The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, November 24, 2002

Ageless spirit’s golden hues
Roopinder Singh

Ageless Mind and Spirit: Faces and Voices from the World of India’s Elderly
by Samar and Vijay S. Jodha. Neovision Publishers Pvt Ltd. New Delhi.
Pages 324. Rs 2,500.

AMRITA Pritam puts it so well: "What does it mean to be aged? Can you ask the flower what is the meaning of its blossoming? Why does it sweeten the air with its scent?" The celebrated author is one of the 130 elders featured in this book, which took eight years to fructify.

It is a refreshing change to browse through a book that has images of the elderly at a time when pictures of young, well-chiselled bodies dominate our mindscape. It is better still to read the interesting vignettes of the lives of those who have been sculpted by experience. These are persons who have impacted lives at a very basic level as parents and grandparents as well as professionally as mentors and those who have shaped the world that we live in today.

In the world of letters, Mulk Raj Anand, Nirmal Verma, Mahashweta Devi, Khushwant Singh, O. P. Vijyan and Annanda Shankar Ray (who died recently, after the book was published), enrich our lives with their experiences and knowledge. How many children know of Anant Pai, the man behind Amar Chitra Katha comics? Or Pran, who created Chacha Chaudhari?

In the Indian context, the choice of the word "elder" is more appropriate as opposed to the politically correct and Americanised expression "senior citizens". We have always looked up to our elders whether they are senior citizens or not.


Elders have so much to give, and they do so in such a selfless manner. Who wouldn’t be inspired by the story of Budh Singh Dhan who migrated to Canada in 1959? He started as a sawmill worker and became a successful businessman. He founded the first Punjabi school in Canada and then decided to invest back in his village by setting up the Guru Nanak Mission Medical and Educational Trust which runs a 250-bed hospital (since 1982) and Guru Nanak College of Nursing (since 1990).

Maharani Gayatri Devi is a paradigm of grace, which presupposes graciousness. "This retirement business that you are talking about is true only in the case of government employees and people like them in cities. Others have to work till the very end. I don’t think that old persons are a burden on their family and society, but young people, who are destructive, certainly are a burden," she says. Here is a person who has seen the transaction from being a young bride, to a princess, to a parliamentarian, and is even now a social activist. Also featured is former Maharaja Karan Singh.

It is not just the celebrities and the achievers that are featured. Common people like Shashimoni Mahari, the last devadasi at the Jagannath temple, and perpetual "bad character" sisters Gujari and Banti are also there. The likes of Parsi pallbearer Hoomi Cooper, who was an acrobat in his youth, are also featured. He says: "For this work you need a strong heart. Like after placing one body in the tower, you have to go again with another body and you see that the vultures have taken the first body." He does it for the sake of religion, and has to face the trauma of persons not wanting to have anything to do with him, otherwise. "Some women on seeing me will pull away their saree as if I will touch them."

There are an estimated 15 million elderly widows in India. Widows of Vrindhavan make striking images, as does Chapala Sundari Dhar, who became a widow at 14. However, as Martha Alter Chen says in the chapter Widowhood and Ageing in India: "The real concerns of such widows relate to issues that the dramatic images fail to convey, namely the right of widows to property, maintenance, or gainful employment, and, if these are denied, to some form of public assistance."

The two brothers spent eight years working on the project that has culminated in this book. They have held exhibitions on "Ageing in India". Vijay’s research and the written interview-based messages that have been chosen along with each picture have made this book more than a coffee table presentation. It draws attention through the stunning 140 black and white pictures by Samar, and the text makes the message stick in the mind. The presentation and design of the book is of international quality. Aesthetics and utility are well balanced and negative space is imaginatively used.

Though the authors’ empathy with the subjects is obvious, their selection (they photographed 400 people) of the subjects is eclectic. It covers a lot — artist B. C. Sanyal, "Amul man" Verghese Kurien, sitar legend Ravi Shankar, shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan, film-maker Mrinal Sen, Rock Garden creator Nek Chand and so many others, but it leaves you wanting more. Though well-produced and printed in art paper, this expensive book is not meant for the mass market.

In his foreword, the Dalai Lama says: "...although they may be a little slower or a little quieter, older persons are as much of an asset to society as the young. But then, that is the view of someone who has already reached the age of 65." Even those who are decades younger will nod their heads in agreement at the wisdom in this statement.