Last night, one heard that Babasaheb Purandare, an institution among men, was critical and fighting for his life. As a doctor, I could picture him in hospital, linked to so many tubes with a peaceful expression on his face.
He had surrendered his body to his doctors to do what they will. The struggle to pull him out of his illness, perhaps, went on for many hours until in the wee hours of the morning, his body gave up but his spirit soared high.
The young centurion is how I will always remember Babasaheb. Even as he entered his hundredth year, he hadn’t lost any of his enthusiasm for history, curiosity for a new discovery, passion for the many projects he wanted to complete and the ideas he still wished to execute.
I was always enamoured by his ready smile and warmth, coupled with such an unassuming modesty with which the great man received his visitors, the interest he took in whatever you showed him or spoke to him.
He always had a suggestion that was qualified by a youthful, ‘see if it appeals to you, otherwise, leave it!’ If you wished to invite him, he would meticulously note down the date time and venue in his own hand in a diary kept beside him.
More important, he was there at the exact time that he needed to be there. His visitors spanned across generations, walks of life and backgrounds. There were the young ones, full of adoration and ideas, eager to share them with him.
Then there were mature scholars who wished to discuss a point in history with him. There were others who just wished to meet him, touch his feet, or gift him a new book or picture.
Babasaheb had a kind word and a humble smile for them all.
In the 1940s and 50s, Babasaheb wrote his first books, published a series of original letters, climbed every fort that Chhatrapati Shivaji ever built and lived in, talked about the great king day after day to thousands from all ages.
His ‘Raja Shivchhatrapati’ was a rite of initiation for a young child in Maharashtra to understand the grim struggle that Chhatrapati Shivaji waged to gain the invaluable swarajya in a time of oppression.
His talks were dramatic, his voice rose and fell as the stories unfolded, the audience often comprising children with their parents, followed the narrative as each page from Shivaji maharaj’s life came alive before them.
However, Babasaheb did not stop with mere talks, even though they were popular and rich in content. He created the popular docu-drama Janta Raja on the great king, which featured hundreds of artists in historical costumes, with live elephants and horses on a giant stage.
The play ran for weeks at a time, enchanted thousands year after year, the audience carrying back images that they believe they had seen from three hundred years ago.
‘Samam patu Saraswati’ were the words with which Babasaheb Purandare began his talks…’O Goddess Saraswati, Protect us!’. The prayer seeks to protect us from ignorance, to shows us light and give us knowledge.
Mere deification is not enough, is what Babasaheb told his listeners. One needs to heed the lessons from the biography of the great king, learn from it and emulate him in one’s life.
His passion for conservation was no less than the crusade to bring history out of the textbooks and breathe life into it. He often spoke on how our historical sites needed to enthuse the next generation with their stories and lamented that not enough was being done to take our history to our people.
Sometimes, he gave examples of how well the battlefield of Waterloo had been preserved or Nelson’s ship kept in the service of the Royal Navy. ‘Nelson died here’, and the spot was shown to the youth of England who visited the ship.
He sought to preserve our battlefields and forts in like manner. In his own way, he raised funds for the Shivsrushti that he built at Pune and the work he did through his trust at the Vishrambag wada of early nineteenth century.
Hailing from the historical Purandare family, he was born with history in his blood. He was a student of GH Khare, one of Maharashtra’s last great historians.
The state government had earlier awarded the Maharashtra Bhushan to him. Two years ago, the Government of India, in recognition of his work, awarded him the Padma Vibhushan.
Living in the Purandare wada at the foot of the historic Parvati hill, his door was always open for visitors every morning. On 29 July this year, he entered his ninety-ninth year.
In a recorded address, he spoke to his last audience at the Bharat Itihas Sanshodhak Mandal a month ago when that institution inaugurated its digitization programme.
He was having a few health niggles and could not attend the event personally. Yet, many looked forward to the date next year when he would complete his hundredth year.
Even a Don Bradman missed the test batting average of a hundred by a few runs. Babasaheb was the Bradman of Maratha history. There will come many after him, who might write history, unearth new sources, or speak with authority on the subject.
However, there never will be another who can equal the passion that Babasaheb had, match the knowledge of history or the contribution he made to take history to the masses.
May Babasaheb go in peace and may his passion and his work live after him. His work was his message and, in the end, continuing his work will be the finest reward we can give him.
(This tribute was first published here on the author's blog and is being republished by Swarajya with full permission)
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