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A quiet builder of modern India

Born in Bengaluru on April 15, 1924, he was a quiet builder of modern India. He contributed to institutions such as the National Institute of Design, Indian Institute of Mass Communication and Indian Council for Cultural Relations.
Last Updated : 17 April 2024, 22:49 IST
Last Updated : 17 April 2024, 22:49 IST

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Most people remember H Y Sharada Prasad as the press advisor to three prime ministers, and chiefly as the wordsmith for Indira Gandhi. Those who knew him will recall him as a gentle, dignified and learned person. 

Born in Bengaluru on April 15, 1924, he was a quiet builder of modern India. He contributed to institutions such as the National Institute of Design, Indian Institute of Mass Communication and Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

Sharada Prasad was a Gandhian first and then a Nehruvian, temporally and ideologically. The values of public service, ethics and humanism were instilled in him by his socially-conscious mother Saraswathamma, father Holenarasipur Yoganarasimham, a composer and Sanskrit scholar, and by his maternal grandfather, Vajapeyam Venkatasubbiah, a member of the Servants of India Society and associate of Gopalkrishna Gokhale.  

As secretary of the Maharaja’s College students union, Sharada Prasad led novel protests during the Quit India movement, and was imprisoned in 1942-43. But he did not claim a tamra patra for his role. His incomplete prison diary was published posthumously as ‘A Window on the Wall’ (2010).

He began his career as a journalist with The Indian Express in 1945, and soon became the youngest News Editor of a national daily. He resigned in 1955, in solidarity with the journalists’ union, and thereafter went to Harvard as the first Nieman Fellow from India. He joined the Government of India in 1957, where he edited Yojana, the Planning Commission’s magazine, before being chosen by Indira Gandhi in 1966 to serve on her staff.

Here, he was witness to major events in Indian political history, including high moments such as the 1971 war and the independence of Bangladesh, the Shimla Agreement and India's first nuclear test at Pokhran in May 1974. 

He was also present at events which privately filled him with sadness and horror, such as the declaration of Emergency in June 1975 and the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and its aftermath. His discretion and honesty helped him maintain a reputation of integrity during his tenure in the most powerful office of the land.

Cultural contributions

However, Sharada Prasad is better remembered for his cultural contributions. His love for music and literature led to deep, lasting friendships with several writers, most notably Kota Shivarama Karanth and R K Narayan, whose works he translated, amongst a host of other literary geniuses.

He was also closely associated with musicians such as Doraiswamy Iyengar, M S Subbulakshmi and Gangubai Hangal, artists such as K K Hebbar and R K Laxman, and filmmakers such as M V Krishnaswamy. His love for Karnataka was evident in the book he wrote with his friend, photojournalist T S Satyan, ‘Exploring Karnataka’. Later, he also edited ‘The Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru’. 

In his lifestyle, writing and his aesthetics, Sharada Prasad favoured simplicity and elegance. This naturally led to a close friendship with Charles and Ray Eames, one of the greatest designer teams of the 20th century, with whom he worked. Their ‘India Report’ laid the foundation for design education in India.

Beneath his soft-spoken, reserved demeanour, Sharada Prasad held steely convictions and principles. For him, the caste system and the subjugation of women were the primary reasons for India’s poverty and backwardness. While well-versed in the classics and religious texts, he was agnostic and shunned rituals. Characteristically self-effacing, his book of selected articles was titled “The Book I Won’t Be Writing” (2003).

‘Shouri’, as we called him, had a sparkling sense of humour in private. Despite his busy schedule, he managed to spend quality time with family and friends. He lived an extraordinarily self-reliant life, making few demands of the world around him. We are the beneficiaries of the extraordinary goodwill and affection that he earned from his friends and acquaintances.

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Published 17 April 2024, 22:49 IST

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