Nirmal Shekar, an artist, pure and simple

Surprisingly, Shekar didn’t want to enter journalism in the first place, let alone become a sports journalist. But he was destined to become a top sportswriter.

Former Indian captain Dilip Vengsarkar honours Nirmal Shekar at the SJFI awards function in Mumbai in June 2008. Nirmal bagged four awards.

. “Life is a relentless teacher.”

• “It is difficult for a man in search of himself to accept any kind of worldly permanence…”

• “The harsh reality of the capricious business of sport is this: every champion that has ever drawn breath, every champion as yet unborn, can be sure of one thing — some day, he will fail. The world of sport is yet to toast a truly invincible athlete.”

• “Unlike a play or a movie, sport is at once open-ended and unpredictable. We seldom know what is going to happen next, who is going to do what.”

• “Like cigarettes and alcohol, serious sport — read cricket, in the context of the sub-continent — must be sold with a health warning. Practising and following sport with too much passion may be injurious to health. And, the word ‘sold’ is being used advisedly; for, the line between aggressive, over-the-top salesmanship and serious journalism has disappeared in many sections of the media.”

Such pearls of wisdom, as well as his love for art, aesthetics and philosophy, which flowed in almost every piece of his, distinguished Nirmal Shekar, not only from the rest of Indian sportswriters, but also of the world for that matter. Though principally and professionally a sportswriter, Shekar was a nice combination of an intellectual and an artist.

In fact, true cognoscenti of quality sports writing couldn’t help feeling when reading Shekar at his best, which he almost invariably was, that they were looking at a class painting or a sculpture in an art gallery or a museum; or watching with rapt attention a violin virtuoso perform at a concert. The beauty, even music, of Shekar’s intensely lyrical prose had the capacity to hold the readers spellbound. Savour the following gem from The Hindu:

“Compression kills sport; it gnaws away at sport’s artistic aspirations, its claim to aesthetic élan. Art, and sport, cannot aspire for the high ground when they are condensed to the perpetual climax of the present. The best of sport allows for the pause. It lets us sit back and savour the has-been and dream of the still-to-come. Nothing that is breathless — and therefore leaves no room for a complex cognitive process leading to emotional fulfillment — can lay claims to sporting greatness.

“When you reduce a football match to a penalty shoot-out, a Diego Maradona becomes irrelevant; it is like a 10-minute rendering of Don Giovanni, at once a sham and an insult to artistic genius. The sine qua non of sport is not the end result of a match but the process used by the performers to get there. And when that process is condensed into bullet points, it leaves sport culturally impoverished.”

Yet, there had never been a conscious effort to write so artistically, so elegantly, which made Shekar even more remarkable. To him, writing was the best “form” of “self-expression”. And he did elevate sports writing to an art form. Why, his whole approach to sports writing was that of an artist.

“I don’t think any good writer should try to ape another. Instead we should develop our own distinct style. But when you become too conscious of your writing and your style, you often do worse than when you do it spontaneously. The idea is to zero in on a point and then try to analyse it threadbare in your columns. If you can do it with some elegance, all the better,” he told me a couple of years ago.

“Each person’s writing is a reflection of his intellectual background, his values and his life experiences. So is mine. I’ve always had a great interest in philosophy and sports psychology and my writing often reflects that… There’re no perfect sportswriters or cricket writers just as there’re no perfect human beings. Perfection in anything is a myth because everything is evolving all the time.”

A versatile, prolific sportswriter, Shekar had written with flair, felicity and effect on a wide range of sports, including tennis, cricket, boxing, golf and Formula One. Many have penned their views on John McEnroe, Sachin Tendulkar, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods and Ayrton Senna, but whenever Shekar wrote on them in his inimitable style with a touch of philosophy and human psychology, they looked so different, the write-ups resembling works of art.

Not having “covered” an Ali boxing event was one of his “unfulfilled dreams”. How one wishes Shekar had covered Test cricket and described some of the willowy masterpieces of Gundappa Viswanath, whom he hailed as “a batsman’s batsman and a connoisseur’s delight”. The following jewel of a passage, taken from The Sportstar, sheds ample light on Shekar’s exquisitely beautiful prose, his imagery, his tastes and his favourite match scenario:

“Mine is rather simple (match scenario). It doesn’t involve explosive action. It doesn't require a Viv Richards or a Sachin Tendulkar. It doesn’t demand the sort of aesthetic delights in a perfect setting — the summer sun, a lovely batting track — that (Neville) Cardus dreamed of. No Shane Warne has ever intruded on my dreams weaving a delightful web of pure magic. Nor has a Gundappa Viswanath danced on the dream’s great stage with Rudolph Nureyev’s footwook, coaxing the ball late, and fine, leaving the fielders in a state of trance.

“The ambience has no meaning — it could be chilly Dunedin or burning hot Chepauk. All characters but one, on stage, are irrelevant. The nature of the match itself — whether it is Test cricket or one-day cricket — is of little significance. The only things that matter are the situation and the man. Australia is 42 for three or 53 for four, and in walks Steve Waugh. My day is made.”

Born in Tamil Nadu on September 29, 1956, Shekar had his schooling as well as college and university education in Chennai. He played cricket (fast bowler) and tennis at “some level” in those years without ever representing Tamil Nadu. An alumnus of Madras Christian College, he took a year off after graduation to travel, meet and interact with different people. Later he did his M.A. in Journalism from Madras University.

Besides “enjoying” the classic works of literature, Shekar used to like the American boxing writers. Among the literary giants who wrote on sport he admired Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer. Mailer’s The Fight, which recounts the 'Rumble in the Jungle,' between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, was Shekar’s “all-time favourite” sports book. Among cricket books, Shekar’s particular favourite was Brightly Fades the Don by Jack Fingleton.

Surprisingly, Shekar didn’t want to enter journalism in the first place, let alone become a sports journalist. But he was destined to become a top sportswriter. When he joined The Hindu in 1980, he had “no real preference”. It was just that there was a vacancy for a sports reporter and he readily accepted the position. The first Indian to be awarded the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship, he worked in the United States for the Albany Times in New York for six months in the second half of 1984 before rejoining The Hindu in 1985.

He started “specialising” in the love-all game and was appointed the Tennis Correspondent of The Hindu and The Sportstar. Shekar and his colleague R. Mohan were two of the most widely-read Indian sportswriters for a very long time. Shekar, who visited a lot of countries, carved a special niche for himself as a tennis writer of the highest order. Readers of The Hindu and The Sportstar would eagerly wait for his dispatches from Australia and England and many other countries. And Shekar was one of the few foreign journalists to cover 25 Wimbledons.

Shekar also wrote extensively on cricket in his own ‘Comment’ column in The Hindu; as well as many cricket cover stories in The Sportstar. “My cricket writing has had a tremendous following just as my tennis writing always had,” he humbly stated. Well, it just couldn't have been otherwise. “Writing on the more popular sports such as cricket and tennis, I think, is more challenging because more people read your stories as opposed to, say, golf or boxing. You have to get your arguments and facts right,” he added.

Whether writing on tennis or cricket, or any other sport, Shekar was in a class of his own. He was adjudged the Indian Sports Writer of the Year (2007) by the Sports Journalists Federation of India (SJFI). And he walked away with other three coveted awards, too: Sports Columnist of the Year, Feature Writer of the Year and News Story Writer of the Year.

By his own admission, Shekar “fell in love” with cricket as he just “couldn’t stop” listening to John Arlott’s commentary on the BBC, an “addiction” that began in his pre-teen years and continued well into adulthood. “His was an imperishable voice, the voice adored by a generation. Sport is so wonderfully democratic that it provides us all kinds of reasons for following it, for falling in love with it. You adore Sachin (Tendulkar). Someone else finds watching (Roger) Federer’s tennis an almost spiritual experience… As cricketing heroes go, this one never made a Test hundred at Lord’s or starred in a World Cup final. But, what the hell, the old bloke could keep your ears glued to the old Murphy radio, couldn’t he?” he wrote in The Hindu.

Gary Sobers, Shane Warne, Sachin Tendulkar, Viv Richards and Imran Khan were the “top five” cricketers — among those he has watched in action — he “admired best”. Like many, Shekar had the greatest possible regard for Sobers and he cherished a “rum-filled” evening spent with the legend at Madras Cricket Club in Chennai in 1997 as the most special moment of his career.

Similarly, he wasn’t less impressed by the cricketing god from Mumbai. “Tendulkar is India’s sporting colossus. To find comparisons, you have to cross borders — geographical boundaries, dividing lines represented by eras and borders between vastly different sports — and set eyes on a Pele or a (Pete) Sampras or a (Michael) Schumacher,” he wrote celebrating the Master Blaster’s 35th Test hundred.

“In a country where a Tendulkar century is a sporting epiphany beyond compare, neither these statistics, nor anything that the great man might accomplish in the remaining part of his career, can tell us much about why the maestro is the most popular Indian sports icon of our times. For, the real value of the batting hero’s contribution to fuelling the collective aesthetic passions of tens of millions of cricket fans in this vast, complex nation, as well as among the Indian diaspora elsewhere on the planet, is something that is at once incomputable and timeless.”

A classicist who wasn’t averse to modernism, Shekar admitted that Twenty20 cricket was here to stay. “As a popular sport with a mass following, cricket has to change with the times; and change it will even as many of us continue to shed angry rivers of tears over its metamorphosis into a rather banal three-hour entertainment package,” he wrote after the roaring success of the inaugural Twenty20 World Championship in South Africa in 2007.

“There is no room in T20 for subtleties, scant reward for artistry and patience and no time for the batsmen to think, for the captains to read situations and plan the course of a match midway in an innings. Everything is a blur. Instincts take over. It is cricket’s version of bare-knuckle boxing in a bar-room with the lights switched off.

“Essentially, T20 is cricket stripped to its bare minimum, rid of all its finery, robbed of its regal robes, all this not so much revealing its soul as its raw flesh, warts and all. If Test cricket was decked up in an Armani three-piece suit and the 50-overs game was cricket in jeans and T-shirt, then T20 is the sport presented in its underwear.”

Like most experienced and universally-renowned Indian sportswriters (there are only a handful of them, though) Shekar, had written just a single book during his three-decade-and-half career; and that also as a co-author. It was actually Shekar who wrote A Touch of Tennis: The Story of a Tennis Family by Ramanathan Krishnan and his son Ramesh Krishnan, published by Penguin Books in 1999.

Shekar, who had travelled the world, covered so many events and interacted with numerous sportspersons, had so much to say and share. He had confided to me a few years back that he was planning to write a “multi-sport book” listing his 10 favourite players “across games” once he was “a little less stressed” with work.

Indeed, for serious sports lovers and connoisseurs of high quality sports writing, Nirmal Shekar was as much an icon in his own right as the champions of the world of sport he had written about over the years, period.

The author is a freelance writer.

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