Remembering MSS Pandian, the Mentor and Teacher Extraordinaire

Noted scholar and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Professor M.S.S. Pandian, considered an authority on the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu, died on 10th November 14, following a cardiac arrest. Pandian, 57, died at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi, where he was rushed following a cardiac arrest. He is survived by his wife S. Anandhi and a daughter.

By Aakshi Magazine,

For those of us who were taught by him, MSS Pandian left an indelible mark, and his sudden death is hard to process.

There was nothing intimidating about Pandian, despite his scholarship. He was that rare academic whose academics was never isolated from his politics, it actually stemmed from it. He brought his politics to the classroom, which made his classes unique.

His work on caste in Tamil politics ( Brahmin and Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political), and the lens with which he looked at history and politics, is subversive in a society (and academia) where caste is always masked and never discussed directly for what it is. So was his non-nationalistic worldview. This could not have been easy to do. Apart from being a supporter of the Tamil Eelam struggle, in recent years, he also became a keen follower and supporter of the Kashmir struggle for azadi. Pandian could take these stands and discuss them with students, and not be worried that he was being “simplistic” as academics tend to be. For him, complexity of ideas did not mean cynicism, especially towards movements for justice and equality. Yet his academics was never activist jargon either.


I was taught by him during my Master’s degree in JNU. He had also joined the same year, and his two classes in which he taught us the ideas of Phule, Periyar, Ambedkar as well as Nationalism and Regional movements, were revelatory. He made us question and think, and made History relevant in a way nothing else did. During my Master’s I questioned a lot of things about academics, and it was Pandian’s classes which made me feel understood, even as they taught me so much.

It wasn’t just what he taught, but also how he taught, and I think we should talk about this so that we do not forget it. Pandian never intimidated anyone and made academic ideas accessible. No jargon, so much depth, but also respecting the fact that each student’s intelligence (and interest) is different. We had to write a seminar paper in our final semester and I remember how tense he was because all of us were struggling with writing a long paper for the first time. I remember one particular discussion in which a very unsure and nervous student told Pandian what his seminar paper would be on. Pandian was gentle with him, asking him questions in accordance with his idea, which helped make his paper clearer. By the end of the semester, his seminar paper had grown and developed, but in his own way. I don’t think any other teacher would have had this patience, or this understanding. This was his gift. I know of a friend who he mentored and guided through her M.Phil thesis even though he had never even met her then, nor was she even from the University where he taught.  I know there must be more stories like this.

To me too, he has been a mentor. He was always helpful and encouraging, writing recommendations when I needed them, helping me get an internship, or even helping in “breaking” a news story. He edited the draft of my PhD proposal with keen interest, and was always an email away even though we had never actually met again since my Master’s 3 years ago. I also remember a draft of a work on films that he had once talked about and then shared with me, and also mentioned something on Kashmir, work which we would not get to see.

Sometimes, Pandian would send out emails about his daughter to his students, and we could sense he was perhaps alone staying in Delhi. It must have been hard for him. The last email he sent was about a drawing his daughter had made in class about equality and justice. There were parts of his personality which perhaps we will never understand. There was a phase when he would write un-thought out comments on student’s walls on facebook, which he would later apologize for.

Once when I hadn’t got admission to a PhD programme I had applied to, he wrote- “some we win, most we lose”. For us shocked by his sudden death, perhaps he would say- “take it easy”. My thoughts are with his wife and his daughter. Maybe knowing so many mourn with them will give them strength.

The author is a research scholar at University of St Andrews, Scotland and independent film critic.


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