Monday, April 30, 2012

A 'woman journalist' who believes in respecting the reader

Sushila Ravindranath’s article in the Financial Express, about whether gender really matters for a journalist, set me thinking. Most of the solid contributions to Grassroots and Vidura, two journals from the Press Institute of India stable, come from women (whether they think of themselves as ‘women journalists’ or not is another matter). Sushila mentions several of the well-known names, probably she forgot to mention Sakuntala Narasimhan, Shoma Chatterji and Ammu Joseph, prolific and superb writers all, each well past their prime time yet meticulous and thorough, and Pamela Philipose as well, who now heads the Women’s Feature Service.

There are others who are not so well known, such as Bina Raju who edits Eve’s Touch, and Lakshmi Natarajan, editor and managing director at the Kalki Group. When I met Lakshmi recently, a few things she said struck me. “Speak the truth. Everything is contained in that. To speak the truth we should know the truth, so we should be there and ensure for ourselves that we give a true story,” she said, adding, “Your conscience is then clear. The advertorial concept is picking up very fast, but we are not close to such ideas. We don’t do an advertorial that is based on a write-up sent by somebody. We send somebody to meet the client; we ensure the client has valid information to provide, and that his credentials are okay. Even when our reporters write, stories are based on interviews. Advertising is different. So are opinions. But when it is an article, we ensure we are there.”

The other thing Lakshmi said: she believed in giving readers a lot of respect. “My reader is my customer. We must keep her happy, be it replying to a letter or answering a telephone call. As an editor I make sure that if there is somebody who wishes to talk to me, I will. Even if it is just a New Year greeting, I take the call.” Indeed, it is the speaking of the truth and the attempt to bring credibility that has enabled Mangayar Malar, one of five magazines published by the Kalki Group, to develop quite a remarkable rapport with readers. Significantly, the magazine has no staff reporter, with 70 per cent of the content contributed by readers. Recently, the magazine was chosen by the All India Confederation of the Blind as one of five in India, for publication of the Braille edition.

Lakshmi Natarajan, who has been at the helm of the Kalki Group for more than a year, belongs to the Kalki family (part of the third generation, she is the daughter of K. Rajendran, granddaughter of T. Sadasivam and M.S. Subbulakshmi on her maternal side, and Kalki on the paternal side). She does not get into the day-today working of the magazines, saving her functions more for conceptualising. “The foundations that were laid are very strong,” she says. “We believe in the vision – welfare of the nation – and are carrying it forward. Whatever we do, credibility is right at the top. ‘Commercial’ will probably lie at the bottom.”

Although the role of an editor is quite new to her, Lakshmi’s thinking is clear. “A reporter need not necessarily be a journalist or an editor. But the person working at the desk definitely needs some training, some skills. From the time Kalki and Sadasivam were there, what they had done to the institution and to the outer world was that they trained a number of writers and even converted them into journalists. New writers are always encouraged. We need to do this in a more professional manner, though. The most important thing is for the reporter to do some homework before meeting somebody.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Dinamalar surges forward on the new media front

A 60-year-old newspaper has adapted and moved with the times, and moved quickly. Its Web site attracts more than two million unique visitors and more than 190 million page views a month; its iPhone, iPod and iPad applications have recorded a substantial number of downloads and page views, with various apps being made available on the Android platform as well. All run and managed by a small team that is highly focused on delivering value to users as well as clients, and it has paid off well.

It was at the WAN-IFRA Conference in Chennai in September last year that S. Balasubramanian, head-marketing, New Media, Dinamalar, presented a case study of how readers could be attracted to consume news on the mobile platform, and how opportunities could be created for generating new revenue. Dinamalar, printed in ten cities across Tamil Nadu, is a 60-year-old newspaper that sells about 0.9 million copies a day. Balasubramanian refers to as India’s No. 1 publication portal, with 2.05 million unique visitors and more than 20.43 million visitors a month, more than 192 million page views a month, with about 47 per cent of users in the 25-35-year age group.

It’s been quite a remarkable success story, which Balasubramanian in his presentation pointed out was because of innovative content for mobile platforms, dedicated teams for photo and video galleries, dedicated content, technical and marketing teams for the iPhone, iPad and Newshunt mobile site, and special content for the global Tamil community (more than 30 stories relate to NRI Tamilians daily). During the presentation, Balasubramanian described the mobile phone as more than a just walkie-talkie. “It is more than sending or receiving messages, more than accessing mail, it’s about staying connected constantly with the world with the most convenient device that users cannot stay without,” he says.

The success on the digital media platform for Dinamalar is buttressed by some of the statistics Balasubramanian dished out. For example, Dinamalar iPhone apps have registered nearly 46000 downloads, more than 0.63 million visits a month, and five million page views. After the launch of the iPad app, Dinamalar registered 1251 downloads on the very first day. Dinamalar was the first Tamil newspaper to launch the iPhone and iPod touch apps in June 2011, and the first to launch the iPad app in September that year. Overall, one the digital platform, more than 2.6 lakh downloads and 27 million page views a month have been registered. The recently launched Android platform, which runs on a free operating system, has picked up very quickly. In two months, the apps has registered about 30000 downloads, comparatively much faster than the numbers notched up by the iPhone apps. A Windows-based app, and the Android tab have also been launched, is what I hear.

“We have notched up some good numbers as far as mobile apps are concerned. If you look at the iPhone app, we already have more than 50000 downloads (during the past seven months after launch). You must remember we are a Tamil language Web site, which in a way is a limitation. Anybody using the apps must know to read Tamil. A sizeable number of the NRI Tamil population may not know to read, although they can talk fluently. So, despite all that, we have substantial numbers,” Balasubramanian explains. The Dinamalar Web site attracts regular traffic from Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. Currently, the digital apps are offered free, but the paid route is likely to be adopted soon. On average, the user comes to the Dinamalar Web site once in three days, which is a significant number.” However, getting clients to run campaigns on a CPM basis is one of the big challenges for Bala and his team. “We have huge traffic and clients can leverage on this.” Dinamalar has made substantial investment for is New Media division, which includes a 60-strong editorial team and a video division that does special stories.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

All thanks to a remarkable private collection in Kottaiyur

It is said that Roja Muthiah Chettiar, a bibliophile who was in the sign-painting business, spent his money on collecting books, periodicals, oleographs (including rich holdings of oleolithographs from Raja Ravi Varma's workshop), invitations, notices, pamphlets etc, all totaling to more than one lakh items at the time of his death, with the earliest being Kantarantati, a Tamil book published in 1804. The books were related to a wide range of subjects – from classical and modern literature to medicine (including various forms of indigenous medicine such as Ayurvada, Siddha and Unani), cinema, folklore and women’s studies. According to a report in The New Indian Express, when Chettiar died in 1992, age 66, due to slow poisoning caused by Gamaxin, the chemical he used to preserve his treasure trove, his family had no means of maintaining the library he had built. But scholars, writers and researchers teamed to ensure that the collection remained in Tamil Nadu.

In his column in The Hindu, noted historian S. Muthiah writes that it was in 1992 that C.S. Lakshmi (the Tamil writer Ambai), who had used the library for research on women in India, mentioned her concerns about the collection to A.K. Ramanujam during a visit to the University of Chicago. Ramanujam in turn got James Nye, chief bibliographer of the university’s South Asian collection and a leading player in the Centre for South Asian Libraries, interested in the collection. Nye raised a million dollars from several American foundations to purchase the collection, microfilm and catalogue it, and store it in Madras.

In other words, the University of Chicago bought the entire collection and entrusted it to a trust that maintains it. The university also gifted 5000 volumes of official publications of the Government of India published during the British rule. The private collection of Roja Muthiah was shifted from Kottaiyur to Chennai in 1995. Today, the collection has 2.5 lakh items, mostly contributions from individuals, foundations and organisations. The New Indian Express was a donor of many books that were received for review in Dinamani. Today, the collection can be assessed by anyone anywhere in the world.

The Government of Tamil Nadu, considering RMRL’s request as well as Iravatham Mahadevan’s (an expert in the Brahmai and Indus scripts) recommendation to save the collection, provided the present building on lease for 30 years. Till 2004, the library was functioning in Mogappair. The library got off to a good start thanks to the painstaking efforts put in by its first director, P. Sankaralingam, in microfilming and cataloguing material; the good work was carried forward by S. Theodore Baskaran, the second director. The technology used to create machine-readable catalogue records was the one developed by the Centre for Development and Advanced Computing, Pune. Welcome Research Institute, London; the Ford Foundation and the Government of India supported the initiative.

Initially, the Mozhi Trust was the chief collaborator with the University of Chicago. Sankaralingam was part of the trust and he was teaching library science in the University of Madras. Sundar, then working at the Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems in the area of traditional Indian sciences, was invited to join the project and asked to set up the microfilming unit in 1994. He gladly took it up, having a background in physics and an interest in photography, history and Tamil literature. There is no single ownership of the project as such. After about ten years, the Mozhi Trust withdrew from the MoU and the RMRL Trust was born in 2004 with a board of trustees to govern the functioning of the library.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Roja Muthiah Library shows the way

Archiving as such in India normally takes a back seat and hardly gets the support it deserves. Even top institutions think of the archives only when there is a silver or golden jubilee function coming up. And after the function, all is forgotten. There are very few institutions that have sound archives. With its collection of nearly 250000 paper-based items, 400000 images on microfilm reels, gramophome records and organised information for the items, the Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL) in Chennai has demonstrated how invaluable archiving is. “We would like to work with institutions to set up archives,” says G. Sundar, director, RMRL. “We have suggested that institutes must set up archives and, taking our cue, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, has. The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, is in the process of doing so.”

The Hindu has an excellent archive and has microfilmed newspapers up to a certain period, but Sundar says he is not quite sure how many newspapers fall in that category. “We need to take stock of at least out own state (Tamil Nadu) since we are dealing with regional language publications and material in English associated with the state. It is quite depressing. No single library has the entire run of titles produced in the state, not even the TN State Archives,” he says, adding, “For example, if you were to take The Mail or Swadesamitran, no library has the entire collection, or even 50 per cent of it. You find bits and pieces – some in the Nehru Memorial Library, Delhi; the British Library; and in some of the universities in the US.” Even so, most of the archival material held by mainline newspapers are not really accessible to the public. A number of scholars spend a lot of money and go to the British Library to have a look at old issues of The Mail, The Hindu and Swadesamitran. If these can be brought to an institution like RMRL, a lot of cost can be cut down on research.

One of the reasons archiving takes a backseat is because of the cost involved. The reaction usually is – who will pay for it? According to Sundar, one image or frame that can encompass two pages costs Rs 15-20 to microfilm. With a microfilm, only one person can have a look at the film. If the microfilm can be scanned, more people can have access. The situation is different in the developed countries. There is a process in place. They have strong, clear-cut policies, supported financially. How to collect, what to collect, how to preserve, in what format, where to store, how to provide access – for all this, they have policies and processes in place. In India, there is a big confusion when it comes to sharing resources, preserving material.

At RMRL, you can retrieve every single item in the quickest possible time. When Sundar joined the institute in 1994, there was no microfilming camera. He had to get one from the US Library of Congress, Delhi, where he was trained in microfilming. P. Sankaralingam, one of the best library science teachers and RMRL’s first director, also trained Sundar and staff. Sundar then slowly learnt cataloguing. The cameras in the lab were installed in 1995. The library’s staff has been trained in premier institutions around the world.

Microfilming is a tested technique. Physical archiving means only listing the items, preparing catalogues and tagging documents. But it is a lot of paper work. Once copied on to film or digital media, the duplication effort minimises the damage to the original. Paper itself deteriorates and becomes brittle. Though there are techniques to delay the process, permanence is not possible. It may only be possible to extend the life of the material for a few more years. Environmental factors such as temperature and humidity play a crucial role, especially in a tropical country like India. In addition, mass production of paper has led to use of acid for bleaching paper which is a major cause in the deterioration process of paper. High humidity also attracts pests. Newsprint paper is much more vulnerable to such vagaries. Until 2000, microfilming was considered the best technique for preserving material; even today it is believed to be the best form, tested and proven. Once the microfilms are stored in a safe environment (18 degree Celsius and 35 per cent relative humidity), they are safe for about 500 years. One 100-foot-long roll of microfilm can hold about 15 books of A-4 size, if each book is about 100 pages, or about a month’s edition of a daily newspaper, assuming the newspaper is on average a dozen pages or so.

The Roja Muthiah Research Library is located at the Central Polytechnic Campus, Third Cross Road, Central Polytechnic Campus, Taramani (Ph Nos. 22542551/2). The library is open to all. There is no fee. Only a form has to be filled in and the visitor can start using the collection. Pages needed are scanned for which payment is charged; no photocopying is done since it damages the material.

Pictures show a view of the material in the library; microfilms stored in controlled temperature in a quarantined room; an old parchment that will be restored; quality checks being conducted; and microfilming. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Remembering my father, dear father

Childhood memories are sweet and, like many say, there’s really nothing to beat schooldays and the friends you make in school. Probably when you are close to the half-century mark (in life) you tend to get a little nostalgic and yearn for the days of old. My first memories of school are of holding my dad’s hand and walking to Don Bosco and St Xavier’s in Calcutta, to sit for a written test to enter Class 1. All that I remember is that I was nervous, probably flunked in both tests, but thanks to providence, managed to enter the portals of DBPC as Don Bosco Park Circus is better known.

Tomorrow is my dad’s 28th death anniversary and if he is looking from up above as I’m sure he is, I wonder what he must be thinking. He must have had dreams for me, what they were he really didn’t say but, being a father myself, I know what it can mean. The day he died, I was unemployed, having chucked up what in retrospect was the mother of all jobs – with Brooke Bond in the tea estates in the Nilgiris. Why I did that, I just don’t know, just like many of the things we all do without ever knowing.

But I’m sure dad must have been happy about my days in school. Except for that one day, when he had to met the vice principal early morning to listen in to what his son had done in the classroom, I had given him nothing to despair. Perhaps, he must have been proud of me; after all, his son was a class topper all through school, save a few terms in Classes 9 and 10 (Maths and Science). His son was also someone teachers trusted and students relied on; he was class monitor from Class 3 to 12, a favourite of many teachers, especially (and I miss her so much) Miss Goveas, and of course Mrs Preeti Choudhury, Mrs Wesley, Mrs Menon, Mr Gabriel Das and Mr Kapadia. What must surely have delighted him was the fact that his son really did not have to sit for an entrance examination to get into college in St Xavier’s; he had scored enough marks to gain automatic entry. No, not 99%; only 77% or so, but that of course measured up to quite a lot those days.

The best that parents can do is to ensure that their children get a fairly decent education. Because without that you do not have a strong foundation. Today, when I look back on my career (despite the fact that I botched it quite a few times) I think of my dad and all the struggles he went through. I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth (no way), yet had the fortune of a moneyed friend picking me up almost every day on the way to college, in an Ambassador. And to think that my father took the trams to work and back, almost till the day he retired, brings tears to my eyes. He was a true hero. And sometimes I wonder whether I’ve really done him proud.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Saving heritage, yes... but media must always strike a balance

Having talked about the demolition of P. Orr and Sons as a lover of heritage, let me now put on my other pair of shoes, as a person who has more than a casual interest in the media. The hard wrap on the knuckles of the Chennai Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and, indeed, a section of the press by the Madras High Court judges may not be without reason. Once the public interest litigation was filed by INTACH, seeking a stay on the demolition of the rear portion of P. Orr & Sons, the matter had become sub judice. When a case is sub judice it means it is being (or will be) discussed in court and it is therefore illegal for anyone to talk about it in the newspapers or media.

However, The Hindu published a report mentioning a slab being discovered on the P. Orr & Sons premises clearly making it out to be heritage property, which appeared to bolster the case for those against the demolition. So, was it right of the newspaper to have published such a report when the matter was in the court awaiting disposal? Perhaps not. Also, the fact that the Chennai convener of INTACH (who had filed the PIL on behalf of INTACH) was a regular writer for the paper might not have really helped. If indeed there was material to substantiate the claim that the property in question was built heritage, the same could have been passed on to the court, rather than putting it up in the newspaper and making it seem as if the media had the right to publish evidence in a legal case. This must have been the view of the judges. As a senior journalist said to me, in a case like this the media cannot run a sort of “janata durbar”.

Having said that, it is unclear why the judgment wanted INTACH out of the state’s Heritage Conservation Committee. After all, INTACH is an all-India body and people nominated as conveners do have a certain knowledge and background that qualifies them for the job. The fine of Rs 5 lakh (because the case impeded the progress of a public utility project), to me, appears severe. I understand that INTACH has gone on appeal and it will be interesting to see what happens when the matter comes up before the Supreme Court.

At the end of the day I think there is a lesson in it for everybody. A person holding public office must tread warily and if he or she is a writer or journalist, all the more caution must be exercised. And if there is a legal case involving the institution you represent, it is best you do not talk or write anything relating to the case as long as it is sub judice, and better still, even after.

The media must tread warily, too. It is a moulder of public opinion no doubt, but it cannot afford to be seen to pushing one case or another when it is in the court. Also, reporters and editors must widen their network, rather than get the same people to talk all the time. Surely, as far as heritage is concerned, there are knowledgeable officials from the Archeological Survey of India, other government departments, may even a few NGOs (other than INTACH), and even individuals who may not be prominent citizens yet have adequate knowledge about the subject. It must not seem to appear that a chosen few are appropriating the space where many others deserve to be present as well.

In public interest, yes... but demolition at what cost?

The first time I went out of India was in 1977. It was really nothing much – just a hop-skip-and-jump tour to Nepal. In those days, Kathmandu was a lovely city, with wide roads, no garbage or litter anywhere, delightful nooks and crannies where you could shop or just stand still, and very friendly people. It was a sort of hub for Westerners then, many of whom would leave for the base camp to Everest from there. What I also remember is the way some of the old buildings were looked after well, not just temples. Even then, it was quite a heady mix of the old and the new, and the hippy presence added to the romance. I was then in school but the memories are still vivid.

It took several years after that brief flirting with the ‘outdoors’ to really step out into the world. My visit to England in 1996 was made even more memorable thanks to my colleague Simon Cole who drove me to Kent, past wide open manicured fields punctuated by the presence of healthy sheep and cows. A picture before the cathedral in Kent is one of my favourites. Then, of course, there have been several other visits, the high point being reached when I found myself in front of the magnificent cathedral in Vienna.

Whether it was Kathmandu, Kent, Darmstadt (a small town in Germany), Dusseldorf, Brussels or Vienna, I have always been fascinated by the way old buildings and precincts are preserved in these places. It certainly has to do with a certain culture, one that we sadly lack. In recent years, a few of us, shepherded by the redoubtable S. Muthiah, have been trying to raise awareness about Chennai’s heritage and the need to preserve as far as possible heritage that may be built or natural. Most of the enthusiasm comes to the fore during what is celebrated as Madras Week, the week that prefixes and suffixes Madras Day, August 22, the day the city was founded. One of the heartening things is the fact that many residents in the city turn up for the more than hundred-odd events that are held during the week. Although the numbers are not large, there is a size-able section in the city now that is fairly aware about heritage and heritage conservation.

The demolition of the rear portion of P. Orr & Sons on Mount Road as shown by that cleverly taken picture by The Hindu photographer almost bleeds one’s heart. There are now fears that the P. Orr & Sons showroom might be in danger. And all for a railway line… what is said to be public interest. But things have come to such a pass mainly due to the Tamil Nadu government's inexplicable delay in extending legal protective measures to heritage structures, as The Hindu editorial clearly mentions. That the INTACH petition was ground to the dust by the honorable judges of the Madras High Court is another sad story. I do not wish to question their wisdom or judgment but surely heritage lovers must unite and stand together and continue the fight for a Heritage Act. As the editorial points out, it is lack of legal protection for heritage structures or a comprehensive legal framework that has resulted in six grounds of the rear portion of P. Orr & Sons being reduced to rubble but also one heritage structure after another disappearing.

We can only hope that although it now clearly seems to be a losing battle for some of us, the tide will change soon enough with legislation in place to protect heritage structures that need to be conserved so that filing a PIL may not really be necessary.

Look at some of the pictures I took in Vienna. Shows how people in another country value heritage. One with me in it was taken before the magnificent St Stephen's Cathedral, which stands on the ruins of another consecrated in 1147. See that vaulted dome, how it has been preserved. The rest are snapshots of the heritage precinct.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

A heady mix, but it's not quite cricket

The fifth edition of the Indian Premier League will start in a few minutes with teams from Chennai and Mumbai clashing in what once was Madras. With the kind of money and energy being spent on cricket, which is neither Test cricket nor of the World Cup variety, I feel sad to think about just how some of our other sportsmen and women are languishing – for want of funds (which is a pittance compared to the amounts being splurged here), sponsorship, infrastructure, backing, andf what have you. Many of them continue to travel by train, second-class sleeper, yet they still do their country proud, winning or losing is another matter.

I was wondering at the kind of money that must have been paid to Big B, Salman, Priyanka, Kareena and Katy Perry (whoever she is). Prabhudeva is host after all. And what did all these ‘superstars’ really do? Amitabh Bachchan and baritone voice all right, but did you really need him to come and recite those verses? Don’t we have our own P.C. Ramakrishnas and Niladri Boses? And whatever was Priyanka trying to act out with Dhoni and the rest of the guys? It looked sick. Except for that trapeze act (there are many women in the circus who do these things much better) and ‘daredevilry’ what did she have to offer? That goes for the rest, too, except perhaps Prabhudeva. We’ve all seen enough and more of Kareena and Priyanka’s shake and swing of the hips (at all those film awards ceremonies, where else?) to really expect anything different. But more than all that I was wondering what each one of them must have been paid for those less than ten minutes of what was hyped to be a high-voltage entertainer.

Cricket has become such a marketer’s delight. At a tournament that is more about cheer girls and razzmatazz and colour rather than the game itself, what better fertile ground to build a brand image! And now you have scantily clad cheer leaders in the studio too... what more could anybody ask for. Wonder how the new-generation woman has allowed herself to be used in every possible way.

How I pine for those days when cricket was just a gentleman’s game! I know they will never ever come back. But I probably have to grow up. My daughter’s just called to say she’s at the stadium, adding that I could catch a glimpse of her if I cared to watch. That now means finding out where my heart lies…