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A Portrait of a Scholar–Teacher

Giraddi Govindaraj (1939–2018)

N S Gundur (seegundur@gmail.com) is chairman, Department of Studies and Research in English, Tumkur University, Tumakuru, Karnataka.

A tribute to Giraddi Govindaraj explores the interconnections between the profession of teaching and literary cultures.

Giraddi Govindaraj (1939–2018), scholar–teacher, creative and critical writer, passed away in Dharwad on 12 May. An episode in the history of Kannada letters has thus come to an end. The Kannada intelligentsia is mourning the demise of one of the leading exponents of the Navya movement, the modernist literary movement in Kannada. The tributes to Giraddi, either in the form of writing or in public speech, amply underscore his achievements as a writer and, more emphatically, as an astute critic and organiser of the Dharwad Sahitya Sambhrama. However, what is absent from these narratives is the picture of Giraddi as an unusual scholar–teacher.

My tribute to Giraddi, who taught me at Karnatak University, is also an attempt to understand the interface between the teaching profession and a writing career. Giraddi, whose writings are the result of his academic life, often used to tell us during occasional conversations that he, as a littérateur, owed much to his occupation as a teacher. Giraddi’s public life, like that of many of his contemporaries, is an illustration of what it means to be a teacher and a writer at the same time. This model, I think, is capable of offering some lessons to the newer generations in the teaching community about the interconnections between the profession of teaching and literary cultures.

We should not fail to recognise the fact that although most teachers, especially English teachers, in Karnataka have ­become public figures by virtue of their writings in Kannada, they have always exercised tremendous influence on generations of students who cherish their classroom experiences under their teachers. The media and the public too often overlook the teaching careers of such personalities and
valorise their writing selves.

What interests me in Giraddi is his extraordinary career as a scholar–teacher. He began his teaching career in a small village called Hanumanamatti near Ranebennur in 1963 and, then, went on to teach at Karnatak College, Dharwad. This was when Giraddi was initiated into the rich tradition of scholar–teachers that was flourishing in the Dharwad of those days. D R Bendre, the great poet, used to be addressed as “Bendre master.” In Dharwad, Giraddi’s literary sensibilities took shape under the tutelage of V K Gokak, another prominent Dharwad intellectual. Giraddi, along with Champa (Chandrashekhar Patil) and Siddalinga Pattanashetty, who are also scholar–teachers and writers, comprised the trio that brought out Sankramana, a leading literary magazine of the time. It was the literary activities at Dharwad that contributed immensely to the making of the teacher in Giraddi. While Giraddi in his teaching borrowed heavily from Dharwad’s literary culture, he could also contribute to it considerably drawing from his teaching experience.

When Karnatak University set up a postgraduate centre in Gulbarga, Giraddi became a university teacher at the ­centre, where, as he used to recall, his leisurely job and the unchallenging students in class gave him ample opportunities in the evenings to engage himself with ­theatrical activities. What he taught in his classroom—say, for example, plays—he could practise in the evenings along with amateur theatre participants. Giraddi, thus, was one of those rare teachers who utilised the opportunities provided by his teaching career to cultivate the writer in him.

Giraddi’s literary engagement with Kannada would not have been possible without his expertise as an academic in English studies, although he did not produce any significant writings in English. Some of his “pure-English” colleagues criticised him for having betrayed the discipline by not writing in English. As far as my knowledge goes, ­Giraddi was capable of extraordinary work in English, at least on par with his contemporaries. But, he, like several academics of his generation, made a conscious decision of writing in the bhasha. I remember him once telling me that English departments in India should serve the purpose of our local cultures; in Karnataka, for example, they should work for the enunciation of Kannada life. This often resulted in his colleague M K Naik, one of the leading proponents of Indian English literature, having differences with him. Though ­Giraddi was trained in linguistics at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages (CIEFL; now English and Foreign Languages University), Hyderabad,
and completed his master’s in linguistics from Lancaster University, United Kingdom, he chose to work for Kannada. Otherwise, he could have settled down at one of the premier institutions elsewhere.

When I went to do my master’s in English at Karnatak ­University in the late 1990s, I was surprised to find Giraddi the chairman of the English department. I, like several friends of mine, had thought that he was a professor of ­Kannada literature as we had read his short stories in Kannada before going to university. That indeed was the beginning of our literary education. But, it was intriguing that ­Giraddi never revealed to us his identity as a Kannada writer in class. He hardly cited examples from Kannada literary texts, nor did he share his experiences of interacting with great Kannada writers. This left many of us disappointed.

I still find it puzzling why Giraddi kept his engagement with Kannada literature, his most sought-after passion, away from his classroom teaching. I now believe that it is an ­extremely important obligation of English teachers in India to forge their bilingual and bi-literary sensibilities. Some of my classmates who had introduced me to Kannada literature were quite upset when Giraddi did not mention anything about the writer and polymath K Shivarama Karanth when he passed away in 1997. On that day of gloom in our class, we were eagerly waiting for Giraddi to talk about his experience with Karanth and his writings. But, to our dismay, he went on with linguistic analysis as if all was well in the ­Kannada literary world.

Giraddi, who was in the news recently for proposing the golden mean, the madhyama maarga (middle path), was a dvaiti (dualist) as far as the use of language was concerned. He spoke only in English in our classes; never did his Kannada interfere with his “English-medium” teaching. However, when he spoke in public, he used Kannada as if he did not know English. This was completely at odds with his intellectual conviction of working for the local culture. Sometimes, it is difficult to understand the ways of the people we admire. Probably, he did not want to show off his scholarly achievements and, obviously, he was never pretentious about his ­intellectual life. I remember having read about Immanuel Kant maintaining such a disciplined separation; he never talked about philosophy outside his academic interactions.
A rare thing to observe in philosophers!

Giraddi was very dry and monotonous when he taught ­linguistics, but was quite lively when teaching British modernist literature. Our generation of students will never forget the way he taught us T S Eliot and W B Yeats. Probably, Eliot was his favourite poet. He taught us Eliot, especially The Waste Land, for half a year. I remember one of my seniors saying that Giraddi would make The Waste Land dance before us. It was such an unforgettable experience for us as students that we started saying that “Giraddi Sir is not a Professor of English, but a Professor of T S Eliot.” Of course, Eliot was such an influence on Giraddi that, due to his teaching, Eliot became the favourite of many generations of his students. He also drew our attention to the extraordinary merit of Eliot’s prose, not to mention the pleasure and profit one derives from reading it. Thanks to his suggestion, I now take refuge in Eliot’s prose whenever I am feeling low. We could not have discovered the poet in Eliot’s prose, but for Giraddi. His teaching of Eliot not only shaped us, but also shaped Giraddi, the critic.

I would see him go over to meet G S Amur, the writer and professor of literature whom he admired as his guru, only to learn from his conversations with him. The learner never ceased to exist in Giraddi, and he taught us that to be a teacher is to be a learner forever. During our student days, he was at the fag end of his career, retiring when we graduated. But, he was never tired of engaging classes even during his retirement period. He used to prepare for classes as if he were doing it for the first time. When he assumed office as chairman of the Karnataka Sahitya Akademi, he would come down from Bengaluru during the weekends to complete his portions of the syllabus enthusiastically.

As a writer, he inspires us even today to work for Kannada and, as a teacher, he inspires us to love teaching amidst the challenges posed by the resistance to learning. Our challenge is to cultivate literary sensibilities in the age of social media. His scholarly teaching showed us that to be a teacher is to lead the life of a scholar, for the teacher cannot come into ­being without the scholar.

Sir, we owe you a lot.

 

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