Sun, 01 Aug 10

Thoughts on Tilak

Twenty nine years ago, I participated for the first and the only time in an elocution competition. I was in elementary school, and the event was organized to commemorate the August 1 anniversary for Lokmanya Tilak.

I wrote my version of the speech by cribbing sentences diligently from our history text books. My father was not impressed, probably because I was shortchanging this Marathi idol. It was a Sunday evening, and after critiquing my posture and my gestures, not to mention my lack of forcefulness, he filled a whole sheet of paper in his neat cursive. I diligently memorized the whole thing, stood before the entire assembled school on Monday morning, and parroted his words. I do remember winning a prize (a book on freedom fighters, of course) and a certificate, both items I am sure my mother has kept around somewhere.

Today, as I read between the lines of the Wikipedia entry for Tilak, I marvel at his forceful combination of philosophy, ideas and actions. From teaching mathematics to founding an educational society, from starting a newspaper to creating a pan-Indian political movement, from writing treatises on the Bhagavad Gita to rallying a population around festivals, Tilak was that rare combination of scholar and organizer, journalist and leader, philosopher and preacher.

At a time when everything that was “mass” was crass, and aristocracy was the aspiration, Tilak pioneered an ethos to rouse the mass of people into movement. By creating institutions to make English and Science education widely available, he encouraged new thoughts. With his newspaper, he promulgated unrest and boycotts, thus bringing about mass political participation. In championing public celebration of festivals, he ensured training grounds for a mass of speakers, organizers and leaders, and thus the growth of the Indian Independence movement.

In today’s tech startup terms, it is like having a social media and a platform API strategy.

Modern India, though, prefers history in the style of a Bollywood movie. Start with 1857, flashback to Puru and Akbar, pan along with crowds singing in 1930, raising slogans in 1942 and celebrating in 1947). Add in a dash of military heroics, some sadness, victorious wars, and fast forward to happy times of net worth and Jai Ho!

This movie has been given its play by the Indian mass media, albeit for multiple reasons that have changed over time. If you are watching this movie, you are paying for tickets and popcorns with currency notes featuring the hero. It is an amazing feat of movie merchandising that the USA cannot match.

Even in the midst of mass media, mass appeal and mass marketing, there are always the hidden gems. They may be dusty and scratched, but inspiring nevertheless. As I come a full circle today, in writing a blog post about Tilak, I realize that remembrance is just the first step. The next step is to act, on however small a scale, for improvement and independence. The tools are all around us. All that remains is to restart the work again.

पुनश्च हरि अोम् ।

Sun, 01 Aug 10