A tribute to Professor Shanta Mahalanobis

Aloofness that turned into warmth

By Tapati Gupta in Calcutta
  • Published 16.12.18, 3:00 AM
  • Updated 16.12.18, 3:00 AM
  • 2 mins read
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Shanta Mahalanobis The Telegraph file picture

Professorship is associated with scholarship but one seldom comes across such a many-faceted personality as professor Shanta Mahalanobis, whom academics in Calcutta would always remember as the one and only ‘Shantadi’.

A brilliant academic personality, she did her graduation in English honours from Loreto College and MA from Calcutta University, securing the first position in first class in both.

After pursuing higher studies at Cambridge University, she joined the West Bengal Educational Service and was successively posted in Presidency, Babourne and Bethune colleges.

She taught postgraduate classes at Calcutta University as guest lecturer for almost four decades and was also chairperson of the Undergraduate Board of Studies. She was also president of the English Study Centre.

Her scholarship was intensely focused on her teaching and her mission seemed to be to wring all her energy into the text she was elucidating. Yet in class she maintained a distance from her students, avoiding eye contact, and could drive them into single-minded involvement with what she taught.

Both undergraduate and postgraduate students were struck by her commanding presence, organised intellectual apparatus as well as the image of a liberated woman who could dress for the occasion and drove herself to her workplace, creating waves of distance and attraction, inspiring awe in the young minds.

Those who were fortunate enough to become more intimate with her, her friends and colleagues for instance, remember her as one whose aloofness was the result of a sense of propriety and perfection even in the practical matters of daily life, be it in the workplace or at home, but who nurtured within her a deep well of affection and concern for students and colleagues.

Her philanthropy towards the underprivileged sections of society ran like a concealed stream in actions little known to the public.

The mind that could conceive in totality Shaw and Lawrence, Auden and Eliot, communicate the romance of The Lady of Shalott and the witticisms of Shakespeare, distil the essence of literary and theoretical texts for the understanding of the novitiate, could also organise her life impeccably with an eye for detail that would transcend her loneliness.

Positive, vibrant vignettes of good living, warm hospitality and sympathetic attitude to her students, ruled her life. Students who met her many years after passing out regaled in her warmth and friendliness and wondered why they had been so long in awe of her overbearing personality.

A workaholic by nature, she was intolerant of lassitude and negligence: She was plainspoken in her disapproval.

On such occasions her tongue had a sharp and smarting edge but the wound it inflicted was ironically salutary because of its educative value.

Her PhD students were sometimes reprimanded in public but she would often treat them to new experimental recipes which she cooked as her favourite pastime in the smooth comfort of her home.

In committee meetings she was naturally the leading voice and was most vocal about administrative matters. Yet, her musical laughter penetrated through the seriousness and she would crack jokes at her junior colleagues with good-humoured bonhomie.

Shantadi’s love for theatre was obvious in the way she directed college and club dramatics.

Most people probably do not know about her love for art and beautiful artefacts, her visits to art exhibitions and her art purchases.

Shantadi loved the softness of greenery and the company of plants and trees and flowers. She maintained herself with care and it was a wonder how agile she was mentally and physically even in her octogenarian years.

She achieved death as gracefully as she lived. It was like a Sunday siesta at the break of day.

The author is former professor of English, Calcutta University

A tribute to professor Shanta Mahalanobis, who died on December 2. She was 88