Sampath G

Scripting Obama’s history

In Uncategorized on March 23, 2012 at 8:13 am

Published: Sunday, Feb 1, 2009, 3:09 IST 
By G Sampath | Place: Jaipur | Agency: DNA
Historian, art critic, novelist, TV host, food writer, and an enthralling public speaker, Simon Schama, a man of many parts, can also claim to be the first to predict Obama’s victory — he has written an entire book premised on it. DNA caught up with him at the Jaipur Literature Festival
Simon Schama must be one of the most hyperactive 64-year-olds on the planet. When he speaks, the handsome, silver-haired professor turns into a rousing, gesticulating, thundering bundle of manic energy that keeps the listener hanging on to his every word.
At the Jaipur Literature Festival last week, midway through his lecture on art, he stood up from his seat to demonstrate how absurd people looked as they shuffled past paintings in art galleries. Except that Schama’s rendition looked more like some form of Maori tribal dance than shuffling. But it had the audience in splits — not a common sight during discourses on art history.
Evidently, Schama, a professor of art history and history at Columbia University, knows how to grab attention and keep it — a talent that has helped him to produce hugely popular TV documentaries on subjects one wouldn’t normally associate with high TRPs, such as history and art. His 16-part series for the BBC, A History Of Britain, which he wrote and presented himself, was so successful it fetched him the biggest advance ever for a historian — a $5.3 million deal with the BBC and HarperCollins for three books and two accompanying TV series. Today, he is widely regarded as the man who has done for history what Carl Sagan did for science: he has popularised the subject and its arcane complexities without dumbing it down.
The son of a textile merchant, Schama was born in London in 1945. His grandparents were Jews who had fled to Britain, from Ottoman Turkey and Lithuania respectively. 
He studied history at Christ College, Cambridge, before embarking on a steady academic career that eventually took him to a professorship at Harvard, and then Columbia University.
Historians are known to be academics with a conservative bent of mind. Habituated as they are to dealing with events after they have taken place, they tend to avoid high-risk pastimes such as predicting the future. A typical example of Schama’s enthusiasm to venture into the unknown is his latest work, The American Future: A History. Now this is an entire book based on the premise that Barack Obama will be the next US President — a premise that became a foregone conclusion for him in January 2008 when he saw Obama pip Hillary in the Iowa caucus. The book was published in October, a month before Obama won the election. If Obama had lost, Schama would have made a fool of himself. But he had stuck his neck out and got it right. And to top it all, the book is also a successful TV series.
An unabashed Obama fan, once you get Schama started on the new US President, it is not easy to make him stop. “Obama believes that America is most effective when it can demonstrate that it rises above crude self-interest. Whether he can deliver this wonderful vision of reborn American values, we’ll have to see. But it’s much better that he starts with those ideals than if he doesn’t.”
But isn’t Obama just another pragmatist, who mouths what people want to hear? “He is a pragmatist from day-to-day, but he is an idealist in his strategic vision. So many Americans, like him, now believe that America will flourish when it is most decent. It’s a wonderful thing to hear that. I haven’t heard it in a long time. Ultimately, Obama believes in a tolerant pluralistic world. He and Gandhi would have had a lot to say to each other.” Can India produce its own Obama? “India will have its Obama moment when it elects a Muslim prime minister,” he says, a mischievous glint in his eyes.
As an academic, how does he fit into the mad, superficial world of television? “When you are writing, you have a kind of lonely sovereignty over what you do. When you’re making a film, you have to make some concessions. But I love television as a kind of complicated collaborative craft, and BBC is one of the last places in the world where you can make ambitious documentary films.” What are his views on Indian artists? “My absolute devotion to Indian art is matched only by my encyclopaedic ignorance of it.”
Besides being an academic, and TV host, Schama, a true polymath, also dabbles in food writing and music criticism. He’s fond of Tom Waits, David Bowie, and Bob Dylan. And yes, he loves the Sex Pistols. Asked to explain himself, this is what he had to say: “This was the time when I had just been dumped by this aristocratic girl. I was in a hotel, feeling very low, and suddenly, this mad, animal fury came crashing through the walls of the room. It was exactly what I wanted to hear!” And that day he fell in love with the Sex Pistols.
At the moment, Schama is working on a documentary on the English poet John Donne. He also has a novel that he “keeps going back to” which he hopes to finish one day.
“It’s a novel written in the first person, about a woman banker in Venice. It’s interesting to see if men can write from inside the body and inside the head of women.” he says.
His eyes crinkle up as he suddenly smiles. “It’s called The Merchant of Venice.”

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