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Prof. Ratan Lal Brahmachary

Prof. Ratan Lal Brahmachary

Photo: Shubhobroto Ghosh

A brilliant man, pioneering scientist, and a beloved teacher, Prof. Ratan Lal Brahmachary was all that and much more. Dr. Silanjan Bhattacharyya writes about this great mind, who took him under his aegis and put him on the path of Nature and excellence.

I was fortunate enough to know him in my time of despair. Despite warnings from my father and other well wishers, I chose to study Zoology honours for graduation. Before the first year had gone by, I realised that the course was more about dead, deformed animals in formalin than living ones. I was bored, thanks to the primitive syllabus and anoetic tradition of teaching. I stopped going to college and was lost. It was the end of 1970s.

This is when I met Professor R. L. Brahmachary (better known as RLB among his students), who gave me access to the greater academic universe of biology to which he belonged. I was fortunate enough to find him along with his brother Gopal, living in a rented flat in a house owned by the family of Suvrendu Sengupta, a zoology batchmate, where members of the Dum Dum Science Club met every weekend. Their activities included small surveys and projects of social relevance involving school and college kids. RLB was their friend, philosopher and guide. Recognising my passion for the subject and my need for an anchor, Suvrendu and his mother, a remarkable lady, invited me to stay with them.

RLB believed that even high school students can and should taste the thrill of scientific research. So novices like us were allowed to enter his lab in the embryology unit of the Indian Statistical Institute to see the single-celled zygote of a water snail turning into a ball of morula and then to a blastula under a microscope… or to learn how chromatography separates constituent molecules from a solution. He opened up for us his enviable collection of books on wildlife and natural history. Here, I heard and read for the first time, Tinbergen, Lorenz, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Joy and George Adamson and many more. Using his personal eight millimetre projector, he shared rare films collected from German Universities on classic experiments in embryonic developments and films on his own work on snails and more. These visuals to the accompaniment of poetic-narratives etched the wonders of biological science in my mind.

He would share every moment of excitement and joy, agony and anxiety he experienced in his journey, away from ‘civilisation’, to the heartland of wild Africa. Here, in the Kora Lion Camp in Northern Kenya, following the success of Born Free (about Elsa, the lioness, and her cubs), George Adamson raised orphaned lion cubs for release into the wild. His wife Joy, the more popular of the Adamsons, had been killed by poachers a year ago. For weeks, after RLB returned, we sat transfixed listening to all the happenings and activities in the camp. With boisterous enthusiasm, he narrated them, showed us photographs, notes, drawings, and most importantly, the films he made using his eight millimetre. We saw how the orphaned lion cubs were raised, how the full-grown lions would return to greet George on the banks of the Tana river. Once he had us in splits, as he described how romantic it was to do ‘it’ every morning squatting on a commode fashioned from elephant jawbones under the open blue sky of the African wilderness!

Every penny spent for that three-month long trip had to be squeezed out from his own savings, as well as for his 13 other such trips to different parts of Africa, the Amazon and Borneo! All this was made possible because he lived frugally and kept his requirements down to a bare minimum, often surviving only on boiled potatoes and eggs, buying cheap clothes, relying only on public transport and spending, if at all, only on books! He was equally parsimonious about the most precious of all resources – time! I have never seen anyone in my life who considered even indulging in a 10 minute tea-break as a waste of good time. Most others gave up trying to keep pace with him.

In the early 80s, he was focussed on tiger pheromone research. For this, he needed access to zoo-bred tigers and tiger cubs for samples. I have witnessed the struggle he underwent during this time. The Alipore Zoo authority considered his research worthless, a fellow scientist from Calcutta University with close proximity to Bijnan Bhavan in Delhi threw spanners in his works and got his permissions to study zoo-bred tigers cancelled. After much trouble, he managed to get two leopard cubs from a zoo in Madhya Pradesh. The cubs were kept in a nature park in the outskirts of Kolkata where they were hand-raised. I was part of his team that took care of the cubs and collected urine samples from time to time, but soon the owner of the park claimed the cubs as his own property to deny RLB from further research. But RLB persevered. When the late Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi learnt of his struggles, she famously responded, “So you want a tiger cub?” and she facilitated his research on tigers, both in captivity and in the wild. Nandankanan Zoo also allowed him to complete his pioneering work on tiger pheromones with the help of his students.

Prof. Brahmachary with legendary British wildlife conservationist George Adamson (right) at the Kora Lion Camp in Kenya. Photo: Ratan Lal Brahmachary

RLB was basically a physical scientist who did pioneering work in molecular embryology and pheromone chemistry. Yet, observing animal behaviour in the wild was the primary stimulus that enabled him to explore the mysteries of nature. Till his last breath, he loved wild nature and breathed science. They don’t make people like him anymore.

Dr. Silanjan Bhattacharyya is Professor and Head of the Department of Zoology at West Bengal State University.

A DISTINGUISHED CAREER

Born in Dhaka in Bangladesh in 1932, Ratan Lal Brahmachary was enamoured with wildlife and adventure in the jungles of Africa since childhood. He was an astrophysicist by training and a student of eminent Indian theoretical physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose. His studies were undertaken at Kolkata, Dhaka and Hamburg. He switched streams from astrophysics to pheromones studies at the Indian Statistical Institute under its founder Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobish. He studied several wildlife species, notably big cats, and undertook research trips to his beloved Africa 14 times. He joined the Indian Statistical Institute in 1957 and conducted extensive research in Marine Biological Laboratories in Italy, France and other institutes in Europe. He retired as Professor and Head of the Department of Embryology in 1992.

An ardent admirer of entomologist Gopal Chandra Bhattacharya, Brahmachary studied ethology in the Amazon basin in South America and Borneo, Indonesia. An inveterate traveller, he forged celebrated friendships with conservationists and animal welfare professionals from across the world, including Dian Fossey who did pioneering work on gorillas and George Adamson of Born Free fame.

He was among the first scientists to observe the scent-marking behaviour of tigers to mark their territories and communicate via biochemical messengers. Analysing the chemical nature of tiger urine (marking fluid), Professor Brahmachary, along with Jyotirmoy Dutta of the Bose Institute, Kolkata, and Moushumi Poddar Sarkar of the Botany Department of the Calcutta University made the first comprehensive approach towards understanding the nature of big cat pheromones.

Professor Brahmachary’s research uncovered that the molecule 2 acetyl-1-pyrroline (2AP) present in tiger urine (marking fluid) was the very same molecule that imparts the beautiful aroma to fragrant varieties of rice like basmati.

Professor Brahmachary wrote several books including Africar Jongoley Barobar (Twelve Visits to the African Jungle) and Bagh, Shingha, Haathi (Tiger, Lion and Elephant), receiving the coveted state prize of Bengal, the Rabindra Puraskar, in 1992, for his contributions to science popularisation in Bangla. His academic book Animal Behaviour is among the few books on the subject written by an Indian scholar. His other books include Abar Africar Jongoley, Shingher Deshey and Bagh O Tar Gyati Goshthi. His life’s work with big cats was summarised for a popular audience in the book, My Tryst With Big Cats (Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 4, April 2015).

A file picture of the founders of Zoo Check, now the Born Free Foundation. Photo Courtesy: Ratan Lal Brahmachary

A founder patron of Zoo Check, now the Born Free Foundation, Professor Brahmachary always emphasised that wildlife belongs in the wild and stood for compassionate treatment of animals in research. “Biology is as fascinating as probing the mysteries of the physical universe. The inner universe of an organism or of an ecosystem is as challenging as the outer universe of the expanding cosmos,” he once said in an interview. A life-long bachelor, Brahmachary had pledged his body to medical research. After his students and colleagues had paid their last respects at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, his body was handed over to the Radha Govinda Kar Hospital authorities in Kolkata.

A Man to Know

The first time I met Professor Ratan Lal Brahmachary on October 25, 2014, at his residence in Motijheel in Dum Dum, Kolkata. Knowing he was a recluse, I was apprehensive but delighted when he agreed to meet me for an interview. My fears were unfounded. He patiently explained his lifetime’s work with tigers and other big cats. It was enchanting to hear him elucidate succinctly and beautifully, the varied nuances of his scientific research carried out across India and Africa to determine the nature of pheromones in tigers and other big cats that act as chemical messengers.

His reminiscing about his childhood inspired me because he was a man who had the courage and conviction to follow his dreams. His intense love for the African continent was contagious and it was heart-warming to note that a person from the crowded surroundings of Kolkata in India could traverse across international borders and conduct research on wildlife in Kenya together with stalwarts such as George Adamson and Gareth Patterson.

I am glad that I was able to digitise some of his invaluable correspondence and photographs with some of these wildlife researchers, including a letter written to him by Dian Fossey from Ruhengeri in Rwanda in 1984 in response to his research on the food habits of the mountain gorilla.

I was told that Professor Ratan Lal Brahmachary was averse to being photographed. So, it was a pleasant surprise that he agreed to be photographed with my wife, Payel, and I when we visited him on December 31, 2016. That occasion was the last time we met, although we kept in touch regularly over the phone. A man of exactitude, Professor would tell me in his mellifluous voice, “Tumi koyek seconder jonyo opekkha koro” (Please wait for a few seconds) during an interruption whilst speaking on the phone.

I will wait to speak to you again, Sir.

Shubhobroto Ghosh is author of Indian Zoo Inquiry and Project Manager of Wildlife, World Animal Protection, India.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 4, April 2018. 

 
 
 

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