Sunday, May 01, 2011

The incredible Mr S. Muthiah: Journalist-writer-historian-storyteller who never ceases to amaze



It’s often said that South India doesn’t really count (except during election time, of course) when India’s national picture is painted, no matter whether it is politics, business, sport, cinema or even fashion and lifestyle. For example, if you were to look at business, the Murugappa Group would perhaps get only a fraction of column centimetre space in The Times of India, Mumbai, as against the Tatas, the Birlas and the Singhanias.

K Balachander is now a Dada Saheb Phalke awardee but top newspapers and television channels would still like to go after a Subhas Ghai or a Yash Chopra. For all that, Sivaji Ganesan received national stature rather late; Uttam Kumar in Bengali cinema fared much better. But squared off against a Dilip Kumar or a Raj Kapoor, both Sivaji and Uttam, brilliant actors both, would fade in national newspaper columns and television.

In the field of journalism, he is one of the granddads and would easily rank among some of the country’s top writers, editors and authors. Sadly, S. Muthiah’s name is not known much beyond Chennai. A journalist for 60 years, a columnist for 50 years and still going strong, he is as top-draw as anybody in the field can get. But if you were to ask someone in Delhi (why Delhi, even in Bangalore or Hyderabad) whether he had heard of Muthiah, chances are he would say no.

Muthiah is not a Khushwant Singh, a Shobaa De, a Jug Suraiya or a Bachi Karkaria, all of whose names ring a certain resonance in most parts of India. Why is that so? Is it because most of his books have been about Madras that is Chennai, about the city’s heritage, about organisations and institutions in the south? Why is that Ramachandra Guha, for instance, is a national figure when Muthiah is not? I have no answer and I’d love to hear from Muthiah himself about what he thinks about this lack of national recognition as it were.

For the man is worth much more than his weight in gold. The frequency with which he is able to produce books, each one thoroughly researched and edited, is something that will never cease to amaze those who read his columns and writings and even those who know him closely. At the release last night of his 1210-page compendium, A Madras Miscellany: A Decade of People, Places & Potpourri, a collection really of the best of his columns that have appeared in The Hindu Metro Plus the past decade since the supplement was launched in end-1999, N. Ram, editor-in-chief, The Hindu, referred to Muthiah as an unconventional, one-of-a-kind historian… who has brought to his subject (Chennai) a gifted journalist’s curiosity, humour, liveliness, eye for small things and accessibility. Ram referred to legendary columnists Walter Lippmann and Frank Moraes and went on to add that if other newspapers had a Khushwant Singh or a Jug Suraiya, The Hindu had S. Muthiah. That statement brought a round of applause, but frankly, Muthah’s name, for all its worth, does not come in the same breath as do the names of some of the others. Which is as sad as it is a mystery, much like the Murugappa Group example.

There were a few speeches, of course, before the cocktails that is. An outstanding one by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former West Bengal Governor, reading mostly from a prepared text, which flowed almost like poetry. But knowing his calibre and the quality he brings to research, it was not surprising. Do we really deserve a Muthiah, he asked the audience, indirectly referring to the lack of any other person of such stature in the city who has as much a passion for the city’s heritage and who has fought as many a battle (losing in most cases) for heritage conservation. That question summed up everything really.

It is indeed a matter of worry that after Muthiah (he is 81 and one hopes he lives as long as his father did) there might not be anybody of his stature the city can look up to, to take up cudgels on behalf of heritage. It’s a frightening prospect. It’ll also be a extremely saddening prospect for all those he had taught – journalism, printing, PR and advertising students… More of it in my next blog.

Pictures here were taken at the launch at the Connemara Hotel and are courtesy The Hindu...

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