Gentle colossus of Indian linguistics

Bh Krishnamurti firmly believed that the mother tongue was the best medium of learning and instruction

Updated - August 14, 2012 03:39 am IST

Published - August 13, 2012 11:44 pm IST

Bh Krishnamurti. Photo: Special Arrangement

Bh Krishnamurti. Photo: Special Arrangement

The late Prof. Bh Krishnamurti, the world-renowned linguistics scholar had no passion in life other than language and linguistics. He was researching and publishing till his last days. Such is his contribution to the field of linguistics that no student of linguistics in any part of the world can get by without referring to Prof. Krishnamurti’s treatises. Perhaps since his work was in a field that is not mainstream in general discourse, he did not get enough recognition in his country for his pioneering work. But there was no dearth of recognition from people and institutions that recognised and appreciated his scholarship. He was elected Corresponding Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society of Edinburgh, UK. He is perhaps the only Indian scholar to get visiting and resident fellowships from as many as a dozen leading universities of the world including Princeton and Stanford. He taught in the United States, Japan, China, Australia and Russia apart from India. He published an astounding 100-odd papers in international journals and 2 5 books. Far from seeking the limelight, Prof. Krishnamurti positively shunned it. His awe-inspiring achievements sat lightly on him.

He was one of the first scholars of linguistics in India. Born on June 19, 1928 in Ongole of Prakasam district in Andhra Pradesh, he went against the trend in the 1940s of pursuing Commerce and English and opted to study Telugu at the Andhra University, Visakhapatnam. He went on to complete a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania in 1957 at the young age of 27. His thesis, “Telugu Verbal Bases,” published by the University of California Press went on to become a reference book on Telugu language and linguistics. His Modern Telugu Grammar published by the Oxford University Press is a textbook for students of the Telugu language. His study of the tribal language Konda (or Kubi) grammar is regarded as a guide par excellence for language researchers.

While working in the U.S. in the 1960s, Prof. Krishnamurti ran into the then Vice-Chancellor of Osmania University, D.S. Reddy, who was visiting the U.S. Greatly impressed by the young scholar who had already published two books and four original papers on Dravidian Linguistics, Dr. Reddy offered the scholar the post of professor with the promise to set up a department of Linguistics at OU. Thus, Prof. Krishnamurti became the youngest person in the history of OU to be made a professor at the age of 34. He set up the department of Linguistics in 1964 when the subject was not even heard of. He moulded it into a globally known centre of excellence, guiding and grooming the next several generations of scholars of linguistics.

For regional languages

Prof. Krishnamurti was deeply committed to the mother tongue as being the language of learning and schooling. He believed that the emphasis on English as a medium of teaching was misplaced, and that learning in a foreign language inhibited the full potential of students. Not learning in our mother tongue, he believed, inhibits our creativity, cuts us off from our roots and affects our personality. One of the reasons for India not fully realising its potential was its blind belief in the English language as a deliverance. He was deeply worried that a people’s greatest possession, their mother tongue, was in danger of being lost especially in India.

But he was no doomsday soothsayer for Indian languages. He believed the best way to protect our languages was by taking appropriate policy decisions by encouraging the regional language medium of teaching. The best way to safeguard and promote our languages and to build up the job potential of a large number of people would be to promote the use of computer software in Indian languages. He wanted the ‘vicious link’ between English as the medium of instruction and employment to be broken by using regional language software.

Apart from holding several important positions at OU, Prof. Krishnamurti had the distinction of serving as the vice-chancellor of the Central University of Hyderabad for seven years, the only VC in that university to get a second term. But no position distracted him from pursuing Dravidian linguistics that remained his first love. Prof. Krishnamurti’s magnum opus was The Dravidian Languages published by the Cambridge University Press as part of its language series in 2003. This book, which is a comparative study of grammatical features of 26 Dravidian languages, replaced Caldwell’s 150-year old A Comparative Grammar of Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages as a comprehensive and authoritative source of reference on the Dravidian languages.

The passing away of Prof. Krishnamurti in the early hours of August 11 at the age of 84 in Hyderabad has drawn to a close an era of brilliant scholarship that he strode as a colossus.

(The writer is professor and Head, Department of Communication and Journalism, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, and former Principal, University College of Arts and Social Sciences, Osmania University, Hyderabad.)

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