Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Steadfast Record-keeper

Among War tales from Madras, few appear as fascinating as that of Bantwal Surendranath Baliga, the Curator of the Madras Record Office. Born in a nondescript moffusil town, a taluk place located in in the South Canara district - that prized litle appendage which projected almost vertically nothwards to form a junction with Bombay making up Madras' only land border with the western presidency on the 11th of November 1908, Baliga had his early education in South Canara and Madras, before obtaining a masters' degree from the University of London and a doctorate from the same university.

Baliga was appointed Probationary Assistant Curator in August 1934 with P. Macqueen,ICS, as his boss and after brief training in London, replaced him in 1935 to become the first Indian curator of the Record Office. Baliga's years were by far the best for Record Office. When the Madras government decided to shift the Record Office to Chittoor fearing Japanese bombardment during the Second World War, Baliga was tasked with the responsibility of moving each and every record - be it a book, a document, or file, to its temporary home at Chittoor and eventually back to Madras at the end of the war. Baliga peformed his duties beyond satisfaction and duly conveyed to the government that his office was in a state of "combat readiness". The government promptly made him a "Rao Bahadur" for his work.

Come independence in 1947 and the new-born nation  resolved to update its district gazetteers. Baliga waas again chosen to head the project and the extent of his success can be gleamed from the fact that any Google Search for a Madras district gazetteer invariably returns results with the principal editor being "B. S. Baliga".

Baliga's premature death in 1958 at the age of 49 when he had more than a decade of service left signalled  the end of the district gazetteers as well leaving behind a void that appeared almost impossible to fill.  Though gazetters will continue to be printed, the archives department lacked the staff with the expertise or competence to revise and edit them. As a result the gazetteers are caught in a time warp, the ones printed during their heyday in the late 1800s-early 1900s being still the only reliable source of information. Some were revised and reprinted after decades in the wilderness, but these recent ones are no match for the ones written by dedicated officials in the last two centuries.