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Mentors & muses

Gurus cool


SIDE BY SIDE Kamath and Kochhar

David de Souza, a photographer from Mumbai, has the portrait of a middle-aged man bent over a silkscreen machine hanging on his wall. It's quite an oddity in a house lined with pictures of women, many of them nude. The man, Babla, is not the sort of model you'd expect de Souza - a student of the feminine form - to have. Turns out, it was Babla who broadened the photographer's early orthodox Christian worldview, showed him alternatives to the main, and, in the photographer's own words, set him from the straight-and-narrow on to the broad-anddeep. He was, without having identified himself as such, de Souza's unlikely, but memorable, mentor.

The word mentor derives from Greek mythology. Mentor was an old man in Homer's Odyssey, whose shape goddess Athena assumed to guide Odysseus's son Telemachus in his time of difficulty. Mentors are hard to come by (the term 'good mentor' is tautological), largely because mentorship by subscription is rather uncommon in India and, unlike the Vedic times, there are fewer folk today with the skills, temperament and time to walk the youth through life. The social role enacted by a mentor perhaps dates back to the one played by a teacher, but while the latter teaches you the parts, the former shows you the whole. Curiously, mentors seem to have a practised knack for falling out of the sky.

Or, hanging around in Mumbai locals. "I was a student of 19, taking a crowded train home one day with an armful of pipettes, when a distinguished looking gentleman turned around and asked 'since when do students take their own lab material to college', " remembers de Souza. Not your everyday opening line, but Babla was not your garden variety interloper. The two men, separated by an age difference of 30 years, were perhaps drawn together because of it. Over the years, the ideological chasm that separated them grew progressively narrower. Babla, a printmaker when de Souza met him, had had previous lives as bureaucrat, air force pilot and commercial cropduster. It was his undisguised homosexuality that got him expelled from service. To a young man raised by the Roman Catholic pulpit and fed a crusty diet of prohibition and punition, this wise agnostic alcoholic homosexual, with his love for art and things outrê, his liberal gaze and his willingness to view things without judgement showed de Souza that there were alternative ways of viewing the world rather than through the narrow viewfinder of conservative Christianity. According to de Souza, "He represented all things vama-marg (left-handed ). "

Playwright Ramu Ramanathan has similar memories of his first mentor, Robert Mathews, whom he met at a rum-and-whiskey club, The Smilies. It was headed by Robert Mathews (Robbie). "Robbie discussed John Le Carre and pretended to be George Smiley. Our group consisted of a couple of kids like me (I was about 17), Muscles, who was a bouncer at a matka joint (underground lottery joint); Mandy who didn't touch alcohol because he preferred mandrax (a narcotic) and was, as a rule, addicted to it;Sheikh who sold water pumps and doors from newly constructed apartment blocks in Bandra. The amazing thing is, all of them were well-read;and had a great deal of respect for Robbie, " says Ramanathan, who based his central character in his play JAZZ on Robbie. Ramanathan's seminal experiences, made possible by Robbie, shaped his formative views of the world. "He assisted my awakening from being a middle-class, pious brahmin, Jesuit school boy. I was exposed to Le Carre and George Smiley;and Chick Corea and jazz fests;and rebellion, " says Ramanathan.

The key to Robbie's popularity was: he didn't tolerate obsequiousness. "A typical morning with Robbie meant drinking, tattle, talk and jazz. Pretty drunk, we broke for lunch and regrouped by sunset for drinking, debauchery and brawls. He and his buddies hopped from brothel to brothel. A friend and I were under age and so we sat downstairs while the ladies of the night looked on amused. They would vomit their life stories to us. For me, it was all very edifying. Robbie would say, don't trust them, they are lies. . . And it's true, the stories would change their hue with every re-telling. By sunrise we would stumble back to our homes. He was the Bandra renaissance man;and my first guru. "

Not all mentor-protegee stories are about enlightenment in dark and drunken alleys. Percussionist Ranjot Barot found beatification at the tabla, in a salubrious music room, by the agency of Zakir Hussain. "A guru is someone who passes on knowledge and inspiration, who illuminates, not only though instruction, but also through speech and action. Few people I know embody all those attributes like Zakirbhai, who has the traditional values, yet is modern and contemporary, " Barot says. "When we perform together, he introduces us as equals, not as subordinates, although we all know we're lucky to be there. He is gracious and respectful of his peers;even though he may be the better and more famous musician, Zakirbhai always plays down his rockstar status. "

Guru-shishya parampara may be a vital function of the classical arts, but gurus in the old mould are scant, says Barot. He imputes their disappearing number to the fact that Indian classical music, like much else, is caught in an economic upswing. "It has nothing to do with culture. Talent and the rest are pegged against a new cultural stock exchange - the films, " he says, suggesting that old value systems have no currency in the modern market. "Then again, " he argues "It's not every musician's job to be a guru;teaching is a fine art, and to accept the role of guru is to accept great responsibility. "

Bose Krishnamachari, the artist welcomes the role of a mentor. In a world so competitive, Krishnamachari is known for his largess to adolescent artists. "I believe in art, I believe in youth and in sharing, " he says. Having benefited from several mentors himself, the artist adds as a caveat, "One should be individualistic without being disrespectful to one's teacher. I never wanted to be an Eklavya, showing total obeisance to one's master. I have gone through lots of downs before even seeing a hint of ascendancy. I have been humiliated several times. That is how I learnt the importance of holding one's own. When it comes to your mentors you always maintain a distance and watch them from a distance just as a watchman does. "

One would imagine that a modern, DIY generation (cue: Eklavya) with its apps and advanced navigation systems (more functional than ethical) should have no use for the intuitive directions of a mentor, but capitalism also needs un-scrip (ted) advice. People learn the algorithms of running businesses from management schools, but scruples, ethics and character are usually imbibed from model peers at the workplace. ICICI Bank MD and CEO, Chanda Kochhar, recalls the catechism of her mentor K V Kamath, "I'll never forget the day when he said that whenever you see a challenge or crisis, your shoulders become broader and your back becomes straighter and that is how it should be with a leader. "

A self-help text with the same counsel wouldn't be half as effective.

Reader's opinion (2)

Santosh Kumar PandaOct 28th, 2011 at 15:30 PM

Nice article.I liked it.

J POct 22nd, 2011 at 19:31 PM

Some societies or parts of them at least, still stick to traditions like mentoring. Good.

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