The Fine Art of Historical Biography—Ramachandra Guha

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, “ dbsk - dating on the earth (sub espaГ±ol) 4/7 Ten Reasons Why India Will Not Become a Superpower“.

Ramachandra Guha Ramachandra Guha

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:

top plus size dating sites 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:

follow url 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:

dr paul dating 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 broker binario italiano article, which talks about India’s important environmentalists and about whom Ramachandra Guha has written fine pieces, which are good examples of biographical writing.

These were:

  • 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.

Savaging the Civilized: Verrier Elwin, His tribals and India by Ramachandra Guha
binary options demo without registration Savaging the Civilized: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals and India by Ramachandra Guha

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:٠وركس-الاتحاد-الا٠ريقي 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.

He said:

follow 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:

  • see url 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.

  • conocer parejas en ecuador 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.

E.M.S._Namboodiripad, great thinker, socialist, leader
E.M.S.Namboodiripad, great thinker, socialist, leader

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.

Most Misunderstood, Still Enduring—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

My love affair began with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” in 1992 as an MA student. In my class, there was just another friend who appreciated the poem. Our professor spoke about opium, fragments and also spoke about the river Alph, referring to the English language. In 1995, I wrote a term paper in M.Phil. on “Kubla Khan”, talking about how all this idea of opium was Coleridge’s way of pulling wool over people’s eyes. In twenty years of teaching—from an adjunct position to a full time tenure—I have never been fortunate enough to teach one of my first loves in life, “Kubla Khan”. But then, there is always peace about how systems and structures go. While talking to my students at coffee shops on campus, over the last five years or so, I sensed that not much had changed. They were still on an overdose of ‘opium’ and ‘fragment’ when I chatted about “Kubla Khan” with them.

This is not an academic paper but just to arrive at a sense of the poet. It is my belief that Coleridge was one of the most original minds among English poets and the one who was most misunderstood.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

What this “Kubla Khan” episode throughout history tells me is that if you are much ahead of your time, you are likely to face intense ridicule. Coleridge first published the poem in 1816 with a Preface, which talked about his taking laudanum, getting into ‘a sound sleep of over three hours’ and on waking up, he wrote these lines, whilst he was called away by a person. So, stood the account of the poem. The poem was also subtitled ‘Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment. ’ This immediately led to a number of attacks on the poet. The poet’s persona took over, critics talked about how the poem was written under the influence of opium and for around a century, no one really looked at the poem carefully.

It was later found out that the young Coleridge gave personal recitals of the poem and a manuscript from 1797 survives at the British Library, London. The poem, in my view, shows an exceptionally intelligent and competent, twenty-five year old, Coleridge, who is much ahead of his time and writes a poem, a masterpiece that talks about the creative process. It is also my belief that, at this young age, Coleridge was trying to develop a new romantic poetic sub-genre called ‘fragment’ and he was apprehensive about publishing the poem so early, as he feared ridicule.

“Kubla Khan”: Manuscript.
“Kubla Khan”: Manuscript.

Coleridge took a full twenty years before he published his poem and that too appending it with a poor defense. And everyone just jumped at him. William Hazlitt, a reputed critic and contemporary of Coleridge, had an unsavoury and an uncritical remark to make. In 1816, he said:

“Mr Coleridge can write better nonsense verse than any man in English”.

There were a number of negative reviews and all of them took cue from the Preface that Coleridge had appended to the poem. But in 1821, the respected Leigh Hunt did write a positive review of the poem. In January 1830, writing in Westminster Review, John Bowring had this to say about the poem:

“The tale is extraordinary, but ‘Kubla Khan’ is much more valuable on another account, which is, that of its melodious versification. It is perfect music. The effect could scarcely have been more satisfactory to the ear had every syllable been selected merely for the sake of its sound. And yet there is throughout a close correspondence between the metre, the march of the verse, and the imagery which the words describe.”

Of course, much later, in the twentieth century, there were a number of critics who did put the opium controversy at rest. One such important critic was John Livingston Lowes, who wrote a book length work, Road to Xanadu (1927), on the two poems, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan”. Also, in 1953, Elisabeth Schneider wrote glowingly of the poem:

The poem is the soul of ambivalence, oscillation’s very self; and that is probably its deepest meaning. In creating this effect, form and matter are intricately woven.

But what often beats me is the fact that, even in my time, young students have often believed that Coleridge took opium and wrote the poem as a kind of an outpouring. So, this also brings me to the role of the teacher in the classroom, the uncritical nature of the student fraternity, or to put it better still, the failure of the academia to inculcate critical modes of thinking into the minds of young students.

Here is the poem in its entirety for you:

Kubla Khan
Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

One way to look at the poem is to look at Coleridge’s theories about the Secondary Imagination in The Biographia Literaria and analyze the poem in that context. I would do a fine textual analysis of the poem another time. It remains one of my favourite poems and I would certainly return to it in a later post. But I wanted to write this blog post to clarify that one should not just look at a Preface or what the author says about the text as gospel truth and relegate the text to the dustbin of history. If we do that, then as William Hazlitt, history will come to haunt us and show us as utter fools.