Teacher, author, observer, and commentator, Pramod Nayar talks about his many hats as he walks through the academic world with his eyes peeled open. Serish Nanisetti listens in
“You should guard against the vulgarity of incessantly alluding to your adventures or clever work, nor should you discourse at length upon your books, pictures and other belongings. Such matters cannot be very interesting to others.”
This is not some new age mother telling her daughter about the perils of Facebook. It is one gem of a quote that a British Memsaab wrote in 1912 and which Pramod K. Nayar picked up to create an emblematic image of the interface between the British and Indians in his Days of Raj. In 2004 he wrote Cybercultures at a time when: “Internet and social networking meant jobs and money and not what we are seeing today where technology is part of our lives,” he says. When Pramod Nayar is not poring, reading and writing books he is teaching literature in the University of Hyderabad.
English Literature classrooms in universities were staid places, where brilliant professors taught Shakespeare, Keats, Whitman, Chaucer and students learnt about crafting images with words and seeing worlds that don't exist anymore. Now, the classrooms are changing as Indian professors and teachers are trying to bring in realism into the classroom. Pramod Nayar is one teacher who is part of this change movement. Not content with teaching, he also writes books that float in the realm of popular culture, history and non-fiction.
“I came to history via literature. It also tickled me that the novelists who were writing about India were actually using some of this other material (such as travel writing) to prepare their plots, or even to describe India. So history helps create fiction. Reading colonial fiction led me to colonial history, and other forms of colonial writing. Now I read memoirs, travelogues, even marketing catalogues from the Empire Marketing Board, the holiday brochures for India prepared by Thomas Cook in the 1860s, the advertisements for P&O liners to India, etiquette books, even cookery books from the colonial period. For me each type of writing illuminates another and merges messily with another. So you cannot really opt for fiction over say a travel memoir,” he says.
The results can be intriguing as can be seen in Days of Raj where the language used by the British to run their households goes beyond the faintly funny Hobson Jobson kind to hilarious. In a way, Pramod's research and work is payback time as he focuses a sharp light on the life and times of British during the Raj. “I am interested in how the British saw India and other colonies across historical periods - and for this the richest sources are not in literature, but elsewhere. For example; I am now looking at how the 19th century empire commodities, from tea to cotton to architectural design, was central to the Victorian age. Victorian literature, from Dickens to obscure authors, painters and commentators were all interested and influenced by Indian products. England's very identity as a cosmopolitan culture was possible because of its imperial connections that helped its people drink and wear foreign products. In order to grasp this I think we need to read across several kinds of texts,” he says.
The research is not separate from his teaching, one summer, Pramod spent just by hanging around the City Center Mall. Pramod implements what he believes in. “Classroom teaching now involves using many different forms of writing and texts: films, comic books, poetry and autobiography. I teach courses that contain superhero comics, celebrities, visual texts – and these are courses in the English Department! That's another problem with English – everybody seems so serious, nobody wants to have fun! We are all so burdened by our pasts and present, at least in the English Departments I have seen, that we have to be funereal,” he says.
But doesn't it trivialise literature? The grandness of Shakespeare or a Coleridge cannot be created by Superhero comics. “This is another form of fantasy and imagination that comes into play here. The tastes of people are also changing. See, IPL is also cricket though the purists might scorn. And it appeals to a lot of people. The tastes of people cannot remain the same,” says Pramod.
If reading British literature brought him to Indian history during the Raj period it was an article about performance artist Stelarc that brought him to technology. “I stumbled across an artist who attached an ear to his arm. It is called prosthetic art. And I learnt that there is an art phenomenon which uses technology. They popularise technology. Stelarc swallowed a camera and filmed his inside and I was hooked,” says Pramod. The romance with technology led him to writing Cybercultures when technology meant jobs in India. “Now technology is not prosthetic or external to us, it is intrinsic to what we are. That's what made me pay attention to it – its very ordinariness. Once sophisticated technologies are now commonplace and almost invisible because they are so much a part of us. I was also struck by how much our everyday life, our sociality, our identities, are possible only through a close conjunction with technology.
“All of our lives, social, professional and personal are mediated and made possible by technology. There is considerable truth in the ad which says ‘mix your worlds', which is precisely what we do, with homeoffice, socialising at meetings via the mobile internet, taking work with you on the holiday.
"Further, I am now ME+my online life. My Facebook profile is not some weird thing out there, nor is my whacky screen saver, status message or customised cell phone – these are ME, they constitute me,” says Pramod which gives an insight to his writing as well a social context. As we step out of the restaurant and try to cross the road, Pramod shows his dexterity in reading the mind of Hyderabadi two-wheeler driver. “Hyderabad is an anti-pedestrian city,” he grumbles, then switches to: “Increasing dominance of glass and chrome in the city since the 1990s fascinates me – Hyderabad has more reflecting/reflective surfaces than ever before! It is also interesting to see the greater emphasis on leisure (we now work hard, like the Americans, at relaxing),” he says. Pramod did his initial schooling at St. Paul's in Himayatnagar and met his future wife Nandini in the University where she was pursuing her M.A. in English while he was doing his M.Phil.
Keywords: Pramod Nayar