Babasaheb Purandare: Professional Historian, Popular Storyteller
Shiv Shahir Babasaheb Purandare devoted at least 70 years of his life to the study and popularisation of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and his ideals.
I woke up yesterday (15 November) morning to the sad news that Shiv Shahir Babasaheb Purandare was no more. He had passed away at the grand old age of 99, after having devoted at least 70 of those years to the study and popularisation of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and his ideals. He was the foundation on which stood the latter-day historians such as Ninadrao Bedekar, G B Mehendale and Dr Uday Kulkarni. Tall shoulders which enabled others to see afar.
Balwant Moreshwar Purandare was born in 1922, and the sheer amount of change he saw in his life was immense.
While we grant that Chhatrapati Shivaji was a name never forgotten in Maharashtra, it was Purandare’s Raja Shiv Chhatrapati that brought alive the stories of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s life in a way that went beyond the hand-me-down oral stories that existed in every house. We could imagine Tanhaji scale the fort of Sinhagad, see Shaiste Khan flee as the great king’s sword came down on his hand and share the tension and relief in the Maratha camp as Shiv Chhatrapati was embroiled in the Agra episode.
Babasaheb Purandare was referred to as a “Shiv Shahir” or “Bard”, someone who, through his writings, took Chhatrapati Shivaji to the people. It is definitely a better honorific than the much-abused label “professional historian”, which he was in every respect.
Babasaheb Purandare also wrote and directed a play named Jaanta Raja, which I had the privilege of experiencing while in school. A grand performance involving over a hundred actors, horses, elephants and camels which lasted over three hours.
For us, schoolchildren in sixth or seventh standard, the scale in itself was breath-taking. The large grounds, on which it was held in Pune, were jam packed with people, and house-full performances stretched the whole week. This, when theatre was supposed to be on the wane. The play, in Marathi and Hindi, took Chhatrapati Shivaji’s story beyond Maharashtra’s borders.
Maharashtra and India were blessed to have Babasaheb in the post-Independence era.
It was a crucial time. The era of historians beginning from V K Rajwade was drawing to a close with G S Sardesai (died in 1959). It was Babasaheb Purandare who kept the legacy alive and at the same time, through his work, popularised Chhatrapati Shivaji. Babasaheb traversed every hill fort in Maharashtra. Cycled miles in the rain to reach one small piece of a fragment lying in some village, so that his image of Shiv Chhatrapati could be complete.
It is even more commendable that he did so at a time when Chhatrapati Shivaji was a “regional hero” and the Left’s dominance on academics was total and complete. It was a lone battle, where calling Chhatrapati Shivaji the protector of Hindus and the embodiment of resistance to the Mughal empire was frowned upon in the academic and political circles of the day. His work spoke for itself and even Maharashtra’s first Chief Minister — Yashwantrao Chavan, among others, had only praise for it.
Looking back, we find that in the void between the passing of G S Sardesai and the rise of historians such as Ninadrao Bedekar, the name of Babasaheb Purandare stands tall, almost singularly.
The awards that he should have received long ago were finally bestowed on him in the sunset of his life. Maharashtra’s highest award — Maharashtra Bhushan in 2015 and India’s second-highest civilian Award — the Padma Vibhushan in 2019. He was past 95 years of age.
This was, of course, an official recognition for the inspiration he had provided for three whole generations of Maharashtrians. He lived long enough to see Chhatrapati Shivaji being written about as “a looter” in a certain book to his statue being erected outside the Agra fort.
As tributes poured in, right from the Prime Minister’s Office, we realise that India has lost an irreplaceable son.
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