In Memoriam: V.S. Mallar

Varadaraja Shivaraya Mallar, who taught at seven law schools across India, left us on Saturday. With his ebulliently booming voice, Professor V.S. Mallar introduced generations of students to the lofty precepts of constitutional law and administrative law. He did so by teaching in his inimitably lucid and accessible style. His masterly lectures skillfully mixed citation with wit and pun and drew upon a vast storehouse of memorable anecdotes, apt quotations, and quirky one-liners which his grateful students have posted on a trending Twitter thread.

Mallar belonged to a Konkani-speaking community from Kannur in Northern Kerala. He spent many of his formative years in my hometown Madras. He did his undergraduate studies at Loyola College in the city where he also obtained a master’s degree in economics. He then got a bachelor’s law degree from Madras Law College followed by an LLM from Bombay University.

In his formative years, Mallar practiced at the Madras High Court under G. Vasantha Pai. A firebrand and maverick advocate, Pai was a strong proponent for judicial ethics and accountability.  As Mallar later recounted, Pai’s dogged investigation led to the local chief justice’s resignation. Pai filed many cases in his own name which, Mallar believes, made him an unsung pioneer of public interest litigation. It is from Pai that Mallar learnt the importance of prodigious research and mastery of caselaw. Decades later, Mallar persuaded Pai to donate his valuable library for the use of law students and researchers.

In 1971, Mallar moved to Hubli in Northern Karnataka where he taught at the J.S.S. College. Two years later, he joined the V.M. Salgaocar College of Law’s faculty in Panaji and eventually became the college’s vice principal in 1981. He later became principal of the G.R. Kare College of Law in Margao and chaired the board of law studies at Goa University.

In 1987, Mallar met N.R. Madhava Menon at a legal aid conference in Bombay. At the time, Menon was working with the Bar Council of India to establish a national law school. Eager to learn more, Mallar asked Menon whether faculty jobs for the new institution would be advertised. For some reason, Menon wasn’t particularly forthcoming. Ultimately, one of Mallar’s students sent him the job advertisement from the Journal of the Indian Law Institute.

After an interview in January 1988, Mallar was appointed assistant professor (senior) of the newly established National Law School of India University. As a founding faculty member, Mallar made significant contributions to building an institution whose assets were meagre, staff were few, and skeptics were many. He taught several courses while shouldering significant administrative responsibilities including the important examination committee.

Mallar was a simple man who almost always wore short-sleeve shirts except on a cold day when he donned a sweater. Yet, he was a commanding presence in the classroom. His stentorian voice ensured that even the drowsiest students remained awake. He spoke with powerful cadences and in a steady stream. He punctuated proposition, principle, and precedent with verbal tics that helped students digest what he was saying. “The Supreme Court said ‘look here,’” “you will find,” and “ultimately” were Mallar’s frequently used expressions.

The professor’s lectures usually began at the podium. But he would quickly move to the blackboard and begin writing with his trademark scrawl. He would then pace back and forth with forceful hand gestures to emphasize the points he was making. Every now and then, the professor would take off his glasses. Sometimes to clean them but often for declamatory effect when explaining a landmark case. They would go back on his nose when he was ready to move to the next point. A serious expression would return to his face. But it would be quickly undermined by his twinkling eyes and a betrayingly sly smile: a joke or funny story, often at his own expense, was on its way.

Although he frequently shared the dais with other professors — Menon’s idea of cooperative teaching — Mallar wasn’t a big fan of the Socratic Method. He emphasized legal basics and fundamental principles that students could retain decades after they left his classroom. Indeed, to this day, his lucid explanations of rights, remedies, and reasonableness resonate strongly with me.

Between 1998 and 2000, Mallar headed the K.S. Hegde Law College, Mangalore. He was then appointed NLSIU’s registrar: a crown of thorns that he bore for four turbulent years. Between December 2006 and 2007, Mallar worked in Gandhi Nagar: first as a law professor at the Gujarat National Law University and then at the Nirma Institute of Science and Technology. But he was soon back in Bengaluru and returned to the National Law School, and to the classroom where he continued to lecture on constitutional law.

As a senior faculty member with many administrative responsibilities, Mallar did not publish frequently although he did write occasional chapters and papers. And so Mallar leaves behind no book or building that bears his name except for a constitutional law gold medal at Goa University. Yet, his legacy is vast and immeasurable especially in the legion of students he groomed, mentored, and trained.

It is said that soldiers never die; they simply fade away. In Mallar’s case, one can say good teachers never die. Nor do they fade away. He lives on through his students –distinguished judges, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals — in whom, as Arun K Thiruvengadam puts it, Mallar instilled a lifelong fascination for the law.

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