Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Firebrand Gnani Sankaran talks sense, offers food for thought... and action



Gnani Sankaran is what you might call one hell of a writer. The popular Tamil journalist is now turning out to be a fiery English columnist, that is ever since he started writing for The New Indian Express. What readers like or love about him is that he is as bold as they come, plainspoken and uncompromising, whether the subject be art, culture or politics. Indeed, his pen spares nobody, not even politicians as old and as seasoned as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi.

Sometimes, you wonder from where Gnani gets his courage. Is he not afraid of being attacked by goons or heckled by ruffians at meetings he attends? He says no. It’s not he who is frightened, but the reader, the aam aadmi, the janta. It’s their cross he’s carrying, unmindful of the consequences, yet there are not many who are willing to stick it out with him when it comes to brass-tacks. Yet he is willing to go the extra mile. He gave the example of how he once protested by lying at the entrance to Museum Theatre in Egmore when the autorickshaw he was traveling in was stopped from going inside. He lost the battle then, but won the war later when the Museum director wrote to him apologising and assuring him that the next time, the vehicle would be allowed in if he had a valid ticket for the show.

Gnanai is younger than 60, but he has been making a mark as a firebrand writer for more than 30 years, ever since he began wielding the pen. He is an author, is into alternative theatre (his plays are for the middle-class) and a filmmaker. He was one of the founder members of the Koothu-p-pattarai repertory in 1976. His objective overall: to promote values and provide clean entertainment. The second Sunday of every month sees a crowd of 100-plus in the backyard of his residence in KK Nagar, when somebody who has something interesting to say, sing or play entertains the gathering.

Gnani’s Web site (www.gnani.net) has this legend: An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind (attributed to Mahatma Gandhi). Apt indeed. Despite being the person he is, Gnani comes off as humble and down-to-earth. He is friendly at the outset; no frills for him. In his trademark kurta-pyjama he could very well pass off as a Bengali bhadralok. And perhaps he hangs a satchel over his shoulder as well.

I met Gnani for the first time last Saturday and we hit it off straight away. More than that, it was what he had to say to the audience that got me and the rest thinking. He asked the organisers, the Namma Arcot Road coordinators, why there were hardly any youngsters in the audience, adding that if they were indeed called and things were made interesting for them, they would arrive. From an angry young man of the 1970s (much like Amitabh Bachchan), he had graduated to an angry old man, which meant that nothing really had changed on the ground in India.

Gnani blamed the aam aadmi, the people, for most of society’s ills. Most people were interested only in their comfort; they were not really keen to ensure that the person next door was happy too. He mentioned that there had been attempts to stop him from speaking in public, and asked the organisers what they would do if somebody did turn up to halt the discussion. It was then that he said he wasn’t afraid, but that the common people were, and it was such fear that encouraged the goons. He stressed that although he was asked not to dwell on politics and political parties, “politics is a part of our times and it affects everybody till death… we can’t be oblivious to it.”

Gnani voiced his ire against the Indian educational system, a system that, according to him, imparted only skills and no values, values that went beyond religion. Children were hardly taught what team effort was all about, what cooperation or collaboration could achieve, all of which could be learnt well only through sport and culture. Many schools did not even have playgrounds. The public grounds available were often used for walking by the elderly. The result: children had no space to play and learn team spirit. “So children now only have the cinema to go to. There is only television to cater to their needs. They have to be content with what they get,” he said, and added: "We only train them to make money.”

Gnani pointed out that it would take at least five more generations to change things as they were, and only if there came along change agents, people who were proactive and cared enough about children and grandchildren to do something worthwhile. Quite a frightening prospect. Even that was difficult, he felt, because there was so little collaborative effort. People hardly knew neighbours, except when there was a fight or a death in the family, and there were hardly any exchanges between neighbours or friendship forged between children in an area.

One of the pertinent points Gnani made was about the fact that nowadays in many homes there were hardly meaningful conversations - between husband and wife, parents and children, or children and grandparents... The little conversations there were, were only functional - have you locked the door... don't forget to fetch milk etc. When there was lack of proper communication even at home, Gnani wondered how things could change quickly for the better in the outside world.

Pictures show Gnani quite at home, and the audience catching every word...

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