Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ravi Shankar: Strings of Power

On Sunday 1 August, 1971, a unique charity concert was organized at the most high profile centre of American music – New York’s Madison Square Garden. This concert, planned for the victims of a devastating cyclone and ongoing liberation war in Bangladesh, was the first charity concert ever to be held. The concert, a brainchild of Pandit Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, was initially planned at a much lower scale but enthusiastic response from fellow musicians forced them to look for a bigger stage. Among the participants that day apart from Ravi Shankar and Harrison were Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. A record crowd cheered them through the day, the organizers managed to raise huge amount of aid and for years afterwards, records of the concert continued on the top grossers’ list. But for India, there was a much larger gain. This concert was organized at a time when President Nixon’s administration was hardening its stance against New Delhi in the ongoing dispute between India and Pakistan over Bangladesh and despatched a US warship to Bay of Bengal. But this concert helped to change the perception – overnight everyone knew about the plight of Bangladesh and there was a discernible change in public mood. Decades before concepts like cultural diplomacy and soft power entered our foreign policy vocabulary, Indian classical music became one of India’s greatest soft power tools in the West and Pandit Ravi Shankar our most important cultural ambassador.
It, of course, should not come as a surprise for someone, who made his stage debut at the age of 11 in Paris, albeit as a dancer! Ravi Shankar's elder brother Uday Shankar was the original Indian cultural ambassador, pioneering Indian performing arts tradition in Europe and America. Uday Shankar presented the first vision of Indian classical dance to the Western audience in the 1920s in partnership with the celebrated Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. Later on he established his own dance company Uday Shankar Dance Troupe with his signature creative dance along with noted French dancer Simkie and a number of classical Indian dancers and musicians. Their presentation of Indian themes along with typical Indian music and dance in European style ballet format was the first taste of Indian performing arts for the West. Ravi Shankar toured with this troupe from a young age as a dancer and got his exposure to Western art and classical music and of course cinema, which remained his lifelong passion.
Uday Shankar with Anna Pavlova

It was a time when Indian classical dance traditions - so far confined to temples and houses of pleasure - were being given a new respectability by two men - Rabindranath at Shantiniketan and Uday Shankar, first in Europe and then briefly at Almora (where among his students were Guru Dutt and Zohra Sehgal). Yet young Ravi decided to opt for instrumental music and shifted to Maihar with Baba Alauddin Khan, who was a part of the Uday Shankar's troupe. He re-emerged on the classical musical scene after a rigorous ten year long training at Maihar and joined IPTA and then worked as music director of All India Radio between 1949 and 1955. It was during this period he composed the now famous music of Sare Jahan Se Achcha. He was also the music director for Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy and a number of Hindi movies including Anuradha and Godaan. Since 1956, he relentlessly toured around the world almost till the very end, often performing with famous musicians from other traditions like classical orchestra, Jazz, Pop and Rock. His association with the Beatles made him a household name in the West. From the 1970s, he was acknowledged as one of the greatest living cultural icons of the world.
Ravi shnakar and George Harrison
 Pandit Ravi Shankar was born in Varanasi as Rabindra Shankar Choudhury to his musician-philosopher cum barrister father Shyam Shankar and mother Hemangini Devi. He moved from Varanasi to Paris and then back to Maihar and then to Mumbai, where he founded his now world famous Kinnara School of Music, before embarking on a global career and settling down in California. His personal life has been controversial and perhaps unacceptable to many. As far as his art is concerned, it is for the experts to judge his original contribution to Indian classical music. But for India as a civilization, Ravi Shankar's greatest contribution has been to build bridges through his art. Not only during the time of Uday Shankar but even in the 1950s, when Ravi Shankar (and his fellow musicians, most notably his brother-in-law Ali Akbar) started touring the West, Indian classical music was still something exotic. It was his great ability to connect to a diverse range of influential people, particularly great musicians like George Harrison, Yehudi Menuhin and above all his prowess as an extraordinary musical performer, which helped to popularize Indian classical music all over the world. His performance on the stage was always on the borderline of sensuality and spirituality - at the same time he was able to highlight the richness of Indian music and portray Indian spiritualism through his art. When his sitar finally fell silent after more than seven decades of performance, Indian classical music has become mainstream, accepted all over the world as one of the greatest cultural traditions of the mankind – this in turn hugely enhanced India’s soft power quotient and lifted her status in the committee of nations - this will remain Ravi Shankar's immortal legacy.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Durga Puja: National Festival of Bengalis

The year was 1757. After defeating Siraj-ud-Daula, Robert Clive was the new Nawab of Bengal. Raja Nabakrisha Deb, one time Munshi to Warren Hastings and co-conspirator of Mir Jafar and Jagat Seth decided to say thanks to Devi Durga. After all, he was one of the largest beneficiaries of Palashi – he earned 8 crore rupees as his share of the loot and a lot more by selling land to the company in Calcutta. When Robert Clive wondered how he could attend a Hindu religious ceremony –Jagannath Tarkapanchanan, the greatest living authority on the Shastrasin Bengal, produced a ‘bidhan’ authorizing the firangi King to offer his prayer. Thus the first Durga Puja of Calcutta started with a British patron and beautiful Muslim tawwaifs or nautch girls, as Clive would have described them, providing most of the entertainment.

This year's Puja at Shovabazar Rajbari

Very soon other notables of the city also started organizing Durga Puja. It was difficult to say whether it remained an elitist affair because it required large amount of money or it was so designed to ensure Durga Puja’s elite character. At any rate, for the next 150 years, Durga Puja in Calcutta remained a zamindari affair with 10-day long festivities. Success was largely measured by the attendance of top British officials and beautiful baijees. For ordinary folks, there was kabir lorai or tarja(competition of songs/verses), Jatra(folk theatre) and many other forms of popular entertainment. It would be factually inaccurate to say that the Durga Puja originated in Calcutta, but there can hardly be any doubt that the Puja as we know it today evolved largely in the city of Calcutta. Devi Puja or worship of mother goddess had always been a dominant religious belief in the east. According to legends, Raja Kansha Narayan of Taherpur, Nadia introduced Durga puja in modern times. This was sometime in the 15th century. In all probability this Raja was little more than a Zamindar but somehow the trend caught up with other Zamindars and elites of Bengal.

Calcutta's first Sarbojonin Durga Puja: final touches to Pratima at Bhawanipore Sanatan Dharmaotsahini Sabha - this is the 103 anniversary

From the second half of the 19thcentury, as the city was growing towards the South, a new gentry was coming into prominence. This new service gentry was settled around Bhawanipore rather than North Calcutta localities like Chitpur, Shyambazar or Shovabazar, where the 19thcentury feudal elites resided. It was in this socio-economic context, a shift took place at the turn of the century. In 1910, some youngsters from Bhawanipore decided to organize a different type of Durga Puja. They collected money from everyone and decided to hold the Puja at a community ground rather than inside someone’s house. This Puja organized by the Bhawanipore Sanatan Dharmotsahini Sabha at Balaram Basu Ghat Street was the first public Puja and in a way marked the beginning of present day Durga Puja culture. Today most Pujas are described as Sarbojonin(lit. for all, meaning the entire community) or in more colloquial terms as baroyari(lit. organized by 12 yaar or friends) Puja. Century old Pujas of North Calcutta on the other hand have become something of a rapidly disappearing cultural tradition. These Pujas - banedi barir Puja – today are more known for their commitment to age-old traditions rather than glitz and glamour.

By 1950s, most of the Calcutta parasstarted having their own Sarbojonin Puja. Three decades – from 1950s to early 1980s – could be identified as the period of classic SarbojoninPuja culture. This was a phase where everyone in the locality would come forward to organize a Puja, which would be a modest affair, to be followed by cultural functions. This was the time, when best of Bengali talents – singers like Hemanta Mukhopadhyay or Shyamal Mitra would be the star attraction of late night jalsa. HMV would come out with its best song offerings, entitled Pujor Dali/Sharad Arghya. This was also the time when Sharadiya or Puja special issues of Desh and other magazines would showcase best Bengali literary talent. There was a lot of shopping then also but Durga Puja was more of a time for community bonding and showcasing of great cultural traditions.
From the late 1980s, decoration/lighting of Puja pandals emerged as the main crowd-pulling factor. This slowly became linked with the business of Puja – large number of sponsors gave big Pujas a different colour altogether. This also brought the local politician/tough guy in the scene. No doubt Puja provided a great platform to connect with the local people but more than that this involvement was needed to bring in more funds and sponsorships. First of the competitions – most notably Asian Paints Sharad Samman –started around this time. There was an unmistakable element of commercialization. Gradually, there was a list of must-see Pujas – College Square (especially for lighting), Md Ali Park, Sealdah, Ekdalia Evergreen, Mudiali and so on. There was a north Calcutta route and a south Calcutta route– one was expected to cover these mandatory pandal-hopping. People from suburbs and far off places started pouring in to Calcutta to see these Pujas. Big budget Pujas of suburbs or other parts of Bengal started imitating Calcutta trends in pandal designing and lighting.

Theme Puja: Durga in a China-themed Puja pandal - Mahisasur appears as (smiling) Chinese demon

With the new millennium, the new trend of“theme Puja” emerged. Socio-economic energy in the city has now shifted more towards outlying areas/suburbs. They found a new expression of their identity in promoting big-budget Pujas with specialist designer and artisans from different corners of the country. Behala was a pioneer in breaking new grounds with clubs like Sristi and Sahajatri leading the way. Behala was followed by such localities we never heard before one particular Puja, when their beautiful pandal brought the entire city to their thus far unheralded locality – in this way we came to know places like Badamtala (Asad Sangha), Bosepukur (Sitala Mandir) or Dum Dum Park (Bharatchakra). At the same time, residents of places like Salt Lake or new housing complexes tried to re-capture the true community spirit of Durga Puja by celebrating modest Pujas with their own cultural function and community lunch/dinner during the Puja days. Today there are these three clear prototypes of Durga Puja in Calcutta – Pujas based on theme, Pujas which celebrate team or community spirit and Pujas, which celebrate heritage. 

  For Bengalis, whether they are in Bengal or the original prabasi(settled for long time in other Indian cities) or the new generation prabasi(anywhere from Ireland to Finland but mostly in the US) Durga Puja is the most important community event to re-discover and celebrate their unique socio-cultural heritage. For Bengalis, irrespective of their location, Durga Puja has long become a social event rather than a religious festival. In recent years, despite the continuous downward slide of Calcutta as an economic centre, Durga Puja has been elevated to a public art festival, where the entire city is converted into an open air art exhibition during these four-five days, showcasing some of the best folk arts of India.

Most major festivals in India are celebrated in private or in a mixture of public and private. There are two major exceptions – Durga Puja in Calcutta/Bengal and Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai/Maharashtra, which are absolutely public festivals. It is worthwhile to recall that both the festivals evolved into their present characters around the same time (before becoming a sarbojoninevent, Ganesh Chaturthi was limited to Chitpavan Brahmin families, it was turned into a public celebration by Bal Gangadhar Tilak). Basic purpose was of course to mobilize communities at the height of Swadeshi movement –so community and nationalism, both found expression in these celebrations. A century down the line, across the world, Durga Puja continues to be the most important cultural expression of Bengali identity.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Lok Hitarth Satyanishta

Choto Lal Bari
In Calcutta’s iconic office district Dalhousie Square, Lal Bari or the Red Building is the Writers’ Building – main Secretariat for almost 300 years now. The Choto Lal Bari or the small red building next to the Governor House is the AG Office. It was here in November 1860 Sir Edward Drummond joined as the first Auditor General of India (in the same building the first Income Tax office was also established around the same time). The British Crown directly took over the reins of Indian administration after the Great Revolt of 1857 and the new Government of India Act of 1858 introduced a system of annual budget and along with it, auditing of government accounts as per the regular British practice. In 1919, under the Montague-Chelmsford Act, the office of the Auditor General became independent of the administration. Government of India Act of 1935 for the first time made provisions for separate Account Generals for the provinces with the CAG at the helm of the department. Since then the overall structure of the Indian Audit and Accounts Department (IA&AD) has remained the same.

Treasury Building Calcutta: Home to first Income Tax and Audit Office in India

Gorton Castle, Shimla, built as the main Secretariat, now the office of AG: Himachal
There have been mentions of auditors in ancient Babylon and even in Chanakya’s Arthashastra. Some form of auditing existed in England right from the 14th century; however the system got a real boost in the 19th century, when it was made mandatory for joint stock companies to get their balance sheets audited before presenting it to their shareholders. The system of Comptroller and Auditor General – as we know it – was introduced in England during the 1860s through a series of reforms by William Gladstone. The comptrolling function involved control of money supply in accordance with Parliamentary approval. This was a power never delegated to Indian CAG – before or after independence.
First Indian CAG Vyakarana Narahari Rao
Till 1948, when Sir Bertie Monro Staig handed over the baton to V Narahari Rao, all the CAGs were British. But Indians gained an early entry into the service when a handful of them were nominated in 1869. Among the very first officers were D Kishan Singh, Rajani Nath Ray, T Krishnaswamy Iyenger, Ishan Chandra Bose and Muong Hla Oung. Only towards the end of  the 19th century, Indian officers rose to become Accountants General or AG. It will take another 50 years for lady officers to join the service.
Sir CV Raman: As someone commented had it not been for Sir Ashutosh, he would have retired as a conscientious AG!!

The most famous member of the Indian Audit and Accounts Service joined as Assistant Account General at the same Choto Lal Bari in 1907. Barred from going abroad on health ground, Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman topped the Financial Civil Service examination.   It was in Calcutta while travelling daily from his rented accommodation at Bowbazar to AG Office at Dalhousie Square, he came across the office of Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science. Founded by Dr Mahendra Lal Sircar, this was India’s first scientific research institution. Raman began working at the Association in early morning and after office hours and continued this way for a decade before joining Calcutta University in 1917. Eventually, in 1930, Raman became the first Indian scientist to win Nobel Prize in Physics.
Yarrows Forever: Home to generations of IA&AS Officers

 IA&AD like most other Indian institutions is a bad keeper of their own history. So there is hardly any comprehensive history written on a 150-year old institution. But in every provincial capital from Calcutta to Chennai and from Allahabad to Mumbai, AG office is not only situated at the heart of the city but has also played an important part in the socio-economic and cultural landscape of the city. The department is also the custodian of a number of historic buildings across the country including the already mentioned Treasury Building in Calcutta and Gorton Castle (originally the main Secretariat) at Shimla. The Yarrows building at Shimla, which houses the national academy of audit and accounts service, was built by Sir Herbert Baker and was once the summer residence of Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
T N Chaturvedi
Despite the lofty words of Dr Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly that the office of the CAG was the most important – even more than Supreme Court Judges – under the new constitution, CAG had mostly remained another dreary government department. The first Indian CAG Narahari Rao was followed by A K Chanda, A K Roy, S Ranganathan, A Baksi, Gian Prakash, T N Chaturvedi, C G Somiah, V K Shunglu, V N Kaul and the present CAG Vinod Rai. It was during Chaturvedi’s time the Bofors report came out – till 2G and now coalgate, it was the most famous audit report in the annals of CAG. After retirement Chaturvedi joined BJP and eventually became Karnataka Governor. After the Kargil war, CAG’s report on Coffin scam also shocked the nation.

Determined crusader or incidental hero? The office of the CAG will never be the same again
From a single office at Dalhousie Square, IA&AD today has more than 200 offices across the country and three offices abroad with more than 50000 employees. CAG or as it is called in international parlance, the Supreme Audit Institution, SAI of India is also increasingly one of the most sought after audit organizations internationally and is involved in regular audit of various UN bodies. Recent series of high profile reports have certainly helped to focus the spotlight on this mammoth organization and hopefully this will also inspire them to re-dedicate themselves to their motto of Lok Hitarth Satyanishtha. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Anglo-Indians: A Forgotten Chapter of Indian Hockey

During the Olympics, London tube stations have been temporarily renamed after the greatest heroes in Olympic history. There are three Indians in the special Olympic Legends map – two of them, Dhyan Chand and his brother Roop Singh are well known. But even Indians using the Bushey station of busy London tube may not able to recall the icon, after whom the station has been temporarily named. Today almost no one in India remembers Leslie Claudius, perhaps the country’s greatest Olympic hero. And with that neglect is also buried a chapter of Indian hockey’s golden age – that of Anglo-Indian contribution to Indian hockey.

1928: First gold medal winning Olympic Hockey team
Leslie Claudius is perhaps the greatest sporting icon of that tiny community of Anglo-Indians, who were responsible for growth of many a sports in colonial India. Anglo-Indians at various railway towns and other service enclaves took with gusto Victorian and Edwardian values of character-building through sports. There was also an additional incentive of jobs under sports quota. As a result, the great railway towns – Jabbalpur, Bilaspur, Jamalpur, Kharagpur became some of the most famous sporting centres. But hockey was much more than a game; it was part of Anglo-Indian identity. Most of the famous teams of the day were actually office teams – Bengal Nagpur Railways, Calcutta Port Commissioner’s or Calcutta Customs. In 1928, India participated for the first time in Olympic hockey and won the gold medal – 9 members of the team were Anglo-Indians though today we mostly remember Dhyan Chand and the captain of the team, Jaipal Singh Munda, an Oxford-educated tribal, who raised the demand of Jharkhand for the first time. There were respectively 8 and 6 Anglo-Indians in the gold medal winning teams of 1932 and 1936. One of them was goal keeper, Richard Allen, three times Olympic gold medallist, who conceded just three goals in three Olympics.

Claudius, a slightly built boy of 19, was watching a hockey match between BNR’s A and B teams in Kharagpur in 1946, when he was asked by Dickie Carr, a member of 1936 gold-medal winning team to substitute for an injured player. That was the first time Leslie Claudius played serious hockey and in 15 days time, he was in the playing eleven of BNR – one of the great teams in domestic hockey circuit and in two years time he was in London, representing India in Olympics! Leslie Claudius, the legendary right back of Indian hockey’s golden era, went on to play in three more Olympics (Helsinki 1952, Melbourne 1956 and Rome 1960) and winning in the process three gold medals and one silver (in 1960).  He holds Olympic record for winning maximum medals in team games – a record he shares with compatriot Udham Singh, another great from that famous nursery of hockey players in Punjab, Sansarpur village. Singh was a part of victorious Indian squads in 1952, 1956, 1960 and 1964, when India won the gold again.
Dr Vece Paes

After 1947, as Anglo-Indians started migrating in droves, they helped to shape hockey in Australia and Canada. Some of them represented Great Britain in Olympics. As the coach, Rex Norris, a member of the 1928 Indian team, was chiefly responsible for emergence of the Netherlands as one of powerhouses of modern hockey. For a generation, growing up on Chak de India story, it is perhaps worthwhile to remind that till 1960s, majority of Indian women players in any discipline used to be Anglo-Indians. Sports teacher in girls’ schools was a profession started and populated for decades by Anglo-Indian women. As usual, they were the pioneers in women’s hockey as well. In 1962, Ann Lumsden became the first woman hockey player to receive the Arjuna award. In 1982, Eliza Nelson captained the gold-medal winning Indian women’s hockey team and was later awarded Arjuna and Padmashree.

As Anglo-Indians were fading out of the Indian hockey scene, their brightest star appeared on the horizon. Leslie Walter Claudius was born in Bilaspur in 1927 and was already a member of the BNR football team, when he was introduced to hockey. He had to cut the stick by about three inches to suit his modest height of 5 ft 2 inches – yet there was none better than him. As the Chairman of selectors, Dhyan Chand famously said Claudius selects himself; we have to select others. Like Dhyan Chand and his son Ashok Kumar, both Leslie and his son Robert represented the country – Robert tragically died in a car crash soon after getting into the Indian team. History of Anglo-Indian contribution to India’s Olympic dreams cannot be written without mentioning another famous father-son duo from Calcutta. Vece Paes won a bronze in 1972 Olympic as part of the Indian hockey squad. His son Leander became only the second Indian to win an individual medal by winning a bronze in men’s singles tennis in 1996 Atlanta games. Leander’s mother Jennifer also represented India in basketball.

Atlanta, 1996: Leander ended the long draught of individual medals

Leslie Claudius, 85, today lives with his son in a rented two-room apartment in central Calcutta’s McLeod Street – most of his Anglo-Indian neighbours have left the country long back. Surviving on his custom officer’s pension, occasionally he hails a taxi and goes to Calcutta Maidan – hockey is almost a forgotten game there. Office teams are long gone, Beighton Cup – once the most prestigious tournament in the subcontinent is today reduced to something like a neighbourhood tournament. On the streets of Calcutta, a city home to Claudius for more than 60 years now, nobody would recognize one of the greatest sporting heroes of the country.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Man and His New Lawn

On 23 January, 1931, the day the first occupant of the Viceroy’s House, Lord Irwin moved in, Lutyens slipped away from formal dinner without bidding goodbye to the Viceroy – he stood outside admiring his own creation and then imprinted a kiss on the grand monument he had built. The H-shaped house with 340 rooms and more than 200,000 square feet area took 17 years to built (instead of 4 years as planned) and cost Rs 14 million. Edward Landseer Lutyens, who could not complete his art school degree and was till then a builder of country homes, was paid a mere 5000 pound for his toil of 17 years. But the new capital he built in Delhi along with its crowning glory, Viceroy’s House, made him world famous.

Pranab Mukherjee was born 4 years later – 11 December, 1935 - at Mirati village of Bengal’s Birbhum district. His father Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee was a freedom fighter, member of AICC and later, an MLA. Pranabbabu still recalls how as a middle school student, he used to read Constituent Assembly debates in newspaper every morning. Since those days he always wanted to be in national politics. His history teacher in school instilled a deep love for history. He followed it up with post-graduation in both the subjects – political science and history (he has recently edited official history of Congress). He also has a degree in law though he has never practiced. He has always remained a village boy at heart and studied in local school and college. His active participation in family Durga Puja at Mirati has become a national media event in recent years. Once Donald Rumsfeld wanted to talk to the Indian Defence Minister on some urgent issue and was surprised to know that he was at a village. Pranabbabu explained to him the significance of Durga Puja first before getting onto the matters of statecraft.

As a fresh graduate he taught Bengali in a village school. Later he briefly worked with Post and Telegraph Audit and taught at two colleges near Calcutta. In 1969, he was elected to Rajya Sabha as a member of breakaway Bangla Congress. Congress in Bengal in those days remained under the iron grip of Atulya Ghosh, one of the pillars of Syndicate. Rebel congress leader, Ajay Mukherjee, heading Bangla Congress, forged an alliance with the Communists and came to power. Jyoti Basu was then the Deputy Chief Minister and it was the Communist leader, who is believed to have introduced Pranabbabu to his close friend Indira Gandhi. Soon the young MP joined Congress and became a deputy Minister in 1973. He has held almost all the important cabinet posts since then, except for the Home Ministry. He is someone, who loves to read the fine prints and remembers every statistics. He is quintessentially a committee man, who can reach out to everyone and iron out every difference to produce the most acceptable draft. Above all, he is the institutional memory for his party, government and for parliament.

Even when the King and Viceroy asked him to adopt Indo-Sarasenic style, the classicist architect stuck to his own ideas. Lutyens selected pink sandstone, the preferred building materials of the Mughals and cream colour Dholpur stone and decided to build his dream mansion with bricks and stones and very little cement or steel. Though he never really acknowledged, during the course of work, he went on adopting a number of elements from Mughal and Rajput architectures. The most prominent of those being the extensive use of Chajjas, chattris and jaalis (perforated stone screens). The great dome was his tribute to Rome’s Pantheon though the design around the drum below it definitely points to his debt to Sanchi railings. His classic pillars are embellished on top by four small temple bells – a design he picked up from a Jain temple in Karnataka. Lutyens managed to win most of his battles regarding site selection, design and decorations, but lost the most important one to his colleague and co-builder of New Delhi, Herbert Baker. Since Lutyens joined the project with the condition that he would build the principal building himself, the best Baker could have got was the Secretariat. Baker proposed to cut a gradient to situate his two buildings – North Block and South Block – at the same height with the Viceroy’s House. Though he signed the agreement regarding this, he could grasp the significance only later, that this would take away the prominence from his magnum opus. Then Lutyens protested but to no avail. Lutyens and Baker then fought a very public battle and did not speak to each other for many years. This came to be known as Bakerloo of Lutyens.

Pranab Mukherjee’s rise in Delhi is almost parallel to Congress’ decline in his home state. Last significant victory for the party in Bengal was in 1984 – riding on the sympathy wave after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. He has always been happy to be the key person in Delhi and maintained close friendship with the left leadership in Bengal – so, there is no surprise in CPM’s decision today to back his candidature. It is significant that from 1985 to 2010, Pranabbabu headed the WBPCC. Never comfortable in the heat and dust of grass root politics and hardcore electoral campaigns, he managed to register his first direct poll victory in 2004 – wining the Jangipur Lok Sabha seat, which he retained in 2009 too.

A total of 5 Viceroys, 2 Governor Generals (Mountbatten was both the last Viceroy and first Governor General) and 12 Presidents have stayed in the house so far. Accordingly the name of the building was changed twice – from Viceroy’s House to Government House to Rashtrapati Bhavan. First Indian Governor General C. Rajagopalachari found the house too big and proposed it to be converted into a hospital. Later, part of it was temporarily turned into an archaeological museum, which was shifted to Janpath later on as the National Museum. Only two artifacts still remain from the museum collection – an Asokan Bull Capital, at the entrance and a Gupta-period Buddha statue at the Darbar Hall. When he was sort of forced to stay in this vast mansion, Rajaji decided to shift to a small living quarter instead of Viceroy’s suite, which he found too ostentatious for his frugal tastes. So far every President of India has stayed in that small quarter, what was built as the living quarter of Vicereine’s lady-in-waiting.

There were two elements of Mughal style, which Lutyens openly admired – gardens and use of water as a design element. He studied Mughal gardens in Agra, Lahore and Srinagar before building the huge garden. Though it is called Mughal Garden, it is actually a mixture of Mughal and European styles. Spread over six hectares, it starts with a 200 feet by 200 feet lawn. A canal starts from here and gently falls down the steps, at the far end stands a round pool and fountains are there everywhere. Apart from other flowering trees and shrubs, there are more than 250 varieties of roses in the garden, which is opened for public in every winter.

A voracious reader, Prananbabu is often found reading multiple books together, at least one of which is likely to be in Bangla. A workaholic, he takes his dinner - usually fish curry and rice – only after 11. Before he goes to bed well past midnight, he makes it a point to make entries in his journal, which he has been keeping for decades now. Surely, future historians will be ready to pay any price for that journal. If you drive up from India gate to Raisina Hills, there is just one point - at the entry of Vijay Chowk, when the dome goes out of vision. Contemporary history will remember him as the best Prime Minister India never had but early morning in Rashtrapati Bhavan lawn, when he would be walking alone with his thoughts, what would he consider as his chief legacy? Will the history student in him re-evaluate the socialist turn of Indian economy in 1970s and 80s? Will he consider writing the all time best-seller on Indian Politics?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Race to Raisina

Some quirky politics by Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav and 24X7 news channels suddenly turned Presidential election into an exciting affair. But announcment of Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature – his election to the country’s highest office now looks a foregone conclusion – was slow Test match cricket compared to fireworks of an IPL match witnessed in 1969 Presidential election. The drama unfolded against the backdrop of widening difference between the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the Congress old guards, who used to control the party with an iron grip. These stalwarts – K Kamraj, Atulya Ghosh, S K Patil and Congress President S Nijalingappa were collectively known as the Syndicate. Syndicate was deeply unhappy with the Prime Minister, who they feared was getting out of their control. Prime Minister on the other hand was looking for a suitable opportunity to break free from their clutches with the help of a new generation of younger leaders like Chandra Sekhar, known as Young Turks and a coterie of brilliant advisors led by P N Haksar. When President Zakir Hussein died half way through his term, the Congress Party nominated Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, Lok Sabha speaker, as their official candidate. Prime Minister was opposed to Reddy’s candidature but the Working Committee overruled her. Combined opposition candidate was C D Deshmukh. Vice President V V Giri, a well-respected labour leader from Sanjiva Reddy’s home state, Andhra Pradesh decided to contest the election as an independent. Giri had excellent relations with Indira Gandhi and she had earlier proposed his name in the Working Committee meeting.

                                        N Sanjiva Reddy                          V V Giri
Even as the election was nearing, despite several requests from the Party President, Mrs Gandhi refused to speak in support of Sanjiva Reddy. It was reported in the press that her close supporters were canvassing support for V V Giri. Nijalingappa then decided to seek support from Jan Sangh and Swatantra Party – a move immediately pounced upon by the Prime Minister’s camp. They “requisitioned” a special session of AICC – but their request was turned down. Prime Minister finally spoke on 20th August, famously asking for a "vote of Conscience". This was obviously interpreted as her open support for Giri. Still a large number of old faithful stuck to the official choice. After the first round of counting, no candidate could muster enough votes but after the second round – that is based on second preference votes – Giri managed to win. After a bitter and public exchange of charges and counter-charges, Congress finally decided to expel its own prime minister from the party in November. This led to the famous Congress split – old guards stayed in Congress (O) – O for original and prime minister’s supporters formed Congress (R) – R stood for Requisitionists or according to another version, for Reform.
                                     Rajaji                                    Rajendra Prasad

It is well known that Jawaharlal Nehru wanted the first Indian Governor General C Rajagopalachari to become the first President as well. But with Sardar Patel and bulk of the Congress Party behind him, Rajendra Prasad won the nomination. First three Presidential elections were easy as Congress had absolute majority both in the centre and states. 1969 was the first election after Congress lost a few state polls. In 1974, it was easy for Congress again – now under the sole command of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – to send Fakruddin Ali Ahmed to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Ahmed’s death prompted another election in 1977. This time Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, candidate of the first non-Congress government at the centre, became the first and so far only person to have won Presidential election unopposed. At 63, Sanjiva Reddy was also the youngest President so far.
                                        Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad           Gyani Jail Singh

When elected, Pranab Mukherjee will become the third Cabinet Minister to directly go to the Rashtrapati Bhavan – other two being his former cabinet colleagues Fakruddin Ali Ahmed, who was Food Minister in 1974 and Gyani Jail Singh, Home Minister in 1982.   Mukherjee will be the first Bengali to occupy the Raisina Hills. So far we have had three Presidents from Tamil Nadu (Radhakrishnan, Venkatraman and Kalam), two from Andhra (Giri, though when he was born his village was part of Orissa and Sanjiva Reddy), one each from Bihar (Rajendra Prasad), UP (Zakir Hussein – though he was born in Hyderabad), Assam (Fakruddin Ali Ahmed), Punjab (Gyani Jail Singh), MP (Shankar Dayal Sharma), Kerala (K R Narayanan) and Maharashtra (Pratibha Patil). Politics in India definitely runs in blood - Pranab Mukherjee’s father was a Congress MLA and his son is a sitting Congress MLA in Bengal as is Pratibha Patil’s son in Maharashtra. Among the current Union Ministers, Salman Khurshid is the grandson of Zakir Hussein and Ajay Maken is related to Shankar Dayal Sharma.
Justice M Hidayatullah
First three Vice Presidents – Radhakrishnan, Zakir Hussein and V V Giri went on to become Presidents. Next three – G S Pathak, B D Jatti and M Hidayatullah missed the bus. Again next three – Venkatraman, Shankar Dayal Sharma and K R Narayanan were elevated. Now with Hamid Ansari – three of them in a row – Krishan Kant, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Ansari missed their chances. But the most unique honour goes to Justice Muhammad Hidayatullah – when V V Giri stepped down to contest Presidential elections, as the Chief Justice of India, Hidayatullah became the acting President for a short while and after his retirement, he was elected as the Vice President. Thus he became the only person to occupy all the three highest constitutional offices in the country.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Pharma Robinhood: The Story of Cipla

Dr Y K Hamied, 75-year old Chairman of India’s second largest pharmaceuticals company, Cipla is trying to re-write the contemporary history again. On May 3, Cipla shell-shocked the entire pharma world with its astounding decision to cut prices of three key anti-cancer drugs by as much as 75%. In Indian market, kidney cancer drug Sofraneib (Bayer’s Nexavar) will now cost only 6840 rupees for a month instead of current Rs 28000; lung cancer drug Gestinib (sold as Iressa by Astrazeneca) will cost 4250, down from Rs 10000 and brain tumour drug Temozolamide (sold by Schering) will cost just 5000 a month, one-fourth of present Rs 20000. Even as pharma multinationals are busy devising strategies to contain this latest assault from India’s generic czar, Dr Hamied has said that soon Cipla would cut down prices of another 6 key anti-cancer drugs. For millions of Indian cancer patients – every year India reports at least 2.5 million new cases – and their families, there could not have been a better news than this as most of them cannot afford these medicines or sustain it beyond a few months. Actually the story started almost two months back when India’s drug regulator granted first compulsory license to Natco Pharma to manufacture and sell Sofraneib for just 8800 rupees a month in larger public interest. But the entry of Cipla in this latest theatre of pharma war changes everything.

Had it been any other person then perhaps we would have greeted this news with a bagful of salt. But with Dr Y K Hamied, it is a different story altogether – in September 2000, at a meeting of European Commission, he shocked the world of big pharma and global policy-makers by announcing that he was ready to provide a three drug cocktail of anti-HIV drugs at just $1 a day. The cocktail (combinations of reverse transcriptase inhibitors like Lamivudine, Stavudine/Zidovudin and protease inhibitors like Ritonavir, Indinavir) – then the only combination available for slowing the progress of HIV/AIDS – used to sell at $12000 for a year. Even though big pharma companies actually called him a thief and pirate; policymakers, particularly African leaders rolled out red carpet for him. Dr Hamied kept his word – under special licensing, first Cipla and then a number of Indian companies were able to provide the live-saving drugs at a fraction of a price being charged by multinationals. A New York Times report last year estimated that when Cipla handed over its first consignment of one year supply of drugs per patient at around $300 to Medicines Sans Frontiers, just around 2000 patients worldwide were able to afford the treatment. Today six million people across the world – particularly in the developing world - are daily availing this treatment. AIDS pandemic appears much more manageable and prices have fallen to 20 cents per day.

Acharya Prafulls Chandra Roy, founder of Bengal Chemicals, India's first modern pharmaceuticals manufacturer
Starting from Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy and his Bengal Chemicals and Dr U N Brahmachari, India’s first successful medical innovator turned entrepreneur to traditional drug manufacturers like Dabur, Baidyanath and Hamdard, India has a hoary tradition of modern pharma manufacturing. But the real turning point came in 1970, when a new process patent regime came into being in place of old product patent – it is believed that one of the key advisors to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi behind this move was Dr Hamied. Though in the new millennium, after joining the WTO, India finally reverted back to product patent but this protection of more than 30 years made Indian pharma companies champions of reverse engineering. They would come out with copycats of a new drug soon after it is launched in market but would claim that they have produced it through a different process. These copycats – technically bioequivalents – are called generics as opposed to branded medicines. It is a legacy of that single master stroke in the 70s, that India today is a global leader in generics (India files maximum number of ANDAs or Abbreviated New Drug Applications with USFDA, required to formally launch a copycat drug) and the world’s third largest drugs manufacturer with nearly 20000 registered drug companies and more than 100 USFDA-certified manufacturing facilities.

A patent normally grants 20-years exclusivity to the holder, but on public health grounds, even the USA permits generic drugs ro ensure affordability. So far generic companies were able to copy only simple formulations. India and China together already control more than 80% production of active drug ingredients. Now with advanced facilities, they are closing in fast on complex bio-tech drugs used to treat cancer, diabetes and other diseases. Cipla and its Chinese partner BioMab have invested nearly $200 million in new production facilities to manufacture these complex drugs. Global pharma giants fear that within next one year or so Indian and Chinese companies would be able to sell most of their current blockbuster drugs. Compared to anti-retroviral drugs (which had a small share in their profit pie), what is at stake here is actually the very survival of these companies. For instance half of Roche’s annual sales of around $40 billion now comes from three drugs – Herceptin(for breast cancer), Avastin (for Colon cancer) and Rituxan(for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) and generic versions for all three are scheduled to hit the market in near future.

Reaction from the global giants and the self-proclaimed upholders of strong patent regime came along the expected lines. The crux of their argument is that this kind of porous patent regime would kill any incentive for new drug discovery. But Cipla along with other Indian (and some Israeli) companies have demonstrated that you can still make money by selling drugs at drastically reduced prices – that simply means these pharma giants are selling life-saving drugs at unacceptably high margins. When the fight is actually between saving human lives and naked profit then the verdict - at least in the long term – has to go against these companies. It is a matter of deep shame that both the USA and the EU – in the garb of intellectual property rights, patent etc – are trying to promote the interests of limited few against the suffering multitude.
Dr K A Hamied, founder of Cipla
Born in Lithuanian capital Vilnius – his mother was a Lithuanian Jewish socialist - Dr Hamied grew up in Bombay and now lives mostly in London. In Bombay, as a school boy he used to play cricket with his neighbourhood friend Zubin Mehta. It is no wonder that Dr Hamied himself is a devoted fan of Western Classical music. His father Dr K A Hamied studied in Germany and then came back to teach at Aligarh. A disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, he was one of the founders of Jamia Milia Islamia before setting up Chemical, Industrial and Pharmaceuticals Laboratories, which came to be known as Cipla. Even today, the pride of place in Cipla’s website goes to Gandhi’s visit to Cipla factory in 1939. Dr K A Hamied also drafted the blue-print of a chain of nation-wide scientific research institutions, which led to the formation of CSIR, the apex scientific research body in India.
Dr Hamied receiving Padma Bhushan from Prez Kalam
Today Dr Y K Hamied runs a charity cancer hospital in India and funds research in his alma mater, Christ College, Cambridge, where Yusuf Hamied centre opened its doors in 2009. Time and again Dr Hamied has underlined Cipla’s social commitment and humanitarian concerns. Cipla has managed to fulfill that without having to compromise its balance sheets. As he embarks on another pioneering journey, along with millions of cancer patients and their worried friends and family, the entire humanity would be praying for his success.

P.S. 1. cancer drug price protest in the USA
2. Alternative model for innovation
3. Compulsory licencing upheld

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Calcutta: Requiem for a City

Every time I come out of my flight at Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport and then on to the roads of the City of Joy, I get a distinct feeling of being back in my native village. This time as I came out of the airport – dirty and shabby as usual – and landed bang in the middle of a complete traffic chaos in a crater-filled dirt track (perhaps ironically called VIP Road), I could not help being pessimistic. Almost a year back the city welcomed with great joy and relief a new party into power after 34 years of communist rule - and the only signs of change are some blue paint and a new-design of street light, which, I was told, was so designed as it bears a close resemblance to the electoral symbol of the party in power.

2011 also marked the centenary of a landmark event, which of course no true Calcuttan could celebrate. Hundred years back in December, 1911 in a dusty corner of old Mughal capital, the British Monarch announced shifting of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. Calcutta was then the richest and most progressive city east of Suez. A number of observers have remarked that 1911 marked the exact beginning of Calcutta’s decline. But even in the 1960s, half a century down the line, Calcutta was the richest city and West Bengal was the most industrialized state of the union. Calcutta was, without much doubt, the cultural capital (minus Bollywood) too. Almost every day I come across – both physically and in the pages of newspaper - so many non-Bengalis, over 60 of course, who had close links with the city. It was mostly in terms of education, business and father’s employment. Calcutta, apart from the rich and middling Marwaris and often looked-down-upon Biharis and Oriyas, was home to a thriving Anglo-Indian population, along with sparkling presence of Parsis, Jews, Armenians, Tamils and others. Except for some Chinese, almost all of them have migrated away. Today most of the successful Bongs are also found outside Cal – anywhere from Denver to Dubai, San Jose to Singapore and inside the country, in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Bombay…..almost in any metro city, except Calcutta.
End of history on Park Street?
Today, Calcutta is essentially a provincial town – or a sprawling monochrome urban agglomeration. There is nothing metropolitan about its culture, society or economy. Internet gives two unique credits to Calcutta – world’s poorest 10-million plus city and the metro city with maximum annual rainfall in the world – I don’t know whether the statistics are correct but no doubt, they instantly conjure up some of the more well-known visual images of the city.
City is the greatest innovation of human beings. A city represents the essence of a culture, concentration of knowledge and functions as the engine of economy. It is no wonder that both the Anglo-French words – City and Civilization – come from the same Latin root. Growth or for that matter, decline of a great city, therefore, has to be seen in the context of the civilization it represents. From a silted Port to dilapidated palatial houses of North Calcutta to rusting workshops of Howrah - all point to an utter collapse of the economic foundation of that civilization. Without that base, it is no surprise that Bengali culture today looks more like a shallow and stagnated pool.  

I spent a week in Calcutta, on an average covering 10 kilometres in two hours – as a result I ended up spending more time on the road than meeting people. If you dare to stand at the Science City crossing for more than 10 minutes, you risk being choked to death. Forget AC, finding a taxi with a clean seat was impossible - foremost factor was of course whether he would be kind enough to take you onboard. Public space belongs to anyone but the hapless public and the entire city resembles a giant open-air garbage dump.

Street kids celebrating Saraswati Pujo - none of them goes to school
My last day in Calcutta was incidentally the day of Saraswati Puja – Valentine’s Day for Bengali youngsters. Travelling across the city – from Howrah to Rashbehari and then to Salt Lake and then back to Howrah through North Calcutta and then again to Central Calcutta – I saw scores of boys mostly in Pajama – Punjabi (kurta) and girls, invariably in (mom’s) saree. As they went around giggling, trying to balance new heels and very conscious about their first saree (Ami tokhon nobom sreni/Ami tokhon prothom saree…), Calcutta definitely looked a more vibrant place. I am sure the day would have brought new colours to a whole lot of them. I would not deny that some of them with shampooed hair and large, dark Bengali eyes did remind me of an almost forgotten singer called Nachiketa after a long time – Hotat khola chule, hoyto moner bhule, jokhon takato se obohele…..hazaar kobita….

Yet I could not help noticing absence of a dash of glamour – to put it differently, twenty years back this crowd I would have expected at Rishra than Rashbehari. A friend observed that today there is more socio-economic and cultural energy in South-suburban Calcutta (Behala-Bashdroni-Garia) and suburbs along the Sealdah and Howrah local train lines – from Agarpara to Srirampore. Their benchmark of success – a house/flat, steady job for son/daughter (ideally school service – Rail, Bank PO or WBCS is a significant improvement), Kerala trip in October and may be a small car. Neighbourhood hero is the software engineer currently abroad – hopefully he would be back before Pujo (never mind Durga Puja is just nine months away) - para club is going to celebrate its 60th anniversary with great fanfare. Kasturi Sweets makes phabulaas Hinger Kachuri and Chicken Manchurian at Aheli Café is ‘almost like Tangra’ – slices of life seen in established middle class Calcutta perhaps twenty years back. And that Calcutta now appears a pensioners’ ghost town – children settled abroad, annual trips, daily phone call or Skype – empty nest.

Eight of us – college batchmates – met at Flurys on a Saturday evening. Flurys was then transformed into Pramoda’s canteen for the next couple of hours. There is nothing like an adda with old pals to improve the quality of one’s existence. You can still largely ignore pollution, traffic and a host of other maladies as you sit down with some hot Kaapi at a non-descript South Indian joint with old friends or some delectable Mochar ghonto at Bhojohori Manna with another. This remains the greatest redeeming feature of Calcutta – its people.
Calcutta ultimately remains a bitter-sweet memory like your first love. She held out so much promise. Even today you wonder why Calcutta’s potentials are not realized to any extent. Why can’t we at least have clean sidewalks, motorable roads and less pollution? This – without any political agenda – itself will bring some business and with it job and talent back to the city. So many us would have been really happy to be back in this city for good – in the absence of basic amenities and lack of opportunities, that option simply does not exist today. After so many years you don’t really remember why did you have that fight on that Saraswati Pujo day – millions of years ago – you still pine for her. Kolkata jodi satti tilottama hoto!!