The K.V. Anand interview

He entered the film industry in 1994 as a cinematographer and ended up winning a national award for his work on debut. Ten years and 13 projects later, he settled into the director’s chair and gave us hits like Ayan and Ko . K.V. Anand, now 51, is waiting to release his sixth film, Kavan, starring Vijay Sethupathy, Madonna Sebastien and T. Rajender.  Edited excerpts from an interview:

What’s happening with Kavan right now?

I’m editing the ‘Oxygen’ love song. My team saw the first cut and said it was pretty good. But I feel I can improve it further. That will happen during the rerecording. We need to make things slick and fast for the audience.

Speaking of fast-paced films, did you see Si-3?

No, no. But Kavan doesn’t have that much of action. It’s more to do with an ordinary man dealing with a situation.

You earlier said Kavan is about a David vs Goliath conflict, where a common man is pitted against a powerful entity. What else can you reveal about it?

Kavan literally translates as a tool used to aim at a target — like how David used a catapult and stone to bring his adversary down. Goliath is in the form of a corporate giant and an ordinary guy is pitted against it. Vijay Sethupathy fit that bill.  This script wouldn’t have worked with a superstar like Suriya, Vijay or Ajith.

You also have a new team to assist you …

Yes. Instead of Harris Jayaraj, Hiphop Adhi is the music director. The cinematographer is Abhinandan and Kabilan Vairamuthu has contributed to lyrics, story and screenplay. The reason for this change is … when you’ve worked with the same team over the years, we end up agreeing on what everyone says. I wanted to break with that familiarity. The only person who has remained constant in my team is editor Antony because he and I differ on everything under the sun except the food we eat.

Why have you chosen HipHop Tamizha specifically among the new crop?

I had my eyes on Ghibran and Imman too, but he was the only one who was free. There’s a great difference in the way he approaches music. Harris composes music in an almost meditative, transcendent state. With Adhi, there’s a playfulness in his tunes, there’s unpredictability. In Thani Oruvan, he has done a  fantastic job with the BGM and songs. I think a substantial amount of the film’s success is owed to him. My feedback to him simply was that lyrics were not discernible in his music; he said this is what youngsters like these days. But we made some compromises with each other.

We hear you rewrite your scripts as many as five or six times. Where does this quest of perfection arise from?

From my critics, especially those who work with me. Most of the time, you have a lot of jalra cases. But then, some of them conclude that it is only criticism that I like and give me an overdose of it.

How much of a critic are you of your own work?

I can’t watch my old films on screen or on the TV. I can’t sit through even 10 minutes of them, all the mistakes start appearing. The film that I’m making currently, I can always try to improve it as much as possible.

Which of your earlier films would you say were most satisfactory to you?

Ko and Maatraan.

Ko was based on a lot of experiences from your time as a photojournalist.  Tell us a bit about that part of your life.

When I was doing my BSc in physics in 1985, I had applied to become Junior Vikatan’s student reporter. I was rejected. Then, I began freelancing for Kalki and as part of their reportage series, went to many districts to cover civic issues. I hardly went to click photos of heroes or heroines. My very first assignment was in Thindivanam where my reporter and I had to interview a doctor who complained about poor government hospitals facilities. He was none other than Dr. S. Ramadoss (founder of Pattali Makkal Katchi). I went on to click more than 1000 pictures for Kalki (including 110 cover photographs). I freelanced for Illustrated Weekly and India Today also. I didn’t apply to The Hindu because they would never give bylines for photographers unless you were sent abroad to cover sports.  Only India Today promised a byline and good money. So I applied for a full-time job there. In my mind, I thought I would get it and settle there for the rest of my life. I didn’t get it.  So I showed my portfolio to P.C. Sreeram, who at that time was working on Nayagan. I loved his work and ended up assisting him for three years before he recommended me to Priyadarshan for Thenmavin Kombath (a Malayalam film).

Does your approach differ when you work for a different film industry where the language isn’t the same?

Not much. For cinematographers, there’s no need for a language. For Malayalam (films), I had no problem. But, in Hindi, I always had assistants would would translate what was required and convey it to me. Even there,  some directors, such as Mansoor Khan, would write and work in English primarily. During the shooting of Thenmavin Kombath, the brief we got was that it would be set in a village on the border of Karnataka and Kerala with no electricity. The only source of artificial light would be from the lanterns outside people’s houses. We set things up to suit that.

It has been nearly 10 years since you wielded the camera for a major film. Your last such project was Sivaji. Do you miss it? Would you handle the camera again?

Definitely. When I run out of a script. In fact, Shankar — who is a good friend — asked me to join his team for Rajinikanth’s 2.0. This was immediately after I had wrapped up Anegan. I asked him what the timeframe was. He said it would be a year. I didn’t mind but I wanted to know if he was starting it immediately. He said no. So I said it would be difficult because I had my upcoming (directorial) projects too.

Did you wish that you had been a cinematographer for some of the films during that gap?

I’m not sure. I would’ve loved to have been a part of Gautham Menon’s films or with Mani Ratnam, my favourite director. Good cinematography is not just about showing landscapes but within a single room too. Like in the case of OK Kanmani. Three things combine to give good visuals in a film: cinematography, costumes and art direction. If you want to show something in a very tasteful way, say a person standing in front of a green wall, then he shouldn’t be wearing an eye-popping red. That becomes jarring … like how that Punjabi actor looks like in Messenger of God.  The only person in control of those three elements is the director.

What was it like to direct Vijay Sethupathy?

He’s a very sharp fellow when he listens to narrations. He gave a couple of good suggestions as well. At the same time, he’s a very simple man who avoids being pretentious. That’s why he fit the Kavan character — someone who doesn’t immediately attack back when he gets hit but instead tackles it in a different way.  The film is a reflection of our society, how some things have become a part of everyday life … like bribing a cop or just paying to get things done.


And that anger is what comes out in your films?

Not anger. Me, I’m just numbed out by these things. Shankar’s Anniyan … that was anger. Whatever maturity I have is because of my reading of newspapers and meeting a lot of people. And travelling — nothing teaches you life like travelling alone.

You managed to keep your love for pulp fiction on the side as well

Well, yes. I took photographs for SuBa’s novels (SuBa is the nom de plume of writer duo Suresh and Bala). Their works had a lot of blood and mystery like James Hadley Chase novels. And I tried to give that effect to their covers by imitating P.C. Sreeram’s styles, like how he did it for Agni Natchatiram. I also loved reading comics: Irumbu Kai Maayavi (Tamil version of The Steel Claw) and Spiderman. Only after college did my reading taste turn a bit more serious.

How is a veteran director like you finding it to compete with the new generation of filmmakers who are churning out content non-stop?

Whether a film makes Rs. 30 crore or Rs. 40 crore, only the content matters. It’s not just about the message but also packaging it with entertainment. Even in the case of a project with a very small budget like Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru, the director, a 22-year-old boy, gave us a good, sharp film. There were no songs or anything extra.  One pattern is clear: we need to move at breakneck pace and the audience want us to cut to the chase. The challenge is to add romance and comedy within this limited timeframe. People are definitely ready to see good films. We just have to ask ourselves whether we’re providing them with any.

Are you also cued into the forms of quality digital content available on the internet?

I’m a big fan of Netflix serials — Marco Polo, 24, House of Cards and Narcos … what a fantastic series! It is so realistic, almost like a documentary. A fat gangster (Pablo Escobar) who’s a loving father and loving husband but still kills so many people.

Would you be interested in directing something like that if someone approaches you with a script?

In my career as a director, I’ve been approached by lots of top producers and heroes to do films that suit their image. I’ve turned them down. I need my own script. I can’t just go to Ooty or Kodaikanal and form a story there for the hero’s sake … I can’t do it and I won’t do it. I may do a bad film but it will be planned, scripted and executed my way.

An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2017 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.


The R-Day Walk

So I decided to go for a walk this Republic Day. I guess I just got burnt out setting questions all through the night for an upcoming quiz and after slide number 309, it felt like a circuit just fried within my brain somewhere. I wasn’t getting any sleep and if given a chance, would’ve just ended up in front of the laptop the whole day reading random articles or YouTubing the latest film jukeboxes. As the sun slowly peeped out behind grey clouds, it started raining, and my internet tabs were open with Twitter feeds and NDTV’s live coverage of India’s 66th Republic Day celebrations. I was just a few miles away from the Capital’s centre of attention but I hate the crowds and excessive security, both of which would be in abundant supply on January 26. The buzz started building up: Modi’s colourful headgear, Obama breaking several traditions (no,not the chewing gum bit), the President’s bodyguard putting on their best poker faces atop horses in the rain and the TV news anchor reading about gallantry awards while Doordarshan’s cameras swerved over hyper-excited families waving their hands. A low stomach rumble reminded me to go over to the kitchen. I made buttered toast & topped it with a fried egg. Before wolfing it down, I followed the religious ritual of Instagramming it. IMG_20150126_114702 It was a cool 13°C, and the prospect of getting some fresh air did seem like a good option. A short walk would at least tire me to get some shuteye. Jacket & shoes on, I stepped out. It was around 12:15 pm, I think. Winter made it seem like it was a constant 7:00 am, though. The roads were empty as expected and the shutters were down on almost every shop in the Malviya Nagar market. Delhi is quite a lazy city anyway. I plugged into my earphones and shuffled the playlist. I jogged for a bit until I reached the August Kranti Marg signal. Green Park would be a good milestone to touch and turn back. I didn’t wear my watch. My phone had belted out at least 8 or 9 songs from Kaaviyathalaivan, Haider, Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya & Shamitabh. I could see Jawarharlal Nehru Stadium somewhere in the horizon through the haze. You have to cross a bridge before you get to it. And lovely old railway track passes underneath you on the way. IMG_20150126_135202 Walk further ahead on the bridge and you will notice a road that was once an old airstrip, now used partly as parking space by the city buses. Two white, arching footbridges that were built for the 2010 Commonwealth Games lay symmetrically on either side as cars zipped beneath them. IMG_20150126_135342 A long stretch of the road divider was covered by red-coloured workers’ uniforms put out to dry. It was still as cool as it was when I stepped out of my house. I hadn’t broken a sweat after 7 kms. Nor did I feel hungry or thirsty. Now what? I had reached the stadium. Do I go back? IMG_20150126_140620 A pretty park nearby looked inviting and I jumped in over the low compound wall. However important a day it is in the world’s largest democracy, you can always catch a game of cricket in an arbitrary corner. I felt like joining them and facing a ball or two. But a novel spectacle meant I was better off capturing the action on camera: two serious matches happening on the same patch of ground, their wickets are crisscrossing … but they somehow adjust, waiting for the other to complete a delivery before they proceed with business. IMG_20150126_142245 Walking around, I find that this park was inaugurated by the former J&K governor Jagmohan. Can’t help muttering “That old bastard” under my breath. IMG_20150126_142856 Still 13°, still no sweat and I had reached the fringes of Lutyens’ Delhi. Red-brick compounds with green bamboo fences started springing up. I passed by the residences of several Rajya Sabha MPs, Air Force officers and other babus – probably back home and tired from watching the parade. AR Rahman’s hits from Alaipayuthey were playing between my ears now. I knew the phone battery was close to conking, so I switched the music off and started humming what was left to hear. I wish I had at least one of my two crazy friends who would do this jugalbandi with me anywhere in public. Sujan Singh Park now. I had come to this city as a journalist and didn’t even try to visit it’s most famous resident who passed away last year. The Englishness of the colony was further antiquated by an old, maroon Morris parked at its entrance. A white-bearded man had dozed off on the driver’s seat. There are some things, quite trivial but very exciting, that you wouldn’t see if you were on a vehicle passing by Sujan Singh Park … like its original plaque – a work of fine calligraphy, now finely weathered. Quite surprising that it shows the colony was founded only in 1945. I’d considered it to be much older than that. IMG_20150126_150415 Further down the road and a left turn into Pandara Road – the final frontier before you hit the India Gate circle. It’s nothing short of a walker’s paradise right from the Masjid plant nursery till the last VIP’s house. Perfectly laid pavements, squirrels running around, and old Vespas to boot! IMG_20150126_151522 And finally! I could hear a huge gathering that had stuck around after the grand show circling the cupola behind the India Gate. Behind all these scenes was the faithfully stationed State Media, now getting a break after close to a six-hour schedule. IMG_20150126_152410 It is hard not to feel overwhelmed when you get up close to this monument. IMG_20150126_152918 And when you notice the memories etched in the details. IMG_20150126_153152 All this while crowds cheerfully strike poses, more immersed in clicking selfies. IMG_20150126_153028 I wonder what the guards must be conversing with one another as the eternal flame burns behind them. IMG_20150126_153315 IMG_20150126_153400 For those who hate the show of military might and instead long to see the people’s power, Rajpath has just that to offer. Except, you need to stick around after the main show. IMG_20150126_154751 It’s completely messy though. Who would think that this is where Pranab Mukherjee’s limo and Obama’s beast drove down in the morning? Or several men on bikes performed daredevil stunts to cheering crowds? IMG_20150126_154442 Deserted chairs, leftover chips wrappers … Kwality Walls doing brisk business, competing with Mother Diary. Pani Puri vendors on the side, young boys holding up bunches of wrapped, pink cotton candy and cars honking irritably to get past walkers. Wrong day they chose. For some, the party had just begun. IMG_20150126_154635 While for others, it was understandably over. IMG_20150126_154348 And what’s that they said about the grand seating area for the chief guest again? Oh, wait … IMG_20150126_155338 So the story ends here because my camera battery dunked from five to zero faster than you could say ‘Jai Hind!’. I think my legs had become sore and I heard that low rumble from below again. I remembered from the map I was poring over earlier in the morning, the target I had initially set and what it had come down to now. MtoIG01 10.5 kms. Not bad … this deserved a reward in the kitchens of Khan Market. “Autoooo!”

The last time I saw Landmark

Very nice take on Landmark bookstore (Apex Plaza) closing down.

The Lowly Laureate

Whenever something shuts shop, the memories associated with that something swell out, that is only natural. Because memories need not be rational, this is some loss however.
One thing I realised that, we can continue to have the memories even if the source of those memories has shut down or changed course, because basically these are our memories and we can construct them however and whenever we wish to, immaterial of conditions. So basically this is not a nostalgia piece, but masquerading as one.
I do not know how my generation spent their birthdays; mine was always at Landmark Nungambakkam. Weekdays or weekend whenever it came, didn’t matter; it was the unspoken norm, lunch and dinner also didn’t matter. It wasn’t that we returned with a kart load of books, maybe just one or two.
Landmark Nungambakkam was my first idea of what a bookstore should be, a major introduction…

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Culinary Conundrums


Cooking away from home — especially for a young bachelor — can be quite cumbersome unless the person is genuinely excited about it. For starters, you don’t have the exact kitchen arsenal you are used to handling back home: induction stove instead of LPG-run, a rice cooker in place of a pressurised model, a one-size-fits-all tawa and a knife that can’t even seem to cut through butter.

Stage two involves realising that vegetables don’t magically appear on opening the fridge and the bold step of going out to purchase them. This is a highly educational exercise guaranteed to make you realise how expensive onions are or that your vendor doesn’t completely understand what ‘aubergine’ or ‘brinjal’ actually mean.

When it comes down to getting your hands dirty, you realise you will never dice or julienne the carrots the way your mom can or add the exact amount of salt to the sautéing paneer dish like she does. But you do remember her last-stop solution to all this. “Just throw in those Maggi magic cubes!”

Lunches and dinners never go as planned and are always set behind by a good two hours (by this time your friends have decided its okay to order a Dominos or binge on the Lays and Coke.) It’s O.K. if sunflower oil replaces the extra-virgin olive one on your pasta or you slightly overdosed the Kashmiri lal mirch powder. This is not MasterChef Australia — although eating your creation while watching the TV programme can significantly depress you.

Your friends might not have helped much except with making the raitha or the salad. But in the end you will realise it was well worth the effort. Nothing beats that feeling of friends enjoying your dish — they may well have no alternative — and beholding emptied serving vessels! (Hey, what’s that bit of okra fry doing in the kitchen bin?!)

With practice, anyway, you will fine tune your culinary processes and grin with satisfaction that you actually produce better stuff than that overpriced hotel at the end of your street. Here’s to more cooking away from home!

On a high note forever

 An Interview with Prince Aswati Tirunal Rama Varma

By M. Ramakrishnan

Rama Varma was in the city recently to conduct a two-day workshop ‘Swarasadhana,’ which was held at Satyananda Yoga Center in Triplicane. Here he talks about the event, his personal journey with classical music and his thoughts on the changing trends of the art form.

How did Swarasadhana happen? 

I have been teaching in this village called Perla near Mangalore for the past four years, at a music school called Veenavadini, run by the musician Sri Yogeesh Sharma. He gets musicians from outside to visit once a year. Four years ago they invited me. They enjoyed my teaching a lot and I enjoyed being there too.  My visits became regular. Some of these lessons were video-recorded and uploaded on YouTube. The Tirupati based Sri Venkatesa Bhakti Channel telecast around 200 episodes of the same on air. The organizers of the camp were familiar with my way of teaching through these sources as well as through having attended some teaching sessions directly.

What is special about this camp? What is it about Swarasadhana that hasn’t been done before?

This is the first time I’m conducting such a camp in Chennai. Also, 2013 is the 200th birth anniversary of my ancestor Maharaja Swathi Thirunal. So I have chosen some unique compositions of his that the participants may not be able to learn from many other sources.

Maharaja Swati Thirunal was undoubtedly one of the most important modern composers who included Hindustani styles in his compositions. Yet, how much of open mindedness is exhibited for the same by the rasikas and singers in the south?

Nowadays it’s become fashionable to say that one avoids Hindustani for Carnatic or the other way around. But looking back, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Pandit Jasraj were south Indians who became luminaries in the north Indian style. How many south Indian people are really open to Hindustani music is debatable. The late M S Gopalakrishnan Sir was very competent in the Hindustani field for example and  my colleague Sri Sanjay Subhrahmnayan is a Carnatic musician but is open to Hindustani ragas – he’ll sing pallavi in Bhagyashri for instance. Then again there are fundamentalist groups who think Behag, Sindhu Bhairavi, Yamuna Kalyani, Sivaranjani and their ilk should be totally done away with.

Are you using the same style of teaching as your gurus have used on you?

I had four gurus, one of whom is alive today. Each guru had something special. For example, my first vocal guru Vechoor Hariharasubramania Iyer Sir would repeat parts of songs as many times as I wanted, until I got it right. But he wouldn’t allow recording. I imbibed his level of patience. My two veena gurus Trivandrum R.Venkatraman Sir and K.S.Narayansamy Sir would be very analytical, splitting phrases into the smallest fragments until each gamakam became very clear. Dr.Balamuralikrishna Sir… he doesn’t really Teach, per Se. He could be compared to a sumptuous  buffet in a five-star hotel. All sorts of goodies would be there in front of you and you could help yourself to whatever you liked. Only an advanced student can truly benefit from him, because he doesn’t  repeat parts of the song 300 times or break it up into smaller fragments. While teaching, he would sing as he would in concert. But he has absolutely no problem if you record him. I record his lessons and the tape recorder would become my guru as I play them over and over again.  So, my teaching style is essentially a combination of all what these gurus used.

What did you personally like about the way Swarasadhana was organized?

It was a very sincere effort. Sometimes there are big moneyed organizations that might help you with organizing something but their effort might not be genuine. Outside India, you get much more money for teaching but no job satisfaction, much of the time. There could be exceptions, though.

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Is the title of a prince making things get done easier for you?

Firstly I don’t use the title myself. If I did, I could have this royal image tag that could give me certain advantages. But people have branded me as a prince in virtually every report where my name appears. If you look at my visiting card, it does not use the [royal] title. It’s just Rama Varma. I follow this rule even when I write an article in the paper or if I were to produce a CD. Earlier there was a misconception that I used my title and family influence to get concerts or obtain sponsors easily. People did not know that my family was totally against my performing publicly. As royal patrons they believed that their duty was only to endorse and financially support musicians and singers. This tradition (in the Travancore royal family) was first broken by me.

You had earlier said that classical music should be accessible to the common man. Do you see this transition happening or is there still along way to go?

This sort of transition is a constant process, but it has been done before. Classical music has had mass appreciation through the efforts of people like K B Sundarambal, Madurai Mani Iyer and even my guru, Dr. Balamuralikrishna Sir.

Can this task be achieved easier through the mainstream medium of cinema or new-age music? There have been films like Sankarabharanam, Chithram and Bharatham in the past which have managed to pull it off. 

Yes, these films definitely had a major impact at the time. Some people feel you have to mix classical music with electronic keyboard sounds, a saxophone or a medley of film songs to have greater reach. I stick to my own method, which is to take the trouble to know the meaning of what each word in a song means and convey the same to my audience.

Is this style of explaining the history behind a song as an introductory note also inspired from one of your gurus or entirely yours?

 I have not heard many others do it.

Western music involves the participation of groups of people in the form of gospel choirs which essentially are based on their classical styles.  Is this applicable for the Indian scenario as well?

Both classical systems (in the east and the west) started out as a form of worship. While Christianity emphasizes on a congregational effort, Hinduism allows more individualism. The same principle applies to our singing. If 10 persons were to sing Vatapi Ganapatim Bhajeham, they would choose different tempos and even different sangathis. Our classical music is meant to be a solitary pursuit with lot of potential for instant creativity, pushing limits and exploring new methods. Of course, we also have bhajans which sound beautiful when sung as a group.

So the team effort as far as Carnatic music goes is restricted to the music accompaniments and the vocalist.

Yes. There are also cases of students who have studied under the same guru and sing in sync perfectly. But when I lived in Europe earlier for 10 years, I sometimes had to do concerts without accompaniments or microphones. They were just solo performances with the Tambura. It gave scope for elaborating on raga alapanas and other new ideas, without worrying about coordinating with the accompanists. Singing alone has its own rewards but one should be knowledgeable enough to know how to go about it. It requires great stamina, aesthetic sense and a sense of proportion. There shouldn’t be any hesitation in the mind. Otherwise it is better to stick with your team and perform.

What are your future plans?

Continue the same as much as possible. When I was 20 years old, I never thought I’d go to Europe. While in Europe I never thought I’d go to that small village in Karnataka to teach. My family and Dr. Balamuralikrishna never got along, but I ended up learning so much from him. I was initially attracted by some of his compositions thinking I would just learn a thillana or two and leave. But it’s been 19 years since that meeting took place and I’m still learning from him. I just go with the flow,more or less. I don’t plan.

 Is Swarasadhana on the way to becoming an annual event in your calendar?

That depends on the organizers really. I would be perfectly happy to come again if they were to invite me again.

 Lastly, how much does music mean to you?

During my SSLC exams I used to squeeze in my music classes even between examination breaks. My guru back then used to say no other disciple of his had done this before. After the exams, I remember that Sean Connerey’s comeback film as James Bond, ‘Never Say Never Again’ had just released . All my friends planned ahead and went for it. I finished my exam and came back in the evening for my music class. I realized even then that I couldn’t be without it, without ever imagining I would be a singer. They say the same about marriage: you shouldn’t marry someone whom you can live with but someone whom you can’t live without. I can’t live without music.

Cricket Conversations: What’s wrong with the Ranji?

(Note: this was a reporting assignment I had done a while back. Contains lot of general info, meant for laymen too)

By M.Ramakrishnan and Rahul Ravikumar

Chennai, Nov 30: It has been 68 years since India’s crown jewel of domestic tournaments was instated; a supposedly fitting answer to the English County Championship and the Sheffield Shield from Down Under. In this era of fast-paced and instant entertainment packaging in the form of star-studded T20s, does anyone really care about a four-day match between regional teams which groom the gen-next of India’s cricketers?

The stadiums are usually barren, pulling in crowds only giants like Sourav Ganguly or Sachin Tendulkar feature in the team’s lineup. The occasional talent scout, the proverbial family members and friends of a player or that ubiquitous species (as coined by an upcoming online journal) called Cricket Fanaticus Indiana end up being the saving grace for ‘spectatorship’ most of the time.

Add to it the flat tracks across the country, which almost always prove to a batsman’s happy hunting ground, otherwise known by a rather uninspiring sobriquet – dust bowls. They are most certainly one of the many problems plaguing the Ranji Trophy tournament, let alone Test cricket in general. Other major grouses include the points system, which hasn’t seen much of an overhaul for a long time, the ball being used in play and attitude of the players in general.

Until June this, the Ranji Trophy consisted of 27 teams in all being divided into two groups; the Super and the Plate, the former being the premier division containing the top 15 while the latter, the second division held the rest of the lot. At the end of each season after the winner emerges from a series of round robin matches and knockouts, two teams which find themselves at the bottom of the Super league table are relegated to the Plate division. The two top performing teams from the Plate in turn, are duly rewarded by mode of promotion to Super status.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) had decided that the time was ripe for much-awaited reforms. In an attempt to make it more democratic and fair for all the competitors, the Super and Plate league system was scrapped. Instead, three new groups (A, B and C) each containing a mix of nine teams (either formerly Plate or Super) would be put in place. After a series of inter and intra group matches, a knockout between a final of eight teams results in one of them walking away with the silverware.

The old points system for matches was more or less retained: an outright win fetched your team seven points (an increment of one from previous seasons), a bonus of two if the win was by an innings or ten wickets. If the match were to end in a draw (which happens to be commonplace), then you’d be better off if your team batted first – and slowly too. A valuable three points is added to your kitty if you lasted long enough to ensure a lead from the first innings. If not, then the opposition gains one point.

The tweaked system has done little to change the overall game. The dust bowls, for the most part, ensure that four days are not enough to enforce a result in the first place. Teams almost always resort to ensuring a draw unless they are pushed to the edge of avoiding relegation or qualifying for knockouts. Abysmal levels of fielding and tremendously inane amounts of defensive play make matches less than memorable. To make matters worse, individual performances ultimately take precedence over team play, with sights set clearer on donning the national jersey.

V.Ramnarayan, who had a successful run as an off-spinner for Hyderabad (1975-1981) chipped in with his opinion on the issue: “I was very much satisfied with the earlier two league format. I felt it required no change at all. The new system would only result in the overall quality of cricket getting diluted.”

Indeed, if one introspects carefully with the new format, there are high possibilities of the least impressive Plate teams facing the best of the Super league ones within their own groups. The match ostensibly becomes a one-sided affair.

Arun Venugopalan, a sports journalist, working for a well-known daily, does not readily agree on this. “Plate divisions got to play fewer matches compared to the Super league teams. Now we have equal number of matches being played among all three groups. There is no requirement for additional knockouts between Plate teams to qualify further ahead. It has, in a strict sense, become more democratic.”

Vidyut Sivaramakrishnan, an Indian cricketer who made his first class debut in 1999 for Tamil Nadu with additional stints for Haryana and Goa concurred: “The new format is definitely good. With more opportunities, lesser known teams can make an impact. Their scenarios are not like how it used to be 5 or 10 years back. Teams like Rajasthan and Tripura have seen massive changes in infrastructure and training. Their cricket has improved. Look at Mumbai now; they are actually struggling for a victory.”

The recent twist in the tale of Ranji Trophy victors does seem to tally with small, but significant changes made to the format down its timeline. Mumbai (formerly Bombay), a standard Elite/Super team, holds the record for the maximum number of wins in the tournament including 15 back-to-back wins from 1958 to 1973. Till the 2008-09 season, Plate teams were not eligible to contest for the cup. Only one more year had to pass before history was made, when Rajasthan from the second division were not only promoted but went on to win their maiden Ranji Trophy.

Former Indian Test opener Aakash Chopra, a regular cricket columnist in the media nowadays, felt that the new grouping and schedules would only add to the strain of domestic cricketers. “A good 60 days would be spent on players’ activity out of which 12 goes away in travel. If you take into account practice sessions and plausible injuries, then it’s all the more worse.”

The existing points system, however, has seen more brickbats than favourable reviews. Calls have increasingly been made to introduce points for milestones produced in runs scored or wickets taken, like how it has been perfectly implemented in England and Australia. For instance, considering the batting team, 1 point may be added for every 50 runs scored after they reach an affixed value, say 150 or 200.

The addition stops after they reach a total of 400. Similarly, in the case of bowling, every wicket taken after the 3rd or 4th, one till the 9th would fetch an additional point too.

Prabhu Shankar, a software engineer in Chennai and a cricket enthusiast, gave the thumbs up for such a suggestion. “That would certainly make it more interesting from a spectator’s point of view. Test matches themselves are generally boring. An overhaul by giving these extra points would not only pull in the crowds but also lessen the number of drawn matches,” he said, adding “it would also set clear targets for batsmen and bowlers at the end of the day, to do what’s required for a victory.”

Ramnarayan, although, chose to highlight the darker side-effects of such methods. “There would be increased scope for rigging the matches. Spot fixing, where somebody bets when a certain wicket would fall or a boundary would be hit, becomes more of an issue,” he said. “Also, two teams which share some sort of camaraderie may unofficially decide how to play against each other at the cost of a third team. The batting and bowling points system adds to this menace.”

This does make sense even to the layman, who has an idea of how big the unauthorised betting industry is in India. “But this might only happen during big international matches or the IPL. I don’t see how it would create problems in domestic cricket,” dismissed Vidyut. “You (as an organising body) shouldn’t allow such factors to grow as impediments while framing rules.”

Aakash Chopra, for one, has been one of the most persistent supporters to usher in this new points system. In 2009, when he released his book Beyond the Blues: A First-Class Season Like No Other, he suggested a new methodology where teams will be awarded 5 points for scoring 375 runs or more in 125 overs and 1 point for picking every 2 wickets. This would increase the overall pace of the game and the aggression with which it would be played. The present coach of Rajasthan, Meryck Pringle, stood by Chopra, calling for this revamp at the start of the season which ultimately fell on deaf ears.

Another clash of perspectives in the Ranji centres on the type of ball being used – the quintessential SG brand. This ball, with a nicely pronounced seam, forms the core of an orthodox spinner’s arsenal, especially on flat tracks. The recent performances of Ravichandran Ashwin, Pragyan Ohja, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar in the Mumbai and Ahmedabad face-off between India and England would stand testimony to this.

But once the Indian contingent finds itself on foreign turf, even its most talented spinners cannot find their rhythm with a Kookaburra ball. This ball has a characteristic low seam which generally holds on for about 20 overs and then gives way after that – a boon for fast bowlers, particularly to those who can generate reverse swing. It also happens to be the first choice of a ball in the international domestic arena.

“Spin is the standard when it comes to Indian bowling. The SG therefore becomes the natural choice. We should stick to it,” said Prabhu Shankar.

“But if you’re born and brought up with just one type of ball, then your matches abroad will cost you dearly,” added Vidyut pitching in for the Kookaburra’s inclusion.

Arun Venugopal recalled what Murali Kartik, the Indian left arm off spinner thought of the Kookaburra. “He considered it a spinner’s nightmare. In Indian pitches, it becomes all the more dangerous. ‘The batsmen would celebrate triple or quadruple tons easily’: that’s what he had to say about it.”

The ball, again, does not have to squarely take the blame every time. “Our real problem,” Ramnarayan elucidates, “is the absence of a genuine quickie. We’ve never had one; even if we did, look at the pitches.”  The point ultimately is steered back to the fact that the tracks are a haven for sloggers. “I think we need more variation, like the Australian wickets. The sport then becomes more meaningful,” he added.

Meaningful is a term which should be approached with caution when it comes to the subject of cricket in India. The BCCI apart from committing itself to the Ranji Trophy is also responsible for slotting in the rest of the calendar year with events like the Duleep Trophy, Deodhar trophy, Irani Trophy, Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and Challenger Trophy (apart from the Indian Premier League extravaganza). How many of these needs to coexist with the Ranji has been a pertinent question for quite sometime.

According to Arun Venugopalan, the Duleep and Irani trophy are probably the only ones worth retaining as they form keen contests worth viewing (the former is a knockout tournament between the four zones in the country and the latter pits the winners of the Ranji trophy against a Rest of India team). This way you retain both crowd interest and the best players on the field.

“I would subscribe to this elimination of excessive cricket. But chances of exposure for special teams like those from universities or something like President’s XI goes away with that. They did form a unique part of first class cricket back in my days,” Ramnarayan admitted.

Solutions to the viewership problem however remain elusive. Even during the last phase of the 80s, when a ticket for a Ranji match sold for only Rs.5, crowds thronged to watch the full four or five days. “It was entirely a matter of prestige,” Ramnarayan said.

To quote a case in point, Sharda Ugra of Cricinfo still cites her most memorable Sachin Tendulkar moment as a Ranji Trophy match where Bombay defeated Tamil Nadu. The stands were more or less empty, but she remembered the little maestro celebrating the winning run as if it was any other international victory.

The absence of star-voices in Ranji commentary is also to blame for the lackadaisical following. Yesteryear legends like Richie Benaud and Mark Taylor still lend their voices to the Sheffield Shield. “People like Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly should have been made to go through the local grind before commentating for international games.” said Vidyut, who has done his bit for the same.

“Privatisation is not the solution for bringing in more viewership.” said Aakash Chopra. According to him, State Cricket Associations have enough cash inflow to make do without more sponsors. “Associations should add more infrastructural amenities to make watching matches more enjoyable.” Chopra advocated the building of a “loyal fan base” for the teams from scratch, by getting more schools to Ranji matches.

To find an answer to the spectator dilemma, the average cricket lover needs only to turn to his/her living room and set-top box. “International cricket has slowly slipped into our daily lives and ruined domestic cricket. When you have the choice of switching between channels to find the most succulent international match, why would you want to watch a boring Ranji game?” Ramnarayan asked.

Ramnarayan fondly remembered the legendary “Bobby” Talyarkhan, whose radio commentaries turned Indian players into household names. Talyarkhan once recommended international Test matches be scrapped briefly for domestic cricket’s sake.

When we confronted Vidyut Sivaramakrishnan with this idea he replied, putting it as pragmatically as possible: “That’s just crazy!”

An evening with Ramanathan Krishnan

“Nirmal Shekhar in Conversation with Ramanathan Krishnan at the Hyatt, Mount Road at 6.30pm”

After braving a rather severe cold from the past two days and a visit to the ENT center, this was something I had promised myself of not missing.

With some amount of the sniffles remaining, I set out along with mom to the star hotel. After high tea that involved “side dishes” such as a full-blown chaat menu, onion uthappam accompanied by 6 different varieties of chutney, medu vadai, chocolate cake and even a tiramisu dessert (all items on the house as part of a celebratory week-long fest in the city) which I must say played a pivotal role in attracting a minor chunk of the audience, the spotlight turned to the legend himself: a man who unabashedly describes himself as a product of competition, was brought up on strict diet of discipline and even turned down an offer of a $15,000 in 1959 to turn professional.

There are just somethings in life that Wikipedia entries may never end up replicating, like a good old face to face conversation of memories. I, for one, am a total sucker for such things; especially the ones coming directly from remarkable old timers.

Ramanathan Krishnan was and probably still is a household name for every kid brought up in Chennai, at least to the ones who thronged the tennis courts. But he was also the quintessential Indian sportsman who despite ruling the roost at home, achieved little success in his pursuits for individual silverware abroad. A 1954 boys singles title at Wimbledon was to be the only happy scoop as far as foreign tours were concerned; a feat that his son would go on to emulate 20 years later. But as far as stats and sport trivia go, one can always look it up online anytime. The evening was more about a personal sojourn, how tennis attained its present status in Madras down the years, and how the city remains a prime hub for talent in the sport.

The Early Days

A file photo of T. K. Ramanathan with his son Ramanathan Krishnan.

It is fitting to give the tag of “The first family of tennis” in India to the Krishnans. He proudly claims that they are composed of no less than four generations of accomplished tennis players starting from his father, T K Ramanathan who taught himself to play the game by reading Bill Tilden’s books. “Big Bill” as he was known in the Roaring Twenties was supposed to be the last word when it came to the sport of tennis. TKR, until then was a lad who hailed from small town Tenkasi in the deep south, acquainted with the subjects of accountancy and stenography. Initiated into marriage at the age of 17 to a girl 5 years his junior, he sought greener pastures, as was the norm, in the city of Madras. Stanley Medical College enrolled him for Rs.50 a month. He would cycle everyday to work from his residential house in Thambu Chetty Street, often catching glimpses of Englishmen playing the sport in their private clubs. The colonial masters could not be expected to impart skills to the native man. So TKR resorted to reading his way into it. By 1939, when conditions were more relaxed locally, he would achieve a career high rating becoming the third best player in the country. The prestige of the Davis Cup was to sadly elude him, due to the War. He found a larger calling in Delhi as a civil servant, where he would enroll his son Krishnan for primary schooling. TKR was determined to make sure the boy would achieve what he could not.

Return to Madras

The accelerated chapter of independence on August 15, 1947 and the consequent bloodshed from the wounds of partition forced the Krishnan family to return to their more peaceful southern province. A surprising fact during that era was the status tennis enjoyed not only in the cities, but also in the rustic setting of the rural areas. The standards of the game according to Ramanthan Krishnan, were uniformly good for those times.

Back in his native Tenkasi, Krishnan recounts joyously the motorcycle trips along with his father to the town of Kovilpatti for honing his skills on the clay courts. A certain Shanmuganatha Mudaliar from Tirunelveli with a vicious forehand chop frequently provided good training to the youngster and Krishnan still acknowledges him as being an early influence apart from his father. But better exposure needed better geography and what place better than Madras to beckon him to it. A German coach improved Krishnan’s grip, game and particularly his backhand returns.

Loyola College in Nungambakkam hosted a tournament known as the Stanley Cup(not to be confused with the ice hockey club trophy of the NHL) in the 50s only for college students. “I was still a school going boy then. My father pestered the organisers to let me participate somehow. In the end, they thought what the harm was in letting only one schoolboy in the draw and considered it. I went on to win the cup”, Krishnan states.This was to be only the beginning of his domination in the junior national circuit. He remembers another incident where he continued to torment senior players on the grounds of the Andhra Maha Sabha which stood adjacent to the Ripon Building. The staff of the nearby buildings would gather on their terraces and balconies just to watch him play, even during working hours.

T K Ramnathan had even managed to spruce up a family tennis court in their household backyard and devoted to hours of training the young Krishnan. Krishnan would copy this gesture later by creating a facility on Oliver road for his son, Ramesh.

When asked about other sorts of pioneers in Madras, Krishnan vividly remembers maamis  in their nine yard sarees fashionably trying to mix in with their European counterparts through recreation clubs for ladies. A more detailed look into that fascinating story is available here. The quaint picture below would only hasten you to click on the link hopefully!

Maamis playing tennis in their traditional wear

Ostensibly these women folk were a tad shy to move around and run about lest they trip and fall clumsily. But it was a start alright.

Krishnan starts naming his contemporaries: Sheshadri (who was seated in the front row and helped Krishnan affirm some memories), Vishnu Mohan and Vijayappa Rao among others. Competitiveness was a common thread that connected these men and undeniably, Krishnan emerged in the top slot.

When asked about his most abiding memories during high school days, Krishnan responds “I used to represent Ramakrishna High School. I was given special treatment of every type including tuition and other privileges uncommon to my classmates at school. When I was nearing the end of high school during a Stanley Cup tournament at Loyola, a crowd of nearly a thousand had formed by the time I reached the final. They even climbed up the trees to witness the game. When I won it again, the Reverend Father of the institution came up to me personally and whispered something in my ear. It immediately became a subject of media attention and speculation.” Krishnan holds the crowd in suspense for a second before unfurling his next sentence: “The Rev. Father had reserved a seat for me in Loyola college after school.”

Going overseas

Krishnan doesn’t think hard when asked about his first overseas trip. “1952”, pat comes the resounding reply “All trips to London and Australia would involve going via Colombo. Our Indian contingent met two Muslim tennis players from Ceylon during that voyage. They had heard about me and insisted on my staying in Colombo for an exhibition match before proceeding to England. The gesture was so genuine back then and tennis truly brought people together. Sometimes rules would be so amateurish even. For instance, just to ensure the best footfall, the organisers would reshuffle the players in the semi-final round so that the best two made it to the grand finale.”

Wimbledon was a different story altogether. Once in London, Krishnan had realised the conditions were nothing like what he had imagined it to be. He found it hard adjusting to the cold, windy arena and the grass was a difficult customer to handle. Facing the Aussie giant Frank Sedgman, Krishnan admits that all he could focus was on his opponent’s enchanting face rather than his speedy foot movement. Furthermore, he had switched his wooden racket with someone else’s by mistake in the changing room. He never revealed this to his father who was accompanying him at that time. “I was too scared to tell him. It was simply not possible. He would have lost faith in me”, Krishnan says.

Krishnan also managed to make a smooth transition from a junior player to the senior level. “Two advantages”, he starts explaining. “In any one tournament, even if I was underage compared to the rest of the players I would participate in all combinations: boy’s singles and doubles, and men’s single and doubles. That’s something today’s parents would never let their wards try out. They should make juniors play senior players frequently so that they get used to competition early. Secondly, only two players from each country would be permitted into a grand slam like Wimbledon. Since I used to be consistently ranked in the top two places in India I was a natural choice. Things are different now. Players have to get into specific ATP rankings to play tournaments. Professionals were frowned upon by the public before the Open Era ensuring amateurs always had the upper hand.”

It was also a well-known fact that Krishnan had turned his back on a lot of offers to turn professional. He deconstructs this puzzling decision: ” The great Jack Kramer, who was a proponent of the modern format which allowed amateurs and professionals to play together, came to me with an offer in 1959 — $15000 for three years. That was a huge amount. But my father and I had come to a spontaneous decision. We refused it. If you turned pro, then you wouldn’t be eligible to participate in the Davis Cup. That was a greater source of pride for us. It meant playing for the country. I had everything else I needed and I have absolutely no regrets about throwing away the offer.” Krishnan adds “We were looked upon as special citizens. During a Davis Cup semi-final match in Calcutta, a barber offered me a free haircut. A shopkeeper refused to take money for some lemonade. That was the sort of status we enjoyed.”

Krishnan also made formed close friendships with many other giants of the time including Roy Emerson and Rod Laver. He reveals some fascinating information about Emerson in particular: “Roy Emerson was a good singer. And an extremely good yodeler, you know, like the way Kishore Kumar used to do it. I was a music buff and used to carry my records of M.S. Subbulakshmi, Madurai Mani Iyer, Kishore da and Rafi wherever I went. Roy joined in to listen to them and you wouldn’t believe it – he could sing a line from every song he heard. There he was suddenly yodeling away M.S ‘ rendition of Kaatrinile Varum Geetham. I always believed if some Bhagavathar gave him ample training in Madras we could get him to sing a Margazhi Masam Kutcheri. Such camaraderie between players does not seem to exist any more.”

Role of Media in his career

Ramanathan Krishnan admits the specific role of print media in giving him good publicity during his heyday, but believes the introduction of television did more for the sport in general. “Unbelievable … the rate at which TV spreads information these days. You can know anything that happens in any corner of the world”, he admits “but it also has a significant setback. People now enjoy watching in the comfort of their homes rather than going and seeing the match live in the stadium. It’s just not the same.”

We learn of yet another mode of advertising through Krishnan, this time in Third World style. He refers to a technique called Bullock Cart advertising which spread word in the bovine settings like Tirunelveli during his matches there. It would roughly consist of a two-way communication between the messenger atop the cart and the listeners spread around him:

“Yellarum Kelunga, inniku Tennis potti irukku.” (Listen up everyone, there’s a tennis match today)

“Yaaru pa valyadraanga?” (Who’s playing?)

“Namma Krishnan valayadraaru” (Our Krishnan is playing)

“Yaaru pa jeypaanga?” (Who will win?)

“Theriyadhu vandhu paarunga. Ticket vilai moonu rooba, anju rooba, pathu rooba” (Don’t know, come and watch. Tickets available for Rs.3, Rs.5 and Rs.10)

Game, Set and Match

Krishnan’s wife Lalitha is called upon to give further insight to his private life. She initially starts by saying that when Krishnan was about 22 years old both their families were keen on their alliance. The only surprising element was Lalitha’s grandmother who was taken aback. She had been reeling under the impression that professional tennis was a jobless pursuit and wanted only a clerk or a civil servant for her granddaughter.

Krishnan acknowledges Lalitha’s critical homemaking skills and goes on to say that she was instrumental in designing the entire family court in the backyard. Krishnan asked whether his neighbour was impressed by his wife’s beautiful layout of the court. The neighbour had replied “Definitely, its beautiful. But I can’t help notice that one half of the court is in my backyard as well.” The crowd breaks into laughter at this point.

The audience are given a chance to interact with the legend thereafter. Veteran actor Mohan V Raman volunteers to hand over the mike to enthusiastic question-throwers. No hand seems to go up, at which point Yours Truly decides to break the ice and go for it. “The young man there!”, someone points out. I get the mic and duly ask what I had thought to be a most pertinent doubt: “How did you manage to adjust to the food during your overseas travels to England and Australia. Did you carry along your wife to look after your diet?”

Of course, Krishnan was a Brahmin and a vegetarian but he replied that he had to intake egg and meat often to improve fitness and stamina. He did not relish it, so he stuck to the Sambhar rice and curd rice. Yes, the power of curd rice prevails!

The second and last of the questions comes up from another member behind: “What was your greatest prize money earned through a tournament?”

Ramanathan Krishnan dutifully answers “A £60 voucher. And I couldn’t even en-cash it!”

Svanubhava 2012- The Palghat Mani Iyer tribute

In all honesty, our motley group made an entrance into the evergreen Kalakshetra Foundation in Thiruvanmiyur after a filling lunch. We were there to live tweet and even Instagram facets of Svanubhava (a culture fest) with what we could capture on our smart phones. We would have been almost lulled into deep slumber by the caressing winds of the pristine school campus, but for the enchanting performances that awaited us.

At the Svanubhava entrance in Kalakshetra
Photo courtesy: @arian_tweets instagram feed

Svanubhava as its main website quotes ”  is a cultural movement in celebration of Indian art like never before, exposing students to various Indian art forms.  It is a unique event conducted by the students of the performing arts.” Since 2008 it has seen successful runs and has been embraced warmly by the throbbing art lovers of the city.

Our schedule for the day could accommodate only the last two performances; A Bharatanatyam lecture demo by C.V Chandrasekar and a Talavadyam Concert in the memory of the legendary Palghat Mani Iyer’s birth centenary.

The first one saw Chandrasekhar’s disciples and himself gyrate to the classical tunes being belted with the help of vocalist, Hariprasad. Notes in appropriate places were duly pointed out by the maestro for the benefit of the enthusiastic youngsters who would soon take a similar path.

C V Chandrashekar in his prime element.
Image courtesy: The Hindu


Enter 100 years since Palghat Mani Iyer

Palghat Mani Iyer, regarded by many as the greatest exponent of the Mridangam
Image courtesy: Sruti Mag

He played alongside the entire modern Carnatic heavyweights from G N Balasubramaniam, M L Vasanthakumari to Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar. His official website quotes him as the greatest mridangam artiste ever to have walked on the face of the earth. He played guru to later mridangam vidwans such as Late Palghat R. Raghu, Late Mavelikkara Velukkutty Nair,Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, Kamalakar Rao, and Palghat Suresh. Accepting Jiddu Krishnamurthy’s offer he even graced the premises of the Rishi Valley School teaching kids his preferred percussion style. His granddaughter happens to be a well known classical cum playback singer by the name of Nithyashree Mahadevan (Yes the very same one crooning, in unbelievable decibel levels the yesteryear film chart-busters such as Kannodu Kanbadhellam in Jeans and Minsara Kanna in Padayappa).

What remains to be told year after year to the student’s ear is the ultimate dedication and humbleness adhered to by the man himself. I’m sure more and more interesting trivia can be raked up from numerous blogs, websites and books on Mani Iyer, but a first hand rendition is always special. Especially when it came from T.R. Rajamani (who happens to be Iyer’s very own son) and Kamalakar Rao(one of his illustrious students).

They started with some memorable anecdotes from Mani Iyer’s life, about his utterly maddening routine in getting perfection out of his instrument and his open desire to have also made it as an accomplished singer on stage. Nothing less than a riveting Talavadyam followed for the next 1 1/2 hours. Small incidents such as a brief power cut, a car’s reverse gear melody and the ringing of the proverbial cell phone crept their way between the mridangam beats. Yet the audience was completely fixated on the incredible tempo and strokes generated from the two septuagenarians on stage. As T M Krishna, part of the organizing committee was to put it later while thanking them, “Age was just a number”.

I submit to you that my knowledge of Sangeetham  as they put it, is quite shallow and I do not nitpick into the technicalities involved in any type of concert. The bhava (feeling) that’s strongly reverberated through the hall is satisfactory enough to rate it. I absorbed with glee the incredible synchronization of the fast paced beats toward the end of the tribute.

A question session followed where the usual concerns of declining interest in cultural music, instrumentals was voiced by quite a few. Kamalakar Rao begged to differ, instead defending the current crop as even more aware and intelligent than the previous generation. Rajamani and Kamalakar however, both shared an equal vexation against the trendy fusion of the classical form gaining more popularity and preferred to be quite comfortable on their side of the orthodoxy. “Conservation, not adulteration” seemed to echo in the background.

Here are the two maestros addressing a rather nice question on the importance of poruththam (control over senses, ostensibly) in a concert. It is often known that, to the trained ear at least, the drowning out of the main vocal lead in certain sections by a mridangam artiste doesn’t gel well and ruins the bhava. Palghat Mani Iyer used to say “Its enough if you first understand when and where not to play, the part where the playing is required will automatically come”.

The man was revolutionary of sorts in the conservative music scene himself. He advocated that equal remuneration be given to all performing artistes in a kutcheri (concert), removing the element of hogging individualism by any means. A kutcheri as he would put it was “meant only for the pure, wholesome entertainment of the audience and was nothing but a collective team effort”.

I look forward to enlarging my selectivity this December Madras Music Season.

The Slumdog Questionnaire

The inequality problem has seemed to exist since time immemorial. At least in certain pockets of Chennai (formerly and personally preferred – Madras), apathy seems abound in plenty. How people exist in thatched huts in utmost filth and still adamantly strive to hope for the best from the state, whom they consider their utmost guardian angels, still beats me.

A common slum dwelling found in Indian metros. Equivalent of the infamous favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

A regional Chief Engineer of the Slum Clearance & Relocation board of Tamil Nadu seemed nothing less than flummoxed when I put forth the question “How many slum dwellings do you think would roughly exist in the city?”. He looked back as if I had asked the forbidden question, bits of wry sarcasm affixed around certain parts of his face that conveyed the net emotive result : “How in heaven’s name can one say that with pinpoint surety?”.

V. Subramanian, Chief Engineer, Slum Clearance & Relocation Board of Tamil Nadu (T Nagar Division, Chennai)

My team and I were more than happy that we had at last found a bureaucrat who didn’t direct us to the extreme left wing on the third floor of the building, where you’d find another person prepared to politely direct you further back to the east wing on the ground floor.

We were tracking a recent case of a supposed fire accident that had razed around 600 slum dwellings in a single area in the city on one fine Sunday evening. Our first visit to the infamous Ripon Building, where the “Worshipful Mayor” (honestly quoting the board description hanging within) was seated proved to be very uneventful. We were refused permission to obtain either a sound byte or a video byte from the ‘Worshipful-ness’ himself : ” Yaen paa enkitta byte’u byte’u nu kettu enna bite panrenga?! ” (Why are you guys always hounding for bytes, bytes and biting me?)

Unfazed and rather confused by the valiant attempt at satire coming from our Mayor himself, we went in search of greener pastures. Perhaps he was already in frustration about the renovation of the Ripon building which also had the Chennai Metro Rail construction work sneakily encroaching into its premises.

The Ripon Building, the city corporation office headquarters and seat of “The Worshipful Mayor”. The building built during colonial times is currently undergoing renovation along with Metro construction work to keep it company.

We also stumbled upon the fact that the city’s Corporation body cannot interfere with cases where land belongs to the State Government and hence is practically legless when it comes to dealing with slum destruction/relocation. But the Mayor made sure that his presence was felt as soon the huts were gutted down and even stated relocation efforts would be kick-started soon. A case of pointless publicity achieved.

The parent slum relocation board located on the Marina Beach Road alongside the Public Works Department complex made sure that we completed a Golden Triangle pilgrimage of sorts : ” Saar. This slum area where fire occurred does not come under our division. Please contact Mr V. Subramanian in the T Nagar branch for further details”.

And so formed the final set of questions we posed to Mr Subramanian. Below are brief transcripts from our conversation.

Q: Has the cause of the fire been established yet? Were there any casualties involved?

A: No, not yet. But only the forensic police & the fire brigade members would be aware of this classified information. And no, no casualties recorded.

Q: What steps have been taken by your department so far to help the victims?

A: Currently we are looking at moving them to a temporary location like a corporation school or a nearby marriage hall where we can give them some necessities until the housing board finishes their rebuilding work.

Q: How long would that usually take?

A: We can’t say. That usually depends on the housing board authorities.

Q: There has been word going around that this fire might have involved foul play with a political backing behind it. What do you think?

A: (Shrugs) Might be, can’t say. Nothing has been established yet from the investigative reports. The slum dwellers are usually a congested lot too. A small kitchen accident in one corner can set the entire dwelling ablaze at times.

Q: What has been the state of this slum according to your records so far?

A: Firstly it has never been a declared slum officially. Its a case of pure encroachment of migrating people. The land where they live has been under dispute since 1976. We really hope the police would assist us in these matters to make it easier.

Q: How would your board proceed usually when the relocation process starts?

A: See, there is usually the actual owner or the landlord of that slum in the records somewhere. But going by the book, we usually hand out 1/3rd of the original area back to the slum dwellers and the rest goes to the landlord. The victims will be given opportunities to become self dependent once again.

Q: But what about the existing damage caused? Who would be answerable to that?

A: That would lay in the hands of the revenue officials under the ambit of the State government. Due compensation would be provided by them and we cannot interfere with that. We have our duty to do and that’s that.

Q: What are the challenges the Slum Board faces in these cases?

A: Enormous ones. Its a well known fact that most of the slum population is unaccounted for, they’re mostly the floating population who come out of villages searching for jobs in the city. They are a nuisance in our view.

And here comes the double edged sword of politics. The politicians’ vote banks lies in these areas. Empty promises are swallowed by these gullible, naive people. Voting cards are provided the quickest for them when elections arrive. They sit still adamant with more hope.

Q: But not all has been a failure from your side. There have been many cases of successful relocation carried out right?

A: Correct. But you will not believe the unbelievable rates of further encroachment that happens. Its not possible to stop it immediately. And the slum people do not utilize the facilities we provide. If we build a multistory housing, additional maintenance is required for things such as the elevator. They dirty it frequently. They have no sense of hygiene. Do not even get me started about the latrines and kitchen sewers. Its horrendous. They continue to live as slum dwellers inside the new housing.

Q: What do you personally see as a cure for all this?

A: We need to acquire more land obviously. But with the recent skyrocketing of prices its impossible to do so. We initially thought of buying out lands in the outskirts, but even then there’s a roadblock. The outskirts are through and through, the living premises of the IT/Software people now. And they earn so much they can buy out that land in a few years. Where will we go?

The only possible way out is with the total cooperation of the police. They have to employ a special task force to monitor the entry of population into the slums. But I don’t see that happening at all honestly.
One side of the story had been thus, recorded in our books. But what of the ground reality? Our video team managed to bring some perspective from the actual spot of the accident. Things do not seem bright either way.