fair amount of authenticity and became available to the common man. The spread of plague and political disturbances in Bombay made him shift the press to Karla in 1899 and eventually sell it to one of the Germans. By this time, the Ravi Varma-oleographs could be seen in every household. The gods and goddesses were not multi-limbed but had an entirely human image, allowing for a national self-image to emerge.
Not only was Varma the first to create an aura around art but also to transcend the barriers of class, language and region and reaching out to the ordinary man. If the elan with which he entered contemporary art is unmatched he also left his mark on every aspect of it. — The author is an art historian and curator
RAJA RAM MOHAN ROY — SOCIAL REFORMER, 1772-1833
The 19th century was a period of great intellectual ferment in India. The colonial ideologies spawned by Orientalists, Utilitarians and other Western thinkers were fundamentally changing the terms of debate, forcing the traditional systems of intellectual and religious discourses in India into retreat or resistance. It was quite apparent to many Indian intellectuals that their own society and religious systems were beset with several evils. Superstition, bigotry, fatalism, polygamy, sati, child-marriage and infanticide were big hurdles in the progress of the country. These intellectuals realised that without modernising these customs, there was no hope for the Indian people. It goes to their credit that they mostly followed an independent line in criticising and attacking the superstitious, discriminatory and oppressive practices prevalent in the Indian society. In this process, they took a far more radical stand than the colonial state was willing to countenance or implement due to fears of reprisals from the social and religious orthodoxies of various denominations. The new Indian intellectuals also had to face resistance, hatred, hostility and attack from the orthodox elements in their society. But they openly expressed their opinions and steadfastly pursued their activities, although quite circumscribed by the prevailing situation. Ram Mohan Roy was the first among such valiant fighters. Not surprisingly, he is also called the Father of Modern India. Without his intellectual stimulation, religious stand and indefatigable campaigns against certain social evils, it is not possible to imagine of a modern India. Roy was born in Bengal in 1772 into a Vaishnavite family. His initiation was in Bangla and Sanskrit. After this, he went to Patna to learn Persian and Arabic. It was only later that he became versed in English, and, still later, in Greek and Hebrew. His reading of the Quran gave rise to his early monotheistic ideas.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy These views were clearly expressed in his first available writing, Tuhfat-ul-Muhawaddin (1803). Written in Persian, with an introduction in Arabic, this work was a devastating attack on superstitious rituals, and a belief in rationalism and unity of Godhead. His belief in rational thinking was so marked that he declared that “pure rationalism is our teacher”, and that “he who will not reason is a bigot; he who cannot is a fool and he who does not is a slave”. His belief in monotheism was strongly supported by his study of the Upanishads, some of which he translated into Bangla later on. In 1814, he founded the Atmiya Sabha (Friendly Society) to popularise rational religious ideas. Roy is best known for his campaign for the abolition of sati. Because of his constant efforts, the then governorgeneral, William Bentinck, enacted law to ban it in 1829. But Roy’s ideas on the empowerment of women were not restricted to this. Quick take Q: With whom did Roy establish the Brahmo Samaj movement? A: Dwarkanath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather Q: What was the name of his famous journal? A: Samvad Kaumudi Q: Where is he buried? A: Arnos Vale cemetery in southern Bristol, Britain Q: When was sati declared illegal because of his efforts? A: In 1829 Q: What was the aim of Atmiya Sabha that he set up in 1814? A: To propagate rational religious ideas He attacked polygamy and the degraded state of widows, particularly in Hindu society. He spoke against child marriage and argued for widow remarriage. He advocated female education and the grant of property rights to women. He severely criticised the division of Indian society into multiple castes: “I regret to say that the present system of religion adhered to by the Hindus is not well calculated to promote their political interest. The distinction of castes and innumerable divisions and sub-divisions among them, has deprived them of patriotic feeling, and the multitude of religious rites and ceremonies and the laws of purification have totally disqualified them from undertaking any difficult enterprise.”
In 1828, along with Dwarkanath Tagore, he founded the Brahmo Samaj to fight against social evils. Roy believed that modern education was an important vehicle to carry social reforms and enlighten people about their rights. Thus, in 1817, along with Alexander Duff and David Hare, he set up the Hindu College at Kolkata. Roy’s advocacy of religious universalism is of great relevance even today as a social and religious counterpart of political secularism. The greatness of Ram Mohan Roy lies in the relevance of his ideas for contemporary Indian society, beset as it is with so many problems. — The author teaches history at IGNOU
RAJA RAMANNA — NUCLEAR SCIENTIST, 1925-2004
Raja Ramanna completed his early education in India, and took his Ph.D. in nuclear physics from King’s College, London, as a Tata scholar. He joined Homi Bhabha at the Tata Institute of Research in 1949 and was asked to initiate research in nuclear physics in the country. I joined him there in 1952 and worked with him for over five decades, succeeding him to the various posts he held in the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). He was able to combine the Indian tradition of original thinking with the more modern western way of thought, which creates science and ends up in technology. He also realised that generating properly-trained manpower was essential to rapid growth in science and technology. Which is why, in 1957, he established a training school at the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay, inducting every year 200 of the best graduates in science and engineering and giving them high quality training. This school has produced many who are now leaders in DAE. One of the milestones in his (and the nation’s) life was the first nuclear test in 1974 that shook the world. Ramanna put together a fine bunch of scientists who could deliver when demanded by Indira Gandhi.
Raja Ramanna The organisation of these efforts was based on the old Indian concept of mutual trust. Morarji Desai shifted him to the department of defence as scientific adviser to the defence minister, in which capacity he reformed the Defence Research and Development Organisation and infused fresh life into it. But when Gandhi met him in Kashmir while she was out of office, she remarked: “Oh, your place is in atomic energy. Why did they shift you?” She brought him back in 1982. Not to say that his relations with the establishment were always smooth. He had a running battle with the PMO when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, on his disagreement to importing reactors from the Soviet Union. Quick take Q: What was his abiding passion, other than science? A: Music Q: Which eminent scientist did he admire? A: Homi Bhabha Q: Whose offer did he once decline? A: Saddam Hussein’s in 1978 to build a nuclear bomb for Iraq He had, however, very cordial relations with the Soviet Union which helped him get a nuclear submarine on lease. — The author is former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission
RAJENDRA PRASAD — FIRST PRESIDENT OF INDIA, 1884-1963
Rajendra Prasad needs to be remembered for making three distinct and lasting contributions to Indian politics.
He made these contributions in three different capacities during his long career—as a leader of the national movement, as president of the Constituent Assembly formed in 1946 to frame a Constitution for independent India, and as first President of the Indian republic. The impact made by him in all three capacities has left an important imprint on the political life of modern India. Prasad came from an obscure village of north Bihar and earned the reputation of being an ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi during the course of the national movement. It has been generally believed by many historians that he formed a very close political association with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and C. Rajagopalachari. The triumvirate, called the Right-wing of the Congress, was known for a shared distaste and distrust for the Left-wing politics represented by Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. The disagreements between the two groups over many matters of strategy and vision were well known. Prasad, however, took great care to ensure that the different positions did not reach a point of split within the organisation and the movement. He imparted a crucial element of “compromise” to nationalist politics. This ensured that splits were avoided despite considerable plurality within the national movement. Since then these baseline-centred, consensusseeking endeavours have become an important part of mainstream Indian politics. Prasad played an important role in inculcating these practices into India’s body-politic.
Rajendra Prasad As president of the Constituent Assembly, Prasad formed a team with Nehru and Maulana Azad in setting the basic principles of Constitution making. He declared at the very beginning that no major decision would be taken in the Assembly through a majority vote and nothing short of a unanimous voice would be accepted. This made it mandatory for the majority to reach out to minority voices and accommodate them.
Till that happened, the decision would be kept pending. A consequence of this practice was an inordinate delay of over three years in finalising the Constitution. The delay notwithstanding, independent India got in 1950 a Constitution that all Indians can be proud of. Much of the credit for this should go to Prasad. As the first President of Independent India, Prasad initiated many practices that subsequently became an unwritten rule or convention in Indian governance. Quick take Q: Which leader’s funeral did he attend against Nehru’s advice? A: Sardar Patel’s funeral,1950 One of these was to not unduly interfere in the business of the executive and the legislative arms of the central government. Prasad believed that the substantive status of the Indian President was, and should be, that of the British king, with powers more symbolic than real.
Q: How many terms did he serve as He saw the role of President as the constitutional President of India? head who facilitates rather than initiates. During A: Two. He is the only president, so both his terms, Prasad saw to it that the office of far, to have served a second term President did not develop into an alternative centre of power, but functioned more as a vigilant and Q: Where did Gandhi ask him to watchful institution. go after becoming food minister? A: The sweeper’s colony in Delhi During the course of the national movement there had been parity of power between Nehru and Q: For which commodity did he Prasad. But after Independence, Prasad fully want tax to be abolished? recognised that it was Nehru, and not he, who was A: Salt the chosen leader of the Indian people. Q: Which national leader famously Prasad was, and remained all his life, a selfstayed away from his funeral? effacing, mildmannered and socially-conservative A: Jawaharlal Nehru leader. He always underplayed his own role in the major decisions of the day. The claims he made about himself never matched the actual, larger contributions he made. If we were to believe his own selfportrayal, as reflected in his autobiography and other writings, we would not be able to make an accurate assessment of him and miss out on the numerous ways in which Prasad enriched Indian politics. — The writer teaches history at Indira Gandhi National Open University, Delhi
S. RAMANUJAN — MATHEMATICIAN, 1887-1920
The life story of this Indian mathematical genius, who won worldwide fame in mathematics despite his poor family background and lack of formal education, is legendary among professional mathematicians.
The son of a sari store clerk and a homemaker, Srinivasa Ramanujan was born in Erode, about 400 km from Madras. He was raised in nearby Kumbhakonam, which was his mother’s native place. His proficiency in mathematics was clear from the very beginning. In high school, he studied G. S. Carr’s A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure Mathematics. This book later became famous in the mathematical world because it influenced Ramanujan’s unique style of jotting down his results, without explaining his methods. He later attended college hoping to pass the exam required to enter the University of Madras. But he was so absorbed in mathematics that he neglected other subjects and failed the exam. He never earned a bachelor’s degree. In 1909, Ramanujan’s mother arranged his marriage to nine-yearold Janaki Ammal. This forced him to seek some gainful employment to support his family. In 1912, he found a clerk’s position in the accounts section of the Madras Port Trust. The chief accountant of the port trust, S. Narayana Rao, was a mathematician. Both he and Sir Francis Spring, the chairman of the port trust, took a keen interest in Ramanujan’s mathematical talents. The mathematicians in Madras persuaded Ramanujan to contact experts in England to evaluate his work, but given his lack of formal education, he was not taken seriously and his letters went largely unacknowledged. In 1913, however, Ramanujan sent an intriguing letter to G.H. Hardy, an eminent mathematics professor at Trinity College, Cambridge.
S. Ramanujan In the letter, he posited about 120 mathematical theorems without showing the details of how he had acquired the results. “I had never seen anything like them before,” Hardy wrote later.
“A single look at them was enough to show that they could be written by a mathematician of the highest class. They must be true because, if they were not true, no one would have the imagination to invent them”. Hardy was so impressed that he suggested that Ramanujan come to Cambridge for further study. Hardy and his colleague, J.E. Littlewood, made special efforts to admit Ramanujan to Cambridge University, despite his lack of a degree in mathematics. Initially, there was opposition to Ramanujan’s going abroad given his strict religious background. According to some, his mother had a dream in which the Goddess Namagiri commanded her not to stand in the way of her son’s goals. Quick take Q: What is the Ramanujan Journal? A: An international publication about his work, launched in 1997 Q: How many identities and equations did he compile? A: 3,900 Q: When and how did he become famous? A: In 1913, he wrote a 10-page letter to mathematician G.H.Hardy Q: When did he master advanced trigonometry? A: At the age of 13 Thereafter, with his family’s blessings, Ramanujan arrived at Cambridge in 1914. His research flourished and he published many exciting new results on topics such as the number theory, infinite series and indefinite integrals. One of the most spectacular results in mathematics is the Hardy-Ramanujan formula derived in 1917 for the number of partitions of an integer. A striking characteristic of Ramanujan’s work is the mysterious mix of symbols and formulas. He believed that the Goddess Namagiri appeared in his dreams to guide and inspire his work. Ramanujan was awarded a degree from Cambridge in 1916 and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1919. Perhaps due to the intense pressure of work and lack of a proper diet, he contracted tuberculosis in England and was admitted to a nursing home.
Q: In which fields have his discoveries become applicable? Hardy visited him there and remarked, “I thought A: Crystallography and string theory the number of my taxicab was 1729, it seemed to me a rather dull number.”
Ramanujan replied: “No Hardy! It is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways”. Ramanujan returned to India in 1919 and died in Kumbhakonam the next year. He was richly lauded for his achievements. His name hit the headlines of newspapers when he was awarded a degree by Cambridge.
A postage stamp commemorating his 75th birth anniversary was issued in 1962. Various mathematicians have devoted their lives trying to decipher Ramanujan’s work from his notebooks. Conferences are held worldwide devoted to ideas inspired by him. He has been compared to some giants in the field for the beauty and originality of his ideas. — The author teaches mathematics at the Central Michigan University, USA
RAMNATH GOENKA — MEDIA BARON, 1904-1991
Whether loved or hated, admired or feared, Ramnath Goenka, or RNG, simply cannot be ignored. He was a good friend but a dangerous adversary. He made history, not all of it necessarily glorious. But he will always be remembered for his doughty defence of freedom of the press and any ruse to curtail its viability and independence through controls and constraints which climaxed in his epic opposition to the 1975 Emergency. RNG’s motto was never to seek trouble, but to fight with all his might, throwing everything into the battle if thwarted or opposed. He was an ardent nationalist and a self-appointed Congress quartermaster general during the 1942 movement, supplying explosives to the Quit India revolutionaries underground and printing subversive literature for dissemination at home and abroad. He was never in government. But he was something of a kingmaker on account of his remarkable political connections, built up from his early days as a Congress worker and a servant of the freedom movement. He was quick to realise that without the media, the Congress message would scarcely reach the masses. He accordingly made it his business to build a nationalist trumpet, The Indian Express group, which grew to have multiple editions nationwide in eight languages.
He had access to Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, C.R. Rajagopalachari and all the post-Independence greats, such as K. Kamaraj, Jayaprakash Narayan and Indira Gandhi, none of whom hesitated to exploit his grit and ingenuity. An astute Marwari businessman domiciled in Madras, he turned a media baron, assiduously accumulating credits by rendering political or monetary favours or putting in a word for someone who needed assistance, asking for nothing in return. This constituted a valuable bank of IOUs. Though without legal training, he had a layman’s mastery over law and revelled in litigation with the aid of some of the best legal minds in the country. Though a deeply religious man and a Gandhian, to him the end justified the means. His maxim was to “disobey and explain” rather than “obey and complain”. He had the most unlikely friends and no dearth of enemies. He lived by his wits, displayed a volcanic temper and would curse violently and fluently in many languages. He was miserly but could be extraordinarily generous and warm-hearted. Quick take Q: Which newspaper did he bring out before he took over The Indian Express? A: The Free Press Journal, in 1932 Q: Which editor did he remove from The Indian Express and went on to appoint again? A: Arun Shourie Q: Goenka crossed swords with which major industrialist? A: Dhirubhai Ambani He turned away from the Congress after it split in 1969. He then championed and financed Jayaprakash Narayan’s Bihar movement. His finest hour was during the Emergency. He became an implacable enemy of Indira Gandhi who trained the whole weight of official machinery against him. Despite ill health, RNG remained bloodied but unbowed. The climax was reached in the corporatemediacourtroom war over the early growth of Dhirubhai Ambani’s Reliance empire, with him leading the charge despite failing health and growing concerns over what would happen to the Express empire after him.
Q: Jawaharlal Nehru asked Goenka to employ a member of his family.Who was he? Sadly, the family was divided and before long the A: Feroze Gandhi.He was brought in group split. The legend survives. as general manager Q: What was the name of the character based on him in Mani Ratnam’s film Guru? A: Manikdas Gupta, played by Mithun Chakraborty — The author was the editor of The Indian Express between 1982 and 1986
RUKMINI DEVI ARUNDALE — DANCER, 1904-1986
Not many women are offered presidentship of a country and even fewer, refuse. Rukmini Devi Arundale was one such woman who declined the high office when Morarji Desai offered it on a platter in 1977. She understood that Kalakshetra, the academy of arts that she had set up, simply needed her more than the Rashtrapati Bhavan. She had a chequered and fascinating life as a visionary, artist, educationist, theosophist, dancer and a choreographer par excellence; an institution builder, a staunch friend of animals worldwide, a stauncher advocate of vegetarianism, promoter of traditional Indian arts and crafts, a wise thinker, orator and above all a great humanitarian. At 16, the girl from an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family, born in 1904 and brought up in Madurai, stirred the community by her marriage to British theosophist George S. Arundale who was 20 years older than her. She was influenced by the Theosophical Movement, the Swadeshi Movement and by her mentor Annie Besant. She worked for the Theosophical Society, at first assisting Besant in her office, learning the ropes and later forming a youth wing of the movement that propagated the ban of slaughter of animals in temples in and around Chennai. She turned to Indian dance only when the famed ballerina Anna Pavlova told her to look at India’s indigenous forms for inspiration. She was 29 then and began to learn Bharatanatyam under Mylapore Gowri Amma and later from Guru Menakshisundrama Pillai of Pandanallur. She gave her first performance at the age of 31 at the annual convention of the Theosophical Society. By January 1936 she put in place the International Academy of Arts, which was subsequently renamed Kalakshetra.
Rukmini Devi Arundale The academy was meant to resuscitate in modern India a recognition of our artistic traditions and would seek to impart to the young, “the true spirit of art”, devoid of vulgarity and commercialism. Born as Rukmini Nilakanta Sastry, Arundale helped reinvent Indian classical dance, from sadir to what it is now called Bharatanatyam. Earlier it was associated with devadasis. She drew the attention of the erudite Indian to the genuine musical qualities of the dance by drawing upon the ritualistic and philosophical content intrinsic to the art form. Because of the decline of the devadasis and the promulgation of the Devadasi Abolition Act, 1948, she gave Bharatanatyam a social status it lacked in society at that time. Putting in place systematic gradations of study of the art form was the singlemost outstanding thing she could have done for the country. Quick take Kalakshetra became a school of excellence because of the successive gurus who taught there—initially all trained by her.
Q: Which law did she help frame as a member of the Rajya Sabha? The focus was not on churning out only dancers of A: Prevention of Cruelty to Animals significance— it had other arts and crafts, too, on Act (1960) the curriculum. Q: Which dance form was a male bastion till she started teaching it? A: Nattuvangam Q: Which ancient craft of textile printing is taught at Kalakshetra? A: Kalamka Q: In which year was she awarded the Padma Bhushan? A: 1956 Q: Where is Kalakshetra situated? A: Adyar,near Chennai A normal academic school, The Besant Theosophical High School, fed the art academy. Weaving and spinning activities were as valid as any sport, dramatics, dance and, of course, music, both vocal and instrumental.
The course included an understanding of languages —Sanskrit, Telegu and Tamil—and of the theory of
dance and music, of the rituals associated with the temples where the art grew, of yoga and philosophy. She was an innovator of the dance drama genre. She invited dance and music gurus to Kalakshetra and took pains to research the sacred texts with scholars of different languages. She requested them to compose dance dramas keeping in mind the aesthetic beauty and authenticity of particular village traditions. She tapped the geniuses to create works based upon the tenets of the natyashastra. Her works, however, held the traditions and yet departed from them handsomely and with such subtlety that viewers were left confounded by the results. She replaced garish and often unaesthetic dance costume with simple but exquisitely designed costume and jewellery. Her presentations had beautiful settings. She had witnessed the best of the West as a young bride married to a Briton. He took her to museums and ballets, to chamber concerts and art galleries across the Europe. And she could not have had a better teacher than him. Years later, it showed in the particular finesse she brought to her works. When stagecraft and lights were only heard of in films, she brought in equipment like light boxes to enhance the appeal of a production. Traditional, one would say, but she was no conformist. When her father died, she opposed the tonsuring of her mother, a custom prevalent in the closed society. And when her husband died she continued to put vermilion on her forehead. She was a visionary who is a reference point for the young generation and for dance historians. A Renaissance woman, indeed. — The author, director of Kalakshetra Foundation, was a disciple of Arundale
SAROJINI NAIDU — STATESWOMAN, POET, 1855-1920
There is an image of Sarojini Naidu that remains permanently etched in my mind. Gandhi is walking on his Salt March, followed by 70-or-so men. He has decided to include only men because the march, he believes, will be too arduous for women to cope with. Female nationalists, led by Naidu, however, have other ideas. She pushes her way into the procession, as a bemused, but not entirely surprised, Gandhi looks on. And from then on, the Salt March and the campaign as a whole becomes a woman’s thing.
After all, why not? They’re the ones who use salt, and who know what it’s about. Why should the march for salt be handed over to men? Whether myth or reality, this image only reinforces our ideas of what Naidu stood for— courage, an indomitable spirit, a commitment to the nationalist movement, political acumen, and her most memorable traits, an irreverence and a sense of humour. The latter was in evidence the first time she met Gandhi in London in 1914. She walked through the door and saw “a little man with a shaven head seated on the floor eating a messy meal of squashed tomatoes and olive oil” and she burst into laughter “at this amusing and unexpected vision of a famous leader”.
Sarojini Naidu At which point, Gandhi looked at her unfazed and said, “Ah, you must be Mrs Naidu. Who else would dare to be so irreverent?” Born Sarojini Chattopadhyaya in 1879 in Hyderabad, Naidu was a child prodigy. Her father wanted her to be a mathematician, but she discovered a love of poetry—something that would later earn her the epithet of Nightingale of India. Once, the story goes, she was working at home on an algebra equation. At some point, she got fed up and decided to take a break by composing a poem. Her parents encouraged her literary interests— her mother, Varada Sundari Devi, was a poet herself—and sent Naidu to England to be educated further. It was there that she met the man who was to be her husband, Govind Naidu. In 1898, she returned to India and wed him in Madras at a time when inter-caste marriages rarely took place. She became an early supporter of women’s rights and of the Independence movement, joining the nationalists in the wake of the partition of Bengal in 1905.
Her commitments brought her into contact with several of the new breed of leaders, such as Gopal K. Gokhale, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru. She spoke on women’s rights, the dignity of labour and workers’ rights. She led the delegation to meet the then secretary of state for India Edwin Montagu in 1917 to demand women’s suffrage. In 1919, she was the first to join Gandhi in his protest against the Rowlatt Act. A few months after this, she became the Home Rule League’s ambassador to England and, in 1925, became the first Indian woman to be elected president of the Indian National Congress. In 1920, attending a conference in Geneva, Naidu was asked why she became interested in politics. She replied, “I think it is inevitable that one should Q: She compared Gandhi to which become interested in politics if one is a true cartoon character? Indian.” A: Mickey Mouse Quick take Q: What was the name of her first collection of poems? A: Golden Threshold,1905 Q: When did she begin her college education? A: At the age of 12 In keeping with her secular upbringing, Naidu supported the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity, speaking at meetings of the Muslim League and working with riottorn victims in Bombay. Nor were her activities limited to addressing the concerns of Hindus and Muslims.
She spoke out in opposition to discrimination against blacks in America and on behalf of the Q: How many languages was Naidu Akalis in India. In 1924, she went to South Africa fluent in? and presided over a session of the East African A: Five, including Farsi Congress. And through all of this, she wrote poetry that spoke of love, beauty, and hope. Q: She wore khadi sarees dyed in which colours? Several of her poems were also put to song. In A: Crimson, turquoise, saffron 1947, this versatile woman became the governor of Uttar Pradesh, notching up another first by becoming India’s first female governor. But perhaps the story that best describes Naidu is told by Bhabani Bhattacharya, who describes how Naidu, at a conference of the World Alliance of Peace where the flags of 70 countries decorated the banquet room, demanded sharply, “Where is the flag of India?” The intrepid poet died in 1949 while serving as the governor of Uttar Pradesh. — The writer is director of Zubaan Books
S. RADHAKRISHNAN — VISIONARY, 1888-1975
When a star explodes in a supernova, it leaves behind a stellar mass for its rebirth. Similarly, the death of a great man results in immortality. The perenniality of Indian culture is analogous to this phenomenon. Even though India was often left distraught by incessant invasions, her spiritually conscious people were mines of creative thought. Their love for truth gave birth to ideas and ideals that continually energised the country. In their creative expression, they emphasised peace and amity. The Rig Veda says, “Words are sacred: sages cherish them, the brilliant rule by them.” Great men like Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan effected the integration of mind, body and soul through their wise words, which delivered the message of peace and love. India, in her struggle for freedom, was fortunate to have been under the auspices of such luminaries. Mahatma Gandhi affectionately called Radhakrishnan Lord Krishna and said he himself was Arjun, his pupil.
S. Radhakrishnan Indeed, Radhakrishnan’s achievements and teachings validate the traditional Indian belief in the wisdom and indispensability of the guru. The British, who believed that a humiliated mind allowed enslavement, mocked India’s religion and ridiculed her ancient philosophy as impotent tales of sparrows and parrots. Radhakrishnan sought to break the British fetters on Indian consciousness. He wanted India to believe in herself. Armed with a vast knowledge of Indian religion and philosophy, he spoke of the spiritually advanced character of Indian wisdom. His arguments inspired freedom fighters and scholars alike, turning them into ardent admirers of India, its people and culture.
Essentially an idealist, Radhakrishnan corroborates our belief in the efficacy of the good. In works like Indian Philosophy, The Hindu View of Life and An Idealist View of Life, he argues that goodness enables us to live the love in our hearts. It was his positive spirit that made the best universities in the world invite him to grace them with his lectures. Radhakrishnan also served India in the highest offices—as the first ambassador to Russia, as vice-president and president. Quick take Q: When was he knighted? A: In 1931, when he became vicechancellor of Andhra University Q: Who was his favourite poet? A: Rabindranath Tagore. He wrote a book on his philosophy. Q: How did he shape the country’s educational policy? A: He served on UNESCO’s executive board and as chairman of the University Education Commission Q: Which is his most celebrated work? A: An Idealist View of Life Q: Which was his alma mater? A: Madras Christian College,where he was initiated into philosophy Born in Tiruttani in 1888 and married to Sivakamuamma for 51 years till her death, Radhakrishnan sought spiritual enlightenment and inspiration in her. In his autobiography, he remembers her as an everyday heroine who epitomised selflessness and stood for the victory of mind over matter. He honoured this character of Indian women and dedicated a book, titled Religion and Society, to them. Radhakrishnan wrote, “India, in every generation, has produced millions of women who have never found fame, but whose daily existence has helped civilise the race, and whose warmth of heart, selfsacrificing zeal, unassuming loyalty and strength in suffering when subjected to trials of extreme severity, are among the glories of this ancient race.” A dutiful teacher, a deeply spiritual thinker, an able policy maker, Radhakrishnan was every bit the visionary India needed.
Nobel laureate C.V. Raman beautifully summed up his glorious life: “The frail body of Radhakrishnan enshrined a great spirit—a great spirit which we have learnt to revere and admire, even to worship.”
SACHIN TENDULKAR — CRICKETER, 1973
When are you fully aware that you are in the midst of greatness? Does greatness have an aura, a presence about it that announces itself? Or can greatness, like with Sachin Tendulkar, be visibly manifest in one arena and be almost invisible in another? And when does it first become apparent? Is there a moment when people knock down the door that separates the good from the great? Or do they simply vapourise from one chamber and reappear in another?
It’s a question I have often asked myself as I look back at the box seat I have enjoyed at the Great Tendulkar Show; watching the transition from a shy, confident schoolboy to a shy, confident megastar. He’s had a lot of fun in that journey but even he can, at best, hazard a guess at how much fun it has been for us, just watching the spectacle. And so, on this journey, when did greatness first nudge him on the shoulder and gently invite him towards itself? Was it when he was 14 and made 1,028 runs in five innings at school? Four of them not out for an average of, well, 1,028? Just for being so far ahead of anyone else that a young editor commissioned a then young writer to judge whether this cherubic kid was the greatest schoolboy cricketer ever.
Sachin Tendulkar Was it when, at 15, instead of thinking about movies or chocolate milkshakes, he was thinking of facing Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh and Bishop in the West Indies? Just for being disappointed at not being selected? Was it when, at 16, having walked out to play a Test match, he had to be reminded that a bowler at this level had to be respected? When the bowlers answered to the names of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Aaqib Javed? Just for thinking that a bowler’s job was merely to put the ball in the right place for him? Was it when, as an authentic 17-year-old (now why do we need to put that adjective there?) he scored a century to save his team from certain defeat? Just for the sheer nonchalance of it all as he peeled off boundary after boundary and wondered why everyone else was surprised? Was it when, not yet 18, he told his partner in that land of men, Australia, that he too would respond to the sledging after he had scored his century?
Just for the sheer self-belief, for the thought itself, for providing the first indicator that he would, all his life, respond only with the bat? Was it when, not yet 21, he had seven Test centuries behind him? At an age when people are still thinking about whether they can play a Test. Q: His being out in 1999 Adelaide Just for the sheer audacity of it all, seven Test Test against Australia gave birth to hundreds before 21? which term? A: Shoulder before wicket But hang on, we could be writing a book here. Isn’t that greatness when there are so many moments of Q: How many runs did Tendulkar it that you cannot isolate one that truly defines it? score in his first ODI match? A: He was out for a duck Does his greatness lie in that great sense of composure he seems to communicate when there is Q: Which debutant bowler a child in him, still all excited by the idea of complained about Tendulkar’s bat playing for India, by the idea of someone running being extra broad? up to bowl to him? A: Alan Mullally of England Quick take Does greatness lie in remaining a child even when Q: The English county Yorkshire he is a father of two? hired Tendulkar in 1992.What was special about this? Or did greatness mark him out when he understood A: He was Yorkshire’s first overseas what he can do? When he saw pathways and professional passages for a cricket ball on a cricket ground where others only saw obstructions? Q: Tendulkar’s elder brother has written a book about him. What is When he had the confidence to sight horizons that it called? were beyond the vision of others? Surely that has to A: The Making of a Cricketer be it. Don’t some actors read words and others convey meaning from the same script? Wasn’t that greatness apparent when, at the height of the match-fixing controversy, I got a mail from a simple man: “Please tell me that Sachin is not involved. If Sachin is involved, then what is left?” For in post-liberal India he represents what an Indian can achieve and there is an inherent purity that India perceives in him. And there is more. Close to 21 years after first meeting him, I think his greatness lies in the dignity that has accompanied him to the crease and elsewhere. In the humility with which he has conquered the game, and yet, bowed to it. In being the master of all he has surveyed, and yet, in being a servant of the game. Yes, that is what I think it is.
— The author is a well-known cricket commentator and columnist
S.H.F.J. MANEKSHAW — FIELD MARSHAL, 1914
For Sam Manekshaw being famous and influential was a fitting reward for an eminently successful career and a visible indication of enormous professional merit. In the momentous days of 1971, when the country needed a hero, he was there to lead the Indian Army to a magnificent victory. Born in 1914 in Amritsar, he did his schooling at Nainital’s Sherwood College and Hindu Sabha College in Amritsar. He should have followed two elder brothers to London for higher studies, but his parents felt he was too young to be on his own. Instead, he joined the Indian Military Academy (IMA) and was commissioned in 1934. During the second World War he was in Burma, where while leading a spirited attack, he was seriously wounded and given a battlefield award, the Military Cross. By 1969, when he was appointed the chief of army staff, he had gathered around himself an aura of greatness. A no-nonsense soldier’s soldier, he was seen as a brilliant strategic visionary, compassionate to a fault (“I can never say no”, he once remarked, “thank God, I wasn’t born a woman”) and a man of impeccable character. Always in a hurry, he did not suffer fools, yet was humble enough to walk across to a subordinate’s office with a file to obtain a clarification.
Sam Manekshaw Visits to units were meant to advise and correct, never to catch. On one such visit when the commanding officer asked what action was taken against a man who contracted venereal disease and when he was told the man’s head was shaved off, he roared, “Shaved off? Dammit, he didn’t do it with his head.” A brilliant orator, he was equally gifted with the written word. His drafts and notings were models of clarity, brevity and wit. A note from the Prime Minister’s Office alleging
nepotism in the army because a certain major general had been appointed director weapons and equipment, elicited a reply even though one was not necessary. “The complaint alleges nepotism in the army,” he wrote. “The general officer is a high caste Hindu, I am an equally high caste Parsi. So no religious relationship exists. The general is 46-year-old, I am 52. Therefore, I could not possibly have sired him. So, there is no paternal relationship either.” In social circles, especially diplomatic, he was a guest much in demand. He always cut a dashing figure with his athletic physique, immaculate dress sense and the charismatic ability to put the other person at ease. At one such ‘do’, an ambassador’s wife seeking to entice him to her party asked whether he liked dancing. “I don’t dance very well,” he replied, “but I hold well.” His crowning achievement was the remarkable victory of December 1971. There is a saying that victory has many parents and defeat is an orphan. So it was here, and many claimants have sought credit for that victory. The fact of the matter is that it was Manekshaw who planned the campaign, supervised its execution and won it. Quick take Q: What is unusual in Sam Manekshaw being field marshal? A: He is only one of two Indian military officers to hold the highest rank Q: What is his full name? A: Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw Q: In which sport is the championship title dedicated to him? A: The Inter-Regiment Football Championship Q: Which regiment did he become a part of after his 12th Frontier Force Regiment joined Pakistan after Partition? A: F8 Gorkha Rifles Q: His stellar role in the war of 1971 led to which famous agreement? A: The Shimla Agreement Who can forget the great moral courage he displayed when he stood up to Indira Gandhi and her entire cabinet who wanted military intervention into East Bengal in May 1971. His lone voice of dissent, stating that he would act only when he was ready, carried the day. Narrating this confrontation later he was to remark that a pretty thin line existed between his elevation to Field Marshal and getting the sack. When Indira Gandhi asked him to take the surrender on 16 December 1971 in Dacca, it was his magnanimity that made him reply that it was lieutenant-general Jagjit Singh’s prerogative to do the honours. — The author served as military assistant to the Field Marshal
SARDAR VALLABHBHAI PATEL — STATESMAN, 1875-1950
To understand Sardar Patel better, let us analyse the two characteristics that everyone associates him
with: strength and realism. When Patel died in December 1950, Maulana Azad said the Sardar’s valour was “as high as the mountains” and his determination “as strong as steel”. Chakravarti Rajagopalachari called him “force incarnate”. Jawaharlal Nehru said Patel had been “a great captain of our forces in the struggle for freedom” and “a tower of strength which revived wavering hearts”. The source of Patel’s strength was sacrifice, of which a powerful instance was demonstrated in 1905, when he was a 30-year-old pleader in one of Gujarat’s small towns, Borsad. Through hard sweat he had put by enough money for a barrister’s course in England. A passport and a ticket for the voyage were duly issued to Vallabhbhai Jhaverbhai or V.J. Patel, but the postman delivered these not to him but to his elder brother Vithalbhai Patel, who like the younger brother, went by the name of V.J. Patel. “I am older,” said Vithalbhai, “let me go first. You can go later.” Not only did Vallabhbhai let Vithalbhai take the ticket and the passport, he also sent money for Vithalbhai’s stay in England. In 1910, when he was 35 and the father of two, Vallabhbhai himself went to England, where he brilliantly cleared his Bar examinations.
Sardar Patel The steel that others saw in Patel was forged in the fires of sacrifice. His readiness to let go was displayed thrice in relation to Nehru. Responding each time to Mahatma Gandhi’s steer, Patel stepped aside in 1929, 1937 and 1946 so that Nehru could become the Congress president. No hesitation marked any of the three gestures, but a strong stipulation accompanied all of them: Vallabhbhai’s own independent role and views would have to be honoured. And they were.
This ability to lay his ego aside gave Patel a force that more than compensated for health problems. It also helped him gain a hold over the party and, after Independence, over the services, which matched Nehru’s superior ability to communicate with the masses in Hindi and with the elite in English. The result was that for 15 years— from the start of 1936 to the end of 1950—Patel and Nehru served India as a leadership duo, despite several sharp differences. Until 1945 the two together, under Gandhi’s guidance, led the Indian National Congress. From 1945 to 1948, when Gandhi was assassinated, the two led the Congress more or less independently of him, though at times turning to him as an umpire. From 1947 to 1950 Patel and Nehru formed the duumvirate of India. As for Patel’s realism, it is well known that his greatest post-Independence accomplishment—the integration of 500-plus princely states—was Q: Why is Godhra important in his founded on a combination of strength and wisdom. life? A: He set up his first household with The princes were willing to make way for his wife Jhaverba here democracy under the persuasion of a strong man who met their interests to a reasonable extent, and Q:Which game did he enjoy who treated them with dignity. playing? A: Bridge Patel’s realism also governed his decisions on what might be seen as the Left-Right and Hindu-Muslim Q: Which language did Mahatma issues that assailed India on Independence. Gandhi teach Patel? A: Sanskrit Like every other human heart, Patel’s heart had its preferences and dislikes. But his head saw with Q: Which military operation is clarity that Gandhi’s vision of an India which Patel famous for? would give equal rights to all its citizens, including A: Operation Polo, the Indian the vulnerable, was the sound one. military operation which resulted in the integration of the state of Five days after Gandhi’s assassination, Patel wrote Hyderabad into the Union of India. to Nehru: “We both have been lifelong comrades in He ordered it in 1948. a common cause. Quick take Q: Who played Patel in Ketan Mehta’s biopic Sardar? A: He set up his first household with his wife Jhaverba here The paramount interests of our country and our mutual love and regard, transcending such differences of outlook and temperament as existed, have held us together. I had the good fortune to have a last talk with Bapu for over an hour before his death. His opinion also binds us both.” For India’s sake Patel refused to lend his sacrifice-based strength to any narrow goal. His differences with Nehru included some over foreign policy.
Though Nehru was the Congress’s recognised foreign affairs expert, Patel’s grasp was often clearer, as the Nehru-Patel exchange over China and Tibet revealed. Even when Nehru seemed unwilling to modify his stand on various issues, Patel refused to pit himself against him, holding his ground against impatient lieutenants eager for a confrontation. At times in history, sacrifice and strength have been invoked in anger, for revenge, and in order to dominate. As wise as he was strong, Patel used his steel only for India’s unity. — The author is a well-known scholar and political activist. He is the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.
SATYAJIT RAY — FILMMAKER, 1921-1992
Even as a child, I realised that our home was different. This was after the success of Pather Panchali in 1955, when interesting personalities from around the world would come to meet my father. On the day it was released, my mother, Bijoya Ray, watched the film in the theatre with me, all of two years, in her lap. During the interval, however, she realised that I didn’t like the dark auditorium, and decided to bring me home. She says that after we returned, I insisted on going back and seeing it through. That was the power of movies, which enthralled my subconscious even at that young age. Baba’s film was the best way to be initiated into it. My father gave his family a lot of time. He would almost always schedule outdoor shoots during my summer or winter vacations so we could all go. In those days, actors were a lot less busy, so such shoots could be easily arranged. That’s how I was present through so many of his films. And that’s how I understood what great filmmaking was all about. He worked round the clock. He would wake up at an unearthly hour, before anyone else at home stirred and had a set morning routine.
Satyajit Ray After breakfast, he would spend the entire morning replying to letters. He never had a secretary, and did everything himself, from writing letters to picking up the phone. Mornings would also be reserved for illustrations, because he wanted to take advantage of the light. After lunch, he would concentrate on scripting, or music or any other thing that required his attention. Baba worked on every detail in his film, from the screenplay and costumes to the music and illustration of credits. I always saw him working. He would often work late into the night, and needed only four to five hours of sleep to carry on the next day. But the one thing that he never compromised on was our lunches and dinners. Baba would insist we take them together, every member of the family present without fail. And that is where we exchanged notes, ideas and told each other about interesting things in our lives. Quick take Then, there were the Sunday morning adda sessions, which comprised not only film industry Q: Which Ray film did the state people but also relatives and friends and colleagues fund for “road improvement”? from his old ad agency D.J. Keymer. A: Pather Panchali, in 1955 Q: Which film did Ray say was inspired by his story The Alien? A: Steven Spielberg’s E.T. , in 1982 Q: For which filmmaking duo’s debut did he compose music? A: Ismail Merchant and James Ivory He never helped me with my studies, unless I asked him to, but he taught me so much else. He never ever insisted I had to be a filmmaker.
But as I was growing up, I started sharing his interests. We were like friends. He asked me to read what other filmmakers had to say about the craft and told me to watch both good films and bad Q: Who was his 1972 documentary —good films for inspiration and bad films to know what not to do. Inner Eye a tribute to? A: His art teacher Binode B. Mukherjee Q: On whose stories was his film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne based ? A: Grandfather Upendra Roy Chowdhury
As a filmmaker, there was a certain ruthlessness about him. Sometimes, he would spend days working hard to put a scene together. But on the editing table, if he found that the scene was not taking the story forward, he would chop off the entire roll, not caring about how difficult it had been to put it together. The film had to be compact and every scene had to take the story forward. There were other things that I learnt from him such as grammar and technique. I started by being a still photographer, and observing him helped me a lot, from exposure to the composition of frames. When I got interested in the technicalities of moviemaking, Baba and his unit members would patiently explain every aspect that befuddled me. Receiving the Oscar for life-time achievement was a happy moment for him. In his acceptance speech, he mentioned how he had written to director Billy Wilder, after watching his 1944 film Double Indemnity, and how crestfallen he was when he didn’t receive a reply. After that speech, Wilder sent him a telegram apologising for not responding, and promised that the next time Baba was in the US, they would sit and discuss Double Indemnity at length. Sadly, that never came to be. (As told to Swagata Sen) — The writer is a filmmaker and the son of Satyajit Ray
SUBHAS CHANDRA BOSE — FREEDOM FIGHTER, 1897-1945
"In one respect,” Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper write of the war situation in 1943, “the British had much to fear. Subhas Chandra Bose, their most resolute and resourceful Indian enemy, was on the move.” Bose had boarded a German U-boat at Kiel on February 8, 1943, on a perilous voyage across half the globe to Southeast Asia. “There is a certain amount of risk undoubtedly in this undertaking,” Bose had written to the then German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop on December 5, 1942, “but so is there in every undertaking. I believe in my destiny and I therefore believe that this endeavour will succeed.” After a 90-day journey—that included a transfer in a rubber raft from a German to a Japanese submarine in the Indian Ocean—Bose arrived in Sabang on the island of Sumatra.
From there he flew to Tokyo and back to Singapore where he took over the leadership of the Indian National Army on July 4-5, 1943. Yet when the Battle of Britain was raging over the skies of London, the colonial masters had their most uncompromising opponent safely behind bars in the Presidency Jail of Calcutta. On November 29, 1940, he launched a fast unto death in prison. “Nobody can lose through suffering and sacrifice,” he had written on November 26, 1940, in his political testament. “If he does lose anything of the earth, he will gain much more by becoming the heir to a life immortal.” Governor John Herbert decided to send him home on December 5, 1940, having resolved to arrest him again as soon as he had recovered his health.
Subhas Chandra Bose “If he resorts to a hunger strike again,” Herbert blithely wrote to viceroy Linlithgow on December 11, 1940, “the present ‘cat and mouse’ policy will be continued, and its employment will serve both to render him innocuous and to make him realise that nothing is to be gained from a series of fasts.” By that time Bose had already summoned his nephew Sisir Kumar Bose and asked him to help plan and execute his escape from India. On the night of January 16-17, 1941, Bose secretly left his Calcutta home, disguised as Muhammad Ziauddin, a north Indian Muslim insurance agent. He was driven by Sisir in a Germanmade Wanderer car to Gomoh railway junction. There Bose boarded the Delhi-Kalka Mail for the capital where he changed to the Frontier Mail on his way to Peshawar. Pretending to be a deaf and mute Pathan, he trekked across the rugged terrain of the tribal territories in the North West Frontier crossing the territorial limits of Britain’s Indian empire on January 26 and reaching Kabul on January 31, 1941. His family had announced in Calcutta on January 26 that he could not be found, leaving British intelligence officers shame-faced and bewildered.
Why had the man who had espoused Left-wing socialist views as President of the Indian National Congress in 1938 and 1939 chosen to come to Nazi Germany in 1941? Bose had made up his mind that at the climactic moment of India’s anti-imperialist struggle the loyalty of Indian men in arms to the British King-Emperor had to be replaced by a new allegiance to the cause of Indian independence. Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 put paid to Bose’s plans for an invasion from the north-west. But Japan’s sweeping victories in Southeast Asia in early 1942 opened India’s northeastern frontier to the army of liberation of his dreams. Not only were there many more Indian soldiers in Japanese hands, but the presence of nearly three million Indian expatriates in Asia gave Bose’s movement a much larger civilian social base of support. Mahatma Gandhi best captured the significance of the Indian National Army (INA) saga that unfolded between 1943 and 1945. Quick take Q: Which party did he join after quitting the Congress in 1922? A: Swaraj Party The trial at the Red Fort of some leading officers took the story of INA and its Netaji to every Indian home.
“The whole country has been roused,” Gandhi observed, “and even the regular forces have been stirred into a new political consciousness and have Q: When did Bose first go to prison begun to think in terms of Independence.” and why? A: In 1921, for organising a boycott As Bose’s ‘Father of Our Nation’ said about his against the visit of the Prince of ‘prince among patriots’, Netaji’s name had become Wales one to conjure with. Bose had managed in INA to bridge the many divides of caste, religion and Q: Whom did he marry? gender. A: In 1937, he married Emilie Schenkl,an Austrian,who was his His ability against the odds to achieve Hindusecretary Muslim unity had invested the INA experiment with its most important contemporary salience. Q: What was the name of INA’s allwoman regiment? Bose was not just a warriorhero, even though he A: Rani of Jhansi Regiment may be best remembered as such. Q: The INA functioned under He paused between battles to reflect on India’s which government, formed by him? political, economical and social issues. It is the A: The Azad Hind Government vision of a free India and its global role that accounts for his increasing relevance as time passes. — The author is the Gardiner professor of history at Harvard University, USA
S. TRIPATHI NIRALA — POET, 1896-1961
Even though literature is not the realm for anticipatory forecasts, I am tempted to think that Suryakant Tripathi Nirala, who has been a beacon of light for me, will always have the power to move the masses. A new generation may, in fact, discover new meanings in his poetry and prose, something that may have been missed, or even overlooked, in the last century. Nirala was a chhayavadi (romantic) poet, but at the same time a revolutionary realist just like the Russian romantic poet, Alexander Pushkin. The essence of his creativity was such that it seemed to complete one circular movement in a poem, and in the very next it could break that circle, exploring entirely new directions. But Nirala was not only a poet. He was also a creative prose writer of remarkable innovation, with some of his later prose already acquiring the status of classics. His contemporary Sumitra Nandan Pant perhaps summed him up best, saying he broke chhand ke bandh tatha roorhiyon ke bandhan (the shackles of rhyme as well as of superstition). Spanning the literary firmament from the third to the sixth decade of the last century, it is difficult to find another whose art underwent such rapid changes both in content as well as language. In his early phase he was influenced by Rabindranath Tagore, which he overcame later. A recurring symbol in his poems during this period was that of a cloud, which was a symbol of revolution. Later on, he moved to longer poems such as Ram ki Shakti Pooja and Saroj Smriti which are supposed to be his greatest achievements in poetry. He wrote some satirical poems as well. Two political personalities he loved to comment on in both prose and poetry were Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. With Gandhi, his ruse was light-hearted and had to do with one of the latter’s comment that Hindi literature did not have a Tagore.
Suryakant Tripathi Nirala With Nehru the differences were more fundamental. To Nirala, for whom the common man was the indisputable focus of everything in life, Nehru was an outsider. He was
extremely critical of Nehru’s western upbringing and felt the leader could not relate to the problems of the poor. In similar vein he was also critical of those communists whose class character was different from common people. In his poem Moscow Dialogues, Nirala chides the socalled champions of the common man for their distance from the lives of the poor. In the third phase, he indulged his love for experimentation in verse form and wrote some smaller poems in an earthy language. He addresses the Almighty but at the same time questions his existence. The 21st century reader will find he can relate easily to his later work, embodied in the collections, Naye Patte and Bela. This list would also inevitably include his satirical poem Kukurmutta. Nirala’s prose writing would also have resonance, especially Khulli Bhat and Billesur Bakariha. Perhaps Nirala’s greatest contribution was his freeing of poetry into blank verse, accompanied by the parallel liberation of the human spirit he captured so well. His use of blank verse changed the destiny of Hindi poetry. Of course, even after this, Nirala continued to write in rhymed structures, ably demonstrating his dexterity in both forms. Nirala was also one of the greatest lyricists of his time, indicating his enormous capacity for discovering new emotional elements and integrating them successfully with classical grace. Born out of the freedom struggle, Nirala’s poetry echoed the ethos of that longing. I was first exposed to Nirala’s poetry in school but the first time I got an opportunity to hear him was when he visited our school in Banaras on the occasion of Tulsi Jayanti. Quick take Q: Which languages was he fluent in? A: Bangla, English, Sanskrit, and Hindi Q: Who persuaded him to learn Hindi? A: His wife Anohar Devi Q: What was his greatest contribution to Hindi literature? A: He started the use of blank verse Q: Which illness was he said to suffer from? A: Schizophrenia Q: Which popular Bangla novel did he translate into Hindi? A: Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s Anand Math I remember distinctly that he had recited his complete work, Tulsidas. I also remember, equally distinctly, that even though I had not understood the poem at that time, I was spellbound by its magical recitation. I learned something valuable that day—that some things can fascinate us even though we may not comprehend them. It was many years later, in my final year of BA, that I was able to meet Nirala. He was eating, in his small room, in a little bylane of the Daraganj locality of Allahabad, when I reached there, accompanying the writer Trilochan Shastri. I still remember his demeanour while eating—he ate as if he was sitting before the food in an attitude of complete respect, head lowered. We did not
disturb him. It was only when he had finished, that Trilochanji introduced me to him, as a young, budding poet. Much of the conversation is now a dim memory but one thing stands out. I got one of the softest, sweetest scoldings of my life. It seemed to me to contain an invaluable key to understanding Nirala’s poetry. This was contained in reference to lokbhumi and lokbhasha (which was Awadhi, in Nirala’s context). It liberated Nirala from the initial Bengali influence and ultimately brought him back to the soil of Awadh. This is captured in the spirit of his last works. Nirala was truly one of the greatest poets of modern India, transcending the boundaries of space and time. — The author is a Hindi poet and critic
RABINDRANATH TAGORE — WRITER, 1861-1941
Was Rabindranath Tagore as great as he is cracked up to be? This subversive question has been asked by plenty of people over the years—by westerners who became disillusioned with his self translations, by non-Bengali Indians tired of the Bengali obsession with him, and even, dare one say it, by some Bengalis. I myself have often privately asked it, testing him, so to speak, against other great poets. In the last couple of months, I have read through Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton. But I’ve also, as always, been reading Tagore—his sermons collected in the volumes called Santiniketan, his writings on Christianity, and his songs—above all, his songs, listening to them, reading them, and translating them too, as I have now, after many years of resistance, found a song-translation method that satisfies me. So the question has been in my mind quite frequently: Tagore was great, yes, but was he as great as Dante? My convinced and considered answer to the question is, yes, he was truly great. He is up there on Parnassus with the very greatest. But why? What is there about Tagore that makes me, helplessly and with wonder and amazement, agree with the view of Nirad C. Chaudhuri—who was phenomenally well read and never one to come out with clichés—that Tagore was among the 20 greatest writers of all time? One can list many factors. His extraordinary linguistic mastery, every sentence he wrote flowing from his pen with a seemingly effortless virtuosity that reminds me of the music of J.S. Bach. His range.
The fact that he was so much more than a poet—he was a novelist, writer of some of the best short stories ever written, a composer of songs whom Satyajit Ray rightly felt was the equal of Schubert, a painter, an educationist, and also of course a major participant in public affairs and the moulding of Independent India. But none of this, though true, goes to the heart of the matter. In my recent reading, I have become increasingly aware of the way most great poets deal with ‘two sides’—with, at one extreme, the most cruel, most Q: When did Tagore first write and evil, most miserable things that human beings can publish poetry? do or experience, and at the other a transcendent, A: He wrote at 8 and published at 13 perfect existence that we long to attain. Quick take Q: How many countries did he visit In Dante and Milton the two sides are explicit: hell between 1878 and 1932? and heaven. The greatest poetry, in my view, arises A: More than 30 from between those two extremes, from a mingling or meeting of hell and heaven as in Milton’s Q: How did Tagore get interested in Garden of Eden, or in the Purgatorio that Dante theatre? and his guide Virgil must pass through on the way A: After lead role in his brother’s from hell to heaven. play Because Tagore was so clear in his mind that “the Q: Which national song, other than subject on which all my writings have dwelt” was India’s, is by Tagore? “the joy of attaining the infinite within the finite”, A: Bangladesh he never made the mistake of limiting his focus either to hell or heaven. Q: Despite which affliction did he become a painter? He said many times that he was neither a worldA: He was partially colour blind denier nor a monist: he was a dualist who found spiritual reality in the khela of the human and divine. When he defined art as “the response of man’s creative soul to the call of the Real”, he meant the real of the here and now, the imperfect real of history and society and human relationships, but also a real that was shot through with glimpses of perfection. He knew—in the words of one of his greatest songs—“ache duhkho, ache mrityu, virahadahan lage/tabuo shanti, tabu ananda, tabu ananta jage (there is sorrow, there is death, there is the fire of separation. Yet peace, joy and eternity are awake).” Everything that defined him stemmed from that awareness: his compassion, his social activism, his concern for the natural environment, his rapport with women and children— all the things that make him so relevant today. Bengalis are right. Tagore was a visvakavi (world poet). Where I part company with some of my Bengali friends is that I think he exceeded even their conception of him, and in
ways that over time will constantly surprise, disturb and challenge those who attempt to understand him fully. Though honoured with the title ‘Gurudev’, he was not the sort of guru who supplies us with dogma or ready-made answers. — The author is a poet and writer, scholar of Bengali literature and a Tagore translator
VISWANATHAN ANAND — CHESS GRANDMASTER, 1969
I remember my first meeting with Viswanathan Anand. It was 1983 and chess wasn’t that big a game then. It was something that children pursued when they were inspired by their parents. Adults played it, but only when they wanted to play a “serious game”. The National Junior Association championship was going on in Delhi. In strode a thin, lean fellow in a cap and looked around determinedly. That is when I saw his chess game for the first time. He was fast. That was the word that came to my mind. He played his game quickly and precisely, so much so that all of us there christened him the Lightning Kid. His speed showed in his body language. He would never sit and play but would constantly move around. It was a deep first impression. I remember everyone’s surprise when he played and the techniques that he displayed, even then. It was in 1992 that I met him again. And that was when I played against him. He was not undefeated in the early 1980s or, perhaps, till 1986. I played him and even won sometimes. But in 1992, I realised that his game had progressed to another level, just like he himself had. From a Lightning Kid he had become a much calmer Anand, a true Grandmaster. I think the change came in 1986 and was consolidated in 1987 when he became world junior champion.
Viswanathan Anand Anand had an innate talent for being a Grandmaster. One can put in 14 hours of work everyday and become good, but to become a player par excellence one has to be a prodigy.
Which Anand was. It was Anand who demolished the Russian supremacy, which earlier only Bobby Fischer could. It was he, who questioned the supremacy of a Garry Kasparov, an Anatoly Karpov and a Vladimir Kramnik. That was especially remarkable as India was not a country which encouraged chess at that time. For any field to come into the limelight, it needs an icon, a master attached to it. Like Donald Bradman outside and Kapil Dev here who made cricket highly popular, Anand brought chess forward, into the view of millions abroad and more importantly at home. In India, it meant that a new game was discovered and it shows in the many young people following the game now. It is his single-handed achievement that resulted in chess becoming what it is today. Anand the man is equally astonishing. Astonishing in the fact that he is very unlike most famous Grandmasters I know. When I met him in Norway in the World Junior Championship, he had lost a match, was quite frustrated and nearly moved to tears. In that perturbed state he threw his keys against the wall opposite him. That shows a side of him—he wanted to excel in the game. He was always an eager player, continuously looking for different ways to win. Later on, he became calmer but his zeal to win did not dwindle. I saw Anand’s determination when after narrowly missing the Grandmaster title twice, he continued with a renewed drive. More than anything, it is his Q: How many times has he won the style of playing that stood him in good stead. Chess Oscar? Unlike stalwarts like Kasparov who play A: Four, in 1997,1998,2003 and 2004 aggressively and pressure their opponents, Anand is a player whose focus is only on his own gameplan. Q: At what age was he awarded the Padma Shri? It is his affable, somewhat shy and introverted A: At 18 nature that has made him a favourite not only with the public but also in the chess circles. Q: In which year did he become the first Indian to win the World I remember a small incident from my early days in Junior Chess Championship? chess. Some members from the Indian team at the A: 1987 annual Chess Olympiad wanted a picture with Kasparov, but he curtly declined. Q: What do his friends call him? A: Vishy Anand, on the other hand, was never discourteous to his fans. During the 1995 matches with Q: Which IT company has Anand Kasparov, everyone prayed for Anand’s victory, for as its brand ambassador? they all believed that Indian chess couldn’t get a A: NIIT better ambassador than him. Quick take
I would also give credit to his parents. During the early days players never got very good accommodation, we often used to sleep on benches. But despite such conditions his parents always toured with him. I saw Susheela aunty present at every tournament with him. It would be wrong to say that Anand played for fame or was conscious of the history he was making. I think it was simpler—he was just a boy who had grown up loving the game he played. Matching every black pawn with his white and confronting every complex move with a counter strike. (as told to Bushra Ahmed) — TVERGHESE KURIEN — DAIRY EXPERT, 1921 The Green Revolution was initiated with the import of high yielding plant varieties in the ’60s, but could only consolidate itself in the mid-’70s with policies that were to give quick returns to the farmer and provide them new technologies for irrigation and seed replication. The world was then sceptical, but we, who were involved in planning for food security, knew that if the environment was right, small farmers would benefit. Economists Vijai Vyas and G.S. Bhalla proved that the revolution was not enough. The villages needed more income. It was then that the Milkman of India began working for that with a tenacity which made him an icon. His model was even more iconoclastic. But in 1978, FAO dismissed Verghese Kurien’s idea of taking technology to the small farmer. Dairying, it said, was for the corporates.
However, they could not stop him. With that non-normal idea, his National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) took India’s milk production from an annual growth of 0.5 per cent to 5 per cent. By 1998, India became the world’s largest milk producer. Armed with an American degree, Kurien somewhat unwillingly went to Anand in May 1949, and the rest, as they say, is history. In 1973, NDDB helped set up the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation for selling the products produced by cooperative milk unions in the state under the brand names Amul and Sagar. In 1988, it facilitated the restructuring of the National Cooperative Dairy Federation of India to provide a national body for state dairy Q: At what position did he start his cooperatives. career in the dairy industry? A: Dairy engineer Kurien has always drawn attention to the fallacies of India’s new economic policies. The market, he Q:What was Amul initiallycalled? says, does not allocate resources for the A: Kaira District Cooperative Milk disadvantaged. Producers' Union Limited Quick take His global vision is that of collaboration between Q: Which discipline of engineering the north and south, and to help build agrodoes he specialise in? industries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. A: Mechanical engineering He dreams of an Operation Worldwide Flood which can help tens of millions of farmers in the world. — The author is a former Union minister he author is a Grandmaster and an Arjuna awardee
A.B. VAJPAYEE — FORMER PRIME MINISTER, 1924
Even in his autumnal stillness, Atal Bihari Vajpayee defies definition. With a mischievous glint in his eyes, the man—who is now beyond the grasp of predatory headlines—doesn’t fit into the neat categorisations of leadership and greatness. There has always been a bit of mystery, a teasing element of the unknown, about India’s first right-wing prime minister who has taken permanent residency in popular conscience. Come to think of it, and be intrigued by the enduring enigma of Vajpayee. His party may not have a pan-Indian presence—or won an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha.
But Vajpayee, defying gravity, soars above his party, larger than its collective leadership, unblemished by its sins and transgressions. In a party whose defining image of assertion is demolition, his name alone rhymes with moderation and consolidation. There may not be a Vajpayee cult, but Vision Vajpayee is an inspiration for true believers on the right. In a polity characterised by the culture of personal vendetta and pettiness, he is the last custodian of dignity and decency. And his instincts have redeemed the ideology of his political parivar.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee Oh yes, his patented pause. Does it reflect an innate passivity? No, it brings out the power of silence in a country where the sloganeer’s stentorian showmanship is celebrated as politics of social justice. His updated version of passive resistance has been a cultivated strategy, and it has worked at a time when his hyperactive colleagues could only divide. The first genuine non-Congress prime minister to complete his full term in office, he is the original reconciler. I still remember one of my many enlightening encounters with him during his six years in office. Once I provoked him by saying that many of his colleagues felt he was soft and not pushing his investigative agencies to go after the Gandhi dynasty. “If I do to them what they did to their political enemies, tell me, how are we going to be different from the Congress?” he asked, looking straight into my eyes. I didn’t have anything more to say. I was sitting across from the trueconviction politician. He has always strived to connect with even the seemingly incompatible. Connectivity for him has been an article of faith. It has been political, philosophical and, of course,geographical. It has gone beyond the realms of telecommunications and civil aviation.
Quick take Q: How many states has he been elected from? A: Four: Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat,Madhya Pradesh and Delhi Q: How many times has he been elected to the Lok Sabha? A: Ten, the latest to the 14th Lok Sabha
The first real internationalist after Nehru, he has brought India to the global high table. He has liberated India from the entrapment of Third Worldism—and the Cold War mindset. He has made anti-imperialism, a legacy of the Left liberal Congressism, redundant. “We see that as India adjusts to globalisation, the globe is adjusting to a quiet Indianisation,” he said at the India Today Conclave in 2004. The eldest statesman of India would become the wisest of the East as well.
Q: Which publications did he edit? Today, four years after his exit from South Block, A: The magazines Rashtradharma Vajpayee is not an active presence in politics. But and Panchjanya and the dailies for India, as successive opinion polls show, he is Swadesh and Veer Arjun still the ideal prime minister— and the most beloved politician. Why? He doesn’t colonise Q: When was he jailed? media space. A: In 1942 and during the Emergency from 1975-77 He hasn’t written a bestseller. Why does he still concentrate the mind of India? The answer is his political dharma. He has singularly redefined power with a kind of sagely detachment. He withdraws to conquer; he confounds his adversaries with, well, a couplet; and he renounces only to return. All the while, his moral universe remains intact, beyond the whirl of realpolitik, beyond the exigencies of his own party. There is a terrifying sense of calm about the man, an individual solidity that has only ensured political stability. He has changed the syntax of leadership. Atal Bihari Vajpayee embodies the renaissance of the right, and as the only compassionate conservative India has produced, he continues to reaffirm the virtues of reconciliation in the age of confrontation.
VIKRAM SARABHAI — SCIENTIST, 1912-1971
At the age of 11 or so, Vikram Sarabhai was said to have been fond of setting a challenge for himself: riding a bicycle which he would pedal as fast as he could. When it had achieved a satisfactory momentum, he would cross his arms over his chest and place his feet on the handlebars, close his eyes if the road was straight. This way he would let the bicycle carry him as far as it would go, impervious to the pleas of his terrified servants chasing him and begging him to stop. It is an odd bit of daredevilry to associate with a man credited with writing 80-odd scientific papers, setting up almost 40 institutions, initiating India’s space programme and heading its nuclear energy programme in the ’60s.
On the other hand, in that boyhood act of heroism one can probably find the key, the essential mix of daring, skill and audacity that made his life extraordinary. The seeds of this remarkable life were probably sown in early childhood and fostered by his unusual upbringing. Sarabhai came from a prosperous Jain family of textile mill owners in Ahmedabad. The Sarabhais, in addition to being wealthy, were close to Mahatma Gandhi and were known for their strong sense of social responsibility: Vikram’s aunt, Ansuya, founded the city’s first trade union of textile workers and his sister Mridula was actively involved in the freedom movement and went to jail many times. Vikram and his seven siblings were educated in a private experimental school on the family’s 21-acre property, an education that included a range of extra-curricular activities as well as an exposure to distinguished visitors such as Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru and Rukmini Devi Arundale.
Vikram Sarabhai He went on to pursue physics at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore—where he studied under Nobel laureate C.V. Raman and struck a friendship with Homi Bhabha, who later set up India’s atomic energy programme— and later at Cambridge. In the fervently idealistic post-Independence era, Sarabhai established several institutions such as the Physical Research Laboratory; the Darpana Dance Academy, which he cofounded with his wife, Mrinalini; the Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association (ATIRA), India’s first textile research cooperative; the country’s first market research agency, the Operations Research Group; the Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad) and helped in setting up the National Institute of Design. The range of activities reveals the astonishing diversity of his interests and also the consistency of his approach which involved the use of scientific methods, sound financial plan and a clear nationalistic purpose. All these features were evident in his conceptualisation of the space programme. In the early ’60s when space technology was being used for military purposes and one-
upmanship between the superpowers, the idea of a poor struggling nation aspiring to a space programme of its own seemed a fairly unthinkable one. Sarabhai made it seem not only feasible but essential by setting targets for the development of technology and mapping out a range of applications—communications, weather forecasting and mineral prospecting—that could answer the needs of a developing nation. Quick take Q: Under which scholar did he do research on cosmic rays? A: C.V. Raman All his projects, whether it was the satellite instructional television experiment which in 197576 used a NASA satellite to beam educational content to 2,400 of India’s poorest villages, or his plan for building agricultural complexes serviced by atomic power and desalinated sea water, were fired with an imaginative zeal.
Q: Which was one of the first institutions he formed? He worked 18-20 hours every day using both A: The Physical Research Laboratory charm and persuasion to convince others, including in Ahmedabad in 1947 his seniors like Bhabha, and industrialist Kasturbhai Lalbhai, who collaborated in many of Q: Where did he set up the first his ventures, and his subordinates to share his rocket launching station? dreams. A: At Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram He did have his share of critics. There were some who found his ideas wildly impractical. Q: When was he appointed chairman of the Atomic Energy And others who did not appreciate his complex and Commission? highly nuanced approach to the sensitive issue of A: In May 1966 nuclear weapons. Q: Where did he receive his early education? A: In Retreat, an experimental schoolrun by his parents in Ahmedabad It is hard to dispute though, that when he passed away, on December 30, 1971, at the age of 52, India lost one of her most dynamic and endearing visionaries.
— The author has written Sarabhai’s biography, Vikram Sarabhai: A Life
VIKRAM SARABHAI — SCIENTIST, 1912-1971
At the age of 11 or so, Vikram Sarabhai was said to have been fond of setting a challenge for himself: riding a bicycle which he would pedal as fast as he could. When it had achieved a satisfactory momentum, he would cross his arms over his chest and place his feet on the handlebars, close his eyes if the road was straight. This way he would let the bicycle carry him as far as it would go, impervious to the pleas of his terrified servants chasing him and begging him to stop.
It is an odd bit of daredevilry to associate with a man credited with writing 80-odd scientific papers, setting up almost 40 institutions, initiating India’s space programme and heading its nuclear energy programme in the ’60s. On the other hand, in that boyhood act of heroism one can probably find the key, the essential mix of daring, skill and audacity that made his life extraordinary. The seeds of this remarkable life were probably sown in early childhood and fostered by his unusual upbringing. Sarabhai came from a prosperous Jain family of textile mill owners in Ahmedabad. The Sarabhais, in addition to being wealthy, were close to Mahatma Gandhi and were known for their strong sense of social responsibility: Vikram’s aunt, Ansuya, founded the city’s first trade union of textile workers and his sister Mridula was actively involved in the freedom movement and went to jail many times. Vikram and his seven siblings were educated in a private experimental school on the family’s 21-acre property, an education that included a range of extra-curricular activities as well as an exposure to distinguished visitors such as Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru and Rukmini Devi Arundale.
Vikram Sarabhai He went on to pursue physics at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore—where he studied under Nobel laureate C.V. Raman and struck a friendship with Homi Bhabha, who later set up India’s atomic energy programme— and later at Cambridge. In the fervently idealistic post-Independence era, Sarabhai established several institutions such as the Physical Research Laboratory; the Darpana Dance Academy, which he cofounded with his wife, Mrinalini; the Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association (ATIRA), India’s first textile research cooperative; the country’s first market research agency, the Operations Research Group; the Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad) and helped in setting up the National Institute of Design. The range of activities reveals the astonishing diversity of his interests and also the consistency of his approach which involved the use of scientific methods, sound financial plan and a clear nationalistic purpose.
All these features were evident in his conceptualisation of the space programme. In the early ’60s when space technology was being used for military purposes and oneupmanship between the superpowers, the idea of a poor struggling nation aspiring to a space programme of its own seemed a fairly unthinkable one. Sarabhai made it seem not only feasible but essential by setting targets for the development of technology and mapping out a range of applications—communications, weather forecasting and mineral prospecting—that could answer the needs of a developing nation. Quick take Q: Under which scholar did he do research on cosmic rays? A: C.V. Raman All his projects, whether it was the satellite instructional television experiment which in 197576 used a NASA satellite to beam educational content to 2,400 of India’s poorest villages, or his plan for building agricultural complexes serviced by atomic power and desalinated sea water, were fired with an imaginative zeal.
Q: Which was one of the first institutions he formed? He worked 18-20 hours every day using both A: The Physical Research Laboratory charm and persuasion to convince others, including in Ahmedabad in 1947 his seniors like Bhabha, and industrialist Kasturbhai Lalbhai, who collaborated in many of Q: Where did he set up the first his ventures, and his subordinates to share his rocket launching station? dreams. A: At Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram He did have his share of critics. There were some who found his ideas wildly impractical. Q: When was he appointed chairman of the Atomic Energy And others who did not appreciate his complex and Commission? highly nuanced approach to the sensitive issue of A: In May 1966 nuclear weapons. Q: Where did he receive his early education? A: In Retreat, an experimental schoolrun by his parents in Ahmedabad It is hard to dispute though, that when he passed away, on December 30, 1971, at the age of 52, India lost one of her most dynamic and endearing visionaries.
— The author has written Sarabhai’s biography, Vikram Sarabhai: A Life
ZUBIN MEHTA — MUSIC CONDUCTOR, 1936
Can a conductor’s baton be the catalyst for a more peaceful world? In the hands of maestro Zubin Mehta, it has turned into a lightning rod for harmony: he has conducted Jewish musicians in the shadow of the Nazi concentration camps and even played Wagner to Jewish audiences.
“I took the Israel Philharmonic to Nazareth and performed for a completely Arab audience,” he recalls. “They gave us a standing ovation. Imagine Arabs standing up for a hundred Jews playing on stage? It’s very healthy. It doesn’t change the West Bank problems but it brings some goodwill at least.” Calming troubled waters with music is something Mehta has always done: in 1988, he conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with the State Symphony Orchestra in Moscow; in 1994 when there were icy relations between Israel and India, he brought the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to his homeland to create a thaw. Born in 1936 in Bombay, Mehta’s late father Mehli Mehta, conductor of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra, held makeshift rehearsals in the family living room, bringing the rich world of western classical music into the home. Music came as naturally as breathing to the future maestro and at the age of two, he often slept with a pair of cherished drumsticks under his pillow at night.
Zubin Mehta The world might have lost out on a legendary conductor, had not Mehta given up his premedical studies at 18 to pursue his real passion. In spite of financial constraints, the Mehtas sent him to Vienna’s prestigious Akademie für Musik where he entered the conducting programme under Hans Swarowsky. Money was so tight that when he needed a full dress suit for conducting a concert as part of the final examination, he bought a passable substitute for $25 from a place where waiters purchased their uniforms, and often wore two mismatched black shoes as the others had holes in them. Graduating in 1957, his rising star was on a trajectory: he won the Liverpool International Conducting Competition in 1958 and by 1961, had already conducted the Vienna, Berlin, and Israel Philharmonic Orchestras. After that, he was the music director for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and then of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the age of 26. He became music director of the New
York Philharmonic in 1978, commencing a13-year tenure, the longest in the history of the Philharmonic. Since 1985, Mehta has been chief conductor of the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence, and has also served as music director of the Bavarian State Opera. He is an honorary citizen of both Florence and Tel Aviv, and an honorary member of the Vienna State Opera. In 2006, he opened the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia followed by a threeyear project of Richard Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen cycle in the production of the Fura del Baus of Barcelona in Valencia and Florence. Mehta has had a long relationship with the Israeli Philharmonic and is its music director for life. Apart from a pure passion for music, the main thrust of his work is using music as an agent for change. “My dream really is to have an Arab Israeli playing in the Israel Philharmonic,” he says. His vast repertoire encompasses Bach, Mozart and Beethoven to Bartok and Schoenberg. Quick take Q: When did he make his conducting debut? A: 1958, in Vienna Q: When was he made music director for life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra? A: In 1981 Q: Which record did he set as music director of the New York Philharmonic? A: He had the longest tenure of 13 years, beginning in 1978 Q: How many concerts has he conducted? A: Over 2,000 Q: Which award was he given by the United Nations? A: The Lifetime AchievementPeace and Tolerance Award in 1999 Ask him about his favourite composer and he says, “There’s no favourite composer—I do music that covers 400 years so I can’t afford to have favourites.” A proud Parsi, Mehta is a prouder Indian who even after decades of living abroad still retains his Indian passport. India is a piece of his heart and his thoughts always turn to his favourite city by the Arabian Sea. He is passionate about Indian food, old friendships and the music school he has started in India in his father’s name. This October, he will take the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to Mumbai for a celebration of his late parents’ 100th birth anniversary and to raise funds for the school. “There’s a lot of talent in India—we now have to nurture it so they don’t have to leave the country like a lot of us had to,” he says. Indeed, already there are several Indian musicians in world class orchestras abroad. For them, an impossible dream became a reality because Zubin Mehta led the way. They could dare to do it because he did it first.
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