An elderly man is bending over an open-shelf bookcase, muttering something as he sifts through a stack of hardbound volumes. Finally, he heaves one out and as he starts to flip through it, you can see every page is filled with neatly pasted newspaper cuttings. One quick glance and he snaps it shut and starts to hold forth in his ancient quivering voice. The person in question – the same he has just looked up – had exposed a fraud sadhu and his apprentice who used hypnosis to dupe hundreds of people. "As did Anton Mesmer in 18th century Europe," says the grand elder with flourish.
This is a fond scene from Satyajit Ray's 1974 film, Sonar Kella. Feluda, the sleuth, is working on a case and is consulting his know-it-all uncle, Sidhu jetha. It is all fiction, everything, except Sidhu jetha.
Ray, apparently, based this character on Nirmal Chandra Kumar, bibliophile and owner of a shop that sells rare books near central Calcutta's Entally area. Nirmal Chandra did not have fancy degrees, but no academic could rival his vast knowledge. His son, Aloke Kumar, a professor of Communications at Calcutta University, says, "People called my father a human encyclopaedia, but he was actually an antiquarian. He lived in the world of books and was thoroughly engrossed in them."
Ray was introduced to Nirmal Chandra by Radha Prasad Gupta, another bibliophile with encyclopaedic knowledge of colonial India. According to Aloke, his father even aided Ray in his two-decade-long research for the film Shatranj Ke Khilari. "He fished out rare books, maps, manuscripts and even bought an Englishman's scrapbook on the revolt of 1857 from a Sotheby's auction for Ray."
Nirmal Chandra passed away in 1976, but Calcutta is still home to some human encyclopaedias, or so one has heard.
We don't have an address for Naku babu aka Sushil Kumar Chatterjee. All we know is that he is a sound designer, thinker and collector extraordinaire who lives in the Shyambazar area.
We ask for directions to his house. "Just mention my name and they'll show you," Naku babu says over the phone. There is no hint of a boast in his voice. He is stating facts.
The house is somewhere deep inside the guts of Shyamchand Mitra Lane. As we cross the courtyard and climb up the dark staircase, sounds of a kaler gaan or phonograph begin to float down from the first floor.
The 10×15 feet room where Naku babu lives and works is filled with antiquities – an Indigo planter's calling bell, century-old shellac records, a 16mm Made-in-Germany sound projector from 1948. The 95-year-old is dressed in a dhoti and vest. He has on a pair of large brown-rimmed glasses and a pleasant smile. "I am not a collector. I didn't chase to get these; they found me," he says.
A friend has sent over a vinyl record that morning. "I'll play it for you. Can you identify the voice," he asks. Turns out to be Subhas Bose addressing a rally after quitting the Congress in 1939. Naku babu gets talking about the political scenario then and the background of the speech. The adda then veers to his expeditions across India on a BMW bike, shifts to the musical instruments of the tribals in the Chhotanagpur Plateau, and then to his collection of folk songs.
"My first collections were pebbles from the woods of Singbhum in present-day Jharkhand, where we used to travel to when I was a child. I'd met the author Bibhutibhusan Bandyopa- dhyay during those tours," he reminisces.
Naku babu is more than happy to find a keen and engaged listener. In his excitement, he jumps domains with the ease and expertise of Phantom, even as his audience struggles to keep up. But how did he come to accumulate such varied knowledge?
"It all began with sound," he says. Elder brother Sishir Kumar bought him a radiogram – which is a combined radio receiver and record player – while he was still in school. Naku babu started collecting microphones, amplifiers and sound boxes, and eventually turned sound engineer.
In his professional capacity, he started making amplifiers and setting up audio systems in movie halls. His association with movies and its makers brought him in close touch with the film industry – yes, Naku babu has even acted in movies and telefilms. A lot of researchers and students from foreign universities visit Nakubabu, pick his brain.
But what is to happen to the collection after him? Naku babu takes a deep breath. He doesn't wish to entrust his life's work to the government. What about his family? His prolonged silence seems to suggest indifference on their part. What will happen, will happen; for now, his mind is buzzing with a plan – a catalogue of his collections.
Chittaranjan Dasgupta lives in Bishnupur, 140 kilometres from Calcutta, in southern Bengal. The temple town used to be the capital of the Malla kingdom between the 16th and early 19th centuries. That day, we find him scratching his day-old beard and examining a rare sculpture of the sun god on display at the district archaeological museum.
Like Naku babu, Mastermoshai – as Chittaranjan Dasgupta is locally known – is also in his 90s. The former Bengali teacher has spent over six decades hunting for relics and rare artefacts across southern Bengal to piece together the history of the area that dates back to fifth century BC.
"Our early inspiration was Acharya Jogesh Chandra Roy, a retired professor of Cuttack's Ravenshaw College, who settled here. He was pained to see how some government officials and curio dealers walked away with priceless artefacts when several areas were excavated for building dams," he says.
Dasgupta, along with 52 others, took up the task of setting up a museum for books, manuscripts, coins, pot shards, jewellery scoured from Bankura, Purulia and Midnapore. It was named Jogesh Chandra Purakriti Bhavan, after his professor. This was in the 1950s. He has worked actively to preserve and conserve this wealth of history from curio sharks.
We start walking towards his house in Kabirajpara. And there, sitting on the steps of the family temple of Sri Sri Radha Damodar, we listen to his story. Dasgupta talks about his ancestors who had been doctors to the Malla kings. His wife Sushama, who turned 80 recently, talks about her husband's extensive and frequent travels. In the course of this work, Dasgupta also discovered how Jainism had once flourished in the region. He brings out his notes and photographs.
Today, Dasgupta is perhaps the only living expert with such a wide experience of field surveys and a vast body of research – cultural, historical and architectural – on these parts, first identified as a historical hot-spot by Mohenjodaro man Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay. Recently, he published the book Dakshin Paschimbanger Murtishilpo O Sanskriti. Says the nonagenarian, "I wrote it all down because my memory fails me these days."
Jagannath Ghosh is an anthropologist of sorts, though that is not how he would describe himself. The 72-year-old is a spirit of the woods, self-effacing, bereft of any kind of self-importance. From Jharkhand to Chhattisgarh to south Bengal, he knows all the forests intimately. In recent times, he has also covered the jungles of north Bengal and the border areas of Bhutan and Sikkim. And roaming the forests, he has developed an intimate knowledge of its tribal people.
Like Naku babu and Dasgupta, Ghosh too is excited to talk about his experiences and interest. The excitement is for the sake of sharing the information itself, the joy of seeing the wonderment leap into the eyes of the other.
Did you know about the wondrous places that are the tribal haats or markets?
"You get all kinds of things here, a hedgehog's stiff hair, a wild boar's wool… Haats are places where tribals meet; young men and women fall in love. This is where conspiracies and business deals are hatched…" he trails off, interrupted by his smoker's cough.
Ghosh grew up close to the hilly and wooded area of The Ridge in Delhi in the 1950s. He talks about how he'd enjoy the beauty of his immediate environs, study the trees, and how it all stoked his wanderlust. When he started working, his job with a tea company in Calcutta allowed him a five-day week; on weekends he was free to roam the forests. Often, he would take a slow train with some friends. Get off at random stations and explore the surroundings. Tabo, Saranda, Purulia, Bangriposhi, Kuilapal, Chilapata, Barodabari… To date, he has stayed in 68 jungle lodges.
Having recovered from that bout of coughing, Ghosh starts to talk about Ray's Aranyer Dinratri, a film about four urban youths and their excursion into the forests of Jharkhand's Palamau, as an inspiration. Ghosh has also mingled and lived with the tribals, shared their food, learnt their language, picked up on their traditional cures. He seems to know every tree in every forest and their properties. He scribbles notes like Dasgupta; never uses a tape recorder or clicks photographs. When actor Dhritiman Chatterjee made a documentary on Purulia's nachnis, who are typically tribal women, he consulted Ghosh.
Some of Ghosh's travel experiences have been published in obscure little magazines. Recently a publisher showed interest in bringing out a collection of his writings, notes and observations, but Ghosh has never kept track of his pieces. "I do all this driven by passion. I never wanted to make a living out of my travelogues," he says.
And that's one common thread that runs through all the living encyclopaedias – a near aversion to wealth. As Naku babu puts it, "I could have earned millions selling the artefacts, but I never did. Wealth would have ruined my creativity."
Sidhu jetha's prototype, Nirmal Chandra, never made money out of his bookshop either; it barely broke even. Says his son, "He'd give away books to a discerning reader free of cost. He also loaned them… A lot of these were never returned. A gourmet, he would treat his friends to sumptuous delicacies created from recipes gleaned from rare documents."
But who cares for such things now, we only Google.
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