Biographers Ball

Biographers Ball

Simon Schama, Miranda Carter, Ramie Targoff and Supriya Gandhi in conversation with Tom Holland

In a candid conversation with noted historian Tom Holland, four biographers got together to discuss the journey they took to write a set of diverse biographies. Ranging from historical periods to lives of women that were buried in the past, their dynamic writings captured different capsules of history.

On being asked what prompted them to write a biography, Miranda Carter, an English biographer who had written Anthony Blunt, said that the story that you chose to tell had to have “some kind of resonance, be something that touches you”. Ramie Targoff, another English biographer agreed: “Even when I wrote about a woman that I had very little in common with, I felt that I was constantly drawn into her story.” In concluding her book, she said, “I felt a sense of loss, almost postpartum like, when I finished. A person who had occupied so much of my time was suddenly gone."

“Is biography an inadequate genre for discovering history?” Tom Holland asked British historian Simon Schama. "You do have a sense of trepidation around it. For me the real problem is how much license do you give yourself to infer from their self-portrait."

On writing about Dara Shikoh, Mughal historian Supriya Gandhi added, “What I wanted to do was to expose the various layers of memory that shroud him. We live in an age in India where historical figures are often politicised. And by making use of primary sources, I wanted to create a more nuanced picture." Miranda Carter, in her appreciation of “the baggy genre that is a biography”, noted that “one can contain a multitude of genres in it” and that it enabled her to draw an intersection between themes like “family and politics”.

On speaking of the hurdles that biographers face, Ramie Targoff,  spoke of gaps in the female narrative: “Where are all the women? Now that we have found these women, they are still missing from the public conversation.” Upon his struggles with finding reliable material and evidence, Simon Schama admitted, “We’ve all had rainy days in the archives. But I am also every archivist's worst nightmare- I can throw tantrums for manuscripts if required.”

The session thus opened a window into the challenging process of creating, researching and publishing a biography.