Saturday, 25 August 2007


Let me confess, I was little nervous. But the moment he entered the room, one could feel the soothing vibes. Renowned litterateur, academician and thinker Dr Udupi Rajagopalachari Ananthamurthy smiled and asked us to take our seats. It helped to ease my mind.

He has been associated with several cultural initiatives like the Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Among Youth (SPIC MACAY) in India. I am not into Indian classical music. Once in a while Bhimsen Joshi with his rendition of Meghamalhar provides me solace of some kind. But how do I, an Indian, truly appreciate our musical heritage? I begin with a question under the cloak of ‘culture’.

What ‘culture’ means to you? I ask. Ananthamurthy replies: “Culture is ordinary. I do not think one has to be highly educated to be cultured. Even an illiterate has his or her culture – from knowing the Indian calendar to the names of the stars. How you live your life is what defines your culture. Music is part of culture and that’s why I think young people should know about the rich heritage.”

But what happens if this process of knowing is imposed? Cultural heritage can become a baggage too…I asked. “No it is not. Why do you think so many young people are associating themselves with the classical music?” the scholar asks me softly.

I preferred to remain silent and let the teacher in him speak.

He cites the pop band The Beatles. “I studied the band as a student in the UK in 1960s. Because of their collaboration with Pandit Ravishankar and Ali Akbar Khan, western audiences noticed the richness of our music. The band opened their music to melody”.
As a loyal Beatles fan I couldn’t agree more.

But the veteran scholar felt: “India is a melting pot where there is more of the first world than the third world”. Why do you say so… I asked. He replies: “You go to any young person and ask them about the great poet Kalidasa, you might face blank stare. But ask them about Shakespeare – they would acknowledge at least they have heard his name”.

I resisted from defending my generation. But was sad – the teacher has put his finger on my weak spot. I am 99.9 per cent ignorant about Kalidasa. Never read anything written by him but I have read some of Shakespeare’s works. I felt little ashamed.

But to my delight, he had a good thing to say about good old Akashvani: “For decades All India Radio has been spreading Indian classical music from one part of the nation to the other. I can confidently say, because of AIR broadcasts, the north-south divide in classical music has got blurred. So, Bengaluru (Bangalore) is the capital of North Indian classical music in South India. Beside AIR, it is SPIC MACAY that has been consistently doing the needful to let the youngsters like you imbibe in Indian classical music”.

But isn’t this optimism a little misplaced with the increasing urbanisation and globalisation? I asked. “You know I’m writing a book about India in 2067. My grandson would become old enough to see that period. I am sure – then people would get tired of things around them like the usual Bollywood films. They would get fatigued of globalisation, urbanisation, liberalisation and all those processes that try to unify our varied languages and customs. Then, they would get back to the roots, fall at the feet of poor. The traditional knowledge of survival would rule, science would be free from nation state. I do not think the earth can sustain all the pressures we are forcing it with. Only music can help,” Ananthamurthy shares his vision in one breath.
“So you are trying to make a futuristic socio-economic comment which sounds to me like a science fiction,” I said. “Not a fiction, it will happen, I am certain about it,” he sounds prophetic.

Reference to his grandson makes me ask about the state of children’s literature in India. Ananthamurthy brings in Harry Potter. “My grandson reads Harry Potter. After reading the last of the series he said – it wasn’t as good as it was. I hope he’d gradually find his way to Chandamama (a favourite children’s magazine in India). Our great Indian fantasies seem to have taken back seat. We need to learn from Harry craze. I think, Indian children’s literature loses out in the competition for things like, say, illustration”, he says.

Will writing in English help…I was wondering. Then asked it.
Ananthamurthy replied from a broader perspective. “It is not necessary to use English language as a source. Use that colonial legacy as an enabler. We cannot deny that English has a place in our atmosphere. But great thoughts are possible without that language. Where was English during the time of Kabir or Tukaram?” he asks.
I nod in agreement.
“Dr Radhakrishnan had said Indian literature is one that has been written in different languages. But I think our literatures are different and should remain so. I am opposed to any unification. The tribals too have their literature – if not written, at least oral. We must respect that. Sahitya Academy (of India) recognised the tribal language through Bhasa Samman initiative. This wouldn’t have happened in Europe. My point is – no language should die. But, there has to be a constant exchange of our literature”, the man whose literary works in Kannada have been translated in many languages shares a slice of his idea. It reminds me of Thakumar Jhuli (the staple children’s fantasy of Bengal written by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar). I wish I could translate it for his grandson.

Ananthamurthy had recommended that Bangalore should be called Bengaluru. “Was it necessary at all?” I asked him. He looked straight at me for some time. (Did I offend him – I thought). The Bengaluru resident then said: “Every place must be called by its original name. Swami Vivekananda, when he went to the then Madras, referred the city as Chennai. The British came and anglicised the names. Some of the names were Sanskritised even before the British came. I am opposed to any such arrogance that takes away names. There must be respect for the native ways. But yes, such a move cannot be tolerated if there is some religious fundamentalist motive in it”.

I was aware about the social thinker’s firm stand against Bharatiya Janata Party. To confirm it I took a safe route by not naming any political party. “How do you think we can tackle religious extremism?” I asked. “We will have to fight it. I firmly believe if you’re communal then you’re not religious. There is no place of extremism in any religion”.

Ananthamurthy is presently the chairman of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) Society. “FTII is a leading Indian institution that was established as part of Nehruvian policies. I want it to become a premier institute of Asia,” he looks at his wristwatch and waits for further questions.

I do not watch the regular Bollywood stuff and would rather prefer to watch old Bangla movies than seeing a macho man chasing a lady with some funny looking people singing and dancing around. But I understand that’s what sells.
“How can you expect good films become commercially viable without the Bollywood type content?” I had to ask him.
“We are trying to exactly do at the FTII. Promoting good films and generating awareness about them is essential. The rest would follow. I am little worried though that many students opt for high-paying jobs. But things would get better. You see…I’m not into any battle between pop versus classical in music or commercial and non-commercial films. Each would someway influence the other. This has happened more in the film music. That shows we are a great melting pot in every sphere of life. One more example, Kumargandharva, the great classical singer, got influenced by the folk music of tribals in Madhya Pradesh”.

Over the years, the UK-educated man has been the visiting professor in several well-known universities, vice-chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala. So I asked him: “What are the ideal qualities of a teacher?” He smiles gently and says: “A good teacher should get engaged in a constant dialogue with the student. That’s how you impart knowledge. The teacher must see that the student is connecting with the subject. And the teacher should have the humility to learn from the students”.

I wish I had him as my teacher.