[Ed Note: We are delighted to bring to our readers this post as part of a series of letters addressed to law students from Prof. (Dr.) Nigam Nuggehalli, Dean, School of Law, BML Munjal University. In this letter, on Teachers’ Day, Prof. Nigam talks about three professors that impacted him as a student, shaping his career and personality as a legal academic. Through this post, he aims at sharing these values with law students around the country],
On Teachers’ Day, let me tell you about three law academics who sparked my interest in teaching law.
In July 1992, when I entered the halls of National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore for the first time, I encountered the most extraordinary personality, the likes of whom I had not seen before nor am likely to see in the future. This was Professor Joga Rao, who at that time taught the Law of Contracts to first year students. His mid-term examination was one question, which stretched to the length of three pages. Virtually, everyone in the class failed it. All this drama happened in the first month of law school. But the real dramatist was Joga himself. His classes were essentially theatrical performances with the law thrown in for effect. He used to come to the class, remove his wristwatch and place it on the podium, roll up his sleeves and start delivering his dialogues on the formation, breach and performance of contracts. An essential part of his repertoire included gently heckling the students. His trademark style was to say something to a student that the student would only later find out was a joke and after a few anxious moments he would proclaim ‘that was a joke I say!’ Of course students were bound to be nervous in his presence. One student was so nervous that once after Joga said ‘A murdered B’, the student asked ‘and did B die sir’? There was pin drop silence in the class. After a pause Joga replied ‘Mr…, when a person is murdered, usually he dies’, followed by an eruption of laughter. I learnt from Joga that the greatest strength of a teacher is to capture the attention of the class, for no law subject, however fascinating, will survive the tedium of sitting for hours in an enclosed space. Joga at his best used to make the classroom cackle and frizzle with humour and energy.
The third year at NLSIU was considered the toughest year in law school and a good part of the third year blues were due to one man: Professor MPP Pillai, who taught us Corporate Laws. His question papers were the lengthiest I have seen in any law school, India or elsewhere. Calling these ‘questions papers’ would be a disservice to the art form he had developed. His questions were essentially stories that involved movie stars, dancers and artists. Somewhere in the fact pattern lurked complex questions of corporate law. I tried emulating his style of questioning in one of the papers on indirect tax law that I drafted. In fact I went too far and called one of the moneylenders in the question ‘Shylock Nuggehalli’. I have since repented and never repeated the same.
But it’s not Prof Pillai’s assessments that inspired me but his absolute and unconditional love for the law. He used to go into paroxysms and deep sighs with his eyes closed and his palm on his face while discussing the ‘indoor management rule’ in corporate law. To see him in action was to see a man’s whose true love was the law with its classic texts (Gower on Company Law) and landmark judgments (Royal British Bank v Turquand). When he discussed a particularly tricky part of a statute or a case, he made it as if we were collectively discovering something precious to behold. It was a meditative experience to see him thread through the Companies Act legislation, and change his intonations in keeping with the levels of complexity in the law. By the time we reached level 4, much like its counterpart in Inception, we were in a dreamlike state even if the dream had left reality far behind. I learnt to love the law from Prof Pillai, who was and remains its most ardent lover.
When I went abroad to Oxford for my BCL, I came in touch with another remarkable teacher who was to leave a lasting influence on me: Professor John Gardner. Gardner, along with another Oxford legend Professor Tony Honore, taught us jurisprudence and political philosophy on Friday evenings at All Souls College, one of those colleges that is steeped in medieval history and is maintained in the same state (in a good way). Gardner and the students used to sit around a large table. Basically that was it; this was a class around a table. Gardner used to ask one of the students to present a two-page paper on one paragraph in any philosophical text loosely connected to law or political philosophy. When the student started reading his paper, the real fun started. Gardner used to interject with his points which slowly and magically transformed the class into something that was extraordinarily thought provoking and creative. At the end of each class, I used to come out thinking I have discovered some new insights into human morality and ethics only to find that the next week brought on some other insights that unseated my previous ones. To see Gardner at work was to see a master at his craft, weaving his thoughts along with the thoughts of the student and make the student see for himself some of the wonderful aspects of philosophy that Gardner must have intended that the student discover. I later found out that Gardner had a unique quality-whenever he spoke, he had something interesting to say, some new insight that changed the way one looked at things. I learnt from Gardner that a great teacher elevates a student’s understanding of a subject, not by being prescriptive, but by enveloping the subject in a plasma of pleasurable excitement, by making the student discover the intricacies of a subject through some carefully guided remarks and comments. Sadly, neither Prof Gardner nor Prof Honore is with us anymore but their mischievous spirits linger with us.
My dear students, these are the three professors who have inspired me, each in his own way, and each showing me what a wonderful profession this is, that I am privileged to practise every day.
School of Law
BML Munjal University