Friday, August 25, 2006

Uncle Moon At 60

The Madras of today might be synonymous with technology, but in a quiet street in the city’s Ekkatuthangal area, a bunch of people are busy packaging the timeless, ‘once-upon-a-time’ era which has a king and a queen who go on to live happily ever after.

It’s the era our childhood belongs to, and when I say ‘our’, I mean you, me or anybody in the age group 18 to 80. Ask your grandfather if he has heard of Chandamama: chances are he would have even read it, if not read its stories out — to your father, that is.

For three generations of Indians, Chandamama and Childhood have gone hand in hand. Over the years, Superman and Spiderman might have elbowed out the valiant kings and princes in the imagination of pre-teen minds, but Chandamama manages to hold its fort as it approaches its 60th year.

Tales of King Vikram and Vetala, for example, is still a regular feature, which appears along with the same old sketch of the sword-wielding king walking through a cremation ground in the dead of the night with a corpse on his shoulder. For me, as a child, this trademark sketch was the ultimate symbol of bravery. I would look at it every now and then — at times at the fearless expression of the king, at times at the skulls strewn in the cremation ground, at times at the bats and the dangerous snake, and at times at the name of the artist, ‘Sankar’, which would be signed over a grey rock for easy visibility.

Sankar was one of my heroes, and I even wrote a post-card to Chandamama asking if they entertained freelance artists. I didn’t get a reply but my name did appear under the ‘Do You Know’ column — the first time I ever saw it in print. Anyway, the years rolled on and Chandamama entered the archives of my life — I didn’t really need it anymore but I knew it was safe somewhere.

Then, the other day, a quarter century later, I mentally dusted and dug out the archives as I hunted for the Chandamama office in Ekkatuthangal. A few minutes into the conversation with the editor and I mentioned to him what a great fan of Sankar I used to be. I wanted to enquire about the artist but feared that the reply could be heart breaking. But a surprise awaited me.

“Sankar is still here. He is about 75 now. You see, in Chandamama we don’t retire people,” informed the editor — a genial, self-effusing man called B Viswanatha Reddi, whose name appears in the magazine’s printline as Viswam.

Viswam himself is 63 — technically past retirement age. But then he looks only 53, and the passion with which he talks about the magazine makes his eyes resemble those of a pre-teen reader turning its pages. And in any case, owners don’t need to retire: Viswam, after all, is the son of the man who started Chandamama, the legendary film producer B Nagi Reddi. And Viswam has been in the editor’s seat since — now that was another big surprise to me — 1975. In other words, I was presently face to face with the man who had been editing MY Chandamama!

Chandamama is a month older than Independent India. The first copy came out in July 1947 — in Telugu and Tamil. It was brought out by Nagi Reddi and a writer called called Chakrapani, who had acquired minor literary reputation at the time because he was translating Sarat Chandra’s stories from Bengali to Telugu. He had learnt Bengali in a hospital in Madanapalli from a next-bed Bengali patient who was being treated for tuberculosis.

Nagi Reddi, on the other hand, used to run a printing press in George Town in Madras, and in 1945, had started a Telugu monthly, Andhra Jyothi. In the glow of the freedom movement, he also started a magazine for the youth called Yuva. It was with Yuva that he came to be associated with Chakrapani. Chandamama was an instant success. The first edition, priced at six annas, sold six thousand copies, and for a very long time the circulation stood at that figure.

Apart from working on Chandamama, Chakrapani also wrote stories and dialogues for the initial movies of Nagi Reddi who, by 1949, had acquired the Vahini Studios in Madras after its owner ran into tax problems. “The idea behind starting the magazine was to introduce the post-Independence child to Indian culture and tradition. Even today, we stick to the Indian ethos,” says Viswam, who too over the reins of Chandamama after Chakrapani died in 1975.

By then, it had become a household name across the country, being published in as many as 12 languages (the English edition began in 1955). The magazine's popularity peaked in the early 1980s when its combined circulation touched nine lakhs. It was also the period when Nagi Reddi had secured his reputation as the producer of “wholesome entertainment” movies with Swarg Narak and Swayamvar, both starring Sanjeev Kumar.

By then, he had already given Bollywood a few memorable movies — Ram Aur Shyam, Ghar Ghar Ki Kahani (in which actor Rakesh Roshan got his break) and Julie (which introduced Rakesh’s younger brother Rajesh as a music director).

But in 1980, his eldest son, Prasad, who helped him with the film business, died; and Nagi Reddi went into depression. Sanjeev Kumar sought to bring him back to his elements by successfully persuading him to make another film, Shriman Shrimati. “Sanjeev Kumar was a great support to my father. We were planning to ask him to run our movie business, but he died soon after,” says Viswam. The movie-making days were now, sadly, belonged to the past.

Chandamama, too, almost became history. In the mid-nineties, labour problems began to brew in their press at Vadapalani, where the magazine was headquartered for decades. Finally, a scuffle between workers and a supervisor spinned so much out of control that publication had to be suspended in May 1998. “It was the most painful decision of my life. I could have done much better in life had I not taken up Chandamama, but it was a passion for me,” says Viswam.

Adding to the labour trouble was a dispute in the family — Viswam calls it “conflict between ideologies of the second and the third generation.” The patriarch, B Nagi Reddi, meanwhile, lay bedridden in his Vadapalani home. Publication remained suspended for more than a year till two investment bankers, Sudhir Rao of Karvy and Vinod Sethi of Morgan Stanley, came to Chandamama’s rescue.

From a new, modest office in Ekkatuthangal, Viswam started all over again. “Once you shut down a publication, it is not easy to come back back. But by November 1999 we managed to print all the 12 languages and I presented the first set to my father on his birthday on December 1. That was the happiest day of my life.” The magazine sold six lakhs when it shut down, and when it revived, it sold around two lakhs — also the current circulation.

But seven years on, it has managed to break even and now, with some help from organisations like Infosys Foundation and Pratham, is seeking to expand its reach into rural areas. “For 60 years we survived on sheer goodwill. We never promoted ourselves. And we will continue to survive on goodwill,” says Viswam.

Considering three generations of Indians grew up on Chandamama, the goodwill is one thing you can’t doubt — so much so that Walt Disney has been reported to be buying it out. Viswam, however, says the report about Walt Disney taking over is only speculation. “I was surprised myself when the report appeared. My phone kept ringing throughout the day. Even my staff was upset that I had not told them anything.”

He, however, is in favour of a strategic partnership with Walt Disney where the American company can use Chandamama’s content for its programmes. But Viswam says his real desire is to see Chandamama develop into non-profit institution like Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan — the idea being to turn it into a permanent pillar of Indian culture and ethos.

If there is any truth in the report about Walt Disney’s takeover bid, then you could expect more action in the boardroom of Chandamama than in its editorial rooms. That should not matter for lay readers as long as they get their monthly quota of, “Once upon a time, there was a king...”

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Three Enemies Who Ruined My Game

I have a fetish for nostalgia, but this column isn't inspired by it. If anything, it is driven by a sense of despair that grips you when a bunch of people conspire to ruin your happiness. It is like going to an old-world restaurant for years and years, and then one day the restaurant is pulled out and a shopping mall springs up in its place. Shoppers will come in hordes, but a handful of people will always mourn the restaurant. In the same way, I mourn cricket.

In those days, it was pure cricket — completely unadulterated by commercials for pesticide-containing cola. Everything happening on the ground was telecast live — cricketers chatting with each other during the drinks break, the facial expression of the batsman who had just got out, the fast bowler shining the ball repeatedly with his spit while walking up to the run-up point. It was like watching the match in the stadium with binoculars.

Then came Enemy No. 1. It had many names: commercialism, commercialisation, consumerism. Perhaps liberalisation and globalisation as well? I don't know; but what I know is that my party has been spoilt. Even before the last ball of an over completes its journey across the pitch, an ad springs up on the screen. And in many cases, the hero of the ad happens to be the man facing that last ball. By the time the cameras return to the ground, the next bowler has already begun his run-up. I can no longer figure whether I am watching a cricket match in between commercials, or watching commercials in between a cricket match.

Enemy No. 2: politics. Traditionally, in an Indian newspaper, Page 1 is reserved for politics and the Back Page for sports. But in the past few years, the papers have been putting cricket news on Page 1 — and the news is not about who beat whom by how many runs or wickets. That's a clear indication that the game has become synonymous with politics. The only saving grace is that the papers haven't put Jaswant Singh's spat with Manmohan Singh over the mole issue on the sports page. In my estimate, the day is not too far when press releases issued by politicians will go on the sports page and when every e-mail exchanged between players and their coach will go on the front page.

The day, come to think of it, is really not far considering that almost every politician save Sonia Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee and L K Advani is now connected to cricket. West Bengal takes the cake: the Chief Minister props up the police commissioner of Kolkata to fight Jagmohan Dalmiya in the elections for the Cricket Association of Bengal. The police commissioner! The man who should be busy guarding Kolkata in the wake of terrorist attacks in Mumbai! Thank God the commissioner lost.

Enemy No. 3: The killer instinct. The Indian team was always said to be lacking the killer instinct. Is that why we are now being treated to footage of our cricketers dressed in Army fatigues, crossing hurdles like the jawaans and trying their hand at sophisticated rifles? Guys, don't take the term "killer instinct" literally: just stick to the bat and the ball and keep off the guns and the grenades. What you actually need is the spirit — the spirit that earned India its sole World Cup in 1983. But then, you guys are too rich and pampered and spoilt. Probably what you need is a Deepak Chopra, not a Greg Chappell. Did anyone say they are now flying down Deepak Chopra?

Friday, August 04, 2006

Confessions Of An Aspiring Yogi

Eight years of living in Delhi had deprived this rice-eater of rice so much that when I came to Chennai and set up a kitchen for myself, I decided to pull out all the stops. Almost every dinner would be rice and boiled potatoes — steaming hot — with a spoonful of ghee, accompanied with some dal and boiled eggs. I hesitate to mention that the dinner was preceded by the sub-standard rum you get in Tamil Nadu.

Life went on like this for two whole years and then one morning when I woke up and looked in the mirror, I found Vijaykanth, the actor, staring back at me. I looked again: this time it was Mohan Lal’s face in the mirror. Many people — my mother included — would have seen it as a healthy sign, literally. But I alone knew how unhealthy I was.

Every morning I would wake up with pain in the heels and the knees. Very frequently I would have ‘heart attacks’ and rush to the doctor, who would send me home saying it was nothing but acid reflux. I never trusted the doctors: I thought they were hiding something. I suffered in silence. But I was not willing to suffer the bloated look, come what may. I checked my weight.

Eighty kilos! In Delhi I never exceeded 67. What was I to do? There were many things I could have done: I could have joined a gym, gone on brisk walks, bought a bicycle, and so on. But I chose yoga, and that’s because I believe that you push yourself hard enough only when you are in a class: an instructor has to breathe down your neck and you should also feel a sense of shame when the man or the woman in front of you is doing far better.

Today I weigh 71 and am nearly as flexible as when I was 20. And that is why I am writing this, even though I am not a yoga expert or teacher. A teacher can only write out a prescription like a doctor, whereas I am the patient who is recording the success of a medicine. The medicine, in this case, is thousands of years old.

Yoga: the very mention of the word is likely to throw up the image of a serene beauty, her eyes peacefully shut, sitting amid mountains in the lotus pose and meditating. It could be some other image as well, depending upon the degree of your familiarity (or non-familiarity) with yoga. But at any rate, the image won’t be that of sweat and speed and stamina — the kind you would associate with a gym, where one man is panting on the treadmill, a woman with earphones is cycling away, a bloke is pumping iron and is admiring his triceps every second minute.

Yoga — I am sorry to disappoint gym enthusiasts — not only packs in the power of a gym but much more. All you need to do is go to and look at the dozens of pictures of 90-year-old Mysore-based Pattabhi Jois, the Ashtanga Yoga guru, directing his devoted students. Each of the students has a chiselled body that you would die for; and why not, because yoga is not just about sitting on your backside and breathing. In fact, it can be a pain in the backside. “Welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber for the next 90 minutes” is how Bikram Choudhury, the Calcutta-bred yoga guru who found riches in Beverly Hills, welcomes his new students.

It is just that yoga is taken lightly because it is highly flexible by nature: there is no definition to it. If you sit and focus on your breath, it is yoga. If you lie down like a corpse, that is also yoga. If you do the headstand or the handstand, that is also yoga. It all depends on how you use yoga to achieve what you are looking for. And here we are looking for some vigorous stuff — stuff that will make you lose weight like crazy and sculpt your body and also make you flexible. Yoga can’t make you an Arnold Schwarzenegger or a Salman Khan, but you can certainly aspire to acquire the body of Brad Pitt or Akshay Kumar. The choice is yours. And women, won’t you want to look like Angelina Jolie?

The key to achieving the dream body is not hidden away in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. It is, in fact, the very basis of every school of hatha yoga: surya namaskara or sun salutation. The sun salutation is supposed to be only a warm-up sequence that prepares you for other postures, but in itself, it gives you the collective benefit of all the equipment in a gym. When done slowly, it stretches and tones your body and increases you awareness. When done fast, it builds your muscles and also becomes as an excellent cardio-vascular exercise.

The traditional sun salutation is a combination of 12 postures (check or other yoga sites), which work every part of your body. But wait, these 12 postures involve only one leg, and therefore constitute only half a round of surya namaskara. For one full round, you will have to repeat the same 12 postures with the other leg. And yoga gurus usually recommend a minimum of 12 rounds for a healthy person.

By the end of five rounds, beads of sweat will surface on your eyebrows, and at the end of twelve rounds — if you are easily able to achieve it, that is — the yoga mat will turn into a river of sweat. But professional yogis think nothing about doing 20 rounds, and there are contests (in the West, of course; because yoga is still not the ‘macho’ thing in India) where one is required to perform 108 rounds! You need to be Superman to do that.

Whatever it is, surya namaskara is the surefire way to lose weight along with strengthening your heart and your muscles. Ah, but that’s only the traditional surya namaskara, which is relatively kind on its practitioners. The Ashtanga version of sun salutation, as taught by Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, is ruthless: even one round can require the strength of Superman. And mind you, the Ashtanga school prescribes two versions of it: Sun Salutation A and Sun Salutation B. Check them out on the internet! — and you will find a lot of pages because Ashtanga is very hot in the West, where they also call it Power Yoga.

A hardcore yoga practitioner will wish that he or she didn’t have to do the surya namaskaras at all, but those not into yoga at all will find the postures simple. And that’s because they are merely looking at the postures and not doing them. But then, for the ignorant, everything is deceptively simple. All they need to lose weight and sculpt their bodies is a yoga mat and an empty space, not even 10 ft by 10 ft. Yet they spend Rs 10,000 to sign up in a posh gym, only to stare at an empty wall while running on the treadmill or pumping iron even though their muscles are not strong enough to lift even their girlfriends. Sad.

But they will take to yoga one day — the day Hollywood stars such as Brad Pitt or Keanu Reeves sign up for a class. But I can tell you that these stars are already into yoga, courtesy Men’s Health magazine, and last year I saw Jude Law doing the headstand in Vanity Fair. Maybe our blokes are waiting for the Indian media to report their fascination with yoga. Well, you have now read this article, haven’t you?