JNU’s Centre for Russian Studies turns 50

Professor Ritoo M Jerath, Chairperson, Centre for Russian studies talks in an interview with RIR about Indo-Russian education links, new students and recalls pages of history.
Ritoo M Jerath JNU
Professor Ritoo M Jerath. Source:Personal archive

Please tell us about some prominent alumni and teachers from your Сentre.

It would be unfair of me to single out a few people especially since we are just beginning to collect information on many of our alumni. Practically every department of every university that has a Russian department has our alumni working there across the length and breadth of this country. We have several successful entrepreneurs, who are former students. We have a large contingent of alumni working in Moscow. We have alumni working in various ministries, in the army, the navy. Our alumni are also active players in the tourist industry. Each teacher who was part of the founding of our Centre and those that joined when the Centre was young has contributed volumes to the growth of the Centre and to Russian Studies in India. Now many of the younger teachers in the various Centres of Russian studies in India are their products and have not necessarily gone to Russia for higher studies, unlike in the past. That is a tribute to the greatness of a whole generation of teachers.

How the Centre was founded?

The Centre of Russian Studies was founded in 1965. The aim was to promote special training and scientific research work in the field of Russian Language and literature and for the systemic study of the life and culture of the USSR. The decision to establish such a centre of learning was arrived at in discussions between Education ministers, M.C. Chagla and V.P. Yelutin. It was formalised through an Agreement signed on October 27, 1965. 

This centre was inaugurated on November 14, 1965, and called the Institute of Russian Studies (IRS). Initially the Institute was housed on the IIT campus. According to a student of the Institute’s first batch, one reason for setting up this Institute was that when Jawaharlal Nehru died in 1964, the government wanted to set up a University in his memory. The IRS was set up with the tacit understanding that it would become a part of the University when established. The IRS came up very fast. The first director was Prof. C.N. Chakravarty who was teaching Russian in and heading the Department of Modern European Languages in Delhi University. The Institute got its own building, hostels, library and the best Soviet specialists to come and teach. The students completed a one year intensive foundation course and then a three year Bachelor’s degree, after which they were sent to Moscow for further qualifications. The first batches were sent to Moscow after less than one year. The very first batch had students who already knew some Russian, including the daughter of the Indian Ambassador to Soviet Union and some army and air force officers.

Do you know how many people have graduated from the Centre in the last fifty years?

From 1st year to PhD we have a total of about 215 students. At present we are 16 Faculty members. It is difficult to give the statistics because the course of study has changed over the years. When the Centre first opened in November 1965 it began as a one year intensive course. It then changed to a four year course, then a six year course and when it became a part of JNU, the Centre offered a 5 yr Integrated MA (Master’s) course. However, some people wanted to leave after 3 years so JNU gave them a BA degree, and those who continued for two more years got an MA degree. Then the course became a BA and an MA. So it is very difficult to give you statistics. I do not think that even JNU has the data. We also offer M.Phil and Ph.D degrees. It would be difficult to even attempt an educated guess.

What according to you is the biggest achievement of this Centre in these 50 years?

It would be difficult to single out one achievement of the Centre but I think one of the greatest achievements is that we are the largest and best centre of learning Russian in India, and perhaps in Asia. We teach not only the language but we train our students to become philologists, so our students get a grounding in the language, literature, culture, translation and interpretation and we also train them to become academics of Russian in these areas. You can find our graduates in most of the Universities in India that teach Russian. You can also find our graduates in various ministries like the Home Ministry, the External Affairs, in the Army, the Navy. Many of our graduates work in companies like ONGC, HAL and also in private companies like Oracle and, of course, in the tourism industry. I know for a fact that when our graduates go to Russia and they interact with other international students, they are at the top of the class. One of the greatest achievements of our Centre is that we give our students a good education in Russian studies and a very good grasp of the language.

You know Russian yourself. Is it a difficult language?

Russian is a very difficult language. It is also a very precise and logical language. It takes a little while to understand the logic but if you manage to understand the logic, you can master it quite well.

What advice would you give to people studying Russian?

My advice would be to spend the first year seriously studying the language. Do not try to do a word to word translation of the language. Listen to the language, feel it, let it capture you and you will find that you will find the logic of the language and will be able to use it correctly.

Would you advise people to start studying Russian? Why?

I would definitely advise people to learn Russian because Russian is a beautiful language. If you can read the great masters of Russian literature in the original, it is quite a mind changing experience. To read Turgenev or Dostoevsky or Tolstoy in English or any other language is a mind changing experience in itself, but to read them in Russian is actually a mind blowing experience. It is not simply a question of the issues they raise that help change your world view but their use of language, their play of words certainly changes the experience.

What do you think are the strongest points of the Russian centre and JNU itself? What are the advantages of studying in JNU?

I have already answered the first part of your question, so I will concentrate on the second part. JNU has always being a unique University since its inception. It has a diverse student body, in terms of state, class and educational background. It is a university that teaches you to accept difference and even celebrate difference. It teaches you about equality both social and gender. It teaches you to be humble, to appreciate what you have and to strive for more, but to strive for it honestly. While you get an excellent education inside the classrooms of JNU, you get an equally important education outside the classroom. With a strong students' movement it teaches you to look beyond yourself and beyond petty things and to see yourself as part of society and as someone who can contribute to society. If a student joining JNU takes with her/himself this feeling along with her/his degree, s/he would have taken from JNU the best it has to offer.

I think you remember when you studied Russian.  Have the students changed since then? And what would you say about the new faculty members?

Yes, I do remember when I myself was a student, and I remember it with a lot of nostalgia. There is no doubt that the student body composition has changed over the years. When I was a student there was a very healthy male-female ratio. Actually there were more women studying languages than men. That has changed over the years. In the last two decades there have been batches where there were no women at all. But I feel that is changing a little again and we are getting a few more women in our classrooms. Aside from that, society has changed and with that change so have people's motivations changed. When I was a student here, most of the people who were in the Russian centre were there because they wanted to be in the Russian centre. They were either interested in the Russian language or in Russian literature, or they came from left leaning families, so they were interested in learning Russian because they wanted to learn more about socialist societies or Marxism or about the Soviet Union. They did not think much about the job market or how much money they could make after getting their degrees. They were interested in the subject. Today the motivations are different. Everyone is interested in the job market.

I remember recently walking into a first year classroom on the first day, and the first question I was asked was "ma'am" how soon can I learn the language to start making money and how much money can I make with this language?" So rather than being research-oriented as in the past, they are more job oriented. I find that when the students are taught the language from the perspective of becoming philologists, some of them are confused because they thought they were coming to learn a language which would give them placements immediately. Sometimes we get students whose third choice was Russian, so at one level they come into Russian not because they are interested in learning about Russian history, literature or culture but maybe because the main motivation is to get a place in JNU or to come to Delhi or to do a language - any language - and get a degree and do some other professional course on the side. I am not saying that this holds true for all the students but definitely if one compares it to the seventies there are many more students with these other motivations, I feel some of the younger faculty members see teaching as a job as opposed to the older generations, who saw teaching more as a means to nurturing students and imparting knowledge inside the classroom and outside, teaching them about life and imparting values.

Are you happy with the current level of education ties between India and Russia?  How do you think it could change?

No, I am not happy with the current level of ties in the field of education. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, no Russian teachers have come to our Centre to teach. It is extremely important for our students to interact with people whose mother tongue is Russian. It exposes them to the language and the culture. They see it as a living language. Although now we have many more opportunities for our students to go to Russia, after certain MOUs were signed, but those are just one or two students at a time, and those that have money. Even if there are travel grants from JNU and the Russian side provides accommodation, the students still have to pay for food etc, which is quite expensive. Only a small percentage of students benefit and the time period is very short. If Russian teachers were to come here for a year or two, all our students would benefit and so would we benefit as teachers. The other problem is the availability of books, teaching materials etc. We do not have access to all that is new and current. In the past we used to get books, journals, newspapers etc. It can be argued that everything is available on the net but that is not necessarily true. Besides which there is a difference between sitting in your room and looking things up on the net and actually having a hard copy of something which is shared. I really do not know how to improve the ties in the field of education because I feel that at the moment there is a kind of crisis in both countries in the field of education.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, translation of books into Indian languages stopped. Do you see any negative effects of this?

Yes, there are definitely negative effects of the lack of availability of good translations of contemporary writers into Indian languages. However, this situation can be exploited by our Centre and we could become one of the main centres of translation of contemporary Russian writers into Indian languages. Our centre actually has even in the past taken a lead role in these kinds of ventures.

Prof. Varyam Singh introduced Indians to many Russian poets and writers by translating them into Hindi. Prof. Amar Basu and Sankar Basu have translated some writers into Bengali. Among the younger teachers, Ashutosh Anand has done some translations, so has Kunwar Kant (who teaches in Hyderabad), Kiran Singh Verma's students do translations of contemporary writers as part of their M.Phil. However, unfortunately these translations do not get wide publicity and do not find publishers easily.

We got to know that JNU has one of the biggest libraries. How many Russian books do you have and on what subjects?

We have a huge Russian library, demonstrated by the fact that we have a whole floor plus part of another floor dedicated to Russian books in the JNU library. We have a centre library in the School building. But we do not get many current books, unlike in the past when the Soviet Union existed. That is indeed very sad and I feel efforts should be made to try and procure a steady supply of books from Russia and also from other countries like the US, where a lot of interesting work on Russia and Russian literature is happening.

There is no big strong Russian community in India, so students don’t get to interact with native speakers. Have you found a way to resolve this issue and help them?

Hopefully some of our MOUs will help, and we can get some Russian teachers or trainee teachers to spend a year or two at a time in our Centre, so that all our students are exposed to the language in use.

What programs are planned till the end of the year to celebrate 50 years?

 Our celebrations began earlier this year. We have has three student oriented events; a quiz, an essay competition and a painting composition. We also have a lecture series over two days, where the focus is to remind us all, who live in a US-dominated world, about Russia's contribution to world knowledge; in its pre Soviet days or the post Soviet era. We hosted an International Scholars' Meet in early November, bringing together scholars from Russia and retired Faculty members from our Centre to dialogue about Russian language, literature, translation and culture. Towards the third week of November we have organised a conference for young researchers. The idea is to try and see the direction that Russian Studies is taking in India. We also have a CRS student faculty dinner planned, being made possible by some of our alumni who have contributed very generously both in terms of energy, kind and money, to make our celebrations a success. The final programme is an alumni reunion. We have people flying in from all over to be with us on that day. We have representation from practically all 50 years that CRS has existed.

The VC of JNU and the Rectors have been very supportive. We have collaborated with ICSSR for a conference and have received support from Cambridge University Press for another. The theatre group Bollygrad has timed 3 of its productions of Anton Chekhov's plays to coincide with our events. The Russian cultural Centre is in the process of trying to organise a dance performance and a food festival. All in all, it is an action-packed month that awaits us. None of it would have been possible without the active support received from the faculty and alumni who obviously feel very deeply for their alma mater.

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