Category Archives: People

Interview with… K. Muralidharan

Photo credit: R. Raghu

It’s hot, burning hot, in K. Muralidharan’s white-walled second floor studio. But still I linger, taking in the colours glimmering off the beautiful canvases in the noon-day heat. Elephants and monkeys and deer in burgundy and violet, mythical beings all in ivory and gold against a deep-blue celestial ocean, goddesses on a glowing golden yellow canvas…

“Colour is an endless joy for me,” says the senior artist, one of the stalwarts of the Madras Movement, as we retreat to the cooler lower floor of the house. “Any combination can be played with.”

That, of course, is one of the hallmarks of Muralidharan’s famous abstract figuratives — bright, playful colour, sometimes kitschy, sometimes earthy, always eye-catching. The other element that makes his works instantly recognisable is his use of mythological and animal figures and motifs.

“Indian mythology is like an ocean,” he says. “Each time I dip into it, it gives me something new.” He adds, “I grew up surrounded by mythological stories and folklore at home. It all came back to me later when I began working on my art.”

Cities and canvases

His current burst of inspiration, visible in these new works in his studio, however, come from a different source — the time he’s spent in Kolkata on and off since 2008, when his wife was transferred there in her public sector job. “At first I hesitated; Chennai was my home,” he says. “But going there was a boon. It’s a place steeped in art and culture, and once you live there, it engulfs you slowly.”

He spent his time there absorbing the art scene (“so lively and fresh”) and getting to know artists such as Jogen Chowdhury and Shuvaprasanna Bhattacharya. “It was like the conversations I’ve enjoyed with the artists of Cholamandal here; it rejuvenated me, sharpened my vision.”

Earlier this year, the artist returned home to Chennai, and has been working on a new series of large-scale works, with a 3-D wooden and bronze sculpture component worked in. His experiences in Kolkata are especially visible in his explorations of the feminine form — a blend of the contemporary and the mythological — and in a fresh fascination with texture and textile-like designs on his canvases.

But experiment though he may with texture and installation art, his primary focus remains the drawing, which, he says, is his gift from the masters of the Madras Movement. “Right from our days at the Government College of Arts and Crafts (he graduated in 1970), we learnt from the great masters such as L. Munuswamy, Alphonso Arul Doss and A.P. Santhanaraj not to lose sight of the drawing. It was always our forte.” He pauses. “That was truly the Golden Era of the Madras Movement.”

How it all began

Muralidharan owes his career in art to his elder brother, who, he says, wanted to be an artist himself, but wasn’t able to, due to family obligations. “When I finished school, he put me in the College of Art,” he says. Later, when the young artist gave up his job as a lecturer in the college (“I resigned within one week!” he laughs) and the entire family was furious with him, his brother was steadfast in supporting him. “He was so happy when I started getting recognition later on,” he says. “My sister too allowed me to stay with her when I was struggling… I’ll never forget all of their support.”

His turning point as an artist came with a scholarship to Sweden in the 1980s, when he was exposed to artists from around the world. “I realised the importance of creating work that reflected my experiences, and that was taken from our own soil,” he says.

Still, he struggled with finding a visual language that captured his thoughts. All that changed when he visited Hampi at the end of the decade. There, amongst the majestic religious ruins, he found “a new vision” for his paintings. “That is when I began the ‘Mystic Valley’ series, one of which won me the National Award in 1994,” he says.

And he’s never looked back, going on to exhibit internationally to wide acclaim. It was only recently, in 2010, when tragedy struck his family, and he lost his only son to cancer, that Muralidharan found himself unable to create. “It was a fatal blow to us. I didn’t work for nearly two years. Then I created a darkly personal set of works I’ve never let anyone see,” he says.

Back in the city which has always been his home, Muralidharan and his wife have been picking up the pieces of their life. She has devoted herself to religion and charity work, and he, once again, to his art. “Now I am a karmayogi,” he says. “I work 17, 18 hours a day, and don’t have time to think about anything else.”

“I live moment by moment. When I work, I’m happy. Art gives me a purpose for living.”

This article originally appeared in The Hindu Metroplus. You can find it here.

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Interview with… C. Douglas

Photo: S.S. Kumar

An interview with C. Douglas is rather like spending a couple of hours wandering through one of his tortured grey-black canvases filled with dark symbolism and cryptic metaphor. There are no straight answers to be had from this celebrated artist, no simple facts to be gleaned, no easy conclusions to be drawn.

“The hallmark of a good poem or painting is that you can keep interpreting, interpreting, interpreting,” he says at one point, as we sit at his work table, surrounded by pots filled with mud (a regular ingredient of his artworks), battered paint brushes, and books of intense Russian poetry. “What you get from it when you’re 16 isn’t what you get from it at 50. It isn’t a finished product.”

Douglas’ telling of his own artistic journey has a similar sense of open-endedness. He describes it at different times as a process of “learning and unlearning”, an “eternal postponement” in finding the meaning or essence of life, and a fight against losing our past, our history (“memory is so important, yet ignorance and forgetfulness is waiting for all of us like death,” he says. “The struggle of every artist and writer is to save us from forgetting.”)

‘Suffering’, ‘loss’, ‘struggle’… these are words that feature often in his narrative, but it wouldn’t be right to label Douglas the classic ‘tortured artist’. There’s too much contentment in his cosy existence in the tiny cottage (charmingly framed by flowering creepers) he owns at Cholamandal Artists’ Village, too much warmth in the companionship he shares with Zen, the improbably-named street dog he’s adopted, and too much enjoyment in his easy friendship with neighbourhood kids (“Hi pattas thatha!” a little guy squeaks as he alights from his auto after school — there is, apparently, a rather sweet story behind that moniker.)

As we speak, it also emerges that Douglas, today, feels a certain sense of comfort in being part of the city’s art scene. “I feel inter-related to the art world in Chennai,” he says, “I don’t feel alienated at all, otherwise I’d go away to Baroda or Mumbai. Chennai is home; I’m happy to stay here and contribute.”

His relationship with the city stretches back to the early 1970s, when he came to Madras from his native Kerala in search of an escape from boredom. “I wasn’t completely conscious of the reasons why, but I was unhappy and bored in those days, going about reading existentialist literature (which everyone was doing in the 1970s),” he says with a smile.

He was already drawn to art (“‘art is the flight from boredom’, as Nietzsche says”), and had studied under Balan Nair in Tellicherry. In 1971, his search led him to the Government College of Arts and Crafts in Madras, and there, he found an unexpected sense of belonging.

“I started coming to Cholamandal on weekends, and spending time with people such as K.C.S. Paniker and K. Ramanujam,” he says. “Through them, I found meaning to go on. They gave me understanding, a sense of faith. I remember, once the art critic Josef James told me, ‘Douglas, you’ll be taken care of here’.”

He adds thoughtfully. “I think that’s the important difference I found between Tamil Nadu and Kerala, this idea of faith, of nambikkai — not religious faith, but faith in life.”

In the years that followed, Douglas came to be known as one of the eminent artists to emerge from the Madras Art Movement. But his travels weren’t done. His marriage to Mona, a theatre artiste he met at Max Mueller Bhavan in Madras took him away to Germany for a large chunk of the 1980s, during which time some of the most distinctive aspects of his mature artistic style came together.

The result are the paintings that art lovers and collectors are today familiar with — works on textured, tortured paper, worked over in mud, resin and charcoal, filled with poetry, human angst, and, in his words, disaster. “I love the fragility of paper, that it can be torn and frayed, that it can at any time fall apart,” he says. “I sometimes wonder if I should switch to canvas for my larger works, but it’s too stretched and strong, too brave.”

Canvas is, in other words, the very antithesis of all that powerfully attracts Douglas about life — its evanescence and its frailty, its pain and its struggle. So are the expensive ‘art shop’ materials he largely eschews — “I took a vacation once and painted on nice paper, with nice materials, but then went back to my poor man’s paper and mud,” he says.

In the early 1990s, Douglas returned to Chennai and to Cholamandal, his place of comfort and belonging, and purchased his little nook in the village. But even today, the notion of ‘contentment’ sits uncomfortably on this 60-year-old’s shoulders. “There’s danger in being contented,” he says shaking his head. “Art is about wounds.”

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Interview with… R. Seshasayee

Pic: R. Ravindran

This interview almost didn’t happen. You see, R. Seshasayee has never — in all his years as one of Chennai’s most respected corporate leaders — given a purely personal interview, one not about his vast experience and knowledge of the automobile industry, but about his other interests and dimensions, his charitable work, his artistic talents and his philosophy towards life. And this interview request too, like others, was on the verge of being politely turned down.

“Then my wife gave me a talking to for 15 minutes,” says the long-time managing director of Ashok Leyland with a smile when we finally do meet. “I said I didn’t feel comfortable talking about myself, and she said, ‘Most people know you from just one angle, and it’s time you changed that!’”

That angle is, of course, his role as a visionary leader at Leyland for the last three decades (he’s been MD since 1998), and his high-profile participation in organisations such as the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) (he’s served as president of both).

But here’s something you probably didn’t know. He’s also an artist who has done portraits and magazine illustrations, a Tamil writer and poet, and a lover of Carnatic music who trained under Maharajapuram Santhanam. And that’s just the beginning.

“I’ve always believed that every person has many desires and talents, and that it’s necessary to develop them all to be holistic,” he says. “There must be one anchoring interest, of course, a central calling in your life, but it’s perfectly feasible to be many things.”

He gained this perspective from his multi-faceted parents — his father, M.S. Ramaswamy, who’s a lawyer, a musicologist, a tennis player, and an entrepreneur, and his mother, Vasumathi Ramaswamy, a well-known Tamil writer and novelist, a social activist and an orator. “Growing up watching them, it was natural to pursue different interests,” he says.

So during his college years, he painted cinema posters (“we worked on huge banners — it was a very laborious process”) and was the staff artist for the short-lived magazine, Mala. “In fact, in my early years, I didn’t think of being a chartered accountant or an engineer, just an artist,” he says. (He eventually did go on to become a chartered accountant.)

He also, fascinatingly, was a ghost-writer for his mother towards the tail-end of her career, he reveals: “This is not to take away anything from her — she wrote several hundred short stories, novels and essays — but at that time, she was unwell and struggling to meet deadlines, so I’d finish stories or rewrite them for her.”

Once, for instance, he wrote the next instalment of a radio serial she was working on while he was travelling from Madras to Tuticorin by train for an audit of a food corporation. “I finished when I reached and posted it straight to AIR… She never even had a chance to read it before it went on air!” he laughs.

Today, he still paints and writes Tamil poetry in his spare time, though, he says with a smile, they’re not for the public eye. His active involvement with Carnatic music too came to a halt with the untimely passing of Santhanam, but he retains his interest and thirst for knowledge on the subject. “I definitely want to do an M.A. in Music, when I find the time,” he says.

Time is something Seshasayee seems to have a special relationship with. Apart from his demanding career, he finds time to be involved with 17 — yes, 17 — different organisations, including charitable organisations such as SCARF and the Indian Cancer Institute, and educational institutions such as the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT).

“Thinking about what you can do to touch as many people and institutions as you possibly can is part of living holistically,” he says. “We don’t function as individuals in isolation; it’s important to get connected with our society, our world.”

Ask him how he manages to do it all, and he laughs, “I get asked that often. But, you can be very productive if you think through all your actions in a focused way; that way you don’t waste any time.”

His reaction to his upcoming move at Leyland from managing director to executive vice-chairman (from April) is similarly clear-headed. “It’s necessary for the sake of the organisation to have a succession,” he says. “The next generation is coming up and we must make space for them.”

It’s all part of the larger evolution of his life, as he puts it: “You have to constantly ask yourself — where do I find joy next?”

For a man as multi-faceted as him, the answer could lie in one of many, many things.

BOX:

While at Vivekanada College, he was an active leader in student politics.

One of his greatest ambitions when he was younger was to make a movie someday.

He is a gifted orator, with a talent for extempore speaking.

He enjoys reading Bharathiar’s poetry.

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Book launch: Rahul Bhattacharya’s ‘The Sly Company of People Who Care’

Much like the book itself, the launch event of ‘The Sly Company of People Who Care’ by Rahul Bhattacharya was all about the Caribbean nation of Guyana – its people, its language and dialect, its colonial history and racial politics, and its decaying wooden splendour.

“It’s such a raw-ly beautiful country, with its red rivers and rainforests,” said Bhattacharya, in conversation with journalist and author Samanth Subramanian at Landmark. “I felt an instant affinity to its colours and dialects – it was so different from anything I’d experienced before.”

Delhi-based Bhattacharya is best known for his work on cricinfo.com and for his popular cricket book ‘Pundits from Pakistan’. ‘The Sly Company…’ is his debut novel and was also, in a sense, was born out of cricket.

“I was on my first international cricket tour to the West Indies, and my first port of call was Guyana,” he recalled. “It was a very boring week of test cricket – it always rains there during matches – but my affinity for the place stayed with me, and I decided to follow that feeling nearly four years later.”

He ended up spending a year there – unusual, to say the least. “No one goes to Guyana,” he said laughing. “Everyone flees Guyana – it’s such a desperate, struggling place.”

But it’s also a fascinating place, with its volatile racial mix of Africans, Indians, Chinese, and Portuguese, its grid of canals and trenches, and its sagging wooden houses with zinc roofs built by the Dutch. “I knew I’d write a book on it, but I didn’t what that book would be,” said Bhattacharya.

The book eventually took the shape of a novel (“I’d start with facts and then tell a whole lot of lies”), but the author still struggled with the non-fiction elements he needed to include.

“So few in India know the historical context of Guyana – how it was created entirely by colonial powers who brought in slaves and indentured labourers, and how its reality is shaped by what happened once the colonial powers left,” he said. “I had to reconcile these non-fictional elements with the storytelling – that was challenging.”

‘The Sly Company…’ tells the story of a young man from India who goes to Guyana in search of escape from ‘the deadness of life’, and embarks on an adventure with Baby, a diamond hunter. Slow paced and filled with dialogue in Guyanese dialect, the book isn’t always easy to read. But it did come alive during a long, dramatised reading by the author, who did a remarkable job in re-creating the distinctive rhythms of Guyanese speech (“I became quite good at it; people could mistake me for Guyanese by the end!”).

“When I came back, the dialect was bouncing in my head so hard – the vivid phrases and the very visual way of speaking were addictive,” he said. “A lot of the narrative in the book was in that style initially; I had to be reined in by my editor who felt it would be incomprehensible to readers.”

Naturally, much of the q-and-a session that followed focused on race and politics in Guyana. The turnout at the launch might have been small, but those present walked away with a deeper understanding of the Caribbean nation.

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Author interview: Rudra Krishna (‘The Onus of Karma’)

His novel ‘The Onus of Karma’ may have just been released recently, but Rudra Krishna started writing the story a long, long time ago. At the age of 12, to be precise.

“It was the first story I ever wanted to tell,” says the 28-year-old author about the fantasy adventure novel. “But every time I started, I felt I was writing pure drivel. I really struggled to find my style.”

Fast forward 10-odd years to 2006, and Rudra was ready to tackle the story once more. And this time, he meant business. “I finally had the style down, the plot mapped out and the research done, and when I sat down to write, I finished it in seven weeks,” he says. “I guess it had been fermenting in my mind a while!”

So what was so special about this story? Well, it’s based on the legend of a swashbuckling ancestor of Rudra’s – his great-great-great-great-grandfather (“I’ve lost track of the number of ‘greats’,” he jokes), Tharuppukal Ramaswami Aiyar, a fearless bounty hunter who turned his back on tradition and ended up making the family fortune.

“He was the last of seven children in a family of purohits, who decided he didn’t want to be a priest, and trained in sword-fighting, archery and martial arts instead,” says Rudra. “He ran away at the age of 17, and famously captured the feared dacoit Arunachalam. He was a total free spirit –he just disappeared one day at the age of 38 or 39 and was never seen again.”

Around this fascinating ancestor, Rudra has spun a tale of mysticism and intrigue, involving the Sri Chakra, the divine wheel of awesome power given to man by Lord Shiva, and historical figures such as Haider Ali and Lord Hastings.

“The bits about the chakra are all fantasy, of course, but the historical facts are entirely accurate,” says Rudra, a Masters in law from Cardiff who now edits legal books. “My mother, Dr. Nandita Krishna helped with all the research – she read a few hundred books for a year.”

‘The Onus…’ – which touches upon issues of caste, class, religion and race – has managed to ruffle quite a few feathers since its release. “I never meant to hurt anybody but I’ve managed to offend everyone from old Mylaporeans (including my extended family) to my English and Muslim friends,” says Rudra ruefully. “But as long as I’ve offended everyone equally, I guess I’ll doing all right!”

In fact, he’s quite happy to have gotten people talking about some of these sensitive issues. “These are real problems and too many people pussyfoot around them,” says Rudra, a non-conformist who has, at various points, been a heavy metal musician, a poet, a supervisor in a construction site, a factory worker and an English teacher.

His next few books (he’s working on seven novels at the moment) are likely to ruffle more feathers still – coming next year, for instance, is “There’s a Jihadi in My Curry”, a contemporary comedy based on his friendship with a Pakistani in the U.K.

“That one is extremely politically incorrect too,” says Rudra. “My goal isn’t to tell people what to think but to give them something to think about. Sometimes a slap in the face isn’t a bad thing.”

His renegade ancestor would certainly have approved.

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How to… be a clock-watcher

1.    The expert clock-watcher doesn’t just rely on any old clock on the wall of the office/school/college, etc. Who knows when it was last synchronised with Greenwich Mean Time? No, any clock-watcher worth his salt relies only on his own perfectly synced watch (checked once a week for perfect time and its batteries changed at the merest hint that it’s losing even a second or two). After all, absolute accuracy is essential to ensure you’re prepared to bolt at 4.59.59 p.m. on the nose.

2.    There’s a lot more to clock-watching than just the passive tracking of the time – preparation is key. You must work with single-minded devotion towards being ready to leave as the clock strikes that all-important hour – paperwork neatly put away (whether complete or not; out of sight is out of mind), your bag packed and ready to be slung over the shoulder at a moment’s notice, and finger poised on the shutdown button of your computer (it has to be pressed at that final instant and not a moment before; otherwise you just seem lazy).

3.    Such clockwork-like precision can only be achieved by organising your entire workday down to the last minute, and then sticking to the plan with complete ruthlessness. Regular mortals complain about delayed meetings/classes and longwinded colleagues/professors; nothing short of a raging tornado outside is going to stop a clock-watcher from keeping that deadline. People who get in your way do so at their own risk – you’ll just have to mow them down on your way to the exit gate (apologies can wait until 9 a.m. tomorrow).

4.    An important part of clock-watching is learning to carefully mask the actual act of, well, watching the clock. Only a wet-behind-the-ears newbie makes the mistake of obviously staring down at his watch dial (or cell phone) repeatedly (and longingly) in the middle of the boss’s speech. Very gauche and a big no-no. A master of the art knows that the watch glance must happen within a split second, in the middle of a perfectly innocent action such as rearranging your hair or opening a folder.

5.    And finally, the experienced clock-watcher never reveals just how aware of the time he is. If someone asks for the time, an instant response of “Two fifty three p.m. (and 45 seconds)” is a bad idea. Instead, make an elaborate show of blinking vaguely, frowning, checking the clock / wristwatch / cell phone etc. and answer off-handedly, “Around 3-ish?”. Then you can go back to working studiously – and watching the clock, of course.

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Book launch: Penguin Classics Library

Photo: R. Ragu

Kamal Hassan doesn’t often do book events, but this was a rather special occasion. It was the inauguration of the Penguin Classic Library in Chennai and one classic in particular – ‘Stars from Another Sky’ by the legendary Urdu short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto – was being showcased for discussion.

“I’m here quite simply because I’m Manto’s fan,” said the actor and filmmaker to the packed audience at Landmark. “I came to know of him only later in life, but it was a very important find for me – I found myself in finding him.”

In conversation with National Award-winning film critic Baradwaj Rangan, Kamal revealed how he was strongly influenced by Manto’s powerful collection of stories on the partition, ‘Mottled Dawn’, while making ‘Hey Ram’. “That’s when I became his blood brother – or ink brother, perhaps,” he said. “I believe that if I’d been there, I’d have been just as troubled by it all.”

Indeed, the actor said that he would have chosen that book to showcase Manto’s writing rather than ‘Stars’, a collection of bluntly honest, irreverent essays on Bollywood stars of the 1940s such as Ashok Kumar, Nargis, etc., which he felt showed the “lower side” of the writer.

But even if one considered these essays ‘yellow journalism’, they were probably the most stylish example of it ever seen, said Rangan: “Although this is a salaciously written book, he’s still very much the writer… we should all aspire to such yellow journalism!”

So continued the lively discussion between the two fans of Manto, including brief readings from the book (that drew gasps and laughter from the audience), a beautiful Tamil translation of one of his Urdu poems read by Kamal in his inimitable style, and discussions on everything from censorship and film criticism to translation from regional tongues and politics in Tamil cinema.

One might argue that the point of the event – the inauguration of the Penguin Classics range of books, consisting of 1,200 titles ranging from Homer’s Odyssey to the works of R.K. Narayanan – was somewhat lost in the midst of all this.

But the standing-room only crowd didn’t seem to mind, hanging on Kamal’s every word, clapping vigorously at his every witticism, and eventually surging out behind him as he left, hoping for a quick handshake or picture.

And it would be safe to say that at least a few of those film buffs will return to read the works of this great Urdu writer, and quite a few others will be drawn back to see just what other hidden gems the Penguin Classics shelves – soon to be up at Landmark – hold in store for them.

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Interview with… Roberto Calasso

A book on Indian mythology, written in Italian in the 1990s by a leading scholar and publisher from Florence, translated to great acclaim into English, then into Hindi, Malayalam and now Tamil.

That’s Ka for you, a remarkable work of scholarship on the stories of the Vedas and the Puranas that’s been on quite a remarkable journey. Naturally, its author Roberto Calasso, who was in Chennai recently for the launch of the Tamil translation of Ka, turns out to be a pretty remarkable man himself.

“It started very early, really,” he says, referring to his love of Indian mythology, adding casually, “Just like one gets interested in Russian literature as an adolescent, I started reading these texts, and it went on from there.”

‘These texts’ include everything from the Rig Veda (“the most difficult and mysterious by far,” he says) to the Brahmanas, which are the focus of his latest book, L’ardore (which refers to the act of tapasya). He began by reading translations but has since learnt Sanskrit, just like he studied ancient Greek in order to be able to read those great old mythologies (The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, one of his earliest and most well-known works, is a retelling of Greek mythology).

“Myths are the original form of storytelling and a way of knowledge – certain things you can get only through stories,” he says, his passion evident. “A mythology is like a large tree of stories and it’s essential to get inside its branches. It’s can be very illuminating, a way of giving account of the vast net of elements that make up the world.”

Not surprisingly, he draws parallels between the two mythologies with ease (between the stories of Helen of Troy and of Saranyu, for instance, or Shiva and Dionysus), but cautions against making direct connections. “These stories have specific elements in common, and one can understand one mythology better through another (myth can be a lingua franca), but it’s not helpful or even possible to talk about direct influences,” says the author who is also heads Adelphi, the literary publishing house in Italy.

What is of concern to him is that these great storehouses of cultural knowledge not be lost. “It’s really quite depressing to see how little people take advantage of what is available to them, both here and in Europe,” he says. “It’s not just about knowing something of the past; these are things that can be used even today.”

Which is why the current spate of translations of Ka in India is heartening to him – first by Raj Kamal Prakashan in Hindi in 2005, then in Malayalam by DC Books, and now by Kalachuvadu in Tamil. “I’m particularly happy it’s in India, the most important place for this book to be read,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in Tamil culture – about which too little is known, even in India – so being published in this language is significant to me.”

For Anandh K., who did the translation to Tamil (from Tim Parks excellent English translation), it’s been a challenging yet fascinating journey. “It took me nearly seven years – as long as it took him to write the original!” he laughs. “Many of these stories are familiar to us from our childhood, but revisiting them through the eyes of another, who was looking in from the outside… it was a journey into the realm of my own subjectivity. He’s brought to them a whole new perception.”

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Year of the Ear Muff

PhotoL K. Ananthan

If there’s been a style statement this winter in Chennai, it’s been the ubiquitous ear muff. You’ve probably seen it perched snugly over the ears of men and women, senior citizens and toddlers alike as they wait for buses, whizz by on bikes or make their way on our streets. It doesn’t matter what they’re wearing – veshti or sari, jeans and jacket or school uniform and Keds. The ear muff, it seems, is the perfect accessory.

“I sell about 10 or 15 a day, for Rs. 10 a piece,” says Hassan Mohamed, who stocks ear muffs at his little roadside stall in Tiruvallikeni (they lie nestled amidst those other staples of Chennai winter attire – the monkey cap and that wonderful invention, the cap-and-muffler-in-one – and, a little disconcertingly, underwear).

An elderly gentleman shopping nearby adds disapprovingly, “Some stalls sell it even for Rs. 15.” But, he assures me, you can get it for much cheaper in Parry’s Corner. Hassan nods sadly, “Yes, they sell many more there.”

He’s one of five others who sell ear muffs on that single stretch of road, and you’ll find sellers just like him everywhere from Mylapore market to Pondy Bazaar. Sometimes you’ll find the muffs hanging on the hawker’s arms as he sells them at street corners and at other times dangling jauntily off conveniently placed lampposts or poles.

“They’ve been very popular because there’s been so much pani (mist) this winter,” says Venkatachalam, whose muff-ware is lodged on one such lamppost.

Like most of the muffs in vogue this year, his too are all in camouflage patterns (to survive the urban jungle, perhaps?) and in highly unlikely colours at that (what exactly does bubblegum pink-and-white camouflage protect you against anyway?). But it’s been brisk business, and you can feel Venkatachalam’s pain as he adds wistfully, “We’re reaching the end of the season now; we’ll hardly sell any from now on.”

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Interview with… R.P. Jain of Motilal Banarsidass Publishers

Photo: R. Ravindran

 

In 1903, Motilal Banarsidass (MLBD) began as a tiny store of spiritual books, built on a capital of Rs. 27. Over the next century, it developed into one of the world’s foremost publishers of scholarly works on Indology, with a formidable catalogue of priceless works – 100 volumes of the Mahapuranas, 50 volumes of the ‘Sacred Books of the East’ edited by Max Mueller…

Today, the 107-year-old Delhi-based publishing company, still run by the descendants of Motilal Jain, its founder, retains its focus on Indian culture and spiritual heritage, but is evolving to meet the changing needs of the 21st century. Speaking to Rajendra Prakash Jain, one of the five brothers who currently run MLBD, what emerges is the picture of a company that straddles the old world and the new, combining tradition with modernity.

“Our thrust is to bring ancient wisdom to modern times, in a way that makes it accessible to the younger generation,” says Jain, who was in the city recently, visiting the MLBD store here which is in the process of being renovated.

Their efforts have taken a number of forms, from a sister publishing house, ‘New Age Books’ they began for lighter, easier-to-understand works, to their music label ‘New Age Music’, which brings out CDs for relaxation, meditation and yoga, produced primarily abroad. Now, they’re going all out for events across the country to promote various aspects of Indian culture.

“We’re talking to various organisations to do workshops, seminars and lectures featuring our authors, to spread awareness,” he says. “We’ve already done about 250 free workshops on Vedic maths (one of our most popular areas) all over India.”

Jain is himself a Gandhian scholar, and has been invited to give lectures at universities, seminars and conferences across the world to talk on Gandhi’s philosophy. “I’ve also been trying to promote young scholars and speakers in the area of Indology and Indian arts, but none of this is easy – it takes time and a lot of funding,” he says.

Naturally, their other big focus is the Internet, the digital frontier. “Our full catalogue is already available on our portal mlbd.com; now we’re planning to get into e-books,” he says.

They’re also looking into ‘Print-On-Demand’ (POD), a new form of publishing that’s gaining popularity worldwide. “This allows you to print only the number of copies that have been ordered as opposed to having to print a minimum of, say, 1000 copies, bringing down storage costs considerably,” he says. “It’s only just entering India now.”

It’s all quite cutting-edge, but that’s what it takes to survive in the current economic climate. “The publishing industry is undergoing a lot of changes the world over and has been hard-hit by the recession,” he says, adding that nearly 60 to 70 per cent of their sales comes from exports.

And this is a family that knows a thing or two about survival – after all, they lost everything during partition riots when the store was burnt down, and began again from scratch. With the fifth generation – Jain’s son and nephew – having entered the business as well, the MLBD brand is all set to keep growing and evolving.

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