Among all the modern Assamese, Krishna Kanta Handique understood his country and the world the best. A name synonymous with scholastic pursuits, he was a great Assamese of whom every Indian can justifiably be proud.
His life and works were a balancing of apparently irreconcilable opposites. A man given completely to profound study and never bothering about popularity, power and fame, Handique had a strong sense of social and moral obligation.
Being the son of a rich tea planter, Handique could have easily devoted all his time and energy to profound study and that would have actually been the sort of life that came most naturally to him. But he chose instead not to turn his back on social duties.
Born of a great philanthropist tea planter, Radha Kanta Handique and Narayani Handique in 1898 at Jorhat, K.K. Handique was educated up to IA in Assam and went on to do his BA with Honours in Sanskrit (Vedic Group) from the University of Calcutta. He passed all the examinations with flying colours.
In 1920 he began his study tour of Europe. After doing his MA in Modern History from Oxford in 1923, he visited France, Germany and Italy to learn European languages and to study the Classics. After four years of travel and study, he returned home with knowledge of major European languages and a collection of over 2,000 books in different languages. Back home at Jorhat, Handique started learning the complex techniques that were essential to the management of his father's estate. He never entertained the idea of going into government service but he gladly agreed to become the principal of Upper Assam College (which later became Jorhat and finally J.B. College, Jorhat) the first non-government college in Assam.
The fact that Handique agreed to become the principal of a proposed non-government college is an example of the great scholar's sense of social obligation. At that time the government did not welcome the idea of private colleges. But Handique remained principal at the institution for 17 years and that meant a lot for higher education in the state.
K.K. Handique, the Sanskrit scholar and Indologist, is primarily known to common people as an educationist and in this field he successfully set ideals and values for all times. As early as 1928 he wrote an article on "German Academic Ideals" in Forward, a journal published from Calcutta. He was moved by the fact that the faculty members of the German universities were all very learned people devoted to the cause of education. The professors were all writers with new achievements in their respective fields. He could also see how different the environment for study and research was at the universities in his country As the founder-principal of the first non-government college of Assam, Handique tried to inculcate noble ideals in the most uncompromising of conditions.
Handique's notion of values and ideals in education are best articulated in the convocation of speeches as the vice-chancellor of Gauhati University He saw education as an internal condition that continuously changes the man from with
in. In other words, education is an extension of man's knowledge of man himself. On January 31, 1955 he addressed the students: "The graduates who will be given their degrees today have my best wishes and congratulations. I need not remind them that the man counts more than the degrees and their university education will be judged by the influence it exerts upon their lives and actions."
In other words, for Handique it was the man that mattered and education changes this man for the better. A man is what he does and his life is a summary of his action. Handique saw the educated man not just as an individual but also as an agent of change and progress in an underdeveloped country
In the same convocation address, Handique invited the attention of the government to the poor condition of study in the non-government colleges in the country Quality in education cannot be expected without improvement in the academic environment. He pointed out that many students in the non-government colleges were accommodated in an environment not congenial to health, study and discipline.
Handique's views on the examination system deserve attention: "Examinations as a system are decried from time to time but they provide a vital link between the university and the public," he said. Handique observes examinations from a social point of view: performance in examinations is a test of the candidate's ability to work for the society. And from this point of view, he wanted the university to be the guardian of its own reputation and to inspire confidence in its examination standards and the integrity of its methods. About the pay-scales of the teachers, particularly in the non-government colleges, Handique said that the pay should be enough to relieve the teachers of financial worries and to make it possible for them to work with confidence in their professions.
Modern education in the country as a primary concern of K.K. Handique. His originality as a thinker is unmistakable. In a speech he delivered in 1917 as the president of the Jorhat Chhatra Sammelan he stressed the great importance of school education: "If the foundation of school education remains weak and narrow, it is no use making elaborate preparations for higher education in the university”.
Three great works have brought Handique international fame as an eminent Sanskrit scholar and Indologist: Naisadhacarita, Yasastilaka and Se~ tubandha. The first one is a 12th century Sanskrit epic of Sriharsha, acknowledged as a very difficult text among scholars. Eminent Sanskrit scholars of the world readily acclaimed Handique’s annotation and explication of the text as a great work.
Handique worked on Sriharsha's Naisadhacarita while he was the honorary principal of J.B. College, and it was first published by Motilal Benarasi Das, Lahore in 1934. Scholars like M.B. Emeneau, Prof. N. Winternitz and Prof. A.B. Keith praised Handique's work and he was recognised as a scholar of international fame at the age of 36. What surprises everybody is that the mind engaged in a very difficult 12th century Sanskrit text was also the mind that operated upon the immediate problems like poor accommodation of the students in a non-government college and the poor pay of the teachers.
K.K. Handique had been the principal of J.B. College for 17 years and in 1948 he became the vice-chancellor of Gauhati University, the first University of the North-East. Handique completed his second major work in 1949. This work Yasastilaka and Indian Culture or Somadeva's Yasatilaka was first published by Jaina Samskriti Samraksha Sangha, Sholapur.
Scholars in India and abroad widely acclaim this work. Scholars of the All India Oriental Conference held that year in Bombay duly acknowledged the merit of Handique’s work and Handique was elected the president of the classical Sanskrit session of the All India Oriental Conference held in Lucknow in 1951.
K.K. Handique had been the vice-chancellor of Gauhati University for nine years and he shaped this new university according to his vision. After retirement he gave himself no rest. He began to work on Pravarsena's Setubandhana. This book is a 5th century Prakrit which Handique translated into English. He worked so hard on this book that it told upon his health.
K.K. Handique, like an Indian sage or rishi in his single-minded devotion to the search for knowledge.
He accepted many public offices, set standards in performing duties but his profound study and research continued unabated. While attending to daily duties he also devoted himself wholeheartedly to an undying ideal.
Handique presided over the 1937 Guwahati Session of the Assam Sahitya Sabha and in the course of the presidential speech; Handique successfully made the Sabha a meeting ground of all religious, linguistic and ethnic groups of the region.
A man cannot give better than his best and the best of Handique is obviously meant for Indologists and Sanskrit scholars. The few articles he wrote in Assamese are quite illuminating. Just one example is the article published in the journal Cetana on translation. Handique was unhappy with the comment made by a writer who trivialized translation. So he wrote spiritedly in its defense. As he knew languages like Spanish, Greek, French, Italian and German besides English and several Indian languages, he could see the problems of translation with far wider perspective than an average man. A few other articles in Assamese acquaint the readers with some interesting aspects of Japanese, Spanish, Greek, Russian and German literature.
In Assamese, Handique wrote a few prefaces to books written by others, some reminiscences and a few articles for children. He translated some prose pieces into Assamese from the Russian language. His critical insight in Assamese is best illustrated in the preface he wrote to Atul Chandra Hazarika's Assamese translation of Sakuntala. The few English articles he wrote were all published in research journals like The Modern Review, Calcutta, The Indian Antiquary, Bombay, Indian Historical Quarterly. He also wrote a few poems and songs in Assamese.
Handique breathed his last on June 7, 1982. He won many laurels in his life. He was awarded the Padmashree in 1955 and Padmabhusan in 1967. He was made an honorary fellow of Deccan College in 1968. Gauhati University awarded him an honorary D. Lit. Asam Sahitya Sabha elected him Sadasya Mahiyan. In 1985 he was posthumously awarded by the Sahitya Akademi for Racana Sambhar, edited by Jatindranath Goswami. In 1983 the government of India honoured him by issuing a commemoration stamp. Many books have been written on him. Dibrugarh University also published a bibliography on Handique.
Handique bequeathed his personal library containing 7,489 great books in different languages to Gauhati University. Handique's love for knowledge, complete devotion to profound study, values and standards he set in the field of education and his simple living will for ever remain a source of inspiration to the people of our country.
(By Ananda Bormudoi. Mr Bormudoi is a professor of English at Dibrugarh University. He is also a leading literary critic)