Early in August, I was the Chief Guest for the prize giving function of a Declamation contest.
A declamation competition is founded on the principle that certain famous words have left a definite mark on the world, perhaps even changed the course of history. An aberration was surely the Jasmine Revolution that took place a few months earlier in Tunisia, when disaffected people got together on Facebook. I mused that many uprisings and great events were stimulated by the eloquent words of charismatic persons who unified a crowd with a sense of purpose.
The great speeches of the world have arisen in many a different context. We may not immediately think of them as great speeches, but the words of spiritual leaders have defined their followers beliefs for all ages to come.
Rousing words have affected war outcomes by instilling the fighting spirit. I recall the words of that famous woman monarch, Queen Elizabeth I who spoke to English troops in the face of the invading Spanish Armada-” I know I have but the body of but a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too. ” By the time of the II World war, battles were waged not just with weaponry but also across the radio waves as contests of eloquence between leaders of opposing nations. Winston Churchill’s words which stirred the patriotic spirit to unlikely victory were among those performed that day.
The Indian nation owes a debt to the powerful words that were spoken during The Indian freedom movement which mobilized the masses against British rule, whether those of Gandhi setting out the unusual principles of non-co-operation and civil disobedience or the fiery words of Subhash Chandra Bose- ” Give me blood and I will give you freedom.” The mellow words of Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous tryst with destiny speech forever spell out the lofty ideals of a new nation.
Struggles for political equality everywhere have also known their inspiring moments, notably Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” oration that would arouse the hopes of a racially oppressed minority in America.
I reflected that some of the world’s great speeches are not those about war, but about peace and reconciliation after conflicts, such as those given during acceptance of Nobel Peace Prizes . These speeches are noteworthy because they go beyond the interests of a particular nation or group and address themselves to all humanity.
I pronounced on what would make a declamation contest a real learning exercise. A contestant need not worry about the quality content because that is given. The premium is on perfect memory and expressiveness to do justice to the great content, but these elements must be backed by holistic understanding. Knowing the context of the words promotes the right mood of expressiveness. Secondly, as much as great words move people to great things, equally there have been those disturbing moments when cunning demagogues have manipulated mobs and unleashed destructive forces. Understanding the context brings out the distinction between what sounds good for competitive purposes, and what in the end is truly meaningful.
There should be appreciation of the value systems involved in a speech, such as democracy and human rights, or qualities like courage and determination and compassion so that they can be upheld and strengthened. Great speechs of the world have already proved impactful- their clarity of thought and conviction of purpose have eternal messages and enduring lessons. It would be a worthwhile exercise to analyse the structure of great speeches for their central ideas, their use of language etc so that it furnishes actual training ground for future leaders by expanding the thought process.
I thought each of the young performers enjoyed a unique opportunity- to stand in the shoes of a famous leader and relive a rousing moment from history. It might be beyond each and everyone of us to shake up the world as these famous words have done. Nevertheless life gives us opportunities to make a difference with words on different occasions- to celebrate a special moment, to offer comfort, to speak up for what we believe in , to convey significant ideas and values, to offer ourselves for responsibility, to promote, encourage and inspire.
At each such opportunity, the thoughts shared should be our uniquely personal ones, appropriate to the situation. It is however possible to be guided by the spirit of great speeches that continue to exert influence on the thought process of humanity.
– GISELLE MEHTA