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Bhaskar's Corner

Politics & the Media

In recent years, the increasing influence of the media has changed the shape of politics all over the globe. Consequently it has raised provocative questions about journalism’s role in the political process. There are questions about the media’s effect on the political system and the subsystems — including the legislature, the executive and the lobbies.

Is media power in politics a myth or an exaggeration? Who influences whom? When does the media power peak and when does it touch the bottom — these and similar other questions, however, defy any clear-cut answer.

Research over the decades suggests that the media effect on politics cannot be answered in broad generalities. There are various types of effects, on different types of political dispositions, at various levels of political activity, under various conditions. Further, the mass media are highly diverse in content and include a very wide range of activities of which politics is only a miniscule part.

In politics, the mass media influences not only individual opinion but also the way politics is conducted. Today, if political roles are changing, so are the expectations of politicians. Changes take place even between the relationship of followers to leaders, and, perhaps, also some values of political life itself.

Walter Lippmann, a renowned American journalist and political analyst, once said that journalists point a flashlight rather than a mirror at the world. Accordingly, the audience does not receive a complete image of the political scene. Instead, it gets a highly selective series of glimpses. Reality is also tainted. It was his view that the media cannot possibly perform the functions of public enlightenment that democratic theory requires. He reasoned that the mass media cannot tell the truth objectively because the truth is subjective and entails more probing and explanation than the hectic pace of news production allows.

Images of reality the mass media portray differ from country to country. Judging by their respective media, audiences are apt to form quite varied images about events and their international ramifications. Different media produce different opinions when journalists disagree about which political actors and actions deserve the spotlight and which should be regarded positively, negatively or as neutral.

Influence also depends on the credibility of the media and on the esteem with which their audiences regard them. Usually, the media have negative ratings in European countries, but a positive score in the United States. Despite credibility problems, most audiences in Europe believe that the media have much less influence on the three branches of government, while Americans credit the media with a great deal of influence over governmental institutions.

 Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Russian writer, remarked in 1947 while delivering a talk at Harvard University, that the press had become the most powerful force in Western countries. It had surpassed in power the executive, legislature and the judiciary.

Nearly everyone acknowledges that the media plays a powerful role in our public and private lives. Also, opinions about the media and estimates of their influence on society’s other institutions are important barometers of democracy’s functioning.

On the other hand, attitudes about the media have been highly critical. Critiques of the press have spanned a century and several continents. Balzac (1799-1850), the French novelist and dramatist, wrote in 1840 : “In France, the press is a fourth power of state; it attacks all, yet no one attacks it. It reprimands recklessly. It asserts domination over politicians and men of letters that is not reciprocated, claiming that its protagonists are sacred. They say and do horribly foolish things; that is their right! It is high time we took a look at these unknown, second-rate men who hold such importance in their time and who are the moving force behind a press with a production equal to that of books.”

A Louis Harris survey in 1987 revealed that as compared to America, Germany, Great Britain and Spain had little or no confidence in the media. The pluralities in these three countries said the media had too much power. This survey assessed the media’s influence on three central institutions of government-the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Some respondents accused the media of undermining the separation of powers that is the foundation of democracy.

Whether the media actually impedes the operations of the other three organs of democracy is difficult to say, but as the Indian experience shows, the media has a more abiding influence on government and its institutions rather than the other way round.

The American humourist, Will Rogers, contended, “All I know is just what I read in the papers.” For many Indian politicians, there is a good bit of truth in this aphorism — what they learn about ongoing political events comes primarily from the news media. Therefore, the media as a supplier of information moulds public opinion and influences political decisions. If the media guides citizens’ attention to certain issues and influences their thinking process, the media also influences the choice of issues that will be matters of political concern and action. That is the reasoning behind the agenda-setting hypothesis of scholars like Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald L. Shaw.

Agenda-setting or the ability of the media to influence the course of events in the public mind has been part of the political culture of the United States of America for nearly a century. The assumption of media power has been asserted by political journalist and historian, Theodore White, during the presidential elections of 1972. According to him, the power of the press in America is primordial. It sets the agenda for public discussions; and this sweeping political power is unrestrained by any law. It determines what people will talk and think about — an authority that in other nations is reserved for tyrants, priests, parties and bureaucrats.

The idea of agenda-setting asserts that the priorities of the press become the priorities of the public. What the press emphasises is emphasised privately and publicly by the audiences, asserts White. The press largely structures voters’ perceptions of political reality. It can also influence which issues make up the agenda for any particular elections.

In 1952, the Republicans led by Dwight Eisenhower successfully exploited the three Ks — Korea, Corruption and Communism — in order to regain the White House after a hiatus of twenty years. The prominence of those three issues, cultivated by press reports extending over many months and accented by partisan campaign advertising, worked against the incumbent Democratic party.

There are numerous instances of how popular American presidents’ actions and statements reported in the media affected public opinion. These include President Nixon’s persistent opposition to speeding up troop withdrawals from Vietnam during 1969,1970 and 1971; Reagan’s 1981 argument of AWACS airplane sales to Saudi Arabia; Carter’s 1977-78 increased attention to Arab countries, his 1982 bellicose posturing towards the Soviet Union; Ford’s 1974-75 defence of military spending and Carter’s advocacy of cuts in domestic spending, et al.

In contrast, unpopular presidents had little success at opinion leadership. In several cases, unpopular presidents made serious efforts to advocate policies but failed to persuade the public.

In no area of public life have practicing politicians taken media effects more seriously than during elections. Political campaign organisers spend much time, effort and money to attract favourable media attention to candidates for major electoral offices. When their candidates lose, they frequently blame the tone of media coverage, or rather the lack of it.

There is an old saying that there are many slips  between the cup and the lip. It is one thing for politicians to create a particular image and another for that image to be conveyed to news people and, through them, to the voting public.

Systematically establishing the impact of election communication on the public’s opinions and behaviour is a real challenge. The nature of campaign coverage has also a profound impact on the way people vote. This is confirmed by how people tended to view the candidate — as the winner or the loser. As for the media ,that old line of legendary coach Vince Lombardi – “Winning Isn’t Everything, It’s The Only Thing” — is taken to heart and the public response usually follows suit.

Ever since the television age of politics was born in the 1952, American presidential stakes between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, the ability to use the medium has been increasingly essential to electoral success. In 1960, John F Kennedy’s video persona in his televised debate with Richard Nixon proved his margin of victory.

Similarly, in 1976, Jimmy Carter co-opted television in the Democratic primaries to help him create a candidature  that was larger than life. Ronald Reagan throughout his presidency proved that the visual medium had become the political message. Reagan’s White House advisors understood early that in areas of government policy and global complexity the nature of the medium is tedium. And so, by controlling the pictures, they could control the pacing of the news shows.

The media effects politics in a variety of ways. They also affect public policies. By mobilizing hostile public or interest group opinions, the media may force a halt to political choices. But, as a general rule, journalists should disclaim any motivation to influence public policies through their news stories. Except for the editorial pages, their credo calls for objective, neutral reporting. Only investigative stories may be the major exceptions to this rule.

Contemporary political folklore pictures the media as adversaries of officialdom who alert the citizens to governmental misdeeds or failures. In reality, there are, or may occur, many situations when officials and journalists work together to bring about needed action.

The power of news people rests largely in their ability to select news for publication and feature it as they choose. Many people in and out of government try to influence these media choices. But in the ultimate analysis, it is the editor and news directors — the gatekeepers in news media- who, in an ideal situation, decide which item to clear  and which one  to reject.

(First Published in The Frontier Post)

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Tagore & Odisha

Odisha and West Bengal, two geographically contiguous states of India, are as much a proximate in culture and language. Both states have a close link – from people movements to culinary familiarity. More to that. Puri attracts lakhs of people from Bengal. In truth, it is the Bengalis around whom the holy city of Puri revolves. They contribute greatly to the city’s economy. The Tagore family of Jorasonko too had a close connection with Odisha and it stretches back to generations. Rabindranath Tagore’s great grandfather Nilamani Thakur had come to Cuttack as a ‘Sirastadar‘ (revenue collector) duly appointed by the British.

In 1840, Rabindranath’s grandfather Prince Dwarakanath Tagore had bought a small estate near Pandua in the present Jagatsinghpur district. Tagores even had a house built in Cuttack’s Tulasipur area. Later, Rabindranath’s father Maharshi Debendranath Tagore visited Odisha sometime around  1851 to supervise the estate at Pandua  from where he visited Puri.

Records of those times bring out how the Tagore family was fascinated by Puri’s pristine beach, the camaraderie, and the cool breeze.

In 1891, Rabindranath Tagore visited Odisha for the first time to oversee the land his ancestors had bought. Tagore’s maiden visit to Odisha was memorable and soul-stirring. The bard’s fascination for Puri finds mentioned in ‘Chinnapatra’ — his letters to Indira Devi, Tagore’s niece. In one such letter, Tagore wrote: 

“The road from Cuttack to Puri is good. It is high with low-lying fields on both sides. There are big shady trees, mostly mango. At this time, all the mango trees are in blossom, filling the way with fragrance. Some villages are seen surrounded by mango, pipal, banyan, coconut and palm trees.”

Tagore informs further:

“In places covered carts are standing on the banks of shallow rivers. There are confectioners under palm-leaf thatches. Inside the huts in rows, under the trees on both sides of the road, the pilgrims are taking their meals. The beggars are shouting in strange languages, whenever they see fresh batches of pilgrims or carriages or palanquins.”

He wrote fabulously about what he saw on his way to the glorious city of Puri:

“As one approaches Puri, the pilgrims are seen in greater numbers. Covered carts are seen moving in lines. People are found lying down, looking or gossiping together on the banks of tanks. On the right side of the road, a big spire of the Jagannath temple rises. Suddenly at one place, crossing the line of trees and bushes, the wide stretch of sandy sea-beach and the azure line of the sea become visible.”

Tagore visited Odisha once more in 1893.This time it was Cuttack with his nephew Balendranath. Tagore was a guest at the then District magistrate BL Gupta, ICS ( Malati Chaudhury’s grandfather). Having spent a few days there, Tagore  set out to Puri  on a palanquin and he was spellbound  over the unspoiled  sceneries on both sides of  the Jagannath Sadak as it was called then. Tagore’s last visit to Odisha was in 1939. 

 He came on the request of Biswanath Das, the then Chief Minister (called Prime Minister) of Odisha   to visit the province. When Das was in Kolkata to attend a meeting of the All India Congress Committee, he personally met the poet to pay respects and extend the invitation.

Tagore reached Puri on 19th April in 1939. He was warmly received by the ministers and government officials. The poet stayed in the Circuit House as the state government’s guest. But all his engagements were canceled as the poet developed a slight fever and the doctors advised him complete rest.

On 8th May 1939, the poet was given an ovation on behalf of the women of Odisha. The next day — his birthday – was celebrated with gusto. The birthday bash was held on a well decorated pandal with an opening song. The poet was welcomed with the chanting of Vedic hymns by the pundits of Puri’s Sanskrit College. Flower, sandal paste, vermilion and coconuts were offered to the poet as a mark of veneration.

So enthralled was Tagore at this spirit of love and affection that he wrote in a letter to his former Secretary Dr. Amiya Chakravarti:

“I have come to Puri. I am the invited guest of those who are now at the helm of the affairs of Orissa. There is something novel in this fact. In older days, they who were kings or heads of the state, used to honour the meritorious, thereby honouring their own countries and governments. By this liberality, they used to keep contact with human culture and admit the universal heritage in the development of faculties.”

He further wrote:

 “We have learnt the modern system of political administration from the English. The talented have no place in it. The statesmen of Europe wield the outward aspect of that power which is based upon economic and administrative laws. They cannot have the right to govern the spirit that lies underneath but it is needless to argue that having acknowledged and paid due regard to it, a noble environment can be created for the government. In oriental system of administration, the scope for acknowledgment of the individual talent has, however, not been neglected.”

In the same letter, he was a bit apologetic: 

“Let me now tell you about myself. I have no work here, nor am I of any use to anybody. Those who are taking care of me here, expect no material advice from me. That salutary and refreshing effect with which the sea breeze is touching my body and mind is the very symbol of the hospitality of the newly responsible Orissa Government. Administrative procedure has created no obstacle to it, nor has it been affected by the budgetary economy.”

On human relations Rabindranath wrote when he was convalescing:

“Sitting on the first floor of the Circuit House, I have unhesitatingly given myself up to pure idleness. The ministers here, having noticed the tired condition of my health, come every day to encourage me to spend my days without any purpose. The mentality of admitting human relationships even in the midst of heavy pressure of work is still inherent in our country; and this has been felt by me especially after I have come over here.”

During his stay at Puri, the Raja of Puri – an institution by himself – and the Superintendent of Sri Jagannath temple, bestowed upon Rabindranath, the title Parama Guru (the great teacher). As the poet was indisposed, the ceremony was not held publicly. The Dewan (manager) of the king came down to the circuit house in a procession to confer the title. The panegyric was read out in the hallowed Sanskrit language. Then a camphor garland, head dress and a pair of silk clothes were offered as a mark of respect by the chief priest. 

Historian Prof. Pravat Mukherji later wrote about Tagore’s acceptance of the recognition thus: “He had been warmly received in many countries of the world, but the reception which was given that day by the people of Odisha touched his heart, as it was according to the traditional Hindu style.”

Tagore’s stay in Puri had a few other blissful moments. Many poets and freedom fighters met him. Among them were Lexicographer and compiler of ‘Purnachandra Bhashakosh’ (Odia Encyclopedia), Gopal Chandra Praharaj, Pandit Raghunath Mishra, freedom fighter Sarala Devi, poet and novelist Kalindi Charan Panigrahi and yet another gentleman from Jajpur, Chandrasekhar Das, about whom Tagore penned a few lines:

“O’ my unknown admirer,

Today you have become known.

With my blessings I repay

My admirer your loan.”

Two contemporary Odia poets — Bhaktakabi Madhu Sudan Rao and Kantakabi Laksmikanta Mohapatra (creator of the state song ‘Bande Utkal Janani’) – were inspired by Tagore and wrote two books – Kusumanjali (Posy of Flowers) and Jiban Sangeeta (Life Song) respectively, which are rare beginnings in modern Odia literature. 

It was also during the Puri layover that Tagore wrote the dance drama ‘Chitrangada’ – the theme he seemed to have overheard from the local epic-sayers. Tagore also wrote some of his famous poems: Pravasi (Expatriate), Janmadin (Birthday) and Epare Opare (This side and that side) in Puri. In Pravasi, Tagore describes himself as a “man of the world and he does not consider anybody to be alien”

Tagore loved the people of Odisha so much that he concluded: 

“From a distance I have formed an idea about the love of the people and the efficiency of those who are at the helm of the administration of Orissa at present, and now I am appreciating it from close quarters.”



References:

Guru Kalyan Mohapatra: Puri & the Poet

Sambad by Prof Basanta Kumar Panda ( Odiya translation of Chinnapatra). The excerpts from the Chinnapatra have been translated by Bhaskar Parichha from Odiya.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Bhaskar's Corner

Richard Hughes: The Reporter Who Inspired Ian Fleming

Death came to Richard Hughes a little over a quarter century ago — precisely on 4th January 1984. For his friends it was more than a personal loss, not just the occasional twinge of sorrow. It was a permanent bereavement. Richard Hughes was the foreign correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review from 1971 to 1983 and was one of Asia’s top-notch reporters.

Born to an Irish mother and Welsh father, Hughes combined Catholicism and Calvinism. Hughes was a pressman, complete and unassuming. He began his life with a writing job in the public relations department of the Victorian Railways. He soon joined the Melbourne Star (he was reported to be cracked, leaving PR for journalism is like running away from sea to go to school). Then he joined Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and was sent to Tokyo. Hughes reported the events of World War II. After the war ended, he continued reporting for other wars — particularly, the Korean War (1950-53).

His journalistic stints hovered around The Economist and The Sunday Times. Like all great reporters, scoops were his forte — the best known being an exclusive interview in Moscow with Burgess and MacLean, both British men who spied for the USSR. Later he shifted to Hong Kong and began writing his weekly columns.

Richard Hughes was more than a pressman. A towering personality who loved his job eminently, he was equally in the company of eminent people. Ian Fleming who was penning his James Bond thrillers was Hughes’ foreign editor and John le Carre wrote him into his books. Dikko Henderson of the Australian Secret Service in Fleming’s You Only Live Twice (1964) and Old Craw in Le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)are none other than Dick or Richard Hughes.

The life of Hughes as a reporter spanned many decades, most of which was spent in Asia. Hughes wrote extensively about Asia and his memoirs of those decades are chronicles of some important happenings in the continent. From hilarious events to the macabre ones, Hughes wrote about them and with great elan.

Hughes was an avid China-watcher and in most of his reports China figured prominently. Even the first report he filed on 16 October 1971, carried a commentary on Chairman Mao Zedong’s health and Lin Biao being anointed heir-apparent.

The year 1972 was, like 2008, the Chinese year of the Rat. Hughes wrote rather assertively: “The late Comrade Marx may not have heard of this celestial law of the animal calendar, and Chairman Mao himself does not refer to it in any of his manifestos; but stubbornly it persists, real and abiding, if non-ideological.”

President Nixon was visiting Peking early 1972. Hughes in his ingenious style commented: “The Chinese comrades have their own Maoist version of champagne, which was available in an alleged nightclub in a hutung behind the old Peking market as late as 1957; but the less said about that bastardized product the better for the Washington-Peking detente.”

In yet another of his weekly columns, Hughes described how Comrade-Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia (1922-2012) feared and distrusted the communists and the Vietnamese (Hanoi and Saigon alike) more than he feared or distrusted the Americans and the West.

Hughes’ oeuvre spanned from small little facts to great tributes. His piece on the death of Mitsugoro Bando VIII, the 69-year-old Kabuki actor, which he wrote in February 1975,was not only an homage but it carried an incisive analysis of the cause of this theatre personality’s death-eating fugu or Japanese globefish. Mark these details which Hughes had appended in his dispatch:

“Globefish poisoning is caused by tetrotoxin, usually found in fugu liver or ovaries, which can be far deadlier than potassium cyanide and causes violent paralysis. Since 1958, when a total of 289 diners suffered from globefish poisoning in Japan and 167 died, only licensed cooks have been authorized to prepare fugu dishes.”

Hughes was once expelled from the press galleries of both the Senate and the House of Representatives in Canberra because of his critical remarks about an irresponsible Senate vote against John Curtin’s Labor government. As he was re-seated after being exonerated in the galleries, he was not only delighted but gave this bit of information in his column that the Canberra press is one of the friendliest in the world.

Richard Hughes’ dispatches were not always matter-of-fact reporting; some of them were comical and conversational. One such backdrop was the lunar zodiac in which Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou were born.

Here is another account of Kim II Sung of North Korea (1912-94), who was speculated to have disappeared from public life owing to an incurable malignant neck cancer. Hughes wrote:

“Many of my barefoot spies in Peking and Seoul believe that when Kim II Sung sought medical advice in Rumania in 1974, he was told that he could expect to continue in public office for only two more years. This story certainly helps to explain his family-cult buffoonery and the controversial promotion of his 37-year-old son Kim Jong II as his successor.”

A September-1978 column of Hughes takes us to what happened in Indonesia in the late sixties — Ratna Sari Dewi, the one time Tokyo geisha hostess and the third  wife of the late president Sukarno, denouncing the CIA for complicity in the abortive 1965 communist coup. In the same vein, Hughes wrote eulogistically about President Suharto: “He sought to retire Sukarno, the father figure of Indonesian revolution, with relative dignity and avoid humiliation of the man who had been the country’s voice for two decades. But Sukarno, that arrogant hypocrite, never gave Suharto credit for his characteristically Indonesian perception and generosity.”

No newspaper columnist can ever keep himself aloof from writing about newspapers themselves. So, when Hughes attended a reception of Shimbun’s 35th anniversary celebrations he was nostalgic about the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan and how it had grown to a strong 250-member association by 1946. In a similar vein, he argued in one of his reports in November 1981 that the world’s first daily newspaper was not The Times but the contest was between west and East Europe or Korea. Based on various sources Hughes resolved that The Leipziger Zeitung (Korea) was the world’s first daily newspaper.

Richard Hughes’ last column was on the charade by former Australian prime minister Harold Holt’s espionage and his submarine escape to China. He, no doubt, called him a patriotic Aussie and recalled their friendship from the debating days of Melbourne. This column was submitted on 15 December 1983 and after which he never returned to write those brilliant columns once again.

Hughes columns were hilarious and sensitive to prevailing situations. He touched those niceties of life which he could handle with great aplomb. Whether it was the slave children of old Shanghai, plunging pathetic, claw-like hands into vats of boiling water to prepare silk cocoons for spinning or the Teikoku poisoner who massacred a bank’s staff for a haul of US 80 dollars, Hughes’ columns were down-to-earth.

No wonder he was called the ‘barefoot reporter’!

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Amrita Sher-Gil: An Avant-Garde Blender of the East & West

Bhaskar Parichha explores how the life and art of Amrita Sher-Gil was an amalgam of the best of India and the West

Much before the Punjabi diaspora spread its wings across continents, there was one woman who not only became a venerated name in the field of art but also gave art an altogether new identity in India. She was Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941). Born to Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, a Sikh aristocrat and a great scholar of Sanskrit and Persian, and Marie Antoinette Gottesmann, a Jewish opera singer from Hungary, Amrita inherited a legacy that was consummate and effervescent. 

Amrita was the eldest of the two daughters. Her younger sister was Indira Sundaram, mother of   painter Vivan Sundaram. Amrita spent her early childhood in Dunaharaszti, Hungary. She was also the niece of the Indologist Ervin Baktay. It was Baktay who guided her — by being a critique of her works — and gave her the academic underpinning that helped Amrita flourish. Ervin also taught her to use domestic helpers as models; and the reminiscence of these models eventually motivated her to return to India. 

Sher-Gil’s quest for the fine art led her to Paris, with her mother, when she was barely sixteen. She studied first at the Grande Chaumiere under Pierre Vaillant and subsequently at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where she was taught by Lucien Simon.

In her early twenties, Sher-Gil returned to India in 1921. The family began living in Shimla. She was by now an accomplished painter, equipped with some of the most essential modules that make one a great artist. She had an unquenchable thirst to be on familiar terms with the grammar and the language of painting, a virile tenacity of purpose and the single-mindedness about her role in life. 

 In 1924, she went to Italy and joined Santa Annunciata, a Roman Catholic institution. In Santa, Amrita Sher-Gil got an exposure to the works of Italian artists. While studying in Paris, she had already been influenced by the works of European greats like Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. Her later paintings would echo a strong influence of the Western artists, chiefly from the Bohemian circles of Paris of the early 1930s.

 In 1932, she displayed her first important work, Young Girls, which led to her appointment as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933, making her the youngest ever and the only Asian to have received such recognition. In 1934, while in Europe, she was haunted by what is known through her letters ‘an intense longing to return to India’ and ‘feeling in some strange way that there lay my destiny as a painter’. 

After her return, she began a rediscovery of the traditions of Indian art which would continue till her death. It was also during this period that she pursued an affair with Malcolm Muggeridge. In the mid-thirties, Amrita Sher-Gil’s mission for exploring further into Indian art began. It was a never-ending journey and her contributions to art was a breakthrough and uniquely superb. From Mughal miniatures to the Ajanta paintings and Southern styles, the Indian influence on her work was complete and irreversible. 

 In 1936, at the behest of Karl Khandalavala, art collector and critic, Amrita pursued her lifelong passion for realizing her Indian roots. She found inspiration in the Pahari School of painting. Later, in 1937, she toured South India and produced the famous South Indian trilogy paintings- ‘Bride’s Toilet’, ‘Brahmachari’ and ‘The South Indian Villagers’. These paintings mirror   her passionate sense of colour and an equally passionate empathy for Indian subjects. Poverty and despair constitute a major theme in Amrita Sher-Gil’s works and they find plentiful representation on her canvas. Her works also showed an engagement with the works of Hungarian painters, especially the Nagybanya School of painting in the interwar years.

In 1938, Amrita married her Hungarian first cousin, Dr. Victor Egan. After this marriage, they moved to Gorakhpur (UP) and, still later, the couple shifted to Lahore where she lived till her death in 1941.

Amrita Sher-Gil was one of the most gifted Indian artists belonging to the pre-colonial era. Her works reflect her deep ardour and perception for colours. Her profound understanding of the Indian subjects comes so vividly in her works that it is difficult to find parallels elsewhere. The works of Amrita Sher-Gil have been declared national art treasures by the Government and most of her paintings adorn the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. There is also a Delhi road named after the painter — Amrita Sher-Gil Marg. 

Amrita Sher-Gil’s legacy stands at par with those of the masters of the Bengal renaissance. She is said to be the ‘most expensive’ woman painter in India. Besides remaining an inspiration to many contemporary Indian artists, she was the muse for one of the longest running Urdu plays, Tumhari Amrita (1992), directed by Javed Siddiqi, with Shabana Azmi and Farooq Sheikh playing the lead roles. Her works are also a central force in the novel, Faking It, authored by Amrita V Chowdhury. The beauty and depth of Amrita Sher-Gil’s paintings has earned her inordinate admiration and recognition beyond her days.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Manoj Das – The Master Storyteller

Bhaskar Parichha pays a tribute to one of the greatest storytellers from the state of Odisha, India, Manoj Das( 1934-2021), who lived to be 87 and passed on from normal causes this April

“I have now read the stories of Manoj Das, with very great pleasure. He will certainly take a place on my shelves beside the stories of Narayan (R K Narayan). I imagine Odisha is far from Malgudi but there is the same quality in his stories with perhaps an added mystery.”

Graham Greene.

“Whenever people praise Paulo Coelho and the like, I always think of Manoj Das. What a great prolific writer we have. He could have easily reached the heights and beyond of the one Coelho reached. But he preferred the silence, simplicity and serenity to fame and glory. In this, he has lived the very values he gave us through his stories.”

— Aravindan Neelakandan, Indian Journalist

With the passing away of Manoj Das, Indian literature has lost a master storyteller who wrote bilingually — in English and his mother tongue Odia — with equal affluence. Novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, editor, columnist and a sadhaka, Manoj Das will be remembered by generations of Odias for his literary outpouring for over half a century. Odisha-born (in a village called Sankhari in Balasore district bordering West Bengal), his fame went far beyond terrestrial limits.

Manoj Das began   writing quite early. His first work — a book of poetry in Odia — Satavdira Artanada (Cries of a Time) was published in 1949 when he was barely in high school. In 1950, he launched a literary magazine, Diganta (Horizon). His first collection of short stories Samudrara Kshudha (Hungry Sea) was published the following year. Manoj Das often cited Vyasa, and Valmiki and Fakir Mohan Senapati, as his early influences.  

He took active interest in student politics while studying for his bachelor’s degree in Cuttack’s prestigious Ravenshaw College. A youth leader with radical views, he even spent a year in jail for his revolutionary undertakings. After graduating from Puri’s SCS (Samanta Chandra Sekhara)

College, he received a postgraduate degree in English literature from Ravenshaw College. He was also a delegate to the Afro-Asian students’ conference at Bandung, Indonesia in 1959.

After a short stint as a lecturer in Cuttack’s Christ College, Manoj Das came away to Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry in 1963, where he had been professor of English Literature at the Ashram’s International Center of Education. Pondicherry (modern Puducherry) became his ‘Karma Bhoomi’ and his abode of sadhana. His quest for devoutness motivated him to become an inmate of Sri Aurobindo Ashram of which he was an integral part till his end.

Manoj Das wrote expansively and in various genres. Poetry, novel, short story   travelogue and books on India’s history and culture dominated his works. Shesha Basantara Chithi (Spring’s Last Epistle ),Tuma Gam o Anyanya Kabita (Your Village and Other Poems) Dhumabha Diganta ( Dusky Horizon), Manojpancabimsati (Twenty-five short stories) and the most recent one, Shesha Tantrikara Sandhanare (In Quest of  the Last Tantric), are among the Odia works he is best known for. His writings in Odia have mesmerized readers for decades. 

Manoj Das has often been known as the Vishnu Sharma of modern Odia literature —   for his magnificent style and effective use of words. His   oeuvre displayed many dimensions of human nature. He was a truth-seeker, a thinker-writer whose works are defined ‘as a quest for finding the eternal truth in everyday circumstances’.

He began his English writing in 1967 with the publication of the short story collection A Song for Sunday and Other Stories. It was followed by Short Stories of Manoj Das. Both attracted commendation from literary doyens like Mulk Raj Anand, K P S Menon and K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar. Some of his other notable works in English are ‘ The Escapist’, ‘A Tiger at Twilight’, ‘The submerged Valley and Other Stories’, ‘The Bridge in the moonlit Night’, ‘Cyclones’, ‘Mystery of the Missing Cap’, ‘Myths’, ‘Legends’, ‘Concepts and Literary Antiquities of India’. He wrote his memoir ‘Chasing the Rainbow: Growing up in an Indian Village (2004.) 

After the publication of ‘The Submerged Valley’, Graham Greene, whose appreciation of contemporary Indian fiction was limited to R K Narayan, wrote to Dick Batstone, publisher of the book, expressing happiness at his discovery of Das. “I imagine Odisha is far from Malgudi, but there is the same quality in his stories with perhaps an added mystery.” 

Manoj Das is best known for his dramatic expression as well as satire. His writings dealt with various social and psychological issues: displacement, natural calamities such as floods, people’s belief in ghosts and spirits, duplicitous politicians, et cetera. While his writings were social commentaries on post-Independence times, the short stories, novels, essays and poems blended physical experiences with fantasy and left an indelible impression on Indian literature.

An exponent of the philosophy of ‘Sri Aurobindo and The Mother’, Manoj Das wrote weekly columns in almost all national dailies: The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Statesman. A whole generation of readers grew up reading his columns, which were contemporaneous and dealt with emergent issues. His newspaper writings — revealing the subterranean truth — are treasured by many.

He wrote for academic journals and periodicals too; and his international appeal grew most in the 1970s and 1980s when The Illustrated Weekly of India and The Imprint published his numerous stories. He also edited a cultural magazine, The Heritage, published by Chennai’s Chandamama group.

Awards came to Manoj Das effortlessly:  the topmost being the Saraswati Samman, Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan for his lasting contribution in the field of Literature and Education. Kendriya Sahitya Akademi conferred its highest award on Manoj Das. He was Member, General Council of Sahitya Akademi, and the Author-consultant, Ministry of Education, Government of Singapore in the early eighties besides leading an Indian delegation of writers to China.

In 1971, his research in the archives of London and Edinburgh brought to light some of the little-known facts of India’s freedom struggle in the first decade of the twentieth century led by Sri Aurobindo for which he received the first Sri Aurobindo Puraskar (Kolkata).

Being a bilingual writer, when someone asked about the language he envisaged before writing a piece, he answer back:  “In the language of silence — if I do not sound presumptuous, the creative process ought to be allowed some mystery. Inspiration surely precedes articulation through any language. This is absolutely true in regard to good poetry and substantially true in regard to good fiction. Without this element of inspiration, which is beyond language to begin with, literature can hardly have a throbbing soul.”

From a disenchanted Marxist to an ardent humanist, Manoj Das was an ingenious author. His creative works – running into a thousand and more — dealt with the Indian psyche and were so spontaneous that it impressed both the Indian and the Western reader — for the authenticity and the diversity.

Manoj Das had an uncanny capacity for presenting the serious and the serene in a way that was amusing, often arousing a lasting humor. Elements of fantasy as metaphor have a domineering presence in his fictions.

 P Raja, author of Many Worlds of Manoj Das, has a deeper insight into his works: ‘Mystery in a wide and subtle sense, mystery of life, indeed, is the core of Manoj Das’s appeal. Born before Independence, he has thoroughly used in his fiction. His experiences, gathered at an impressionable age, of the epoch-making transitions through which the country was passing. Thus we meet in his works lively characters caught up in the vortex of India’s passage from the colonial era to freedom, the impact of the end of the princely states and the feudal system, and the mutation of several patches of rural India into clumsy bazaars.’

For thousands of men, women, and children of the past three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of courtesy and bliss. His words have inspired countless readers and have instilled a faith in the purpose of life.

Glossary

Sadhaka – Someone who pursues a certain discipline with devotion.

Sadhana — Meditation

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Bhaskar's Corner

Oh, That Lovely Title: Politics

Bhaskar Parichha debuts his column with a witty collection of quotes that he has picked up with his wide reading, arranged in a way that they take the reader through a series of thought-provoking comments on contemporary issues

Cartoon by Mario Miranda in the November 8th,1987 issue of Illustrated Weekly.
Photo courtesy: Bhaskar Parichha

We, in India, are in the throes of a big political churning right now. No one knows who the victor and who the vanquished will be. But politics — and obviously elections in India — are as multi-hued as they are rancid.

Adore it or loathe it, politics has its own share of quotable quotes. From the funniest quotes to the dumbest one, here is an uplifting list of famous lines said by equally famous people. 

Niccolo Machiavelli, a fifteenth century florentine philospher, has a very pertinent line for the present day politics. He said, “Politics have no relation to morals.” Charles de Gaulle’s take on politicians is so sensible! “In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant.” Two other famous literary figures — the Irish George Bernard Shaw and British novelist George Orwell — too were scornful of politicians. Shaw said, “He knows nothing and thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.”

Orwell remarked, “In our age there is no such thing as keeping out of politics. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.” 

American comedian George Carlin had a terse remark on that country’s politicians: “Now, there’s one thing you might have noticed I don’t complain about: politicians. Everybody complains about politicians. Everybody says they suck. Well, where do people think these politicians come from? They don’t fall out of the sky. They don’t pass through a membrane from another reality. They come from American parents and American families, American homes, American schools, American churches, American businesses and American universities, and they are elected by American citizens. This is the best we can do folks. This is what we have to offer. It’s what our system produces: Garbage in, garbage out.”

There is so much of coaxing and wheedling to take part in elections. Plato, the great Greek philosopher, observed, “one of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” Elections in India have become so expensive that ordinary mortals like you and me can’t think of fighting them even in our dreams. Will Rogers said, “Politics has become so expensive that it takes a lot of money even to be defeated.” Gore Vidal has a different take on this issue: “Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.” 

US President Calvin Coolidge once said, “Politics is not an end, but a means. It is not a product, but a process. It is the art of government. Like other values it has its counterfeits. So much emphasis has been placed upon the false that the significance of the true has been obscured and politics has come to convey the meaning of crafty and cunning selfishness, instead of candid and sincere service.”

What New York City writer Christian Nestell Bovee who relished the intimate friendship of Washington Irving, Longfellow, Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes believed politics is interesting: “Political aspirants make too much of the people before election, and, if successful, too much of themselves after it. They use the people when they want to rise, as we treat a spirited horse when we want to mount him; — for a time we pat the animal upon the neck, and speak him softly; but once in the saddle, then come the whip and spur.”

Finding the right candidate in elections is next to impossible. Cartoonist Kin Hubbard too had the same dilemma when he said, “We would all like to vote for the best man but he is never a candidate.” Edmund Burke’s caution on gentlemen despising politics is worth the while. Eighteenth century statesman and thinker Burke said, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” NOTA (none of the above) has been added to the preference for voters in the EVMs (electronic voting machines) these elections. American comedian, WC Fields , once said, “Hell, I never vote for anybody, I always vote against.” 

Why there is widespread abhorrence of politics is easy to fathom. According to radio commentator, political commentator, author, columnist, Cal Thomas, “One of the reasons people hate politics is that truth is rarely a politician’s aim. Election and power are.” Lord Acton’s famous quote hardly needs mention. He said, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It was Henry A. Kissinger who rather pithily observed: “Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation.” Groucho Marx , a humorist, opined, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”  

What essentially should a political party have? According to Dwight D. Eisenhower, “If a political party does not have its foundation in the determination to advance a cause that is right and that is moral, then it is not a political party; it is merely a conspiracy to seize power.”

Winston Churchill’s famous take is worth remembering today ever than before: “Politics are almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous … In war, you can only be killed once. But in politics many times.”

American Novelist Edgar Watson Howe thought, “If you have sense enough to realize why flies gather around a restaurant, you should be able to appreciate why men run for office.”

According to the former US president Barack Obama, “We’ve come to be consumed by a 24-hour, slash-and-burn, negative ad, bickering, small-minded politics that doesn’t move us forward. Sometimes one side is up and the other side is down. But there’s no sense that they are coming together in a common-sense, practical, nonideological way to solve the problems that we face.”

And, finally, Columnist and Editor Doug Larson has this warning against the political class: “Instead of giving a politician the keys to the city, it might be better to change the locks.”

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL