My earliest memories of Kishoritai are of her visits to our Mumbai home. I must have been nine or ten years old. Sometimes she would visit with her mother, the great Mogubai Kurdikar, and at other times by herself. Her mother, though, visited alone far more often and even stayed with us a couple of times. She was quite close to my father.
I recall Kishoritai’s animated and sometimes heated discussions with my father but I have no idea what they were arguing about. She addressed father as Mohandada, he being about a decade older than her. The discussions were often interspersed with singing, sargams and other musical demonstrations.
Yesterday, on hearing of her sad passing, we talked about our memories of her. I asked Amma if she remembered what those discussions were all about. She said it was all far too technical for her to follow, much less remember. Besides, more often than not, she would be in the kitchen preparing a meal. But, she said, no matter what they discussed and whether they agreed on a point or not, they would never drag the argument to the dining table.
They liked each other like a brother and sister, Amma says. Once, however, in the midst of an argument in front of Amma, she said, “Mohandada fights with me like he is my boyfriend.” Everyone had a good laugh and I guess the two moved on to the next thing to argue about. After one of those lunches, I remember having dropped mother and daughter home in our trusty Ambassador. During our ride Kishoritai suggested that I should get to know her son Bibhas, who she said was my age. That meeting was never to happen.
Her visits stopped when serious troubles with her voice began and she nearly gave up singing for close to a decade. After that hiatus, she came back with a bang and was soon the undisputed prima donna of Hindustani music. As her profile grew, so did tales about her idiosyncratic conduct. Nevertheless, everything was forgotten the moment she took to the stage. Her voice scintillated, her performance elevating the soul to rarefied realms.
Kishoritai was a thinking musician. Everything she spoke about music came after deep, rational thought. Even her aesthetics was backed by robust, convincing logic rather than unquestioned tradition alone. If you’d hear her speak as much as you’d hear her sing, you would see her genius, though many would be convinced of it only listening to her singing.
As we all know geniuses often have eccentricities. In fact, eccentricities probably define geniuses. Mogubai once invited my parents for lunch at their home. Amma remembers that day well. Though she cooked the entire meal perfectly, Kishoritai confined herself to the kitchen and did not utter a single word the whole afternoon, leaving my parents quite puzzled.
A couple of days later she called and profusely apologised saying she was mentally preoccupied and consumed by planning her repertoire for a concert the next day. She refers to this idiosyncracy in Amol Palekar’s film ‘Bhinna Shadja’ which incidentally has a reference to one of my father’s comments about her style of presentation in the mid 1970s.
RIP Kishoritai. You will never be forgotten; your song will forever echo in our hearts.
It has been my good fortune to have known two R.K. Laxmans: the unspeaking Common Man on Times of India’s front page, who legions of readers like me adored, and the uncommon man who made me wonder whether he was indeed the creator of the balding, bespectacled, dhoti-clad gent, generating a zillion laughs a day, every day for six decades.
I was introduced to the first Laxman when I was about 10 years old. My dad, Mohan Nadkarni, was a longtime Times columnist and on one of my visits to the Times with him, we ran into Laxman on the long third floor corridor. Dad and he chatted a bit and then we trooped into his cabin on the far side of the building. It felt great to meet the man who actually drew the cartoon on the Times’ front page. Sifting through his pile of sketches next to his drawing board, he picked an inked sketch of a street urchin and gifted it to me, which to this day is among my most prized possessions.
Over the years he knew me as ‘Mohan’s boy’ and seemed quite fond of me stopping by to chat with me if I ran into him while running dad’s errands in the Times building. Then, in 1984, when my first cartoon strip appeared in the Sunday Magazine of the Indian Express, I asked my father if I should mention it to Laxman. He hesitatingly assented. A few days later I was in the building again, saw Laxman and showed him a copy of my first published work. He looked at it for all of five seconds, handed it back, said nothing and went his way. That was my brief introduction to the second Laxman. We never discussed my cartoons ever again. Neither did he like to say anything about any other cartoonist’s work.
In 1987, when, as part of the Festival of India, some 10 Indian cartoonists were invited to exhibit their work at the Bande Dessinee festival in Switzerland, he declined to join our contingent. Because of my acquaintance with him, I was asked to persuade him but he had made up his mind. So we had Mario Miranda, Sudhir Dar (Hindustan Times), Ram Waeerkar (Amar Chitra Katha/Tinkle), noted freelance cartoonist Vins (Vijay N Seth), a few others and me, but India’s greatest wasn’t there. We were hard put to explain to the show’s visitors why his work wasn’t there.
My associates in the business of communications and media knew about our friendship. I was therefore able to drum up quite a few lucrative special assignments for Laxman, including a diary for a leading international bank and a calendar for a major Indian IT outfit, besides many smaller assignments like traffic and law and order education booklets for Mumbai Police. It was also great to have facilitated his meeting with over 1000 adoring software professionals of my friend Anand Deshpande’s company, Persistent Systems, in Pune. My encounters with Laxman grew few and far between over a number of years until my family moved to Pune.
One weekend, as we strolled through our quiet, leafy street, Laxman spotted me and called out. We knew the Laxmans had a flat somewhere hereabouts but had no idea that it was a mere stone’s throw away, just about 50 metres from where we lived. We clambered up to his commodious flat and were warmly welcomed by his ever-affable wife Kamala and treated to idlis and some superb filter coffee. He told me he was contemplating living and working in Pune and that the Times was setting up some scanning equipment so that he could send his cartoons electronically.
We were delighted to have him live so close by. Our meetings grew more regular – the couple would visit us and we would visit them. On many evenings he would insist I join him for his customary regimen of Black Label. He would simply call and say, “Come over for a drink.” I’ve lost count how many Johnny Walkers we’ve downed between us. He would often invite me to walks around the area, which were almost always interrupted by wide-eyed fans and autograph seekers.
We talked of many things – his love of black, why he liked to paint crows, his favourite comic strips, illustrators and artists, his huge collection of twigs and stones, his fascination for Lord Ganesh’s iconography even though he openly claimed to be an atheist, at least in those days. He also told me why he refused excellent offers to work in the UK, how he went about planning his cartoon for the next day and so much more. He related fascinating personal anecdotes of his travels around the world and his encounters with famous people – from the Shankaracharya to Indira Gandhi.
Someday, perhaps soon, I’ll put them to paper. But I can see it will be a rather long piece…
The uncommon creator of the common man that I came to know better was typically critical and brooding. There hardly was any humour in most of our conversations, though there was the odd joke or funny gesture. It made me wonder if this was indeed the man who would produce a rip-roaring comment with an economy of brush strokes and a less-is-more approach to captioning, the next day. But then again, maybe that sullenness was actually the fuel that propelled his creative genius to produce such incredible work: Drawing his ‘You Said It’ daily pocket cartoon was like trying to “fill your tummy now by thinking of yesterday’s meal,” he once said.
On the morning of my fortieth birthday Laxman and Kamala turned up at our home quite unexpectedly with a box of sweets for our girls (he didn’t know it was my birthday). We were to host a party that night and had a few friends over, helping out. Laxman asked what the preparations were all about. The couple wished me, had a cup of coffee and left. Later that day, Laxman came back with a most gorgeous drawing of Ganesh as a birthday gift to me. “Specially for you, my friend,” he said. That framed masterpiece has had pride of place in all the homes I have lived in since.
Over the past decade, I met Laxman only a few times – whenever I visited Pune. His health declined steadily. Then, a stroke paralysed him and took away his speech. His last years have been spent quite like his unspeaking common man who indeed has immortalised him. He would speak in gestures, lovingly interpreted by Kamala. When it was possible, he would write what he wanted to say. He mainly stayed at home, confined to a wheelchair but every evening, a longtime faithful friend took him on a drive around parts of Pune for about an hour. Visiting a Ganesh temple was part of the routine.
I last met him just over a month ago in December 2014. I told him about dad’s passing. He remembered they were of the same age, he gestured (dad was a year younger). He then insisted I join him on his evening ride (I had to reschedule an appointment, which I am so glad I did). We visited a Ganesh temple in Aundh. An attendant brought forth a red hibiscus, which Laxman touched and was then placed at the feet of the God of Creativity. The rest of the trip was spent in silence, my left hand gripping his right forearm. I glanced at him as we passed by the statue of his Common Man at the Symbiosis Institute Complex on Senapati Bapat Road. He didn’t seem to notice.
Back home, we sat around for a while as Kamala chatted with the unending stream of evening visitors. Not long after that, I said my final goodbye. It felt like the final flourish with which the great master crossed the ‘x’ in his ‘Laxman’ signature before handing in the picture that would launch a million laughs the next morning.
M V Kamath was a close family friend. He and my father went back a long time – right back to the days when they both began their writing careers with Bharat Jyoti, now called the Free Press Journal. That was also the time when veteran cartoonist R K Laxman and Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray shared office space drawing cartoons for the same paper. I think it was the late 1940s.
MVK, as he was known among friends (or Madhav maam, as I called him), and my father began writing for the Times of India around the same time, during Frank Moraes’ (celebrated writer Dom Moraes’ father) news editorship. Interestingly, MVK trained as a chemist and worked as one in a pharmaceutical company before he came to work for Bharat Jyoti. My father often recounted their old times – cups of tea, sandwiches and lunches at the Wayside Inn on Rampart Row and the Parisian in Mumbai’s Fort area.
My earliest memories of MVK were his visits to our home during his periodic trips to India when he was the Times of India’s Washington correspondent for about a decade. On finishing that stint, he became the editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India and promptly got my father to write a column on Hindustani music and other cultural subjects for the prestigious weekly. His visits to our home grew more regular. I remember he lived in an airy Times of India flat on Napean Sea Road then.
On the first day of my Public Relations course at the Xavier Institute of Mass Communications, MVK had been invited to address us students. He spotted me and asked in Konkani “Haanga Kassa Karta Re?” (What are you doing here?). I said I had enrolled. In his address I clearly remember him asking, “How many of you have read Palgrave’s Treasury?” No hands went up from the crowd of about 100. “How many of you have heardof Palgrave’s Treasury?” No hands again. He roundly scolded us for not reading what mattered and wasting too much time on television.
That weekend he was at our home for dinner again. Browsing through our bookshelf he pulled out a copy of Palgrave’s Treasury and said to me, “You have a copy. Why didn’t you put up your hand?” I blamed it on my shyness (besides, he had already spoken to me in Konkani, making me the cynosure of so many eyes, even if briefly – very awkward when you’re a nervous twenty year old!). He gave me a wee lecture on why I needed to shed my shyness and just be myself and get out there, do things.
A few weeks later I did just that. I typed out a piece (can’t remember what it was about) and shot it off to him at his Illustrated Weekly office. A week later I got it back in the mail with a rejection slip and a note from MVK, saying not to ever stop writing and trying again. That was my first ever rejection slip. And to my memory, the only one I’ve ever received. A year or so later, having graduated, I was working with another genius from South Kanara – Anant Pai, better known as Uncle Pai, who was also a close friend of MVK’s.
Many years later, when Pritish Nandy became the editor of the Weekly, his deputy Nikhil Lakshman offered me a weekly, back-of-the-book style column that ran for close to two years. During one of his visits, MVK made a mention of it and remembered having rejected my first attempt. He said he was glad I had taken his advice and hadn’t given up. I must say he introduced me to Dina Vakil, then the editor of The Indian Express Magazine, which is where I began my cartooning career with a weekly strip.
One of the more memorable evenings with MVK was when my father celebrated 30 years of writing in the Times of India with the who’s who of the paper’s editorial staff our house for dinner. We have several pictures of that night. MVK was in his spirits cracking joke after joke in English and Konkani – much to the puzzlement of the others, though Filmfare’s Rauf Ahmed, does understand Konkani (pics at the end of the piece).
MVK was always around for the big family functions. He declared published two of my father’s books, felicitated him at the public function on his sixtieth birthday – and attended my wedding. After he had finished with the Weekly, he was desperately looking for a home. That’s when my father introduced him to Anand Kalyanpur who had just redeveloped his building, Kalyanpur House, near Khar railway station and had a spare flat on the first floor. Anand was delighted to have such an illustrious neighbour.
We hadn’t been in touch with MVK over the past decade or so, particularly after my parents moved to live with us here in New Zealand. He and my father were born almost exactly a year apart and passed away less than three months apart. They were friends for life. Though I knew very little of his personal life, I suspect he confided a lot in my father.
He was a terrific person to have around. Always smiling, joking, full of wit and wisdom – and like many men of his time, a repository of knowledge.We will miss you greatly, Madhav maam.
Having raised the profile of Samoan cuisine to dizzying heights, chef Robert Oliver is transforming traditional foods at the grassroots.
Award winning chef and author Robert Oliver is not one to rest on his laurels. The two-time winner of the world’s most prestigious cookbook awards for his Pacific-themed cookbooks (see box), the celebrity chef who grew up in Samoa and Fiji is passionate about leveraging this success for Samoa and other islands of the Pacific.
“The awards have sparked a genuine global interest in Pacific cuisines,” says Mr Oliver, who will be showcasing some of these at a major event on the margins of the SIDS conference. “Cultures around the world take pride in their cuisines. Take French cuisine, for instance. People travel all the way there to try it out. That’s what we need to do in the Pacific – make cuisine a sought after part of our tourist offering.”
Oliver is not just a chef and author. He is also a thinker and philosopher. While talking of the importance of packaging Pacific cuisines as a part of the general allure of Pacific destinations, he also values the role of local produce, smallholding growers and their traditional methods of farming, which are inherently natural and organic. He is also deeply concerned with the alarming incidence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Samoa and the Pacific.
“Cuisine is about people, identity, health, nutrition, livelihoods, the economy and of course the well being of the community,” he says passionately. “Many foods have deep traditional significance, which is also related to specific stages in the life of men and women. There is a whole of list of foods that facilitate lactation, rejuvenation and so on. We are in danger of losing that knowledge.”
The chef is working intensely on a project that touches all these aspects of food and cuisine. Along with the well-known Samoan NGO Women in Business Development Inc (WIBDI), he is working with a range of organic farmers to grow and supply produce to popular hotels and restaurants around Samoa. He is also working with chefs of five of these establishments to develop unique recipes inspired by traditional Pacific cuisines. “The idea is to get tourists to taste local, organic produce prepared traditionally with a twist that appeals to international palates,” he says.
The ‘Farm to Table’ project is gathering steam. More establishments are joining in the run up to the SIDS events. “It’s about building enduring relationships through the value chain,” he says. “From communities, to farmers, to chefs, right through to the consumer. Ultimately it is the whole country that benefits – not just in terms of realising tourism potential but also healthy eating and cultural pride.”
‘Samoa arrives on world cuisine stage’
“I didn’t win the award. Samoa won the award,” Oliver said when his second book based on the cuisines of the Pacific islands, ‘Mea’ai Samoa: Recipes from the Heart of Polynesia’, won one of the world’s most prestigious awards earlier this year.
The book, along with its associated television cooking show, Real Pasifik won the Gourmand Award for Best TV Chef Cookbook In The World 2013 at an award ceremony in Beijing. The globally sought after accolade is considered the Oscars of cookbooks, coming from the well-regarded house of Cointreau, the family that brought to the world the famous Cointreau liqueur, as well us the Cognacs Frapin and Rémy Martin. “It signals Samoa’s arrival on the world cuisine stage,” he says.
For Oliver and the Pacific, winning this award was a bit of de ja vu. For in 2010 his earlier tome titled Me’a Kai, the Pacific Island Cookbook was named the Best Cookbook of the Year at the 2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris. The European media called it the gastronomic upset of the year. “We’d won the big one before so this year’s award was wholly unexpected,” says the passionate chef.
The book beat 187 participating countries. Of a shortlist of 94, 61 made it to the top three. Finalists were from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Winning the award a second time in such a short period of time only means there is something special about Pacific Island cuisine.
Natural ingredients, simplicity of preparation and cooking processes and a range of clean, subtle flavours directly reminiscent of the origins of the ingredients – the ocean and the pristine land – have proved a winning combination for the chef and Pacific cuisine.
First appeared in Islands Business magazine, September 2014
By Dev Nadkarni
Early this year, the Indian Posts and Telegraphs department honoured a simple, bespectacled, dhoti-clad Indian who has never spoken a single word for more than 60 years. Sporting horn rimmed glasses and with his thinning wisp of hair crowning his balding pate, the man, always wearing a checked coat, has been immortalised on a postage stamp.
The man is one of India’s most well recognised cartoon characters: legendary cartoonist R.K. Laxman’s Common Man. Featured in every single “You Said It” cartoon on the front page of what is today the world’s largest selling English newspaper, The Times of India, Laxman’s Common Man has been a silent spectator to the goings on in the rough and tumble of Indian life since 1951.
The postage stamp is among a string of great national and international honours that have come the way of India’s greatest ever cartoonist. Among the big awards he has received are the nation’s second biggest – the Padma Vibhushan – and the Ramon Magsaysay Prize, often called the Nobel Prize of the east. His ardent fans, of which there are millions, have been expecting India’s top honour, the Bharat Ratna, to come his way for a few years now. But as we have seen, it has eluded him this year as well. Unfortunately for the mindless boffins in Delhi who are in charge of the award, the recipient has to be thoroughly dead before they can be persuaded to confer it, as has been proved repeatedly.
I’ve had the good fortune to know Laxman closely for many years – first, because my father was a long time columnist and writer with the Times of India and second because he had a home in the same street that I lived in the city of Pune. For many years, he would spend weekends away from the bustle of Mumbai, where he lived and worked, and dash of to the more salubrious climes and relaxed pace of Pune – which is where we would meet for a long walk followed by a round of Scotch nearly every weekend.
Visiting Laxman during my visit to Pune last month was different. The maestro, now 90, has been ailing for several years and lives permanently in Pune. A severe stroke about a year ago has left him without speech – like the Common Man, his uncommon creator is now silent. I spent a couple of hours with him and his genial wife Kamala and he conversed with me scribbling words on a notepad. His wit is still razor sharp and he is quite cogent and lucid but for his ability to speak.
When he turned 90 last year, the Laxmans’ elegant Pune home played host to a legion of his well wishers and fans beginning from the President of India, Pratibha Patil, to chief ministers, political heavyweights – almost all of whom he had taken potshots at on the front page of the Times of India – industrialists, academics down to the common man in the street.
A few years ago, Symbiosis, one of India’s most forward looking tertiary educational institutions erected a ten-foot statue of the Common Man on its premises in Pune, which is today quite a tourist attraction for visitors to the city. The new postage stamp will now take the visage of the famously silent Common Man on to countless letters, postcards and envelopes around India, bringing a smile on the faces of millions of recipients – and fans of the master cartoonist.
By Dev Nadkarni
Mario Miranda never really liked to talk about himself or his work. But once during an assignment, when I pressed him on how he went about his meticulously detailed illustrations, he told me in his usual shy manner that he began at one corner of the blank sheet and put his scratchy ink pen nib down only when he had fully filled up the whole sheet.
The maestro put his nib down one final time yesterday, having finished with the extraordinary canvas of his life. And what an incredibly rich and unforgettable picture he has drawn for all of us in his seven decade long career. His drawings, with their filigree-like detail, are an endless source of joy: you find something new in every illustration no matter how many times you’ve seen it before. That indeed was his genius.
I knew Mario as a fan, friend, colleague and client – as fan for a lifetime, the rest for more than two decades. My first ever introduction to Goa was through one of his illustrated books, “Goa With Love – by Mario”, a copy of which we still have in our collection nearly half a century later.
“Goa With Love” is Mario’s finest tribute to his most beloved Goa – it is completely illustrated, no copy except for an odd caption or two. It captures every aspect of Goa – the scenery, the people, the social mores, the cultural diversity, the oddly spelt Hindu names in Portuguese-influenced English, everything except perhaps the smell of feni.
I have lost count of how many times I must have pored over that book throughout my life. I remember spending hours on each page when I was a child growing up in Panaji – which back then was Panjim. I can still find things to laugh about in the drawings.
I first shook hands with Mario when I was perhaps all of five in my father’s office in Panaji’s iconic Secretariat Building – my father, Mohan Nadkarni, was the newly formed union territory’s first information officer and was in charge of publicity, publications and PR. “This uncle here drew Goa With Love – his name is Mario,” I remember my father saying. I was excited because I had shaken hands with the man whose book I was so very fond of.
In later years I often ran into him in the Times of India building in Mumbai on my errands delivering my father’s music reviews and columns to the newsroom on the third floor (no emails and faxes then). I’d reintroduced myself as his fan from Goa and chatted on some occasions about some of his illustrations from “Goa With Love” and his other work, which appeared regularly in the Khushwant Singh-edited Illustrated Weekly and the Evening News of India.
Our next significant encounter was at my first real job – as an assistant editor of the popular children’s fortnightly Tinkle at the India Book House. He was illustrating a children’s book, which my colleague Nira Benegal (noted film director Shyam Benegal’s wife) was editing. We settled down for a long chat and at the end of it, he handed two rather tired looking diaries to Nira.
I noticed Nira put away the diaries carefully in her bottom drawer. After a few days, knowing my respect for Mario and his work and my own ambitions to launch my cartoon strip, she let me have a peek at those diaries. I was amazed as I leafed through them.
They were diaries from Mario’s childhood. Most of us who kept diaries did so in long hand. Mario simply drew. On one of the pages the only words were something like: “walking back from the market I saw” and there was this amazingly stylised picture of a cow. He must have been 10 or 11 when he drew it – perhaps even younger.
The picture was greatly detailed. There were the blades of grass, the pebbles, the vegetable vendor, other trappings of the marketplace, a carrera (those small rickety buses – now extinct – with about eight seats that packed in 24 people), the fisherwoman, everything on that A8 sized diary page. It left me dumbfounded. Nira let me borrow the diaries for the weekend and boy, what a weekend that was.
The Benegals and Mirandas were close friends. Shyam’s Trikaal – based on Goa’s liberation – was shot for the most part in Mario’s splendid colonial Loutolim residence, which is where he breathed his last.
Mario’s recognition as an illustrator par excellence grew and he was invited for assignments and exhibitions across the globe. The world’s major cities invited him to draw their monuments and main squares. The volume of his published work grew and he was soon awarded both the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan, besides many other awards.
Then Karnataka chief minister Devraj Urs commissioned Dom Moraes and Mario to do a book on the state – and that’s another book in our collection signed by both Dom and Mario.
By 1987, I had a couple of weekly cartoon strips going. One appeared in the Sunday edition of the Indian Express and the other in the Sunday editions of the Economic Times between 1984 and 1990. The latter, called Doldrumms Ltd, based around office and business situations, was definitely inspired by Mario’s Miss Nimbupani and her cartoon colleagues.
In the middle of that year Mario and I were part of a delegation of Indian cartoonists who visited Europe as part of the Festival of India. Our works were exhibited for a week in Sierre in Switzerland. It was there that despite our great differences in age and stature, he took me on as a friend.
During those long wine filled nights, I got to see his melancholic side, which I had not seen before. On one such evening, I remember, as we were sitting on the deserted platform of the Sierre railway station after a couple of bottles of fine French Beaujolais, he told me the real reason why he left the Times of India – but not before extracting a promise that I’ll keep it only to myself.
Weeks later we reconnected in downtown London and spent a busy morning drinking some more – this time beer. Celebrated modern dancer Astad Deboo joined us for a while.
As editor of a publication for India’s first major amusement park Esselworld, I had the pleasure of commissioning some work from Mario. But what I’ll remember most is a one of a kind interview I did with him: we did a four-page cartoon strip interview. He drew the replies to my questions – how cool is that. He later told me how much he had enjoyed doing that.
Though I visited his home in Colaba, Mumbai, several times, I never really got to know his wife Habiba or his sons. At one time, I remember he had pet turtles clambering up and down the living room. Mario’s close friend and one of India’s finest humorists, Busybee (Behram Contractor), modeled two of the characters of his “Round and About” column – Darryl and Derrick, the two sons of the fabulously rich ‘my friend who lives on the 21st floor’ – on Mario’s two boys.
There will not be another cartoonist, illustrator or human being like Mario de Brito Miranda. His celebrity came in spite of his self-effacing and humble personality. He will be greatly missed by millions of his fans.
One of the final pages of “Goa With Love” has an illustration of a Goan funeral. As well as a few weeping relatives around an elderly man’s bier there is also a lot of beer and feni flowing around. The young people are eyeing one another through their tears. There is one young lady by the man’s feet, a tear flying away from her thick eyelashes, as her gaze meets a young man’s standing by the head of the departed gent. Her expression is an inexplicable mix of grief and expectation – there is a definite air of getting on with life once the grieving is over.
That’s perhaps the best way to lay the great soul to rest – celebrate his life more than grieve his passing.
RIP Mario Miranda.
First appeared in Indian Weekender, January 2012
By Dev Nadkarni
For millions of Indians like me, our acquaintance with India’s incredibly rich history, mythology, folklore and culture would have been so much the poorer without Amar Chitra Katha, the legendary comic book series, whose visionary founding editor Ananth ‘Uncle’ Pai passed away this week.
I had the good fortune of not just having been raised with a growing library of Amar Chitra Katha since I was five but also realising a childhood dream of actually working with Uncle Pai on the celebrated comic book series and its sister publication Tinkle for a few years – that, too, as my very first job in my writing career!
Uncle Pai was a legend in his lifetime.
He was the google before Google. His knowledge was colossal and his memory prodigious. Be they chapters from the Bhagwad Gita or long verses from the Guru Granth Sahib and be they Kabir’s Dohas, lengthy shlokas from the Upanishads or Tagore’s Bengali poems, he could reel them off effortlessly to drive home a point – whether at work or in the course of his wonderfully engaging extempore speeches.
We would walk into his office anytime and ask him any question: a date in history, a place name, the sequence of a dynasty – anything. And we would have the answer in seconds.
He knew eight languages – he could read, write and speak in each of them and had even authored books and magazine articles in some of them. He would often converse with me in our native Konkani even in the office.
He was a scholar cast in the classic old mould of pre-independence philosopher-statesmen like Dr S Radhakrishnan. But unlike them, he was able to explain the most abstruse of concepts to young children in an amazingly interesting way. That was his gift.
Though he didn’t have any of his own, children were Uncle Pai’s be all and end all. His dedication to regaling them with books, stories, anecdotes, quiz contests, running nation wide clubs and playing mentor, career guide and friend was consummate.
Children from Srinagar to Thiruananthapuram and from Dwaraka to Gauhati adored him and on a typical day in the Amar Chitra Katha offices, as many as three hundred letters would be opened and read by a dedicated staff tasked only with reading and replying to children’s letters and filing away contributions for future publication.
“Nothing encourages a child as much as recognition and nothing discourages as much as the lack of it,” Uncle Pai would say insisting that every letter was acknowledged – and he replied to many of them personally, with great fondness. Remember, that was before the age of computers and email – so it involved dictating to stenos, typing, mailing, filing, keeping written records …
I know of several people who have still saved the replies they received from Uncle Pai to show their own kids.
His day would begin at 4am and he would be in the office at the crack of dawn. As well as attending to the voluminous correspondence, he had to pore through script ideas for future Amar Chitra Katha titles, edit scripts, guide illustrators, supervise production and oversee distribution besides looking after the publishing company’s other children’s publications like Tinkle.
Publishing for children was the brilliant chemical engineer’s passion from the very start. Having failed to run a children’s magazine in the 1950s, he joined the publishers of the Times of Indian in the 1960s and was asked to come up with ideas to fill the idle capacity of the newly imported colour printing plant that was used to churn out the prestigious Illustrated weekly, Femina and Filmfare.
Uncle Pai saw this as a great opportunity to indulge in his passion: of starting with Indian illustrated classics for children but the publishers didn’t share his excitement. He struck a deal with New York based King Features and converted Phantom and Mandrake comic strips into 32 page books published monthly and then fortnightly.
In comics with shorter stories that finished in 28 pages, he inserted what could well be India’s first-ever regular comic book feature – Around the world with Kunju Pillay, which catalogued the eponymous character’s bicycle journeys around the world.
Having successfully launched the comic series, which was published under the banner “Indrajal Comics,” Uncle Pai began to scout for publishers to back his Indian illustrated classics project. That’s when he met with G.L. Mirchandani, the founder of India Book House who said he would back the project as long as Uncle Pai would not charge for his own labours until it went into print and recovered the expenses.
Uncle Pai took up the challenge and scoured hard to find a good illustrator. He found Ram Waeerkar to illustrate the first script, “Krishna.” Waeerkar remained with the project for several decades his death a few years ago – and “Krishna” remains the most reprinted title in the series having sold several million copies in nearly 50 languages around the world.
The first half a dozen titles took long and made it to the newsstands quite irregularly. It took a few years and a team – comprising Kamala Chandrakant and Subba Rao besides about a dozen illustrators and a production set up – before Amar Chitra Katha began to roll as a successful enterprise.
Uncle Pai won many accolades in his long career with Amar Chitra Katha. While leading that great enterprise, he also rang a syndicated feature service, Rang Rekha Features, which he later sold and a personality development system based on Indian values called Partha.
I know of several Partha graduates around the world who have greatly succeeded in their professional and personal lives and who look back at Uncle Pai and the “Partha Institute” with fondness and gratitude.
After the Mirchandanis sold Amar Chitra Katha to a private equity enterprise, the new set up stopped publishing new titles instead leveraging the creative and intellectual capital that had been created over the decades by launching a series of products based on the series. Both Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle though are still published and are highly successful as a series of repackaged products from their earlier avataars.
Though the new set up continued to employ Uncle Pai and looked after him well, he had little to do in the last years of his life. For a man who put in 18 tireless hours a day to create products like Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle for much of his life, such a void was hard to handle, according to those close to him.
The 81-year-old had a fall about ten days ago, which necessitated surgery to his hip. He passed away after a massive heart attack while recovering quite well from the fall. He is survived by his dear wife Lalitha, several nephews and nieces – and of course by millions upon millions of Indians who will remember Uncle Pai’s immense contribution to their early lives.
By Dev Nadkarni
I am from that generation of Indians who were among the early ones to grow up in nuclearised families in big cities – without the indulgent presence of grandparents to tell you stories from India’s epics, Puranas and incredibly rich folklore.
For me, as for the millions of Indians growing up since the 1970s, Amar Chitra Katha filled that onerous role. By the time I was 6, I was hooked on to the series, waiting eagerly for the next title to hit the newsstands and reading it over and over again until I knew each word and frame like I knew my multiplication tables.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have not only been raised on a diet of Amar Chitra Katha but also to have had the opportunity to work with the series editorially – and that too as the first job in my writing career!
I had to postpone starting on my first job after graduation because of my father’s serious road accident that required me to tend to him for about six months. He encouraged me to take up a post-graduate course in journalism that had classes only in the late afternoons.
At about that time, my mother spotted an advert in Mumbai’s afternoon newspaper Mid-day asking for a part time editorial assistant at India Book House, the publishers of Amar Chitra Katha. I called Uncle Pai. He asked me to “come down for a chat.”
Fifteen minutes into our exchange, he offered me the job. But it wasn’t to do with Amar Chitra Katha. “We’ve got a new magazine called Tinkle – that’s what I’d like you to work on.” Tinkle was new and hardly known. My heart sank, somewhat. But a quick tour around the office where I got to shake hands with Uncle Pai’s fantastic editorial colleagues whose bylines I’d read and admired so much in so many Amar Chitra Kathas elevated my spirits.
The thought of working with Kamala Chandrakant, Subba Rao and Nira Benegal excited me. Nira (noted film director Shyam Benegal’s wife) was Tinkle’s associate Editor and my supervisor. Uncle Pai, Kamala and Subbu would be my guides in those first few months.
Working with Uncle Pai was an incredible experience. His knowledge was immense and his powers of recall unbelievable. He was a human Google. There was no subject he did not know anything about. His mastery over as many as eight languages including Sanskrit and Pali struck awe in me. He enjoyed building teams as much as he enjoyed leading them from the front.
Though I busied myself writing up stories for Kalia the Crow, Shikari Shambhu, Tantri the Mantri, Suppandi and Tinkle’s many features, Uncle Pai never forgot that I always wanted to write Amar Chitra Katha titles. About a year and a half into the job – by which time he had already elevated me to the position of associate editor alongside Nira – he asked me if I wanted to do a title.
I was excited and thought he would pass on something nice and easy like Panchatantra or Birbal stories for me to try my hand at. I was wrong. Something had convinced him that I could take on heavier stuff. “How about doing a title on stories from the Upanishads? There are good stories there but make sure their underlying philosophy comes out in a way that kids can understand,” he said.
So there I was reading through Upanishadic texts and stories and writing and revising in the highly precise and concise comics format such abstruse concepts as being and non-being through the stories of Shwetaketu and Nachiketa.
An even more challenging title was writing “Tales from Zen Buddhism.” Scripting Zen concepts for illustrated comics without losing their spontaneity and wisdom was one of my most fulfilling tasks ever.
The point is that Uncle Pai had it in him to not only extract the best out of people but also give them both the confidence and the chance to push their own boundaries even when they had no confidence to do so themselves. There is much that I learned in those few years at Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle.
When it was time to leave Amar Chitra Katha, Uncle Pai advised me: “If ever God wants to destroy you, He’ll appear in your dreams and urge you to start a magazine.” I am indebted to him for that advice, which has guided me throughout my media career, helping me to ignore God when he appeared in my dreams every so often. To that advice I owe being the contented man I am today.
Over the years, I kept in touch with Uncle Pai, meeting him whenever possible. He shared his wedding anniversary with that of my parents, so that was always a day we would speak to each other every year for many years.
One day in the 1990s I decided to bind my entire collection of Amar Chitra Kathas – some 375 of them – for posterity and carried them to my office. For some reason they remained there long enough for one of the cleaners to think of them as being of no consequence and selling them off as junk for Rs 22.
Unfortunately, I discovered it a couple of weeks later and a round of the junk shops around Mumbai yielded nothing. Many of the titles were never reprinted and were lost forever. I thought of calling Uncle Pai and asking him to help me out to compile a new set.
Eerily, it was Uncle Pai who called me. Just the week before, his offices had been consumed by fire and all his record copies had been lost. I had read about the fire in the papers but did not know Indian Book House too was gutted. “You are my last hope. I am sure you have a whole set intact,” he said. When I narrated what happened to my collection, we were both beside ourselves with frustration and disbelief. There was nothing we could do.
Uncle Pai will always have a special place in my life. I am indebted to him for inculcating in me a love of knowledge, the highest respect for India’s infinitely diverse culture and heritage and the love of a vocation dedicated to spreading that word.
World-renowned Tabla maestro Fazal Qureshi will be in New Zealand later this month. The younger son of Ustad Alla Rakha who was a constant accompanist for Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and the younger brother of Tabla’s most famous name Ustad Zakir Hussain, Fazal answers questions put to him by Indian Weekender editor-in-chief Dev Nadkarni in a telephonic interview from India.
What’s it like being a member of the first family of the Tabla, or shall we say the Tabla world’s royalty?
(Laughing aloud) Ha, ha… That’s the first time I’ve heard about Tabla royalty! There are several things: there’s a lot of pressure and responsibility because people’s expectations are high since I’m from the same family as Ustad Allah Rakha and Ustad Zakir Hussain. Responsibility – because you must make sure that if at least if you don’t add to the name you don’t spoil the name. So, that responsibility and pressure is always there and I have been fortunate enough to learn from my father and the three of us have played many concerts together in the US, UK, Europe. For me that is a signature from my father that you can actually play now…
My first concert that I played for my college was covered by [your father] Mohan Nadkarniji himself… he was invited to listen to two young players on Sitar and Tabla – that was me – in 1979-80 and he gave us a good review in the Times of India. That was approval and the fact that I have actually played with my father and brother is approval – that yes, you are good enough to play.
Can you give us a few details of the way you and your siblings were trained by your father the great maestro Ustad Alla Rakha?
My father was a democratic man. He never differentiated between sons and other students. It did not matter if we were sons or not there were no distinctions. I used to sit with the other students and learn. He was a busy man in the 1970s, travelling so much but whenever he was there, we used to learn from him. It was was difficult to catch him because of his travels. We relied a great deal on his tapes and CDs while learning from him but playing with him was even more instructive – not so much sitting in front of him but being with him, watching him… how he handled the rhythm cycle, learning his technique… that was the way we brothers picked it up.
One now hears a lot more Tabla in international music – particularly instrumental ensembles – when did this start to happen and why does the Tabla fascinate western percussionists?
Tabla is an instrument that has developed more than any other percussion instrument in terms of sound and technique – it’s an instrument that can be termed as the complete percussion instrument because of the variety of sounds it can produce and the baya is so versatile that you can even produce melodic sounds – my brother is a pioneer in this and in the olden days some maestros used to produce actual notes on the baya while accompanying other musicians. My father and brother have contributed in making it a global instrument – so you hear the Tabla in pop songs, rock music, film background scores – it’s well accepted and recognised.
As a Tabla maestro yourself, what similarities and differences do you see in the way percussion is played in Hindustani and Carnatic disciplines?
Everything is different. It is related to culture. We dress differently, speak differently, there’s a cultural difference… musically too it is different. North Indian music has been influenced a lot by other music from outside such as that of the Mughals and other invasions that happened during the history of Indian civilisation. The South was relatively isolated. So the two music disciplines went differently. The Mughals brought in Tabla, Sitar, Sarod. The points of view also differed… the difference is cultural… difference is in the way of looking at music… I do play with a lot of south Indian percussionists… Talas and ragas are same but the point of view is different. But you can find ways of coming together as many artistes have done – like my father and brother. We are all Indians, but it’s just like all fingers are not the same.
What are your activities at present besides accompanying musicians in concerts around the world?
Three of my albums are getting ready. Two are classically oriented and one is a fusion album – I call it experiments in music. It’s going to be ready next month and the other two also will be ready soon… Besides playing, I also tour a lot… I am in Europe next month with my other fusion band… so basically travelling, recording, composing…
Tell us more about Mynta – how did it come about? Is Shankar Mahadevan actively involved? Who are the other percussionists on it? Musicians from which other nationalities are involved in Mynta?
I am the only Indian percussionist now. Shankar used to be part of it but not any more – we have western percussionists. Basically Mynta a Sweden based band. I met them 23 years ago and have played with them ever since. We’ve produced 6-7 albums; we travel all over Europe, the US, India. It was love at first sight between us in 1986 – we’re still going on… If you want to play fusion music, you need to spend a lot of time with the band and understand each other closely.. only then can you come up with real good music. We now have a Saxophonist from US, In India we have Vikku Vinayakram, Shankar Mahadevan when he has the time – and many others.
My favourites are Fuzzy, Song from Brahmaputra and Teabreak – what was your role in their composition/ production?
Fuzzy was a on the spot creation by me. We were sitting in the studio and the idea suddenly came up to me… I just thought I should produce something with rhythms but interacting with some melodic structures – so that’s how Fuzzy came about… and when we are doing a composition or recording an album we play it a number of times during a tour and after 20 concerts or so, the piece takes shape and then we go into a studio and do a commercial recording – that’s how we do it. We play, alter, replay offer suggestions to the composer, and so on.
What changes do you see in the way Tabla is taught these days – especially outside India?
Popularity has increased tenfold… I still teach at a class in Mumbai that father started… wherever I go there are all kinds of people who want to learn… US, UK, Japan, everywhere. This has given an insight to a lot of people on what the Tabla is… and it’s no longer seen as an exclusively classical instrument. It’s now a popular instrument
Your father emphasised on memorising hundreds of bols, which I’m pretty sure you’ve imbibed as well… Is the same emphasis placed on bols by modern teachers?
People do not have much time these days. They come for an hour. The Guru Shishya Parampara does not exist anymore – 10-15 students taught at a time for an hour… they go home and practice, come back. Memorising bols is not there any more… Times have changed.
Can you tell us more about your concert in NZ?
I’m looking forward to playing with Adrian though I’ve not met him. But that’s how it is in Indian Classical music. You often meet the artiste for the first time on stage. And just play: 95% of our music is improvised… everyone knows the basics the artistes just build on it… that’s the true classical way of doing things… go on the stage and play.
I wanted to visit NZ for a long time and never got an opportunity. I’ve been all over the world except NZ. It’s my pleasure to be there and thanks for making the efforts for me to come. Looking forward to meet Indians there.
First appeared in Indian Weekender, September 2009