Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXIII No. 23, March 16-31, 2024

R. Desikan: the spirit and cheer of Max Mueller Bhavan (Madras) between 1964 and 1992

-- by Anantanarayanan Raman,

To promote a dynamic cross-cultural relationship between India and Germany, the Max Mueller Bhavan (MMB, Goethe-Institut) came into existence in the later years of the 1950s, celebrating the life and works of Friedrich Max Mueller (1823–1900), an eminent Indologist, philologist, and philosopher. Concurrently with the start of MMB-s in New Delhi, Bombay, Poona, Calcutta, and Bangalore, an MMB in Madras (Chennai presently; MMB–M) was established by Bertram Werwie on 20 August 1960. From that moment, the MMB–M has remained a vibrant centre for the youth of the erstwhile Madras city and the present Chennai. Similar to the MMB-s in other Indian cities, the MMB–M shared Germany’s heritage and culture with its patrons and enabled many of them to learn German language. On the language-learning side, over time, several Madras residents gained mastery by achieving the highest academic certificate – Oberstufe – issued by the MMB. Some of the Oberstufe achievers joined the MMB–M as teachers enabled with supplementary training in Germany, teaching both basic and advanced levels of German language and literature to later cohorts of students. For more than six decades, the MMB–M has been intricately intertwined with the growth and development of Madras.

One pillar of the MMB–M, until 1992, was the sparklingly lively and ever-smiling Rangachari Desikan. I would deem Desikan’s cheerful face – his characteristic bone-metal-frame spectacles adding a charming glitz to his smiling face – as the visage of MMB–M until his untimely death in 1992, succumbing to rheumatic-heart-valvular disease. Anyone entering the main office of MMB–M would, invariably, meet him first, who made the visitor – either a new student or a casual guest – feel at home by his extraordinary warmth and cordiality. His spontaneity in helping people had no match. I can say so from my experience as a learner at MMB–M and as a frequent visitor in later days. During my early days as a lecturer at Loyola College, ­Madras, I was preparing a scientific manuscript for publication in a professional journal published by Duncker & Humblot GmbH, Berlin, which required a German summary. I looked up to Desikan; he extemporaneously responded with one. I walked out of MMB–M, gleefully in the next 30 min, holding a neatly type-written summary of my article in German ready to be submitted to Duncker & Humblot.

On the occasion of bidding farewell to Bertram Werwie and Mrs. Werwie (with garlands). Desikan at the extreme right, next to Bertram Werwie, 1 September 1965. Srinivasa Sarma, a teacher at MMB–M in the middle holding the small boy. (Photo courtesy: Geetha Vedaraman, MMB–M).

Desikan was born to Rangachari–Tirûmãmagał couple in Karaikudi on 23 December 1930. He completed his schooling in Karaikudi. After earning a BSc (Chemistry) degree from the University of Madras, studying through St. Joseph’s College, Tiruchirapalli in 1948-1950, he joined the Accountant General’s (AG’s) Office, Madras. While working there, he gained the friendship of Kailasam Balachander, renowned Tamil-film ­director and producer.

Desikan’s formal association with MMB–M started in 1960; he joined the newly established MMB–M to learn German language in 1960. In 1964, Bertram Werwie asked Desikan to join as the Administrative Officer. Much against his father’s wish of continuing his employment at the AG’s Office, Desikan joined the fledgling MMB–M. From then, Desikan served MMB–M with devotion and commitment, supporting a long string of Directors, including the acclaimed ontologist and epistemologist Herbert Herring, who had commented on Vedanta in the 1970s.

While working on this tribute, I met with Desikan’s wife Ranganayaki and their daughter Kalyani in Chennai in late August 2023. They shared many details paraphrased in this section. Desikan was an ardent rasika. He had an immense knowledge of both Carnatic and Hindustani Music, in addition to Western classical. He was an active member of Sampradaya, Madras. He was a versatile theatre artist and he performed in stage plays. In 1965, the MMB–M staged Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck at the Museum Theatre, Egmore. Desikan played Franz Woyzeck in this presentation. He was an avid admirer of the Madras philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti (JK). He spoke and wrote German with facility, much like a German. He fluently conversed in Telugu and Hindi as well. Desikan translated the popular Tamil author Akilan’s (Perungalur Vaithialingam Akilandam, 1922-1988) Moonru Velai into German, under the title Die drei reichen Mahlzeiten der Bettlerin Subbalakshmi. This German edition was published by Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi in 1965.

A scene from Woyzeck staged at the Museum Theatre, Egmore, 1965. A stern Desikan (sans his characteristic bone-metal-frame specs) as ‘Franz Woyzeck’ pairing with Kalyani Janakiram as ‘Marie’. (Photo courtesy: Geetha Vedaraman, MMB–M).

Verdienstkreuz am Bande des Verdienstordens received by Desikan from Walter Scheel, President of Federal Republic of Germany, in July 1978 – (Photo courtesy: Ranganayaki Desikan and Kalyani Desikan, Chennai).

Recognising his meritorious service to MMB–M and the German-cultural service in India, the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany honoured Desikan with their highest recognition das Verdienstkreuz am Bande des Verdienstordens der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (der Bundesverdienstorden; the Cross of Merit on the Band of the Order of Merit) signed by the Federal President of Germany Walter Scheel on 31 July 1978.

One popular meaning to the Sanskrit term desika is acharya, teacher. Rangachari Desikan lived an absolutely meaningful life providing substance to his name ‘Desikan’ given to him by the Rangachari–Tirumaamagał couple by being an acharya to many who sought his benevolence and support, including myself. He lived as a complete human in its truest sense.

This article was made possible through personal conversations with Ranganayaki Desikan and Kalyani Desikan of Thyagaraya Nagar, Chennai and email conversations with Uma Mohan, formerly of the Max Mueller Bhavan, Chennai. My sincerest thanks to them for their kindness and co-operation.

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  1. Rajee Thyagarajan says:

    Very interesting articles! Enjoyed immensely.
    Thank you

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