Govinda Rao: actor, teacher and Bard lover

The stage and TV actor Rao taught English to several generations, inspiring them with his passion for Shakespeare. He was also a trenchant critic of the right wing

G K Govinda Rao was achampion of secularism andConstitutional values.

There are not many teachers who are multi-faceted, about whom one can say that they inspired and influenced more than one generation. G K Govinda Rao, who passed away at 84 on October 15, was one such person.

Govinda Rao was first and foremost a teacher who taught English for four decades, initially at Manipal and Sagar and then at St. Joseph’s College of Commerce, Bengaluru, from 1970 to 1995 until he retired. Soon, he was invited to teach Comparative Literature at Bangalore University for five years. Aside from being an English Professor, he was a popular actor, writer, progressive thinker and public intellectual.

His admiration for Shakespeare is legendary. He had mastered most of the Bard’s plays and even two days before he died, he quoted a line from Julius Caesar, a family member said. When I met him recently, Govinda Rao pointed to a pile of the books on his table, saying he was doing a comparative study of three Shakespearean plays.

Having known him since my college days, I asked about his fascination for Shakespeare. “He is the giant of English Literature. Look at his writings, they are timeless, relevant even after 400 years,” he responded loftily and rattled off several quotes.

Not surprisingly, a huge poster of the Bard adorns a wall of his study that’s filled with books. He didn’t own a house, car or had much money but his treasure of over 1000 books, many rare ones, were his assets.

Govinda Rao was a born teacher. The class room was his stage and he played his part with panache and perfection, often acting out lines from plays, prose or poetry. His knowledge and his firm but easy rapport with students ensured 100 percent attendance! His classes lured students away from the attractions of Brigade Road where our college was located. 

A noted actor, his brilliant performances from his debut ‘Kaadu’ (1973) to ‘Grahana’ (1978), ‘Katha Sangama’ (1976), ‘Mithileya Seetheyaru’ (1988), ‘Shastri’ (2005) and others won him numerous admirers of both art and commercial cinema. He became popular among television viewers with his realistic acting in ‘Malgudi Days’ (1986), and ‘Mahaparva’ (2013-14).

Alongside films, he was active in theatre, producing and directing many adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays for Samudaya (theatre group) and for his college students. Theatre buffs may remember Govinda Rao playing Macbeth in a Samudaya production.  As an authoritative resource person in films and theatre, he was a natural choice for lectures and discussions.

Writing was another abiding passion with Govinda Rao, who wrote two books – ‘Shakespeare Samvada’ and a collection of critical essays on Shakespeare’s plays. He also authored ‘Eshwar Allah’, in the late 70s, a novella about communal harmony, following it up with an epilogue to the novella after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992.

As a principled and outspoken human, Govinda Rao actively participated in social movements, championing secularism and constitutional values. He often took aim at divisive politics and communalism, sparing none, including prominent seers, politicians and writers.

It is hard to fathom how he crammed so much into his life. “I say, you must have passion,” he advised avuncularly. He had passion in plenty. Even at 84, he stayed up reading late into the night, grateful that his eyesight was good. Laudably, as per his wish, his eyes were harvested and donated to a hospital in Hubballi.

Indeed, he was inspirational in more ways than one. The enduring legacy of Govinda Rao is the tens of thousands of students whom he generously taught and touched as well as his countless admirers.

His passing is a reminder that a similar passion is the need of the hour in these challenging times.

(The writer is an independent journalist and author based in Bengaluru).