Accidental Interview with Wakankar
The monkeys started jumping as if to announce a visitor and all of us got up to receive the professor. The professor, Dr. Vishnu Shridhar Wakankar had a towering personality. He had returned from the town with all the groceries needed for the camp. In this forest, the groceries were worth a lot more than money.
As he changed we noticed that his forearm was bleeding. He explained that in order to avoid a cow on the road, he had fallen from the bicycle while carrying the groceries. Giriraj, one of professor's graduate students rubbed herbal oil on the bruise. I offered him Iodex (a pain reliever) which he appreciated very much. Instead of asking me who I was, he apologized profusely for the inconvenience caused to me by his absence! If I had gotten an appointment and had used the government influence I probably would have never not gotten this opportunity to meet the foremost researcher of archaeology in India at the time.
He asked the assistant to prepare dinner as we took a stroll around the camp. Dr. Wakankar explained to me how he had accidentally discovered Bhimabetaka. "In 1956, I was going from Bhopal to Itarasi by train and felt that the mountains hid great history in them. I got down in the next station and walked up here. The very first cave I entered had paintings in it! This place has artifacts dating back to 500,000 years." He stood on a mound and said "This is a Buddhist stupa; there are two of these. Emperor Ashoka's entourage must have come this way. Do you see that ruins over there? They are the remnants of a dam built by king Bhojaraja. He had built the biggest lake of his time. The boats could come here from Bhopal."
© K. L. Kamat
"This location is archeologically important not just from India's point of view, but from the humanity's. So I have come up with grand plan for its preservation. Declaring Bhimabetaka as a national park, preserving the forest around it, repairing of the dam, and building of a research center. I have submitted to the education department..." [His dream came crushing along with the government that fell in the June of 1977.- ed] "Let's go eat now." We returned to the camp where the assistant was still making chapatis. The scholar was also a good cook, and helped in preparation of dinner.
We relaxed in the open air under the moon light and Wakankar looked back on his life. "Even after my master's degree, I could not get a job, and I started an arts center in Ujjain. I got a job in museum in Mumbai several years later, but I could not abandon my students and instead took up a small job in Madhan College. Professor Sankalia was my advisor in the university. He is the same one who dated the period of Ramayana. But his and my approaches to research are very different, and we disagreed on most matters. For example, he thought that Ramachandra mistook Indravati river for an ocean and that Rama never left central India. But if you read Ramayana, it is clearly said that the water was salty, and was full of minerals." He recited some shlokas from Ramayana.
"Later, when I submitted my thesis on the prehistoric rock paintings, one of the committee members suggested that I remove an acknowledgement I had made to RSS. I told him that it's alright if I am not awarded the doctorate, but acknowledging the help I received was important to me. In 1975, the central government awarded me the Padmashari award (The Padmashree is among India's top civilian honors - ed.). During the emergency, the government did not bother me even though my roots with RSS were well-known. They perhaps thought that arresting me would be an insult to the award that they themselves gave! ... I am sleepy now. Why don't you study some of these artifacts?" He gave me boxful of artifacts, and went to sleep on a light-weight camp-cot that he had gotten from France.
Next morning, he invited me for a walk. "I am closing the camp here. Actually I have many more projects to do, but we are out of funds. The government said they would provide 10,000 Rupees per year, but the money hasn't come. So I have to close down the camp. I feel like I have to carry the temple for the sin of going there to pray! Now some of the bureaucrats and officials of the archeology department want to picnic here. They are going to come from Bhopal with families in a government vehicle today. You will meet them. So I won't comment on their caliber."
"Did you get a chance to look at the artifacts?" he inquired. When I identified the periods of some of them, his joy knew no bounds. He told me that even though such artifacts have been found in southern France, and subsequently in North America, the archeological wealth that has been found in Central India was the richest. "Some American universities invited me and provided for much of my research. I co-authored the book with an American archeologist, which was very-well received." He admired his American colleagues for their generosity and kindness. "Apparently I am only one who has studied these. So everybody has to come to me for photographs and references." He smiled mischievously.
He showed me his photographic album. He had named a cave as "Rangamantapa" (colorful stage) and another one as "Prehistoric Zoo" because of its animal motifs. The cave in which dance paintings were found, he had called it "The Auditorium". When I told him of the vandalism of petroglyphs I had noticed in Adamgad, he replied "Those youngsters are illiterate and ignorant. They do not know the value of the art or history. Do you want to know what our so-called experts are doing?" and he narrated numerous incidents of mischief, corruption, and carelessness.
"I have to tell you one more thing. Whole world knows about Bhimabetaka, but our government in Bhopal doesn't. A Japanese team wanted to document the caves here and tried to contact the Indian Government for permission. They were told there was no such thing! Another time, an American student came here on a two-week program. While I am funded 10,000 Rupees for a year of research, she was funded for 150,000 Rupees other than her travel expenses. Our government expects me to perform research on a hungry stomach."
We returned to the camp and I photographed some of his greatest possessions. Then we heard the jeeps arrive and he had to go out to welcome the government officials. Four jeep-full of people had arrived for picnicking, and their noise brought civilization to the forest. They were served tea and snacks. The women folk decided not to see the caves and instead engaged in gossip about jewelry. The men visited one cave, but were not impressed. They smoked, ate the food served by the professor's assistant, and went back. The only good part for me was the delicious fruits they brought with them. The professor's assistant really enjoyed the food.
That evening when I left, he walked a long way to see me off. I was so happy to meet a person like Dr. Wakankar who is not tempted by greed for power, money, or publicity.
Dr. Wakankar continued his research in ancient archaeology and ancient Indian history. He was responsible for tracing the basin of the now-dried-up Saraswati river, that is said to hold secrets to much of the Indian civilization. The institutions he founded are alive today and can be visited in Ujjain.
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