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Bringing brilliant minds together amid pandemic

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BHOPAL: The recently concluded second edition of the Tagore International Literature & Arts Festival, Vishwarang 2020, witnessed 70 book launches, besides performances by 1,000 artists and the participation of authors and performers from 16 countries. The 10-day-long global celebration of Indian literature, art and music was organised by Bhopal-based Rabindranath Tagore University, in collaboration with the Tagore International Centre for Arts and Culture Bhopal and the AISECT Group of Universities.

Speakers at this virtual festival included well-known writers, critics, poets, academicians, filmmakers and artists from around the world. Renowned authors who were a part of Vishwarang 2020 included Ruskin Bond, Amish, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Ashwin Sanghi, Sahitya Akademi awardee Chitra Mudgal, Gyan Chaturvedi, Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles.

The festival hosted several ‘Meet the Author’ sessions, which touched upon a range of interesting facets of writing and provided insight into the process followed by many path-breaking authors. During her session, American-Indian author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni spoke about her process of crafting characters, saying, “The character is always at the heart of my books. So I spend a lot of time humanizing my characters and making them complex, especially with ‘The Palace of Illusions’ and ‘The Forest of Enchantments’ where I was working with the characters of Draupadi and Sita. I wanted to go into the heart of these women. I think that’s what people respond to—a complex character that can reach across countries, ages and cultures and from whom we can learn something and relate to in some way.”

Meanwhile, Ashwin Sanghi, author of three best-selling novels, talked about the effects of the pandemic. “My creative output as a writer has been higher during the COVID lockdown. Also, it has given me a tremendous opportunity to introspect. If you have more time to be sitting at home, then I would imagine that your imagination and creative instincts would multiply. You will see far more literary output in the coming years because of this period or lull of almost one year,” he said.

Jacinta Kerketta, an Adivasi poet from West Singhbhum district in Jharkhand, talked about how her writing reflects the trials and tribulations of her community. She shared, “As a journalist, when I left urban journalism and started focusing on rural areas, I felt enlightened. The discrimination towards tribal people became evident and I could see it happening with my own eyes. I started reading about it a lot more. This is what gives my poems the edge and emotions that they carry.”

The festival also featured a series of panel discussions on the impact of COVID on various sectors and other issues of current relevance. The sessions dealt with topics like healthcare, technology and entrepreneurship in a post-Covid world as well as the Indian perspective on education, women in Indian arts, Hindi around the world, poetry by poets of the third gender, and the philosophies of Tagore and Gandhi.

The 2020 edition of the festival also saw the first Vishwarang International Film Festival. The four-day-long film festival saw the screening of 26 Indian and international short and documentary films and awarded prizes to the films submitted under the ‘Competitive’ category. Another major attraction of the film festival was the series of masterclasses which gave audiences an opportunity to learn from masters like actor Mohan Agashe and National Award winner Dr Bijukumar on subjects like cinematic language and heritage.

The festival also had something for the children with art and literature sessions designed for them. These included interactive sessions with beloved children’s writer Ruskin Bond, bestselling Indian mythological fiction writer Anand Neelakantan, writer-illustrator Ashok Rajagopalan, author and philanthropist Rohini Nilekani, award-winning author Nandini Nayar and actor and storyteller Janaki Sabesh. Other highlights of the children’s carnival were action-packed sessions by Amar Chitra Katha, workshops on Gond and Madhubani art and Claude Monet’s paintings, theatre and illustration workshops as well as performances by the Puppet Art Theatre Company and the Shillong Chamber Choir.

Performances were also a part of the evenings, which concluded each day’s sessions. The musical evenings included a recital by Grammy Award Winner Ustaad Shujaat Khan, performance by singer Ankur Tewari, a Rabindra sangeet session by Jayati Chakraborty, dastangoi by the Delhi Gharana and and a mushaira in fond memory of Rahat Indori.

Vishwarang reached more than 15 million people across the globe, making it one of the biggest virtual festivals from India. Regarding its grand success, Festival Director Santosh Choubey said, “When we decided to organize the second edition of Vishwarang as a virtual event, one of our main objectives was to make use of the digital platforms to break the geographical barriers and reach out to a larger audience. I am gratified with the response that we have received not only in India but also in the 15 other countries which partnered with us to make it a truly global celebration of Indian arts, literature and culture.”

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Book Beat

An alternative story of the Taj

The book makes a strong case for a re-look at the legend of Taj Mahal.

Sreenivas Bidari

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It’s an anthology of writings, research papers and photographic evidences on Taj Mahal, edited by Stephen Knapp, an Indophile. He dedicates it to “all those who are not afraid to view the real history of ancient India”. Clearly, the book is for people who have the courage to listen to alternative theories and examine them objectively. Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world, is popularly believed to have been built as the expression of Shah Jahan’s love for his wife Mumtaz. Is this true? Did Shah Jahan really build it, or did he merely acquire it from Raja Jai Singh?

Chapter 1 is a short write up by Dr V.S. Godbole, author of ‘Taj Mahal: Analysis of a Great Deception’, based on his seminal research of 15 years (1981-96) on contemporary accounts and primary sources, wherein he proposes that the legend of Taj is a British colonial conspiracy. Chapter 3 is the architectural analysis of the Taj by US senior architect Prof Marvin H. Mills. Chapter 4 is a research paper ‘The Question of the Taj Mahal’ by P.S. Bhat and A.L. Athavale.

The authors scrutinise primary sources like the travelogue of J.B. Tavernier, Elliot and Dowson’s work History of India (8 vols) published in 1867-77, Mughal court chronicle Badshah Nama, Book Agra Historical and Descriptive written in 1894 by Khan Bahaddur Syed Muhammad Latif, Commercial Report of a Dutch, Fransisco Pelsaert, senior factor merchant at Agra in 1626, travelogue of Peter Mundy, book Taj Mahal: The Illumined Tomb by Wayne Edison Begley and Ziyaud-Din Ahmad Desai, farmans issued by Shah Jahan to Raja Jai Singh, letter written by Aurangzeb in 1652, complaining of the extensive repairs being done on the Taj Mahal (recorded in chronicles titled ‘Aadaab-Ealamgiri’, ‘Yaadgaarnama’ and the ‘Muraaqqa-I-Akbarabadi’).

The farman of Shah Jahan issued on 20 September 1632 to Raja Jai Singh asked him to hasten the shipment of marble for the facing of the interior walls of the mausoleum! Prof Mills points out, obviously, that a building had to be there by then for the shipment of marble. He also examines the description of the first Urs of Mumtaz given by Begley and Desai and points out that by that time the building was surely in place. Even the European traveller Peter Mundy, on whom Begley and Desai extensively rely, said that he saw the installation of the enamelled gold railing surrounding Mumtaz’s cenotaph at the time of the second Urs on 26 May 1633. Since the railing could not have stood forth in the open air, it can only mean that the Taj building was existing. Prof Mills also reveals that radiocarbon dating of a piece of wood surreptitiously taken from one of the doors revealed the 13th century as a possible date. P.S. Bhat and A.L. Athavale wonder, given the mammoth planning, marshalling of resources, gigantic financial outlay involved, why the contemporary Mughal court papers do not have any records of the same.

All the authors in this book rely on the Mughal court chronicle Badshah Nama written by the emperor’s chronicler, Moulvi Abdul Hamid Lahori. It devotes two pages for burial of Mumtaz Mahal, wherein it says, “The site is covered with magnificent lush garden, to the south of that great city and amidst which the building known as the palace of Raja Mansingh, at present owned by Raja Jaisingh, grandson was selected for the burial of the queen whose abode is in heaven… in exchange of that grand palace, he was granted a piece of government land… Next year that illustrious body of the heavenly queen was laid to rest… as per royal orders the officials hid the pious lady from the eyes of the world under the sky-high lofty mausoleum.” They argue that Badshah Nama being a contemporary account should have been adequate evidence for any historian.

Taj is a multi-storeyed structure (including a basement) with many stairways; on one floor above the basement the real grave of Queen Mumtaz is located. This floor has corridors and rooms on both sides of corridors, rooms’ wide windows opening towards the river; it has 3 entrances. The basement floor is permanently sealed with brick and mortar and likewise the entrances and all the rooms on the floor above are permanently sealed. The authors question the necessity to build a basement floor and the corridors, rooms’ entrances on the floor earmarked for the real grave.  And then again, why were they sealed permanently?

In Chapter 2, Stephen Knapp presents an excerpt from his book Proof of Vedic Culture’s Global Existence. He narrates a series of deceptions, distortions made in Indian history including the legend of Taj. He lists other monuments which are similarly misidentified; viz Qutb Minar, Humayun’s Tomb (French writer G. Le Bon in his book, The World of Ancient India, has published a photo of marble footprints), Sikandra Tomb of Akbar, Fatehpur Sikri, Jama Masjid at Ahmedabad, Gol Gumbaz at Bijapur, etc.

Chapter 5 contains photos of Taj and other monuments. It is the visual proof for the discussions in the book. Photos of architectural features, details and motifs, plans and sketches of Taj help us to better comprehend the arguments made in the book.

Next (Chapter 6), an essay by Dr Radhasyam Brahmachari, discusses the Munj-Bateshwar edict found a few km from the Taj. The 25th, 26th and 34th verses in the edict mention that King (Paramardidev of the Chandratreya dynasty) has built two marble temples one each for Vishnu and Shiva and that the edict was laid in 1212 Vikram Samvat (AD 1156). Agra has two marble monuments, one is the mausoleum of Itmad-ud-Daulah, and the other is Taj Mahal; this coincides with two marble temples mentioned in Munj-Bateshwar edict.

Last chapter (chapter 7) is a summary of the book Taj Mahal: True Story by P.N. Oak. It lists 110 documentary and architectural evidences to establish that Taj Mahal was built as a Hindu temple or a palace.

The book makes a strong case for a re-look at the legend of Taj. A multi-disciplinary team must be constituted to research all relevant sources and examine the architecture of Taj by opening all the sealed parts.

The reviewer, IRS, Commissioner of Income Tax, is interested in social service, literature, history, culture, economics, science, agriculture and law.

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WHY RENU’S ‘MAILA AANCHAL’ REMAINS RELEVANT IN COVID TIMES

Phanishwar Nath ‘Renu’, in his maiden novel, highlights misperceptions and misplaced priorities of both socio-politically and medically endangered society.

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I write this article to remember Phanishwar Nath ‘Renu’ whose birth centenary celebrations were preempted by the onslaught of Covid-19 which has wrecked havoc on countless people across the world. He is a major twentieth century Hindi writer who wrote socio-politically relevant short-stories and novels. With the publication of his maiden novel, Maila Aachal in 1954, he dramatically emerged as a highly successful and extremely influential novelist after Munshi Premchand who had revolutionised Hindi literature by writing about a dozen novels including Godaan in 1936—the year Premchand passed way after presiding over the inaugural ceremony of Progressive Writer’s Association (PWA). Renu’s Maila Aachal in many ways took the entire Hindi literary world by storm. It generated some controversies but tremendous amount of euphoria and jubilation all around.

The idea of Maila Aanchal came from this poem, Bharat Mata Gramvashini, by Sumitanandan Pant who has given us an explicit portrayal of the figure of mother India who is kind of desolate and destitute and whose aanchal is sort of maila. Renu picked up this idea and wrote a classic which actually triggered an intriguing and long-drawn out war of words between two predominant literary camps of the then north India, namely progressives and experimentalists (as they were often called) who fought on the issue whether Premchand or Renu is better equipped to represent Indian rural realities.

Maila Aanchal tells us the tale of an emergent nation from the shackles of British rule, which has again sunk into all kinds of regressive practices for the unbridled and unethical material aggrandisement. The kind of social legitimacy these practices began to gain in Indian villages immediately after Independence explains the beginning of our postcolonial experience in modern India. But the reception of Maila Aanchal in the mainstream of Hindi literary criticism follows a different trajectory altogether. When the dust has finally settled over the controversies associated with the worth and impact of Maila Aanchal in the immediate aftermath of its publication some 66 years before, one can safely reflect on the ways in which the reception of the novel took place in Hindi heartland against the backdrop of provocative but serious debates about the concepts of “Aanchalik Upanyasa” (Provincial novel) and “Premchand Ki Parampara” (the tradition of Premchand).

Allahabad-based literary initiative under the umbrella of Parimal with which literary figures like Dharmavir Bharti and Vijyadev Narayan Sahi were associated, was undoubtedly responsible for the critical acclaim of Maila Aanchal at an early stage of its reception. Bharti, the author of the famous play, Andha Yuga, the then editor of prestigious Hindi literary journal, Alochana, is often mentioned as someone who made that kind of helpful and genuine reception possible. But even before Bharti could bestow deserving but generous praise upon Renu whom the former declared the Vidyapati of Mithila in Hindi prose, Nalin Vimochan Sharma, the noted Patna-based critic of Yesteryears in Hindi, brought Maila Aanchal to the notice of Hindi readership. Writing probably the earliest review of the novel, he drew the attention of the academic scholar and critics alike to the abundant merits of the novel. Sharma looked at Renu’s maiden novel in comparison with Premchand masterpiece, Godaan, which he found far more superior in terms of its epic-scale representations of human condition and its crystallisation of grand-narratives for all major issues involving the Indian village life. He believed Maila Aanchal to be representative of just a specific Indian village, whereas Godaan represented each and every Indian village. 

But he termed Maila Aanchal the best Hindi novel after Godaan and placed Renu in the tradition of Premchand. Probably because of the intellectual and ideological differences between Parimal and Progressive Writers Association, Ramvilas Sharma, an active member of PWA, left no stone unturned to demolish Renu, perhaps to contain his literary rival, Bharti, too. In his book Premchand aur Unka Yug, he forcefully attempted to dissociate Renu from the tradition of novel-writing initiated by Premchand. Following Ramvilas Sharma, the entire debate began to revolve around the idea of provincial novel (Aanchalik Upanya) and its relationship with the tradition established by Premchand.

Later, Shivdan Singh Chuahan, the founder editor of Aalochana and an active member of PWA as well, set the record straight when he categorically pointed out that distinction made between Godaan representing the entire Indian village and Maila Aanchal only the province of a district is defective and flawed as Renu’s novel embodies as much village-life and its richness in terms of cultural traditions, myths, languages and social experiences as Premchan’s Godaan. Chuahan insisted that no comparison should be made between the first novel of Renu and the last novel of Premchand even while he gave Maila Aanchal the kind of reception that reinforces its popular recognition as a classic across different schools of literary thought in Hindi.

In Hindi literary cultures or what Francesca Orsini has defined as the Hindi public sphere, the reception of Maila Aanchal has taken place as a classic of Hindi literature which narrates the nation as it has emerged in the aftermath of Indian independence. Except some of the early hostile criticism associated with this text, successive generations of literary critics in Hindi have gone on to appreciate this text without ever suggesting the idea that they should be understood and interpreted as post-colonial texts. Two volumes of Aadhunik Hindi Upanyasa (Modern Hindi Novels, which offers us a collection of critical essays on modern Hindi novels), published by Rajkamal Prakashan, a reputed publication in Hindi, have the same story to tell us about this text as far as the genre of the novel is concerned. The comprehensive and perceptive introduction written by Virendra Yadav, a well-known literary critic in Hindi, in the second volume of Modern Hindi Novels, categorically points out the status of classic Maila Aanchal holds in Hindi literary traditions. That this novel is a genuinely postcolonial text was indicated in an article “Indian and Postcolonial discourse” written by bilingual literary critic Harish Trivedi in the book Interrogating Post-colonialism, jointly edited by Trivedi and Meenakshi Mukherjee.

Maila Aanchal identifies the sources of and underlines the instances of the decline of our nationalist values in its multi-layered narratives shaped and sustained not only by the unconventional and even adventurous story of doctor Prasant and his beloved, Kamli, but also by the immense courage and inspirational sacrifice of the Gandhian figure, Bawandas. Whereas Premchand contributed a great deal to the reawakening of our national consciousness in his literary endeavours by writing the idea of Gandhi in myriad ways, Renu did tell us shocking and rather systematic demise of Gandhian principles during the very early years of independent India.

This novel is a classic creative reflection on the ways in which Gandhi began to be increasingly irrelevant in the immediate aftermath of Independence in Indian socio-political discourse and public life leading to his physical death symbolised by the ruthless annihilation of Bawandas in the novel in discussion. It is as difficult to erase the memory associated with the figure of honest and nonviolent Bawandas who stands for Gandhi himself and whose values were already put to the periphery as that of Renu, arguably one of the three best novelists in Hindi.

Maila Aachal begins with the opening of a hospital for the eradication of the disease called malaria. Dr Prashant, a medical genius, is posted there. He finds out the real reasons for the outbreak of malaria. According to Prashant, they are poverty and ignorance. Not only in the beginning but even in the later parts of the novel which brings to the fore those broken dreams which nationalists like Gandhi envisioned but hypocritical politicians and postcolonial citizens alike demolished because of their greed and ignorance, Renu highlights misperceptions and misplaced priorities of both socio-politically and medically endangered society.

The daily loss of lives followed by heart-wrenching pain and pathos with which people are reeling under terribly dark circumstances due to flawed response to the pandemic does tell us a similar story, but Renu is sadly conspicuous by his absence to create another classic.

The writer is Assistant professor in English, Rajdhani College, University of Delhi.

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BOOKS TO LOOK OUT FOR THIS WEEK

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Hostility

Abdul Basit

Hostility is former Pakistan high commissioner to India Abdul Basit’s memoir of his tenure in New Delhi, from 2014 to 2017. It takes us through perhaps the most difficult era in India-Pakistan relations in recent years. While Narendra Modi’s first prime-ministership began with a new hope of normalising relations between Pakistan and India, subsequent events unfortunately proved otherwise. The author takes us through the highs and lows of one of the most difficult diplomatic postings in the world. This book is written with honesty, lucidity, and filled with explosive nuggets about what goes on behind the scenes between India and Pakistan.

Mission Accomplished: Applying Military Principles to Real Life

Virender Kapoor

Written around 500 BCE, The Art of War by Sun Tzu not only serves as a guide to modern military strategy but has also been adapted by top leadership across the board. In fact, almost all modern management principles are a derivative of military operational strategies, which have withstood the test of time in different cultures, geographies and circumstances. Practised over hundreds of years, these were tried and tested under the most trying circumstances during military operations where millions perished. Mission Accomplished examines strategies that define a military process to accomplish a task in an operational scenario.

A Map of Longings: Life and Works of Agha Shahid Ali

Manan Kapoor

Agha Shahid Ali is widely regarded as one of the finest poets from the Indian subcontinent, and his works are read across the world, touching millions of lives. A pioneer of ghazal writing in English, he wrote extensively about loss, nostalgia and home. In this biography, Manan Kapoor explores the concerns that shaped Shahid’s life and works, following in the footsteps of the ‘Beloved Witness’ from Kashmir to New Delhi and finally to the United States. He traces the complex evolution of Shahid’s evocative verses, which mapped various cultures and geographies, and mourned injustice and loss, both personal and political.

Love, Hope and Magic

Ashish Bagrecha

A survivor of life and death, a fighter of depression, and a believer in the power of the universe, Ashish Bagrecha — the best-selling author of self-help book Dear Stranger, I Know How You Feel, and one of the most popular Instagram poets in the country — brings you his very first collection of poetry. Divided into six chapters, this book is about loving deeply and getting broken. It’s about falling into the darkness and still chasing the light. It’s about letting love find you, trusting the universe and believing in the magic we carry within ourselves. It’s is not written to inspire you but to fix you.

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RETRACING THALAIVA’S FORAY INTO FILMS

Rajinikanth’s entry into the Tamil film industry marked a clear break from the conventional fair-skinned hero who was a paragon of virtue. His rawness and irreverence made him a hero of the subaltern.

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It is in this atmosphere — the air filled with irreverence to caste and class hierarchy that Shivaji Rao Gaekwad entered Tamil films — with his anti-hero image, nonchalance, defiance of authority, and rakish smile. 

Again, it was Bhaskar Rao who predicted during those uncertain first years that Rajinikanth would become a superstar. He had written a review of Katha Sangama. The piece had been short and needed four more lines to fill it out. Bhaskar Rao hastily added what came to him. He wrote, ‘Here is an actor with such talent that it should not surprise anyone if he becomes a superstar one day.

Actors who were baffled at the way he stormed the field could only attribute it to ‘sheer luck’ or the fact that he was ‘blessed’. Rajini was lucky in a sense. His arrival coincided with a massive change that the Tamil film industry was undergoing in terms of production, content, and storytelling. Tamil commercial cinema was dominated by MGR (who also belonged to the DMK), Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, Jaishankar, and such others. From the 1950s till the early 70s, films that projected the resurgent Dravidian symbolisms and party ideologies with melodramatic acting and theatrical textual Tamil scripts dominated the scene. The Dravidian Movement used films and film songs sung and acted by MGR, the hero, to take its ideologies to the masses. The audience lapped it all up during the period that was charged with and inspired by revolutionary ideals. MGR always played the do-gooder, a protector of damsels in distress, a non-smoker, and a non-drinker. His promoters envisaged his characterization with a view to projecting him as a future chief minister of Tamil Nadu. He became a symbol for the party. MGR fan clubs were created to muster votes. 

The DMK came to power in 1967, and later when the DMK split and MGR formed his own party, AIADMK, in 1974, there was no longer any need to use cinema to take the ideology to the masses. Veteran actors MGR and Sivaji had outgrown their romantic hero roles. Even their most ardent fans were tired of the same old plots with heroes giving sermons about good behaviour. 

By the time Balachander came on the scene, the cinema-going public was ready for a whiff of fresh air. Balachander was born into a Brahmin family in Nannilam, a small town in Thiruvarur district. He completed his graduation and joined the Accountant General’s office in Madras as a clerk. A theatre enthusiast, he had been writing plays with themes that interested the middle class. He was not part of the Dravidian movement. The movement had empowered the backward classes. And now a vibrant middle class, aware of equal rights and gender issues, was ready for a conscious questioning of traditional mores and values. Balachander was able to capture the shifting mood of the audience and write plays that spoke to them. His characters were bold, irreverent, and asked pertinent questions. The dark actor was not always the villain and the fair one was not an angel. There was no age taboo for love. He painted prostitutes as prisoners of circumstances and not as social outcasts. The woman was no longer just the loyal faithful wife who did not cross the threshold of her house. His plays were huge draws and when he ventured into cinema, his films were box office hits.

It was at this time that music maestro Ilaiyaraaja and director P. Bharathiraja also entered Tamil films. They set new trends in music composition and storytelling respectively. Bharathiraja shifted the lens outside the studios and set his stories in the countryside. Theatrical dialogue backed by ideological underpinnings was replaced by colloquial banter. For the first time, the urban audience could smell the freshness of the village air and hear the chirping of the birds. This is when Rajinikanth entered. His entry marked a clear break from the conventional fair-skinned hero who was a paragon of virtue. Rajinikanth was dark, he smoked and drank on-screen, and could play dark characters and get away with it. His rawness and irreverence made him a hero of the subaltern. 

Sadanand Menon says, ‘With Rajini, Tamil cinema, and by extension, Tamil society learnt to be kosher with being “bad”. It was no longer something that someone was going to make them feel guilty about. Rajini taught Tamil society to abandon platitudes about Rama as maryada purushottam and accept the possibility of a Ravana or a Duryodhana actually being good. When Rajini stared directly back into the camera…and hissed out the lines from the corner of his mouth, executed his side-winded walk of electric energy, tossing his tousled hair, he became the new and manifest example of hitherto suppressed expressions of desire, no matter how risky or preposterous it seemed.’ 

The most conspicuous difference that the audience saw in Rajinikanth was his unbridled energy. After that initial lull, Balachander cast him in three films: Anthuleni Katha (Telugu, 1976), Moondru Mudichu (1976), and Avargal (1977) in quick succession. It ensured that the film-going public didn’t forget him. In the year 1977, Rajinikanth acted in fifteen films, and didn’t play the hero’s role in all of them. Unlike other actors, Rajinikanth enjoyed playing the villain and stole the show with his off-beat portrayals of these dark characters. All the films were hits and Rajini began to be considered lucky by producers. 

Y. G. Mahendran got to know Rajini well when they worked together on the Tamil film Bhuvana Oru Kelvi Kuri (1977), directed by reputed director S. P. Muthuraman. Mahendran found that Rajini was an intense person who did not speak much. He was very respectful to his seniors—even to Mahendran, who was a senior in the profession, and also because he was the son of his former principal. Mahendran noticed that Rajini would listen carefully to suggestions given by everyone, but he would take only what he thought was right for him. He knew right from the beginning that he could survive in the field only if he stood out. Mahendran remembers how an experienced senior actor, P. Sivakumar, tried to coach him on how to deliver a line. Rajini listened and nodded, but finally delivered the line in his own style. ‘People think he is a director’s actor, but he often went beyond the brief. Muthuraman allowed him the freedom. That is why the pair clicked so well.’

Muthuraman has been associated with the legendary AVM Studios that has produced over 170 films in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, and Hindi since 1955. He started there as an assistant in the editing department and went on to become a successful film director. Sitting in his modest office room at the AVM Studios compound, he remembers his reaction when he first saw Rajinikanth on the screen in a villain’s role. Actors who played the villain followed a set formula—they had a loud, sinister laugh, rolled their eyes, and gritted their teeth. But Rajini played it very differently and with a style that had not been seen. Muthuraman was impressed. When it came to casting Rajinikanth for Bhuvana Oru Kelvi Kuri, he cast him for the hero’s part made Sivakumar the villain. He was convinced that Rajinikanth was capable of bringing something unique to the character. The two main characters were not straightforward—the one who came across as the villain was, in fact, the good guy while the one who seemed to be the hero was the villain. Muthuraman felt that making Rajinikanth appear to be the good guy would ensure that the audience would be surprised. Sivakumar, who had always played the good guy, was disappointed when he came to know that he would be playing the villain. But Muthuraman convinced him that it would work. The film became a box office hit. 

‘Mind you, at that time, Rajinikanth was not able to speak two sentences at a stretch in Tamil,’ laughs Muthuraman. Rajinikanth was a little nervous when he saw that he had to speak lengthy dialogues in the film. Muthuraman put him at ease, telling him to prepare as much as he could and then act in his own style. This freedom and belief that the director showed in him allowed Rajini to reach ‘the next level’ in his acting career. Muthuraman believes that if A. V. M. Chettiar (founder of AVM Productions) had been alive, he would not have accepted Rajinikanth, because Chettiar demanded perfect rendering of Tamil. But it was Rajinikanth’s Kannada-tinged Tamil and the speed with which he delivered his lines that became a style statement. Muthuraman and Rajinikanth worked together in twenty-five films, with Rajinikanth playing a variety of characters. Bhuvana Oru Kelvi Kuri was not only a commercial hit, Rajini’s acting in it also received critical acclaim. 

Sivakumar’s friends felt that he should not have agreed to take on the villain’s role. But ‘it was destiny’, he says. ‘I told them so. Rajinikanth was destined to shoot up in popularity due to that role. No power on earth could have changed that.’ But it was not sheer luck or divine grace that was the reason for his success, says Muthuraman. It was hard work and total involvement in the work he did. Unless he had absorbed the story completely and internalized it, he would not act. His popularity was the direct result of his dedication to the craft. 

Muthuraman admits that directors like him did indeed include songs and scenarios that they knew would appeal to the fans— the speed and unique gestures. Unlike in earlier years, this was not done to curate his image. Instead, it catered to aspects of Rajini’s persona that the filmmakers knew the fans loved. The 1980 film Murattu Kaalai directed by Muthuraman had a song with these lyrics: 

“Pothuvaa en manasu thangam, aana oru pottiyinnu vanthuvitta singam” (Usually my heart is like gold but when there is a contest it becomes fierce as a lion)

And in the 1989 film Raja Chinna Roja had this: “Superstar yaarunnu ketta kuzhanthaiyum sollum” (If you ask: ‘who is the superstar?’, even a child will tell you)

Once when the cast and crew were driving to a location for an outdoor shoot, a group of schoolchildren from Classes V to XII blocked the road, forcing the vehicles to stop. ‘They had come to know that Rajinikanth would be in that group. “Stop the vehicle, we want to see Rajinikanth!” they shouted. Such was his appeal. He had caught the imagination of children as young as six.’ 

Rajini’s fans would request the theatre manager to play the songs again and again. This was very different from MGR’s popularity. MGR’s image was built very carefully and systematically as a viable political leader. Rajini had no political ambitions when he first entered films. He wanted to work as much as he could, act in as many films as possible, take every opportunity that came his way and make money. He began working non-stop. The recognition that came early in his career was intoxicating, blinding. He worked like one possessed. Work became an obsession. A disease, an affliction…till the mind went berserk.

The excerpt is from the book ‘Rajinikanth: A Life’ (published by Aleph Book Company).

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When spookiness gets real in a horror writing workshop

Debutant author Sid Kapdi talks about getting out of his comfort zone for ‘Scare Me If You Can’, finding interesting ways of bringing out the horror element and discusses how challenging it is to scare readers.

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A thrilling rollercoaster which promises a screamy ride with mysterious prophecies, sinister sequences, and brutal revenges is what ‘Scare Me If You Can’ (published by TreeShade Books) can be best described as. We spoke with author Sid Kapdi to understand what it took to create this intriguing world for the readers.

Q. How you began the journey of professional fiction writing? What prompted it?

I have always loved story-telling and my day job involves just that, though of a corporate and technical kind. I wanted to extend it further and write fictional stories for a while, but due to other priorities, I had been suppressing the urge. Meanwhile, in one of my WhatsApp groups consisting of my schoolmates, some of us used to create episodes involving our friends as characters. Though we used to write in any random genre, my friends found my horror stories quite scary and prompted me to go professional. 

I did not know where to start, so I researched a bit on FB groups and publishers’ websites. I also started attending lit fests which helped me to increase my network. On the side, I began writing short stories and later decided to go for a novel that had short stories. I was lucky to have met the right people to guide me at the right time and that is how the journey began.

Q. How did you choose to debut with a horror-thriller novel? When did you develop an inclination towards this genre?

In my teens and early twenties, I was fond of reading novels by Sidney Sheldon, Robin Cook, John Grisham, and Jeffrey Archer. 

Fast-paced, edge-of-the-seat thrillers have always fascinated me. I knew that whatever genre I choose to write in, my stories would be pacy and action-oriented. By nature, I have been known to be witty and funny, and my amateur writing in college days always reflected these qualities. However, I chose horror as it was outside of my comfort zone. I found that making readers feel scared is far more challenging and I had never done it before.

Q. What led you to decide to write a piece of work where horror becomes a reality? What sort of research went into it?

As I mentioned earlier, I did not have much of a background in horror. But I knew that I was creative, could think of interesting ways of bringing out the scare and was good at making it sound real. I read the works of the horror greats such as Stephen King, Neil D’Silva, and Dean Koontz and found that horror writing involves the use of powerful verbs and much more show rather than tell, as compared to other genres. 

Though many of my stories have a backdrop that is familiar to me and places I have visited before, I did need to do my research around say, a crime scene, a poultry farm, a butcher shop, and so on. 

Q. How did you weave the intriguing elements in the plot: the horror-themed resort backdrop, an advanced horror-writing workshop, and 10 stories? You decided it beforehand ? 

The ten stories came first. I was good at writing short stories and I wanted to take advantage of that. Hence, I made the outlines of the stories first, each on a different theme – romance, interview, chat, animal cruelty, sexual abuse, and more. What I needed was an interesting backdrop wherein I could blend the stories such that the backdrop becomes as important as the stories. Once I was able to zero in on the main plot of a horror-writing workshop, I found that either a haunted hotel or a themed resort would enhance the horror effect.  

Q. Was it a conscious decision to base the stories in different Indian cities? As the horror quotient rises with each story, tell us about the challenges you faced?

The setting of each story in a different city and also different state, came up when I was deciding the names of the characters or participants in the workshop. I wanted to have as much diversity as possible. Working backwards, I updated my stories to align with my thought of different cities and I also set up the names of the characters within each story accordingly. 

I knew that many of the readers would not be very keen to read horror, especially from a new author. Hence, I decided to vary the scare quotient such that the initial stories would have more of a thriller element rather than horror and the ‘scariness’ would increase with each story. The advantage of this was that the readers got hooked at the start and they did not feel the horror rising as they kept going along. The challenge was to arrange the stories in the right order, I had to even replace a couple of stories at a later stage since they did not fit into my idea of the scare factor.

Q. Can you give a glimpse of the twists and turns in ‘Scare Me If You Can’ the horror buffs can look forward to?

The horror buffs are in for a treat when they read ‘Scare Me If You Can’. Some of the twists that the readers can expect are – traumatic experiences faced by people which later get attributed to past-life events, pranks played on each other turning out to be real, the discovery of dead bodies at unexpected locations and furthermore shocking discoveries behind their deaths, cheating leading to unimaginable consequences, and so on. The biggest twist is that a character from one of the stories turns up in real and wreaks havoc on the workshop participants.

Q. What sort of feedback have you received from the readers so far?

The feedback has been very positive and encouraging. The best part is that many of the non-readers of horror are appreciating the book. Also, the unique backdrop and the theme of the novel have been the clear winners. Besides these, the readers have loved the visually appealing descriptions articulated in simple language.

Q. Any horror novel you would like to see it get adapted into a movie?

I would certainly like to see my novel being adapted on screen. On a serious note, I would like to see ‘Maya’s New Husband’, the debut book of my favourite horror author Neil D’Silva to come alive on screen. 

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REDESIGNING OUR WORLD TO MEET 21ST CENTURY CHALLENGES

How can we rethink the world’s systems to prepare the planet and its people for the future? Let’s find out

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What does it mean to redesign the world now? Is it about a new world order where the powerful and wealthy nations’ geopolitical aspirations are propagated and promoted for dominance, trade, finance and minerals, one where the military is at the core? Or is it about a design to ensure a better world for all, with access to opportunities and assured safety, security, peace and justice, along with the potential to democratize education, health and prosperity? Is it about climate change and the better health of our planet and all its species? Or is it about something utopian, romantic, aspirational and ideal but unrealizable? Or again, is it about a more real and just world that can be created in a few decades? The answers to these questions depend on whom we ask and whose interests are at stake.

The redesign of the world means different things to different people. We all have varied backgrounds, with differing understanding, perceptions, values, wisdom, needs and aspirations. In general, political pandits and elites who discuss international issues will emphasize global geopolitical power, American leadership, China’s rise, the military, nuclear non-proliferation, climate change, global conflicts, etc. Economists, academicians and business people will look at the new design from the viewpoint of international trade, growth, GDP, GNP, foreign direct investments, employment, manufacturing, services, etc. There are many people out there with varied expertise and experiences, and differing views on what the world needs. A great deal has been discussed and written by domain experts on our challenges and the solutions. However, most of them have taken a narrow view of the trials facing the world. Redesigning the world is complex and difficult to distil into a simple format or formula that can be easily digested, accepted and executed.

We first need to understand and appreciate the design after World War II, in the context of what worked, what did not and what needed to be resolved. As we have seen, the world’s design, conceived after World War II, had five main pillars—democracy, human rights, capitalism, consumption and the military. At that time, the world was bipolar, with US democracy and Soviet communism being the two warring ideologies with conflicting priorities. This era was focused on nuclear proliferation, industrial espionage, counterintelligence and mistrust between the two superpowers.

Seventy-five years on, it is clear that we enjoy world peace, democracy and freedom. We are making tremendous progress mainly because of technology, infrastructure, energy and communication. Democracy has won. Unfortunately, because of populism and divisive politics, narrow interests and exclusion of people from the mainstream, large-scale distortion of facts and erosion of institutions, democracy is under high stress in many countries and they face an uncertain future. Democracy is still a work in progress and needs much more reform to take it to the next level.

Human rights are well-accepted but not delivered, policed or practised in many countries. There are persisting issues affecting inclusion, equality and justice, especially for minorities. Discrimination on the basis of race, religion, caste, colour and economic situation continue to divide communities and create tensions leading to violence. Capitalism has worked well and created substantial growth and prosperity. It has reduced global poverty and created wealth. However, wealth distribution is heavily concentrated in the hands of a very few, thus further dividing people and societies. Consumption has been carried too far and benefits only a few. Overconsumption in some areas has affected our climate, forests and environment to the point where human civilization’s survival may be at stake. The military machine diverts too much of our precious resources from the cause of social development, spurred on by false fears of nuclear war and border disputes. Global discussions and dialogues can resolve most of this. Any significant redesign of the world must address all these issues head-on.

The design of the post–World War II world is now obsolete and a fresh approach is needed with a new social, political and economic architecture. We have accomplished a lot, but we could have done much more. We got derailed with our old command-and-control mindset, dominance, military establishments and violence. We continue building warheads and not health systems. We worry about markets and financial systems while we ignore people and poverty. We think top-down and not bottom-up. We do not seek to find sustainable solutions that benefit the poor. We divide people by categorizing and labelling them with our preconceived notions. We build boundaries, not bridges. We design policies to benefit the rich and ignore the hungry and homeless. We promote lies and suppress the truth. We spread hate and hide love. We use religion to separate and not unite.

Now, with hyperconnectivity, we have a global opportunity to change all this quickly. Distance does not matter, nor do time zones, and the opportunities to network and collaborate in the cyber age are limitless. We have new technologies and new tools to work with. We can now deploy innovative models for development and build more inclusive, prosperous and sustainable communities. This is an opportune moment to review and reflect on redesigning our world and taking it forward on a new trajectory. Young people in this world have a lot at stake. They are conscious of climate change and the possibilities of technology. They are progressive with no hang-ups from old-fashioned mindsets. They want peace and prosperity for all. They are willing to share and sacrifice. To redesign the world is to call for action, especially for the youth. It is a call for them to unite and demand a better future for humanity. It is a new vision that they can act upon and use to become empowered.

The excerpt is from the book Redesign the World: A Global Call to Action (published by Penguin Random House India).

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