x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Karnataka's quizmasters test Indians' intellectual mettle

The Karnataka Quiz Association spreads their passion to countries as far afield as the UAE, Malaysia and Germany. Samanth Subramanian reports from Bangalore

A team ponders a question at a Karnataka Quiz Association meeting this month. Amirtharaj Stephen for The National
A team ponders a question at a Karnataka Quiz Association meeting this month. Amirtharaj Stephen for The National

BANGALORE // On a recent Sunday evening, a few dozen people sat in a first-floor lecture hall on Queen's Road, thinking hard about Audrey Hepburn.

Hepburn was shown in a photograph on a PowerPoint slide, standing on a flight of stairs in a lipstick-red dress, her arms aloft and trailing a stole behind her. The photo, the slide revealed, was from the 1957 movie Funny Face. The question was: "What is Audrey Hepburn trying to do here?"

The crowd was not made up exclusively of cinephiles or Hepburn fanatics; that same evening, they had also thought hard about bacteria, Inuit snow goggles, the US astronaut Sally Ride, and the Crimean war, among other things.

Instead, they were quizzers, and this was one of the Karnataka Quiz Association's (KQA's) regular quiz meetings, where teams of four competed first in a written preliminary and then, if they qualified, in an eight-team final.

As always, there were no rich prizes at stake. The quizzers were participating purely for the thrill of working out an answer - working out, for example, that Hepburn was standing in the Louvre and replicating the pose of the ancient Greek statue, Winged Victory of Samothrace.

This year, the KQA turns 30, cementing its position as India's leading association of amateur quizzers. It conducts some of the country's most anticipated quizzes, fields some of the strongest teams, and is spreading the culture of quizzing not only across India but also overseas.

Its members conduct quizzes as far afield as Dubai and Kuwait, and its international written quiz Mindsweep, for solo participants, is held simultaneously in the UAE, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway, Estonia, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia.

The KQA conducts roughly 60 quizzes a year that are open to any team that pays an entry fee of between 50 and 100 rupees (Dh6.75). Its members also conduct 10 inter-school quizzes and five inter-college quizzes for university students in the state each year. The KQA's members fund these quizzes by conducting quiz events for corporations, Rotary Club chapters, or big college events.

"Quizzing in India used to be a regional activity, with quiz clubs in each city," said Gopal Kidao, a senior member of the Quiz Foundation of India in Chennai, the capital of neighbouring Tamil Nadu state. "But the KQA has taken it to a national-level activity, broadening the base of quizzers."

Like many others, Mr Kidao travels regularly to Karnataka's capital, Bangalore, to take part in the KQA's quizzes because, above all else, they make for riveting quizzing. "They are well-researched, they have interesting topics, and they have seasoned quizmasters."

One of these quizmasters, Arul Mani, a professor of English literature at Bangalore's St Joseph's College, has been a KQA member since 1985, when he was in the ninth grade. Mr Mani had attended other quizzes before and found them "intimidating", shutting people out rather than inviting them in, and favouring people who memorised facts.

The quizzes by Wing Commander GR Mulky, a retired military officer who was one of the founders of the KQA, were different, Mr Mani found. "His quizzes were gloriously unpredictable," he said. "He also had style. His questions never merely repeated information, but offered playful tweaks and bits of extra."

Rajeev Gowda, the founding secretary of the KQA and now a professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, said the essence of the organisation - "keeping things really low cost, accessible" - has not changed.

"The mindset has never been commercial," Mr Gowda said. "But the way in which it has expanded its activities, across India and around the world, has been remarkable."

The modes of quizzing have also changed since 1983. Earlier, questions would be all words and they would be read aloud; at best, a slide projector would be commandeered for the more important quizzes.

Now every KQA quiz is presented on PowerPoint and invariably includes visual and audio clues.

G Krishnamurti, a member of Quiz Dubai, which was started in June 2011, said the KQA functions as a useful model for a quiz club.

"The KQA is very active in building a culture of quizzing in schools, and we're hoping to emulate that in the UAE," Mr Krishnamurti said. "We will conduct our second annual inter-school quiz in May, for around 100 teams, and we will do a few more quizzes at the school level."

One of Cmdr Mulky's original visions, Mr Mani said, was "to win recognition for quizzing as a mindsport, on the lines of chess".

Quizzing may not yet be an organised professional sport, as chess is, but the KQA has helped move it out of the realm of swotters and information-hounds, making it a fascinating activity to watch, let alone participate in.

The original attraction of the KQA, for people like Mr Mani, still holds firm and true, he said.

"What got a lot of us attracted to KQA-style quizzing was the fact that you didn't have to belong to some especially clued-in set of people to answer these questions," Mr Mani said. "You just needed to try."