NEW DELHI: Can an NRI get by in Britain or the US by writing poetry? Yes, if he or she has some other income to fall back on, says Chamal Lal 'Chaman', a London-based poet, lyricist and radio broadcaster.
Sprightly at 74, he said, "From 1977 to the mid 80s, I was always in demand for special poems composed for marriages, birthdays, anniversaries and tributes by Punjabi families.
"People often paid me very well, including air travel out of London. I have a huge bundle of these poems weighing over 7 kg! But these days I politely decline such offers unless it's a friend or close family friend."
"I am writing new poems for my third volume of Punjabi poetry and for an anthology of Urdu-Hindi poems because poetry and lyrics are my first love," Chaman, who has lived in India, Kenya and Britain, said in a freewheeling chat during a visit here.
He says that a poet writing lyrics for well-known pop singers, films, BBC, ITV and reputed record labels can make good money if he has a dozen hits to his credit registered with the Performing Rights Society (PRS) that collects royalty payments and distributes them to its 65,000 current members in Britain.
Says Chaman, "I joined PRS as a member in January 1989, although my recorded works were in the market much earlier. For instance, Jagjit Singh had sung my famous Punjabi song 'Saun da mahina' in 1979.
"I still receive some payments for the album 'Hole Hole' from time to time. Payments are made directly into my bank account each quarter."
The broadcaster, who writes poetry and lyrics in leisure, has a large volume of Punjabi work to his credit. He was honoured for his lifelong contribution to Punjabi songs, poetry and culture in Britain in 2006.
Chaman was born to a middle class family in a small village in Jalandhar. "It was called Pasla. We did not have too many luxuries, but we were a contented lot. We had pure food - good milk, butter and lots of daal (lentils), plentiful in today's terms."
He was a sad child, who was brought up in his 'nanke' (mother's home). "My mother died when I was a child. It left a void. In my quiet moments, I have always tried to figure out what kind of a woman she was," he said.
The void led him to poetry. At 13, he wrote poetry on Guruk Nanak's birthday and recited it. "Someone gave me Re.1 and it stirred the poet in me. But unfortunately, I could not complete my education in Phagwara College because my father summoned me to Kenya, where he stayed," Chaman recalled.
The most exciting phase of Chaman's life, as the broadcaster himself says, are his years as a presenter for Kenyan radio (Voice of Kenya) in Nairobi during the 1950s and 1960s.
"I am transcribing more than 100 radio interviews with celebrities that I recorded in the course of my career into a book. Kenya has been the most productive and colourful phase of my career as a radio presenter," Chaman said.
The book, he says, will take over a year.
Chaman, who moved to Britain after spending nearly 18 years from 1956 to 1974 as a presenter for Kenyan radio and then returned to India, worked in the Asian service at BBC, the London Broadcasting Company and the Punjab Radio.
He started the first Indian commercial radio programme in London called the "Geet Mala" that became a rage among the Asian diaspora. He also anchored regular weekly programmes on BBC's TV One and BBC Radio Four during the 1990s.
He composed the lyrics for "Bride and Prejudice", starring Aishwarya Rai, and wrote lyrics for ghazal exponents Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh's scores.
"As an interviewer, my most memorable moment was when I met former prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964. India was rebuilding itself and the country was not as prosperous as it was. The Panchsheel fiasco or the 1962 Chinese aggression was still fresh on our mind. It was a gross violation of the Panchsheel friendship pact between India and China signed in 1954.
"I asked Nehru, 'Panchsheel par Chini rawaiyye ke bare me kuch roshni daliye (shed some light on the Chinese stand on the Panchsheel pact). He replied with his trademark humour, "Roshni kya dalun. Chinio ne Panchsheel andhera kar diya (what light do I shed? The Chinese have shoved Panchsheel into darkness)," Chaman Lal recalled.
He also remembers prime minister Morarji Desai, who "threw Chaman Lal out after five minutes"; and Krishna Menon, to whom he spoke at length.
"I personally knew Sunil Dutt, the country's first action hero since the days he became a star. He came to Nairobi and I interviewed him. Sunil Dutt and Nargis remained lifelong friends," says Chaman.
"I played host to Ustaad Vilayat Khan when he visited Nairobi and tabla exponent Shanta Prasad, who had this strange habit of falling asleep with a paan (betel leaf) in his mouth and waking up to chew the same betel leaf in the morning," the broadcaster said.
He interviewed composer Naushad for 40 minutes just before the veteran musician died in Mumbai.
Chaman is not too happy with modern radio and television journalism. "There are too many commercials and the women anchors are too aggressive. Where are the 'Bharatiya naris' (Indian women)?" he laughs.