The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, November 10, 2002
Time Off

The backroom boys of history
Manohar Malgonkar

WHAT is Rabindranath Tagore to Bengal, B. M. (Bakibab) Borkar is to Goa: its Poet Laureate, a son of the soil who projects the region’s composite image, a mahakavi who is a part of everyday life.

Bakibab’s most frequently quoted lines are from a poem called Tethe kar maze julati, there, my palms join in salutation, or, there, I stand with bowed head.

For those who have given their lives

To the building of great temples,

But are themselves forgotten

With not so much as a headstone or lamp

To mark their memorials.

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Such as who? That’s just it. We are moved by the emotional charge of Bakibab’s imagery, but cannot readily think of a name to match the concept — of some prominent achiever whose work we can see but is himself unknown. The Pyramids, the Great Wall, the Vedas. Angkor Wat, are not one-man achievement — and in any case the achievements themselves stand as memorials. Of those who created them.

The sort of person Bakibab has in mind is someone like Edward Gibbon; a loner working away with mole-like industry at a single task. During a visit to Rome, Gibbon was so awestruck by the ruins of its ancient monuments that he there and then made a resolve to write the history of the Roman Empire itself — all on his own.

It took him 23 years to accomplish that task and, he has himself described it, "to recover his freedom."

But Gibbon is surely not the sort of person singled out by Bakibab Borkar for deification. He may be one of history’s greatest achievers, but he is hardly unknown — indeed, he is a celebrity. We have to look for people who have made valuable contributions to the sum total of performance in their chosen fields of endeavour but are themselves relatively unknown. And that is not easy. Offhand, I can think of only two names who most nearly represent the person imagined by Borkar: an achiever of note who has also remained all but unknown.

Robert Gill, and B. D. Basu.

Never heard of them? Most people haven’t. They have been history’s backroom boys; after contributing their bits, they have just dropped out of scene — without fuss.

Both were career men, units in organisations — not freelance workers. Both held the rank of major but were not soldiers. Gill was an engineer in the East India Company’s Madras Army in the mid-19th century; Basu, a qualified doctor, belonged to the Indian Medical Service of the Raj, in the early 20th century. The works for which they’re remembered were not a part of their professional duties.

Robert Gill was an amateur painter and spent much of his spare time not in hunting wild animals as most of his colleagues in the services did, but in painting pictures. In the year 1819, one of those hunting parties of the company’s servants had discovered the Ajanta caves. In those days before the coming of the railway those who wanted to see the Ajanta frescoes had actually to organise expeditions. Indeed even a hundred years later Murray’s Guide tells us that a bullock-cart journey to the caves from the nearest station would take "from eight to ten hours."

But even that thin trickle of venturesome tourists caused severe damage to the paintings in the caves. They were in semi-darkness and to be able to see them properly, they used to hold kerosene-soaked flares close to their surfaces.

It seems clear that some one high up in the Company’s hierarchy who was taken to see the frescoes must have been horrified to see the damage they had suffered. He realised that they would not last long, and since there was no way to restore them or prevent their disintegration, at least why not have copies made which could be preserved. "At no cost to the company," of course.

That phrase ‘on a no cost basis’ is current in the Indian Army to this day. It means, use your own men for the job. And that was how, Major Robert Gill, amateur painter, found himself ordered to go to Ajanta and "make faithful reproductions of every single painting in the caves."

Gill spent the remaining years of his service doing just that — 23 years, or the same time-span that Edward Gibbon had used up for his task. My other candidate for a place in Bakibab Borkar’s Hall of Fame, is, like Gibbon, a historian, in the true tradition of other Bengali scholars such as Sir Jadunath Sarkar or Surendra Nath Sen. The title of his single major work also reveals his specialised field of studies: The Rise of Christian Power in India. It is a truly formidable volume; weighing more than 2 kg and containing about half a million words, rich with quotations and crammed with footnotes; a work of painstaking research and outstanding scholarship.

I, for one have never ceased to wonder how one man holding down a full-time job could have so much as read let alone studied, the 350 books of history or biography diaries, privately printed books of reminiscences of interfeuding empire builders, and piles and piles of dreary official records. Even assuming that Basu left the army’s medical service soon after the end of World War I, it still seems impossible that he could have written so well-researched a book of straight history on the British conquest of India, profusely annotated and argued with overpowering logic, all within a mater of five years. He seems to have literally killed himself with overwork, for by the time a second and greatly revised second edition came out in 1931, Major Basu was already dead.

It is this full-dress edition that I possess heavy as a doorstop, and bought, I’m sure, in a fit of madness for Rs 31 at a time when paperbacks were sold for eight annas, and hardbound novels for Rs 4. I have it still some 50 years later, one of the most valued books in my library. But of course it is now a ‘rare’ book, valuable in its own right.

The final chapter of the story of that other Major, Robert Gill, has a nightmarish ending. Those copies of Ajanta paintings which had taken so many years of hard work literally went up in flames.

Gill had finished his work in Ajanta in good time to show them at an exhibition which was being held in London’s Crystal Palace in the summer of 1866. That same winter, the portion in which the Ajanta paintings were displayed as gutted by fire. "Only four or five could be saved," we’re told.


This feature was published on November 3, 2002