Saturday, June 21, 2008

Tune the Radio

I found an article in The Indian Express this morning about a place called Jhumri Tallaiyya which reminded me of my good old days of radio listening. The only claim to fame for this otherwise unknown town of Jharkhand is the huge number of song requests received from here on various radio stations like Radio Ceylon , Vividh Bharti etc. In the guest house where I am living these days, they usually have Worldspace radio tuned on in the dining hall. So mealtimes are once again very happy hours for an old radio addict like me. I always preferred Radio over TV because of its non- obstructiveness. You can continue doing your work and listening to music/news on radio for hours . Another reason leading to popularity of this medium is its unparalled reach . Be it the mountains or the remotest of village, islands or a city restaurant or even your own car or Taxi …radio’s reach is incomparable. Listening to radio while travelling is always in fashion. At times, I wonder if old radio clubs are still existing in small towns and cities as they used to be. These fan clubs of specific radio shows and radio stations can be termed a precursor of Orkut communities , as they were a great place to meet likeminded individuals . Radio was a craze in our school days .....Who in my generation can forget legendary Ameen Sayani and his popular show 'Binaca Geet mala'?
It was difficult for me to imagine a life without my little transistor radio in my school days. This small box was my companion , friend and closest confident. Whether I was doing my math homework or just taking a break from studies, going for a walk or counting sheep in those late night hours of insomnia, my radio was always with me in my teenage days. For many of us in those years, life without a radio was unthinkable. Even some of the best Hindi movie songs were picturised as a sequence where either Hero or heroine is singing it for All India Radio and the other one is listening to it.(Remember ‘Zindagi bhar nahin bhoolegi who barsaat ki raat..” or “Ek tha bachpan…(from Aashirwad)” or “Hum the jinke sahare ” or “ Tu is tereh se meri zindagi mein shamil hai” and many more.... ). It was a daylong companion for barbers, autorickshaw wallas , housewifes, college students and of course, lovers. I fully endorse the sentiment expressed by actress Amrita Singh(playing Chameli) in the movie Chameli ki Shaadi when in a love letter she writes to her beloved that in the moments of separation only your memories and Vividh Bharti songs are my consolation. There was a time when I was regular to at least 15 radio stations. Finding a new station was our favorite game . The content of the shows was as varied as possible . From bible lessons to Hindi or Urdu services of countries like Uzbekistan. Afghanistan or Germany and from Bollywood songs to BBC news …I enjoyed all of them. But the default station was of course, the commercial service of All India Radio, also known as Vividh Bharti. I am feeling almost nostalgic remembering those typical request a song (आप की फरमाइश) programs where the announcers will painstakingly read names of all listeners who have requested the song before playing the number. Interestingly, it was because of these programs that I heard the names of places like Majnu ka tila, Jumri Talaiyya and many more. In fact for years I thought these names were fictitious. There were always some favorite stations and some favorite programs. One of them was Urdu Service of All India Radio through which I learnt quite a lot of spoken urdu. Aha the usual greeting of adaab to 'Khabateen-o-hazrat' (Ladies and gentleman) and the polite reading of 'Tameel-e-Irshad( fulfilling the request song) of the samayeen( listners) . I still remember a wonderful program titled "आवाज़ दे कहाँ हैं ”(Call me where you are) which started after partition of India. Many people lost contact with their friends and relatives who migrated to India/Pakistan . The program used to play very old songs of 40s and 50s along with letters where people were asking their loved ones lost during partition to contact them . There were cases where the program did manage to unite lost friends and people came specially to India to meet their friends . Another program based on the memories of yesteryears was “धरती को आकाश पुकारे”. Both these shows started with two superhit songs with these words from old Hindi movies ‘Anmol ghadi’ and ‘Dharti Ko Akash Pukare’. The haunting voices of Noor jahan and Mubarak begum made the longing and the pain of separation sound so much more real. It was lovely to hear about those pre-independence days and somehow while listening to these program and many others on AIR-Urdu service, places like Lahore , Rawalpindi or Islamabad appeared very close . The station had equal number of listeners across the border too. Similarly some names of announcers and presenters like Mariyam Apa, Tahira APa, Mohd.Yunus etc sounded almost like a family. I don’t think people who started their radio listening only after advent of FM will be able to appreciate the quality of content of these programs. Those were the days, after all, when presenters’ narrative were still sensible (sometimes with sprinklings of urdu couplets or hindi poetry and on others with interesting trivia ). There are no loud RJs, talking nonsense all the time, not much of Ads either (only the famous Vicko Vajradanti, Indian Oil), and not only the chart busters-the evergreen stuff, you found all the dark horses, black sheeps, under dogs songs of the Hindi Cinema from time immemorial too. Some of the songs I am unable to find anywhere else even how. You wouldn't get a chance to come across so many songs in your life time, VB is such a treasure house. In fact I would really attribute, my knowledge of songs, lyricists, Music Directors, Playback singers, films and productions to VB . There was another favorite called Hawa Mahal. It was about a one act radio play every evening for 15 minutes. I and sister were crazy about it. The pleasure we got from listening these 15 minute plays was many times more than the current TV sitcoms . Then there was an evergreen hit show of Vividh Bharti called ‘Chayyageet’ . In this 30 minute show , every night from 10PM to 10.30 PM , a presenter will play 5-6 songs based on a theme. There was amazing variety of themes- it may be about a particular director’s movies for one show or about songs played on piano on the other, about songs picturised in Kashmir in one show and about songs with foreign words in it the next.. People used to put in a lot of effort and research before presenting the show. The other favorite shows were Jayamala(a special show for army men where a celebrity would present his/her favorite songs), Pitara (variety show which included women’s program to Radio play and from instrumental music to political talk) and Chitralok – the morning show of newly released flicks. It was definitely a heavily entertainment loaded package but in the modern lingo it was –infotainment in the true sense. Even today if I hear the authoritative voice ‘This is All India Radio the News read by….”, I want to stop immediately and listen. There was another show for youngsters called ‘Yuv-vani’ and its quiz show on thursdays was in our ‘not-to-be-missed’ list for years.
Taking my relationship with radio on the next level, in 2002 I got my first posting in Akshwani Bhawan, New Delhi and for a very brief period edited a business news magazine called 'Market Mantra' on AIR-FM-II ( now called FM-Gold) .I was part of Indian Information Service in those days. Being inside that building was like going to a temple. The work culture was amazing. Despite much degradation in standards, in AIR newsroom and recording rooms you can still find a newsreader/editor calling a friend or consulting an embassy to get the correct pronunciation of a foreign name. There were legendary presenters, people who’s voices become their best introductions for millions of listeners and whose style was copied by many future RJs . There were some people well established in their careers otherwise but working as casual announcers/news readers just to taste the romance of being on airwaves. O yes, it is intoxicating.As insider, I also got a chance to see the archives which can any day make a music lover faint with excitement. From the 40s and 50s the AIR archives have a unparalleled collection of Indian Music-including classical, folk ,regional and of course, the film music.
My radio listening habits were almost lost when I got busy with my career of a civil servant but my connection with Radio continued surprisingly . This time, to complete the circle, I got my first major assignment of a Performance Audit on Revenue Generation at AIR.. Now the focus was changed for me as I was certifying their accounts and counting revenue which the radio station received from sponsorship of Chayyageet and Jayamala. Suddenly a realization dawned that in this changing world the content part of radio was no longer the criteria of its success. It was cut throat competition with mushrooming private FM channels and the quality was stuff being aired no longer bothered the organization. Choice of words and their correct pronunciation was no longer stressed upon. Of course, there were some old timers still continuing with the well formed traditions of the place but the charm and enjoyment of being on radio was lost. New People joining the recording rooms were just doing a job-the feeling of responsibility or being a public broadcaster were absent . Even FM radio was more of a revenue generation venture than an infotainment channel . But even if it is just a shadow of the original, the old charm is yet to wear out completely .
These days the first thing I do in the morning after pushing my morning alarm back , is tuning the good old Vividh Bharti on my Dish TV. It is almost like going back to my childhood. familiar style of presentation and the similar sounds of opening music. The songs, of course, have changed with time. The emphasis is now more on new songs. At times the discretion of selecting right songs for the right time and mood is also missing but still there are few shows maintaining the standards . I religiously tune to them in the late nights and early mornings. I think now time is ripe for me to end the years of separation with my childhood friend . I have promised myself that I will subscribe to the digital satellite radio as soon as I get a house in Delhi. I guess its now time for me to sing “Awaz de kahan hai….” for my lost companion, my radio.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Ah Banabhatta !

I met his ghost once again yesterday . This time on the stage of National School of Drama. He is one person I could not help falling in love with, ever since I read his writings for the first time. His prose is flowery, exaggerated and difficult to sail through-charming nevertheless. He must have been so proud of his knowledge and his wordplay – or may be he realized this is the core competency where no one can beat him, not even the most celebrated poet/dramatist Kalidas. I am talking about Banabhatta , the Sanskrit prose writer, the creator of Kadambari and Harshcharitam , a court poet of Harshavardhan . A writer who defied all norms and established ways of poetry writing in his times and naturally got equal numbers in admirer and critics . Even today most critics find his prose so ornamented and so difficult that they chose to forget him in comparison to other more lucid texts . Bana must have got a similar reaction in his times too. But if his prose is any indication of his personality, he was unaffected with such criticism. He was not writing for people with just enough knowledge of the language. He demands for a knowledgeable audience who can marvel at his ability of figurative speech and his command of language, his clever use of words and his understanding of many arts and crafts. His writings may have complex themes narrated in even more complex language but the descriptions are amazing. He can easily take three to four printed pages in describing one small characteristic of a tree or an Ashram. His similes and metaphors knew no end. He would liberally draw comparisons from all possible subjects and themes. No wonder even one of his severest critic could not help exclaiming his outstanding detailed description of anything usual or unusual by saying-“Banochishtam Jagat sarvam” ( Entire world is just a leftover of Bana’s descriptions).
Savour one specimen of his art Princess Kadambari is sending the following love-message to her lover: ( I am translating it for the benefit of my readers)
"What message can I send to you? 'You are very dear to me', will be tautological. 'I am yours', will be a silly proposition. 'I have deep affection for you', will be the talk of a prostitute. 'Without you I cannot live', will be a contradiction to actuality. 'I am overtaken by Cupid', this will be impertinent. 'I have been forcibly abducted', this will be impudence of a captive girl. 'You must come', this will be expressive of pride, on account of good luck. 'I come of my own accord', this will be fickleness of a woman. 'This slave is not devoted to anybody else', this will be my meanness to report my own devotion. 'I do not send message for fear of refusal', this will be bringing to sense a senseless person. 'I shall suffer terrible pains in case I lead an undesired life', this will be excessive familiarity. 'You will come to know of my love through (my) death', this will be an impossibility".

The Kadambari is one of the best romantic fictions of seventh century . An imaginative romantic story of love, technically in the 'katha' form, the novel transcends the bounds of mortal existence and moves through three lives till the deep and passionate love finally attains its desired fulfilment. In this marvellous texture, men and demigods, earth and regions beyond, the natural and the supernatural, are all happily blended together. Love, curses, transformation of gods into demigods and demigods into men and of men into animals and birds in successive births with the love affair continuing through such successive births, surprise and complex situations and various similar devices are introduced in the construction of the plot.
Being fascinated by his choice of stories, his daring moves of trying new styles and his uncaring text , I wanted to know more about Banabhatta the person. In the beginning of Harshcharitam, which most probably is the first biography of its type, the writer, contrary to the popular trait of modesty and anonymity about one’s own life gives a brief sketch of his family and life. He says that he was born in one of the most pious and famed brahmin family of Vatsyayana clan. His grandfather and father were well known pandits of their times but he turned out to be a black sheep in this family. He was undisciplined , irresponsible and kept bad company of vagabonds. He tried hand in various professions – from running a drama troupe to faking as an astrologer, from gambling to trade and much more . He travelled far and wide with artists and vagrants during his carefree days of homelessness, experienced many good ,bad and ugly faces of life and finally landed in the court of King Harsha.
Except for his own self introduction, not much is available about him from any authentic source. There are, of course, stories in circulation about his uncommon life and ideas but it is difficult to measure truth in those. I was craving for more details about him and by chance came across this book titled ‘Banabhatta Ki Atmakatha’ ( Autobiography of Banabhatta’ written by Hazari Prasad Dwivedi. It was just after my 10th standard and I greedily read the fiction. It was of course a fiction written in an autobiographical way about Banabhatta. Taking hints from his own descriptions of events and things the writer carved out an extraordinary love story. I know for sure that the entire story is not true- as there is a definite element of very modern values in it but it was impossible for me to ignore the moving account of a kidnapped Greek princess being rescued by a powerless and homeless poet Bana . There are many other fantastic aspects of the story except the name of Banabhatta associated with it . It is perhaps one of the best love tales written in Hindi literature.
Yesterday I got a chance to watch the stage adaptation of the book at NSD.I was wondering how will they manage to play the unsaid emotions, the poetry and the complexity of context on stage but the play left me dumbfounded. Creativity definitely is an endless thing. It was a play full of energy, colours, music and fabulous performance...almost magical to me . Theatre definitely ,I am sure, is a far superior medium than TV or Cinema. It is so personal, so spontaneous and so overwhelming. Ever since the performance I have been thinking of Banabhatta again and again. How perilous was life of a poet –an unconventional one, in those days. A life amidst the politics of the day, a life bound by the social customs and a desperate need to earn a livelihood...a thirst to create an audience for his work. How it is for anyone breaking the set norms in any society, in any field?
There is a well-known, interesting statement in Sanskrit, involving a play on words(a very apt tribute to this master of words) : Kādambari rasajnānām āhāropi na rochate. It can be read to mean "While savoring (the contents of) 'Kādambari' -the book, readers do not find interest in (eating) food", or "Oh, Kādambari, while savoring liquor, people do not find interest in (eating) food".
The real person Banabhatta may not be true to his fictionalised version but I would like to believe that Bana was a very romantic, very confident person-arrogant may be, bit snobbish too, but a master of words, commander of language and definitely a very open person who could assimilate the best of many streams in his prose without losing its individuality.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Untold Personal Tales of History

What are the most important facts about anybody’s life? To understand a person what all you need to know about him/her? Is it biodata facts like formal education, name of parents , place of birth etc etc or is it the religion and beliefs, philosophy and dreams, aspirations and fears ? Some time back me and husband had a heated discussion on the issue. It started when I found that while telling me about his favorite college professors , he was invariably enlightening me about their personal information too - affairs, unsuccessful marriages, rivalries, scandals etc. To my middle class mind this was quite revolting. Teachers and parents belong to a class of people about whom it is indecent to talk about private lives- unless of course, it is very morally upright and socially correct . Husband argued that these details are the most important lines in a person’s sketch, for they portray the ‘real’ person inside the body. The discussion ended after a while – but his argument remained with me. Even I grudgingly agreed in my mind later on that there is an element of truth in what he says.
Well, last night I again started thinking on these lines (this time alone) when I watched a beautiful movie called ‘Possession’ based on A.S. Byatt’s Booker winning novel of the same name. The novel/movie concerns the relationship between two fictional Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, as revealed to present day academics Roland Michell and Maud Bailey. Following a trail of clues from various letters and journals, poems and records, they attempt to uncover the truth about Ash and LaMotte's past. It was interesting portrayal of how love and relationships found expression in different times and places, based on the contemporary standards of morality.
Then I started thinking about many historical figures like Harsha, Poet Kalidas, writer Banabhatta , Emperor Akbar , Babur or even for that matter mathematician Ramanujam . What do we know about their lives? While posing this question ,I am not limiting myself to affairs and relationships –for they may not necessarily be the most important factors in a person’s life. But what about his/her dreams, thoughts and emotions?How he/she felt about his/her family, friends, neighbours and how they reacted towards her. What do we know about that ? There have been some attempts in fiction to revive their lives through imagination but as far as I know there is not much of scholarly research. I wonder, if we even have documents to research with- I mean letters, writings etc. May be not in India at least .There must ahve been some books, manuscripts etc but whetehr we have preserved them ...well, i have my doubts . India had a rich oral tradition of tales but as for as serious history writing is concerned we were never good in preserving the letters /documents of even the great men and women of those ages. We actually know very little about the 'real' them. There are some characters whom I suspect of having lived a very interesting life- Razia Sultan for example. She was one of the few notable ladies who ruled parts of India in Sultanate period. If folklore is to be believed her life had a lot of shades including romance , betrayal, power , family feud and may be murder too. But has anyone bothered to reconstruct her life. Then Lilawati -a mathematician in ancient period- we know very little about her too . Same is perhaps the case with most writers and poets, philosopher and saints, kings and queens, generals and gurus of bygone ages. We have seen buildings made by them but we have not much of idea what went in their minds when they built these . And what about not so great common people around these celebrities. How about chronicling their lives? I can recall only one piece of fiction which belonged to this kind of research. It was Amitabh Ghosh’s ‘In an Antique Land’ The book is a brilliant hybrid, a subversive history in the guise of a traveller's tale. It tells the story of two Indians in Egypt. The first was a twelfth-century slave; the second is Amitav Ghosh, who stumbled upon the slave in the margins of letters that were written by the slave's master. His curiosity piqued - even ill-defined, the slave's presence in the records of medieval history was completely out of the ordinary - Ghosh journeyed to Egypt in 1980 to try to fill in the details of the slave's life. His search - which would last for ten years - began in a tiny village two hours from Alexandria where Ghosh found himself among people for whom 'the world outside was still replete with wonders of the unknown.' . These were zealous Muslims who found him, a Hindu, fascinating but utterly incomprehensible. Yet they willingly became his guides as he sifted through fact and conjecture, piecing together the slave's journey from India to Egypt. Ghosh discovered an 'elusive and mysterious acquaintance' in the slave, with whom he seemed to share, across eight hundred years, the experience of dislocation, And, moving between the present and the ancient past, between his own life and the slave's, Ghosh creates an exuberant multi-layered narrative, rich in detail and anecdote, that affords us not only an inkling of the slave's life, but also a unique understanding of the private life of the world that both he and the author came to inhabit.
I have read several pieces of fictions inspired by history or which had a bit of historical research in them but none as fascinating as these two-Possession and In an Antique Land. In Hindi there are books written by Rahul Sankrityayan, Mohan Rakesh or Hazari Prasad Dwivedi which try to mingle history with personal lives of real historical characters . More recently there was White Mughals by William Dalrymple. Then there are pure fictions trying of grasp the essence of an era(like period dramas)…but the kind of writings I am looking for are based on real literary research. Its good that at least for contemporary famous men and women the trend of biographies is catching up. But more often then not , these biographies specially the official ones and even autobiographies ,are not very close to the truth. I mean each one of us live life full of contradictions- things we are ashamed of, things which go against our present thinking and things we hate to admit we did. rarely do we find an account of these instances in carefully edited biographies. More often then not, they remain an exercise in glorification of a person's life-mostly through exaggeration and clever use of language.
Talking about these untold stories of history, I wonder what do we know about our family histories? Who bothers about that anyways…except perhaps some well known families may be . Except his name , profession and few other trivial facts about him, may be a picture or a painting - I hardly know about my own great grandfather . In India we do not give importance to letters, diaries or any other written work after the person is no more. Who cares for preserving it for coming generations and then more often then not, who in future generations bothers to look for these anyways. But then, don’t you at times want to live in a particular age and setup for a while…to know it better, to see how it smells and feels to be alive then. To feel their fears and to share their morality. . I for one, was very fascinated with Chanakya’s age, Buddha’s times, days when Banabhatta was alive .Its so bad that we hardly have many primary source/documents to know about the daily life of women of any ages of history -even in as near as 19th century India. As a student I searched many libraries to look for the personal details about them , not much was there – except the bare basics which history books inform us …..worse, there is perhaps no proper documentation to search it out also. Though the incorrigible romantic in me would like to believe that still somewhere in some manuscripts, in some books there will be these hidden stories waiting to reveal themselves. I sometimes envy the Europeans and Brits for their meticulous archives and Libraries . But then I can sense the similar desperation there also about the lives of e.g. Jesus Christ or Mary Magdalene or rewriting the history of Witchcraft in Scandinavia .
Now after so much of pondering about the personal histories and research for that –I must tell readers about my own contribution for that . Since I am the main character in my story and also my own favorite person for decades now, I did make some attempts to leave behind my memoirs. After years of regular diary writing, I had almost given up on the habit, but since yesterday the matter is under serious reconsideration. The habit started in age 12 when I read about Anne Frank’s Journal and decided that I should also keep one , for who know what comes next in my life . But after years of juvenile scribbling about a school friend or a favorite teacher, an account of fight with sisters or narration of disappointment with parents I found it is totally useless to fill the pages so dutifully. I mean what do I do with those volumes . Now when I read my adolescent diaries, I feel like putting a note that I revised my opinion later on this point or that wisdom prevailed on me after few days of writing this nonsense or may be that I never meant to sound so nasty about this person etc etc ….but I refrain from tampering with my own personal history . I must admit though, even if it is of no historical use later on- it does provide enough explosive material for some defamation suits from inside the family and friends. It is also hilarious at times to read how I used to think in those days. So even if no one bothers to reconstruct my personal life in future …I feel so blessed reading these recordings about my life that by God's grace things did not happen the way I wanted them to be at various points in my life.