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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Know Your City: Dr R G Bhandarkar, the scholar-reformer after whom Pune’s oriental institute and a prominent road are named

Bhandarkar was one of India’s first orientologists and a reformer who was part of the Prarthana Samaj which worked to abolish all kinds of social discrimination

Written by Dipanita Nath | Pune |
Updated: September 19, 2021 5:41:42 pm
Know Your City: Dr R G Bhandarkar, the scholar after whom Pune's oriental institute and a prominent road are named.

Prof Irfan Habib, one of the country’s foremost historians, was an intermediate student when he came across Dr Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar’s A Peep into the Early History of India at a railway station which he bought with his pocket money. “Bhandarkar never makes a statement that you can reject. Everything is precise and based on a process. When we think of people like Bhandarkar, we realise that India has a historical tradition of which we should be proud,” said Habib at an online symposium held last month to celebrate his 90th birthday.

Bhandarkar was one of India’s first orientologists — an Indologist — whose other notable books are Early History of Deccan, Vaishnavism – Shaivism and Other Minor Religions. He was also the first Indian Vice-Chancellor of the Bombay University and the first Indian to be awarded an LLD degree by the university in 1904.

In Pune, where the scholar lived from 1882 until his death in 1925, the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) was founded in 1917. The institute was named after him in recognition of his work in orientology, the study of the wisdom of the ancient East or the orient. Bhandarkar was present at the inauguration of BORI on July 6, 1917, but the 81-year-old was too ill to attend the institute’s first important event, the All India Oriental Conference. His presidential address was read out, instead.

This picture of Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, presumably taken in 1917, shows how uninhabited the area was at that time, a far cry from the current bustle of Law College Road.

BORI is involved in research into indigenous narratives and histories of the East, especially India. It contains one of the world’s largest collections of rare books and manuscripts — over 1,40,000 books and 28,000 manuscripts — built over 90 years and covering almost every aspect of Orientology. The institute has enjoyed the patronage of freedom fighters, especially Mahatma Gandhi, who had great respect for Dr Bhandarkar and had visited the place with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

The general public, however, would be more familiar with the 1.8 km-long Bhandarkar Road (officially Bhandarkar Institute Road) which connects Law College Junction with Gopal Krishna Gokhale Chowk (Goodluck Chowk).

“Most people do not know that Bhandarkar was also a part of Prarthana Samaj. He had good connections with social reformists and social workers,” says Shrikant Bahulkar, Chief Investigator of BORI’s Bhagavata Purana Project. The Prarthana Samaj was formed in Mumbai in 1867 and the Pune Prarthana Samaj was set up in 1870. Its aim was to get rid of the age-old malaise of caste discrimination and other kinds of social discrimination. As a testimony to the vision, leadership and devotion of Bhandarkar and Justice Mahadeo Govind Ranade, another leading light of the Prarthana Samaj, the Hari Mandir still stands in Budhwar Peth.

“Such was the concern of Dr Bhandarkar in women empowerment that he supported widow remarriage, and cited evidence from Atharvaveda and Aitareya Brahman. Dr Bhandarkar was a proactive reformer. In 1891 he arranged the widow remarriage of his daughter, which invited a lot of criticism from his community,” writes Dilip Joag on the Prarthana Samaj website.

A glimpse of Pune’s Bhandarkar Road. (Express Photo by Ashish Kale)

Back then, the neighbourhood was remote and quiet. “There was no reason to come to this area. Only scholars and people who wanted to work quietly, away from the city, came here. Many scholars got plots around Bhandarkar Institute, which have now been converted into societies. Professors associated with BORI and Fergusson College lived here in bungalows. The street had a scholarly environment,” says Bahulkar. Among the iconic addresses on the road was of Marathi writer P L Deshpande, who lived in Malati Madhav Society.

In 1976, another house on the street made the news. Smriti Bungalow, which belonged to the great Sanskrit scholar Kashinath Shastri Abhyankar, was the site of gruesome murders which rocked the city. Abhyankar (86) was killed along with his wife Indirabai (79), grandson Dhananjay (22), granddaughter Jui (20) and maid-servant Sakhubai (75). This was among the serial murders committed by four students of Pune’s Abhinav Kala Mahavidlyalay — Rajendra Jakkal, Dilip Sutar, Shantaram Kanhoji Jagtap and Munawar Harun Shah — who were, subsequently, arrested, found guilty and hanged.

Some of the old bungalows remain to this day as does Sane Dairy, which moved here with its cows and buffalos from Laxmi Road in 1948. But Bhandarkar Road now resembles a central business centre that packs in boutiques, hotels, car showrooms, shops and branches of almost a dozen major banks. Overhung by trees, it is one of Pune’s high-end localities.

Gallery Art2Day has been on this road for more than six years and, until the lockdown, attracted an upper middle-class crowd from the neighbourhood besides visitors from other areas. “What prompted me to set up a gallery here is its central location. Pune has grown in all directions but Bhandarkar Road has a nostalgic connection to Deccan. Visitors to Art2Day might have a coffee at Goodluck or drop into Rupali, Vaishali or Wadeshwar on FC Road to connect with friends. We are also in the close vicinity of FTII and the Film Archives. It is a part of the city that has a unique flavour of heritage, culture, literature and commerce,” says Sanjeev Pawar of Art2Day.

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