Professor Bhadriraju Krishnamurti, third vice-chancellor of our University passed away on the 11th of August, last Saturday. I had met him once last year, an evening of pleasant conversation and gentle wit. It was clear that even long after retirement he thought often about our University and various matters concerning its well being.
One colleague who was very deeply affected by the news of his passing is Probal Dasgupta who is presently at the ISI Kolkata and was earlier in the CALTS, the Centre for Applied Linguistics and Translation Studies that Prof. Krishnamurti had founded. I asked him if I could adapt what he had written in his mail for this blog post.
The news of Professor Bhadriraju Krishnamurti’s passing which reached me on the 11th of August first shocked me – he had been aging gracefully and one had expected him to last a lot longer than eighty-four – and then, on reflection, also drove home a social fact. I began to feel that the University of Hyderabad community, which he worked so hard to shape seriously and durably, may have reached a point in its trajectory that makes it hard to see just what his contributions were all about. So let me throw in a few personal comments, for what they are worth, hoping that this might help some of you to achieve some clarity about what the man did for us. Before I start, since I no longer work for UoH, I suppose I need to tell many of you that I worked there from 1989 to 2006; time flies.
I first met BhK – as he encouraged many of us to call him – in 1980 at an international conference in the Osmania area of Hyderabad; at that stage few of us had heard of HCU. I had just finished my PhD at New York University. I was happy to find that he and I, across the generation gap, shared an enthusiasm – we both felt it was important to use Indian languages in official life, in the public space, in higher education, and to incubate cutting edge research especially in the humanities and social sciences. When we began to exchange thoughts we were not just crossing a generation divide; BhK was also going out of his way to befriend a younger person across turf boundaries – he and my mentor in linguistics had crossed swords a couple of times. By ‘friend’ I emphatically don’t mean just a chatting companion (though he was that too, and a good conversationist). He was a well-wisher willing and able to translate words into action. It was BhK who went out of his way to give me a break in the 80s. I was just one example; he often went way beyond the call of duty to support non-conventional scholars. BhK always did his best to ensure working conditions for them that were as optimal as one might expect, given the overall institutional circumstances in our country – and he expected these scholars to walk the extra mile to improve these circumstances for others. BhK was a rare combination – he was as committed to institution building as he was to scholarship itself.
I can vouch for the fact that BhK worked both privately and publicly to create an interpersonal ethos that would foster excellence and the democratic virtues, but that he did not believe in an opposition between merit and social justice. His appreciation of excellence never lapsed into elitism; he also never made the opposite mistake of pushing the appearance of democracy to the point of suffocating the quest for intellectual and cultural excellence. His willingness to cross boundaries was evident for instance in the fact that despite his life-long support for a centrist form of politics he was explicitly appreciative of writings emanating from the radical left. Again, I’m talking about actions, not just words: BhK was the Vice-Chancellor who expanded the scope of reservations in the admission process of the University of Hyderabad to help the democratic conversation to flourish. Some day, writers capable of eliciting serious public attention will give him credit for this social achievement which grew directly out of his academic convictions.
This is not the place to comment on BhK as an academic in any detail. I’ll just finish by telling you an anecdote. BhK and I were travelling to Calcutta to speak at a Suniti Kumar Chatterji centenary seminar. Chatterji (1890-1976) was arguably the greatest Indian linguist in modern times. On the way, BhK said, “Probal, there is a question I have been wanting to ask you. Those laws of sound change that were stated in Chatterji’s 1926 book – they still stand, don’t they?” I reflected for a moment and said, “Yes, they stand.” He simply said, “That is what I wanted to know.” The point BhK was driving home, in his own quiet way, was that we who are working today should repeatedly ask ourselves: Are we writing anything, today, with enough rigour to make it likely that commentators 64 years hence will still cheer for what we are writing today?
Thanks Probal. And thank you, BhK.