The new £50 note in Britain could have the face of one of India’s most famous scientists. Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose has been nominated for that honour alongside the likes of Stephen Hawking, Alan Turing and Alexander Fleming.
But back in Kolkata, India struggles to save the legacy of one of its most illustrious sons, a polymath, physicist, botanist and one of India’s first science fiction writers. Bose’s imposing home in Kolkata, Acharya Bhaban, is a museum to his life and work. But it’s only open twice a week for a few hours.
“Manpower and security problems,” laments Parul Chakrabarti, a retired scientist and member of the Sir JC Bose Trust, who has made keeping Acharya Bhaban going her passion. “Remember, even Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel was stolen.”
While many in Kolkata know of Bose Institute, the scientific research institute founded by him in 1917, few know that next door to it is Acharya Bhaban where Bose lived with his wife Lady Abala. On its roof is his observatory. Lady Abala Bose’s purse and gloves are still in her bedroom, as are Jagadish Bose’s passbooks from the Imperial Bank of India and Lloyds Bank. His doctoral gown, dating back to 1896, is brittle and falling apart. In one corner is a wooden gas refrigerator, a technological novelty of the time. In another is his study table that resembles a piano at first glance. There are murals by Nandalal Bose on the ceiling, wooden elephants with ivory teeth gifted by the Maharaja of Kashmir. Books signed by George Bernard Shaw and Romain Rolland have been painstakingly restored. There are glass cases filled with Bose’s slides. The laboratory still has his instruments — his compound lever crescograph, his oscillating plate phytograph. Bose invented the crescograph to measure growth in plants. Some of those instruments have been restored to working order by the London Science Museum which had borrowed them for an exhibition on achievements in science and technology.
Even on a sunny afternoon, the house feels shrouded and dark, more of a mausoleum than a museum. I am the only visitor that day. The person at the gate initially insists that most of the upper floors are out of bounds but Chakrabarti has her assistant show me around. “This is part of our national heritage,” says Chakrabarti. “I have been to many museums around the world. Few have so many personal effects.”
The house, built in 1902, had fallen into disrepair when the Trust took over in 2009. It was filled with cobwebs and dust and termites. The building itself was sinking. “It was like an abandoned ruin,” says Chakrabarti. “It had be closed for three months just to do the termite work before we could enter.”
When Dr Manmohan Singh as prime minister came to Kolkata, he was impressed by the wealth of the archive. He wanted to declare it a Class A science heritage museum. The government said it would grant Rs 5 crore if the trust could generate Rs 1 crore on its own. In today’s economy, in a country where the number of billionaires seems to go up every year, that should not be an insurmountable goal.
GM Kapur of INTACH, which helped with some of the original restoration, says, “You need resourceful movers and shakers on a trustee board to reach out to the corporate world. Shouldn’t Vodafone or Jio be supporting Jagadish Bose?” Wireless telecommunication owes Bose a debt for his work in radio microwaves and his semiconductor junction. But times have changed. “Corporate houses were interested but now their big priority in CSR is Swachh Bharat,” says Chakrabarti with a sigh.
It also does not help that though Bose invented the galena crystal detector, he did not actively pursue a patent for it. “Otherwise the Trust would not be in this state,” rues Chakrabarti. Every page that needs to be restored in the books that line his shelves costs Rs 1,000. “Believe me when I started this work I did not even have a camera to document what was here,” says Chakrabarti. What makes it harder is that all restoration has to be done in situ. Nothing can be changed or built.
But Acharya Bhaban is not just a science museum. Bose was more than a scientist. The building bears testimony to the fabled Bengal Renaissance. “I feel honoured to just sit at the table where he sat,” says Ankita Ghosh who assists Chakrabarti at the museum. “There’s a difference between seeing Jagadish Bose at a science museum and knowing that you are standing in his house, sitting at his table.”
That’s what astounding about the house. Shuttered as it is, it is still redolent of a life in a way a modern museum can never be. You can imagine Lady Abala Bose looking at herself in the mirror of her marble dressing table, cooking at her clay stove in her personal kitchen. You can see the garage which once had Jagadish Bose’s Rolls Royce and Fiat cars. The little suite where a research student could live is still intact (though the bathtub is in need of repair). Ghosh shows me a small antechamber off their bedroom with two chairs facing each other. That was a sitting room just for Bose’s lifelong friend Rabindranath Tagore. “The two men sat on those chairs,” says Ghosh. She points to one and chuckles: “I think Bose sat on that one. It’s more indented. He was the heavier man.”
It’s astonishing to think of the history that has flown through this house, now struggling to survive. Chakrabarti leads me out into the front yard which has Lady Abala’s rock garden and an 11th century Vishnu sculpture. The garden arch was designed by Rabindranath Tagore’s son Rathindranath. She gestures at a marble bench in the garden. “Think of who must have sat there,” she marvels. “Abala Bose, Meghnad Saha, Swami Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita, Rabindranath Tagore.”
The house still breathes that history. A Bharat Mata painting by Nandalal Bose and his associates. A Sister Nivedita bas relief original. A framed Vande Mataram. A portrait of Bose by Gaganendranath Tagore. The chhatim tree Bose had planted is still alive as is the vine with purple flowers he brought from California.
But all of this is fragile and in need of help. INTACH cannot do any further work till funds are raised. INTACH’s Kapur says we do not even have a proper blue plaque system to mark buildings of historical interest the way London does. INTACH has on its own accord just got one designed for Acharya Bhaban. It reads “Acharya Bhaban, Residence of Acharya Jagadis Chandra Bose & Lady Abala Bose. Built — 1902”
A plaque can mark history but it will not save the heritage of Acharya Jagadish Bose. That will require funds. Instead of reaching back into our mythology to claim Indians must have invented the internet and plastic surgery, we could restore, celebrate and take pride in our actual scientific achievements instead of letting them crumble to dust.
The London Science Museum restored two of Jagadish Bose’s instruments. “They are taking pride in him because he went to Cambridge,” says Parul Chakrabarti. “But what about us?”
On 30 November, Jagadish Bose’s birth anniversary it’s a question worth pondering.
— All photos courtesy Sir JC Bose Trust unless indicated otherwise
Updated Date: Dec 03, 2018 13:09 PM