M.V. Kamath, former chairman of Prasar Bharati and editor of The Illustrated Weekly, talks about post-Independence journalism.
“I might well be the last person alive who actually reported Independence Day. Not witnessed, but reported.” M.V. Kamath (MVK) sits contentedly in his spacious, book-lined office in the mellow green environs of the Manipal Institute of Communications where he serves as Honorary Director. It is summer vacation and the Institute wears a companionless look. The 92-year-old editor, Padma Shri awardee, former chairman of Prasar Bharati and former editor of the Illustrated Weekly, insists on putting in a full day’s work even at this age. Today he is overseeing the publication of a collection of his articles in Kannada, as well as his 50th or so book (he can’t remember the exact number) in English. This one is on Narendra Modi, expected to be available by August, and later translated to Gujarati and Hindi. It is also expected to invite controversy.
But, knowing perhaps that I am likely to disagree with his current affiliations, I am eager to bring him back to how Indian journalism was in the early years of Independence, and how it has evolved. MVK is happy to reminisce. His career after all mirrored the evolution of print journalism in Independent India. His memory is crystal clear, his speech and sentences unfaltering, his courtesy unfailing even to those he disagrees with.
MVK was a young man of 26, just starting out in journalism when the nation was born. He had come from a small village near Udupi to Bombay in his south Indian dhoti and without chappals — even his elder brother, who was then living in Bombay, laughed at his lack of sophistication. MVK had studied pharmacy before turning to journalism. “One needed a respectable degree,” he says, “those days no man would marry his daughter to a journalist. First the civil services, then the doctors and lawyers, then the headmasters and bank managers, then the policeman or peon, then maybe the journalist.” For his first published article, he got three and a half rupees. Often, the pay was in free subscription. A recent graduate student comes into his office, touches his feet and seeks his blessings, gives us Mysore Pak. MVK takes a full piece, and remarks, after the student leaves, that her prospects today are far better than his were. Journalists are now actually held in respect.
Back in the 1940s, only the romance of the foreign correspondent, nomadically and lightly treading through the world, helped cut through the social prejudice. He remembers reading Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China, and how it had hypnotised him. Years later, Snow was to become a friend. When he first began, MVK doggedly wrote free articles, facing rejection repeatedly, until finally he landed a job at the Free Press Journal. He still wonders how he got it — he knew no typing or shorthand. He stayed on because, as he says, “first, the editor forgot to sack me,” and later, he forgot to leave.
A huge stack of newspapers and mail arrives in the office. MVK seems eager to delve into them but is too polite to tell me to leave.
I am curious to know how it must feel to have witnessed, participated in and often given impetus to the evolution of journalism in modern India. He is full of anecdotes and he tells each with relish. “We were all activists and idealists in the 1940s. Even my small, remote village in South Canara was always astir with national news. There was prohibition and the Salt Satyagraha where all the children sold symbolic smidgens of salt for two annas. When Motilal Nehru died, I, a small child, had to sit on an elephant, holding his portrait, as we trudged through the village shouting slogans. I was terrified but the mahout behind me assured me I would be safe.”
There is not a wrinkle on his face and he jokes that it is because he chose good parents, good genes. But back to nationalism: “Much of nationalism was drudgery, arranging chairs and tables and files and food. Some colleges forbade the Gandhi cap, and when one became a professional journalist, I was openly asked if I was a reporter or a socialist/nationalist. I had to choose — one had to survive.”
I wonder what he considers the biggest change in the world of news since the 1940s and the 1950s? “Those days we had to cover proceedings everywhere — the Corporation, the Legislative, Parliament. The Bombay Municipal Corporation had budgets larger than many of the States. We had to transcribe clearly what everyone said — in Marathi, Hindi, and English. The politicians those days were great talkers; many were great orators and mesmerising storytellers who saved their best performance not for crowds, but for the legislative space. One had to report everything everyone said carefully, even when they argued and interrupted each other. No electronic equipment, only ears and pens. If there was a speech by a Gandhi or a Patel, the full speech would be reported, no matter how many columns it took. If there was an important regional politician, say a Dange, I would have to take it down in Marathi, and then go home, and ask my neighbour in the evening if I’d got my Marathi right. Remember, there was no such thing as a “columnist” those days — every word in there had to be written by us full-time employees, and we were entirely responsible for it. Today no one covers speeches seriously, and politicians reserve their best for the television studio. The location of politics has shifted; the nature of language has changed.”
The phone rings again. He speaks shortly into the receiver, “No, we are not retaining the section where Modi went wandering in the Himalayas. The editors felt it irrelevant.”
He tells me later, “It is not as if we people of earlier generations weren’t interested in titillation — there are always avenues for adult entertainment.” It just does not make sense to him that they might want it with their morning filter coffee. His eyes move to the clock on the wall. 12.30 p.m.
“I’ve lived this long by being very regular,” he says, “I must absolutely go for lunch now.”