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“ A Hundred More Years To Go”: A Tribute To Dr. Chhapgar

“ A Hundred More Years To Go”: A Tribute To Dr. Chhapgar

Vardhan Patankar pays tribute to his mentor Dr. Boman Framji Chhapgar, a man considered to be India’s first marine biologist.

A view of Cusrow Baug.
Photo: Dinaz Vandrewalla.

As I walk into Cusrow Baug, ripples of sound from a piano, a guitar and a clock’s chimes all float through the air over the parked vintage cars and bikes. Old couples stand in their balconies, staring into infinity in the quiet, cloudy afternoon. I am here to meet the man who encouraged me to study marine biology, Dr. Boman Framji Chhapgar.

In one of the many apartments of Cusrow Baug, I find him sitting in the dim light amidst piled-up books, newspaper cuttings and notes that he has gathered for sixty-odd years. Despite having lost much of his eyesight, the eighty-five-year-old Chhapgar, who has a formidable reputation as India’s first marine biologist, continues to write and remains an inspiration to so many naturalists and biologists.

As a teenager, Chhapgar divided his time between scouring libraries and exploring the forests and seashores in and around Bombay. After completing his schooling in 1944, he graduated with honours at the age of 17 from St. Xavier’s College in 1948, with Microbiology as his principal subject.

In 1951, he enrolled as the first student in the life sciences postgraduate course at the University of Bombay, and in 1954, was awarded the Shri Vicaji D.B. Taraporevala Senior Research scholarship.

Later, in 1957, he obtained a second Bachelor of Science in Zoology from the Indian Institute of Science, Bombay. The very next year, he was selected for the UNESCO Marine Biology Refresher Course, which gave him an opportunity to travel abroad. He participated in the International Indian Ocean Expedition (1961 - 65) with cruises on U.S.S. ANTON BRUUN and I.N.S. KISTNA, and on the first cruise of India's oceanographic ship O.R.V. SAGAR KANYA to Kenya in 1983. Chhapgar recollects, “This was the first few years after India got independence, so we had the independence to do whatever we wanted.” He registered for his PhD in 1972, and completed it in a span of four years, by 1976.

Chhapgar’s work is globally-recognized and valued. He was elected Life Fellow of the International Oceanographic Foundation for his contributions to the advancement and extension of knowledge in oceanography and the marine sciences”. Not just that, his portrait is included in the Gallery of Carcinologists in the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. In India, he served on the Board of Governors of the Maharashtra Nature Parks Association and on the Executive Committee of the Bombay Natural History Society. In 1994, he was awarded the Dharmakumarsinhji Trophy for ornamental fish keeping in an aquarium.

Chhapgar, along with his colleague Mr. Sane, also founded the Indian Fisheries Association, which was setup with the mandate to address grass root-level problems of fisheries and aquarium maintenance in India. Chhapgar feels that the circumstances of early independent India engendered camaraderie amongst researchers, which has faded away now. He says, “Passion was what drove our work in science. We earned little, and at times we did not earn anything at all, but we still continued working.”

Author of the classic Marine Life of India, Chhapgar once told me, “Books have always been my stimulant … they are like an injection.” In a career spanning over six decades, the biologist has written over 10 books, hundreds of scientific papers, described three species of crabs, two mantis shrimps (Stomatopods) and fishes under the pen-name “Beefsea”. The discovery of new species won him a place in Blackwelder's Directory of Zoological Taxonomists of the World (1961).

File photo of Dr. Chhapgar with fish catch.

His books, filled as they are with interesting facts and information, are masterpieces of contextualization. They are not only about fish or octopus or crabs or snails, but about their—and our—shared ecology.

It isn’t Chhapgar’s illustrious career, however, that sets him apart. It is his passion for marine life, practical accomplishment, intellectual depth, and of course, his sense of humor, which is as ironic as it is infectious. He possesses this unique quality of connecting with people from all walks of life, and has the ability to give sound advice on any subject, from religion to relationships. It is Chhapgar’s individuality that led him to literally take the plunge and explore marine organisms in their natural environment at a time when the science of identification was still based in the collection of dead specimens. Perhaps the first person to use SCUBA apparatus to study marine life in India, Chhapgar is a keen observer of nature, who has carried out studies on marine fish and observed the changes in their development both in their natural habitat and in the aquarium.

I know well that I am just one among many whom Chhapgar has inspired. M.R. Almeida, (Senior scientist and a renowned botanist) has even named a variety of Sidaacuta Burm, a plant he discovered in Lakshadweep after Chhapgar as S. acutavarchhapgarii. As I sit with Chhapgar in his balcony sipping hot tea, I realize why.

Though almost blind, he remains comfortable and content. His visual impairment and its associated adversities have not diminished his appetite for knowledge, and, in fact, have led him to gain a sense of acceptance of his successes and failures. Chhapgar was an avid reader and also a poet. It is perhaps out of habit that every few minutes he turns towards his bookshelf. As he began losing his sight, he not only memorized the sequence in which his books are stacked, but also the exact location of everything in his home.

Today, Chhapgar’s curiosity is still like that of an insistent child. He shows no signs of burnout and refuses help from relatives and friends. He continues to have long discussions with colleagues on advances in the field of marine biology and when alone, he listens to the radio. He continues to write from memory, cooks his own food, goes for walks and welcomes everyone who comes to his door. And he says he enjoys doing it all.

Dr. Chhapgar with his book, Understanding the Sea. Photo: Dinaz Vandrewalla.

Chhapgar’s appetite for life is humbling. For him, science isn’t a set of minor achievable goals, and nor can its practice be limited to just one discipline. I often remember the leathery skin of this face, the years of experience it shows, and what he said to me with a glint in his eye: “I follow one simple rule in life. Instead of living each day like there is no tomorrow, live like you have hundred more years to go. Wouldn’t you then follow your passion?”

Author: Vardhan Patankar.


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