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Vol. XXIX No. 13, October 16-31, 2019

The man behind The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi

by Karthik Bhatt

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The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi is perhaps the most comprehensive documentation of the life and times of our country’s greatest political leader. As the nation celebrates his 150th birth anniversary, this article commemorates Professor K Swaminathan, whose remarkable contribution to Gandhian studies as Chief Editor of the Collected Works remains underrated even today. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi was a project conceived in 1956 as an attempt to collect and document his writings, speeches and letters over a period of six decades from 1884 till his death in 1948. It owed its origin to P.M. Lad, ICS who was then the Secretary to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. An Advisory Board with Morarji Desai as the Chairman was set up to guide the entire process. Dr. Bharatan Kumarappa, brother of J.C. Kumarappa, Gandhiji’s close associate, was appointed the Chief Editor. On his untimely death in 1957, he was succeeded by Jairamdas Dowlatram, whose tenure too was a short one, coming to an end with his appointment as Governor of Assam. A search was initiated for a successor who would be able to give new impetus to the project that had seen slow progress. The man chosen for the task was the eminent teacher, Professor K. Swaminathan.

Much like the man whose works he would painstakingly edit and compile, Swaminathan’s first calling was Law. Born in 1896 in Pudukkottai to P.S. Krishnaswamy Iyer and Dharmambal, Swaminathan graduated with a BA Hons Degree in English Literature in 1917 from the Presidency College after his early education at the Lutheran Mission School in Purasawalkam and the PS High School in Mylapore. He then acquired a Law Degree from the Madras Law College in 1919 and served for a while as a junior under veteran Congress leader S. Srinivasa Iyengar. On completion of his law apprenticeship, Swaminathan moved to Pudukkottai and set up practice under the guidance of his father-in-law, a well-known lawyer and coincidentally his namesake, whose daughter Visalakshi he had married even while a student in 1915.

Professor K. Swaminathan’s career shift from Law to English came about when he invited the ire of the Government of Madras by inviting the Congress leader S. Satyamurti to address the Bar Association. He was threatened with cancellation of his Bar licence in case of failure to apologise for his act. The nationalistic streak in him refused to let him do so, thus bringing his legal career to a crossroads. The renowned philanthropist Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar came to his rescue and appointed him as Lecturer of English in Sri Meenakshi College which he had founded in Chidambaram and also funded his stint at the Oxford University, where he joined Christ Church College and obtained a BA degree in English Language and Literature. On his return from Oxford in 1924, he re-joined Meenakshi College as the Head of the English Department. Soon, his alma mater Presidency College (Madras) came calling and in 1930, Swaminathan joined the institution as Additional Professor of English. In 1948, he was promoted and appointed the Principal of the Government Mohammadan College, wherefrom he retired in 1953.
Post his retirement, Swaminathan joined the Indian Express as its Assistant Editor at the behest of his close friend Ramnath Goenka. Around this time, he was involved in the translation into English of Rajaji’s Ramayana and Vinobha Bhave’s work on the Bhagavad Gita. It was Vinobha Bhave who recommended Swaminathan’s name for post of the Chief Editor of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. For Swaminathan, an ardent Gandhian in thought and action, it was a great chance to serve the man he considered a true yogi. His first meeting with Mahatma Gandhi had been in 1915, when the leader visited Madras and stayed as a guest of G.A. Natesan, the editor of the Indian Review. Swaminathan had been one of the volunteers deputed to look after the needs of Mahatma Gandhi, an event that would sow the seeds for a life-long devotion to the leader.

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The 93 volumes of Gandhi’s collected works at Professor Swaminathan’s residence Dharmalayam.

Swaminathan was initially hesitant to accept the assignment as he had just then suffered a minor health setback. Visalakshi too was not keen on the idea and it was left to Swaminathan’s younger brother, who felt that a change of scenery would do him a world of good, to convince the duo. And so started the journey that would last nearly three decades and span 90 volumes of the 100-volume project.

Swaminathan threw his entire heart and soul into the assignment. Editing the series, in the words of H.Y. Sharada Prasad, “was not work for Professor Swaminathan but tapas”. The epitome of simplicity, Swaminathan dressed in khadi and walked to work every day. Gandhian scholar Lalitha Zachariah who joined the project in 1968 writes in her piece ‘KS Recollected in Tranquillity’ that the assignment was no mean task, and that she was recruited after a written test conducted in an examination format, with sections such as proof reading, dictation and formation of sentences! Besides the editorial aspects of the work, Swaminathan’s responsibility included administration of the office comprising of English and Hindi-speaking staff. That he managed with almost no knowledge of Hindi spoke volumes of his skills as an able administrator.

Lalitha Zacharia also recollects that Swaminathan never believed in constant supervision of his wards but instead gave them ample space for work, contemplation and fun. He was completely unassuming and preferred to visit his staff personally whenever he wanted something, instead of summoning them to his room. He was readily available when someone needed help with a problem and used to read every single volume before it went to print.

His single-minded devotion to the project ensured that he surmounted various hurdles, the most significant of which came in the face of the Emergency. With Morarji Desai being placed under house arrest, an attempt was made to get Swaminathan to ‘resign voluntarily’ by K.K. Nair, the eminent polymath who was to succeed him as the Chief Editor. Swaminathan flatly refused and when it seemed that he would be dismissed, circumstances took a fortuitous turn. Morarji Desai became the Prime Minister following the Congress Party’s defeat in 1977 and the crisis blew over.
Work proceeded in full swing and by the time he retired from the Collected Works project in 1985, 90 volumes had been published. He however continued to be associated with the subsequent volumes of the series which consisted of material that came to light after the completion of the original set.

Swaminathan was an ardent devotee of Ramana Maharishi, having met him for the first time in 1940. He was in fact instrumental in the establishment of the Ramana Kendras in Delhi and Madras. The land for the Kendra in Delhi was obtained thanks to Morarji Desai. After his retirement from the Collected Works project, Swaminathan edited The Mountain Path, a journal published by the Ramana Ashrama. Other significant contributions include the translation of 1,254 verses of poet Muruganar’s Guru Vachaka Kovai into English and the authoring of a biography on Ramana Maharishi, which was published by the National Book Trust.

Swaminathan was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1972 for his stellar contribution to Gandhian studies. It would be a unique distinction of sorts when his two younger siblings, the legendary Dr. K.S. Sanjivi (who had convinced him to take up the post of Chief Editor) and K. Venkatraman too were later accorded the same honour for their contribution to the field of community healthcare and chemistry respectively (K Venkatraman was the Founder-Director of the National Chemical Laboratory, Pune).

Swaminathan passed away in May 1994. A remarkable testament to his humility despite his monumental achievements was the fact that he did not let his name appear in the CWMG series until the final volume, which came out in October that year.

KS Remembered: Prof K Swaminathan edited by S Guhan, IAS
The family of Prof K Swaminathan, especially his niece Gita Gopalakrishnan and his daughter Dr Dharma Chatterjee
Lalitha Zachariah
Past issues of Saranagati, newsletter of the Sri Ramanasramam

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