Fourth In The Series: “Meet The Author” – Vikram Sampath

There aren’t too many, especially in today’s fast-paced “dog eat dog” kind of world, who make time to fulfill their passions. Vikram Sampath, is clearly one of them. I first got to know Vikram when he and I were invited by the book lovers club, iBrowse to speak of our books. I knew he studied in that centre of academic and all-round excellence, BITS Pilani, which I used to visit regularly for recruitment in my Wipro days. The fact that he knew my son-in-law, Subhash, also a BITS, Pilani alum helped too. Vikram’s interests, as you will soon see for yourself,  are far ranging. This engineer and MBA from the SP Jain Institute of Management, Mumbai is an articulate speaker and speaks as convincingly as he writes.

Here are excerpts for you from my interview with an author who I predict will become a big name in international literature: Vikram Sampath.

1         Tell us a little bit about yourself. What events in your life fashioned your thinking and outlook.  What led to your becoming an author after your work experience following your degree from BITS Pilani?

A lot of my current interests and passions were shaped during my childhood days. Being a single child, books and music were my constant companions. It was my maternal grandmother who noticed that this little boy at home just listened to jingles on television or the bhajans and MS Subbulakshmi cassettes that played at home most often and reproduced them with great fidelity! I was 6 or so when I was forced by her to join a conventional Carnatic classical music class. Frankly, I hated it initially as it ate into my playing time. But in just a couple of weeks, the addiction set in. Apart from vocal music, I craved to learn so much and dabbled briefly with the violin as well. Music has remained with me constantly ever since and it’s such a blessing as I shudder to think what a beast I would have grown up to become otherwise! Even in my days at BITS Pilani where I did my Masters in Mathematics and Engineering in Electronics, I trained briefly in Hindustani music just so that I remained in touch with the art. This dalliance with Hindustani music continued in Mumbai too where I studied at SP Jain Institute of Management and Research to obtain an MBA in Finance. Hearing some of the greatest masters of the art live in that city was a thrilling experience. Being the coordinator of SPICMACAY in Pilani was like veritably leading myself on to a highway of the arts where suddenly I was exposed to so many art forms, dances, folk traditions, languages and customs that my South Indian upbringing could scarcely provide. It was life- transforming really. Music induces a certain discipline and reorients you internally and it’s so essential to start young when your mind can absorb everything like a sponge.

On the other hand, books and literature too were always there for me. My parents induced the reading habit in me early. Every success in an examination or so would get me the choicest of books as gifts from them. I now have such a huge library at home that it’s tough to find space to keep them all on shelves. I came from a multi-lingual background and that also helped. Language was always a strong point somehow and in fact my language teachers would read out my essays to the rest of the class as model essays!

Frankly I never thought or planned to be a published author. This course of my life was not linked to either my stint at BITS Pilani or my work-experience or any such. It was just serendipity! I was about 12-13 years old when the famous tele-serial ‘The Sword of Tipu Sultan’ was being aired on Doordarshan. The serial portrayed the king and queen of Mysore in very poor light and this had led to a lot of unrest and disturbances across Karnataka. So it was more out of childish curiosity to know the truth behind this falsehood that I started on my little voyage of discovery—never for once ever dreaming that I would one day write a book on that subject! Over 15 long years of research, I managed to expand the scope of my research to not only the king and queen who had hooked me initially but to the entire dynasty of the Wodeyars of Mysore, covering over 600 years of history therein. That was when several people suggested that since there was not a single book that had presented this history in a modern light, one that portrayed the political, social, economic and cultural history of Mysore, its rulers and people, I should write something on it. That was how my first book ‘Splendours of Royal Mysore: the untold story of the Wodeyars’ came out in 2008 after a long and painstaking journey of research. I was clear that I wanted the fascinating story of Mysore to become part of national discourse and hence approached Rupa & Co, who within a fortnight of reading a few sample chapters came back with an affirmative. To that extent I must say that unlike several first time authors who have no god-fathers in the field. I have been very lucky! Rupa & Co have been the publishers of all my books thereafter- ‘My name is Gauhar Jaan!: the life and times of a musician’ and ‘Voice of the Veena: S Balachander, a biography’. The rest, as they say, is history!

2. Who were some of the authors you admired? Who, in some sense, influenced your writing style and choice of subjects? It’s fascinating that you have chosen to write about a subject which many didn’t  and even now don’t know much about.

It’s tough to pin point any particular author whom I admire or who have influenced me because as I mentioned I have been a voracious reader since childhood and hence unconsciously all these styles must have been internalized somewhere. Of course the few authors who write in the genre that I have chosen— narrative non-fiction delving largely into historical themes—Ramachandra Guha, William Dalrymple, Arun Shourie, Abraham Eraly are undoubtedly my favourites. According to me, writing in this genre involves two main stages—the science involved in the research process and the art of weaving together the narrative. Though as a subject history is taught in a terrible way in our schools, I feel that Indian history in particular, has so much drama, so many stories, which, if told well can be quite fascinating. Along with that the entire journey involved in writing a historical is something I find enchanting. The research that goes behind this almost makes one feel like a Sherlock Holmes! You enter a dark, detective tunnel not knowing if there is light at the end of it at all and along the way you pick up nuggets that can enrich your narrative. It is quite a thrilling and intellectually fulfilling process for me. It is also a deeply emotional journey—especially when dealing with biographies of people. I find analyzing the lives of human beings and re-living the roller coaster journey of their lives very fascinating.

However therein also lies the perils of a biographer. In the course of the journey, one just falls completely in love with one’s subject- yet a biographer is expected to be a kind of a moral eunuch, an impartial by-stander who is just watching the happenings from the ringside, even though personally you are empathizing with their sorrows and failures and rejoicing in their joys. A very thin line separates a biography from a hagiography, especially in the field of the performing arts, where miracles get attributed to our artists that make them all the more remote and un-relatable to a common reader. I was conscious all the time to walk that tightrope and try to capture the human element of my subjects and present them as human beings with warts and all, yet blessed with unsurpassable genius. But the emotional affectation that I get entangled with after each work is difficult to articulate. For a biographer, with each biography, a part of you has died too if you have got involved intensely with your subject. You almost start living the other’s life and that whole experience is what I find intoxicating and propelling.

3. You travel so widely, I know. Do you have a full time job or is writing your main occupation these days?  I can well imagine the hectic schedule you have. How do you find the time to pursue your passion for writing? What would you recommend to so many people out there who would love to write but fear they “don’t have the time.” How do you do things differently?

This is a question I get asked very often, but sadly I don’t know the answer of. I just feel that for things you are passionate about, you don’t have to make an effort to make time for it. It just happens. Of course I do hold a full time day job as a Team Leader in Financial Analytics in Hewlett Packard. The most creative part of the day is spent in something totally different, but the job liberates me in a way as I don’t have to depend on my art for my livelihood. It also feeds into the research, the travel etc in case I don’t manage to get grants and funds for it. This way I can do the things I enjoy doing without having to wonder if this is going to be a money spinner and bread winner or not. I take extended weekends for research travel. As mentioned, there is no one archive or library that I can piece the story together. There are multiple sources and v often one hits more roadblocks than expected. So keeping frustration levels within limits is also important. Sleeping time gets encroached on unfortunately, but I try to balance that out with a daily dose of meditation which helps me keep sane!

Apart from writing and research, my interest in music has led me to set up the first digital Sound Archive for India called “Archive of Indian Music” (AIM) that seeks to digitize and preserve all old gramophone records of India and make these readily available to musicians, scholars, students, researchers and public at large—free of cost—through an online portal It is a massive project that would take me my whole life to complete a fraction of, but I am glad I have embarked on the journey. I am also one of the Founder Directors of the ‘Bangalore Literature Festival’ (BLF) that had its maiden edition in  December 2012 to bring the best literary minds from the State, the rest of India and also outside India to Bangalore and inspire the citizens, especially the youth and rekindle their interests in books and reading.

4. Tell us briefly about your books. Which was your favourite and why? What prompted you to choose this theme? What are your future writing projects like?

I have three books so far. I mentioned about ‘Splendours of Royal Mysore’ already. It was in the course of the research on Mysore that I first came across the name of Gauhar Jaan in the palace archives. Gauhar spent the last two years of her life in Mysore and in fact died there in 1930. The name seemed to have a certain ring to it that attracted me to her instantly. I think Rekha and her wonderful role in Umrao Jaan was what I was always fascinated by and Gauhar’s name had that ring to it that reminded me of this! I wasn’t aware of her music per se but the fact that Gauhar was the first Indian and woman to record on the gramophone drew me to her life and thus began the journey of rediscovering her.  The few snippets that I gathered about her life seemed to indicate a stormy and eventful life. For someone who was a celebrity in her heyday all over the country, the fact that she had resettle from distant Calcutta to Mysore, and that too at a measly pension sum, seemed to indicate that she had gone through a lot in life. She was perhaps totally frustrated and exhausted by then. I was seized by some strange and inexplicable obsession to unearth more details about her life and that began the journey of rediscovery. For someone who was a celebrity and a rage across the country, whose pictures appeared on postcards and matchboxes manufactured in Austria, who was India’s first voice to be etched on the shellac disc—is today almost forgotten and unacknowledged, even by Hindustani musicians. She walks the alleys of Hindustani music and its annals as a pale shadow! It is largely raconteurs and spicy gossip generated with little substantiation that is passed off as meaningful research. But I pieced together fragments of her life tracing her from Mysore through Azamgarh, Banaras, Darbhanga, Rampur, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and even Berlin and London and that is how ‘My name is Gauhar Jaan: the life and times of a musician’ came out in 2010. The book has won great appreciation across India and abroad by eminent personalities including Vice President of India Mr. Hamid Ansari, Smt. Sonia Gandhi, Mr. Shyam Benegal, Pt. Jasraj, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and other musicians, musicologists and aficionados of music. In fact Smt Sonia Gandhi even invited him for a personal meeting to 10 Janpath after being fascinated by the book. The book has gone into several re-prints and has also been translated into Bengali and Marathi. In 2011 the book won the prestigious ARSC International Award for Excellence in Historical Research in Music, 2011 by the Association of Recorded Sound Companies (ARSC), New York as the first Indian book to make it. In February 2012, the highest literary body of the country and the National Academy of Letters, the Sahitya Akademi, awarded its first Yuva Puraskar in the English Literature category for the book. The third book ‘Voice of the Veena: S Balachander, a biography’ traces the life of the Veena maestro and Carnatic musician Dr. S. Balachander.  The book has been translated into Tamil. I have also contributed to the Penguin Anthology ‘Bollywood’s Top 20’ where I wrote a piece on legendary singer K L Saigal.

Currently I am working on an India Foundation for the Arts grant in gramophone era singers. This in fact follows also a Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin where I researched on gramophone recordings of India by visiting archives across Europe.

5. What would you say as parting words of advice to new authors, budding authors and the many who would love to see their work in print?

I would say being honest to oneself is most important. When I look around and see authors, of my age especially, under this new category called IWE or Indians Writing in English- it is sometimes distressing to see the kind of output that gets churned off as literature. The bane of IWE genre has been, in my opinion, this phenomenon of the ‘Best-seller’. Literature and market dynamics should be distant relatives. Social media is used so much to promote oneself, while in the same time one can bring out quality literature! This divide of books of literary worth not being of mass appeal is a myth in my view as any form of art creates a taste and also helps elevate it. Majority of new writers seem to writing with a Bollywood script in mind and hope to get a big break when the next big producer in Bollywood adapts their books into films! This, I don’t think, should be the driving force for aspiring authors who are serious about issues to deal with or important messages to convey.

6. You were one of the pillars behind the first Bangalore Literature Festival that went off so well. Congrats! What are the learnings from this and what do you plan for the next year?

 Thanks a lot. Yes it was a lot of hard work and our small team of author Shinie Antony, Srikrishna Ramamoorthy, Alaham Anil Kumar and I never expected the kind of success that BLF saw in its maiden edition. It just went to show that Bangalore was sitting on the cusp of a literary conclave of this kind and we are glad we filled in this vital gap. We want to make BLF an annual feature in the cultural calendar of Bangalore and this year hope to expand the scope of the Festival to include a lot more international names and feature authors of Indian languages other than Kannada, Hindi and Urdu that were featured in 2012. We aspire to make Bangalore the locus of literary activity in India and this is not impossible as the city has a vast population of bibliophiles and such eminent litterateurs coming from here. I think the very air of the city inspires creativity and BLF is a celebration of this spirit of Bangalore.

I must say this was one of the best interviews I have conducted. Vikram’s views are refreshing and I hope you would have enjoyed this interaction just as much as I did. Here’s wishing you every success in the years ahead, Vikram!

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