Kolkata: Indologist and Sanskrit scholar Sukumari Bhattacharji died on Saturday. She was 92. She had pledged her body to the cause of medical research.


Sukumaridi, as she was fondly called by her admirers, belonged to a rare breed of scholars who had equal grasp of English and Sanskrit literature. She began her career as a lecturer in English at Lady Brabourne College, joined Jadavpur University’s Comparative Literature Department on the request of Buddhadeb Basu, and later shifted to the Sanskrit Department.


Born to Christian parents on July 12, 1921, Sukumari used to joke that she shared her birthday with Julius Caesar. But her Christian lineage came in the way when she wanted to do her graduation in Sanskrit. Calcutta University didn’t allow her. Sukumari did her masters in English in 1944 and took up teaching at Lady Brabourne College, a year later. She had to do her masters in Sanskrit as a private candidate, 10 years later.


Her command over Sanskrit helped her delve deep into Sanskrit texts — the Vedas, and Bhagavad Gita — and unravel the societal patterns in ancient India and evolution of culture and religion. “Sukumaridi wouldn’t accept anything as they came. She wouldn’t accept anything without reason. It inspired me as a student. It is this quality that also made her controversial among orthodox Sanskrit scholars,” said Bijoya Goswami.


Her Marxist outlook prompted her for a dispassionate and objective study of religious texts. Tracing the evolution of devis in her popular book — Leged of Devis, Bhattacharji analyzed how Lakshmi — the goddess of harvest in the pre-Aryan agrarian society turned into alakshmi in the Aryan society. Some such original thoughts have found their way in her books — Bede Samsay O Nastikko, Bede Khuda O Khadya, Balmikir Ram. She authored 34 books such as The Gita — Its Why and How, Human & Society in Ancient India, Fatalism in Ancient India.


But her erudition never overshadowed her amiable nature, her love for students and colleagues, recollects Bijoya Goswami. “We had set up a student welfare fund in our department. Sukumaridi took the initiative. It was meant to support students who struggled to come to the university. The fund remains till date. Many students gave back the money later, some couldn’t,” Goswami said.


After her retirement in 1986, Sukumari Bhattacharji pursued her research at her Naktala residence till she shifted to an apartment in the neighborhood much later. She was suffering from respiratory problems and was admitted to SSKM Hospital on Friday. City intelligentsia — Nabanita Dev Sen, Amiya Bagchi, Yashodhara Bagchi, Ratnabali Chatterjee — CPM leader Shyamal Chakrabarty, social activist Kumar Rana were present when her body was handed over to the RG Kar Medical College on Saturday afternoon.


[Sukumari’s daughter is the historian, Tanika Sarkar.]


(Times of India,  May 25, 2014; Supplied by Dolores Chew)

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