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A candle for those who lived like a flame

Even when they don’t border on the hagiographical, obituaries often tend to observe an old rule: De mortuis nil nisi bonum, writes Amitava Sanyal.

columns Updated: Aug 25, 2010 18:29 IST
Amitava Sanyal

Even when they don’t border on the hagiographical, obituaries often tend to observe an old rule: De mortuis nil nisi bonum. But what sense does it make to ‘speak only good of the dead’ when the dead themselves never conformed to the conventional rules of ‘good behaviour’?

What if they were the black sheep of their own milieus and loved to flaunt that status? Who would we serve — the dead or the living — by highlighting the whites, hiding the blacks, and doing away with the greys altogether?

The contrast becomes even more glaring when we remember artists whose colourful private lives were as much a topic of animated conversations as their multi-hued artistic creations were lauded. There’s no point denying a Ghalib his visit to the prostitute’s kothi, or a Van Gogh his excess at the absinthe bar.

Here is an uncompromising look at four artists whose passing this year has left us with deep, echoing voids because, through their stirring arts and exhilarating lives, they infused so much life in us all.

The last laugh
A fortnight after he died, the coroner’s office concluded that Heath Ledger (April 4, 1979 – January 22, 2008) had had an overdose of ‘oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine’. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell took up roles as his incarnations in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, his last, unfinished film. A tribute to the most memorable ‘Joker’.

Blue eyes shining
A vocal supporter of gay rights and liberal democracy, Paul Newman (January 26, 1925 – September 26, 2008) stuck to the straight and the narrow in his private life. After he divorced his first wife Jackie Witte and tied the knot with actress Joanne Woodward in 1958, he famously quipped about fidelity: “Why go out for hamburger when you have steak at home?” Watch the story of the couple in this documentary.

Drama became him
Recounting the time he had gone to Turkey to investigate the torture of imprisoned writers, Harold Pinter (October 10, 1930 – December 24, 2008) said, “Being thrown out of the US embassy in Ankara was one of the proudest moments in my life.” Whether it was against apartheid or nuclear arms, Pinter never held his punches. Watch him read from a play, ‘inspired’ by his aversion to mobile phones.

Hitting a high pitch
By her own admission, she was conceived in a rape in the cotton belt of America and struggled through poverty in most of her younger years. Yet, when she struck her groove in the tough worlds of Broadway and jazz music, she shone like few others. Listen to Eartha Kitt (January 17, 1927 – December 25, 2008) gurgling her way through ‘C’est si bon’ (‘It’s So Good’), a standard she pushed up the charts first in 1952.