KK Venugopal: The Malabar Banyan

In a profession that is increasingly mechanical and growing more impersonal by the day, the ethos of KKV’s chambers is an exception worth emulating.
Senior Advocate KK Venugopal
Senior Advocate KK Venugopal

Nyagrodha (न्यग्रोध ): m. growing downwards; the Banyan or Indian fig-tree, Ficus Indica (it belongs to the kṣīra-vṛkṣas - fibres descend from its branches to the earth and there take root and form new stems).

In the 1930s, Cherukunnu was a peaceful hamlet in the Madras Presidency. This part of the Madras Presidency (present day Kannur, Kerala) had aala marams (banyan trees) in plenty. These majestic trees and the shade they offered were focal points of not just the usual local banter, but also housed sacred groves where the theyyams - sacred, colourful and festive - came alive every year between the months of October and May. Every year, the end of the theyyam season also ushered in the fierce monsoons and by September, festivities were back again with Onam. It was on the 6th of one such September, of the year 1931 to be precise, that a boy was born to Meloth Krishnan Nambyar and Kalyani Nambyar.

Little did they know that their son Venugopal would grow up to be a legal nyagrodha.

It is quite tempting to write about KK Venugopal’s contributions to the law and the near thousand judgments that record his meticulous submissions. The majesty of the Banyan tree is for all to see. The purpose of this short note in honour of KKV is to draw attention to the roots that descended from the branches of this tree, to take life as new shoots.

In a profession that is increasingly mechanical and growing more impersonal by the day, the ethos of KKV’s chambers is an exception worth emulating. 

A conversation over a cup of coffee at the Supreme Court cafeteria with some his chamber devils would offer a million insights as to how he mentored and nurtured them, embraced them, and led them by example. A slip of the tongue comment on his ‘occasional’ dreary argumentative style would invite fierce responses, and one would be surprised by the loyalty he inspires. It is quite an achievement in a single lifetime to be a leader of the Bar, both inside the courtroom and beyond. KKV was the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association on multiple occasions, President of the Bar Association of India and several international lawyers’ organisations, names of which I can neither recollect nor pronounce. To top it all, is his unrivalled record of being the only nonagenarian Attorney General for India in Commonwealth history.

Far more remarkable is the consistency and rate at which he nurtured legal talents over three quarters of a century. One need not look far to identify several distinguished senior counsel and judges on this list - MN Krishnamani, P Chidambaram, CS Vaidyanathan, PR Kumaramangalam, D Murugesan, M Krishnappan, RF Nariman, Parag P Tripathi, Jaideep Gupta, KV Vishwanathan, Krishnan Venugopal, Guru Krishnakumar and Gopal Sankaranarayanan (any omission or discrepancy in the order of seniority is unintentional). This is not to belittle or ignore the dozens of other talented lawyers who have devilled in KKV’s chambers. Enlisting them all would elongate this piece to the point of exhaustion!

The phrase ‘stables’ is often employed to describe a senior advocate’s chamber in the legal profession – a term that perhaps, unfortunately, evokes the masculine imagery of a ‘stud farm.’ But KKV’s chambers did well to undo that image as well. In his seventh decade of practice, three women from his chambers - Haripriya Padmanabhan, Liz Mathew and Uttara Babbar - were designated as senior advocates by the Supreme Court - a record that I am sure KKV is proud of, and perhaps one that will remain unbroken for many years to come. Adding to the consistent inflow of exceptional advocates to the bar, the diversity of his chambers is also noteworthy. KKV’s chambers have, over the years, found room for all sorts of legal animals - the bright, the witty, the mundane, the saintly and the occasionally tipsy.  

While standing in the corridors abutting the parking area in the Supreme Court, I have overheard many a conversation on KKV’s penchant for luxury cars, his ‘top of the line’ fee schedule, and his love for travelling to places off the beaten track. What does not form part of those “listen...did you know” conversations is KKV’s unparalleled generosity towards education in general, and legal education in particular. KKV has never shied away from loosening his purse strings for the betterment of legal education and training. The dozen odd endowments/chairs/lecture series/centres that he has instituted in his father’s memory demonstrate his commitment to support a cause that truly matters. It stands as a testament to his remarkable vision for legal practice and academia in India. I can hardly think of any premier law school in the country which has not been the beneficiary of this resolve.  

The big Banyan continues to nurture to this day, and under its vast canopy, many a legal mind continues to flourish, I say.

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