A professor of English quite unlike any other at the Madras Christian College is remembered by a former student
I can still vividly recall the first time I met him.
There was a lot of banter and cacophony in the beautiful, bright classroom in Selaiyur Hall. We were eagerly awaiting the professor who would take us on a journey, talking to us about the doyens of American literature.
In walks a gent, with a long beard and a flowing mane, dressed in a loose shirt and blue jeans, wearing a well-used Hawaii chappal. Dr Pitambarlal Rajani epitomised the ethos and look of Madras Christian College like no other teacher did.
Dr Rajani was a wonderful anomaly in the pantheon of teachers in the English Department of Madras Christian College. He rarely cared about his appearance - gelling in rather nicely with the ‘chappal, jeans and tee’ dress code of the students.
His teaching was vastly different from the rest. There were professors who were trained to approach poetry, prose, literary criticism or plays in a certain fashion. Dr Rajani broke all moulds.
There was no right or wrong way to teach or learn a certain subject. He would bring in the nuances of theatre into poetry. Or on many occasions, poems and pop culture references to a slightly drier subject like criticism.
But what we students enjoyed, far more, were the journeys undertaken with him outside the classroom. The many roads with lush, verdant foliage of Madras Christian College were paths that inspired debates and edifying conversations peppered with wit and humour - which Dr Rajani had in abundance.
And these roads, eventually, led to his awesome room at St Thomas Hall. “Pa,” as he was fondly called by many, opened up his room at St Thomas’s to a cornucopia of students - you could find a resident strumming his guitar and playing a song to him; a small theatre group perfecting the finer nuances of Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’; a group of students eagerly listening to Dr Rajani waxing eloquent on the various trails to trek in the Himalayas; and not to mention, students who gathered in his room for that extra coaching on a particular subject.
Whatever be the case, Dr Rajani had just one simple way to handle all these diverse groups: he gave everything he had from his experiences.
Every single student who went out of his room felt certainly enriched. Dr Rajani’s finest gift was evident in the many plays he directed.
He was a huge fan of the American writer and poet, Sylvia Plath. Little wonder that it was under his direction that Madras saw one of the finest productions of her novel - The Bell Jar. It was poignantly turned into a play by him.
He would not only bring out the best in all the performers, but also be adept at handling stage design, lighting, sound design and every other aspect of delivering a great production.
Dr Rajani enriched student life at Madras Christian College in meaningful ways. Apart from his lectures which were nonetheless brilliant, he taught us about culture, the importance of aesthetics, the role of art in society and the significance of debate in wider contexts.
My classmates and I, were fortunate to have studied at a time when Dr Rajani was still around at Madras Christian College.
A few years later, he moved on to hold the Tagore Chair at the Madras University. When the news came in of his passing on August 07, I couldn’t help but recollect all these glorious moments spent under his tutelage.
From the time we knew him in the ‘90s, one thing was certain: Dr Rajani lived life on his own terms. Sharing his wisdom and experiences with everyone who came under his shadow.
And to all of us, students, he would quote his favourite Sylvia Plath line: “Go out and do something. It isn’t your room that’s a prison, it’s yourself.”
Farewell, dear Pa!
(PC Muralidharan studied under Dr Rajani between 1996 and ’98)