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Oratory Club Of India

Much-needed anthologies of great speeches made by Indians. But why only speeches made in English?

Oratory Club Of India
Oratory Club Of India
The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Speeches
By Rakesh Batabyal (edt)
Penguin 916 pages | Rs 595
Both text and context mark out great speeches. Great speeches have shaped history, in the process defining not just the individuals who have delivered them but also the people for whom they are intended. They have not only marked but also created special moments and occasions that have become landmarks. They have served not just as personal statements but as testaments to their times. They have not just been articulations of individual beliefs but have also defined collective aspirations. They have been, at once, both spontaneous soliloquies and crafted communions. When we read great speeches, we see not just one person thinking, speaking and communicating to a larger audience, but we sense the very ethos of the society in which they are embedded.

A society that is founded on oral traditions, that has seen such profound transformations and that has produced so many remarkable public figures is a natural habitat for great speeches. But standard compendiums have not done us justice at all. Brian MacArthur's The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Speeches, for instance, has only four Indian contributions. These are two of Mahatma Gandhi—his iconoclastic blast at the opening of Banaras Hindu University on February 4, 1916, and the March 23, 1922, defence at the famous Ahmedabad trial—and two of Jawaharlal Nehru—'Tryst with destiny' of August 14, 1947, and 'the light has gone out of our lives' of January 30, 1948. William Safire's Lend Me Your Ears has just Gandhi's defence and Nehru's eulogy among the great speeches in history.

Now two eminent Indian historians have given us separate anthologies of the most important speeches made by Indians. Rakesh Batabyal's The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Speeches covers the period 1877-2004, while Rudrangshu Mukherjee's Great Speeches of Modern India spans 1865-2004. Both are valuable not just for the speeches included but also for the accompanying commentary that explains their larger significance. Batabyal's anthology is more extensively researched and wide-ranging, his commentary more detailed.

Batabyal has included 161 speeches and goes beyond "rounding up the usual suspects". He has included scientists C.V. Raman, Meghnad Saha and Homi Bhabha, social activists like Baba Amte, religious leaders like Swami Ranganathananda, "revolutionaries" like Kanu Sanyal, labour leaders like Joseph Baptista and Parvathi Krishnan, artistes like Prithviraj Kapoor, authors like R.K. Narayan, and academics like Amartya Sen. This gives his collection a distinctive flavour. Mukherjee's coverage is smaller, with 49 speeches, and his selection is more conventional even though he has tried to cover a wider canvas by including speeches made by authors like Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, by artistic personages like Satyajit Ray, by public personalities like Gopal Gandhi and by industrialists like J.R.D. Tata. He even has two by Lord Curzon. Eleven of the speeches are common to both volumes: Vivekananda (1893), Mahatma Gandhi (1916 and 1922), Rabindranath Tagore (1941), Jawaharlal Nehru (1929, 1947 and 1948), M. Singaravelu (1933), Indira Gandhi (1975), Manmohan Singh (1991) and Sonia Gandhi (2004).

Selections in such anthologies will always involve some subjectivity. But a couple of inclusions and exclusions in both volumes are baffling, to say the least. Mukherjee has three speeches by J.R.D. Tata and two by L.K. Advani, and Batabyal has a speech by, of all people, Brajesh Mishra. Neither has included V.S. Srinivasa Sastry, considered to be the finest orator—although Batabyal has included S. Satyamurthy. Hiren Mookherjee, reckoned to be amongst the most eloquent of parliamentarians, is missing from both books. Mukherjee's omission of Maulana Azad especially is strange. Both have Atal Behari Vajpayee but neither has included his May 1964 tribute to Jawaharlal Nehru, widely acknowledged to be amongst his noblest speeches. While Azad figures in Batabyal's volume, it is not his brilliant 1940 Ramgarh speech as president of the Indian National Congress that is included. Narasimha Rao figures only in Mukherjee's collection but not his most erudite speech given at the Alpbach Forum in Austria in 1993. Mohammad Ali's speech at the 1923 session of the Indian National Congress at Kakinada, a masterpiece in every respect, is also ignored by both. A great speech is one that captures a society's critical move from a moment of despondency to a new phase of resolve. That is why the omission of Lal Bahadur Shastri's Independence Day speech of 1965 by both historians is glaring.

Both volumes have a severe handicap. They consist almost entirely of speeches made in English. Mukherjee has just five speeches originally made in other languages—Mohammed Iqbal in Urdu (1930), Rabindranath Tagore in Bengali (1941), Nathuram Godse in Marathi (1949) and Atal Behari Vajpayee in Hindi (1959 and 1999). Batabyal has also only nine in his large collection—Kazi Nazrul Islam (1923), Rabindranath Tagore (1941) and Kanu Sanyal (1969) in Bengali; Tajamul Hosain (1948), Prithviraj Kapoor (1958), Ram Manohar Lohia (1963), Jayaprakash Narayan (1969), Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1969) and N.G. Goray in Hindi (1975). The excessive English orientation leads to many exclusions. The Communist leader S.A. Dange, for instance, figures three times in Batabyal's volume but his colleague E.M.S. Namboodiripad who made his mark in Malayalam is absent. Jyotiba Phule, Madan Mohan Malaviya and Charan Singh (Hindi), Ramaswamy Naicker, Annadurai and Karunanidhi (Tamil), and Indulal Yagnik (Gujarati) are absent in both collections.

Great Speeches of Modern India, edited by Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Random House | 454 pages | Rs 395
Are "great" speeches only those that have had beneficial impacts? Mukherjee, of course, has included Godse whose confessional has been subject to much-acclaimed analysis by Ashis Nandy in his book At the Edge of Psychology, which was later translated into Kannada with even better effect by U.R. Ananthamurthy. Bal Thackeray and Uma Bharati are fiery speakers who have made many a "great" speech in their careers. Bhindranwale set Punjab afire—literally and metaphorically—by his speeches. In recent years, Narendra Modi has emerged as a very powerful speaker. But in all these cases, the content of what is said creates so much revulsion that they are ruled out for inclusion in such anthologies, although they still deserve to be studied.

Speechwriters are a modern breed and the best of them have remained self-effacing. H.V.R. Iengar, the eminent civil servant who served as Panditji's principal private secretary, has written on how Nehru drove straight to All India Radio just a few hours after Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated to deliver the classic eulogy. He spoke from the heart, Iengar wrote, without the slightest preparation. People like Gandhi, Nehru, Radhakrishnan and Ambedkar had simply no need for draftsmen. But even though leaders like Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi depended on speechwriters, their involvement in the preparation of the speeches they delivered was intense.

H.Y. Sharada Prasad, speechwriter nonpareil, has often spoken of how his work for Indira Gandhi was genuinely a collaborative exercise and some evidence of this is available in his The Book I Won't Be Writing and Other Essays. Incidentally, Sharada Prasad also draws attention in this book to one of K.R. Narayanan's speeches in November 1997 on the eve of Nehru's birthday as being "without question intellectually one of the more stimulating lectures in Delhi for a long time". But, alas, neither Batabyal nor Mukherjee has included it.

According to Mani Shankar Aiyar, who was Rajiv Gandhi's principal writer, the prime minister's speech on disarmament at the UN in 1988, included in Batabyal's collection, went through over 10 drafts, with the prime minister himself being an active participant at every step. Narasimha Rao got his aides to give him inputs but mostly he wrote his own speeches. Manmohan Singh needs neither speechwriters nor aides for inputs and, not surprisingly, has been most effective when he has spoken extempore.

The sardonic is lacking in most great Indian speeches. In the pantheon of greats, only Gandhi perhaps had a wonderful sense of mischief, an enormous ability to laugh at himself. But his speeches did not reflect this aspect of his personality. Vajpayee was among the very few who peppered his speeches during his prime with devastating humour. His theatrics and mannerisms made him a scintillating speaker but whether he made consistently great speeches is debatable. Laloo Prasad too is inimitable but again he may well be a case of style overshadowing substance, even though that style has won him a huge following.

What is lacking in humour is made up by the dazzling eloquence and extraordinary insights of many of the anthologised speeches that show the ideas and ideologies that have gone into the making of contemporary India. Inevitably, the impact of the dramatis personae is somewhat diminished because we are reading words which were meant to be heard. Nevertheless, Batabyal's and Mukherjee's volumes, the former particularly, will certainly become authoritative source books for those who realise that great speeches—enduring cocktails of spontaneous formulations, emotional words, spirited ideas and moving imagery—are both a source of sublime prose and a form of social and political memory. And as TV overtakes us, this memory is nostalgia as well.

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