Mathoor Krishnamurti: Champion of Indian arts in Britain


The sudden death in Bangalore of the lively and ebullient Mathoor Krishnamurti at the age of 85 has stunned his friends, disciples and admirers in both Britain and India. He was born on Janmashtami, the birthday of the Hindu god Krishna, hence his name. Though rooted in ancient Indian culture and literature he was essentially a man of the present: he could quote from the Vedas while busy employing up-to-the-minute computerspeak. He was compounded of past and present and believed in the creed of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam ("The world is one family").

As a Sanskrit scholar of the first rank, Krishnamurti matriculated at the Madras Christian College School but never went on to college. However, as a son of a traditional Brahmin family of Mysore state (now Karnataka) he was taught his native tongue, Kannada, as well as Sanskrit, from an early age. The Brahminical scriptures were memorised and recited with due attention to intonation, pauses and pronunciation; grammar was immensely important. That is why he later had no problem in acquiring Tamil, Hindi and English.

He learnt Hindi at 13 when Gandhi was visiting Madras and the organisers wanted young volunteers who could speak Hindi, since Gandhi had no Tamil. Krishnamurti was so keen to talk to Gandhi that he decided to learn rudimentary Hindi. He did so in four days, and became a devoted Gandhian.

Krishnamurti's parents, Ramakrishnaiah and Nanjamma, were loving and caring but could not afford college fees for their ambitious son, who soon started on the long search to find a job. He often went hungry and had to depend on the kindness of friends. A bus company offered him a conductor's job thinking the young Brahmin would spurn the offer. Little did they realise that he had taken to heart Gandhi's teaching of "work is worship". He was soon promoted to ticket inspector. Later he worked as a time-keeper in a Bangalore mill. His break came when he got a job as a reporter for the widely circulated Samyukta Karnataka, a Kannada language daily.

Mysore state, then ruled by a forward- looking maharajah, was economically and culturally more advanced than many provinces. Music, dance and drama flourished and Krishnamurti studied these arts and wrote prolifically about them. Possessing a talent for explaining difficult concepts in simple terms, he developed the art of delivering commentaries on religious subjects to musical accompaniment. His 220 cassettes of poetry narrations are a treasure. He wrote about 40 books in English, Kannada, Tamil and Hindi on subjects as diverse as aesthetics, vedanta, history, philosophy and biography; his translations were also widely read. He was a natural communicator, and a TV series made him a household name.

He had become involved with the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, an organisation whose aim was to study, promote and spread the highest ideals enshrined in Indian culture. In 1972 he came to London without much money but bursting with ideas and idealism. He aimed to start a branch of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in London, but takers were few and far between; he confessed that he was often so dejected that he contemplated suicide.

But with the goodwill of a few well- wishers he procured premises in New Oxford Street, and the Centre of Indian Culture was inaugurated. It was a modest beginning, but the chemistry between Krishnamurti and the Bhavan chairman Maneck Dalal showed amazing results. The Bhavan acquired an old church near West Kensington tube station, which is now Britain's leading Indian cultural centre, with Prince Charles as a patron. Students from many countries train there in the classical music and dance of India. Perhaps Krishnamurti's most treasured memory of London was when he offered Sanskrit prayers in St Paul's Cathedral on the Queen's Golden Jubilee.

Krishnamurti had an immense sense of humour, and with a glint in his eye would say, "Whatever little I have achieved so far is perhaps the outcome of my poverty." In 1995 he retired as director of the Bhavan and with his wife Lakshmi went back to Bangalore, where he soon rejuvenated the local Bhavan branch. In 1996 he was made a Padma Shri by his country.

Reginald Massey

Mathoor Krishnamurti, scholar and arts administrator: born Mathoor, Mysore, India 30 May 1926; married Lakshmi (deceased; one adopted daughter); died Bangalore 6 October 2011.