Thursday, 1 December 2011

Cricketer, Campaigner and Crusader - Basil D’Oliveira

Vishal Mathew

Basil D’ Oliveira in his lifetime accomplished what only handful of sportspersons in the world has managed to achieve. Not only was he one of the greatest all-rounders to have ever set foot on the cricket field, but he also inspired a revolution that tore down apartheid in South Africa. The legendary Basil D'Oliveira could have been spoken of in the same breath as a Garfield Sobers or an Ian Botham if he had not been born in South Africa during the apartheid.

D’Oliveira, who died in England on 19 November 2011, at the age of 80, after a long battle with Parkinson's disease, was unfortunately born in the wrong country at a wrong time with a wrong colour. Dolly- short for D’Oliveira- as he was lovingly called had to bear the dubious tag "Cape coloured" by virtue of his birth in freed slaves dominated Bo-Kaap neighbourhood of Cape Town. The stinging racial discrimination that his folk suffered made D’Oliveira battle-hardy and fuelled a passion in him to prove to the world that coloured people given the same opportunity as whites had the ability, talent and potential to become stars in their own right.

It was this steely resolve to succeed despite the odds that made Basil Lewis D’Oliveira an indelible part of one of the biggest controversies that toppled white dominance in world sports. The dormant volcano of racial exclusion exploded when the coloured all-rounder was initially left out of Marylebone Cricket Club’s England squad of 1968 under pressure from South Africa’s white minority government. The crisis worsened when Tom Cartwright dramatically withdrew from the squad citing injury and the MCC had no choice but to include Dolly on the tour to South Africa. The selection triggered panic in South Africa and John Vorster, the hard-line Prime Minister, deplored his inclusion saying: "It is not the MCC team. It's the team of the anti-apartheid movement."

This stance sparked a fury; prompting a crisis that shook the apartheid. The South African government refused Dolly a visa and this led to mass resignations from MCC and the formation of a protest group under the former England captain, David Sheppard. Negotiations, subsequently, broke down between MCC and Vorster, and the tour was eventually cancelled on 24 September 1968.

The 1968 tour crisis, popularly known as the D'Oliveira affair, exposed South Africa as a racist state and led to the intensification of opposition to apartheid around the world. South Africa bore the brunt of international wrath against its racist policies and was immediately isolated from international sport- not just cricket- in 1969. The infamous sports boycott that was clamped came right on the heels of the indefinite ban announced by International Olympic Committee on the country's white team – which meant South Africa was barred from competing in the Mexico City Olympics.

The D’Oliveira affair turned out to be an Achilles’ heel of the apartheid government. The more than two decades of sporting isolation, which hastened the dismantling of apartheid, came to an end only in 1991 after the release of Nelson Mandela. South Africa’s excruciating exile from international cricket came to an end finally in 1994 with the fall of apartheid. The country was soon readmitted to the ICC with the formation of the United Cricket Board that put an end to racial divide in South African cricket.

The entire controversy catapulted D’Oliveira to stardom. He was hailed as the messiah of the non-whites in South Africa. Literally overnight he had become a global celebrity, spoken of in the same breath as a Luther King or a Mandela as a defining symbol of the racial equality struggle.

Before 27 August 1968, the day on which the England selectors picked the touring party for the expedition to South Africa, Dolly’s life was a fairytale.

Born on 4 October 1931 in Signal Hill, South Africa, D’Oliveira’s cricketing skills were honed at an early age under the guidance of his father, Lewis D’ Oliveira — a tailor and an accomplished cricketer. Young D’Oliveira’s fascination for the game was such that he went to the extent of climbing the trees outside the Newlands cricket ground to catch a glimpse of what international cricket looked like. On these occasions he made it a point—just like the members of his coloured community who sat in the stands—to support the visiting team. Years of racial subjugation had instilled in them an antagonism towards their white-dominated South African cricket team.

As his community was denied access to sport facilities, D’Oliveira and his friends had to walk miles on Cape Town’s dirt tracks to find a suitable strip of grassless earth, sand or gravel. After zeroing on a strip they used to first prepare the pitch with a spade and wheelbarrow and would later convert it into a cricket pitch by laying a mat over it. Since there were no facilities at either of the schools he went to, St Joseph's Catholic and Zonnebloem Training College; he joined St Augustine's Cricket Club, for which his father played as an all-rounder and skippered for 40 years.

D’Oliveira soon began his career alongside Kenyan Asians, Malays and other oppressed groups in South African club cricket. His all-round skills and cricketing genius came to the fore, scoring 80 centuries in the coloured leagues, and he shot to fame by becoming the best cricketer in the non-white leagues of South Africa. At the mere age of 21, he hit an astounding 46 runs-- seven sixes and one four-- in an eight ball over. At 23, he scored 225 runs in an astonishing 75 minutes – out of his team's total of 236.

Alfred Amansure, an erstwhile team-mate at St Augustine's CC, testified to Basil D’Oliveira’s batting gifts by his description of an innings against Griqualand West in 1948-49. “His first shot was struck over the long-off boundary for six. When a fielder was dispatched to (guard) the off-side boundary, Basil responded by hitting another huge six over mid-on. So the Griqualand captain moved a player there too. Then Basil hit a straight six, cutting between both fielders.”

D’Oliveira was also a successful medium pace bowler, once scalping nine for two in one innings. He also figured in one or two testimonial matches in South Africa against White teams and against the Kenyan Asians. In 1958 he went on an all-coloured team's tour of East Africa; before he was appointed captain of St Augustine's—the premier Cape Town club. In 1959, aged 28, D’Oliveira started a new chapter in his life when he married his childhood sweetheart Naomi and took up a job as a machinist at a printing firm.

The turning point in D’Oliveira’s life came later that year when he was denied the opportunity to play first class cricket in his homeland because of the colour of his skin. Realizing he had no future in a country where only white men were allowed to represent the country, D’Oliveira —downcast and disillusioned—wrote a series of pleading letters to the BBC commentator John Arlott seeking his “powerful assistance” to help him.

D’Oliveira did not expect any good to come out of it, but to his sheer luck Arlott ended up resurrecting his flagging career. The magnanimous Arlott—realizing the obvious potential in Basil—along with John Kay, the cricket correspondent of the Manchester Evening News, persuaded Middleton Cricket Club to engage D’Oliveira as their professional in the Lancashire League. Fortunately, their last-ditch efforts bore fruit as the MCC finally relented and offered D’Oliveira a contract at £ 450 for the 1960 season.

Though the window of opportunity miraculously opened for D’Oliveira, the savings he made from his low paying job as a machinist was not enough fund his air travel. But this roadblock was averted when the locals came to know about the misery of their favourite hero and organized raffles, fetes and matches to raise money for his fare to England.

So D’Oliveira, riding on his luck and his well-wishers goodwill, finally moved to England with his wife Naomi and their newborn son Damian in April 1960, just days after the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa. However, the transition turned out to be very traumatic for D’Oliveira - both on the field and off the field.

The weather and playing conditions were so alien to D’Oliveira that he struggled to get acclimatized to the English pitches. Having lived all his life at the mercy of the white man, the opportunity to mix freely with white people was a harrowing experience for Basil. Once when D’Oliveira was walking down a street in London, his wife Naomi shrieked in dismay on seeing a white girl walk hand-in-hand with a black man. When they went to the cinema, Naomi assumed they would have to sit in a separate section, just like they did in South Africa. However, she was shocked to death when the lights went up in the interval and she found herself surrounded by white people. She gripped D’Oliveira’s arm so tightly with tension that it was bruised the next day.

But once D’Oliveira settled he was unstoppable. His all-round skills in the League, 930 runs at an of average 48.95 and 71 wickets at 11.72, was slightly better than that of even Gary Sobers—considered to be the greatest all-rounder in the world at the time. In 1963, D’Oliveira played a blinder, a century in 60 minutes, in a tour game in Nairobi which caught the eyes of Tom Graveney, who convinced him to play county cricket for Worcestershire. The following year, D’Oliveira created history when he became the first non-white South African in English county cricket. He soon became a British citizen by making his first-class debut in Worcestershire, where he played till 1980.

D’Oliveira’s entry into county cricket was a bit controversial as he reportedly lied about his age when he was signed up. It is believed that he gave the club a false birth date, late by three years, to help persuade them he was worth a gamble. He claimed he was only 30 years old when he was actually 33. D’Oliveira himself later admitted, “If you had said I was closer to 40 than 35 when I first played for England, I could not have sued you.” The move proved, however, lucky for him as he ended up playing a vital role in Worcestershire’s Championship victory in 1965, scoring a phenomenal 1,523 runs and snaring 35 wickets.

D’Oliveira capped his first full county season, in 1965, on a high as he finished fifth in the national batting averages, behind four Test players. D'Oliveira’s personal best was his 51 not out on a turning pitch at Cheltenham against Allen and Mortimore in 1965. His sublime performances earned him a place in England’s playing eleven against the all-black West Indies in 1966. Unluckily, D’ Olivier was run out on his debut for England at Lord’s after a Jim Parks' drive deflected off his heel and crashed into the stumps. The danger-man D'Oliveira, aged 34, was applauded from the field by the opposition, though he had scored only 27.

But D’Oliveira’s batting prowess soon caught up, and he cemented his place in the pantheon of greats, when he smashed Wes Hall—the fastest bowler in the world at the time—straight back over his head for six in the fourth Test. He immediately became an England regular and went on to play 44 test matches and four one-day internationals for England, scoring 2,484 runs at an average of 40 and taking 47 wickets.

In 1967, D’Oliveira was in the form of his life registering his maiden Test ton against India and striking rich in a series at home against Pakistan. Therefore it did not come as a surprise when D’Oliveira was named one of the five Wisden cricketers of the year.

By now D’Oliveira had carved a name of his own in the list of cricketing greats. It had become increasingly difficult for others not to stop and take notice of this 36-year-old revelation. While everyone in England seemed to boast about the new “kid” on the block, Ministers in the South African government felt uneasy in their seats of power. With the English tour of South Africa hardly a year away, John Vorster became wary of D’Oliveira’s rise. If D’Oliveira continued his good run, he would figure in the English scheme of things in the SA tour and this would result in a loss of face for the apartheid government. The SA government could not swallow the possibility of coloured native turning up against their white side, so they appointed Pieter le Roux, South Africa's minister of the interior to make amends.

In January 1967, Roux met MCC Secretary, Billy Griffith and made it clear that, "If this player is chosen he will not be allowed to tour." The controversial comment soon snowballs into a heated debate with the former British Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home, who had commercial interests at stake in South Africa, giving tacit approval to D’Oliveira’s exclusion.

D’Oliveira, who was training in South Africa all this while, politely refuses to comment on the brewing controversy. He, however, vents his angst and admits not watching the ongoing South Africa –Australia series as he did not want to face the ignominy of sitting in special enclosures set aside for coloured people.

The controversy seemed to play on D’Oliveira’s mind as he hit a lean patch on the tour of West Indies in 1967-68, registering only one half-century in the five-Test rubber. The slump in form and the pressure to make it to the 1968-69 expedition to his homeland prompted him to seek solace in alcohol. Aware that he had damaged his cause, D’Oliveira felt guilty as well as miserable. His drunken revelry would later turn out to be one of the factors for his exclusion from that original tour party for South Africa.

Despite the disaster tour of West Indies, luck continued to favour D’Oliveira and his name figured in the squad for the first Test against Australia in the summer of 1968. Though England lost the first Ashes Test at Old Trafford by a huge margin of 159 runs, D’Oliveira stood out with a well- made unbeaten 87; no other home batsman reached 50.

When it seemed D’Oliveira had done his bit to stay in contention for a place in the second Ashes Test; his skin colour got the better of him. D’Oliveira was ditched for Lord's Test in favour of a seamer, Colin Milburn. It turned out that D’Oliveira was conveniently ignored by the MCC to avoid sending wrong signals to the sundry South African grandees who would be in attendance at the second Test. D’Oliveira’s relegation as 12th man was a ploy played by MCC to appease the Pretoria government.

D’Oliveira was heartbroken and was fed up of being tossed around as a political football. Motivated by the apartheid government, Billy Griffith, MCC Secretary, and EW Swanton, influential Daily Telegraph correspondent, try to cash in on D’Oliveira’s moment of weakness and agony. They try to convince him to withdraw from England’s scheduled tour to South Africa and to instead turn up for South Africa. D’Oliveira could have accepted the offer knowing very well that his future in England now was bleak. But D’Oliveira stuck to his principles and angrily retorted, “Either you respect me as an England player or you don't.”

Completely distraught, D’Oliveira returns to county cricket in June 1968 and runs into a wretched form with the bat, accumulating a meagre 205 runs at 12.81. He, however, made up for the poor batting display by snaring a breathtaking 21 wickets in two matches, against Hampshire and Gloucestershire.

Meanwhile on July 7, the squad for the third Ashes Test at Oval is announced. Colin Milburn, Basil’s replacement in the second Test, is injured; D’Oliveira still is not considered in the 12. In the same month MCC approaches 30 players to check their availability for the upcoming winter tour to South Africa; D’Oliveira does not receive an intimation—he is left behind this time too.

Had any other player suffered the series of setbacks D’Oliveira suffered; he would have undergone a nervous breakdown. At this juncture John Vorster’s government plays its trump card. On August 10, D’Oliveira is called by Tienie Oosthuizen, the head of a tobacco firm, and offered a lucrative ten-year coaching deal, worth £4000 per annum, in South Africa. Though the offer is tempting given the crisis he is embroiled in; D’Oliveira stoically refuses to make a deal till the tour party to South Africa is named.

Eleven days later, D’Oliveira’s persistent hardwork finally pays off. In a dramatic turn of events Roger Prideaux pulls out of the Test with an injury. The ideal replacements- Tom Cartwright and Barry Knight- are both injured and D’Oliveira gets a late call-up. Oosthuizen cancels his telephone call with D'Oliveira and they never speak again.

D’Oliveira’s last-minute inclusion triggers intense speculation over whether he would be picked for the South Africa series. He was now under tremendous pressure to perform and prove a point. However, his dream of being on the English tour party to his home country produced one of his greatest Test innings.

The knock of 158 at The Oval- after being dropped four times- was a life-changing moment. Basil’s most celebrated innings helped England beat Australia by 227 runs and set up a thrilling series-leveling victory. It seemed no one could now stop D’Oliveira from wresting a seat on that flight to South Africa.

But it was not to be so— at a six-hour selection meeting at Lord's, which ends at 2 am, the squad is picked. The minutes of the meeting are suspiciously. The tour party for South Africa is named on August 28 and D’Oliveira is not among the 16-man squad. Doug Insole, the chairman of selectors, says: "I think we have got rather better than him in the side".

When the tour party announcement reached the Worcester dressing room the next day, D’Oliveira was left shell-shocked. His team-mates ushered him into the physio's room, where D'Oliveira wept. "I was like a zombie," D'Oliveira wrote in his autobiography. "The stomach had been kicked out of me. I remember thinking, 'You just can't beat the white South Africans.'"

However, a dignified D'Oliveira, who had scored 128 for Worcestershire just the previous day, declines to say anything other than admitting it "is a bitter disappointment". The MCC denies suggestions that his omission was because of political pressure from those not wanting to jeopardise relations with South Africa. In South Africa, members of the ruling National Party applaud when a rally is interrupted with the news that D’Oliveira has not been selected.

On September 6 the News of the World announced that it would be sending Basil to cover the South Africa series for them. This decision causes a huge uproar in South Africa and on September 12, MCC receives a letter threatening to blow up the plane carrying the squad to South Africa. However, before another controversy could flare up, Basil is called up after Tom Cartwright withdraws from the squad.

The whole D’Oliveira affair was no less than a classic political espionage thriller. It had everything: on-field and off-field battles, insurmountable odds, race, class, spies and bribes. But D’Oliveira, with his never say die spirit, gallantly overpowered destiny and emerged as the nemesis to apartheid South Africa. Mr. R. Arid, President of MCC, paid tribute to the "great dignity which Basil D’Oliveira maintained throughout the whole business."

In 1970, Labour minister Peter Hain's, 'Stop the Seventy Tour' campaign cancelled South Africa’s tour of England at short notice. D’Oliveira, however, continued to script success with the bat in the five Tests against a replacement Rest of the World XI side. In the following winter, he played a crucial role in England's Ashes-winning tour of Australia, scoring a match-saving 117 at Melbourne. By the time he played his last test in 1972 at the age of 41, D’Oliveira had featured in 44 Tests in all, scoring 2,484 runs and five centuries at an average of 40.06 and picking up 47 wickets at 39.55 runs apiece.

After retirement from international cricket, D’Oliveira stayed on in the Worcestershire team for another eight years. In the county championship of 1974, D’Oliveira played a monumental innings scoring 227--his highest first-class score. When he finally bowed out in 1980, having averaged 40.26 with the bat in 367 first class matches, with 45 hundreds and 551 first class wickets at 27.45; D’Oliveira was an astonishing 49 years old. In 1979, the Playfair Cricket Annual went a little too far when it gave his year of birth as 1031.

D’Oliveira continued his association with cricket and remained with Worcestershire as an avuncular coach and guided the county to two more championships in 1988 and 1989. In 1980, D’Oliveira’s autobiography, Time to Declare, written by Pat Murphy was released. In 2003, Worcestershire honoured D'Oliveira by naming a stand at their New Road ground after him. The Test series between South Africa and England was also christened Basil D'Oliveira trophy. In 2004 Peter Oborne wrote a book on D’Oliveira’s life called, Basil D'Oliveira - Cricket and Conspiracy: The Untold Story. In 2005, D'Oliveira, was awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in the Queen's birthday honours, a step up from the Order of the British Empire which he had received earlier.

Basil D’Oliveira is survived by his wife Naomi and their two sons, Damian and Shaun. Damian played for Worcestershire and represented the county for 13 years, 1982 to 1995. Brett D'Oliveira, grandson of Basil, became the third generation of D'Oliveiras’ to play for the club when Worcestershire signed the 19-year-old leg-spinner on a one-year contract in August 2011.

D’Oliveira’s demeanour, integrity and dignity made him well known around the world by an audience that went far beyond the game of cricket. Arguably one of the greatest all-rounders’ of all time, D’Oliveira carried the hopes of his people and helped usher in a world where apartheid was consigned to the dustbin. He leaves a wider legacy as cricket unwittingly made him a key agent in the transformation of South Africa from the injustice of apartheid to today's non-racial society. He was no politician. But he achieved far more than most of them. He will forever remain a giant in the annals of South African sport.

"The cricket field was a stage on which selected individuals played representative roles charged with social significance" wrote CLR James about cricket during the colonial era.

D’Oliveira played to perfection the representative role with social significance for racial minorities in his country.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The end of an era - A Titan

Snehil Sinha

Benign, dreamy eyes under a lined brow, half covered by the trademark Nepali cap-this is what the face of Assam looks like. It was christened Bhupen Hazarika about 85 years ago and now lies still in the midst of millions mourning its loss.

The Bard of the Brahmaputra, the Minstrel of the Masses, the Voice of the Voiceless and the uncrowned king of North-Eastern India’s cultural world- Bhupen Hazarika has lived past his times and has managed to become a legend for generations to come. A renowned poet, music composer, singer, actor, journalist, author, film-maker, political activist and a cultural icon in north-eastern India, he has so much to his credit that no single person could achieve in a lifetime. I would refrain from enlisting them here for the fear of reducing him to an encyclopedia entry. His unique, deep baritone voice and his easy-on-the-ear compositions, which quite often culled out finer nuances of classical ragas and the huge variety of folk music of the North East, are hard to forget for anyone who hears them.

Born in 1926, in Sadiya, Assam, Hazarika studied in Guwahati and Banaras Hindu University before going on to receive a Ph.D. in mass communications at Columbia University in New York in 1952. At the age of ten, he was discovered by Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Bishnu Prasad Rabha who made him sing a Borgeet taught by his mother at a public function. In 1936 Bhupen Hazarika accompanied them to Kolkata where he recorded his first song at the Aurora Studio for the Selona Company. His association with the icons of Assamese culture was the beginning of his artistic growth and credentials and there was no looking back. At 13, he sang about building a new Assam and a new India. Growing up in Tezpur, he would catch snatches of adult conversation, eavesdropping on talk about Trotsky’s murder and the Indian freedom movement between grown-ups. These were filed away in a then unadorned head and used in lyrics. Achievements sang their way to Hazarika till he cared no more for them. What mattered to him were his principles and ideologies and the pain of his people to whom he dedicated his life.

Hazarika's contributions went far beyond cinema for which he was conferred the Dada sahib Phalke award in 1992. For him, music was an instrument of social change. From early in his life, he was at the forefront of a social battle against the entrenched forces of casteism that sneered at a member of the ‘Dom' community. Gutsy and avowedly anti-establishment, Bhupen Hazarika was a musical genius who put Assam on the country's cultural map through his compositions and songs and his contribution to the development of Assamese cinema. He was named best composer in India in 1977 for his music for the Assamese film Chameli Memsaab. He was a prolific and popular songwriter; his songs connected with the masses because the lyrics often touched on important social issues or promised a bright future. He received the government awards Padmashree in 1977 and Padma Bhushan in 2001.

Hindi audiences took much longer to appreciate his worth. It came, courtesy “Dil Hoom Hoom Kare”, a song extremely melancholic and soulful. The song, in director Kalpana Lajmi's Rudaali, was not exactly in Hindi but its mournful music and soul piercing rendition by both Lata Mangeshkar and Hazarika ensured a place for it in everyone’s hearts. According to popular journalist, Arnab Goswami, “A legend in Assam and an icon in Calcutta, he became my role model for the multicultural identity that I too wanted.”

For Bhupen Hazarika music has always been his first love. During the Assam Movement of the early ’80s, Hazarika was looked upon by an entire generation of agitating students as an inspiration. His music was their sustenance. He wrote and sang for them, drawing on the experience of singing with Paul Robeson whom he met and became closely associated with between 1949 and 1955 in USA.

His humanist song “Manuhe Manuhor Babe” which was also translated into Bengali, talked of pulling down man-made barriers, and was to get Hazarika recognition across the world. His compositions though included Assam's famous Bihu songs, both patriotic and romantic.

Early on in his career, when he was associated with the Indian Peoples Theatre Association, his Leftist leanings came to the fore with songs like “Dola” where, through the voice of a palanquin bearer, he speaks truth to power, telling the rich that their world would not run without the sweat of the poor.

Almost all through his career, he composed anti-establishment songs, using his own rich baritone to voice them powerfully. One of his most popular songs, ‘Bistirno dupare', loosely based on Paul Robeson's ‘Ol Man River, spoke of the travails of the Ganga and questions it for being a mute witness to the sufferings of mankind through the ages.

Hazarika espoused universal brotherhood throughout his life and even in his films one sees similar messages to those in his songs. In Era Bator Sur (Song of the Deserted Path), he told the story of vanishing folk cultures, while in Chikmik Bijuli (The Lightning), he looked at the transformation of Guwahati from a small town to a big city.

His health began deteriorating after a stroke he suffered during the Rongali Bihu (Assamese New Year) celebrations in Guwahati in 2006. Estranged from his first wife and son, Hazarika met Kalpana Lajmi in 1971 and they have stayed together ever since, though never got married. Throughout the period of his ill-health, Lazmi took care of him, till he breathed his last early morning on November 6 this year.

As a singer, Hazarika was known for his baritone voice and diction, as a lyricist he was known for poetic compositions and parables which touched on themes ranging from romance to social and political commentary and as a composer for his use of folk music. Every role he took up, he fulfilled with honesty and for his people, his motherland.

However, one cannot help but notice Hazarika’s painstaking efforts at voluntarily taking up so many roles as if trying to prove a point throughout his life.

An adventure in many worlds

In conversation with Mr Sampath Kumar, Tanu Kulkarni writes about the man who wore multiple hats, that of a news producer, musician, reporter and now a teacher.

Sitting with his eyes closed, with his palms placed on the table and deep in thought, until I entered and broke his moment of silence. Mr Sampath Kumar greets me with his trademark smile.

After gaining years of experience at the All India Radio (AIR) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), he now teaches at the Asian College of Journalism. Mr Kumar was a popular journalist; two of his fans were bandit king, Koose Muniswamy Veerappan and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran

His other fans include his students and if you ask them about him, they will tell you how they felt an instant connect with this 68 year old man right from his very first class.

How were you bitten by the journalism bug? Tell us about your entry into this field.

SK : I never wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be a scientist and got into the media by accident. I worked in a paint company and then moved to All India Radio since I was interested in music. I thought working in AIR will give me an opportunity to plunge into these fields. I was privileged and got to meet and interview film stars that I admired.

You later worked for Doordarshan. Tell us about your Doordarshan experience

SK: When Doordarshan opened a bureau in Chennai, my first job there was as a news producer. Since Chennai was the only branch in south India, the job involved a lot of travel. Television back then was in the infant stage and we had to shoot on black and white reversible 16 mm film, edit the film and convert it into video. I learnt it the hard way, but when I look back, my Doordarshan days gave me a chance to learn many things.

But working for a bureau meant working on different beats. Did you at any point find it difficult working on different beats?

SK: One day I would be covering a cricket test match and the next day I would be covering a music concert and the next day I would be out on a documentary shoot. It was an enjoyable experience. My knowledge had increased and improved after seventeen years in television and 6 years in AIR. It also helped me develop tremendous taste and liking towards different areas.

Can you describe some of your memorable stories?

SK: My Memorable stories are many. When I was working for the BBC, I had filed a story on Veerappan and stated that he had killed over 120 human beings and thousand elephants. He later sent a message for me with Mr. Nakkeeran Gopal.I played the tape he had sent and he had told me to correct the number of people killed from 120 to 133.

Veerappan had listed the atrocities committed by the Special Task Force which were responsible for his action. He also told me that he was my fan and wanted to meet me. In spite of that entire he did, I think Veerappan was very straightforward and a man of conviction.

I had also done a report about Prabhakaran when he surrendered his arms to the Sri Lankan government. I got the opportunity of going to Patikola and Jaffna, two places where nobody else was allowed to enter. When I went to meet Prabhakaran, I was treated like a royal guest. In spite of being so ruthless at war, Prabhakaran and his team were extremely hospitable. During that visit, I realized that Prabhakaran was Robin Hood to the village but a villain to the nation.

But was there ever any sense of fear while working and meeting people like Prabhakaran and Veerappan

SK: When I was on the job, I never felt scared. The only time I ever broke down was when I did a report on the Tsunami in December 2004. After reporting from Chennai, I went to Nagapatnam. There were heaps of dead bodies lying all around and I was reporting amidst the heaps of bodies. In the evening, when I finished reporting, I had to travel 40 miles to get to cup of tea. Later when I went back to the hotel room, I started crying.

As students of journalism we are taught about the importance of being objective and distancing ourselves from events and people. Is that possible?

SK: Journalism is a privileged job. When you go out reporting, you suffer with the people when they are suffering and rejoice with people when they are rejoicing. It is impossible to maintain objectivity. I tried my best not to get involved but I couldn’t. Several times I have gone and reported about atrocities committed against poor people. I could not help but give people money and return penniless. I rather be known as a good man than a good journalist. As a journalist you need to empathize with people and fill your heart with compassion.

From reporting to writing a novel, tell us about the novel that you are working on.

SK: I am writing two fiction novels in Tamil. One is about the life of a musician and his wife and their ego problems.

The other book revolves around the hero who is the rebel. I have located my characters in Sri Lanka. The novel captures all the suffering of the people and the tyrannical government. The story is about an easy going young man who is not interested in politics or any movement but how he is drawn into the conflict. I will finish the books in a couple of months.

Although these books are fictional, is there any resemblance to any real characters?

SK: There isn’t any resemblance and even if there is it is not intentional. Certainly people may relate the hero as Prabhakaran but I have not done it intentionally

Today, you are one of the most popular teachers at the Asian College of Journalism and have won many admirers. Tell us your secret.

SK: After I retired from the BBC, Mr Sashikumar, the Chairman of the Asian College of Journalism asked me to teach the radio module at his college. I thought that a younger person may perhaps do justice to the job but he said that my experience was more valuable than youth. Hence I accepted the responsibility. When I interact with students, I get rejuvenated and excited. The mutual love and respect that they have been showering over the years has made me enthusiastic and I am indebted to them.

Cricket. Coffee. Carnatic: In conversation with Rithwik Raja

Zeenab Aneez

“Recently I saw a boy wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt and thought, why can’t I do the same for Carnatic music, which I love? “

From a conversation with Rithwik Raja you can detect the bafflement he experiences at the inability of his peers to enjoy something so beautiful. Born in Chennai, Rithwik is among those touted to be the rising stars of Chennai’s music. But his ambitions don’t stop there. As president of the Youth Association for Carnatic Music Rithwik dreams of a day when Carnatic music will be on everybody’s iTunes playlist.

Rithwik recounts his foray into the world of Carnatic music as one that was natural. “ I just started singing along with my mother, Smt. Sudha Raja’s, students, enjoying simply imitating what they were doing. That was how I got initiated into Carnatic music’’ he says. “I wouldn’t say I learnt in the conventional way by carrying a book and a pen and heading to music classes after school. Learning in the very casual atmosphere of my home has benefited me because I was never forced into it.”. But unlike most prodigy’s Rithwik did not make a beeline to professional performing.He had, another, more enticing, passion: Cricket.

Like any other boy growing up in Chennai, playing cricket with friends after school was not just recreation but necessity for Rithwik. However, that was not enough. “ Once my Dad got back from work I would force him to bowl to me too.” he says. He fuelled this passion by attending summer coaching camps and playing for the school junior camp. By the ninth standard he was school team captain and representing the state of Tamil Nadu for the under-15 category, all the while continuing his musical training. Soon, the tough schedule caught up with him and he realized he could do only one if he wanted to give his best, whether it was music or cricket. “I was still playing in the state team I could not leave cricket so easily” he says.

Hence, the choice between cricket and music was certainly not an easy one for him. Music was initially just a hobby for Rithwik who spent most of his time training for cricket. “I was learning only because I loved to sing, not to become a performer.” he points out.

Rithwik recounts two weeks in November which he sees as a turning point. To a person living in Chennai, November means two things: music and monsoon. Chennaiites, young and old brave the heavy torrents and water logged streets to attend Carnatic music concerts all over the city. “After second term exams I had three weeks off and had nothing to do as all my matches were cancelled due to the rain. So I decided to attend all the concerts that were being held in those three weeks. I could say it was these three weeks that are the reason I am a performer today”

Since then Rithwik has not looked back. “I love being on stage” he says. Having taken part in many music competitions in school, he does not suffer from stage fright. Even if that were the case, it would all disappear once he started his performance.

When Rithwik was eleven, his mother decided to put him under her own guru the renowned Carnatic vocalist and eminent musicologist, Smt. Sulochana Pattabhiraman. He trained under his new Guru for two years but as his voice started breaking,in 2003, both his mother and his guru felt he needed guidance from someone who has had the same experience. “ The time when your voice break is a crucial moment,” says Rithwik, “because you need both the mental and physical capacity to deal with the change in your voice. At first it sounds awful and completely out of sync so training and guidance is very important at this stage.”

Thus began Rithwik’s enduring relationship with his present guru and mentor, T.M.Krishna, who has wielded much influence on Rithwik’s musical journey. Rithwik recalls his first meeting with T.M.Krishna in much detail.

“I went to see him on a weekday afternoon, at around 2:00 p.m. The entire house was dark as the rest of the family was sleeping. We sat at his music room and he asked me to sing a varna and he made a few changes and corrections to see if I could comprehend and apply them to my singing before deciding to take me in.Since he was travelling a lot then he could only promise me six months at first. Thankfully things settled down and I am still learning from him”.

He does not have much to say about critics and reviews. So far he has been well received. “My well-wishers do talk to me after a show and tell me if I need to work on something. But ultimately, you are the best judge of your own performance. If I give my best, it will transfer to the audience.” A dream concert to him would be on the beach during sunrise to a small crowd. “I once attended such a concert on the Kalakshetra beach, loved it and have wanted to do one like that since.”

While he performs only Carnatic music, Rithwik listens to a lot of other artists. Ilayaraja is his personal favourite. “When I was young my entire family would sing and listen to his songs at gatherings and even now I listen to his songs regularly. I also like The Beatles for their honesty and dedication to their music”

When he is not training or performing, Rithwik is busy wearing the shoes of the President of the Youth Association for Carnatic Music (YACM). The organization which started out in 1984 was first dedicated to providing opportunities for young performers but that goal is almost achieved, says Rithwik. “You will find a slot for a youth performer at any show today.”

Today, the YACM’s goal is to popularise Carnatic music among the younger generation. “Carnatic music is like any other music. It can be enjoyed purely for its beautiful sound. The problem today is that most youngsters feel intimidated by it. There is the feeling that they can’t appreciate it because they are unfamiliar with the structure.It’s just a matter of conditioning” he argues.

Through the YACM, Rithwik and his team hold workshops on the basics of Carnatic music in schools in and around the city. “We use fun ways to teach kids about our music so they don’t get a mental block against it.” The recently held Indian performing arts festival Svanubhava was a YACM venture towards engaging young students in Indian performing arts. “There were over 1300 students at the festival. This proves that there is interest, so it’s just a matter of exposure” he says.

They have also launched a website,, which he aspires will become a platform for all things relating to Indian performance art – general information, lyrics, tips, artist profiles, discussions, video lectures et al. “ It is not a serious website,” says Rithwik, “ and we hope it becomes a resource for anyone interested in knowing about Indian performance art. Like Crickinfo is for cricket! ”

He hopes to make Carnatic music as much an element of popular culture among youngsters as Iron Maiden or Pink Floyd. He also spoke about merchandising t-shirts with popular symbols of Carnatic music.

Rithwik has tried his hand at working in an office but didn’t feel at home there. “I felt like my entire life was spent in office. I had no time for anything else.” Right now, he is also the proprietor of a web designing company, Articature Designs. “I’ll do this as long as it does not eat into my time spent on music” he says.

He has been performing solo shows since 2004 and is only too happy to do the 17 shows he has lined up in the next two months.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Familiar goosebumps

V Ramnarayan

As I ignore a light drizzle and set out on my morning walk, I see an intrepid muffler-clad warrior braving the bitter cold of November Madras. The lady is well equipped for an Antarctic expedition, but of vital significance is the secure wrapping she has subjected her ears to, allowing no entry to the treacherous winter wind.

I immediately experience the familiar goosebumps of the seasoned concert-goer of the Madras cutcheri season in withdrawal, someone whose poor time management skills have denied him the pleasures of month-long sabha-hopping for some Decembers running now. For who doesn’t know that the time the Madrasi brings out his or her winter finery is the time the Seshagopalans and Unnikrishnans have to keep their fingers crossed and throats hot-water-gargled to do battle with their audience of mamas and mamis swathed in their warm woollens and swirling silks, and entice them away from their copies of ‘Kutcheri Buzz’, distributed by overzealous volunteers just before the start of the concert?

It’s early days yet for the migratory birds from all over the world to gather at the Vedanthangal bird sanctuary but it’s the time of the year overseas Indians swoop down on Madras. In the past, they came to listen and watch; today some of them come to sing and dance as well. While the rest of sabhadom is in the throes of scheduling concerts featuring the top stars, Hamsadhwani of Indiranagar showcases NRI music talent!

NRIs are not the only strange birds the season brings to Madras. There is quite a sprinkling of foreign nationals dotting the scene, ranging from wide-eyed seekers of nirvana to serious scholars of music and dance whose thoroughness and dedication can shame the best of local students. And if you read the programme cards carefully you will see that some of the morning lec-dem sessions are by experts from quite distant lands.

Many great artistes of the past have passed on and we shall miss them sorely, and I don’t mean the big stars of Carnatic music and dance alone. Many solid performers, composers and teachers who were an integral part of the music scenehave left us. We’ll miss them.

But this is no occasion for grief. It is celebration time. The usual excitement of anticipation catches up with you. The young tyros you watched make their spectacular debuts a couple of decades ago are today masters of their art, occupying centrestage where once was an earlier generation of stars.

The sensational teenager who took Madras by storm in the 1980s with his tiny mandolin. U Shrinivas, is today a seasoned veteran, while an earlier child prodigy, Ravikiran has mellowed with the years to deliver music of surpassing beauty with his ‘chitravina’. (Ravikiran will perform only once this season, at the Music Academy, thanks to some compelling commitments abroad).

Another prodigy of a later vintage, Shashank, today explores brave new paths with the flute, deeply moving one moment and frenetically fast-paced the next. Will the new season throw up some exciting new talent offering similar magic, you wonder.

As always, there will be some variations of the theme, for those who seek a change from the standard cutcheri fare. That brilliant Carnatic violinist Sriram Parasuram will also perform Hindustani-Carnatic vocal jugalbandis with wife Anuradha Sriram. O S Arun will probably sing Tamil ghazals. A number of percussion ensembles will thrill lovers of rhythm, led by such laya wizards as Karaikudi Mani, Vinayakram, Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam and Karthick. For those harking back to the past, who knows, there may be a four-hour vocal concert or two-by the Malladi Brothers, TN Seshagopalan, or TM Krishna.

The Tamilian and his coffee.

Vishal Menon

“M.S Subbulakshmi’s Suprabatham playing loudly on a cassette player, women busy with their bowls of powdered rice, competing with each other to draw the prettiest kolam at their respective entrances. A fresh edition of the Hindu, kept on the dining table for the man of the house to read. And of course! A morning cup of filter coffee for everyone: from the pensioner grandfather to the late for work granddaughter. A perfect day, for any Tamilian, in any part of the world begins with the morning filter kaapi.

It was “Baba Budan” , a Muslim holy man, who smuggled seven seeds of coffee form Mocha on his way back to India after his pilgrimage. He then planted these seeds near Mysore to start south India’s love affair with this beverage. However it took another 300 years, to the beginning of the 20th century for the coffee drinking to become popular with the average Indian. Even at the turn of the 20th century, “Ayothidas Pandithar”, a radical intellectual, refers to Coffee as a European drink.

Before coffee took over the Tamil middle class, in the early 20th century, coffee drinking was greatly critcised. Conservatives argued that coffee drinking was the root cause for every malady. Infant mortality, diabetes and constipation were blamed on coffee drinking. In an article in the newspaper Navashakti in 1927, Fundamentalists even christened it “kutti kal” or junior alcohol when they referred to the beverage.

In spite of these criticisms, coffee drinking kept growing and had replaced neeragaram (cold rice-water) as the preferred morning drink. The nutritional and healthy qualities of neeragaram were overlooked for the intoxicating taste of coffee.

An advertisement for Narasu’s coffee in 1943 called coffee “the elixir that drives away weariness.”

Preparation of this coffee and how it was savoured were very different from how it was in the west. Here, coffee bean varieties such as plantation A or peaberry is mixed with a smaller proportion of chicory seeds (more the chicory stronger the coffee) before roasting them over a charcoal fire. When the seeds, turn into that perfect shade of brown releasing a fragrance known to the expert, it is removed from the roaster and sent in for grinding. These fine grains are then put into the upper cup of a filter, when boiling hot water is poured over these grains; the perforated disc at the bottom of the upper cup slowly starts to release a decoction, drop by drop, taking as long an hour for a cup. The decoction is mixed with the purest of cow’s milk and in “R.K Laxman’s” words “and then the adding of sugar, just enough to mitigate the bitterness but without producing sweetness.”

Coffee houses and Coffee clubs started to emerge with the growing popularity of the beverage. These hotels, often run by Brahmins, served a Tiffin. It became a place of congregation, where friends met and a place where people would go when they were bored of eating at home. Meetings: both business and casual. Famous coffee houses in Chennai were built close to railway stations, hospitals and temples. The coffee in these Brahmins run hotels were considered excellent, but tea, which is a more popular drink in other parts of the country were seen as a Muslim drink in Tamil Nadu in spite of being cheaper. A person had to go to a Muslim hotel called a ‘military hotel’ to taste good tea.

Coffee grew from a beverage drank by a few to that of the entire middle class. It captured the imagination, diet and an irreplaceable part of the Tamil lifestyle. Going out or inviting a guest home would start with the inevitable question, “kaapi saapidlaama? (Will you drink coffee?) In a classic Tamil short story “ Kadavulum Kandasamy Pillayum” , the protagonist takes his guest lord Shiva to a nearby coffee hotel in the intersection of the esplanade and broadway of Madras when he visits earth for the first time. This best describes the love, Tamilians have for their coffee.

‘Staying alive’

How a rural art struggles to retain its identity

A stroll around the ‘Tamil Nadu’ section of 'Dakshinachitra' brings you to a board that reads ‘puppet show-1 pm.’ As you enter the small structure at the appointed time, you are met with a white curtain that acts as a screen, two old women with colourful dolls and three rows of empty chairs. And this despite a sizeable amount of tourists in the place.

Privatisation of televison has brought with it a revolution: television now reaches a sizeable population of the country( last recorded viewership is 416.51 million). However, comendable though the reach of television undoubtedly is, it is also responsible for declineof several tradional arts in India. Unable to cope with the speed of growth of television the country, several tradional art forms are either dead or are slowly dying. One such dying art is puppetry.

The word ‘puppet comes from the latin word ‘pupa’ which means a tiny or a dainty figure. Historical evidences show that Puppetry has been accorded a high place in the India. Srimad Bhagavat Gita, for instance, talks about how God, the greatest puppeter of all, manipulates the entire universe with the three strings- satta, rajas and Tamas.

The earliest mention of the art of puppetry was found in the Sangam text ‘Silappadigaram’ written around the 1 B.C. It was also mentioned in the ‘Natyashastra’, the ancient treatise on performing arts that talks of ‘sutradhar’ or the holder of strings. In fact, puppetry is so much a part of the tradition that it finds a mention in books like the ‘Natyashastra’, the ancient treatise on performing arts and even the Kamasutra.

However, in the age of entertainers such as ‘desperate housewives’and ‘How I met your mother’, this ancient art is now struggling to regain it’s lost identity.

As Mahipat Kavi, a legendary puppeter of Gujarat once said “in swarnim Gujarat, traditional puppetry has neither the state’s support nor the relevance as an entertainment for the masses that it was meant and proved to have”.

Before advent of the private television channels, puppetry became a mode of message dessimination. Although other modes of entertainments such as radio, and cinema were very effective, these were considered mere entertainers and therefore the task of spreading a message would lay with arts such a puppetry. In fact, many master puppeters such as Ramdas Padhye made regular appearances in Doordarshan in shows such as ‘Meri bhi suno’ and ‘Aap he sochiye’.

“Traditional indian performances have an elasticity in them where current problems can come in. so even in a potrayal of an epic, there were places in the story where even what is happening today can be brought in. This is why they are still around,” says V.R. Devika, an activist who works to encourage folk performers arts.

With ushering in of the private televison, the definition of entertainment began to change. In some parts of India, such as gujarat and rajasthan this meant commercialisation of puppetry; in states like Tamil Nadu, the art began to die a slow death.

In Gujarat and Rajasthan the art of puppetry was became a commdity to be sold in the ‘flourishing heritage market’ as an Article in the Economic and Political Weekly aptly puts it. Despite this, however, the artists remained poor.

“Puppeters are not beggars; they are artists and all they want is their rightful living with dignity. Isn’t that the responsibility of the state?” Kavi once asked.

On the other hand, the art of puppetry in states like Tamil Nadu began to disappear. Artists did not want to carry forward the lineage because of the dismal state of the art and the lack of income.

“Artists do not want their children to work in this field because of it’s poor pay. They want their children to go out to offices and work”, said Devika.” Earlier, these artists used to perform in temple festivals. These days, they screen movies instead,” she continued.

As the they are up against the formidable and gargantuan entertainment industry, these arts must now seek new methods to keep themselves alive.

“ These artists are up against the formidable entertainment industry. They must look to reinvent themselves to stay alive”, Devika concludes.