Saturday, October 27, 2007

Reinventing Nilgiri’s local media

A friend in Coonoor, Rev. Philip Mulley, mailed me a couple of recent issues of The Local that carried his article, tracing the beginnings of road building in Nilgiris. It all started in 1819, with the then collector of Coimbatore, John Sullivan, taking up a path-breaking expedition to Kotagiri. It then took over 50 years to build a road connecting Mettupalayam with Ooty.

And in the early years travelers to Coonoor/Ooty took ‘fast tongas’ that changed ponies in relay at every third mile. A retired colonel once told me that there were only seven cars in Coonoor town when he first came to the town in the 50s. A fascinating read, but The Local published Rev. Mulley’s piece in three installments spanning as many months. This isn’t the only aspect of this fledging community paper that doesn’t appeal to me as a reader. It is slim, a 10-pager, tabloid sized, and is priced Rs.7. As a community media initiative The Local is the best thing that has happened to Nilgiris in a long time. But as a publication this undersized, overpriced monthly has much to be modest about.

Glossy paper with bright colour photos add to the cost of production, but they do not necessarily sell the magazine. Pricing and periodicity of publication matter; so do mode of distribution, readership profile, and the mix of content. Publisher Edwin David in his note printed in the August issue would have us believe that his print-run of 3,000 copies is sustained by subscriptions by well-wishers who order The Local not only for themselves, but also for friends, their offices. And there are those who sponsor copies for distribution among a core group of planters, the army brass at Wellington, and professionals such as bankers, accountants and doctors.

The Local has focused mainly on content and quality, says its publisher, adding that it has managed to stay on, stubbornly, with costly glazed paper and color photos, hoping advertisers would come their way before long. The publisher refers to a leading car dealer in Nilgiris and a Coimbatore real estate developer having committed to taking ad. space, and several potential advertisers having “expressed their intent”.

I have heard it all before, from a friend Sasidharan who used to bring out a modest six-page weekly tabloid from Coonoor. He even managed to get a handful of advertisers and had a strategy for developing classifieds columns that attract its own readership, besides adding to the ad. revenue. Sasi’s concept was that of a community weekly with a mix of content generated by informed readers and experts such as Rev. Mulley.

The publication was short lived. Because it was brought out under a franchise arrangement with a Chennai group that published Apollo Times. Under the arrangement Sasidharan was obliged to name his Coonoor publication, Apollo Times, print it at their press in Chennai; and pay for it at the rate of Rs.1.50 per copy. The Chennai media group was interested in promoting its brand name; and in exploiting the Coonoor market to further their plans for opening an edition in Coimbatore.

As Mr David suggests in the publisher’s note, advertisers in Coimbatore have their own agenda and perceive Nilgiris as a small market. The Coonoor publication, being ‘a small paper within a so-called small market’, was seen by major advertisers, not so much as an independent media entity, but a mere add-on to a franchise publication in Coimbatore. The Coonoor edition of Apollo Times came to be exploited towards this end, bleeding Sasidharan’s meager resources.

If the Coonoor media failure established anything, it was that there is space for a local media in the Nilgiris. Within its short span of life the modest community weekly had acquired readership in Ooty and Kotagiri. Unsound business arrangement and cash crunch forced the Coonoor Apollo Times closure, even before it had a chance to develop a network of local advertisers who could not afford to advertise in mainstream newspapers. A local media with a critical mass of readership would serve the interests of small businesses better, and at a cheaper advertising tariff.

The Coonoor community weekly was distributed free. Free publications, as a business model, have worked well for neighborhood weeklies that are published in Chennai’s Mylapore, Adyar, Egmore and, Purasawalkam. What’s more, there are two or more players vying for the free-media space in Chennai. The latest in such Chennai publications is Velacherry Plus.

Pricing The Local, that too, at a stiff Rs.7 a copy, doesn’t appear to make marketing sense. What’s more freesheets brought out elsewhere have more pages, and lots more of reading material. Globally, the Metro group of free newspapers publishes local dailies from 70 cities in 23 countries.

The Local, I reckon, has potentials if only it re-invents itself. Besides a rethink on pricing, and periodicity, publishers of the Nilgiris monthly would do well to start an interactive website of The Local to synergize with the print edition. It would make a lot more business sense, if the readership of The Local extends beyond the geographical confines the Nilgiris and reachs out to non-resident population with Nilgiris connection. Rev.Mulley’s article can be accessed the world over, if The Local were to go online.

Speaking of online community initiative we once had a Coonoor blogsite that made a connect with non-resident Coonoorians in Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Delhi, Muscat, Singapore, Australia, Madrid, Peru and several other places within three months of its inception. As a Coonoor-connected person staying in Mysore, I wish I could access The Local online; and,maybe, even put in my input occasionally. At the Coonoor blogsite we had an ‘Ideas’ page that had Nilgiris folks from all over posting their thoughts.

Cross-posted in Desicritics and Zine5

Friday, October 19, 2007

Delhi blogger makes waves in Pakistan

'Who is this bloke?'. I wondered, on reading about his blog - Pakistan Paindabad - making waves. Mayank Austen Soofi. The name didn't mean a thing to me till then. And then there was this mail from fellow Desicritic and friend Tanay, recalling Mayank's post at Desicritics one year back, about his visit to Lahore's Heera Mandi. "I was able to smell/feel the streets of Lahore," wrote Tanay, touched by the narrative. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, they say, plans to make a film based on Mayank's post. I have plea for Mr Bhansali: Do remember to send us all DCs an invite for the film's premiere.

This new-found media interest in Mayank, I presume, started with a PTI news agency feature from Islamabad. My hunch is, in the coming days there may well be a rash of Sunday print media features and news channel interviews on this Delhi blogger who fell in love with our neighbors after a visit to Karachi and Lahore. A leading Pakistan daily - Daily Times - called Soofi's blog 'the website that teaches you neighbourly love'.

But then, it appears, not everybody loves Mayank Austen Soofi and his pro-Pak web initiative. Why would a promising young man from Delhi be blogging Pakistan? The question factors in it suspicion of a hidden agenda - could Soofi be a Paki staying in India, possibly ISI-connected. That Mayank anticipated this, but chose to press on with his blog speaks of courage. If I were in film making, I would probably do a documentary on what makes Mayank tick. Who knows such a movie might prove an inspiration for people to create more cross-border blogs; and for bloggers like Adnan (a Karachi-based blogger) to come out of their 'social closet' and declare without fear or reserve their good neighbourly feelings for people across the border.

In his tribute to the late playback Kishore Kumar the Karachi blogger noted that he had thought twice before posting the piece, declaring unashamedly his liking for Kishoreda , "Many regular readers would consider me hypocrite", wrote Adnan. His readers know him for his writings on politics and religion and "my rant on Music not (being) a part of Islam". Advisedly, Adnan, the blogger, doesn't give away much about himself, other than his first name and e-mail ID. Mayank is more communicative, insofar as he reveals he hosts three other blogs and is the owner of a private library.

Wonder if Mayank subscribes to Shelfari (would he like me to send him an invite?) so that we have the benefit of browsing his 'shelf'. It is said you get an insight into a person by looking at his collection of books. A scroll down his blogs, reading a bit here and a piece there, enabled me to draw an identikit (perhaps, as unreliable as a normal police job). Mayank, I would say, emerges as hyper-active, but regular kind of guy who likes being all over the town - at embassy parties in Chanakyapuri, a by lane in Ballimaran, used-book shop at Pahargunj or on location where a TV news crew at work in Kalkaji. (see Soofi's photo blog)

He is the type that would ask Deepak Chopra loaded questions - 'was Buddha a god?', 'how'd he feel, if he were to land in Delhi today' ('baffled', I would guess, at all that traffic). I didn't know the world's best known high-end seller of spirituality is Delhi-born, was schooled in St..Columbus. So was Shah Rukh Khan, and, I learnt from Mayank interviews, Anupama Chopra.

Blogger Soofi comes out as a skillful interviewer, drawing out well-known people to disclose value-adding trivia about their life-story. Deepak Chopra, Soofi finds out, was a part-time news reader in AIR getting Rs.75; had fun as student in AIIMS (Doctors in his time, presumably, didn't lose their screws inside a patient on the operating table).

Soofi pays attention to details - such as Chopra's Vespa scooter; and Tom Alter's (actor) passion for cycling, notably when he races to meet his girl - "I remember cycling to my girlfriend, from Daryagunj to East Patel Nagar, in 30 minutes flat". Wouldn't we like to know what Mayank Austen Soofi's preferred mode of transport is; and whether he has a girl-friend ?

Tailpiece: When this piece appeared in Desicritic Mayank wrote in response, he communtes in Delhi's deadly 'blueline' buses. And, yes, he has a girl-friend.

This piece reproduced in Mayank's blog - The Delhi Walla

Monday, October 15, 2007

All that hype over Mysore Dasara

People don’t talk of Dasara without a mention of Mysore. But how many make it their destination when they plan their Dasara holidays? How much of people’s thoughts on Mysore Dasara translates into tourist revenue for the city? Newspapers here are full of statements by otherwise sensible officials, that would have us believe that Dasara is indeed the time when all roads lead to Mysore.

We have it from the Karnataka Tourism Department Secretary that the Mysore Dasara this year (October12-21) would attract over 12 lakh tourists from across the world. Which is, presumably, why they have made the official website - - multilingual. Those hosting the site claim you can get information pertaining to the ten-day festival in ten foreign languages, not counting English.

I tried Korean the other day, and nothing showed up on my laptop. Moved to Chinese, Japanese and Russian, with equally disappointing results. And then, to French, followed by German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, before I gave up. The site did not offer any more language options. Anyway, with the festival organisers setting their eyes and hype on global tourism, I would not be surprised if the Dasara website takes in a bunch of other languages next year, including Swahili, or whatever they speak in Timbuktoo.

A call to the Dasara site software person explaining my experience with their Korean edition evoked swift reaction: “Is that so? But it appeared fine when I checked last.” Anyway, the bloke was polite enough to thank me for the call, and offered to look into my complaint. I was hoping he would call back, with the latest status report on the much-hyped multilingual Dasara website. No call; no turn in my luck with the Korean site. So much for the tourist-friendly touch of our festival organisers. When I blogged about this, an observant reader wrote back saying he got the Korean site fine, and other language editions as well. What’s more the site even has a window showing “automated robot-type woman saying stuff” on Dasara.

Maybe my laptop isn’t Dasara-friendly. I tried one last time before sending this article for Zine5. And there is improvement. I now get the audio-video window, but no text still. And here is a question for the site managers: Couldn’t they find a desi robot that can pronounce the word ‘Dasara’ unfractured and doesn’t speak in a heavily affected accent?

The authorities have hired admen and event managers to strategise Dasara for tourism. They speak the language of the marketing people – product promotion, image-building, a publicity blitz and Brand Mysore. Hype is the name of the game. A newspaper report, in a curtain-raiser story, said: For a city that is emerging as a national brand vying with the best among tier II cities as a popular investment destination, the Dasara celebrations have emerged as the fulcrum to promote tourism and highlight Mysore as a perennial destination.

Reading this, I couldn’t help wonder, as a resident of Mysore, if the newspaper and I have in mind the same city. As for Dasara celebrations “emerging as the fulcrum”, the reality, gleaned from recent media reports, doesn’t warrant such optimism. Bookings in many city hotels were far less than anticipated; not many of the 22 house-owners registered last year for the much-publicised home-stay programme for tourists are said to be in business this year. And the Rs. 6,000 gold card that provides VIP access to three persons to all Dasara events are not such a sought-after item among foreign tourists, judging by the online sales. To start with, they printed fewer cards this year (750) and a majority of them still remain unsold.

Cross-posted in Praja-Mysore, Desicritic and Zine5

Friday, October 05, 2007

Mysore writers museum

Swift, Shaw, Beckett and Woolf. “As we peeked into their letters and manuscripts on display, we’d suddenly stop dead on our tracks, as the familiar beginnings of stories and poems, or the title of a well-loved play enacted in college days, years ago, caught our eye”. So writes Indu Balachandran on a visit to Dublin’s Writers’ Museum. Reading these lines I wished, if only we could have a museum dedicated to R K Narayan, Kuvempu, Tejasvi and other writers with Mysore connection.

My friend and Star of Mysore columnist Dr Javeed Nayeem even suggested a splendid location - Oriental Research Institute – in a note a couple of Dasara’s back when he shared his thoughts with us on an idea for, what he called, the R K Narayan Walk. The idea was to take interested tourists and visitors round the writer’s favourite haunts.

Maharaja’s College Centenary Hall could be the starting point. Next stop – Ramaswamy Circle, where the Hardwicke High School student was martyred as he took a bullet fired by the then deputy commissioner during a demonstration. Then, a walk through the twin campus of the Maharaja’s and Yuvaraja’s, where many luminaries were students or teachers, before visiting the Oriental Research Institute, where a writers’ museum could be located, said Dr Nayeem, a story-teller in his own rights, and a Mysorean well-versed in local history.

The RKN Walk could then proceed, after a look-in at the un-ignorable Crawford Hall to Kukkarahalli, the lake that has many stories to tell on the time spent there by Mysore’s literary legends – Kuvempu, T P Kailasam and several others.

I gather that a group of Praja-Mysore activists led by Mr Arun Padaki, are putting together a power-point proposal for a network of heritage trails in Mysore. Whether or not they make the Walks happen, they are setting a worthy precedent for citizens-official partnership in the city’s development.

Cross-posted from Praja-Mysore

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Bring Gandhi down from the pedestal

Tamil poet Vairamuthu at a televised Gandhi Jayanti Kaviarangam read out a poem that says the hand watch Gandhi had, like his other wordly possessions, is a prized timepiece that would go for crores at Sothebys and people would line up to acquire it.

"If Gandhi were to be up for sale" asks the poet in the next stanza, "would there be takers?" Kavi Vairamuthu exercised his poetic licence to convey a reality. The things Gandhi owned are collectors' items; the thoughts he held have no takers.

A recent media report said the Bangalore University centre for Gandhian studies has had no students since they set it up. That Gandhi has no takers among today's generation shouldn't surprise us. And the fault need not totally be with the youth. It's probably because old-time Gandhians have failed; worse still, they pooh-poohed attempts to redefine Gandhi. Lage Raho Munnabhai may be dismissed by Gandhians as much too simplistic and masala-driven. But the Bollywood attempt does reflect the need for teachers to relate Gandhi to the nation's current concerns.

The Gandhian Studies Centre at Bangalore University has provision for annual intake of 40 students, is endowed with a Rs.15-lakh annual budget; has built over the years an infrastructure, including a 200-seat auditorium and an open-air theatre. Media report says that the few who applied for the PG diploma course offered by the centre did so to take advantage of free hostel facilities. The authorities who got wise withdrew the facility. The applications for Gandhian Studies dried out. No free hostel, no students.

One has to be naive not to ask why the university authorities would still want to continue with the studentless Gandhian studies centre (now a campus within the univeristy campus). And even if the decision-makers at the university view closure of the studies centre as an option, they couldn't be expected to voice it without risking stiff resistance from flag-waving Gandhians. I mean the type that comes out of woodworks, once a year to garland statues, and pose for media pictures.

The name 'Gandhi' brings to my mind a pedestal bearing a life-size statue, soiled with clotted droppings of a thousand pigeons that use as rest-room the statue's head & shoulders. Once in a long while you see municipal workers putting the statue to a beauty-parlour treatment. Which is when we realise that Oct.2 must be around.

We can’t think of a town in our country without a Gandhi statue. If only a statue can speak, we would probably hear from Gandhi Square in every town a cry of anguish, ‘Hey Ram, what have I done to deserve this?’. When people want to forget someone special, they set him up on a pedestal. And Gandhi is the best-known among the forgotten figures in our recent history, sentenced to a 'pedestal' that is frequented by passing pigeons.

Even during his lifetime, Gandhi proved inconvenient to many of our leaders. Subsequent generations found his socal prescriptions, such as caste equality, communal harmony and corruption-free society, tough to put in practice. Those who put Gandhi on a pedestal are happy keeping him there, for ever. If the statue on our neighbourhood Gandhi Square is allowed to make just one wish, it would be, ‘Bring me down from the pedestal’.

My thought on this Gandhi Jayanti Day is that the father of our nation, who had led a simple life amid ordinary folk, would probably like, more than anything else, a 'parole' from life on the pedestal, so that he could step out on the street and join the never ending public morcha of social activists against the powers that be.

Cross-posted from Desicritic.