Remembering an extraordinary teacher from Coorg, Devanira K. Appayya.
“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” — Henry Brooks Adams, Historian
By Pallavi Joyappa, USA
In 1909, under the Imperialist Empire of Edward VII, an illustrious son was born in Napoklu, Kodagu, who would later be known for his colossal contribution to education. Little did Dr. Devanira Kunjappa know that this son, Devanira K. Appayya would one day be the recipient of India’s highest medal of honour bestowed on a citizen for teaching excellence.
By the age of 20, in 1929, Devanira Appayya or Appayya Master, as he was lovingly called, put himself through various schools in Kodagu and then went on to graduate from the prestigious Madras Presidency College, an almost unheard of feat at that time.
Presidency College was one of the oldest and the most prestigious institutions in India, boasting of an envious line of alumna including a Nobel Laureate C.V. Raman, freedom fighter C. Rajagopalachari and philosopher Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, who later became the President of India.
Granny would regale us with stories of how Thatha, as we grand kids called him, got to Madras, now Chennai. “He walked, rode bullock carts, took multiple buses and then a train,” she said. It had apparently taken him weeks to travel from Coorg to Chennai, a distance covered in a few hours today.
Financial constraints prevented him from pursuing a higher education, at which point, he returned and joined the Secondary Grade Teachers Training College in Bangalore. This was the start of his memorable teaching career.
Thatha was a born teacher and taught with a sense of compassion and empathy. He held the Head Master’s job at Ammathi Middle School for over 22 years. Known for his impeccable British sense of style, sans the stiff upper lip, one would never find him in soiled clothes (from having spent his evenings picking coffee in his estate) or unpolished shoes.
He stood tall, towering over his colleagues, at 6’0”, but Thatha was modest at heart. It was said that he was a treat to watch as an eloquent speaker. He was also the only Head Master from the State to be selected as a member of the State Prescription Textbook Committee.
In 1962, Government of India presented Devanira Appayya, aged 53, with the prestigious National President’s Award for Teaching Excellence. An honour bestowed by the then President of India, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, also a fellow alumnus of Madras Presidency College.
Never had a Kodava walked the history-laden, post-British Raj corridors of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, dressed in the traditional Kodava attire of Kupya (black collarless, short-sleeved, knee length coat) with the ceremonial Mande Thuni (head gear) and Chale (maroon gold-embroidered silk waist belt), striking quite the intellectual, handsome figure.
To be awarded this highest recognition was a matter of huge prestige, not just for him, but for the then small State of Kodagu and even smaller community of Kodavas. We were no longer tucked away in a silo of the Western Ghat. He had thus put the tiny State of Kodagu on the National stage.
The State of Mysore, considering his accomplishment as a teacher, extended his retirement by three years. “We pray to God to spare you for a full span of Vedic life and let God Almighty be with you and your family to enjoy your well-earned rest at Ammathi,” wrote the Siddapur Teachers’ Association on the day of his retirement on May 18, 1967.
Thatha died eleven years later at the age of 70. For his family, he was and is a larger-than-life figure, a trailblazer, a legend who touched the hearts of many and left a legacy which gets talked about even to this day.
Appayya Master was known for his unwavering dedication to his family and his craft serving as an inspiration. His ability to impart knowledge while being compassionate will be remembered for generations to come.