In Her Words
In this column we will be featuring the writings by award winning women journalists in India found in the collection of the book ‘Making News Breaking News Her Way. It is a publication by Tranquebar Press in association with Media Foundation, New Delhi which instituted the annual Chameli Devi Jain Award for an Outstanding Women Mediaperson in 1980.
Lone rangers don’t get the padmashri
[dropcap]J[/dropcap]ournalism as a profession has seen many a daredevil- both men and women. It counts for more if you happen to be a woman. Not because you get any free rolls of the dice, but simply because, as in other professions, the climb to the top has its usual difficult-to-overcome glass ceiling if you happen to be a woman. It also means that ‘survival of the fittest’ is a situation that you see on a day-to-day basis.Naive as I was in the early 1980s, fresh out of college, with a spring in my step and stars in my eyes, the only thing that I ever wanted to become was a journalist. This is not counting the time when, like all girls of my vintage, I too, wanted to become an air hostess, but never mind that! Journalism was something I had prepared myself for, ever since I was in pigtails. From the first year of college itself: I wrote prolifically on diverse subjects -the gold-control order, leprosy, cinema or the environment. This was before a senior journalist, Paul Jacob, and the then director of the Kathak Kendra, Keshav Kothari, advised me to Specialise m one Subject. I felt that I was on firmer ground writing on the arts, as my own training in Kathak and Hindustani vocal music would be a huge support. Much to my surprise, I even found reputed publications that thought it worthwhile to publish my stuff. It was a heady feeling. Not only did it improve my stock in college, it also meant that I was inching towards my goal.
All the writing I did in college certainly helped when I decided to look for a job soon after my BA from Miranda House, a college that had the dubious distinction of producing ‘fast’ girls. I wonder what that meant. Did the fact that you learnt to stand up for what you thought right, make you ‘fast’? How come they did not complain when we did our duties just as conscientiously? Why is it that when it comes to day-to-day living, we expect women to take a demure backseat?
I joined The Indian Express. This was a time when we women of a certain age group and social strata were rebels and firebrands in our own right, and felt rather insulted if there was as much as a whiff of our male colleagues being protective about us. Not that they were, but we didn’t even give them the option! Those were the days when women in newspapers were not expected to do night shifts and bring out editions. And of course if you didn’t do night shifts, you couldn’t be promoted as chief sub-editor. Equal pay and equal rights but unequal work used to be the refrain of our male colleagues. We insisted on doing night shifts and two of us even got promoted to chief sub-editorship. It was quite an achievement. The first blow to the glass ceiling had been dealt. And we paid the price: bad marriages, no social life, no kids, indifferent health, et al. Yet our commitment to journalism as a way of life rather than a profession was unshaken.
Then I joined The Times of India. Times changed and so did we. Thick cotton sarees and huge bindis gave way to chic georgettes and silver sandals. Age and experience taught us to retreat. Some battles were abandoned and others put on the shelf for another day. And yet, the fight didn’t completely go out of us. Like every generation, we fought the battles for ourselves and for the generation after us. Maybe we were paving the way for today. Or maybe we were just a channel for the change that had to happen.
The young brood of women journalists being churned out today by colleges and media institutes rather than on the anvil of hands-on experience, perhaps laugh at our battles as part of folklore. They whiz around driving their cars, ears firmly glued to their cellphones, ready to outdo each other in deploying any means to achieve their ends -be it a promotion, a pay raise or a better display of their story. It frightens me.
Not for a minute am I envious of the freedom and equality which we fought for and which the new generation takes for granted. If anything, it reminds me of a line in the film Lajja spoken by an older woman, Dina Pathak, ‘I wish we had fought these battles, then maybe our daughters would not have had to.’ And I, for one, am glad we had the courage and sense of responsibility to stand up for our place in a male- dominated profession.
When I joined the newly launched Pioneer in Delhi after quitting The Times of India, most of my friends, colleagues and even family thought I was crazy. After all, who gives up The Times for what was until then a mofussil newspaper published from Lucknow? But by then I was up to my gills with sub-editing and chief-subbing and was itching to write on the arts, not sporadically, but on a regular basis, like news. The arts is one arena where there is so much news, most of which never gets out, and I felt it needed to be told.
Besides, I believed that culture was of intrinsic importance and it was imperative to record it, especially for the new generation. How else would posterity judge us? Cultural watermarks are among the greatest indicators of who we are as a people. There are so many dance, music, theatre and visual art forms, crafts, handloom styles and the like, that are dying unsung due to the fewer takers every day. The struggle to remain an artiste or a performer when poverty comes calling, or to sustain one’s space in the spotlight after having made it, are an inherent part of the arts. Some of the stories are inspiring, some pathetic and painful, but they are all worth telling, and I felt they needed to be recorded for posterity.
It was one of the most meaningful phases of my professional life. I worked from eleven am to eleven pm, seven days a week, come hail or high water. I wrote like there was no tomorrow! Did investigative stories about art institutions, fearlessly blew the lid off their skewered functioning, met and interviewed artists, dancers, musicians, theatre artistes that one had just seen on stage and revered as great performers, and discovered their clay feet, understood their creative processes, cried with empathy when they talked about the thorns in their journey, and even did reviews occasionally, and became the toast of the art town. They hated me and loved me, but couldn’t ignore me! I loved every minute of it. It was indeed an enchanted phase.
It was during this phase that the Chameli Devi Jain Award was bestowed on me for my writing on the arts. I felt that all those years of working tirelessly and courageously had been worth it. I was euphoric. All the newspapers and national dailies, with the exception of The Pioneer, carried the news with pictures, and congratulatory messages kept coming for a long time.
Then all too soon, Vinod Mehta walked away to start Outlook. For various reasons I quit a year after. Then began the process of reinventing myself. I joined the National Literacy Mission as a media consultant, wrote, edited and produced material for policy-makers of literacy; created books of international quality that were launched by the President of India. I curated art shows with literacy and education of women and their empowerment as core themes. I was awarded the Charles Wallace India Trust Award. This included a fellowship to study art curation in London at Goldsmith’s College. I became India’s first, trained curator.
I returned from the UK to find my marriage to a fellow journalist unravelling after nearly two decades, but I honestly can’t say that it was journalism that caused it. In fact, I think it was writing that sustained me when I had nowhere to go, no job and practically no money. I managed to keep my sanity thanks to the words that coursed through my veins like blood.
It was one of the most difficult times of my life. I knocked on every door, including those of erstwhile colleagues, to ask for a job or even a writing assignment. None of them gave me work except Chandan Mitra. I shall always be indebted to him for having faith in me and giving me work when I most needed it. I set up the first Indian arts portal for The Pioneer that Chandan had acquired.
The fight to keep burning bright the flame of the arts, and the frequent rejections that came with it, did take its toll on me. Sometimes the pain was almost physical. It hit my self- esteem. I began to wonder whether all the years spent in journalism had been a huge waste of life. Had all the running around like a headless chicken for a story, toiling in sweaty, smelly and toxic presses, years of night shifts that played havoc with the body clock, the enemies one made for one’s beliefs and commitment, been an exercise in futility? Had all that proven professional capability counted -for nothing? Didn’t it all amount to anything at all? It was bewildering. Yet I was also sure, at another level, that it was they who were making a mistake -for I knew that I wrote well since the words came from a core deep within me.
In the lonely days in London I had rediscovered painting and plastered my hostel room walls with the colours of India that I so sorely missed. Prior to this, my hands would often tremble but I had been unable to decipher why. It was when I took to painting in a big way that I understood that it was the yearning to paint that caused them to tremble. I discovered that I am multi-dimensional. I could write, curate and paint with more or less the same amount of adeptness. I say this in all humbleness and with a deep conviction and commitment to all three streams. For, are they not part of the larger whole? All the enemies I made, however, as a fearless journalist – artists, gallery owners and other stakeholders of the arts – were unwilling to accept this new role of mine. It threatened them and this was a perfect time to settle scores.
In some ways, even after having devoted nearly three decades of my life to the arts -books, exhibitions, paintings, writing, chronicling, researching, doing multi-disciplinary work -I still feel I have not been given the bouquets I deserve.
Perhaps because I am not part of a clique. I have lived the glass ceiling that gender-sensitive writers talk about. It has not been easy. But then who said that life was meant to be easy? Except the unconditional love of my parents, nothing has come easy to me. Neither success, nor fame.
I am glad I have written this piece before I forget, and perhaps chronicle, how it felt to be a woman journalist at a crucial point in the history of Indian journalism. Somewhere it is also linked to my deep desire to curate a museum of print media in India. For I think that the Indian media -perhaps the most free and independent media in the world -deserves to be viewed in its historical context and perspective. Even at the risk of having the idea usurped, I am sharing it, for even if I am unable to realise this dream, perhaps someone, someday, will read this and make it their life’s mission.
Alka Raghuvanshi wears many hats. She is an arts writer, columnist, art curator and artist. She has written, edited and produced nearly twenty-five books. As an artist, she has done seven solo shows in different parts of the world and been part of nearly a hundred group shows worldwide. Her works, which were part of the Adana Biennale in Turkey, are in private and public collections both in India and abroad. She is India’s first trained art curator, having curated over thirty exhibitions internationally. Alka won the Charneli Devi Jain Award in 1993. She shared the award with Manimala and Sheela Bhatt.