Editorial / Shades of sanskrit
Dispensable honours
People / Ritu Beri
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / SHADES OF SANSKRIT 
 
 
 
 
A proposal to turn Sanskrit into a “spoken” language is bound to sound a little startling, even if it comes from as high an authority as the prime minister himself. But in a world which is rapidly turning into a wasteland for traditional humanities studies, the promise of reviving interest in a classical language is definitely invigorating. It would be inappropriate, therefore, to dismiss the World Sanskrit Conference being held in New Delhi as a gathering of fuddy-duddies. The most important thing to come out of Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s speech at the conference is the resolution of the government to promote the study of Sanskrit. Shorn of its associations with caste, class and religion, the study of Sanskrit remains one of the basic classical disciplines in India. The importance of learning a classical language in school is acknowledged the world over, although the tendency to dispense with “dead” languages has recently also become global. But public schools in England, such as Eton, and schools in Europe, the United States and in some of the former British colonies which follow the traditional grammar school model, have compulsory Latin and quite a lot of Greek, and sometimes other classical languages depending on regional or cultural relevance. The exit of Sanskrit from the Indian school curriculum in the Eighties was nothing to celebrate. Its return would be a good thing.

The learning of a classical language, however, imposes certain conditions. It cannot be learnt without the grammar. That is why it is particularly important to introduce Sanskrit in the school curriculum. In his eagerness to make the teaching of Sanskrit “attractive”, Mr Vajpayee has played down the usefulness of grammar. What he has suggested is a kind of “non-formal” learning, so that the language becomes “popular” and can be “spoken”. This is in tune with the general devaluing of grammar in the teaching of all languages, classical or modern. The tendency seems to be generated by a misplaced zeal to make the teaching of languages “easier”. The reckless disregard of the importance of correct and creative language use is an idiosyncrasy of modern teaching. No learning is ever easy, not even the first breath a baby takes upon being born. There is no reason why acquiring an intellectual discipline should be easy. After all, no one expects a child to learn physics without first learning its basic laws.

Learning the grammar of a classical language has special advantages. In the first place, it introduces the student to a mode of rigorous intellectual discipline. Sanskrit would equip him for easy entry into other languages of the Indo-Aryan group and make far more accessible the acquisition, even at a working level, of most other Indian languages. Thus it would open out both the outside world and that within the country. It is one of the happier paradoxes that the revival of a discipline that could become a weapon in the hands of chauvinists can actually bring closer a world of knowledge beyond national boundaries. Perhaps it is part of the same paradox that a knowledge of Sanskrit would also make available ancient texts, of history, philosophy, aesthetics, ethics, politics, medicine and literature, thus enriching the understanding of the many-hued civilization and culture of contemporary India. The attractions of Sanskrit are not dependent on dispensing with the grammar. A little basic grammar would allow youngsters to start reading simple texts, and both grammar and text can be studied side by side. In fact, this combination is the best way to make children start writing in a classical language, the only way to infuse “life” into neglected Sanskrit.

Mr Vajpayee has done his cause an injustice by emphasizing the aim to make Sanskrit a spoken language. That is quite irrelevant. The learning of a classical language, Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, old Persian, Arabic, or classical Hebrew, is tremendously valuable both for the learning process itself and as a grounding for any advanced intellectual discipline. Whether such a language will become a “living” language or not is for the future to decide.

   

 
 
DISPENSABLE HONOURS 
 
 
BY BHASKAR GHOSE
 
 
A great deal has been said about this year’s national film awards — statements made, rejoinders issued, interviews given to eager television channels and to equally eager newspapers. Controversies always make good stories, and when it’s about films and film stars, it’s away to page three with mostly everything else — this is the Real Stuff. But since we’ve had a good deal of the Real Stuff, you may well ask, why some more?

For one simple reason. To state, as clearly as possible, what the issue was, and must always be; and what nearly everyone seems to have done to diminish the awards, such as they are. To begin with, most stories began by saying that every year the awards are beset by controversies. That is simply not true. It has happened on occasion, but not every year. Nor has the composition of the jury been questioned every year, not in the way it has been this time.

The plain fact is that the ultimate responsibility for all this rests, given the present dispensation, with the government. That responsibility is to ensure that those nominated to the jury are people whose credentials are not called into question. Not for any other reason but simply to avoid precisely the sort of controversy that’s arisen over this year’s jury. Film people revel in such controversies, and one has to steer a careful course not to give them the opportunity of raising one. After all, the awards are national awards; they should not be taken lightly, or be embroiled in arguments that diminish them. It doesn’t do to get embroiled in a messy argument and then to look the other way; that won’t make the situation easier, or give back to the awards what they’ve lost in terms of dignity and value.

I have no intention of questioning who was put on to the jury and for what reason because, frankly, it is of no interest to me. What is of interest, and concern, is that the track record of members of the jury should be called into question, and publicly, and then justifications given and these justifications made the subject of acrimonious debate. It is possible to select people about whom there can be no arguments, except the usual grumblings that few pay any attention to. When Shakti Samanta was made chairman of the Central Board of Film Censors there were the usual gripes — he’s from the industry, he’ll never be impartial and so on — till, after a few years, the industry began to gripe: we must get someone from outside the industry, he’s so difficult to approach and all the rest of it.

The fact is that he was a good chairman in so far as the circumstances allowed him to be. He was impartial, refused to be stampeded into a decision by this lobby or that, and the gripes are the evidence one needs to reinforce the point. Asha Parekh’s appointment caused gripes as well; she still needs, however, to establish her credentials as someone who is sensible, and gives the industry visible demonstration of this. With the passage of time, I have every hope that she will.

But the jury for the national awards has raised issues which are not related to films but to politics, and this is where the danger lies. Arguments about the relative merits of people from the industry are one thing; but arguments about whether they are part of the film industry at all are something else altogether. This is what hurts the awards, finally. Military awards are decided on by people from the services, not from the textile industry or any other unrelated field; why on earth should film awards be decided on by those who have only the most tenuous links with the film world? This is what the minister, in particular, needs to ask herself. Had she done so earlier, all these unsavoury arguments, walkouts and the rest would not have taken place.

Having said this, however, one has also to say that the public quarrels about the decisions and the competence of the jury are quite incomprehensible. To begin with, when the jury met first — and they must have met many times, all together or in smaller groups, as they usually do — if anyone had any reservations about the competence of the jury as a whole, or about associating with one or more of the members, he should have made his objections known and quietly left. The argument that they were trying to maintain standards from within don’t wash. What did they expect? That they would win the day with persuasion, or fiery oratory, or what? And if they did think that, did they try any of it?

Then again, if the decisions finally taken had been, for argument’s sake, to the liking of the dissenters, how would that square with their subsequent questioning of the competence of some of the members? Would they then have kept quiet, even though according to them those members were incompetent to serve on the jury? So, is the disagreement over the competence of some members of the jury to take these decisions, or over the decisions actually taken? It seems obviously to be the latter; and that is a great pity. The dissenters chose to stay with the jury, in spite of their opinion of the competence of some of the other members. Having sat around witht hem and, presumably, discussed the decisions with them, they finally disagreed, and only then went on to question the competence of those they were sitting with as fellow members for a fair length of time. All they needed to do was to say, publicly, if necessary, that they don’t agree with the decisions.

Two awards have been rejected; Goutam Ghose has rejected his, and so has Soumitra Chatterjee. That is their privilege; to accept or not to accept an award is entirely their decision, and no one can argue with that. It must, however, make those finally responsible reflect on what led to the rejection of a national award, and try to see what went wrong where; they may find the process would come up with answers they themselves knew from the beginning. I must confess to being a little mystified by Rituparno Ghosh’s acceptance under protest, if I’ve got that right; you either accept an award or you don’t. One finds it difficult to understand how he says he accepts it, but he doesn’t like the way the decision to give it to him was taken. But I may be doing him a great injustice; maybe he wouldn’t have accepted it, but since it is, all said and done, a national award, he took it for that reason, his acceptance being his way of acknowledging the nature of the award and the dignity that goes with it; if this is what it is, the ministry has much to thank him for.

But, finally, we come round to the one basic fact; the fact that it is the government which is responsible for maintaining the dignity and standing of these awards. That responsibility begins with the putting together of the jury and ends with the presentation of the awards. It’s a serious business, not a distribution of patronage. But in times when a distinguished surgeon remains unrecognized and forgotten till he operates on the prime ministerial knee and then gets a Padma Shri, I suppose one should not have hoped for anything different.

The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting

   

 
 
PEOPLE / RITU BERI 
 
 
 
 

The art selling

There’s only one indisputable fact in this story. Ritu Beri is pretty. Very pretty, actually, with feline good looks accentuated by a bee-stung mouth that breaks into the most devastating smile the moment a camera flashes. And these days, the flashlights have never been too far from Beri. She is photographed at the tea party hosted by the Prime Minister on International Woman’s Day. She is in the society columns, air-kissing her way through Delhi’s haute monde. And there she is on FTV, traipsing down the catwalk behind a line of nipple-flashing beauties, dressed in her Spring Summer 2002 collection — all bosom-revealing chiffon bustiers and bikini bottoms that could easily double as dental floss.

That’s the models, of course. Beri herself is in black leather trousers and a matching cropped jacket that shows off her tiny, aerobicised waist to best advantage. As she trips lightly down the catwalk to accept the applause of the assembled press and buyers with the aplomb of a true star, it is easy to see why fashion Svengali Mounir Moufarrige chose Beri to front the global pret-a-porter label he is to launch this summer. Beri looks smashing for 33, though the Mounir publicity machine has thoughtfully lopped off 5 years from her age to sell her as a youthful 28-year-old to the international market.

Sell. Yes, that’s what this is all about — selling an image that the fashion press can flash from coast to coast. And where image is concerned, Beri’s is near perfect. She is young, sexy, vivacious and — after many years as a dial-a-quote fashion expert in India — adept at the art of the sound-byte. What’s more, some will have it that she can even design clothes.

Aha, the clothes. That’s where the rub lies. Moufarrige insists that Beri is a fledgling fashion genius who has the makings of a major talent. Suzy Menkes, queen of the fashion hack-pack has assured Beri’s place in the fashion Paristocracy with her rave reviews in the International Herald Tribune. But if you believe Beri’s peers in the Indian fashion business, the woman can’t cut her way out of a paper bag. In their view, Mounir’s latest protege — the last one was Beatle daughter Stella McCartney, who turned the beat-up fashion house of Chloe around with her rock-chic vision — has been coasting along on a talent that is conspicuous by its absence. In its stead, she has traded on her good looks and some well-judged and perfectly-manipulated hype.

While some of this can be dismissed as the jealous ranting of rivals, this criticism is not entirely unfounded. Consider this. Beri was the first fashion designer to hire a public relations agency. The honour went to the bearded Dilip Cherian of Perfect Relations who would inundate newspapers and magazines with press releases detailing Beri’s latest exploits along with a glossy picture of his client. Journalists, perpetually starved of copy and coping with a dearth of pretty pictures which they could slap on the colour pages, were only too happy to regurgitate the turgid PR-speak with Beri’s face serving as much-needed eye candy.

Inevitably, Beri soon became the staple of newsprint. She also did duty on television, holding forth on everything from the export market to the status of women. And it wasn’t long before she parleyed this celebrity into a book for Penguin India, titled 101 Ways to Look Your Best.

In no time at all, Beri became the fashion designer with the highest name recall in the market. If you asked the man or woman on the street to name a fashion designer, chances are the answer would be Ritu Beri. Sure, they knew who she was. So what if they hadn’t seen her clothes? After all, as bitchy rivals of Beri are wont to say, who has?

This seems a little tough on Beri who has been producing two collections every year for more than a decade. A graduate of NIFT (or not, depending on whom you ask), she started her label Lavanya around the time that her first marriage came to an unhappy end. Elaborate, even ornate, salwar-kameezes became the staple of Beri’s label, though she did a fair amount of casual Westernwear. But, like most other designers of that time, Beri realised that the real money lay in the marriage market.

And never one to miss out on a business opportunity, she opened a bridal boutique on the first floor of her Greater Kailash II residence.

But Beri didn’t just content herself with selling zardozi-encrusted lehengas to Punjabi brides in Delhi. She took the best of exotic India and sold it to such tony stores as Liberty (London) and Galleries Lafayette (Paris). What’s more, unlike her contemporaries, who produce exquisite garments only to retail them under the store label or that of an international designer, Beri sold under her own name, a rare achievement in the highly competitive international market. She also trained with French couturier Francois Lesage, who honed her talent and gave it a more sophisticated edge.

Beri’s first major breakthrough, however, came in July 1999, when she became the first Indian designer to show during the La Semaine de la Haute Couture (Haute Couture Week) in Paris, a feat she repeated in January 2000. In October 2000, she presented her pret-a-porter 2001 collection at the Petit Palais in Paris, even as she designed Madhuri Dixit’s clothes for a Hindi movie back home. Undeterred by this somewhat schizophrenic existence, Beri was back in Paris in March 2001, presenting her daring pret collection for Spring-Summer 2002, this time under the patronage of Moufarrige.

Unlike other Indian designers who fall into the trap of showcasing exotic India (witness J.J. Valaya’s predictable show in Paris this year, built around clothes “inspired” by Indian royalty) Beri showed clothes with an international edge. There were silver mesh bikinis worn under long coats, short dresses embellished with a sequinned heart motif, skirts that were a modern take on the sari, and patchwork leather bustiers, jackets and shirts, all of which seemed destined to fly off the shelves.

Small wonder then that Moufarrige has such high hopes of her. He is determined to turn her into the new face of international fashion — advertising budget be damned. But Beri’s face has already garnered the kind of publicity that Big Bucks can’t buy. She was featured in an eight-page spread in OK magazine. And it won’t be long before she pops up in the pages of In Style or even Vogue.

Of course, her jealous rivals will still claim that she is only the face in front of the label. Behind the gloss and glamour, they will mutter darkly, there is a French design team which actually makes the clothes. Not that Beri will care. And why should she? She has already proved that a thing of beauty is not a toy forever.

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Operation theatre

Meet Dr Mamata Banerjee, MD. After having severed the Trinamool-BJP link with unerring precision and having presided over the rather messy operation of dividing Bengal among her present and past parties, Banerjee seems all set for another surgery. That is to remove her once trusted aide, Pankaj Banerjee, from the Trinamool Congress’s policy-making body. Pankaj made a terminal mistake when he reportedly made secret overtures to the BJP’s state unit to ask it not to put up any party nominee against him in the Tollygunge assembly seat from where he is contesting as a Trinamool candidate. Pankajda has apparently sent feelers to both the Union minister of state for communications, Tapan Sikdar, didi’s sworn rival even while the Trinamool-BJP marriage was working, and the BJP state unit president, Asim Ghosh. Pankaj is seen by his detractors as exploiting the power he enjoys in the Trinamool. What is seen as even more damaging is Pankaj’s temerity in striking a secret deal with the BJP when Mamata had closed her book with the state BJP and its bigger brother in New Delhi following the Tehelka disclosures. But it’s not Mamata alone who is furious. BJP leaders, especially those opposed to Sikdar and Ghosh, are about to voice their dissent against some of their leaders’ proximity to the Trinamoolis in a convention next week. So it’s not Mamata alone who’ll have a scalpel in hand, although there may be doubts about the others being able to wield it as skilfully.

Bringing down our man

A little northwards from here, BJP men will be found to be armed with daggers. The Dalit leaders of the party are allegedly up in arms against the party leadership for the treatment meted out to the former party president, Bangaru Laxman, after the Tehelka tapes showed him taking money from dummy arms dealers. The men are upset with the upper caste leadership for what they believe is its bid to sideline the OBC and Dalit leaders. First, Kalyan Singh was forced out of the party and now it is Laxman. The upper caste section in the party is seen to be contributing generously in the tarnishing of poor Bangaru’s image. This, the leaders allege, is apparent from the fact that the same set of people had demonstrated a lot of solidarity when LK Advani had been implicated in the hawala scandal. The Dalit leaders in fact are working overtime to ensure the removal of the Union food minister, Shanta Kumar, who had publicly demanded the expulsion of Bangaru from the party. AB Vajpayee has ruled out the demand, but the MPs swear that they will avenge the fall of Laxman. Will a rekha be drawn somewhere?

Someone thinks of us

The media department of the Congress is proving to be a blessing for journos in more ways than one. It is a cornucopia of stories and now, if Subbi Rami Reddy, the secretary of media relations has his way, it will be a source of comfort as well for one of the most prosecuted people on earth. The industrialist- cum-film-producer-turned-politician has decided to give the media cell a new look. Media-friendly and publicity-hungry Reddy wants to provide five-star comfort to scribes. At the cost of several lakhs, Reddy intends to change everything from the furniture, to curtains to the AC and even the daily refreshments served. The department will apparently be made both hi-tech and high profile. Rami, whose lavish parties in five star hotels has become a trademark, is also in the habit of sending gifts of fruits and other goodies to obliging journalists. So long desperate to get close to the media, Reddy’s entry into the media cell of the Congress and his elaborate plans might work wonders with his image. But will it help the party? After all, journos are not known to be very grateful creatures!

The guest who never arrived

Uncle Sam passes by. The Maurya Sheraton staff is a disappointed lot. They had elaborate arrangements from diet Cola to baby soft towels for citizen Clinton, but the guest never arrived. The famous Chandragupta suite of the hotel, which received front page coverage only a year ago, was done up like March 2000, when the president had been delighted to find a gymnasium attached to his suite. The Maurya staff had reportedly placed orchids in the room as Clinton is known to be allergic to pollen from flowers. All in vain though. The famous guest chose to spend the night at the house of the US ambassador, Richard Celeste, who is an old friend of Clinton. Maybe next time, if the Americans find an Indian disaster compelling enough.

Footnote / A foreign tongue-in-cheek look

One cannot but marvel at the many ways the saffronites take on the Congresswallahs. AB Vajpayee didn’t miss a chance even at the World Sanskrit Conference, where he got very close to rubbishing the Congress’s claim to fame — the freedom movement of India. The prime minister started off talking about Sanskrit, his subject when he was doing his graduation, and commented that he could no longer speak it well. Then he digressed to take a dig at himself by saying that he couldn’t speak English either and that most people wanted him to speak in Hindi, not because his Hindi was good, but because his English isn’t good enough. Then while elaborating on the Indian’s English-speak, Vajpayee theorized on what had made the British leave the country. This, we gather from what he said, was apparently not for what either Gandhi or Nehru did to them. But because, as Vajpayee reasoned, they were too disgusted and could no longer bear to see Indians ruin the English language, speaking in the distorted manner they always do. Will Vajpayee and his men also leave the country looking at the way some Italians speak Hindi?    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 
Sir — The prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is widely perceived to be an honest man. To salvage this reputation, which has taken a beating after the Tehelka exposure and the talk about the alleged involvement of his foster son-in-law and the prime minister’s office in shady deals, he would do well to take political sanyas. He should hand over all charges to L.K. Advani and retreat from the limelight. By shamelessly clinging on to power, he is likely to ruin his image at the end of a long and unblemished political career spanning more than five decades. Such a change of guard at the top will restore the credibility of the government and the confidence of the allies of the National Democratic Alliance.
Yours faithfully,
S.K. Khemka, Calcutta

Afterplay

Sir — In spite of all the criticism against Sourav Ganguly’s batting performance in the ongoing cricket series, the little strategies he has employed to rattle the opposition have all worked pretty well. The Australians are probably experiencing something very similar to what any touring team would feel in their country. A comparison between the visiting Australian side and the West Indian teams from the Sixties and the Seventies is perhaps a bit misplaced (“Prince and the showman”, March 25), simply because cricket, like all other sports, has evolved into a tougher and more competitive game. Much of the success that the Australian and the South African teams have experienced of late, have been because of the training they undergo. Apart from this, if the Australians have played “games” outside the field, then they have played it better than we have.
Yours faithfully,
Rahul Nair, Calcutta

Sir — Cricket is a game of uncertainties, but attributing victories and good performances to divine intervention is a bit much. Many Indian cricketers have been doing that lately. The second test, for instance, was won due to a variety of factors — not least among which were the performances by V.V.S. Laxman and Rahul Dravid. The five LBW decisions were not too unhelpful either. Harbhajan Singh, after a fantastic run and the victory in the final test talked about the “grace of god” as if individual skills had nothing to do with it.

Yours faithfully,
Sudhendu Roy, Calcutta

Sir — The ongoing cricket series between India and Australia has revived an interest in the game which was lost after the matchfixing scandal erupted. But the person who least deserves the credit for this is our captain, Sourav Ganguly. He must not forget that a captain is as good as his team. One can understand his poor form with the bat, but in this series his fielding has also touched a nadir.

Yours faithfully,
Santanu Mojumder, via email

Sir — Sourav Ganguly, has been extremely rude to his Australian counterpart, Steve Waugh. His behaviour has been like an undisciplined schoolboy — he regularly arrived late for the toss. Ganguly is not good for Indian cricket’s image and the board should come down heavily on him.

Yours faithfully,
Somnath Choudhury, Siliguri

Sir — It is most unfortunate that the Indian cricket team is not performing as well as the Australians had done on their home turf last year when we visited them.

Yours faithfully,
Anish Chatterjee, via email

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