Words are the basic currency of human communication, and if in one enduring form words are worked into stories, into literature, then in another more immediate and practical form, they take the shape of rhetoric, or speeches expressly designed to make arguments and persuade people. In the decades leading up to Indian independence and just after, public speaking took on a special force, as revealed by the wealth of Indian speeches from this period anthologized in two recent collections, Rakesh Batabyal’s The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Speeches (Rs595) and Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s Great Speeches of Modern India (Random House India, Rs395).
In a sense, India is an orator’s country. Traditionally, we were an oral culture given to passing on our heritage by word of mouth rather than written records.
Even in the 21st century, after nearly two centuries of modernization and the spread of literacy, India remains a resolutely oral and visual culture, boosted by the new mass media. From Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s honeyed discourses to the streetside incandescence of trade union leaders, from the unflagging verbosity of characters in our movies to the diverting sales pitches of vendors of battery-less torches and magic pens on Mumbai locals, the art and practice of oratory is well and alive everywhere in India today.
We remain, and may always be, a people who take pleasure in garrulity and cannot countenance silence, eager to turn into an audience if only someone will speak.
Neither Batabyal nor Mukherjee rove as widely as they should have, choosing, perhaps because of constraints of space, speeches made mostly in formal settings such as parliaments and courtrooms and grouped around significant themes (there is, for instance, not a genuinely funny speech in either book). But both anthologies have their share of thrilling passages, some, such as Jawaharlal Nehru’s “tryst with destiny” speech, familiar to all Indians, and others dredged out from the back rooms of history. My selections here are intended to illustrate certain themes and patterns in these books and also some general aspects of the art of oratory.
The speech made by a man sentenced in a courtroom is a tradition that goes back to Socrates, and its appeal lies in the fact that justice is seen, by both the speaker and at least a part of the audience, to have been denied in the very house of justice. As the British government took to incarcerating large numbers of Indian protestors in the non-cooperation and independence movements, there arose occasions for condemned men to take the rule of law to task.
Two such speeches from the 1920s demonstrate the range of approaches used to discomfit the authorities. The more ingenious one was devised, not surprisingly, by Mahatma Gandhi, at his trial before Justice Robert Broomfield in 1922. After the prosecutor had made his case, Gandhi disarmed the judge completely by agreeing that he was guilty and at the same time arguing for the morality of his actions.
“I do not ask for any extenuating act of clemency,” he said. “I am here to invite and cheerfully submit to the highest penalty…for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen. The only course open to you, the judge, is…either to resign your post or inflict on me the severest penalty if you believe that the system and the law you are assisting to administer are good for the people of this country.”
The judge could not, of course, in good conscience believe this and, in sentencing Gandhi, he remarked that if that sentence were later to be commuted, “no one will be better pleased than I”. Here, as on many other occasions in the years to come, Gandhi’s speeches were marked less by strident sloganeering or an appeal to emotions than by what the historian Simon Schama calls one of the elements indispensable to great oratory: “integrity of personal conviction, the sound of what Cicero, after the Greeks, called ethos”.
A few months later, the Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam struck a dramatic tone in another courtroom of the Raj. On the day of his hearing, he opened out a gap between what he called the king’s law and God’s law, between justice and Justice. “The message of the king is like bubbles; mine—the boundless ocean,” he thundered. “I’m a poet, sent by God to speak the unspoken Truth. That message may be judged seditious in a state-court, but in the court of Justice, that message is not against Justice, not against Truth…. But (the judge) will probably punish me, because he is not on the side of the Truth; he is on the side of the king.”
Appeals to myth and history
Speeches are often meant to rouse or inflame. One traditional method of doing so has been to draw upon history and myth, the sense of a past or an injury shared by the speaker and his audience. Where the speaker wants to argue for the legitimacy of his actions, the past supplies true or false precedents for his stance.
An example of this is a powerful speech chosen by Mukherjee titled “Why I Killed Gandhi”, delivered in a packed courtroom in Shimla in May 1949 by Nathuram Godse. Godse advanced the injured pride of Indian Hindus as his reason for eliminating Gandhi and presented the following refutation: “In fact, honour, duty and love of one’s own kith and kin and country might often compel us to disregard non-violence and to use force. I could never concede that an armed resistance to an aggression is unjust. Rama killed Ravana in a tumultuous fight and relieved Sita. Krishna killed Kansa to end his wickedness and Arjuna had to fight and slay quite a number of his friends and relations including Bhishma…. It is my firm belief that in dubbing Rama, Krishna and Arjuna as guilty of violence, the Mahatma betrayed a total ignorance of the springs of human action.”
Note how, in the process of positing Gandhi as opposed to Rama, Krishna and Arjuna, Godse subliminally advances the idea that he himself has carried on the tradition of their heroism.
India and the world
But if oratory often ends up appealing to chauvinist sentiments, then it can also be a force for broadening boundaries and forging connections. Two 20th century Indians who advocated an openness to the wider world were Jawaharlal Nehru and Satyajit Ray. If, in many of his speeches, Nehru spoke passionately of an independent and inclusive India, then he was also the first to warn that nationalism could be a straitjacket. And Ray, like Nehru, was a citizen of the world.
In a rare speech delivered in 1982, Ray spoke, among other things, of his love for the Italian neo-realist film-maker Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thief: “One quality which is sure to be found in a great work of cinema is the revelation of large truths in small details…. There is a scene in Bicycle Thief where father and son go feverishly looking for a man they believe to have connections with the thief. In the process the two lose each other.... Bruno is seen to approach a wall while unbuttoning his pants. But before he can do what he wishes to do, Ricci suddenly appears and calls out urgently. Bruno whirls around and runs to join his father, his urge unsatisfied. This one detail brings home the implications of this desperate, daylong search more vividly than anything could have done.”
Lounge book reviewer Chandrahas Choudhury also runs the blog www.middlestage.blogspot.com