Commemorating the 100th birth anniversary of Frank Richard

Prometheus Unbound

As a teacher and a humanist, Frank Richard was unequalled in terms of the sincere affection he indiscriminately bestowed on each and every child coming under his care. It’s unbelievable, a hundred years have passed already. In our days, he was seen as an unequalled monument of culture being shared by all who came under his purview as one of the greatest teachers this country has produced. A master of language with as variegated a literary culture as possible, drawing from the widest variety of sources, he not only easily brought within our reach and profound appreciation the English language and its treasured intricacies which, before our contact with him, looked so alien and forbidding.

He was also a source of inspiration and vast admiration, a bringer of light from the gods to share with us and send us soaring, like him, to the sublime reaches of our humanity. May all teachers come like him!

On the occasion of his demise in 1997, Uttam Bissoondoyal wrote the beautiful article below in loving memory of Frank Richard who had been his teacher as well as his colleague in Education. We are reproducing this homage in the context of his 100th birth anniversary.

Tribute to the Teachers’ Teacher

 

Frank Richard, the last outpost

It has been said of the old African that he carries a whole library to his grave; what shall be said of the immense learning and experience of Frank Richard? In the dying of the flame where does all the effulgent light go? In the closing of the lifeless eyes, where goes all the energy that the being and presence reflected and that filled the room? When he used to teach us Faerie Queene and the Epithalamium, he would call Spenser the poets’ poet. Spenser was the cause of greatness in the poets who came after.

Richard was the teachers’ teacher; he was the unproclaimed mentor; he was the creator of so many of us, particularly those who had been his students at the Royal College, and worked under him at the Institute of Education. He was a man of encounter, in the cultural, social, intellectual, even in the physical sense. The encounter made a lot of difference to all of us: the good, the bad and the indifferent. Even they became different.

One day, without mentioning names, he talked about that indifferent student who went on to make his mark in administration. Richard had been talking about the mixture of spirituality and sensuality in the love of Porphyro for Madeline in “The Eve of St. Agnes” and their elopement against the backdrop of a freezing world. He asked the student to comment about that ending. With no attempt at humour, he replied that they might catch pneumonia! All the rhetoric of Richard collapse! There was a loudness in his rhetoric that impressed all of us. La School has organized an afternoon on Macbeth, one of his favourite plays, Moteelal Burton, a colleague of his in the English Department, a soft spoken and caring teacher, was talking about the play. One could hear the voice of Richard: “Plus for, Burton…”

Never a harsh word, never a damning judgement, no sense of one upmanship (which would have been effortless) and which instils so much of pettiness and littleness in public life.

What an image of teaching La School represented in the 1950’s: Richard, Burrenchobay, Kistoe. Bell, the absent-minded professor, and the short-lived Bhupendra Kistoe and Roger Murat discussing experimental physic during their lunch-hour, with Bhupendra’s box of 555 within the grasp of adolescent smokers. I have forgotten all the additional mathematics I learnt from Sir Dayanad, however important it was to my making, but I remember his sharing with us his inability to appreciate the Taj Mahal because it was the product of forced labour. Culture has been defined as my “ce qui reste quand on a tout oublié”. Richard’s influence was of that nature. He made humanism the bedrock of our values, and created in us the anxiety and pride to perform. In a way, as Matthew Arnold had said of Wordsworth that it was the poetry not the philosophy that mattered, we can say of Richard – however great his teaching of literature was – that it was the man and his philosophy that mattered; literature and its cultivation of taste, sensibility and experience was the means.

While he was Permanent Secretary in the 1960’s he sent to the Teachers’ Training College a number of his former students who would reflect his social and cultural openness and his liberalism to effect the transformation in the education of teachers. One can guess how important it was as the prelude to independence.

I had imbibed a crushing and anxious sense of moral and puritanical rigour and public service from Basdeo and Sookdeo Bissoondoyal; I was lucky to have Frank Richard and Charles Curé to become psychologically the father surrogate and liberate the potential within me. They were all men of learning, rich in knowledge, experience and humility. They had the je ne sais quoi that made us anxious not to disappoint them. How terrible does it seem that our physical ways parted because of the inordinate and shameful sense of distance in Mauritius and the resulting difficulty of like minds to form a community. The one who will lead and transform Mauritius in the future must be able to do this.

When we were in our late teens at the Royal College, we saw in Richard the future Prime Minister of Mauritius, the symbol of the ultimate, the man of colour could reach in ability, personality and intellect to represent the country at the highest level. He was without prejudice. Unfortunately, he did not leave the private world of teaching and administration and the chain of charismatic, national leaders was broken after the Maurice Curé of mid-1930’s… In many ways he resembled Villiers René who has a similar influence on the intellectual life on his day and nurtured a few great minds, such as Maurice Curé and Basdeo Bissoondoyal.

Dr Edgar Millien, the editor of L’Oeuvre, the dauntless and unsung champion of democracy in the 1940’s and 1950’s must have seen in Frank Richard the same promise of national greatness as we did later.

In the 1940’s the governor Mackenzie Kennedy wanted to establish a Senate, no doubt to restore the gilded influence of those who were powerless before the onslaught of the vox populi. Probably plans for the Royal College were of a piece with that. Dr Millien crossed swords with Mr Barnes, the Rector of the Royal College of Curepipe who “suggéra le plan de réeuropéanisation des cadres du collège”. Frank Richard, the rising star, was transferred to Port-Louis, and Dr Millien’s tribute to the classical scholar – Frank Richard, M.A. (Classics) graduated with 1st class Hons in Classica – gave a measure of the man fifty years ago.

Ramesh Ramdoyal was saying at the funeral that we have never known Frank Richard to be centered on himself, to be talking about himself, not even in the “egotistical sublime” sense which his beloved Keats ascribed to Wordsworth. We are regretting that he had not used his pen more. I remember how lost I felt when receiving my leaving certificate from the insightful but distant Camille Nairac who while acknowledging the native intelligence referred to how unreliable and egocentric I was. Richard understood the strategy of the sous-doué in the family of Basdeo, Sookdeo, Surendra, Dhanraj and Pithiraj, and it was to him that I turned for a letter of recommendation. He gave all of us space and self-confidence to develop. What distinguished teacher of literature would allow a student to compare the plight of Milton’s Samson and Vyaasa’s Arjun, or would allow one to use Gandhi to talk about the crowd in Julius Caesar.

The Abiding impression of Frank Richard is his “connectedness”, the Shakespearean “ripeness” and the empathic “capability” which Keats was groping towards. I served on the Richard Commission on Education in 1978; one could see how this man of no boundaries of Renaissance could also be moved so much by the plight of the underprivileged or by the becoming of Rodrigues and of Mauritius. He was amazed by the liveliness of the schoolchild in Rodrigues who moved rhythmically to the classroom; he was moved by his visit to Richelieu School where the headmistress said how proud she was that one pupil of hers had passed the CPE in a ghetto of unemployment and poverty. In our visit to a Black River School on the Monday where the new lesson starts in all schools of Mauritius, one-third of the children were absent. He found out that many of them were absent during the fishing season. When he asked one of them for the reason for it, the answer came almost in a chorus: “Posson là mordé missié”. He understood it all, but who would listen to him? Who will listen to him in the age of loud speeches and deaf ears?

Last week, unaware that he was so ill, I was thinking of asking him to chair a session on “The Importance of English Studies” in our forthcoming Conference on “The British Legacy”. As Chaucer would have said, no one could have spoken as feelingly about.

Uttam Bissoondoyal

Uttam Bissoondoyal, Frank Richard, Basdeo and Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, Dr Edgar Millien, L’Oeuvre, Royal College of Curepipe

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