Midnight's Children Turn 75
Like many others born in 1947, these five prominent Indians have given much to the nation. This month, as the country celebrates another historic anniversary,we ask what has India given them
THE WORLD ON HIS STRING
Born: 23 July 1947
When L. Subramaniam first took the stage with his father, the great violin maestro V. Lakshminarayana Iyer, he was only six years old.“I was scared because there were hundreds of people, sitting in an open space. But there was great applause at the end.” The organizers later told Iyerthat his son seemed possessed by a divine energy while he played. Not only did the 75-year-old Subramaniam inherit from his father an abiding love for the violin, he was also bequeathed something more essential—ambition.
“In the days my father played, the violin was thought of as an accompanist’s instrument, something you played alongside a singer or a veena,”says Subramaniam. Iyer hoped his violin would one day be known as a solo instrument. “We should not be treated as ethnic or folk musicians, he’d say.‘People should realize this is one of the most sophisticated and advanced classical systems of music. We should be in the mainstream. We should spread this.” After Independence, Iyer wanted freedom for India’s music.
It wasn’t just an uncle who had predicted great fame for Subramaniam at the time of his birth, there was, in fact,always something a bit prodigious about him. At 16, he was already being felicitated by Jawaharlal Nehru. A few years later, visiting musicians wanted to take him with them to Ithaca and Germany. “My mother said, ‘You can’t go anywhere until you’ve got yourself a degree in medicine!’ I cried then but I’m glad I didn’t go. I might have become a great musician but I would have remained a 12th-grade dropout.”As it so happened, the M.B.B.S. degree he earned at Madras Medical College in 1972 never did earn him a penny.
Photo Courtesy: L. Subramaniam
Whilst this struggle between art and science seems typically Indian, Subramaniam’s career is proof that practice and talent can together be a means to an end. Soon after he had graduated from the California Institute of the Arts with a master’s degree in western classical music in 1975, the violinist came to be sought after globally. Subramaniam remembers Stéphane Grappelli,the great French jazz violinist, once arriving in his green room, wanting to collaborate, eager to hear him play.Even the legendary Yehudi Menuhin was captivated by Subramaniam’s effortless playing and finesse. In 1987,when they played together at the UN to celebrate India’s 40 years of Independence, Menuhin refused a fee.
Milestones matter to Subramaniam.In 2007, to celebrate 60 years of Independence, he premiered ‘The Freedom Symphony’ with the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra. This year, he is all set to perform ‘The Mahatma Symphony’ with the Houston Symphony. “With so many good Western soloists in the business,I think Why do these orchestras look to an Indian to write music for them? It's then that I remember my father. This is what he wanted—to take our music to the world stage.
(From the right) L. Subramaniam, with world-renowned violinists, Stéphane Grappelli and Yehudi Menuhin
”Besides East and West, Subramaniam has also played a vital role in closing the gap that separates North and South India. His collaborations with artists like Ustad Bismillah Khan and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan only helped show that Hindustani and Carnatic classical music had much the same roots. “It is through music that feelings of animosity and doubt can go away. If we can get everyone on the same page as Indians, then the question of ‘where are you from?’ ceases to have value. If culturally, and musically, we form a chain of unity and bring together our different styles, we can conquer the world.”
SOMEONE TO BANK ON
Kundapur Vaman Kamath, Banker,Born: 2 December 1947
K. V. Kamath says he was born “in” and “to” freedom. He remembers the tricolour being hoisted on every corner in Mangalore. At school, “everyone was trying to absorb this freedom,this free air we were breathing for the first time”. Everywhere you looked,“you saw the pride of free India”. As Kamath speaks, one sees independence also had some very personal and tangible ramifications for him.“My parents encouraged me to study,and I could see several institutions come up.” Shortly before graduating from the National Institute of Technology, Karnataka, Surathkal, Kamath applied to the two Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) in Ahmedabad and Calcutta, and got through to both.
Choosing Ahmedabad had its own set of consequences: “IIM-A gave me a much wider perspective of what was required to grow businesses, industry,entrepreneurship.” Rather than return to his father’s tile business, Kamath decided to put his faith in a “new India”and join the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India (ICICI)as a trainee in 1971. Twenty-five years later, when Kamath would take over as CEO, the world would see him succeed in an India it once again called “new”.
As India’s economy grew at a steady five per cent in the ’70s, Kamath’s growth was steeper. Not only did he set up ICICI’s leasing business, he went on to set up its strategy division in the1980s. In 1988, when Kamath went to Manila and joined the Asian Development Bank, both he and his boss, ICICI chairman N. Vaghul, seemed to think of his absence as a sabbatical. Vaghul knew Kamath would be his successor.
Photo: Rachit Goswami
By 1996, when Kamath returned to head ICICI as its new Managing Director and CEO, effects of the economic reforms initiated by Narasimha’s Rao government were beginning to be felt.“I had come back full of energy, with knowledge about what is happening outside India, with technology. Crucially, I knew what happens when a country's per capita income (PCI)grows. I could see that by 2002–2003,India would come to have a PCI of $500.” He was right. India was on the cusp of transformation.
The relationship between PCI and aspiration, Kamath explains, is directly proportional. Once we start earning more, we feel we can bear the burden of debt, too. Though India had the reputation of being averse to borrowing,Kamath ensured ICICI launch credit cards, car and home loans, predicting a sharp rise in their demand. He was also responsible for multiplying, somewhat exponentially, the number of ATMs in the country: “Since we were only allowed to add 50 new branches in a year, we employed a hub-and-spoke model. Each branch would serve as a hub, with eight to 10 ATMs as spokes.
”Kamath’s pioneering use of technology had benefits for ICICI and the nation. He recalls an incident at Infosys, a company he was appointed Non-Executive Chairman of, in 2011. Once, when CEO Narayan Murthy went to Infosys’admin hall to withdraw some money from the ICICI ATM installed there, he saw standing in front of him a member of the janitorial staff. “Mr. Murthy asked him, ‘What do you think of this ATM?’The janitor replied, ‘It’s a great service,because unlike a bank teller, it doesn’t see any difference between you and me.” Kamath says only machines bring about such “democratization”.
K.V.Kamath (left), with Infosys chair- man N. R. Narayana Murthy at Infosys’ 33rd annual general meeting in 2014.Photo Nilotpal Baruah/ Bt
The five years Kamath spent as the first chief of BRICS’ New Development Bank taught him more about “the strength of coming together”, but it is in his present role as chairperson of the National Bank for Financing Infrastructure and Development (NaBFID) that he finds himself directly bolstering India’s self-reliance: “NaBFID can be a catalyst, ensuring 10 per cent growth for the next 25 years.”
REACHING FOR THE STARS
Born: 31 July 1947
Born a fortnight before India gained Independence, Mumtazl laughs and says, “It was me who came and drove the British away.” The actress speaks with an easy, disarming candour. Her parents—Sardar Begum Habib Agha and Abdul SameedAskari—were of Iranian descent, but Mumtaz has only ever thought of herself as Indian. “My parents were Iranian, yes, but I was born in India.And India has given me everything.How can I forget that? Whatever I am today is because of India and Indian audiences.
”Growing up in an India that was still finding its feet, Mumtaz started supplementing the income of her household from an early age. She was only 11 when she made her debut in Sone Ke Chidiya (1958).Her adolescence, she says, was spent playing bit parts in films like Stree (1961) and Sehra (1963). “From the time I was seven or eight, I only remember working from seven a.m. to 10 p.m. Until I got married, I worked at least two shifts every day. I don’t regret it. When reaching for the stars,you’ve got to work hard.
”While Hindi cinema is sometimes an apt representation of the India in which we live, the workings of the film industry itself can also come to serve as a metaphor. As Mumtaz begins to describe her struggle, one is able to imagine the hustle that ’70s India demanded of not just its actors but also its people: “In our time, we would sometimes be working on 20 films, simultaneously. There were two attractions—money and good cinema. As long as you were getting both,you simply kept on working.
”Mumtaz played a definitive role in Bollywood. Considered to be one of the most attractive actresses of her time, she starred opposite Rajesh Khanna—arguably the biggest ’70s superstar—in 10 films. Her other co-stars included A-listers like Dharmendra, Feroz Khan and Shashi Kapoor. Mumtaz still keeps in touch with Dharmendra. “He tells me things have changed. Nothing is how it used to be,”she says.
L-Mumtaz in the 1968 film Brahmachari. Photo: India Picture. R-Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Tanya Madhvan
Though she’d hung up her boots at 26,Mumtaz still sometimes contemplates one last hurrah of a film. The trouble, she says, is that the sense of community she enjoyed on set has now given way to a boring individualism. “I remember we used to all sit around and chit-chat, eat lunch together. I used to go to the dancers and share their tiffin. We would laugh and joke around so much. Today, no one talks to one other. Everybody has their vanity vans that they return to after their shots. It’s a very selfish life.”
The 75-year-old is also dismissive of the films she sees nowadays.Upset by all the sexual and physical violence she sees depicted, Mumtaz allows herself some wistful nostalgia:“In my time, films used to be performance driven. They don’t make them like that anymore. These days, I feel the only thing actresses need to do is dance to a few songs.Everything has started to seem so easy now.”
Around the time Mumtaz was at her peak, commercial Hindi films were shedding colonial-era baggage. They did afford audiences escape, but they also portrayed the social realities Indians struggled with. Apna Desh(1972), for instance,might only be remembered for the song ‘Duniya Mein Logon Ko’ which Mumtaz helped make popular, but at its heart, the film is a scathing critique of the corruption stifling the protagonist’s, and the country’s, chances. Mumtaz was “often too busy to see what was happening outside”, but her filmography gives us a snapshot of a hobbled, yet striving India.
As Mumtaz divides her time between London, Uganda and Mumbai, she feels surprised by how often she is recognized in public. “I haven’t worked for 49 years and I still get asked for autographs. That only goes to show how much power cinema holds. Films are never going to fade out. There’s a reason why this industry is so dominant. It gives power to people. It lets them decide what is right and wrong.”
TURNING THE GAME
Dilip Doshi, Former Indian cricketer,
Born: 22 December 1947
Given our short, myopic attention spans, India’s cricketing fraternity might only remember 1981 as the year Mahendra Singh Dhoni was born, but in February that year,another, more underrated cricketer was making history.Playing to level the 1980–81 three-Test series in Australia,left-arm spinner Dilip Doshi bowled his heart out in the final Test to return with figures—3/109 in the first innings and 2/33 in the second—that may seem ordinary but were crucial in the end. Doshi’s heroic spell was a metaphor for 1980s India and its growing resilience.
Doshi tells RD that on 1 February 1981, a week before he was to play Australia in Melbourne, a swinging yorker during a practice game broke his left toe. “Still, I felt confident that if I played, I could help India win the match.” And win India did. The spinner remembers having to sleep with electrodes on his foot. “During each interval, I had to put my foot in an ice bucket, just so I could get my boots on. But the rest is history.” On 12 February, a report in The Sun read, “[Doshi]bowled unchanged yesterday. Why? Awin and the reclamation of India’s pride was that important, that’s why.
”Pain wasn’t the only hurdle that Doshi had to overcome in order to play cricket. Since Bishen Singh Bedi, also a world-class left-arm spinner, had reserved for himself a place in the Indian squad for much of the ’70s, Doshi had to wait till ’79 to make his national debut. He was 32. “Age is just a number,”he says, “but I was the first player in the history of Test cricket to make a debut after 30 and still pick up 100 wickets.That was a blessing.” In the 33 Tests he played, Doshi took all of 114 wickets.
L-Doshi (front) in Australia 1981 with cricketer Dilip Vengsarkar.R-Doshi, accepting the BCCI Special Award for his contribution to Indian cricket in 2020.Photos Courtesy: Dilip Doshi
While perseverance runs through Doshi’s biography as a somewhat persistent theme, he never once begrudges competition. He is, instead, only critical of a certain parochialism that once defined India and the selection of its cricket team. “If, like me, you were a Gujarati playing for Bengal, wanting to represent India, you stood no chance.India’s players came from maybe three or four states.” It’s only over the last 30 years, says Doshi, that cricket, like India, has started to prize merit: “It doesn’t matter where you are from now, or if you know English. If you have the talent, come play.
”In retrospect, there was something dichotomous about the India into which Doshi was born. “On the one hand,” he says, “there was this euphoric atmosphere. Everyone was so happy that India was finally independent, but on the other, there was a shadow of pre-Independence violence and post-Partition trauma.” Born in Rajkot,Doshi moved to Calcutta in the late 1940s when his father, an educationist,found employment with a business house. “I feel very lucky to have grown up in Calcutta,” says Doshi. “It was possibly the most cultured and artistically inclined city at the time.” The former cricketer remembers fondly the music he heard on Park Street, “the blues bands in those British-era jazz clubs.”
Doshi, who once played county cricket for Nottinghamshire, has always found a way to bridge divides. “An entrepreneur at heart”, Doshi brought Mont Blanc to India in 1993. “We were the first people to get an import licence for luxury goods.” Having lived in Britain for 30 years, Doshi, a Rolling Stones fan, counts Mick Jagger as one of his closest friends. “Living away, you realize sticking to your roots doesn’t mean not enjoying the society in which you live. You’re more respected if you retain your originality.
A STITCH IN TIME
Laila Tyabji,Founder Member and Chairperson, Dastkar
Born: 2 May 1947
For those who mistake India as monolithic, visiting a Dastkar bazaar can be something of a rude shock. You only need to look at the range of craft and colour on display toknow that the nation is too polyphonous to ever be thought of as a uniform composite.
Says Laila Tyabji, Dastkar’s current chairperson and one of its six founding members, over email, “The craft sector is a perfect metaphor for the diversity and uniqueness of India.” Craftspeople represent not just their gender and race but also the nation’s several regions and faiths—“From tribals from the forests of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh to Brahmin folk painters in Bihar; from burkha-clad women in Lucknow’s bastis to turbaned, moustachioed, male Rajasthani and Kutchi agrarian labour.”
Tyabji believes “no other country in the world has this range of materials,motifs, techniques”. Many crafts, she adds, are made by people of different communities who work together to create a single final product. “A crafts bazaar is a microcosm of unity in diversity. There is unity and inter-dependence here. This is why it is not surprising to see that there are seldom communal outbreaks in craft areas,” says the Padma Shri recipient.
Photo: India Today/Vivan Mehra
During Partition, Tyabji’s Muslim family had experienced up close the horror of communal violence and vilification. Her parents’ home was attacked and ransacked. Her father,Badruddin Tyabji, a member of the Constituent Assembly, narrowly escaped being shot. “They moved fromplace to place, in a series of borrowed accommodations, and I, a few months old, was sent to close friends for safety.”For her family, “Partition was a tragedy,and the idea of a country based on religion claustrophobic”, Tyabji says.
What the family dearly loved about India “was its multifaceted, syncretic culture, an eclectic whole, as exemplified by Indian art, architecture music.”
It was Tyabji’s parents who chose the Sarnath lion column as independent India's national emblem, and though they’d together designed the final form of the national flag,it was her mother,Surayya Tyabji, who presented to Jawaharlal Nehru her drawings. “She also stitched the first mockup of the flag.The final official flag was made by EDDE Tailors & Drapers in Connaught Place under her supervision.” Badruddin Tyabji went on to become India’s Ambassador to Belgium, Indonesia,Germany and Japan. The India he represented boasted of being both vibrant and equitable.
Laila Tyabji, aged seven, with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and her mother in 1954. Photo courtesy: Laila Tyabji
Specializing in interiors, textiles,clothes, theatre and exhibition design,Laila Tyabji was, in many ways, poised to continue her parents’ legacy. In 1981, when she co-founded Dastkar, a society for crafts and craftspeople, she wanted to benefit rural artisans, but also create a bridge between village and city. The fact that her age corresponds directly with that of independent India makes her identify as “being Indian” even more strongly. India is,for Tyabji, more than mere influence. It has shaped her identity and her work: “Indian craft techniques and its directory of motif and design, has been my inspiration. But craft is never static. It has always responded to society, to changing lifestyles, and so do I.