Sunday, September 28, 2014

An unforgettable meeting with U. Shrinivas

I had met U. Shrinivas in the summer of 2004, April. At his home, which is not far from where I live. I was then writing a weekly column for The New Indian Express called People, Places, Things.

I was taken to a large waiting room that was packed with his pictures, certificates, medals and memorabilia. U. Rajesh, his younger brother, kept me company till he came. Tea was on the way. But before tea arrived, arrived Shrinivas. I stood up – I had to. There was an unmistakable aura about him, a sort of romanticism, a certain mystique. He was all smiles, beaming really. And very friendly. Hearing his soft voice, I made an effort to tone down mine.

Shrinivas started by narrating his “amazing experience”, playing at the Central Hall of Parliament a year earlier, on Flag Day, with Pandit Jasraj, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and L. Subramaniam. He and Rajesh had just returned after playing at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, delighting an audience that included India’s First Citizen.

I had known of Shrinivas as a child prodigy. Meeting him was an experience. There was humility written all over his face. Sadly, God doesn't make many like him. Shrinivas was the first exponent of the mandolin as a Carnatic music instrument, the first to play it solo. Staring to play at five, Shrinivas, born in 1969 in Andhra Pradersh, had his first concert in Gudivada, at the Thyagaraja Aradhana Festival. The family later moved to Madras.

At the Berlin Philharmonic Hall during Jazzfest in 1982, he, accompanied by Vikku Vnayakaram on the ghatam, had created magic. There were entreaties for more. An encore followed. In 1992, Shrinivas performed at the inaugural concert at the Barcelona Olympics; seven years later John McLaughlin urged him to join the Shakti Group, which had Zakir Hussain and Selva Ganesh.

I remember Shrinivas telling me that the Paramacharya of the Kanchi Mutt had encouraged him and that encouragement went a long way in his achieving success at so young an age. And that his first memorable performance was at the 1995 International Mandolin Festival in Germany. He would later play at the Royal Albert Hall for BBC Live.

The tea was spiced with adrak (ginger) and spices. I almost felt at home, the brothers made me feel so much at ease. Before leaving, Shrinivas gave me his card. It read Mandolin Padma Shri U. Shrinivas, Asthana Vidwan, Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam. On it, he wrote his mobile number, just in case I needed to call him. I never had to. But I still have the card. It will always be a treasured item. Let his soul rest in peace. As somebody said, the gods wanted him back badly.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Newspapers have never been more important to society

The WAN-IFRA India Conference, the 22nd annual conference, got back to New Delhi this year, after nine years. It’s been a decade of unprecedented change for the news publishing industry, particularly for the printed newspaper, as K. Balaji, chairman, WAN-IFRA South Asia Committee, and director of Kasturi & Sons, said in his remarks at the inaugural.

According to Magdoom Mohamed, WAN-IFRA South Asia’s MD, this year (2014) has been “the toughest with the mood of the industry swinging from month to month”. In the circumstances, it was remarkable that there were 375 registrations. As Magdoom said, it was perhaps an indication of the keen desire among publishers in South Asia to learn from one another and collectively address the challenges of the industry – improving efficiency, engaging with readers, or monetizing content being some of the critical ones.

So were there new ideas, answers and inspiration to tackle the challenges ahead? Did the participants feel they benefited? Perhaps WAN-IFRA receives feedback from those who attend the various sessions at every conference and the expo. It will be interesting to know what the participants think or what they find useful or lacking.

An interesting announcement at the conference was about a record 17 winners from India (out of 115) at the International Color Quality Club (INCQC) Competition, second only to Germany. Ananda Bazar Patrika gaining entry into the Star Club of INCQC is a recognition for the newspaper winning the award five years in a row. Clearly, quality has become a way of life in most Indian newspapers.

 At the conference, while sharing updates from World Press Trends, WAN-IFRA’s annual report (focuses mainly on trends in circulation, advertising and digital newspaper performance, based on inputs submitted by member associations and individual country reports),Vincent Peyr├Ęgne, chief executive officer, WAN-IFRA, referred to the worrying attacks on press freedom. One the one hand, people say newspapers are declining; why then when there is a political crisis, are there attacks on editors and journalists, he wondered. If we are no longer relevant why would they bother, he asked the audience, stressing that newspapers have never been more important to society at large.

News about the Rural Media Network Pakistan (RMNP) presenting its 2014 Sadiq Press Freedom Award (supported by WAN-IFRA) to the son of murdered journalist Malik Mumtaz Khan makes us pause and think – of the dangers journalists around the world face daily, who yet plod on relentless. As RMNP President Ehsan Ahmed Sehar said, the award is “a symbol of the struggle for the right to information and a reminder to the international community about the tragic conditions Pakistan has been suffering since the War on Terror began following the 9/11 attacks”. The sacrifices journalists like Malik Mumtaz Khan, James Foley, Steven Sotloff and others have made must never go in vain. We must continue to tell the truth fearlessly. And fight hard against attacks on editors and journalists. 

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Sharing lessons and developing strategies for the days ahead

The WAN-IFRA Conference in India has now become a premier event for publishers, editors, technical directors/ managers and journalists. Although this is the 22nd year of the conference, it really took off after the WAN-IFRA India office was established in 2001. Until then IFRA only had a representative office. With R.V. Rajan shepherding the team in the early years till about 2008, and Magdoom Mohamed ably taking on the baton, the conference has seen attendance grow; it’s now almost become a must-attend event for many. There is a lot of work that goes into organisng the event, most of it done quietly from a nook on the third floor of the SIET College campus in Chennai where the WAN-IFRA South Asia office is headquartered. And come to think of it, it is quite amazing that a small team is able to pull off a huge event like this. A lot of the success, I’m sure, Magdoom and team owe to Rajan, for all the lessons they learnt from him.

One of the reasons for the popularity of the conference is that it usually manages to bring worthwhile case studies from newsrooms and provides perspectives on news businesses and news production from around the world. Recent years have seen the conference having three parallel sessions or summits as they are called – Newsroom, Printing and Crossmedia Advertising. There are also pre-conference workshops that some find quite useful (this time, the workshops are on Data Journalism, New Media Metrics and Densitometry).

Although the attendance has been encouraging, the same cannot be said about support by exhibitors (suppliers to the newspaper industry). Many feel there’s no point spending money to exhibit products when there is hardly any investment in new newspaper presses. Given the situation, it may not be a happy time for several of the ancillary industries that are dependent on presses running. With the newspaper market doing well in India and most of the revenue coming from print, publishers are not really too keen in making heavy investments on the digital front. Digital subscription and digital revenue are not streams they can bank on – at least for now. So, there is a lull. There is no Expo this year but I understand there will be ‘info-tables’ at the foyer for a few exhibitors. 

There are several interesting sessions lined up in Delhi, starting September 16. I am looking forward to listening to T.N. Ninan speak about the blurring line between business editorial. Another interesting session is likely to be the one on the digital transformation of Malayala Manorama and how the ‘print-strong’ publisher is gearing up to face the digital revolution, session to be handled by Mariam Mammen Mathew, COO, Manorama Online. WAN-IFRA’s Antony tells me that a not-to-be-missed session will be the one by Thomas Smolders, head of International Roll-out, Blendle, The Netherlands, on how a Dutch start-up has united newspapers of The Netherlands under a single paywall and what the business model is. The title is quite interesting: iTunes of Print Media. Can alliances between newspapers in India help? Perhaps. There’s a session on that too, by HT’s VP Marketing. I also wish to attend a panel discussion on Day 2, focusing on where our future readers are and whether the reading habit is vanishing among the younger generation. Later that afternoon, there is a session titled, Working Together with Google. Now, that surely will be well attended.