Dr. Robin (Uncle) Banerjee – August 12, 1908–August 5, 2003
Courtesy: Mubina Akhtar.
Born in Murshidabad, West Bengal, Robin Banerjee graduated from Liverpool University and after a stint with the British Navy, returned to India, where he worked as the Chief Medical Officer with the Chabua Tea Estate, Assam. That was when Kaziranga entered his life. One visit on elephant back to this magical forest convinced him that life with and for nature was his destiny. In short order, he found himself posted to the Dhansiri Medical Association in Bokakghat in 1954, bang next to Kaziranga, and that was when his journey really began.
Ironically, a tiny little 8 mm. cine-camera had a huge role to play in his life too. An Englishman who knew of Banerjee’s love for nature presented him with the camera, which triggered trip after trip to the park. The 8 mm. was soon replaced by a professional 16 mm. Polard Bolex. Six years, many interruptions and scores of filming sessions later, a film, simply titled ‘Kaziranga’, emerged. No one had quite seen anything like it. Dr. Wofgang Wulrich, Director of the Zoological Garden, Dresden, and Dr. Bernard Zeimick, Professor, Veterinary Science with the Zoological Society, Frankfurt, requested permission to broadcast the film in 1961 over German TV, from Berlin… and a legend was born.
He became recognised as an ace wildlife filmmaker around the world, but his first love was the forest and its wildlife. And children. He loved interacting with children, who gave him the permanent nomenclature: ‘Robin Uncle’. His desire to see the children of Assam do well in life saw him start the Vivekananda School in Golaghat on nine bighas of land that he donated. A contemporary of the famous Patrick Donald Stracey, IFS, the last British Chief Conservator of Forests, Assam, Banerjee worked closely with him to strategise and implement wildlife conservation actions for a number of wildernesses apart from Kaziranga, which was probably his first inspiration.
He also founded the Kaziranga Wildlife Society, possibly the oldest wildlife NGO in Assam, which continues to be active long after his demise. The objectives of the society are in consonance with the simplest of Robin Uncle’s life ambitions: to protect, preserve and propagate wild species and their habitats and to win the support of the public for this purpose. In due course, his passion and involvement with wildlife led him to give up medicine altogether. Expectedly, honour followed honour. He was awarded a Padmashree by President V.V. Giri way back in 1971, long before wildlife had become a ‘fashionable’ involvement. He won as many as 14 international awards for films such as the Dragons of Komodo, the Underwater World of Sharks, and White Wings in Slow Motion, a classic that people can still view if they visit his bungalow-home, which has been converted into ‘Robin Uncle’s Natural History Museum’ in Golaghat. The museum, which has become a magnet for visitors to Kaziranga, is stocked with artifacts, including children’s toys that he collected over the course of his wanderings, plus his paintings and wildlife photographs. In one corner is a Naga head hunter’s basket. After roaming the globe as an ambassador of all things wild, he came home to roost, basking in the comfort of a life well lived.
Photograph by Robin Banerjee Museum.
He won several Honorary Doctorates for a lifetime of work in the arena of natural history from the Assam Agricultural University, Jorhat (1991), and from the Dibrugarh University (1994), but his greatest joy was surely the love and adulation of the children of Assam for their Robin Uncle, possibly one of Assam’s most loved humans whose life was spent enjoying and defending the wild.
His respect for nature extended to every last butterfly, and he would admonish kids who caught them, suggesting instead that wildlife be admired from afar. Who knows if the values he espoused will ever return? His precious Kaziranga is being rocked by a spate of rhino deaths. Some prominent individuals belonging to tribal communities that once revered the rhino and other wild animals are now at daggers drawn with wildlife protection agencies for one reason or another. Quoting that old, tired mantra of development, government agencies are now ripping up forests that people like Stracy, E. P. Gee and Robin Banerjee devoted their lives to protect.
Fortunately the seeds that he sowed in the minds of children are alive and well. Young Assam, even today, is up in arms demanding better protection for their natural heritage. Hopefully, their success in reversing the callous destruction of natural Assam, which their elders seem bent on inflicting, will be the best of all imaginable memorials to Robin Uncle, a true son of Assam.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXII No. 5, October 2012