Ashok R. Kelkar



Passing the Torch On


The relationship between the taught and the teacher fascinates me.  I suppose this is in part because I have enjoyed the relationship from both ends. Yes, ‘enjoyed’ is the word.  I had a rather long innings as one taught from the Infant Class, as it used to be called those days, to the course-work followed by the writing of the thesis towards a Doctorate in Philosophy, all without much of a break and again a long innings as one teaching undergraduates, postgraduates, and doctoral candidates.  I can say for sure that my enjoyment was conditioned both by traditional India’s conception of the relationship and the modern European conception of it.  There was no sense of discontinuity or any resulting discomfort in my stint as a student, thanks to my teachers, or at least some of them.  How do I know how, at a later date, my own students found me as a teacher?  More of that latter, first the two conceptions.


            With us in traditional India, there are two key words for the teacher, guru and ˇchˇrya.  Earlier, both terms simply meant someone who initiates the young to thesacred ritual.  In the course of history, guru came to be associated with the mysteries of the quest, whether spiritual or artistic.  Guru was larger than life (guru means large after all); he was the gracious master who transmited the torch of energy.  Acharya come to be associated with the determined search for truth, whether philosophical or scientific.  The acharya was the elder pathfinder; indeed he aspires to be excelled by someone he has taught (żisyˇd icchet parˇjayam); he was the kind father, who initiated the dialogue (vˇda-vivˇda) and transmitted the torch of knowledge.  We in India were content to use the same correlative for both these terms, namely, áiŔya, one to be disciplined (áikŔa).  (In Islamic India, one comes across the terms ustˇd and maulavĚ, which correspond, after making due allowances, to the terms guru and acharya respectively, áˇgird being the correlative of both).  Modern Europe, on the contrary, differentiates the two kinds of the taught; pupil / élčve / SchŁler and student /étudiant / Student. The pupil is the little child led by the hand by the teacher, who may be the ordinary school teacher or the eminent pathfinder among scholars.  The student is one who studies diligently and systematically, whether in attendance to a teacher or simply pursuing knowledge in the footsteps of those who have taught him earlier.


            A moment’s thought will show that there is a certain correspondence between the Indian and the European conception: between the guru and the pupil on the one hand and again between the acharya and the student.  So the two conceptions are not all that distinct, but there is a difference nevertheless.  In traditional India, there is such a great weightage to the guru mode that even an acharya stands in danger of shading into the guru and so being implicitly followed.  In modern Europe, one sets a higher store by the student mode so much so that even a school pupil stands in danger of being pressed into diligent and systematic study.  (The malady probably spread from France to other countries).


            To reminisce about my teachers is thus for me to contemplate the emergence of a fusion mode in my own relationship with them, fusion of the guru and pupil mode and the acharya and student mode.

            I was in my fourth school year, lucky to have the gifted Shri Ranade for our class teacher who taught us everything from language to science. In the course of a grammar lesson he inductively derived the definition of ‘adjective’ through example, finally inscribing it on the blackboard : An adjective (višeŔa¸a) is a word that gives us special (višeŔa) information about the noun, as in kˇ˝ˇ gho·ˇ, where the first word qualifies the noun ‘horse’ as ‘black’.  Up went a hand, my hand: “I have a problem, Sir, kˇ˝ˇ doesn’t say anything about the noun as don-akŔarĚ (two-syllabled) would correctly have about the second word, gho·ˇ.  May be we should modify the definition so as to read ‘special information about what the noun indicates’ rather than ‘about the noun’ as such.”  Shri Ranade stopped in his tracks, thought for a minute, and actually revised the definition on the blackboard and, showing his pleasure, said, “You’re right, of course.”  Needless to say, my admiration for my teacher doubled.


            Looks as if I was destined to be a grammarian after passing through an apprenticeship in literature with our class teacher, Shri D K Kulkarni, in the last two years of high school, the tenth and eleventh years in those days.  He taught us English, literary selections, grammar, and composition.  He used to encourage us to put questions about whatever he happened to be teaching.  The pleasure he took in this activity was so obvious that the last quarter of the school hour often turned into a discussion session.  At one point I asked him about some detail of English grammar that puzzled me.  Instead of lucidly explaining that point as he usually did, he suggested that I look him up later in the teacher’s common room so that we could talk about it.  so, when I saw him in the school recess I was naturally in some trepidation, wondering what faux pas I had committed.  He quietly led me by the hand to the adjoining school library hall, stopped at a shelf marked ‘Grammar’ and took out a couple of volumes, The Philosophy of Grammar and Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin, both by the renowned Danish scholar, Otto Jespersen.  Putting these into my hands and suggesting that in future I take up puzzlements with ‘this fine gentleman’.  Wittingly or unwittingly, a kindly school teacher had introduced me to a torchbearer, who made sure that I later found early American Linguistic structuralism not wholly satisfying.


            Now comes my apprenticeship in English literature as an undergraduate. Two of my teachers, Shri M.G. Bhate (who combined an MA in English with a London School BSc in Economics) and Shri G.P. Pradhan (who combined an infectious zest for literature with a jail term in India’s Emergency in his future).  Shri Bhate introduced me to the importance of the scrutiny critics and the socio-economic background of literature, and Shri Pradhan to the sheer enjoyment of literature and placing it in the context of life.  In their differing ways, both had the ability to get even the backbenchers in the class excited and to inculcate a love of Shakespeare.  (In later life, when it was suggested to me that a patriotic Indian couldn’t possibly love English literature or that a socially committed reader of literature ought not possibly indulge in the frivolity of enjoying literary beauty I was, and still am, all incomprehension.)

            And finally, my experience of doing a doctorate in an American university, a far western outpost of European civilization.  I duly drafted my doctoral thesis on Marathi phonology and morphology and handed in the draft to my research supervisor, Professor Hockett’s red-ink pen, I was in some trepidation when he later handed my draft back to me totally unscathed.  I was wondering to myself whether he found it too unworthy even to touch with his red-ink pen, when he broke in : “You could give it to the typist, no problem.  Well, actually there are four spots wherein you have in passing raised problems about some of my views on points of linguistic analysis.  In two cases you have succeeded in convincing me of my error and in the other two you haven’t but really you have argued your point well, which is all that matters in a doctoral thesis.”  I was taken aback, unable to imagine an Indian research supervisor doing anything of the kind.  Having recovered from the shock, I realized that I had duly earned the right to call him Charles rather than Professor Hockett as I had been doing so far.  I was inoculated against the colonial hangover for life.


            Later, when I found myself in the shoes of a teacher, I wondered from time to time how I fared as a teacher in the eyes of my students.  Quite a few of them told me after we got to know each other better.  They told me about their puzzlement about me.  In sum, their puzzlement was as to whether I was a starlet taskmaster or an indulgent senior friend, for I was both by turns.  They couldn’t place me; they couldn’t because they had no pigeonhole for the fusion mode, being good Indians.  Mine was a fusion mode in quite another sense too.  I was doing a stint as a visiting professor in a university language and literature department, lecturing on linguistic and literary theory by turns.  It was a composite group of those doing their respective MA in English and Marathi.  Once I sought to draw a student out informally on how my use of English worked in the classroom floor.  He assured me that there was no problem even with students of Marathi (as he was).  As he warmed to the subject, he casually remarked about my fusion mode: “You have truly introduced us to the linguistic and literary thinkers; it is as if the other day we were listening to a round-table debate on poetic theory that was going on with Aristotle and Abhinavagupta, Jµˇnešvara and Coleridge, Richards and D.K. Bedekar participating.”  It was a humbling experience for me to realize that I had unwittingly afforded my students such a globalizing learning experience and in part repaid my debt (¤¸a) to my teachers.


            Perhaps, my two fusion modes, the guru-pupil and acharya-student mode on the one hand and the mode exploiting the double intellectual inheritance, Indian and European on the other hand, are not two distinct fusion modes at all but a single composite Indian-European globalizing teaching mode after all.





            This is an invited contribution to:  Dr. Ms. Viney Kirpal (ed.) You moved my life: Heartwarming stories of teachers who mentored and taught us to dream.  Elgin, IL, Slough, Berks; New Delhi : New Dawn Press, 2004, p.68-73.


            The author benefited from : Minoru Hara, ‘Hindu concepts of teacher : Sanskrit guru and acˇrya’.  In : Sanskrit and Indian Studies : essays in honour of Daniel H.H. Ingalls, ed. Masatoshi Nagatomi et al. Dordrechz, Netherlands : D. Reidel, 1980, p.93-118.