T r e a d Softly... YOU MIGHT TRIP ON TEXT

Sunday, October 25, 2009

How I Became a Public Speaker

One evening, I was driving a friend to the club. He had to speak at an event in a couple of days. “This is the first time,” he said. “It’s making me tense. I’m feeling very, very stressed!”
I tried to console him with the usual it’s-nothing-after-all-what’s-life-if-you-don’t-try-everything kind of speech. He said, “You can afford to say that, you’re good at public speaking.” There was silence. Then I said, “I’m not! And about ten years ago, I was ten times more scared than you are right now!”

It was in 1988, and an old college lecturer of mine had called. “I’m retiring, and I’d like you to take my place.” I said I had my office and work. He said it was just for a year till another professor returned from his sabbatical. So I applied and, to my horror, I was selected. I spent sleepless nights, haunted by suicidal visions. I cribbed to everyone I met. I was someone who went pale if asked to deliver the vote of thanks at Rotary meetings. I simply couldn’t imagine facing a crowd of students.

But I went ahead and did it.

In my first class I took an essay by Churchill. He wrote about being a nervous speaker in spite of being an acknowledged statesman. It came like a pat from the heavens. I completed the class without faltering or fainting. I learned hardcore techniques. In one exam hall, confronted by seventy noisy students, I banged my books on the table, stared them in the eyes and said: “Make one more sound and---” I left the threat hanging in the silence that continued till the exam was over.

I used humour and presence of mind to carry off my college lectures. I duplicated this at meetings I had to address. I had personal heroes like Dr C. S. Ramachandran and my uncle Dr. R. M. Varma who had audiences eating out of their hands. They had the stuff. I simply tried frantically to emulate them.

It wasn’t a cakewalk. I remember a packed audience at the JBASC women’s college with girls hanging out of windows. Once there, someone told me I had to address them on vocational options. It was a nasty surprise. I’d no idea what to say. I plodded on bravely, talking about journalism and creative writing. They wanted more. I had nothing else! The girls dropped down from the windows. Others grew restless. Someone else took over, allowing me a relieved exit. When this happened once again at MCC---swelling crowd and nothing to deliver---I learned a lesson: never speak unless you know exactly what the programme’s going to be.
I’m influenced by audiences, whether it’s small and intimate or an ocean of faces in a large auditorium. I focus on faces and follow their responses. In perverse moments, I fix on a restless face and my speech wanders so that neither they nor I know what’s going on. When I realise I’m wandering, I detach myself and watch from a vantage point, like a soul having fun above a deathbed.

I also learned to expect the unexpected.

I arrived early one morning to inaugurate the literary society of the Meenakshi College for Women. I spent some time chatting with the Literature lecturers over coffee. Before proceeding to the meeting hall, I wanted to visit the restroom. They said only girls used the one on that floor, the common one was downstairs. But classes were going on, and I could probably make a quick trip to the girls’ toilet. I hesitated only for a second. I was still in there when the bell rang. Before I knew it my cubicle was surrounded by girls chatting and laughing as I now know they do in these places. I froze. I went pale. My heart was hammering. A decision had to be made. I opened the door and stepped out. There was a stunned silence. My eyes rooted to the floor, I marched out smartly. And then the tide of voices broke.

When the meeting began, I looked up to see my audience. Some naughty, others embarrassed, some giggling helplessly. The lecturers didn’t know what was happening. The girls knew, and so did I. To make it worse, one of the lecturers said, “Maybe our presence is bothering the girls---you go right ahead.” And they left, closing the door and leaving me alone with the girls. It took humour, presence of mind, valour and a discussion of my novel, which some of them had read, to save the day and me.

I’d learnt my final lesson. There are three elements in public speaking: You, the Audience and God!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Value of Mirrors

The process of writing can get a bit sticky towards the end of your work.
You're worried about whether it's really working or not. You weren't at first, but as you near the deadline and all those finishing touches have to be frozen, you start wondering. And then, until someone delivers a verdict, you're virtually on pins and needles.
It's funny, come to think of it. We know what we're like, but we need the constant presence of a mirror to find out.
You present yourself-- whether as a writer or as an individual-- in what they used to call as-is-where-is condition. There's nothing you can drastically change, actually. And still you look for that outside opinion, that assurance or advice, believing that it would nudge us towards a corner of perfection.
If only we stop to think: who is our audience? Do they have nothing else to do but assess us against some mysterious yardstick? And then, what is this yardstick? I received a forward recently which quotes Isaac Asimov on IQ levels. An academic answering questions set by an academic may be rated with a high IQ. Likewise, a mechanic, a plumber, an animal lover and so on. It depends on what our core abilities or interests are. We could all have a high IQ in our respective fields.

Actually, in this time of blogging and citizen journalism and opinionated comments all over the place on the internet, everyone is potentially looking you over, assessing you and passing judgement. It may be a published work or a private comment you made, but you're being seen and talked about. You can't change or alter yourself to please them all!
I think of the stylized acting of our older stars--- their unique mannerisms that have been fodder and livelihood for thousands of mimicry artists. It could have been an unfortunate gesture or an ungainly movement that stuck and then became a sign of celebrity! Like Talat Mehmood's "quiver" which he was bent on removing, but was advised by a music director to "let it be", and that quiver is what makes him so unique and underlines his sensitivity!
So, if you're looking at mirrors, it had better be for confirmation, not to receive judgement.
The mirror's the same, but our mood changes, and what we see could be different each time.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Three Years Ago....

was re-reading this and thought it would be
interesting to re-present it here!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006


This one's about an article I wrote in the Sunday Express on March 26th, a day before World Theatre Day. I read the piece in print when I was in Bangalore.

Returning to Chennai I found the following email in my inbox:Sreekumar/Sushila Ravindranath:Sreekumar, I read your article entitled "Giving purists a decentburial". I give below my impressions/queries on the same..1. Could you please give me a definition of the word "purist" as usedin your article?2. I question your sentence " Now all that we imaginecan actuallytake place on stage - we simply sit back and take it all in." Is thatthe function of a truly discerning theatre viewer, theatre lover ortheatre critic? If one were to theoretically pose experience asgreater than understanding when viewing an art form, I do agree. But,this does not mean that we do not critically examine all that we seeon stage or on the walls. The primary function of a critic is tocritically analyse and review a production.3. You seem to imply that "rural phantasy" is an innovation inasmuchas it has used music and dance. Is that so? Madras Players have usedit in thearly fifties in their production of Hayavadana. Why go thatfar? This year this technique has been used in the productions of"Nagamandala" and "Hayavadana" by late Bhagyam and Yamuna. The pointis not using music and dance or video clippings (like Brecht'smontagetechnique) which is important. How you use it and how far ithasbeen integrated into theatre. In this respect, "Rural phantasy", inmy opinion has failed.4, If you mean by the word "purists" traditionalists" or "classicists"who have frowned upon the two productions you have mentioned in yourarticle, you are sadly mistaken. It is traditionalists and those whodo not know much about modern dance who have respectively endorsedboth productions. So, please do not be under the false impression thatit is modernists or innovators who have criticised these productions.The criticism is not about the techniques used, but how they have beenused.5. Apart from everything else "Rural Phantasy" has been criticisedfrom an ideological point of view and not merely a technical point ofview. Some of us have found the subliminal messages of the playreactionary, revisionary, anti-female, anti-male, anti-village,anti-nationalist freedom struggle. So, you should look into what wehave to say before you pass generalised remarks about anyone whocriticises the play.6. It is very easy, Sreekumar, to churn out sensationalistjournalistic articles without substantiating your points or enteringinto a dialogue about the same. These throw-away statements on the eveof the World Theatre Day make me wonder why we celebrate such days atall. I realise why criticism and that too art criticism is notdeveloping in this country. We seem to have equated "criticism" or"review" with "eulogy" , haphazard crowd pulling techniques withinnovation and experimentation, and unquestioning acceptance as thehallmark of dignity and intellectuality.I feel that these kind of articles give a wrong kind of impression toreaders and hence this email. I do realise that serious and insightfulcriticism is out of place in the modern scenario of performing arts.However, i thought I cannot leave this article unquestioned, hencethis email. Kind regards vasanthi

For those who know, Vasanthi is a blunt and passionate reviewer and critic.Since I had to have my say as well, here's the response I sent her:

dear vasanthi, i was in bangalore for some days and found your email on my return. i thought i would finish some pending work and then sit down to replyat leisure. which was when someone pointed out your review of "rural phantasy" on a website. it provides a point of reference for my response. by "purist", i do not mean traditionalist or classicist as you suggest. i mean the theatre-goer who brings baggage along with him. heconstantly compares what he sees with what he expects, and growls at the difference. the purist labels theatrical productions and ticks off thoseelements that do not appear to "fit in". which is why i spoke about giving theatre its due and judging "each production within its own uniqueframework". otherwise, innovation would always have to gather strength from its struggles against claustrophobic criticism. critics watching a performance with the backing of their potential reviews imagine they are interpreting it for the benefit of their readers,including future audiences. they believe they are informing the audience. when this leads to the idea of a classroom of theatre-goers and a lofty critic,the seriousness and significance of criticism is lost. you write in your review: "The reception that the play received also proves to me that Chennai for all its cultural pretensions, is ready onlyfor entertainments, extravaganzas, carnivals and melas and not for serious theatre." i can hardly think of a more sweeping, generalised andopinionated statement in a serious piece of criticism. it dismisses whole audiences and the uniqueness of theatre in a few words. it goes well withsimilar statements in the review: "The acting was tame, stereotypical and mediocre." you add: "we had not gone to the theatre to watch a templeevent, but a contemporary theatre production." it would be easier, wouldn't it, to go to a restaurant and chose your preferences from a menu. in my opinion--and it is a personal one--when the critic watches a play with his baggage firmly in hand, he is alienating himself from theperformance and already sitting in judgment. the role of the critic is to watch a play within its own terms of reference, and then go back and analyse itin the light of what he has learnt and experienced of theatre. thus this role ideally consists of two parts: watching the play within its own framework,and then holding it up against the light of expertise. which is also a good way to avoid knee-jerk reactions. in the case of the play being discussed, i remember the playwright/ director telling people (i think it was during a televised interview) toenjoy themselves. later, they could go back home and try to think of the issues involved. I do not, therefore, see the "pretension" that you mention inthe following extract from your review: "....The difference is that commercial cinema or theatre does not claim to be anything other than what it is, butin this case there is a pretension of good and even contemporary theatre couched under the entertaining and even seducing elements such as music,dance, satire, seemingly progressive ideas etc." you quote from my article ("Now all that we imagine can actually take place on stage - we simply sit back and take it all in.") and ask: "Isthat the function of a truly discerning theatre viewer, theatre lover or theatre critic?" i didn't say it was. in fact, in my column in the same paper, i hadonce written about the invasive nature of some films that erodes the participatory role of the audience. i was simply speaking of today's scenario inthe "purist" article, and not blindly endorsing its validity. next. "You seem to imply that 'rural phantasy' is an innovation inasmuch as it has used music and dance." i do think that the play hasopened a door. bringing a musician and trained dancers on stage "as enhancement" (my words) in a "glamorous dramatisation" (my words) iscertainly something that has been tried for the first time in english theatre as far as i know, and it paves the way for future possibilities. i didn't reviewthe plays i mentioned, i merely placed them in the context of where theatre is headed. "Some of us have found the subliminal messages of the play reactionary, revisionary, anti-female, anti-male, anti-village, anti-nationalistfreedom struggle. So, you should look into what we have to say before you pass generalised remarks about anyone who criticises the play." you seemto think that i was referring to your review in my article. i only read your review when someone mentioned it after i received your email. i was, in fact,referring to remarks from some members of the audiences of both plays i referred to. if i have to "look into" what you have to say, you will, i hope,afford me the same privilege before passing judgment on what i "seem to imply". for the record, and voicing my own thoughts, i did not think the playwas "anti" anything. if the reason why "art criticism is not developing in this country" is solely because of "throw-away statements" and "sensationalistjournalistic articles" such as the one i wrote for the sunday express, we should begin worrying about such art criticism, shouldn't we? i trust this finds you well. love & regards, shreekumar

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Option To Read

I was inaugurating the Right to Read Campaign's first Indian "road show" in Loyola College, Chennai, a couple of weeks ago when i realised that what we always take for granted is often a luxury or even impossibility for many others. For example, 70 ml people in India cannot access the printed word. Not because of illiteracy but due to some disability or other--- like blindness, dyslexia, etc. Click on the title of this entry to know more.

When I spoke during the event I said something that's been with me for some time. Calling people mentally challenged or visually challenged-- things like that--- tends to separate them and dump them with insurmountable disadvantage. We are becoming so politically correct in so many things today that we are losing touch with human correctness. I noticed during the event that when the blind spoke, they called themselves "blind" while the sighted called them "visually challenged". I said, in that case we should have sugar-challenged (diabetics), size-challenged, etc. When we realise that we are ALL a blend of advantage and disadvantage, ability and disability, then we can see the vulnerability in others as easily as we see it in ourselves.

I remember, exactly 20 years ago, I was "scribing" for a blind student in MCC, the college where I once studied and was at that time teaching for a year. I was writing the student's exam answers as he dictated. All at once, he stopped and said, "Sir, are you Shreekumar Varma?" Puzzled, I said yes. He told me he'd heard me speak during a programme I'd put together for All India Radio three months earlier, and now he recognised my voice! It was a revelation. The world that we cannot grasp is a bigger world than we think.

20 years later. Here I was at Loyola, kicking off a campaign. Well, I also promised them I'd do everything I could to drive the message home. And I am--- on Facebook, Twitter and "word of mouth".

Soon after that day, I contacted my editor at Harper Collins and brought her and Ms. Nirmita Narasimhan of CIS (centre for internet & society) together. The Copyright Act, unchanged since it was born (two years after me!), still makes it illegal to transform printed works into convenient forms for the disabled. I hope my Maria's Room will be read by many who can't read other books. We are still exploring ways of accomplishing this. The novel will be out in November this year, and will be a source of great satisfaction to me: the cover design is my son's, and everyone would have the option to read it.