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Friday, December 3, 2021

Calicut's patronage of letters - how a negative comment can spur scholarship

 We had occasion to write about Calicut's long tradition of encouraging scholarship here and here. Rulers like the Manavedan Zamorin who had himself written the Krishna Geethi, and Vidwan Ettan Thampuran  were  generous patrons of letters, earning for Calicut this well-earned appellation.

But today we come across a curious case of a negative comment - bordering on derision - from a gentleman from Calicut goading a scholar from Palakkad to take up the study of Vedanta and Ramayana, only to end up as one of the foremost commentators of Bhagavatha, Ramayana, Brahmasutra and many other Sanskrit treatises.

The man who insulted Pandit P Gopalan Nair is now forgotten. But, his contribution in challenging the Pandit deserves to be acknowledged. He was Mr. Unni Eradi, the first graduate from Kakkodi Panchayat and a retired District Registrar. 

Kakkodi is about ten kilometers east of Calicut. It is still a Panchayat. In fact, Kakkodi Panchayat has published the local history of Kakkodi in 2005. Mr. Unni Eradi finds a mention, though not very honourable, in the official history. 

Edakkandathil Unni Eradi was the first graduate of Makkada amsom. He studied in Madras. He was a District Registrar. He used to stay in Calicut town. He was reluctant to help the locals in any manner.

Pandit P Gopalan Nair was a self-made man. Poverty did not allow him to pursue schooling beyond class 3. His textbook in Class 3 was 'The English Primer' authored by the Inspector of Schools, Mr. P P Braithwaite. The same Mr. Braithwaite later became a shishya of Nair for learning Malayalam and a bit of Vedanta.  Their association continued for a long time till Braithwaite, who volunteered for war service during the First World War, lost his life in the Palestine front in 1918.


Gopalan Nair continued his studies in Sanskrit kavya and alankara under various local teachers. When he was 16 years of age, he was forced to seek some job to maintain his family which consisted of only his widowed mother. He started work as an accountant in the timber yard of one of his uncles in Vallangi. Even there, he found time to pursue his Sanskrit studies under Sri Rayiramkandath Govinda Menon, who was running an English School in Nenmara. 


Later, Gopalan Nair became a teacher at a local school and subsequently, its headmaster and manager as well. However, as he did not have any formal teaching qualifications, he could not continue for long. One of the conditions for getting annual grant in aid was that the teachers should be qualified. 

As teachers' training was available only in Calicut, Gopalan Nair proceeded there. This was the time when Vidwan Ettan Thampuran (P.C. Manavikrama Raja of Mankavu Palace) was presiding over the literary circle in Calicut. Ettan Thampuran, a prolific poet and writer in Sanskrit himself, was better known as a generous patron of literary figures like Vallathol, V C Balakrishna Paniker and Punnasseri Nambi Neelakantha Sharma. (Maddy has a detailed post on Vidwan Ettan Thampuran which can be accessed here ).

Gopalan Nair, who had briefly met the Thampuran during one of his visits to Kollengode, renewed his acquaintance. He would regularly visit the Mankavu Palace on Friday afternoons and be the guest of the Thampuran on Saturdays and Sundays, learning from him Grammar and Alankara shastra. 

Ambalakkat Karunakara Menon, the son of the Thampuran, recalled the holding of Vidvat Sadas (A Confluence of Scholars). Menon was just eight years of age, but he vividly remembered that 'Gopalan Nair used to be a regular among the distinguished persons assembled. There was a special reason for this. Sri Gopalan Nair was my father's favourite disciple. His love for him was no less than his love for us, his children. Although he was the youngest of the scholars assembled in the Sadas,  everyone was in awe of his mastery in Sanskrit.'

Menon continued to reminisce about his meeting with Gopalan Nair. One of the items in the Sadas was 'samasya pooranam'. Participants would go to some silent corner and think about how to fill the three lines of the quartet which they have to write to solve the riddle in the given fourth line. The boy Menon used to spot Gopalan Nair, tall, fair and of a peaceful disposition, always attired in white garments, scribbling away in a corner of the verandah of Patinhare Kovilakam.

Apart from Thampuran's affectionate attention, Gopalan Nair also was fortunate to receive the motherly affection from his wife, Ambalakkat Lakshmikutty Amma, as recorded by Nair himself. A memorable event during those days was the literary competition held in Calicut Town Hall to celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Wales. Gopalan Nair won the first prize in prose and the second prize in poetry. The first prize in poetry was won by none other than Vallathol Narayana Menon.

On returning to Kollengode, he continued to work in the school till 1906 when his guru, Ravunniarath Kannan Menon who was the Malayalam Pandit at the Raja's High School, Kollengode, passed away. Vasudeva Raja of Kollengode appointed Gopalan Nair as the Malayalam Pandit, a position in which he continued for the next 28 years, with a brief interruption when he became the teacher to P P Braithwaite.

Although the Pandit was by now well-known for his mastery of Sanskrit language and its literature, he had not turned his full attention towards studying and interpreting the puranas. It was an incident which happened during these years that led him to delve deeply into a study of the epics and puranas.

Unni Eradi, who was introduced at the beginning of this post, had been posted as Sub Registrar of Kollengode many years ago. He had since retired as District Registrar and was settled in Calicut. He decided to visit his old haunt, Kollengode. He was the guest of one Karumathil Ananthan Menon who was serving as Revenue Inspector in Kollengode. Menon was a leading local figure who was also a patron of letters. Eradi had occasion to meet Pandit Nair at Menon's house.

Menon introduced the Pandit to Eradi as a Sanskrit scholar. Eradi who was himself a bit of a scholar  requested the Pandit to read and explain the book 'Vedanta Paribhasha'  which he was carrying with him. Gopalan Nair read and explained the text of the book although he found it rather difficult due to unfamiliarity. Eradi was immensely pleased with Gopalan Nair's rendering. He then casually asked Nair if he had read the Valmiki Ramayana. Nair had not read it and said so. 'What about Mahabharata', was the next question. Gopalan Nair confessed that he had not read it, either.

Eradi blurted out: 'Mr. Nair, then I have no great opinion about your Sanskrit scholarship'.

This was the Poonthanam- Bhattathiri moment! Gopalan Nair felt absolutely mortified at this rude comment. He vowed to undertake a study of these puranas. He went to the bookshop of Subrahmania Iyer in Palghat (presumably, R S Vadhyar and Sons) and purchased a copy of Valmiki Ramayana. For the next one year, he focused on a thorough study of this epic. Then for the next two years, he concentrated on a study of the Mahabharata.

Subsequently, he obtained a copy of Bhagavatham with annotation called Sreedhareeyam and immersed in a study of this purana. He also made a comparative study of other interpretations before embarking on the mammoth task of annotating the Bhagavatam himself. This was between the period of 1909-1911. It was the Bhagavatham annotation, published by Guruvayur Devaswom, which made Pandit P Gopalan Nair a household name in Kerala. 

The world must thank Unni Eradi from Calicut for provoking Pandit P Gopalan Nair into starting such a mammoth task and bringing it into fruition. 

Postscript: I had an occasion to see Pandit Gopalan Nair at close quarters. My eldest brother married from Palghat. The bride's father had invited the Pandit to bless the young couple during the function at Palghat.  I vividly remember gazing in awe at this Gandhara Buddha figure in pure white dress, with his forehead smeared with several lines of holy ash marked with a red vermilion dot in the centre, seated in a reclining chair. He was more than 88 years then. 

I did not know then that the villain Mr. Unni Eradi was my grandfather's uncle. Had I known this, I would have apologised to the great scholar for the insult he received from my ancestor. But then, stories about Bhartruhari and Melpathoor teach us that there's nothing like an insult, administered at the appropriate time, to spur one's creativity!

Sources:

1. Pandit P Gopalan Nair (1990) by P Rajagopalan, published by the Department of Culture, Govt. of Kerala .

2. Pradeshika Charitram  (2005) (Local History) by Kakkodi Panchayat

3.muralirvarma.blogspot.com/2009/08/sage-and-disciple.html

4 comments:

  1. Really unbelievable! A negative comment inspiring someone to be so positive in his approach to learning! That's the greateness of a scholarly mind.🙏🙏

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  2. Such an interesting article, it skims across so many people I have come to know of. And what a wonderful turn of events. I wish everybody took an insult like that and learned from it. I can personally admit that I find it so difficult to drum up any positives after getting insulted, try as I may and that identifies the chasm between greatness and the ordinary riff raff....

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  3. I enjoyed reading this very informative column, which is also a rare tribute to a great scholar. Superb presentation too. There are many such unsung scholars and artists and heroes in our society. I hope some of them will relive through the gifted pen of Mr. Ramachandran. Congrats and best wishes. I shared this with the some of the relatives of Pandit Gopalan Nair, whom I know.

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  4. Fascinating article and I love the way the author has brought out the meanness of a relative of his own ;that speaks volume for scholarship. These micro histories
    are required to show what a vibrant country we have.

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