Master with a heart

Scientist and scholar: Sankara Menon.

Scientist and scholar: Sankara Menon.  

Sankara Menon self-effacing commitment took Kalakshetra to its pre-eminent position in the art world. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

Two heads, one snowy, the other black, are bent over a book. The man is reading aloud Mark Antony’s incendiary rhetoric over Caesar’s corpse. The girl breaks into sobs. The man says quizzically, “I’m glad to know that your emotions are as fickle as those of the Roman mob.”

“Your fault,” the girl sniffs. “You read it so beautifully.”

“My child, if falsehood sounds beautiful, are you going to believe it?”

Loving reverence

The speaker was Sankara Menon (1907-2007). To everyone who passed through Chennai’s Kalakshetra, or The Besant Theosophical High School, he was simply “Sir”. The word was spoken with the same loving reverence in the 1930s by its principal, the legendary musician Tiger Varadachariar, as by old students, artistes and associates, who spoke about him at his centenary celebrations in Kalakshetra.

One fine day in 1934, Dr.George Arundale, President of the Theosophical Society, pointed to the young man and told his wife Rukmini Devi, “There comes the headmaster!”

That is how Sankara Menon, first rank holder in post graduate studies and an outstanding researcher in marine biology, became the first headmaster of what was then called The Besant Memorial School. He made “education without fear” a practical achievement. Students noted that Sir’s discipline was “not imposed from outside, but drawn from within. He never imposed his will or thoughts on us, but gently suggested other points of view.”

Sir’s quietude acted as a more effective curb on transgressions than noisy commands. He made every allowance for mischief, but insisted on humane values. The school was sad when Sankara Menon left teaching to become Rukmini Devi’s lieutenant in all her creative and educational ventures. “What I owe to him cannot be put into words,” said Rukmini Devi, acknowledging his self-effacing commitment to the causes they espoused — institution building, spreading Theosophy, promoting animal welfare, or reviving art forms


Sir’s singular erudition in English, Sanskrit and Malayalam awed scholars. In his Gita and Upanishad classes he went beyond knowledge to touch wisdom. But he could also delight the young when he recited resplendent verses from Shakespeare, Shelley or Swinburne. When an adolescent ‘informed’ him that she empathised more with Cassius than Brutus (“Julius Caesar”), Sir replied that genuine nobility could not be grasped as easily as shrewdness. “The business of great literature is to make us understand this truth.”

Unremitting work did not prevent Sir from finding time for everyone. Children found him irresistible. Old-timer Vasanta (Vedam) recalls how a smiling Sir would quote Sanskrit slokas about spring (vasanta) when he saw her. Later, he explained the flowing imagery in the sloka she performed in her arangetram. As a teacher in Kalakshetra, when she flared up over an issue, Sir told her that she wrote rather well, but tore her resignation letter and dropped it into the waste basket.

Unquestioned authority

He inspired admiration in everyone in his orbit. Associate Ranganatha Sastri wrote that he was scientist and art lover, scholar and rasika, representing the best in Indian culture, absorbing the best in world culture.

Others noted that talking to Sir was to gain self-confidence, even if you disagreed with him. Veteran N.S. Jayalakshmi recalls his unfailing sense of humour. It balanced the effect of Rukmini Devi’s smile-snap unpredictability.

Sir had no skills in managing finances. People thought that his essential goodness aborted leadership qualities. But when Rukmini Devi died, leaving a rudderless ship adrift in legal hassles, with administrators and artistes wrangling over issues big and small, Sankara Menon single-handed averted the collapse of Kalakshetra.

“His presence quelled the general panic, infused strength,” say R.V. Ramani, Secretary, Kalakshetra Foundation, and Sakuntala Ramani, Editor, Kalakshetra Quarterly. “Sankara Menon was the face of Kalakshetra. His integrity was absolute, his authority unquestioned. People were ashamed to show pettiness before him. In his presence, you wanted to be better than you were.”

Sir’s voice had a resonance of its own. When he spoke “O hidden light, shining in every creature” during morning prayers at Kalakshetra, listeners sensed that they were not mere words to him. “He was the embodiment of nishkamya karma,” says Sakuntala Ramani, “while loving every living creature.”

She recalls him bringing a cage into her garden, and lining it with twigs and branches, to house an injured squirrel her daughter was trying to save.

Sankara Menon did not forsake his principles in adversity. In his old age, when criminals broke into his austere home and bashed him up, Sir refused to prosecute. “No police enquiry,” he said. “I don’t hold them responsible. This is karma,” he said. He reasoned with a protesting associate, “Are we going to allow evil to make us violent?”

Unexpected likes

Sir had an unexpected penchant for westerns and crime fiction supplied by friends — Louis l’Amour, J.T.Edson, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie — “Buckets of blood, no silly women, and arguments solved simply at gunpoint,” he said.

Once, when a cheeky youngster asked him, “Everyone says you were a brilliant scientist. Why are you working in this office?” Sir looked up from the Perry Mason books she had brought him, and chuckled, “My little monkey, I’m glad to know that you think everything I have done with my life is incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial. But tell me, can humankind know what is really competent, relevant and material?”

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