At a young age of 15, when H Narasimhaiah set out to Bengaluru from his small village of Hosur, near Gauribidanur — covering the 85 km distance on foot because he could not afford the bus fare — little did he know that the journey was leading him to an institution that would become the biggest mission and vision of his life.
Narasimhaiah and National College were inseparable, and in a bond that lasted almost 70 years, he remained a common fixture in its premises, dressed in his characteristic khadi dhoti, jubba and a cap, and surrounded by students.
“HN came up because of National College, and the college in turn progressed because of him,” says A H Rama Rao, who took over the baton as president of National Education Society, which runs the National College, after HN’s passing away. “HN and I are 25 years apart, but from the moment I joined National College in 1959 till his death in 2005, I was always with him. I was first his student, then his colleague and later when he was the president of National Education Society (NES), I was the secretary. He left behind for me a huge responsibility of carrying his legacy forward,” he says.
Born on June 6, 1920 to a poor school teacher, Dr Hanumanthappa Narasimhaiah left his hometown in search of education, and redefined the word for generations of students after him. Fondly known as HN, he was a learner, freedom fighter, teacher, physicist, rationalist and educationist – and he played all these roles with equal aplomb. However, his greatest triumph was as an educator.
HN was convinced that only education can uplift the underprivileged and underrepresented in the society. And he lived by those principles, first as a lecturer and principal at National College, then as the vice-chancellor of Bangalore University and finally as the president of the National Education Society.
Deeply influenced by Gandhian values, he was a strict disciplinarian, but he also had a terrific sense of humour. A delightful teacher, HN’s classes were rooted in practicality and laced with wit, making his Modern Physics paper a student’s favourite. By explaining complex physics concepts in Kannada, he also made them more accessible to students who couldn’t follow English.
“In BSc, he was teaching us Bohr’s theory once. After explaining the concept, he asked if we’d understood. One guy in the front nodded his head. To this he said, ‘Bohr took 20 years to formulate this theory, I took 20 minutes to explain it, and you took hardly 2 seconds to say you understood it!’” reminisces journalist H N Ananda, a former student of Narasimhaiah.
In those days, science associations in colleges would only have inauguration and valedictory ceremonies. ‘How can there be only two days for science? It should be a way of life!’ HN thought and laid the foundation for the Bangalore Science Forum (BSF) in 1962 to help people see the science in everyday life. Today, this inclusive forum has completed over 3,000 lectures with eminent scientists from around the world gracing the stage. He also started the month-long Science Festival in July 1978, which hasn’t once been cancelled in the last 40 years.
HN’s aim was not just to teach lessons in classrooms but to change people’s attitude towards life, build scientific temper and encourage them to question everything. ‘Prashnisade Oppabedi’ (Don't agree without questioning) was not just the motto of his life, but also that of the BSF.
As a rationalist, HN waged a life-long battle to expose superstitions and miracles. He constituted and chaired the Committee to Investigate Miracles and Other Verifiable Superstitions and took on self-styled godmen. But there was no malice or condescension, all he wanted was hard scientific proof. During his time as the principal of National College, he would call all his students out during an eclipse, feed them, and then ask “So, did anything happen to you? Nothing!”
“HN didn’t pick up an idea just because it was fancy or to rub people the wrong way. Behind his crusade against godmen was not just an inherited quality of a good scientist but also the moral responsibility of a humanist,” says Dr K Jagannath Rao, an Emeritus professor at IISc.
During the 70s, the demand for pure sciences courses declined. Remaining firm in the face of this challenge, HN decided not to start an engineering college. He wanted National College to be on top but not as a profit-making business. “And that is the fundamental difference between today’s education system and HN. We equate education to employment but HN believed that you need to educate a person for him to deal with life in general,” says A S Kiran Kumar, former chairman of ISRO.
Today, many of his students occupy prestigious positions in universities and research institutes. To them, he was not just a physics lecturer, but a life guru whose simplicity, sincerity, commitment and honesty they all imbibed.
“After my Chemistry Honors, I came to National College looking for a job. Being the eldest son in a joint family, I needed it. But HN would hear none of it. He urged me to complete my MSc and even volunteered to pay my course fees, which was Rs 125 back then for a half-free seat, and also my exam fees of Rs 107. I was a nobody to him. But he changed the course of my life. After MSc, I became a lecturer in National College and was his junior colleague for three years,” says KJ Rao.
For BS Shylaja, the former director of the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium, HN was a man of revolutionary ideas. “I completed my MSc in 1974 during his tenure as VC. That was also the year he decided to get rid of black robes and caps worn during graduation which he considered colonial hangovers. We all wore white for the convocation!”
Indeed, HN was a visionary whose ideas were much ahead of his time. He attempted to recreate the high ideals of patriotism and social service that shaped him at his “tavarumane” National High School Basavanagudi by starting a National High School, first in his hometown of Hosur, and then in Bagepalli. In the 1960s, he started Seva Sangha, a social service camp, to teach students about the dignity of labour. In the same decade, he also introduced sex education classes in the college. In 1992, he introduced mid-day meals in NHS Hosur – all this before the government could even think of it.
HN was a very down-to-earth man with lofty, Gandhian ideals he never deviated from. For instance, between 1957 and 60, throughout his stay in Ohio State University for his PhD in nuclear physics, HN ate uppittu every single day for all three meals. He would boast that he held a world record in eating uppittu. “I need something to eat and if I can survive on uppittu, that’s good enough!”
While HN’s biggest contribution has no doubt been to the field of science, he was equally invested in the arts and social sciences. HN started the Bangalore Social Science Forum (BSSF), which has so far held around 800 talks. He also instituted the Bangalore Lalitha Kala Parishat (BLKP) in 1992 to encourage the arts with programmes held every first and third Friday of the month – and half of them have been stage plays.
“He had a soft spot for theatre. In 1947, HN started the National College Histrionic Club, and in all modesty, it can be said that this club was instrumental in establishing the concept of modern theatre in Bengaluru. Whatever he started has endured well after him,” says Rama Rao.
He was also keen on sports and could be found on court playing tennis or basketball with his students after class.
“Every institution is the shadow of a great individual, and HN was at the forefront of NES. Even as he grew, he took the institution along. For me, National College is Narasimhaiah’s College,” Rama Rao says.
In science, HN found his purpose and in HN, Bengaluru gained an educationist extraordinaire who would change the intellectual makeup of the city forever.
June 6, 1920: Born in Hosur, near Gauribidanur
1935: Walked 85 km to join National High School in Bengaluru
1936: Interacted with Mahatma Gandhi during his visit to Bengaluru, adopted his ways
1942-44: Participated in the Quit India movement, courted imprisonment
1957-1960: Pursued PhD in Nuclear Physics at Ohio State University, USA
1961-1971: As principal, fought for women’s right to education in National College; started Bangalore Science Forum, conducted Social Service Camps in villages
1972-77: As vice-chancellor, moved Bangalore University to new campus off Mysore Road; introduced psychology, social work, drama, music and dance as new subjects; built Centre for Gandhian Studies; discontinued wearing of black robes for graduation; constituted and chaired a committee challenging miraculous claims of godmen
1980-86: Nominated as member of the Karnataka Legislative Council
1984: Awarded Padma Bhushan for his contributions to literature and education
1975-2005: As president of National Education Society, started Bangalore Lalitha Kala Parishat, set up BV Jagadeesh Science Centre; started National High School and a Science Centre in Hosur towards affordable, accessible education