Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The NK magic at a grammar seminar

The star attraction at an international grammar seminar I attended sometime ago at Nagarjuna University was a short, scraggy old man with pan-tainted teeth and a run-down look.  When he spoke, the audience, consisting of university and college teachers of English, listened with rapt attention.  Every now and then, they either laughed or clapped, even though the man was speaking about the dreariest of all subjects, namely, grammar.  And when he concluded his speech, the delegates wanted him to continue.

    Natesan Krishnaswamy is the man's name.  He is more familiarly known as "Professor Krishnaswamy". His friends and admirers call him "NK".  The 80-year-old NK is the envy of teachers (How I wish I could be unpedantic enough to say, "Teacher's Envy", after the Onida advertisement!): he has the right recipe for regaling the audience.  But it is a recipe than can work only with NK.  People who have tried to use it have only revealed themselves to be a bunch of amateurs.  But, in the process, they have gained the most important lesson that the cook is as important as the recipe.  NK's cooking is authentic and distinctive.  And "vegetarian"!  But "vegetarians" and "non-vegetarians" alike enjoy his meal, savouring every mouthful.

It's the English language that NK "cooks".  He "cooked" it for about three decades as a professor of English grammar and linguistics at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad.  Among those who have feasted on his grammar teaching is the well-known British novelist AS Byatt, who said in a letter to the London Times: "I was part of a course for teachers, listening to Professor Krishnaswamy talking about modern English grammar with a wit and passion I've rarely heard in any lecturer."  Though retired officially about fifteen years ago, NK has never taken retirement from grammar teaching, teacher training, and materials writing, the last two of which he practises now with much greater charm than in the past.

At the grammar seminar, NK was the first to lecture after the inauguration.  As soon as he took over the mike, he cast a spell on the delegates – a spell that didn't break until he left.  With sturdy ideas and charming illustrations, he disproved the theory of post-colonialism and offered a neo-colonial perspective.  A delightful iconoclast, he held Crystal's concept of "World Englishes" up to ridicule, and rubbished Kachru's idea of "Indian English".  When he spoke about the celebrated "native speaker competence", the audience were not just amused; they collapsed into laughter.

On the second day of the seminar, Professor Tickoo gave a scholarly lecture on dictionaries.  At the end of the lecture, he cautioned, "No dictionary can be expected to be always correct."  NK substantiated the warning with a delightful example:  "As a grammarian and linguist, I have always wondered what the part of speech of 'Yes' is.  I looked it up in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary; it said 'Yes' is an interjection.  Then I looked it up in Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English; it said 'Yes' is an adverb.  What is the correct part of speech of 'Yes'?  Nobody knows, least of all lexicographers.  Only God knows!"  It was greeted with peals of laughter.

NK believes that inspiring people to study grammar will be much more effective than implanting grammar in their minds.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The decline and fall of the sari

On a Friday, I entered my classroom and became as bewildered as the proverbial bull in that china shop.  (But I was not, I must hasten to add, rough and clumsy like that bull.)  What caused the bewilderment was the sartorial extravagance that lay before me: the girls in the class were draped in silk saris of vibrant colours and decked out with gold necklaces, bracelets and chandelier-like objects that dangled from their ears.  "Fascinating!  Absolutely fascinating!"  I said, wondering at the difference six yards of fabric could make to a dreary classroom, and asked them, "But what's the occasion?"  "Today is the first Friday of the sravana masam", they replied blushing and laughing.  It was all very pleasing – the saris, the chandeliers, the laughter and the blushing.

When I think about it now, I feel that there is something else that is much more pleasing: the thought that the sari is here to stay, and that it still enjoys a presence on campuses, however scanty the presence may be.  And with the sari stays its magic: I have always wondered how the sari manages to stay where it stays without a belt or band to strap it in place.  Defying the pull of gravity, I mean.

The sari story is at once heroic and sordid.  Its gallantry lies in its defying the attempts of innumerable ravagers – from Dussashan in the Mahabharata to his modern counterparts – and in its obstinate refusal for a long time to be replaced by the outfits that came with the invaders, the Moghuls and the Europeans.  But it has shrunk alarmingly – from 24 yards to 18 and from that length to 12 and to the present 6, the last of which is barely insufficient, if you want your sari to be draped not just round your waist but the entire lower part of your body, and tucked up between the legs, with a pallu that is long enough to go across or around the shoulder and come down to be securely tucked up into the folding round the waist.

There is nothing, however, sordid about the sari shrinking to six yards.  Convenience rather than perversion must have dictated it.  And aesthetic sense.  Imagine Aishwarya Roy being draped in an 18-yard sari!

When did the sari begin to decline and fall?   When its various possibilities began to be exploited in our films about four decades ago.  Two films come to my mind immediately.  One is Raj Kapoor's box office hit, Ram Teri Ganga Maili, in which there is a bathing scene with the heroine, Mandakini, draped in a diaphanous sari.  The second is a love scene in Mr India in which Sridevi dances in a sari that leaves little to the imagination.  With the navel-baring potential of the 6-yard fabric being fully exploited in the movies of the following decade, the sari literally declined and fell.

When the sari fell, the salwar rose – the salwar that seemed to represent a happy compromise between the inconvenient sari and the "indecent" western wear – and  rose to prominence.  It has already gained social acceptance even in South India, the last bastion of the sari, relegating the latter to the status of the "costume dress", to be worn on formal occasions like weddings and the first Friday of the sravana masam.

But is the salwar half as aesthetic as the sari?  "The apparel oft proclaimeth the man", said Shakespeare's Polonius.  It "proclaims" women much more loudly.  Now, what the salwar proclaims about a pear-shaped woman is not aesthetically very pleasing.  And the world seems to be so full of pear-shaped women!