Robin Banerjee 1908 - 2003
World renowned naturalist, photographer, film-maker and Padmashree awardee Robin Banerjee passed away on August 6, 2003, six days before his 95th birthday. His passing away perhaps marks the end of the most colourful phase of Indian ornithology, characterised by the presence of greats such as Dr. Sálim Ali.
Born on August 12, 1908 at Berhampore in West Bengal, Dr. Banerjee completed his medical studies and subsequently specialised in gynaecology. He went on to earn qualifications as a Doctor of Tropical Disease and Psychiatry, and for some time studied at the Universities of Edinburgh and Liverpool in the United Kingdom. When the Second World War reared its ugly head, Dr. Banerjee enlisted as a doctor in the British Royal Navy. After the war, Robin Banerjee made Assam his home.
Interestingly, it was only by chance that Dr. Banerjee even came to Assam, to serve as a doctor at the Chabua Tea Estate in Upper Assam. However, this was enough for him to become completely infatuated with the state. He began to take an active interest in wildlife photography and film-making. His knowledge of the rhino earned him a place as an advisor on the rhino sub-group of the World Conservation Union’s Species Survival Commission. Throughout his life, Banerjee continued to retain a deep love and concern for the future of both Kaziranga and the rhinoceros. He was the founder-president of the Kaziranga Wildlife Society, the oldest conservation NGO in northeast India.
Banerjee made 32 complete films, including one on the Indian one-horned rhinoceros, which for the first time thrust the then unknown and obscure Kaziranga National Park into the global limelight in 1961. Over the years, Banerjee came to be identified with Kaziranga, as the park made a name for itself on the worldwide nature tourism circuit. Banerjee was himself so taken with Assam and its wildlife that he adopted the state as his foster home and settled down in Golaghat. In the course of his accomplished life, Banerjee received 14 international awards, including the Madame Pompadiu Award for the film White wings in slow motion. In 1977, he was awarded the Padmashree and then in 1991, the Assam Agricultural University at Jorhat conferred on him a Doctor of Science degree.
Banerjee’s well-known philanthropic qualities are borne out by his open-hearted donations of land to the Vivekanand School and the conversion of his residential bungalow into the ‘Uncle Robin’s Natural History Museum for Children’. He had also donated land to the Golaghat Doctors’ Association.
Dr. Robin Banerjee was an all too rare breed, and as we mourn his passing, it is also necessary to ask ourselves why society is not giving rise to others with similar courage, integrity and understanding.
First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXIII No. 5 October 2003