Sunday, Nov 28, 2021

Beyond Shibboleths

From Nehru’s ‘restless gene’ to Kerala Travel Mart—a personal history of Indian tourism

Beyond Shibboleths
Photograph by Suresh K. Pandey
Beyond Shibboleths

Genes are the tiny biological programmes that make a person an individual: they determine the colour of the eyes and hair, height, even personality. One of them, DRD4-7R, appears in 20 per cent of the people. It is also called the ‘restless gene’ or the ‘travel gene’. It asserts itself in leaders and urges them to see what lies beyond the horizon, and on the other side of the mountain. When individuals do this, the gene releases a rewarding shot of the ‘feel good’ chemical, dopamine. It is nature’s way of ensuring the continued evolution of the human race. It also explains how humans colonised every environment on earth.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s restless gene must have driven him to invite Unesco to hold its meeting in New Delhi. He wanted to dispel the mushy-mushy, mysterious third world image of India fostered by the British. The colonials needed to screen their exploitation of India’s resources under the myth of ‘the White man’s burden’. Nehru wished to dispel this false narrative by asserting India’s enormous cultural and architectural heritage. He did this by creating the Vigyan Bhavan for Unesco’s meetings. Here the delegates were immersed in the wonders of India’s Buddhist rock-temple architecture. They lived in the newly built Ashoka Hotel. This iconic hotel’s eclectic design was an instantly recognisable fusion of pan-Indian cultural motifs reasserting India’s globe-spanning heritage.

Indira Gandhi followed in her father’s footsteps in recognising the image-building impact of tourism. She was the first Asian PM to give tourism and civil aviation a cabinet minister. The erudite Karan Singh was the perfect choice, but, sadly, ­politicians and the majority of civil servants continued to regard tourism as a ­frivolous activity. Civil aviation, however, still shone with the trail-blazing ideas of J.R.D. Tata, and this helped Karan Singh overcome some of the bureaucratic and political inertia.

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Finally, the young Rajiv Gandhi, prime minister and tourism minister, swept through the musty corridors of power like a gust of fresh air. He ­removed manual typewriters and ­installed computers to update tourism communications. He and his young wife unleashed the ‘Festivals of India’. This was a multi-pronged performing arts blitzkrieg with shock and awe. This ­cultural tsunami celebrating the diversity of our land had been long overdue. Public opinion was swinging around to accepting tourism as a powerful ­economic and cultural activity.

This was obvious when the Indian Express carried an op-ed column on tourism. We wrote to the editor that as there was more to be said about tourism, we could offer him a 2,500-word article. We had even suggested that, if space was a problem, he could consider dropping the crossword! Our conservative friends were aghast. The Express was held in high esteem because of its principled stand against the brutal tactics used during the Emergency (1975-77). Obviously, we got carried away! To our surprise, and ­delight, however, the editor wrote back that if we split the article into two of 1,200 words each, he would like to see them. A few days later, our first column ­appeared in all editions of the Express. It ran every fortnight for many years until we decided to move on.

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In fact, we had started fuelling our columns with experiences enriched by tours on the invitations of various state tourism development corporations. That wasn’t difficult. State corporations didn’t have money, but needed exposure. Tamil Nadu was the first to invite us. It was our initial close encounter with the astounding cultural wealth ­enshrined and alive in the southern temples. We bought books on the ­amazing Indic faiths, and arrived at mind-blowing theories about many ­legends and traditional beliefs. Did the dashavataras elaborate and pre-empt Darwin’s theory? Is the creation of matter after the Big Bang captured in Shakti’s dance of Maya?

As interest in Indic culture grew, so did the ­dedication of government and private ­organisations to the special facets of tourism.

As interest in aspects of Indic culture grew, so too did the dedication of ­government and private organisations to the special facets of tourism. Haryana CM Bansi Lal and his able administrator, S.K. ‘Chappie’ Misra, tapped into an unusual tourism resource—highways. Realising that many highways out of Delhi passed through Haryana, they built a superb network of highway resorts. Haryana was the inspired creator of the Surajkund Crafts Mela.

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Then there was the fascinating interview we had with the soft-spoken A.V. Paulose, chairman, Railway Board. He was thinking of running a special tourist train, using the coaches specially constructed for the former princes. We thought it was a wonderful idea and would give Indian Railways an edge over others. Later, we travelled on ‘The Palace on Wheels’ and its clones. They were excellent ­experiences, though the ones through Rajasthan were better.

In a breakaway from the stereotypical structure, the forest department of Karnataka decided to set up a nature tourism organisation on the lines of Nepal’s Tiger Tops. Under the affable but no-nonsense Col ‘Papa’ John Wakefield, and his department head, Vinay Luthra, the state’s jungle lodges and resorts ran with seamless efficiency.

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Another trail-blazing state and private sector venture was the Kerala Travel Mart. It was settled in typical Malayali style over a bottle (or two or three­) of malted ­barley distillate and copious helpings of succulent fried king prawns. The ­participants were leading hoteliers, travel agents and a well-known marketing expert. Out of that convivial evening was born an annual buyer-sellers meet that put Kerala on the world tourism map. International tourists appreciated the meticulous attention to detail put in by the Assam Bengal River Navigation Company. Their Ganga and Brahmaputra cruises were rich with history and served memorable cuisine.

Then, we returned home to the oak woods of the Garhwal Himalayas. Ours is an old cottage filled with old memories, which is what makes a house a home. We were sitting in our late mother’s bedroom one evening when an interview with Bhaskar Ghosh, who was then the DG of Doordarshan, came on the screen. Mom said, “He seems to be a nice person. Why don’t you make TV travel documentaries?”

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We protested that we had never made a TV documentary, didn’t know anyone who had made one, didn’t even know what a TV camera looked like. “Well, write to him and admit this. And then tell him that you would like to make travel documentaries. You can’t lose anything by writing, can you?” So we wrote, in a repeat of our first letter to the Express. And to our surprise, we got a prompt reply.

We met Ghosh in Delhi, and later we met four well-known producers, some of whom looked at us with suspicion. In the film world, apparently, script-writers are low on the totem pole. So when we returned to Mussoorie, we told DD that the title of the series should be Looking Beyond with Hugh and Colleen Gantzer. The series had 24 episodes, six for each producer from Delhi, Chennai, Calcutta and Mumbai.

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From the start we broke some DD shibboleths. There would be no scripts, we would tell the crew what to shoot on locations. We would not give a story board because an authentic travel documentary should be a visual record of what happens, not a scripted and staged performance. We would personally write and deliver the voice-over. And we would approve the final product before it was sent to DD. Some thought that they would have their way on the locations or on the edit table. It was not an easy ride for us. But when viewers still refer to them, decades later, we glow.  

(Views are personal.)


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