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Fr. Varghese Paul, Enriching Journalism Away From Home
By Joe Palathunkal


        When Varghese Paul Chollamdam boarded a train to Gujarat in 1963 leaving behind his verdant homestead in Muvattapuzha, Kerala, he had hardly imagined that he would one day be an accomplished journalist and writer in the mother tongue of Mahatma Gandhi. But by joining the Jesuit Order which was reputed for its intellectual rigour and discipline, he was initiated into a life of serious study and reflection. Indeed it was a potential step towards a mission dedicated to the service of letters and words.

And as the days went by eminent models emerged before him from the same Jesuit Order inspiring to learn Gujarati and to take up a mission with the pen. Amos Padiri, Joseph Beschi, Robert De Nobili, John B Hoffmann, Thomas Stephen, Padmabhushan Camille Bulcke, Carlos Valles - they were all Jesuits from Europe who contributed immensely to enrich Indian languages through their studies and writings. "Definitely, they served me as inspiration then and still continue to do so," says Varghese Paul as he comments on his writing career in Gujarati with a successful detour to journalism.

His forays into journalism began on a significant note in 1975 when he got a diploma in professional journalism from the London School of Journalism, London. From then on he was fully into this field enriching it in various ways as a trainer, editor, writer and founder of agencies and associations related to the print media.

Training people in journalism was a dream close to Varghese Paul's heart. The diploma from London enabled him to realize this dream with expert knowledge and professionalism. "I was keen to pass on my skills and expertise in the field to interested people," says he alluding to the several short-term journalism courses he has conducted all over India.

One of his earliest training programmes was at the Xavier Institute of Communications, Saint Xavier's College, Mumbai, with a month-long seminar cum workshop in journalism for 22 editors from the church press in February-March 1980. In the same year he conducted a week-long workshop on reporting in half a dozen cities around India ."Well, it was a challenging experience for me to conduct this for editors some of whom have been into the job for years. But I was fortunate to get experienced journalists from the local press including the veteran Mr. M. V. Kamath of the illustrated Weekly of India to give lectures to the participants," says Varghese Paul with a certain amount of satisfaction and a sense of achievement. "We had even a convocation ceremony," continued he "in which a great editor like Mr Krishnamurthy of the Free Press Journal spoke stressing the need and importance of keeping oneself up-to-date especially in a competitive field like journalism."

In the year 1980 itself he conducted week-long workshops on reporting in half a dozen cities all over the country. During the last 30 years he has conducted nearly 100 short-term journalism training programmes benefiting at least a 1000 people. His participants were not only from the Catholic community but were also from other church denominations, and some were even from non-church groups. One such journalism training programme this writer attended in Bangalore in 1979 had even participants from as far away as Thailand.

After founding the SAR News agency in 1980 he experimented with another methodology in imparting journalism training. The in-service training in professional journalism he started at his Greater Kailash II of SAR News office in Delhi had a few young aspirants some of whom now hold responsible positions in professional journalism. Jose Kavi, presently the bureau of chief of UCA News at Delhi & Tony Joseph of the Business World Consulting Editor, Kolkata are a few among them. One of his stated goals in imparting journalism training to various types of people from all over India was "to create a sense of journalism in the new generation of our country".

That goal continued to follow him wherever he went. When he returned to Gujarat in 1984 as the editor of the Gujarati monthly publication "DOOT", he continued his in-service training programme here also. This helped a few young Gujarati aspirants in journalism to get placement in a couple of leading Gujarati dailies and other journals.

In 1999 he gave this same in-service training programme a new twist by recruiting graduate youngsters from the tribal and dalit communities of Gujarat for a one year diploma course in Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan's institute of journalism at Ahmedabad. Every year he selects half a dozen youngsters for this programme and provides a stipend for their fifty percent expenses.

"I would not have been what I am today but for Father Varghese Paul. Besides the lectures I heard on journalism at the Bhavan's back, home he gave us a practical training in his office. What I remember most is his affable nature in dealing with us students and guiding us," says Rajendra Vasava, a tribal young man from South Gujarat who completed the course with Varghese Paul and now work in a tribal information project of the State Government. Some others also who have gone through his journalism training have similar sentiments and perceptions about this man who enriches the print media with a rare dedication.

The founding of the South Asia Religious (SAR) news agency by Varghese Paul in 1980 was a major contribution by him towards the enrichment of journalism. Though the SAR mainly covers church- related stories, yet it is a major contribution in the field of journalism as a source of information dissemination. Now with its main office at Bangalore , SAR still continues as a vibrant news agency. In spite of his busy schedule, Varghese Paul even today contributed nearly 30 stories annually to the SAR which he conceived and cradled years ago.

In 1986 as recognition for his contribution to journalism he was elected as the President of the South Asian Catholic Press Association (SACPA). He organized SACPA's first ever fully represented meeting at Kathmandu , Nepal in 1988. He is also an active member of the Geneva based Catholic Union of the Press (UCIP). "My association with the UCIP began a quarter of a century ago in 1977 when I became an active member of the Indian Catholic Press Association" and he calls UCIP "the biggest body of press media personnel in the world".

To encourage journalism among the Christians of Gujarat he founded the Gujarat Catholic Press Association (GCPA) on March 17, 1985 , and the Gujarat Christian Press Council (GCPC) in December 2002. Besides encouraging journalism another situational imperative prompted him to start the latter. As he says he founded the GCPC "sensing the need for united efforts of all Christian communities in the face of ever growing communal and fundamentalist forces in Gujarat ". How can one forget the unimaginable brutality staring at us from the communal inferno of February-March 2002 when hundreds were massacred across the State! GCPC was Varghese Paul the journalist's response to such a situation.

Another feather on his cap is his unique distinction in heading the 92 year old Gujarati monthly "DOOT' for the longest term. He was its first Malayalee chief editor and he edited it for 15 long years transforming this nondescript monthly of readership into a publication with nearly 60,000 readers. He changed its contents and layout drastically and got famous Gujarati writers like the Sahitya Akademi Award winning litterateur Joseph Macwan to contribute to it regularly. During his editorship the Doot office became a meeting point of well-known Gujarati Christian writers and journalists for "relaxed chitchat discussions on media matters over a cup of tea" as he says with a smile.

Today with 17 books to his credit in Gujarati brought out through well-known publishers like "R R Sheth & Co, and "Rannade Prakashan" the 60 year old Father Varghese Paul Chollamadam from far away Kerala has become one with the Gujarati language and its nuances which he learned assiduously to give a vision to a people whom he has accepted as his own. Some of the titles of his books like "Culture of Love", "Wealth of the Heart", "Happiness of Life", "Feast of Relationship", and "Look at a person as a Human Being" speak volumes about that vision. Now every Monday he contributes the lead article to the one lakh circulation Gujarati daily Sambhav under the general title "Social Vision", and that his readers appreciate the vision he gives to them is amply demonstrated through the various awards and prizes they bestow on him. The latest is the "Gira Gurjari Award" from Kala Gurjari for his book "Culture of Love". And he can feel legitimately proud of the fact that far away from his home state he not only enriched journalism but also a people and a language with a rare dedication and commitment which spans 30 years of service to the print media.

Writer's email: jopam@icenet.net

Books by Fr. Varghese Paul, S. J.