Ashok Desai — A renaissance person par excellence

Published: April 15, 2020 4:33:35 pm

Former Attorney General (AG) of India and senior advocate Ashok Desai passed away Monday morning.

Written by Nisha Sahai Achuthan

The numerous outpourings of grief and “In Memoriams” appearing in the media, have been paying rich tribute to Ashok bhai, as a legal luminary. Few perhaps know of the other side of his persona — of someone who was a humanistic, with a deep knowledge of the Performing Arts, both Western and Indian. He shared this passion, with his wife Suverna, one of the four “Jhaveri Sisters” who were leading exponents of national and international fame, of the Manipuri dance form. Perhaps the only write up I found on his broad spectrum persona, was by Menaka Guruswamy [Indian Express, April 14], whose long association with him dates back to her years, when she began her internship in his office. Menaka talks about his “romance with the written word,” and his home being frequented by “writers, artists, scholars”. In my tribute to Ashok bhai, I would like to supplement this by dwelling upon his passion for the Performing Arts, presumably enriched by his long and loving partnership with his wife Suverna.

My long association with Ashok bhai as a neighbour, dates back to the mid-nineties — when we were each building our houses in adjacent plots in South Delhi. I often consulted him and sought his advice on architectural and interior details, and was impressed by his deep knowledge thereof, along with the personal interest he took in the details of his ongoing construction, his demanding professional responsibilities notwithstanding. It was in the course of such meetings with him, that I had an occasion to also discover and discuss our shared interest in the Western and Indian Performing Arts. I was amazed at his encyclopedic knowledge of the operas and of the works of the Great Composers, which he attributed primarily to his stay in England for his higher education. He was equally knowledgeable if not more in the Indian classical dance forms and the intricacies of vocal classical music. Both he and Suverna were avid concert-goers. I suspect that his fighting the obscenity ban on Tendulkar’s play, Sakharam Binder — covered in the many tributes upon his death — would have been inspired both by his belief in the freedom of speech and expression, as also by his love for the Marathi theatre.

In one of my encounters in New York with Jonathan Hollander, founder and President of the famed Battery Dance Co., I was to discover that the Desais had a long-standing personal association with him and his Dance co. and that they had been instrumental in facilitating his company’s performances in India.

And lastly, I would like to dwell upon Ashok bhai’s kindness and willingness to help, about which many have talked about already. Way back in the late nineties, when my tenant was giving me a problem, Ashok bhai readily gave me the best legal help possible. Later, when my attorney daughter in New York requested him to be connected to a human rights lawyer in Delhi, he readily put her in touch with none other than Menaka Guruswamy, his one-time intern and junior, who by then had become a famed advocate in this field. And yes, his kindness was also reflected in his benevolence towards the battery of his personal staff, in particular the respect accorded to “Pandit ji,” heading his staff, who was treated like a family member.

My last cherished memory of Ashok bhai is of my meeting with him and Suverna for a high-tea at their well-appointed home, in the course of my biennial stay in my home in Delhi. We learnt of his sad demise, first via an email from his brother Anand in the United States. My deep-felt condolences to Suverna and his family, and may his soul rest in peace.

Dr Nisha Sahai Achuthan is a retired member of the IAS, now an activist and a New York based Consultant on Security issues, Sustainable Development and the Performing Arts

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