Ramachandra Guha about biography, authorized biography, biography examples and a lot more
It is not every day that I would get to meet a person whom I have idolized. Today was that lucky day. I heard the noted historian, Padma Bhushan awardee, Dr. Ramachandra Guha—or Ram Guha, as he likes to be known. Today, April 16th, 2016, he delivered the Fifth H Y Sharda Prasad Memorial Lecture at the Kamaladevi Block at the India International Centre, New Delhi. He spoke on “The Art of Historical Biography”. I have idolized him for a long time. One exceptionally useful lecture of his was delivered in Canada six years ago, “Ten Reasons Why India Will Not Become a Superpower“.
The function began at 6.30 pm and went on till 8.10 pm. It started with the Late Mr. HY Sharda Prasad’s son, introducing his father and Ramachandra Guha.
There may be some, who are unaware of Mr. HY Sharda Prasad. He was a multifaceted personality, who served as the Information Advisor to three Prime Ministers of India. He was also an aesthete, scholar and author. His books included, The Book I Won’t be Writing and Other Essays, Indira Gandhi: A Pictorial Biography, Life & Landscapes (Incredible India), Rashtrapati Bhawan : The Story of the President’s House. He also had a deep and engaging interest in Indian classical music. HY Sharda Prasad was also a translator, who had translated the great Kannada littérateur Shivaram Karanth into English. As a teenager, I had the opportunity of seeing him at a couple of functions.
So, Ramachandra Guha began in his inimitable, conversational style. One of his comments was:
I have always written a piece because I have wanted to write it.
Then Guha went on to talk about a piece that he had ever written at anyone’s behest. This was a piece which Gopalkrishna Gandhi wanted him to write. Gandhi made out a case for the great Carnatic vocalist, MS Subbulakshmi, who should get the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour. But Guha added:
Gopal Gandhi told me that it wouldn’t look to only write a piece in MS Subbulakshmi, so, I should include Lata Mangeshkar as well.
Guha then added:
Gopal Gandhi had virtually dictated the article to me. But I added two more names, those of Ustad Bismillah Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar. I said that they too should get the Bharat Ratna.
After these preliminary remarks, Ramachandra Guha spoke about historical biography. He said that “historical biography is an underdeveloped field in India.” He also spoke about histories of individuals written without any emotion at all.
According to him, one of the best historical biographies in India is Sarvepalli Gopal’s biography of his father, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. In that book, Gopal he lays out the man’s foibles as well. Then Guha went on to lay out, seven reasons –in no particular order of importance—why India does not have a fine tradition of historical biography.
You can also check out this article, which talks about India’s important environmentalists and about whom Ramachandra Guha has written fine pieces, which are good examples of biographical writing.
He first spoke of the burden of religious inheritance in Hinduism. He said, people are reborn and thus, there is no compelling need to write a biography as opposed to other religious systems, where there is a hagiographic tradition.
The second reason was the burden of historical inheritance. Guha spoke of Marxist historians, who always put individuals as subservient to historical or economic causes. Thus, individuals had no role to play in Marxist historiography.
The third reason was the tilt of history as a discipline toward social sciences in India. Here, the historian needed to connect events of history to social movements and not to individual personalities. In this context, Ramachandra Guha did refer to Edward Gibbon and Lord Macaulay who gave history a tilt toward the social sciences. While talking about this point, in the same breath, Guha did refer to an excellent essay. He spoke about “The Revival of Narrative” by the historian, Lawrence Stone. He called it a fine example of the importance of narrative in history writing.
The next point was a general one. Guha pointed to an indifference to record keeping in India.
The fifth point, Guha made, was the fear of giving offence to the subject, while a biography was written.
The sixth point was that it was a challenging literary form. He didn’t dwell on it in much detail. But he did say that writing biographies takes years. He did speak about the biography of Verrier Elwin that he had written.
The seventh reason that Ramachandra Guha pointed out was that writers have large egos. He added that writing a biography of someone else meant suppressing one’s ego and spending years working on it.
Guha, then, came up with a few rhetorical questions. He asked: ‘Why not write a biography of the great Hindi poet, Nirala? He implied that if a Hindi poet or a novelist were to write a finely nuanced biography of Nirala, it would take a number of years to do so. For those years, the biographer would need to suppress his ego and be completely devoted to Nirala. Ramachandra Guha chose to describe himself as a historical biographer. He did speak about his enduring and passionate interest in the biography of the sociologist, Verrier Elwin:
Verrier Elwin changed my life.
Enroute, Ramachandra Guha changed course and added personal life histories too. I guess, this is one of his strategies to keep an audience engaged. However, I wasn’t sure if it was needed. The audience comprised people such as the former Union Minister, Jairam Ramesh, former Foreign Secretary Salman Haidar, Mr. T N Chaturvedi, who has been governor of a couple of states. So, Guha began with the personal story of his choosing Economics as a subject as his family disallowed him to choose literature. He said, literature was known as “a girl subject”. The audience seemed regaled. Maybe, there was an inherent sexism in that statement. But then the historical period of his life that Guha referred to, did suffer from such prejudices too. Guha also spoke about his love for cricket:
It took me a week to know that I couldn’t be an economist. And it took me four and a half years to know that I couldn’t be a cricketer.
He said that he was the first and the last PhD in Sociology from the Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata. Guha did say that one of the finest minds of Indian sociology (whom he did not name) gave him some important advice. The scholar told him that the Sociology department at the IIM Kolkata wasn’t any great and he shouldn’t go there. Then, Ramachandra Guha added a one-liner, which I thought was quite sensible.
For all the young people here in the audience, let me tell you that I pursued sociology. There was opposition from family. And one of the finest minds in Indian sociology told me not to go there. Still I did.
Perhaps, the finest mind in Indian sociology, which Ramachandra Guha did not choose to name, was M N Srinivas. Guha did refer to his journey from structure to process to personality, from economics to sociology to historical biography. He was actively dissuaded from taking up historical biography. But he eventually did persist. I liked this point about persistence and tenacity, which must befit a scholar.
Guha did acknowledge his debt to two people, Rukun Advani, the editor, and the historian, Nicholas Boyle. Guha said they inspired him to become a historical biographer. Ram Guha was clearly influenced by Nicholas Boyle, whom he had met for the first time, when he was thirty five years old. Boyle is well-known for his biography of the German poet, Goethe (1749-1832).
Ramachandra Guha had some very incisive insights on Boyle. He called them, “Boyle’s Three laws” for writing historical biography:
It is essential that the secondary characters must be fleshed out in the biography. The wives, the sons, the mistresses, the associates are very important. They lend authenticity to the subject in question. I found this very relevant because this is what a novelist should do too. The minor characters in a novel give insights into the protagonist that the author can never give directly.
Look for sources other than those emanating from the primary source. Guha said that while writing on Nehru, one should not just look at Nehru’s writings and speeches. One should also be willing to look for other sources as well. Again, I thought that this was a very relevant point.
The third law that Guha spoke about was: Never anticipate. So, he said, never tell the reader in the beginning of the biography that Verrier Elwin renounced Christianity at the insistence of Mahatma Gandhi but let it emerge slowly from the book. I would agree with this too. This is again a technique that one should employ to great effect while writing a novel.
To these three laws of Nicholas Boyle, Ramachandra Guha added a fourth, which was:
Do not be deterred even if your subject has written a detailed autobiography.
Guha, then, went on to make a very relevant point. He said that when he embarked on Verrier Elwin’s biography, he was dissuaded from it. He was told Elwin had already written his autobiography, which had been well received. However, as Guha pointed out, an autobiography is “a pre-emptive strike against a future biographer”. He added that in the autobiography, the author may choose to suppress truths, or tell half-truths, or just forget a few facts.
Guha did stress about a wide range of figures in twentieth century India who should have biographies written on them. He said:
We don’t have biographies of leaders who operated like a state themselves.
In this vein, he referred to E. M. S. Namboodiripad, Master Tara Singh. He also spoke about Sheikh Abdullah, Angami Zapu Phizo as also Jayaprakash Narayan. Guha said that each of these were complex, charismatic people. He said their biographies ought to be written.
Talking about the role of Jayaprakash Narayan, Guha said that JP was one person who had an inner struggle between Marx and Gandhi. He spoke about JP’s contributions to the Quit India Movement and to the Quit Indira Movement . He also referred to JP’s writings on Kashmir. Guha went on to say that if JP’s views on Kashmir had been heeded, the people of Kashmir might have led a more peaceful life. This, I thought, was a revelation to me. I had no idea about JP’s writings on Kashmir.
Guha also stressed the need for biographies on figures from the world of art and music. He then made a passing reference to a biography of JRD Tata. The book was was so deferential that it did not seem like a biography at all. Guha ended his talk by referring to two people. The first was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who, he said, was the most remarkable woman of the twentieth century India. He added that she was much more remarkable than Indira Gandhi. The second person he spoke about was Shivram Karanth and Guha said that the greatest Indian whom he has ever met was Karanth.
I have grown up reading Ramachandra Guha and hearing his lectures on Youtube. He has been one of the few scholars that I deeply respect. Guha agreed to take a few questions. The first hand that shot up was mine and I spoke about the book, The Polyester Prince, the biography of Dhirubhai Ambani, by Hamish Macdonald. This book had angered Dhirubhai so much that it wasn’t allowed into the country. I also spoke about the sequel, Ambani and Sons. Guha did agree that the book was a good exposé but not a great book in the fine art of biographical writing.
After the question-answer session was over, I did give Ramachandra Guha my visiting card and he did say, “It’s nice to meet you after the emails we had exchanged.” So, that was my deferential, ‘wow’ moment of meeting my idol.
However, as Ramachandra Guha did point out, one should not just be deferential, one should be critical too. I did notice a few things in his lecture. One was his chatty tone. I thought the audience comprised reasonably intelligent people and the chatty, conversational, personal anecdotal tone wasn’t needed. When he laid out the seven reasons why India does not have good historical biographies, I was reminded of another lecture. At this lecture which he had delivered many years ago in Canada, he had spoken about ten reasons why India would not be a superpower. It was an insightful lecture too. However, I feel that there are two Ramachandra Guhas. One is the serious scholar in his books, the other is the chatty journalistic writer, who speaks at such lectures. But I wouldn’t hold this as a grudge against him. At least, he does know how to regale his audiences well. That is an art too.
I do have a few criticisms too. His first reason, ‘the burden of religious inheritance in Hinduism’ why India does not have sufficient historical biographies, I am not sure if that is a pretty valid reason. Yes, his point could be valid for the Christian tradition. However, I am not sure if that is true of the Muslim tradition in India too. For instance, Jamia Millia Islamia, the University, where I teach, does not have a written history yet. Yes, there is a project afoot to document this now as Jamia enters its centenary. Jamia Millia Islamia was one of three universities founded in 1920 at the call of Mahatma Gandhi and the Ali brothers. They had joined together to provide an Indian model of education.
There were a few people that he forgot to mention. He has written about them: Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Shekhar Pathak. Very illustrious people. But then, a ninety-minute talk with discussions and an introduction could only have as much.
All in all, I was suitably rewarded and enriched as a result of listening to my idol. Ramachandra Guha lived up to the finest traditions of being a scholar—of asking his shishyas to not just emulate him but also question him.