'A book on my life as it comes out of my mouth'
Dr T S Narayana Swamy, Sivaji Ganesan's biographer, recalls his sessions with the icon
Dr T S Narayana Swamy
Dr T S Narayana Swamy, former Information and Communication Officer of UNICEF, was destined to be a part of the book on Sivaji Ganesan.
The idea to write a biography on Sivaji Ganesan originated in 1974 when he was a producer with Doordarshan Mumbai. The biography became an autobiography but in a different format. Without Swamy, it would not have happened at all.
Here, Swamy recollects how it all began:
In 1974, Maharashtra was celebrating the 10th centennary of Shivaji Maharaj. So Doordarshan Mumbai, where I worked as a producer, wanted a special programme. It was unanimously agreed upon that Sivaji Ganesan would portray the role of Sivaji in that feature. I knew Sivaji Ganesan well and was deputed to Chennai to do the film.
We made a 30-minute film on Shivaji. And the entire cost of the production was met by Sivaji Ganesan. It was like a charity to Doordarshan.
The programme was aired July 21, 1974. Later we found that Shivaji Maharaj was crowned 300 years ago on July 21. Sivaji Ganesan left this world July 21, 2001.
Whenever I met him after making the programme I would convey my desire to write his biography. He always said, 'Okay, when the time comes, we will do it.'
So I started collecting material for his biography as early as 1974.
In 1996 after my retirement from the UNICEF, I thought it was the right time to start on the book. At that time, he was also a bit free, so he agreed to talk to me.
I started gathering all the press clippings on him that had appeared between 1952 and 1996. After one-and-a-half years of collecting material, I told him I was ready to ask him questions. He found a lot of errors in the press reports, and I easily convinced him that it was all the more important for him to set things right.
Thus began our question and answer sessions.
He asked me, 'Why don't you write a book on my true life as it comes out of my mouth?' That was how the idea to write a biography changed to an autobiography.
In 1997, All India Radio wanted to do an audio biography of Sivaji Ganesan. Immediately, he suggested that instead of him narrating his life, he preferred me asking questions for radio, as I was working on his biography. So we picked up the threads once again for radio. We went to the radio station for six or seven days and did nearly seven hours of recording.
Our discussions continued for two more years. I would meet him every week, for a day or even half a day. Though we usually met at his residence, there were times when we met at my residence or at the Sivaji Films office. We had a great time going through all the press clippings. He was amazed to see the amount of material that I had collected.
He used to comment, 'So much written about me! I never knew'. During the early years of his career and at his peak, he had no time to see the write-ups.
I still remember asking him a question on overacting, because many wrote that he overacted. His response started with two questions, 'What is acting? What is the meaning of the word 'actor'? The word 'actor' means a dramatic performer. It is not a realistic performer. When you perform realistically, it is natural life. When you perform dramatically, it is drama. So, what do you want me to do?'
According to me, the chapter in which he speaks about acting is very exciting. He has spoken six or seven pages on acting.
I used to transcribe the interview regularly and show it to him. He would correct certain words. I can say I had a sort of formal approval from him. He told me, 'First write my autobiography in a question and answer format. Let people know my true life. I want this book to be my will. Later on, you can write my biography.'
I think it is the first time that an autobiography has been written in a question and answer format. The beauty in which his thoughts ran was amazing. He would be talking about his seventh year and, suddenly, he would link it with something that happened in his 34th year. So the story does not run in a chronological order although I asked him questions in the chronological order. He used a flashback technique.
Let me give you an example. He said, 'In my seventh year, I saw a street play of Veerapandya Kattabomman. Immediately, the spirit came into me. I said to myself, I must play the role one day. That dream came true after 36 years. I staged a drama and we performed at many places. It won me the Afro Asian Award.'
Probably he had done the editing of the sequence mentally.
After more than 200 hours of discussion with him, I had nearly 40 hours of tape with me.
Another massive task that I undertook was collecting pictures. His wife gave me the maximum number of pictures. She had meticulously collected his pictures and preserved them in boxes laid with neem leaves. It took 20 days of hard work to sort them out. We also collected pictures from photographers who were his contemporaries. Here, I have to mention Film News Anandan and Arunachalam from whom I got a lot of pictures.
I had over 2,000 photographs to choose from.
Once everything was ready, he gave his green signal. Then, I had a discussion with Ram Kumar, his eldest son. We decided to release the book on his 75th birthday. And we wanted him to release the book with his autograph on the copies. That did not happen. We never thought that he would not be there on his 75th birthday.
He ended the interview by saying, 'This is not an end, it is only the beginning'. I do not know why he said that. Perhaps he wanted to say more later.
Dr T S Narayana Swamy spoke to Shobha Warrier
Photographs by Sreeram Selvaraj