Sri Vishnu Sridhar Wakankar - A Distinguished Archaeologist, A Master of all trades and jack of none

    04-May-2020
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Wakankar ji was a mixture of extreme intelligence, outstanding devotion and incomparable detachment. With great humility he said that RSS is the reason for all the skills in him.
- KR Sudhakar Rao
 
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“I am giving you an opportunity to meet a Padma Shri awardee. He is a famous archaeologist and a history professor. He will stay in Tejpur for a day. Look after him well. Stay with him and ensure you show him all the ancient archaeological sites in Tejpur.” This was the order I had received. It was 1985. Those were the days when I was working as an RSS pracharak at Tejpur Assam. But how would I identify him? I was given these clues such as shabby hair, two three bags on the shoulder, books and pen in hand, spectacles almost slipping off his nose, misaligned shirt buttons, pants that he forgot to zip up…but there would be an unknown glow on his face. If you find anyone fitting this description getting off the bus from Itanagar, capital of Arunachal, he is our Padma Shri!
He arrived on the expected day and it wasn’t difficult to recognise him.
 
The description I was given fitted him perfectly. I took him to the RSS office in a rickshaw. In a few moments he was ready. I arranged breakfast for him at the house of Tara Prasad Saikia, a history professor. I also arranged to visit historical sites of the Guptas era, such as Da Parbathiya door frame, Ancient Mandir (Temple), Hatakeswar Mandir (Temple), Mahabhirawa Mandir (Temple), Agnighad, Hazaara Pukhuri in Tara Prasad Sykia’s car. Our Padma Shri seemed to be in a bewildered state of mind. Even though he was with us, his mind seemed elsewhere. In one moment he appeared childlike, in another like an idiot and another a person who lost his way. Looking at his appearance Tara Prasad Saikia frowned, but he had already agreed, so he had to take him in his car.
 
On the way Tara Prasad Saikia started describing the history of Assam and Tejpur in English. Our archaeologist asked questions such as “How many children you have? What are they studying?” in Hindi.I doubted whether he was truly a recipient of Padma Shri. This doubt kept growing bigger with passing moments. We took him to the ruins of the Gupta Era Da Parbathiya Temple (Mandir). There was a temple door which was intact. Tara Prasad Saikia was getting ready to read from the descriptive report he had prepared about this door.
 
At that moment our Padma Shri got down from the car and walked as if in a trance towards the ruins. From his mouth flowed a stream of description about the signs of Guptas Era. Tara Prasad Saikia suddenly got hold of my hand and pulled me back. His eyes widened with surprise. His hands were trembling. He said “look”…. and handed me his notebook. Surprisingly, the words in the notebook, in the same order and description, were spoken by our archaeologist, while walking. “This is no ordinary man. He is a great scholar”, said Tara Prasad in great amazement. That was it. He closed his notebook and threw it in the car, folded his hands and walked like a disciple behind the archaeologist.
 
The archaeologist pulled out a camera from his bag and started taking photos of the ruins. In those days, that camera was one of the most modern cameras and only 100 or 200 people in the country owned it. The archaeologist kept narrating various things and the specialisation of the construction of the Gupta period. Later we took him to the nearby Hatakeswara Temple in Kethakibari province. There was a 14 feet tall Sivalingam. Padma Shri ji took out a pen and scrapbook from his bag and sketched the Sivalinga and the temple in minutes. Looking at the pictures it was evident that he was a great artist.
 
“You draw great pictures” said Tara Prasad with great astonishment. “When I went to study archaeology in Paris, I used to draw pictures of the tourists every evening, to earn money. I studied with the money thus earned,” said our archaeologist simply, as if it was a normal thing.
 
“So you went to Paris” I asked, unable to stop myself. "I have travelled the world. There is no country I have not been to” he said. Once again we were shocked. Tara Prasad surrendered to him totally.
 
That night the archaeologist and I slept in the same room. With great ease he talked about various topics like the Arya-Dravida principles, the war of Dasaragya and other historical events. I bowed my head to this knowledgeable man.
 
The next day he said, “When we were at the Da Parbathiya, I saw some hills in the distance. They seemed to be calling me. I am sure we will find something. Let’s go there today”. That day Tara Prasad was not available and neither was his car. “Don’t worry” he said. “Arrange for two bicycles. We will go there.” Padma Shri awardee, world famous archaeologist and 75 years old, yet he rode a bike without complaining. What is this man? To him the car and the bicycle were the same.
 
He was smiling today as he was yesterday. Before climbing the hill, we went to leave the cycles in the house of someone I knew. In that house, there was a college going girl, who made some tea for us. Before she brought the tea, the archaeologist was writing something. “You gave us tea so I should give something in return” saying this he handed over a paper to her. The girl widened her eyes with surprise and her jaw dropped. Even though the incident occurred 30 years ago, I can still remember the astonished look on the girl’s face. With curiosity, I peeped into that paper. It was a sketch of that girl made with a sketch pen. Without any pencils, or shading, just ordinary lines but a beautiful picture. The picture was just like the girl and seemed as though the girl was like the picture. I was astonished by the artistry skills.
 
During the emergency, when there was a ban on RSS, he was given Padma Shri by the then Indian Government leader Indira Gandhi, who was opposed to the RSS. For the award presentation ceremony, he wore the RSS black cap. He had the stubborn courage to mock even the dictator. 
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By the time he finished his tea a group of five or six girls came running in, asking him to draw their pictures as well. He patiently drew their pictures asking their names and what they were studying. “Our talents and skills should be used to involve society with us” he said. I bowed to him in my mind.
 
Later, he patiently climbed the hill and roamed for hours. He found some clay artifacts and described them as belonging to the Stone Age. Surprisingly, he was a child with children, a great scholar with scholars, an intellectual when it comes to archaeological topics, most humble when it comes to subjects related to RSS. Nothing belongs to him but he felt everyone was his. He was the most composed person despite all the great qualities. My respect for him grew by the minute.
 
That night I said we could eat outside. “Why hotel, we can cook ourselves”, he said to which I said “I don’t know how to cook”. “I will cook, '' he said. That an archaeologist, who had the world at his feet, cooked Khichdi for me! While cutting vegetables, he spoke on various topics from the conspiracy of the English on our history to the deceit of the Marxists. The Khichidi was delicious.
 
“Among the most sacred rivers, Ganga Yamuna and Saraswathi, the Saraswathi river comes from the Vedic period. This river has now dried up. We are using satellite images to try and resurrect this river. If successful, the drought stricken areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan will become fertile lands” he said. To me he looked like a person who can look into the future. “Where will you go tomorrow”, I asked. “I am going to Guwahati and from there to my native place, Ujjain. After a week I will go to Singapore to deliver a keynote speech at an International Conference”, he responded and left the next day.
 
After a few days, I received the news that after delivering the keynote speech at the International Conference in Singapore, the same night he suffered a heart attack and passed away within minutes. The man who rode the bike with me, made Khichdi for me, who drew pictures for girls, who was always smiling and stayed with me for two days was Padma Shri Vishnu Sridhar Wakankar. He was the man who discovered the world famous rock paintings of Bhimbetka. He was a great scientist and a historian who worked as a president for institutions like Bharatheeya Ithihasa Sankalana Samithi and Samskara Bharathi.
 
I saw Wakankar ji as a mixture of extreme intelligence, outstanding devotion and incomparable detachment. With great humility he said that “RSS is the reason for all the skills in me”. I cannot forget these words till now. He donated his house to Samskara Bharathi. He had such feelings of dedication.
 
During the emergency, when there was a ban on RSS, he was given Padma Shri by the then Indian Government leader Indira Gandhi, who was opposed to the RSS. For the award presentation ceremony, he wore the RSS black cap. He had the stubborn courage to mock even the dictator.
 
By the way, the Saraswathi river has just started to come alive and now it is flowing like a small stream in Rajasthan. As predicted by Wakankar ji, Rajasthan desert will surely turn into fertile land.
 
(Author is a senior journalist based in Hyderabad)