Sacral Notes

BY DR KAUSTAV BHATTACHARYYA

GURU OF INDIAN ‘GREEN REVOLUTION’ IN THE SHRINE OF BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES

Professor MS Swaminathan is synonymous with ‘Green Revolution’ in turn solving the food production problem thus making India self-reliant in feeding its population. Recently Professor Swaminathan’s archives were released in a ceremonial function at the NCBS, National Center for Biological Sciences as part of its Science Archives.  NCBS was one of the first pioneering institutions in Biological Sciences research spearheaded by Professor Obaid Siddiqui located in the University of Agricultural Sciences campus. Hence this event was being conferred with a certain ‘sacral’ character or sacredness given that it was in the shrine of Biological Sciences where we would be sharing the archives of a ‘Guru’ of the Agricultural Sciences. The event was generously patronized by the family foundation of MS Swaminathan who donated the archives to NCBS and one of his daughters, Professor Madhura Swaminathan graced the occasion. The NCBS campus is located in a verdant landscape with plenty of greenery and is rather pleasant setting with the auditorium being spacious, well-illuminated, well-designed with rows of comfortable chairs with excellent audio-visuals and acoustic facilities. The event was moderated by the ever-smiling and affable Venkat Srinivasan, whom I find eternally optimistic in his vibes, who is the moving spirit behind the NCBS Archives project and formally heads the initiative. 

The Archives at the NCBS are part of an impressive 2000sqft of space which primarily is a storage facility conforming to global standards for all kinds of physical documentation with high-quality protection and monitoring of temperature, light, humidity, air quality, water, fire, pests, and noise. Currently there are housed 150,000 processed objects across 25 collections are in various forms, ranging from paper-based manuscripts to negatives to photographs, books, fine art, audio recordings, scientific equipment, letters, and field and lab notes.

I must state that one of the most impressive elements about NCBS events is the very precise and diligent timing especially in a society where in such ‘elite’ settings events tend to prolong longer than scheduled, here they have a digital clock or timer on the dais.  The program launch was inaugurated by Professor Madhura Swaminathan who is the Chairperson of the Professor MS Swaminathan Foundation and an academic, Oxford-educated economist, spoke about the significance of the sharing of the documentary resources with the NCBS Archives and thanked their team for the commendable work and all the individuals and institutions who supported her work in celebrating the work and achievements of her father, Professor MS Swaminathan. I found it touching that Madhura spoke about cycling through the fields of the campus of the Agricultural Research institute where her father worked while being oblivious that history was being made in the field of Agriculture. I must mention that Madhura epitomized the grace and modesty of the Swaminathan family in hosting the event and welcomed me with utmost cordiality into the auditorium. It would be worthy to mention that the Swaminathan family donated their ancestral land for setting up of a Community Biodiversity Center as part of the Foundation. In her exposition Madhura very graciously conveyed the sharing spirit where the legend Professor Swaminathan was a national treasure for the wider community and his work and thoughts belong much beyond the confines of the family.  Excellent ideal I would say!! I must make a mention here that Professor MS Swaminathan received his PhD degree from the Cambridge University in the field of plant breeding. During my tenure as a researcher in the UK I had encountered few academics who knew Professor Swaminathan and held him in high status for his intellectual brilliance and integrity.

The next speaker was Dr. Singh who is the Director of ICAR, Indian Council for Agricultural Research spoke about the immense contribution of Professor Swaminathan in India’s food production and agricultural sciences. Dr. Singh mentioned that if there is one Divine visage which can be placed for those who are needy and poor receiving food and not going hungry that would be of Professor Swaminathan. Professor K Vijayaraghavan, the former Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government of India held about his impressions about the Science Colossus Professor MS Swaminathan and mentioned that Professor Swaminathan was exceptional in that he held the bureaucratic position of being the Agricultural Secretary which was extraordinary since it implied that his contribution was not limited to Scientific Research but even policy formulation. The institute Director, Professor Satyajit Major the ever cordial and congenial Director of NCBS welcomed us for the program and expounded on the importance of the Swaminathan papers for the Archives project. Apropos the ceremonial speeches Venkat Srinivasan explained at length the philosophy of the Archives where he mentioned that no Archive can ever be complete but ever expanding since there will be new information sources and documentation emerging from rather surprising sources. He deployed modern technology along with a live Zoom meeting with his colleagues and team members who were located in diverse locations across the globe and went through the portal and demonstrated the usage when looking for documents.  Venkat explained painstakingly the processes and techniques through which we can refer to the Archives and source interesting documents. The rooster of speakers would be incomplete sans the impressive Mr. N Ram who is one of the Patrons of this project of Swaminathan Papers.   TNQ Technologies provided generous support and assistance to the Swaminathan Papers Archive project where Mr. N Ram and his wife Ms. Mariam Ram are Directors of the Board.  I have had the good fortune of hearing and chatting with Mr. N Ram and he is blessed with loads of charm, sparkling wit and sharp intelligence.  Mr. Ram spoke with some depth and referred to his own experience as a researcher going through the State Archives and his brilliant biography of RK Narayan authored jointly with Ms. Susan Ram to underline the importance of Archives in our society and academia.  Mr. N Ram proposed a solution to the conundrum of incompleteness of the Archives by suggesting that they need to be comprehensive but not complete.  It was very interesting that during the discussion it was aired that Professor Swaminathan was himself an excellent archivist preserving the documentation with care and diligently.  Mr. N Ram recollected how meticulously Professor Swaminathan would record meeting minutes and briefings for the media subsequent to meetings and interactions.  The climax of the discussion and launch was the very impassioned and emotional speech or exposition made by Dr. RD Iyer who was one of the doctoral students of Professor Swaminathan. Dr. Iyer recounted his early interactions of his doctoral thesis draft being corrected by Professor Swaminathan in his residential office and their conversations and anecdotes.

The story of the Professor Swaminathan Archives at NCBS deserves special mention of the very dedicated, hardworking team which toiled away amidst the pandemic to ensure success of the project which were steered by Sangeeta D, Ravi KB, Sanjna GY, and Soumya S, and supported by Swathi S, Malavika A and Niranjana K. One needs to extend a special credit to Dr. Parasuraman of the MSSRF(MS Swaminathan Research Foundation) for the tedious efforts made to preserve carefully the material for posterity.

Finally the launch and the discussion was wrapped up by a delicious spread of refreshments and variety of tea and coffee along with very engrossing interactions where courtesies and ideas were exchanged.

Kaustav Bhattacharyya is a PhD from Cass Business School, London, entrepreneur and an Anglosphere enthusiast.