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Burrowing in the pockets of history, telling tales of the luminaries

Vikram Sampath is one of the few Indian writers who excels at biographies, bringing to life the stories of royals, singers & now — with a fine study of the veena maestro S. Balachander — musicians, writes Pawanpreet Kaur

PAWANPREET KAUR  26th Feb 2012

Photograph by Abhishek Shukla

biographer is a collector of vanished gazes. He burrows into pockets of history, searching all the time for untold stories. In India, where the biography is still an under-appreciated literary genre (with few readers and even fewer writers), Vikram Sampath has increasingly come to use the prism of history to unravel forgotten lives. He entered the Indian literary scene about four years ago, with Splendours of Royal Mysore: The Untold Story of the Wodeyars, the book that traces the 600-year history of Mysore and its royal family. Sampath has established himself as a biographer par excellence. "History fascinated me since I was a child. As a child, I would go on self-motivated and self-financed research journeys to dig out information about things that intrigued me," says the author, speaking with Guardian20.

A great believer in serendipity, Sampath believes that each of his books was fatefully linked to other. When in school, he recalls there were protests in Karnataka after the Maharaja and Maharani of Mysore were shown in bad light in a TV serial based on Tipu Sultan's life. "I began my own research on the Wodeyars, which lasted 12 years, but I never really intended to write the book," explains the 32-year-old. "Royalty is subject either to over-romanticism or extreme hostility, so I think revisiting their lives helps put things in perspective," he feels.

It was during his research on the Wodeyars that Sampath came across letters written by the gramophone-era celebrity Gauhar Jaan, who became one of India's earliest musicians to be recorded. "This led to my second book, My Name is Gauhar Jaan!. Though she was originally from Calcutta, Jaan shifted base to Mysore under the patronage of the Wodeyars," he explains. Nearly 80 years after her death, Sampath carried out a Holmesian quest to resurrect Jaan for modern readers. "I think every part of India is teeming with stories and there is a resurgence of Indian fables, myths, legends that are part of our life, arts and politics," he feels.

In his latest book, Voice of the Veena: S. Balachander – A biography, Sampath once again brings to life a musician and pioneer who he believes did not receive the recognition that was due to him for his contribution to Carnatic music. He recalls, "I remember watching the song Bajey Sargam on Doordarshan as a child. Towards the end, there was a shot of this aged man in a red shawl, bathed in the light of the setting sun, plucking at the strings of a veena, looking up towards the sky as if seeking validation." This man, he explains, was S. Balachander.

I never plan what to write next. Subjects simply come looking for me and I guess I’m waiting for the next dispossessed soul to possess me!

Although Sampath never saw the maestro perform live, his teacher Jayanthi Kumaresh, a student of Balachander's, would end every class with anecdotes about "SB Mama". "She showed us his pieces on the responsibility of a musician and I realised that he was an activist in the field of music. He seemed almost like the last man standing, ready to do anything in the pursuit of true art, when others simply chose to gloss over these matters," he says.

A child prodigy, Balachander was loved and misunderstood in equal measure. He took on the establishment on numerous occasions and put his career in jeopardy in pursuit of truth. "People seemed to be in haste to forget him and his name still brings discomfort to many. I have tried to make an objective assessment of his life. He was a man of extremes, which is why he warrants such examination," feels Sampath.

n artist's life is full of drama, it's surprising then how there is a paucity of biographies of performing artists in India. Sampath agrees, saying that while we have musical treatises, there is not much written about artists themselves. A seemingly simple literary genre, a biography can be very tricky, he explains. "First, there is hardly any documentation, which makes research difficult. Secondly, there is always the danger of the writer getting so emotionally entangled with the subject that biographies often end up becoming hagiographies. This is especially true in the world of classical musicians. People start associating musicians with miracles, such as, 'they sang and it started to rain', as if they were demigods. But in reality, they are just people like us," he says.

A trained vocalist himself, Sampath began learning music at age five. "I shudder to think where I'd be without music. I feel that classical music is rightly called sadhna because it has a meditative quality. It is the language of the soul, the purest form of expression," he says. His love of music prompted him to undertake a Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study (Wissenschaftskolleg) in Berlin from 2010 to 11, where studied the early gramophone recordings of Indian music. This four-month sabbatical triggered the desire to establish the Archive of Indian Music (AIM), a private trust that collects, digitises and preserves old gramophone recordings of India. "The idea is to make these records available online for people to upload and download from. This is something I want to emulate in the rest of the country," he explains.

One wonders, how this young writer balances music, writing and his job at a leading IT company. "Writing is a stress buster for me and I indulge in it on extended weekends, sabbaticals and unpaid leaves. Though I would love to plunge into writing fulltime, as of now quitting my job seems like a pipe dream. Writers don't have any kind of support structure," he rues.

He feels the business of books has become so money-centric that writing has become a casualty. "We have over-the-top writing, stale themes and excessive marketing tactics. I think whoever coined the term 'bestseller' must have done it to rig sales. There are a lot of innovative ideas that we need to explore. Pandering to the market falls flat eventually and we need to restore dignity to writing" he says emphatically.

So, what can we expect from Vikram Sampath next? "I never plan what to write next. Subjects simply come looking for me and I guess I'm waiting for the next dispossessed soul to possess me!" he says with his characteristic laugh. "But sometime in the future, I would like to do a definitive biography of Tipu Sultan, an enigmatic historical figure who is viewed in extremes. I would like to put him in perspective."

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