Telling Life Stories: On Writing Biography

In January I had the pleasure of attending the seminar ‘Telling Lives: Theory, Practice and Craft of Writing Biography‘ by Professor A.R.Venkatachalapathy which was part of the Hindu Lit for Life literary festival.

Handing out photocopies of the essay ‘Why South Asians don’t write good biographies, and why they should’  from the book The Last Liberal and Other Essays by Ramachandra Guha, Professor Chalapathy commenced the session with an interesting thought on why the art of biography is yet to mature in India. He suggested that the ancient concept of a soul evolving over several births might have lent the idea to would be Indian biographers that one life is not enough to record the complete story of an individual. He also put forward a theory that the Marxist influence in India might have made people less inclined to project the life history of one specific individual.

The lack of documented information needed to write biographies, the long periods of time that needs to be invested in research and interviewing people related to the subject and the comparatively low returns are some of the reasons which lead writers to prefer other modes of writing, he said and went on to elaborate that the available documentation may not  present a true picture of the subject. Even a personal diary may have been self censored and provide a less than clear picture of the subject as a person. For a good biography always shows as much possible of the real person behind the public image.

Every generation wants to translate the classics rendering them with a contemporary flavour of the period. The Ramayana and The Mahabharata have been retold countless times in several flavours, with the threads of its stories being picked up and narrated from the varied perspectives of its many characters. Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted time and again, set in time periods very different from that of the bards, but retaining the complexity of his powerful characters. Similarly, the importance of an individual depends on the number of biographies that are written for them by each generation that follows, who wish to interpret their life story from where they are in time.

For while an autobiography is a person’s view of themselves, a biography is an overview of the person in a larger context with reference to their time, place and position in their respective field. It is not only the story of a specific individual, but a glimpse into the world in which they lived.

A good biography should be colourful, said Professor Chalapathy as he went on to explain what went into writing such a biography.

The first step is to choose the right person, preferably someone whom the biographer admires. This could be tricky, considering the Indian tradition of hagiography and celebrity worship. Poet-saints of ancient Tamil Nadu were literally idolised and even today one can see their images in old temples, relics of a time when they were considered no less than the divine in deference to their art. Very often, such a biographer who admires the subject ends up writing a glorified account of the subject’s life, deifying the subject in their enthusiasm and evoking a halo of words which effectively hides their humanity.This is only too evident in present times, as is evident in many current biographies of personalities in films, sports and politics – last week’s Hindu literary review had yet another article which discussed this with many examples.

It is not possible to record all the happenings in the subject’s life, nor analyse the motivations behind some of their actions such as say, extra marital affairs. Questioning the subject on sensitive issues may lead to offending them and even if it gets written and printed, it would be at the cost of offending the admirers of the subject, especially if the person happens to be a celebrated icon.

He mentioned how the biography of MS Subbulakshmi, MS: A Life in music by T.J.S George focused rather a lot on the appendix which consisted of a number of passionate letters written by the legendary musician to another musical maestro G.N. Balasubramaniam. Similarly the biography of the classical dancer Balasaraswati by Douglas M. Knight attracted a lot of attention due to a studio photograph of a very young Balasaraswati and MS Subbulakshmi, dressed daringly for the time in night suits and posing with cigars. The example drew immediate flak from some of the audience who said that the photograph disturbed the pure, saintly image that MS invokes in her admirers. Personally I loved that photograph which showed a glimpse of the girl behind the maestro and was testimony to the human side of musician who is hailed as divine by millions of her fans.

However, all these constraints can be quite enabling if the biographers are creative and professional, said Professor Chalapathy and cited the example of how Srinivasa Ramanujam’s biography The Man who knew infinity by Robert Kanigel was completed within three years from the time it was commissioned.

Some tips on writing a good biography:

  • The biographer should be emotionally attached to the subject and this should reflect in the narrative.
  • A biography should have a catchy title. An example is The Devadasi and The Saint by V.Sriram on the life of the dancer Bangalore Nagarathnamma.
  • There are many ways a biography can be structured besides in a straightforward chronological manner – a subject’s life may be examined through social, political, psycho-analytical or intellectual views. An example is The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis, the curious history of a French peasant who lived in the sixteenth century which is narrated in the form of a detective story set in rural France of the period.
  • Focus on interesting aspects of the subject’s life, bringing out the human element that is of utmost importance while telling a life story
  • The biographer should ideally acquire some amount of competence in the area of expertise of the subject
  • The biographer should evoke the subject’s thoughts and moods towards their work and life
  • Get as many sources as possible to relate stories about the subject’s life

Answering my question about the relevance of a fictional biography as against a straightforward narrative composed only of facts and figures, Professor Chalapathy said that a fictional biography can even be stronger and get to the truth of the subject’s life through careful use of the biographer’s artistic liberties and evocative language. Examples include The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham which paints an intense view into the life of the post-impressionist artist Paul Gaugin and The Great Lover by Jill Dawson which very effectively brought out the confused, vulnerable side of Rupert Brooke even as it celebrated the young poet’s charisma and zest for life and art.

Professor Chalapathy interspersed the session with references to a number of biographies, especially those by and about Indians, an impressive though short list which was added to by the audience, a motley group which included renowned biographers, writers and artists.

Some of the recommended biographies discussed or named in the session:
1) Savaging the Civilized; Verrier Elwin, His Tribals, and India by Ramachandra Guha, about the life of the anthropologist who was called one of the most interesting Englishmen to have worked in India in the twentieth century
2) Kalam ka Sipahi, the celebrated Hindi novelist Premchand’s biography by his son Amrit Rai (The English Translation)
3) The biography of Chennai’s mayor V. Chakkarai Chettiar, which tells us as much about the biographer as the subject
4) The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide by Ayesha Jalal about the Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto
5) His Majesty’s Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle against Empire by Sugata Bose
6) A poet’s poet : life of Meenakshisundaram Pillai by U. V. Swaminathan Iyer.
7) A Princely Imposter? The Kumar Of Bhawal And The Secret History Of Indian Nationalism by Partha Chatterjee
8) Heart to Heart: Remembering Nainaji by Vidya Rao
9) An unheard melody: Annapurna Devi by Swapan Kumar Bondyopadhya
10) My Name is Gauhar Jaan by Vikram Sampath
11) The Music Room by Namita Devidayal, part memoir and part biography of the musician Dhondutai Kulkarni
12) Biographies by Rajmohan Gandhi (On Mahatma Gandhi, Rajaji, Sardar Patel among others)
13) The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama by Sanjay Subrahmanyam
14)  C. V. Raman : A Biography by Uma Parameswaran
15) Voice of The Veena: S Balachander by Vikram Sampath
16) In an antique land by Amitav Ghosh

The session was interactive and energetic from the beginning to the end. I came away charged and inspired, with a long reading list and a strengthened conviction on my project of writing the life of a beloved musician between the lines of whose esoteric songs lie not one but many fascinating stories of a lost civilisation.

As this session was predominantly about Indian biographies, I have only listed the books about Indians or those set in India above. Quite a few other biographies with fascinating premises such as Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers by David Edmonds, John Eidinow, and Bobby Fischer were mentioned in between the session.  Please feel free to share your favourite biographies set in India or otherwise in the comments section and I will add it to the list.

Will post further on my studies on writing biographies ( I am currently reading How to do biography: A Primer by Nigel Hamilton) and my experiences in collecting material and writing the book, as I go.

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Coming soon! The Reengineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality

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