Just 32, Vikram Sampath has three sizeable non-fiction books under his belt. He tells Indulekha Aravind about the business of publishing and the challenges of writing other peoples’ lives
“I didn’t think it would be this market-driven,” is what Vikram Sampath, the winner of this year’s Yuva Sahitya Akademi award for his biography on Gauhar Jaan, has to say about the publishing world, which he entered four years ago. Sampath recently had a “young person” calling him and informing him that he wanted to write a bestseller. The subject, he was informed to his bewilderment, was irrelevant. “He told me he would go to five bookshops, scan the bestseller list, and then come up with a combination of all of them!” A stumped Sampath had no advice to offer the aspiring author, apart from ruing what consumerism had done to the world of books and “young writers”.
At 32 years, Sampath himself is not exactly a venerable figure, despite the occasional fleck of grey in his hair. But he has three intensely researched works of non-fiction under his belt, the most recent a biography of the controversial veena maestro S Balachander, titled Voice of the Veena. He says he also had a tough time coming to grips with the “circus” that seems to be necessary to catch people’s attention once a book is published, with having to arrange everything from the chief guest for the function to the chairs, though he adds that it got exponentially easier with each book. “Afterwards, it seems like writing might have been the easiest part,” he says with a laugh.
Sampath, who has a day job wrestling with financial analytics at Hewlett-Packard, says all three books came into existence serendipitously. For example, the research for his first book, Splendours of Mysore, on the 600-year history of the Mysore royal family, began when he was 12. “That was when the serial Sword of Tipu Sultan was being shown on Doordarshan. It ruffled a lot of feathers here in Karnataka for its portrayal of the Mysore royal family, so I wanted to find out more about the issue.” The curiosity kindled then led to trips to Mysore every possible weekend and holiday, with his grandmother initially accompanying him to translate any passage in Kannada. The interest in that particular king and queen extended finally to the whole family, and the research lasted 12 years, culminating in the release of the book when he was 28.
It was while he was researching the first book that he came across the fascinating character of Gauhar Jaan, the flamboyant Hindustani vocalist and the first Indian to have her music recorded, who spent her last days in Mysore. “Despite the fact that she used to be such a well-known figure, with her face appearing on matchboxes in Vienna, hardly anything about her was documented and people, even exponents of Hindustani music, had forgotten her,” says Sampath. The biography was well received, with a surprise invitation from Congress President Sonia Gandhi to 10 Janpath after she read the book. Gandhi had come across Gauhar Jaan’s recordings in the days when she and her husband Rajiv used to collect records. “The visit was interesting but it was her shelves of books that actually made me weak-kneed,” he says, sheepishly.
His latest book, on the mercurial S Balachander, was set in the more familiar world of Carnatic music, and Chennai. The legendary musician had courted many a controversy in his fight for ethics in the hallowed world of Carnatic music, and Sampath says he was warned by many people not to write about him. A month after its release, he says he has received a lot of hate mail but he has no regrets and is quite content to tell it like it is, regardless of the consequences.
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Writing a biography comes with its own set of unique challenges. “Biographies can really drain you,” Sampath says. “Essentially, you’ll be leading multiple lives.” He is still trying to get Gauhar Jaan out of his system. The process can be emotionally exhausting. “I remember discusssing something with Balachander’s family and being so moved that I broke down once I was back in my hotel room.” He also confesses to feeling overwhelmed at times by the task at hand. “I was worried about how I would finally end up portraying them.”
With Balachander, particularly, he was aware of the potential minefields. “In classical music, if you are writing a biography you are expected to eulogise the subject as a demi-god. It’s not that I’ve purposely tried to raise anyone’s hackles with this book, but my question is, why can’t genius coexist with flaws?”
With the book’s release and attendant “circus” just having finished, Sampath is taking a break before his next project, which is likely to be a work of historical fiction. He is yet to decide what it will be but it’s the new book, he says, that usually helps him unwind emotionally from its predecessor. Talks are also under way to make My Name Is Gauhar Jaan into a film but, like many an author, Sampath is not entirely without apprehension about the project, a major factor being the less-than-flattering manner in which tawaifs have so far been portrayed by Bollywood. Ask him which actor might make a good Gauhar Jaan and he laughs and pauses for a bit, before plumping for Vidya Balan. “Or maybe even Kareena Kapoor, considering Gauhar Jaan’s Armenian parentage.”
All this is apart from his pursuit of classical music, which he has been studying since he was five, and his efforts to establish an online archive of gramophone recordings, which he has registered as a private trust and hopes to have running by the end of the year. Quizzed on how he manages to find time for everything, he laughs again. “Well, sleep has been the casualty. I now sleep for just four hours.”