A colourful biography in black and white

The book stands out for seamlessly blending pictorial narration with textual interpretation

G Babu Jayakumar

Biography is a genre that can inadvertently slip into hagiography, particularly when an ardent admirer of an iconic subject attempts it. Also biographers of internationally renowned personalities often resort to long-winding narrations that can turn the work into pages and pages of bland text that not all can enjoy and appreciate. Without falling into both these traps, A Gopanna has brought out a coffee table book, Jawaharlal Nehru: An Illustrated Biography, after years of hard work.

Undoubtedly a visual feast, as a coffee table book is expected to be, the 528-page tome also recreates a very vital slice of Indian history in all its pomp, glory and somberness through textual narratives. That the story of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru is intertwined with the history of modern India, particularly the Independence movement and emergence of the free nation from centuries of foreign yoke, has given scope for Congressman Gopanna to strike two mangoes with one stone: One, to tell the story of a remarkable man whom he adored and two, to retell the history of India that is now sought to be rewritten or misinterpreted by emerging forces that had no role in the Independence struggle.

The book, which can be a prized adornment in any private or public library or an office or residential drawing room, comes out at the right time when the legacy of Nehru is being questioned. Gopanna has provided all the questions that are being raised on the lines ‘what Nehru has done for the nation?’ He has captured the entire life of Nehru through the over 700 black and white images that adorn the glossy pages, along with narratives that tell the stories in words. Interestingly, the published pictures were cherry picked by Gopanna, who is the editor and publisher, from his personal collection of more than 7,000 photographs, gathered painstakingly over the years from various sources.

Erudite forewords by former President Pranab Mukherjee and former Vice-President Hamid Ansari add to the otherwise rich assortment of historical facts and anecdotes. For Gopanna, despite having put the contents of the book together with passion and dedication, has not compromised on truth and historical veracity. It has been divided into ten sections that recount the happenings between 1889 and 1964: Early Years of Nehru, Emergence of a Leader, Towards Freedom, Spearheading a New Nation, Building a Basic Structure, Making of Modern India, Champion of Secularism and Democracy, Foundation for Foreign Policy, A Multi-dimensional personality and The End of An Era.

Gopanna has devoted a considerable portion of the book to explain in detail what Nehru did to lay the foundation for a modern India. He has captured the moments of Nehru’s restlessness in pushing his development agenda through building dams and establishing institutions for scientific research and education and very vividly the mood of the nation when he passed away

It is a not just the slew of rare photographs featured in the book that can astonish the reader but also some of the perspectives presented through text on the style and functioning of Nehru as a leader. Say for example his relationship with Shiekh Abdullah, who was caught crying profusely at Nehru’s funeral. Though a plethora of books have come out on the Nehru over the years, some of them by persons who knew him intimately and many by serious historians, this book stands out for seamlessly blending a pictorial narration and a textual interpretation. It is doubtful if any of the earlier books on Nehru capture the complete personality of the man, who came from an aristocratic background to not just fight for India’s independence by making sacrifices but to also gracefully accept the freedom and then put the new nation on a course of development through his vision, propelled by scientific temper.

Indeed Gopanna has devoted a considerable portion of the book to explain in detail what Nehru did to lay the foundation for a modern India. He has captured the moments of Nehru’s restlessness in pushing his development agenda through building dams and establishing institutions for scientific research and education and very vividly the mood of the nation when he passed away. The pictures portray the tearful farewell the mourning nation gave to the leader who loved its people. There are many other rare pictures to Nehru that had not been made available to the public eye. The photographs with world leaders, including a couple of them showing Nehru placing the coloured dot on the forehead of then US First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, to celebrate Holi and she reciprocating the gesture and another one showing him atop an elephant with a young Dalai Lama, are breathtaking for they exemplify an Indian premier totally at ease at the world stage. The candid pictures of him with common people remind us of times when Prime Ministers mingled with ordinary people without fuss or fear.

A fierce nationalist, who had held many party posts besides being a vocal spokesperson of the Congress party in Tamil Nadu for half a century, Gopanna plans to bring out similar books on other past national leaders, too. As we may wish him the best in those ventures, we should thank him for adding real colour to the present book through the purely black and white images.

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