Friends, colleagues and art lovers gathered at a condolence event at the Arts Council of Pakistan Karachi on Saturday evening to remember Anil Datta, a veteran journalist who passed away recently.
Several journalists, civil society and cultural activists and academics attended the gathering that was organised by the Arts Council of Pakistan. Speakers at the gathering shared fond memories of Datta and paid glowing tributes to the late journalist, honouring his journalistic contribution to promoting art, culture and music.
Datta, a senior staffer at The News who had been covering arts, cultural event and civil society programmes, passed away due to heart failure on June 28, 2019, at the age of 74. He was laid to rest at the Gora Qabristan.
In a panel discussion held at the gathering, The News’s Senior Editor Talat Aslam, the newspaper’s founding editor Ghazi Salahuddin and Dawn’s reporter Peerzada Salman agreed that the late journalist had mastery over the English language, and profound knowledge about arts, culture, and music.
Aslam said Datta was a legend of art journalism and after his demise, the newspaper has been unable to find his replacement as there seems to be no one who has similar expertise on various art disciplines.
“He was a very hardworking reporter despite his age and illness. He had great command over English and was very ethical in his work,” he said. “His death is a great loss to us and to the organisation.”
Salahuddin said Datta had a command over writing, with a brilliant taste in music and art. “He was very conscious of the spellings of the names. He would call up people, who spoke in the events or performed in the art activities, to confirm the spelling of their names,” he said, adding that many young reporters do not follow such ethics.
The News founding editor was of the view that because of the restrictions on media freedom and the prevailing self-censorship because of it, the importance of art journalism has increased. “Now art is the only way for dissenting voices and therefore its coverage has become important,” he said.
Salahuddin also spoke about loneliness in Datta’s life. He said as the late journalist belonged to a minority community and did not have a family, he felt vulnerable. The speaker lamented that although he and others were willing to mentor young aspiring art reporters so that they could replace the likes of Datta once they are no more, he did not find young media graduates yearning to learn and develop expertise in arts.
Salman said Datta had deep knowledge of English literature and Western classical music. He remarked that the late journalist was not particularly an easy-going person. About Datta’s relatives, Salman said he adored one of his nephews, Aftab, who happened to be a music lover like his uncle and lived in the United States.
Talking about the unusual transition in the journalistic career of Datta at the age of around 70 when he quit his editorial job at the desk and started going out in the field for reporting, Salman said that transition was not difficult for him because of his great knowledge of arts.
The Dawn reporter recalled Datta mentioning four people as the greatest in the history – Shakespeare, Mozart, Karl Marx and Muhammad Rafi. Having an equal interest in Marx, Mozart and Rafi shows the diverse knowledge of Datta, he said.
“Reporting on art and culture is not easy without reading books on literature and arts,” he said, adding that although Datta was not interested in Urdu literature, he would cover discussions on Urdu prose and poetry as well.
Other speakers also paid tribute to his work and dedication to the profession and praised him for his professional honesty.
“While we mourn his loss, we can best celebrate his life by emulating the high standards of quality journalism of art and culture,” said Ahmed Shah, the president of the Arts Council of Pakistan. “Datta was from a rare breed – a nice human being and an excellent journalist.”
He said it is important for a culture reporter to know about the art, music and culture, and its history. “One cannot teach or train a journalist the cultural reporting. It is something from the heart. The reporter should have a leaning towards reading books on literature and understand basic connects of art,” he said.
Shah said that there were two or three finest journalists who covered the art and culture truly and Datta was one of them.
Dr Riaz Sheikh, the Szabist social sciences department dean, said Datta was ideologically very clear and always attended the events and protests organised by civil society and human rights groups and covered them for the newspaper.
The News Supplements Editor Sheherbano recalled how once she made Datta write an article on freedom of expression. She said the late journalist had doubts whether she would publish his views without editing them to tone them down, to which she assured him that his piece would be published word for word. The late journalist was delighted to see the article when it was published, she said.
Sheherbano also read out messages from journalist Razia Sultana and social activist Nargis Rehman, two personal friends of Datta, who could not attend the ceremony in person due to unavoidable events.
Karachi Press Club President Imtiaz Khan Faran, photojournalist Shoaib Ahmed, and journalists Shahid Hussain and Nusrat Amin also spoke at the condolence reference. The programme was moderated by journalist Bilal Ahmed, who was a colleague of Datta at The News.