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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 9, February 21, 2015

Tribute to Som Benegal

Monday 23 February 2015, by S Viswam



Veteran journalist, writer and poet Som Benegal passed away in New Delhi precisely six months ago on August 22, 2014. His close friend and colleague, S. Viswam, the well-known journalist, has sent the following tribute for publication on the occasion of Benegal’s 93rd birth anniversary.

22-2-22: A Remembrance


Not all will agree with me when I say that there are certain games of and in life that are best left to children to play. One of them is the make-believe joy associated with the wishing and receiving of birthday greetings. After a certain age, the game becomes a dreary and vapid exercise, both the (well)wisher and the fortunate-wished taking only a perfunctory interest in the exchanges, both aware that a ritual is being enacted in order to maintain a long-established tradition.

The world can be divided, I feel, into two classes: those who have been raised in the “birthday celebration” tradition, and those who let their birthdays pass uncelebrated. I haven’t heard of any surveys estimating the size of each class, but perhaps the majority rests with the second category. Celebration of birthdays is a passion and also fashion with certain people who believe in networking human relationships using the occasion of one’s birthday to good effect. The birthday, as we in India know well, is an occasion

to look forward to in the life of our big netas and also in the lives of the tuppenny-happenny junior working-to-become netas.

I was not raised in the birthday games tradition, my parents not given to celebrating birthdays, theirs or their children’s. My sisters are avid players, however, and maintain special diaries that list the important day. They will trace their targets and establish contact and convey greetings to the birthday boy/girl in the sing-song tone that the act of wishing calls for. I was not even a peripheral player and had to be reminded of my own birthdays. However, I willy-nilly got dragged into the game after I met my friend Som Benegal, quite by accident, on what coincidentally happened to be his birthday, which was the 22nd of February. I became a committed and earnest player after I learnt that his year of birth was 1922. Which made his date of birth 22-2-22.

That combination of dates is a fortuitous occurrence and not a contrived one arranged by people paying money to obtain a unique number plate for their cars or driving licences. One cannot “arrange” to be born on a certain day or date merely to add special value to the record. Interesting or unique numbers are happenstance. The special feature of Som Benegal’s date of birth was that it became unique in itself because of the repetition in it of a single number as many as five times.

In one of his essays, James Thurber writes that one day while looking at a window opposite his room, the idea of hurling a shoe or some missile at it “enormously” caught his fancy. Likewise, since it was an easy combo to remember, the idea of retaining it in my memory also “enormously” caught my fancy. 22-2-22. I told Som that since it was an easy number to remember, he could count on my wishing him on his birthdays. He merely grunted, but I have never failed to wish him on the 22nd of February over the last 25 years I have known him. February 22, 2015 will be the first 22-2 that I will be unable to wish him. He passed away on August 22, 2014 at the age of 92. Note that he died on a 22nd. A ‘cosmic” connection to the date?

There was always an aura of “orderliness” surrounding Som Benegal. I use the word as an omnibus for the phenomena of a sense of neatness, trimness, seriousness, and solemn gravitas, emanating from him and I use it because I know of none other which will describe Som’s bearing and demeanour more accurately. Som could be serious and solemn, he could be witty and humorous, he could be social and business-like. Though he was a man of diverse interests and occupations, he spent the better part of his life as a media practitioner. I could have said he was a journalist but he was a journalist plus, since he was also at home in other spheres of mass communication. Theatre, for instance. Radio, television and exhibitions etc. A quintessential mediaman. He was, in today’s jargon, a multi-media specialist, with a finger in many pies. He was not a polyglot, but he had more than a working knowledge of Sanskrit and French, not to mention “a passing acquaintance”—his own words--- with Spanish. He translated the Rig Veda into English, and brought out a few stanzas of the English version in the form of a booklet. He had planned translating more verses but never got down to the task for want of time. He had many projects stored up in “a small compartment of my brain” but he was always “lazy-busy”, to use his own words.

But what he managed to achieve was varied, interesting, highly creative, and inspired. Look at his career. In an active professional life spanning seven decades, Som had tackled all the disciplines of the media, radio, TV, theatre, exhibition, news-editing, editorial-writing and book-writing. He was the News Editor of the All India Radio in the early forties of the 20th century which marked virtually the beginning of the AIR as a news-entertainment-culture-promoting organisation and his own beginnings as a newsman. When he retired in 2011 he was still a mediaman writing and editing, but as an active Working Director of the Tej Press Group owned and run by our (mine and Som’s) dear friend, Vishwa Bandhu Gupta.

His primary interest, actually, was journalism, but he was also a man of the theatre, who loved, not acting or the stage as such, but in organisation. What you may call theatre-management, and as he told me once, theatre was a dying art in India because not enough experts and craftsmen were able to devote time to it. But the stage was also in his blood as was printer’s ink. He was so deep into theatre that he wrote a book on the subject

titled A Panorama of Indian Theatre in 1968. When I asked to borrow a book sometime in 1990, he said it had gone out of print.

On topics concerning himself or his work, Som was shy to the point of self-effacement, but incessant prodding brought out the identity of the person who had motivated the transition from journalism to theatre. That person was none other than Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, who was not only a political leader in her own right, but also a multi-faceted personality with many interests. One of them was theatre, and another was the Indian cooperative movement. From journalism, Som went to theatre and from theatre went to the cooperative movement. Kamaladevi had already made a name for herself for promoting Indian handicrafts and was able to extend moral and material support to artists, artistes and village craftsmen through her links with the Handicrafts Board. It was under her leadership and inspiration that the now-famous All India Cottage Industries Emporium was born. Som’s contribution was in planning, organisation, and execution, while Kamaladevi took over the onerous task of funding and content. The Emporium began small, but it is located in every State now.

Som became the talk of the town, literally, with his witty one-liners to The Times of India published at the bottom of the Letters to the Editor column. The paper’s circulation steadily rose between the sixties and seventies of the last century what with the lively cartoons of R.K. Laxman on the front page and Som Benegal’s one-liners on the edit page. Gentle but biting wit was the forte of both these fun-makers and both endeared themselves to the readers with their daily contributions in Laxman’s case and the frequent letters of Som. Som also built his own loyal group of readers who took a fancy to his light-hearted column “And the Old Lama Said”. As far as The Times of India readers were concerned, it was a phase in the paper’s career when good times was had by all.

My acquaintance with Som was limited to the encounters we had in the Press Club of India where we consumed the poisons of our choice. Som occasionally took me aside to show me a cutting of his latest piece in some paper or to ask me to make a note to read his piece somewhere, mostly in The Times of India. But we got to know each other better, and our acquaintance turned into friendship when Nikhil Chakravartty, the reputed journalist and media leader, set up an organisation to represent the media of the non-aligned countries. He roped in both of us to help him organise an international conference of media personnel of non-aligned nations. It was Som who thought of the term NAMEDIA as the new organisation’s name, and Nikhilda promptly accepted it, commenting to Som that it was the most appropriate nomenclature for a set-up of the kind envisaged.

Som initially insisted on him being designated Director-General of the organisation, a title that was consistent with practices in international organisations, but Nikhilda asked him to be content for the present with the title Secretary-General. Som was disappointed no doubt but gave in. I was appointed spokesman and in due course a Managing Committee was formed. We had invaluable help from our friend and another multi-media specialist, the late Jag Mohan. Som’s contribution in making the first international conference of NAMEDIA a resounding success was immense. He proved himself to be an “organisation man” in every sense of the term.

Som would have turned 94 on February 22, 2015 if he were alive. I will miss him the most on that date since I have not missed a single 22-2 date to wish him for at least two decades. However, this time it will be only pleasant remembrance of his friendship and camaraderie. From 22-2-22 to 22-8-2014, it was a good life. Salutes, Som!

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