When his nephew flashed a message that Prof Eapen was critically ill in August 2009, a few of us rushed to see him in the hospital. By then his critical faculties to recognise us had failed. Little more than a year later, on October 23, he breathed his last. The Hindu carried an obit on the national page.
Prof K.E. Eapen (KEE) was a distinguished communication scholar and educator and former vice president of the International Association for Mass Communication and Research (IAMCR). To many of us, our association with him began when he set up the Department of Communication at Bangalore University in 1973. Although Journalism was formally incorporated into universities by then, moving beyond and establishing a broader process oriented multi disciplinary subject was his achievement. Fighting through the system, KEE has the credit for seeding and crystallising a separate subject panel for Journalism & Mass Communication in UGC. Such formative attempts have enabled the subject to grow and transcend the initial lukewarm response of media professionals and media institutions.
Communication to KEE was a science and hence he was keen on labelling our degrees in the broader science framework while fighting for and establishing a separate faculty of communication in Bangalore University. Detractors continued to battle this approach while adopting the essential features of what the subject required. Those were the days when there were only few professors in the subject and they became responsible for assessing and according approval for starting departments in various universities. However, they could not address the systemic neglect of the departments by way of adequate resources. Thus when the subject panel was institutionalised in the UGC, part of the benefits included recognition that certain essential support systems were needed including faculty to run the programmes.
With his background at Hislop’s college Nagpur and formal degrees from Syracuse and Wisconsin, KEE brought to the subject a contextual sensitivity. When the now historical SITE was being planned and executed, he exposed us to the nuances of technological determinism and rigor that was needed to evaluate deployment of satellite technology for delivering television. His long inland letters to us in the field were both instructional and raising questions. I still remember my stay in the villages where for various reasons television was not working or not kept in place at the designated time. Television centric as I was I wrote to him asking to be deployed elsewhere. Perceptive as he was he wrote back saying that the purpose of the study is not just television but to understand a whole lot of other factors for such community initiatives. I stayed back to develop better insights. My constant exchange of views continued. In 1991 we worked together on a collaborative project on Journalism and communication education in SAARC intended to assess and promote production of text books in the subject.
His classes were rather brief but full of queries that initially made us suspect that he was merely passing the buck. Not used to focused reading, he inspired us to study articles and papers that would help us respond successfully to our questions. Widely travelled and networked he provided leads to many scholars and professors in various other universities to many of us quite keen on pursuing higher studies. The network of scholars engaged in political economy of communication opened up with one introduction he gave to Prof. Bill Melody. Travel abroad was quite difficult those days and in the absence of liberal bank loans and restricted foreign exchange our approach to higher studies had to be focused and aimed at getting scholarship or aid. References from KEE helped us to directly correspond with academics and work towards our research goals.
He formally retired from university service in early 1980s but continued his professional association with national and international associations in the discipline. His regular reflections on media and communication issues have appeared in publications such as the Hindu, Deccan Herald and the Frontline. He kept in touch with his students and friends with snail mail (hand written) and looked forward to constant updates. His involvement with local institutions has lead to a demand from the local citizens that a park be named after him. He lived by himself with visits from his students and by numerous nephews and nieces who took good care of him.
KEE wanted a perfect institutional mechanism for communication education. Mechanism that would constantly contribute its alumni to the media and academic world and a flourishing active publishing in scholarly and peer reviewed journals. He was untiring in his laments as far as status of media education and training was concerned:
The U.S. thrust has continued into the 1990s. The Indian educational level has risen to graduate programmes and Indian scholars settled in the States also now come under the Fulbright umbrella, with no radical departures from the Singh and Wolseley days. Even the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, established in 1965, was conceptualised by the Wilbur Schramm Team of American experts. Despite its 25 years, the Institute has not been able to enrich indigenous scholarship very much.
India has strongly articulated during the 1970s for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO), but had taken little follow-up action in the academic aspects of education in communication. Arguments for a new order had to be accompanied by efforts at the grassroots level of professional instruction. University approaches still remain rather frozen at the pre-NWICO stage. Course contents have not substantially changed, nor the books used in support of undergraduate and graduate courses. This is not a specifically Indian lacuna. The SAARC region, of which India is an important component, suffers from the same maladies. The need for books to reflect national realities has not been met. Most books in use are in English, and the American orientation persists. It is not argued here that there is anything intrinsically wrong with them but the point is that foreign books are produced for foreign purposes and not for India or Pakistan.
While lamenting the lack of such avenues in India he would constantly urge and work towards creating such bodies. The Indian Council for Communication Training and Research (ICCTR) was his idea and he spent considerable energy in formalising it. However, call it apathy or lack of appreciation we were not able to sustain it and that was a complaint he had against us. Dormant as it is, its revival may perhaps be one way of honouring his memory and contribution. He invested his meagre resources and initiated a periodic lecture series. Justice Thomas, UR Ananthamurthy and UR Rao are among the eminent persons who have delivered lectures under this initiative.
Occasionally he used to converse about his hardships, getting away from Kerala, life in Hyderabad, the glory of Hislop college days, Wisconsin and Syracuse days and his friends, the high and the mighty he knew and had occasionally used to get his way for developing institutions. His large collections of books and conference papers have been gifted to a local library and he always used to refer to a large collection of papers and correspondence that told several stories.
He was a mentor to VOICES, an NGO working in the area of media advocacy and social change for some time. VOICES were also instrumental in establishing one of the first community radio initiatives in Buddukote, Karnataka. His views on communication education entitled, “Communication: A discipline in distress” raised several questions and also became a rallying point for charges and counter charges. A rare honour was bestowed upon him by two students and several scholars when they published a widely reviewed book in his honour entitled, “Looking Inwards...essays in honour of KEE” in 2001. The Karnataka government bestowed upon him its highest civilian award, the Rajyotsva award in 2005.
Kaarle Nordenstreng, a leading scholar in Professional education at the University of Tampere in Finland refers to KEE as a “milestone colleague of media scholarship as well as in the IAMCR family His participation in IAMCR started in the 1970s and throughout the 1980s he was involved in the Professional Education Section and its ‘textbook project’ where he was in charge of India & SAARC countries.” Prof UR Ananthamurthy while reflecting on his association with KEE recalled his Eapen Endowment lecture on storytelling. Kuldip Nayar and late HY Sharadaprasad are among the noted media personalities who respected his work and interest in communication and media education. Kuldip Nayar in a separate communication for another purpose said: “KEE is father of Journalism schools in India. Even after giving 50 years of his life to this field, he continues to pursue his dream to make journalism schools a place where the basic values of the profession are imparted...”
To many of his friends and students his death is no doubt a loss. But in a way he was liberated from the condition he was in. For an active person to be bedridden and not be able to engage in mental activity is perhaps not the best condition. We all felt it when we used to see him. He willed his inheritance and earnings to the cause of institutions working for empowerment of the needy. To us he has bequeathed knowledge, understanding and critical abilities to work through the maze of developments affecting our world and the role of communication and media. Thank you KEE, nay sir.
Prof B.P. Sanjay was KEE’s student during 1974-77. Since then he was engaged in exchange of ideas and collaborative research work with him. Several other students & scholars are contemplating suitable ways of honouring the life and contributions of KEE through scholastic endeavours. There may be others known to him with similar ideas. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to facilitate our efforts
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