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The Gundert connection

His efforts helped South India regain some of its precious pieces of ancient heritage. And his is a love affair with India, writes Renu Ramnanth



By the time I joined the university, I had already started learning Sanskrit.'

HE WAS born in the south of Germany. And at the age of seven, he decided to go to India. Albrecht Frenz had to wait for decades to realise his dream. And thanks to the Indologist's efforts, South India got back some of its most precious pieces of ancient heritage.

Dr. Frenz, acclaimed as the editor of Hermann Gundert's diaries, remembers having seen some pictures associated with India as a child — maybe, that was the starting point.

But the son of a farmer in the south of Germany could not even dream of going to high school! He was refused permission to go to high school. That was the custom in Germany in those days.

Being the eldest son, he inherited the farm. For that, you never needed to attend high school.

But the second son was forced to go to school, despite his ardent wish to be a farmer!

Young Albrecht quit school and started his apprenticeship as a farmer.

"For five years, I worked hard, but then I realised it was not my destiny." At 19, he told his father that the farm could go to anyone, but he was going to India!

He joined a boarding school that offered special coaching to students from the village who were continuing education after a break. After taking the test, he was allowed to skip two classes and join the 10th standard.

"By the time I joined the university (I was 25), I had already started learning Sanskrit," he remembers. And he knew almost all information about India.

After completing his studies in Indian Philology with Classical Archaeology and Science of Religion as subjects, in 1966, by obtaining a doctorate from the University of Marburg, he decided to resume his theological studies.

In 1969, he completed the studies in Protestant Theology from the University of Hamburg and joined the service of the Protestant Church of Wuerttenmberg, to which he belonged, as minister.

Dream comes true

It was the Church that sent him to India. From 1974-77, he worked as lecturer for German language at Madurai Kamaraj University and Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary in Madurai. There, he translated the Tamil classical philosophical works Thiruvachakam of Manikkavachagar and Thiruvalluvar's Thirukkural into German. In 1970, he married Gertraud, the great-great-grand daughter of Hermann Gundert, the 19th- Century linguist who had made immense contributions to Malayalam and school education in Kerala during his life at Thalassery. It was in 1979 that he got an invitation for the Hermann Gundert Memorial Lecture at Calicut University. "She was the star in Calicut," he chuckles. "All the media were after her, as the great-great-grand daughter of Gundert." The couple visited Thalassery.

On return to Germany, Gertraud's aunt handed over a bundle of old manuscripts to them. It contained the whole collection of Hermann Gundert's diaries. Without losing a moment, Dr. Frenz set upon translating. The first two volumes were published in 1984. The third volume, published in 1986 at the World Malayali Conference held in Berlin, had opened with the information that Gundert had contributed his collection of Malayalam manuscripts to Tuebingen University where he had studied. That was in 1885.

"Scaria Zachariah, who was attending the conference, came rushing to me as he read this information," remembers Dr. Frenz. Dr. Zachariah wanted to reach Tuebingen at that very moment! Then, things happened quickly. Dr. Zachariah rushed to Tuebingen, and returned with the thrill of having discovered a treasure house. Before that, nobody in Germany knew what those manuscripts contained. On his way back home, Dr. Zachariah met the late D.C. Kizhakkemuri, publisher, at Frankfurt. Kizhakkemuri rang up newspapers back home and the discovery was news before they reached Kerala!

Then started the big task of translating and publishing the complete Gundert manuscripts, the dictionary and the Bible he had translated into Malayalam.

Dr. Frenz's latest work is about the missionary couple, Hermann Friedrich Moegling and Pauline, who worked in Karnataka around the same time as Gundert lived in Thalassery. The book Freedom has a Face: Anandapur narrates the couple's work done at Anandapur, a village that they literally made out of jungle in the interior of Karnataka. Pauline died young, but her work will help us recognise the role of the Basel Mission priests' wives, which had been largely underestimated so far, says Dr. Frenz.

Dr. Frenz has also co-authored a book, Wall Paintings of Kerala: 1000 Years of Temple Art, with the mural artist K.K. Marar.

Dr. Frenz and his wife were at Thripunithura last week, to deliver this year's Parikshith Memorial Lecture on `Rudra - Siva Concept.' Now, he is interested in Madhubani paintings of Bihar. He is planning a show of Madhubani paintings in Stuttgart soon.

Photo: H. Vibhu

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