“One of the toughest days in my career was the day Indira Gandhi was shot dead” -- an oft-repeated quote of T. Venugopalan, 82, veteran Malayalam journalist who died in Calicut on August 3, 2012. He would never fail to say this to all those who cared to listen to him in his innumerable sessions, explaining the challenges of making a good newspaper front page.
Most of his younger students could not imagine how daunting the task was for the veteran, the presiding deity at the central news desk of Kerala’s respected nationalist daily, Mathrubhumi, when the killing took place on October 31, 1984. It shocked the nation, almost similar to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi nearly four decades earlier. The event posed serious professional challenges to journalists who had to convey the shock, the dramatic nature of unfolding events and its significance to readers used to the laidback approach of the print medium then facing a threat from a nascent visual medium.
For Venugopalan, it was not just another news; it was a personal loss and a traumatic experience because he was born and brought up in the same nationalist tradition that gave birth to a leader such as Indira Gandhi. His father was close to the nationalist movement and that was why Venugopalan at 22 joined Mathrubhumi, the newspaper that had come into existence as a mouthpiece for the Indian National Congress in Kerala. He had completed his BA from Kerala Varma College, Trissur, when he was accommodated at the news desk of the tradition-bound newspaper. This, at a time when the newspaper was struggling to come to terms with its own transition to a commercial product from its original incarnation as a nationalist mouthpiece.
It was not an easy time for anyone to join the profession. Well-known and idealist politicians doubling up as agents, reporters and editors, would disappear to the next public meeting around the time when the deadline approached for the next edition. They would leave all the troubles and responsibilities to young and inexperienced hacks at the desk. Mathrubhumi had a big crop of such veterans who looked down upon their younger colleagues who had other ideas about work. For those who belonged to the old school, age-old rules were sacrosanct and no experiments in the style of writing, page layout, or design were to be tolerated. All such talks about professionalism and media’s role as an industry were anathema. It was in such a context that young Venugopalan made concerted attempts to bring in new experiments and ideas including reporting, editing, design, and makeup. “No rule is immune to change,” he used to say, “if you could convince your readers that they are good.”
That was what he did the day Indira Gandhi died. He simply spiked the old style of as much information on the front page, and instead made a page that conveyed the image of a nation in shock, with sparse text and stark and dramatic graphics—a precursor to the graphics-rich newspaper design that became the norm later. A tribute to the man who was bold enough to experiment beyond his times, this particular edition of the paper is now on display at the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library in Delhi.
Venugopalan was one among the first generation of post-Independence Malayalam journalists who redefined the rules of his profession. He perceived professionalism to be the key for the success of the newspaper industry. Along with other veterans of the generation such as Thomas Jacob of Malayala Manorama, P. Aravindakshan of Indian Express, N.V. Pylee of Express (Malayalam) and N.N. Satyavratan of Mathrubhumi, he tried to bring in professionalism in Malayalam newspapers. He conceived training sessions for local reporters and staff members in other newspapers, most of them small and medium units which dominated the media industry back then. He insisted on one key principle: Make things simple and easy to communicate. He was general secretary of the Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) for three terms and in this capacity developed a media training programme, Newscraft, for media professionals in the State. He brought in well-known names in Indian journalism and the world media, including from Thomson Foundation in London for workshops.
It was from the experiences gained from these sessions that the Government of Kerala was persuaded to set up the Kerala Press Academy, now a nodal agency for media training.
Venugopalan took voluntary retirement from Mathrubhumi as deputy editor in 1988, following a tiff with the management. He then became the most celebrated media expert and consultant for smaller newspapers and start-up television channels. In the decade or so when he was active after retirement, before illness forced him to take it easy, he served in various newspapers such as Madhyamam, Mangalam, Express, etc. He also anchored a programme on media at Asianet which was considered path-breaking in Malayalam television.
As a younger professional I was associated with him from the late 90’s, when he took over as the first director of the Institute of Communication & Journalism (ICJ), a media training institution in Malabar region, set up by the Calicut Press Club. As president of the Press Club and chairman of the governing committee of the ICJ, I worked closely with him as he tirelessly strived to develop a state-of-the-art curriculum for the one-year post-graduate diploma course offered there. It emphasised on the emerging areas such as television, new media, etc. We were able to bring out a journal on media and society, Media Focus, which carried articles and analysis from Indian and international scholars and professionals in the two years of its existence.
He was a modest man, always accessible and pleasant. A chain smoker, he stuck the Scissors brand of cigarette between his fingers all the time--which finally hastened his end with nicotine-poisoning in his system. With child-like pleasure and eagerness, he took part in all kinds of activities in his office along with the most junior of his colleagues, whether it was playing games, pulling the legs of a colleague, or writing instant poetry to drive away the drudgery of work on late night shifts.
He had another serious pursuit in his private moments: he spent more than 12 years researching the life and works of Swadeshabhimani K. Ramakrishna Pillai--Kerala’s celebrated journalist and editor who was banished from his native Travancore in 1910--writing his biography as well as editing and publishing all his works and editorials.
He was a self-effacing man who avoided the limelight and kept off from public platforms except in media classrooms. The Government of Kerala honoured him in 2011 with the first Swadeshambhimani-Kesari Award for his contribution to Malayalam media and journalism.