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‘The Age of Indiscreet Biography’

Geography is about maps. But Biography is about chaps —so said E.C. Bentely, attempting a witty description of biography. Always a popular genre, biography has become one of the most immediate and accessible modes of writing about public figures and literary giants. But it is this popularity that raises some disturbing questions also. The delightful but disputed nature of biography derives from the original unholy alliance between fact and fiction.

Let us consider for a moment the extraordinary divergence in the form. The two most successful biographies in the English language to date are James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) which has never been out of print for more than 200 years, and Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story (1992) which has already sold two-and-a-half million copies worldwide. Now let us examine the different kinds of portraiture, different modes of inward life achieved in the two works. While Boswell enters with wonderful empathy and metaphoric daring into Johnson’s inner world of moral struggle, Morton follows the tradition of gossip, of aristocratic scandal, and of piquant anecdotes. 

Hence the disturbing question: Is biography so widely read for popular, prurient reasons or for reputable intellectual pursuits? The fact that the pronounced interest in biography presently prevailing among Western readers is commercially exploited on such a large scale by writers and publishers is reason enough for us to be self-critical. There is hardly a list of best-sellers without biographical items; most significantly, the subject chosen as a rule are film stars and sports persons on the one hand and politicians and business tycoons on the other. In the way of presentation, there is an emphasis on the sensational, on the intimate aspects of the subject’s life, a relish in washing dirty linen in public—the biographer posing as a sleuth, with voyeur curiosity serving as prime motivation. It is these symptoms that Lothar Lutze found justification enough to call this age ‘The Age of Indiscreet Biography’.

But first things first. The origins of biography are no doubt to be found in the early accounts of monarchs and heroes; for example, in the Old Testament stories of the Bible; in the Greek, Celtic and Scandinavian epics and sagas; or in Banabhatta’s well-known Sanskrit work Harshacharita (7th century AD). The sayings of wise and holy men can also be seen as rudiments of biography, as we can learn a lot about Socrates from Plato’s teachings; or about Lord Buddha from Ashwagosha’s Buddhacharita. However, the Roman historian Plutarch was perhaps the pioneer of the form. His Parallel Lives (1st century AD) covered 23 Greek and 23 Roman personages, arranged in pairs and proved an important source of plots for many future plays, including some by Shakespeare.

The modern biography as a distinct genre evolved in 17th-century England when beyond the lives of kings and saints, a few secular lives of individuals were considered worthy of focus. The brand began with William Roper’s Life of Thomas More (1626) and culminated in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), which combines detailed records of conversations and behaviour with considerable psychological insights. This provided the model for exhaustive, monumental 19th century biographies such as A.P. Stanley’s Life of Arnold and Lord Marley’s Gladstone.

In India, with the spread of Western education from the mid-19th century, biography-like prosefiction gained a distinct identity. Unfortunately, the model immediately available to the early Indian biographers was the British Victorian biography. It was almost a case, at least initially, of exchanging the ancient Indian poetic hagiography of gods and saints for the great Victorian Whitewash, although as the 20th century progressed, the art of biography started maturing in India. This maturing can be gauged from the fact that at least eight great biographies written in Indian languages have won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award, competing with poetry, novels and short story collections. These are Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s Scholar Extraordinary, Nihar Ranjan Ray’s An Artist in Life, Sarvepalli Gopal’s Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajmohan Gandhi’s Rajaji: A Life, Amrit Rai’s Premchand: A Life, Tirthanath Sarma’s Benudhar Sarma, Narayan Desai’s Mahadev Desai, and D.N. Gokhale’s Dr Ketkar.

Apart from these award-winning biographies, we can also mention three more outstanding biographies of our time—of Kshitimohan Sen by Pranati Mukhopadhyay, of C.V. Raman Pillai by P.R. Parameswaran Nair, and of Mirza Ghalib (Yadgar-e-Ghalib) by Altaf Hussain Hali. If anyone wants to learn about the best methodology to be adopted in writing a wonderful biography, I would recommend Jean-Marc Hovasse’s classic article ‘On writing Victor Hugo’s Biography’, and if anyone wonders whether Indian biographical writing has anything special to offer, one would do well to read Alokeranjan Dasgupta’s fascinating essay, ‘Biography! A Maya? The Indian Point of Departure'.

Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee | 03-Jan-2022