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He is a class apart

Professor Ramaswamy's faultless memory and passionate rhetoric would leave everyone in his class awe-struck. This walking encyclopaedia of English classics was felicitated recently in Bangalore.



S. Ramaswamy: man of many fascinations, from Shakespeare to Bond films — Photo: K. Gopinathan

THE CENTRAL College of the '70s was a happening place. The best co-education college of its time, it boasted of an eclectic crowd of students and a motley assortment of hangers-on, most of whom either did not even belong to the place or could hardly be associated with the word "student". In such a freewheeling atmosphere, it was difficult to remember that one was there to attend classes and lectures, submit assignments, and horror of horrors, maintain minimum attendance in the registers. It was said that the benches in the canteen and on the lawns were more sat upon than those in the classrooms!

But there was one exception. At the stroke of 2 p.m., after an extended lunch of what passed as bisibele and dosas in the canteen, there would be a "great uprising" of students from various modes of sitting and even sleeping on the lawns in various postures of carefree ease, to file into Ramaswamy's English Honours class. Never in the history of the Central College have so many students at one time, in one place, uttered the words, "Present, Sir!" and filled the backless benches to capacity.

The dusty, ill-ventilated classroom suddenly took on the form of Ellsinore Castle and Hamlet stood before us in the unlikely guise of a small man, attired in a suit and tie, with a shock of greying hair covering one lens of his glasses. This was a self-effacing humble Hamlet, but Prof. Ramaswamy's gentle ways and soft voice were soaked with the sheer emotion and poetry of Shakespeare. The good professor never demanded respect, attention, or attendance in his classes. He got these effortlessly, simply by being so utterly sound in his subject and riveting in his lectures. His influence on his adoring students lasted decades after the classes ceased.

On March 27, this year, an eminent arts organisation, Kala Gangotri, recognised his four decades of contribution to theatre in Bangalore, starting with his founder-membership of Bangalore Little Theatre back in 1959. The award was given to him on World Theatre Day, coincidentally also his birthday. Prof. Ramaswamy was an unlikely candidate for English Literature. Having had a thorough grounding in Sanskrit from the pundits of Venugopala Temple in Malleswaram, when he went to the Central College in 1950, for his Honours degree in English, most people were amused at his temerity to aspire to proficiency in English. Prof. Ramaswamy vowed to master the subject, and get to Oxford University, and show up his hecklers. He topped in both his graduate and post-graduate courses.

His father, who was a Central College man and an Anglophile, insisted that Prof. Ramaswamy learnt Sanskrit and French, and also encouraged him to read widely in English. "My father's principle was that it was important to read good literature, not merely academically accepted by the masters. It was then that I read Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. "Meanwhile, my education continued at Malleswaram Middle and High School," recalls Prof. Ramaswamy.

It was in 1954 that he began his career as an English lecturer in a small college. Though he toyed briefly with the idea of a civil service career and even wrote the examination, he declined the offer when it came to him and settled down to teach. "I taught for 38 years, and retired in March 1992. I remember mentioning at my farewell function that I started teaching with Julius Caesar and ended teaching with Coriolanus! I was inextricably linked with Shakespeare and with noble Romans," he says.

Shakespeare, of course is his favourite writer and Hamlet his favourite play. "Hamlet is a remarkable play, even in a remarkable body of work. It is almost twice as long, for instance, as Macbeth; it has larger number of lines for the lead actor than others. An actor playing Hamlet has to memorise about a hundred lines; there are no short cuts. And, of course, it has everything: drama, intrigue, suspense, romance, courage, a sword fight on stage, tragedy, comic elements, and the unfolding of the character of a very complex man in front of the audience. I have watched a large number of productions, and every one of them have had something different to say," says the unmatched teacher, who would not only walk into class without a textbook, but also reel of an entire text from memory. Prof. Ramaswamy's academic career is interwoven with his interest for theatre. He was the Senior Fulbright Fellow at Yale, in their famous School of Drama. Besides the Fulbright scholarships and fellowships, he got the British Council Scholarship twice, and has been a Shastri Indo-Canadian Fellow at McGill University. In 1959, he helped found the Bangalore Little Theatre (BLT). In those days, Bangalore only had the Bangalore Amateur Dramatic Society, in which expatriates put up drawing room comedies in the Bangalore Club. BLT was set up as a reaction to this exclusivity, and to bring good drama to Bangalore. Ever since, Prof. Ramaswamy has been keenly interested in the stage. He has, incidentally, published 108 articles and papers and the 109th one is due for publication. He has written three English and three Kannada books and two are under publication. It was in the '60s that American Literature courses became an academic fashion in Indian universities.

There was a dearth of teachers who knew the subject or had taught it before, and Prof. Ramaswamy set off for nearly a decade of specialised work in American Literature. When the next Commonwealth wave set in, he found himself involved again. He was involved in formulating and teaching courses in Commonwealth Literature, and was fortunate enough to get scholarships to go and study these authors, and discuss them with fellow scholars, on several occasions.

Prof. Ramaswamy is also, perhaps, one of the most widely-travelled people one could meet in Bangalore. In the course of his travels, he has met a range of people who have left a lasting impression on him. He fondly remembers Walter Starkie, who had taught Samuel Beckett and Yeats at the Trinity College, Dublin. He also remembers a Hungarian Jew, a survivor of the Nazi death-camps, who was Prof. Ramaswamy's roommate. He was a scholar of ten languages, and was studying linguistics. "On one occasion, he astonished me by breaking into a song, and it was the Geeta-Govinda of Jayadev, sung in his native Magyar!" he recalls. "Another friend whose memories I cherish is Christopher Isherwood. His friendship took me inside all the major Hollywood studios," he says. A common bond between Isherwood and him was a deep involvement with Vedanta. Isherwood's book on Vedanta, A Meeting By The River, remains a wonderful book even today. Prof. Ramaswamy has a treasured photograph in which he is shaking hands with Charlton Heston, who, at 6' 6", towers a foot above the professor. He remembers the visit of Gregory Peck to the English Department, when he taught in California.

He had turned out to be a well read, thinking actor, who had worked out his role in careful detail before shooting for the film Moby Dick. This Shakespearean scholar and Sanskrit student can also surprise you with an unlikely favourite: "I have to confess that my favourite films include the entire set of James Bond films! I have a full set of these films and keep watching them."

SANDHYA IYENGAR

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