Remembering John Marr

13 June 2022

Padma Shri Dr John Ralston Marr, lecturer in Tamil, Music and South Indian Studies at SOAS 1954–1992, died on 19th May 2022 aged 95.

By his own account, it was Indian music, heard initially on Forces radio during the war, that drew him into a lifelong relationship with the subcontinent. Volunteering for the Indian Army in 1946, he trained in Bangalore and served in Burma and Singapore, alongside fellow officers and troops from South India. Returning to England in 1948 with a collection of records of Carnatic (South Indian classical) music and a fascination for Indian languages and culture, he came to SOAS to study Sanskrit, Tamil, archaeology (under Mortimer Wheeler) and Indian music (under Arnold Bake). PhD research on Tamil poetry took him to Annamalai and Madras (Chennai), where he began formal training in Carnatic vocal music, and developed close friendships with many of the leading Carnatic musicians of the day. In 1954 he was appointed to a Lectureship in the Indology department at SOAS, initially in Tamil. In the 1960’s South Indian Music was added to his brief (his performances of Carnatic vocal music were a highly appreciated feature of departmental events), and in the 1970’s he was asked to take on Hindu and Buddhist art history. From this point he concentrated on South Indian art and archaeology, which he taught for the remaining years of his SOAS career, delivering courses that inspired many students. From 1988 he became the Convenor for the Indian module of the highly successful SOAS/Sotheby’s Asian art postgraduate Diploma.

On his retirement from SOAS in 1992 he was invited to teach Carnatic music theory at the Bhavan Centre in London, of which he was a founder trustee. He became a central figure at the Bhavan for many years, and his commitment to the education programme was recognised by the award of Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian awards, in 2009.

John Marr’s publications include An introduction to colloquial Tamil, with P Kothandaraman and Arumugam Kandiah (1979), The Pĕriya purāṇam frieze at Tārācuram : episodes in the lives of the Tamil Śaiva saints (BSOAS 1979), The eight Tamil anthologies, with special reference to Pur̲anān̲ūr̲u and Patir̲r̲uppattu (1985) and (in Italian) Letterature dravidiche (1969).

John had a deep love for India, especially for its music, visual arts and the Tamil language, understanding the interconnectivity of the visual, literary, religious and performance traditions of India, and the importance of oral transmission. Students and friends will remember him for his self-effacing charm, irrepressible enthusiasm, and encyclopedic knowledge of anything to do with South Asia, not to mention botany, Meso-American archaeology and a dozen other subjects. Generous to students himself, in an interview he paid tribute to the overwhelming kindness he had experienced in India, which had taught him “how to be as well as how to do”. He wrote: “Largely through the medium of her music, I have been privileged to share India’s tremendous tradition and sense of values of which she has so much to give to the world.”

Written by Richard Widdess, Emeritus Professor of Musicology