A Tale About Looking

Ke okhane? Ekhane saharer dhulo niye dhukben na! No entry! Aage hath-pa dhoben, tarpor dhukben!” (“Who’s there? The dust of the city is not allowed here! No entry! You need to wash your hands and feet before you enter!”)

The warning might have been taken more seriously had those eyes not been twinkling with mischief as he spoke! “Our grandfather likes his jokes,” said the young ASI worker who had escorted us to the lower-middle-class house in Tamluk which we had come to visit. He wanted to reassure us so that we were not scared away! He needn’t have worried. Octogenarian Lakshman Chandra Pradhan — tall, dark and handsome, retired seller of betel leaves, an “illiterate archaeologist” in his own words — had every right to ask us to wash our hands and feet before entering his house. That would have been the way in the Bengal of the past — a practice that has been, unfortunately, mostly discarded here. We were quite happy to do it, but then he stopped us and, after admonishing us for touching his feet, led us inside his house to his “little museum” of curiosities. He had only wanted, he said, to “check that we were worth talking to”.

Lakshman babu and his “museum”

(At the very outset, it is important to share that very few people in Medinipur are, in fact, illiterate. Education is considered to be a basic necessity, and most children complete high school — even girls. So the point of calling someone “illiterate” is to state that s/he hasn’t been to college!)

Jocular and chatty, despite his ill health, Lakshman babu turned out to be an archaeologist in deed if not in formal training. Roped in to help the team of archaeologists planning to excavate the sites of ancient Tamralipti in the 1970s, Lakshman babu, on the team leader’s advice, went looking near the Rupnarayan river for potential relics. He had no idea how to go about looking, nor even how he was going to recognise the relics when he found them. All he knew was that he had to find “old looking man-made things”. He was told to scrape around the river bank as the “most likely place” where such things might be found.

Rupnarayan River. Source: Flickr

Initially, he wasn’t sure whether the bits and bobs he found were worth anything, but when he brought these back to the ASI, they realised that these were potsherds, arrow heads, bits of weaponry — all dating back to pre-historic times! The ASI had found its most enthusiastic and effective volunteer in a simple panwallah.

When they realised this, the people at the ASI gave him books to read, that would help him to identify the objects he was searching for, and also the correct methods of cleaning the pieces. As he read the books, Lakshman babu realised, to his horror, that he had been painstakingly cleaning away artwork created thousands of years ago under the impression that it was all dirt!

Some of the artefacts found on the banks of Rupnarayan River. Source: midnapore.in

Archaeology soon turned into his passion, and perhaps even an obsession of sorts. Lakshman babu claims to have excavated over a hundred pieces of various kinds, and several hundred beads over the years. The work itself was tiring and long. It involved months of traveling to-and-fro on 3 km patches of land, several times a day, covering swathes in the most intensive way possible. He was, he says, “training his eye to see”, so that he could find the right things. Among his favourite discoveries, he counts Chalcolithic pottery that he found near the SD building, and painted stone weapons — particularly a lovely fish hook — which he picked up at Ichapur.

While he has been felicitated multiple times by the government and celebrated in the news, Lakshman Pradhan has not earned a penny by way of his passion. He had to sell his wife’s bangles and then his land to repay the Mahajan (moneylender), on whose grace the family survived when Lakshman babu was off on his archaeological adventures. ASI never paid him or even gave him credit officially for the findings, though they acknowledged his contribution in newspaper interviews. Facing ridicule on account of his fame — The Statesman called him an “illiterate panwallah turned archaeologist” in an attempt to glorify him, but it became a laughing matter amongst his friends — he tore up the commendation that Bengal CM S S Ray had written out for him. While these matters still trouble him at times, Lakshman babu is not a man to stay down for any length of time.

Now a heart patient, he spends his time picking up bits and bobs from the carpenter’s shop, or from the mechanic’s garage, and creating interesting objects for the children around him. He makes pedestals and stands for his objects, laying them out in a small “museum” the way, he feels, a museum’s displays should be laid.

“People must love what they see,” he says. “They must engage with the objects, get to know their story. They must be discoveries for each visitor in the way that they were discoveries for me. Otherwise, why should they come to see them?”

* We find that many efforts to do good work die an unnatural death when they are stymied alternately by pedantics and corrupt people. We know there are a whole lot of you out there who see the gaps and would like to engage, but have neither the time nor the wherewithal. You can help us in many ways — share your knowhow of people and places, funding opportunities, ideas for development. Do connect with us if you want to jump onto the bandwagon!

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