The untutored but versatile all-round scholar who guided many
With his passing on Thursday, Virchand Dharamsey leaves behind a great legacy of rigorous scholarship for our young students. His scholastic accomplishments were not backed by formal training, and yet leading scholars of the world looked up to him for reliable information, fresh interpretations and guidance.
When we first met in Mumbai half a century ago, he used to introduce himself as well as write his name as ‘V K Dharamsey’. Eventually, he would simply go by ‘Virchand’ – synonymous with rigorous scholarship in diverse subjects, majorly archaeology and Indian silent cinema. His scholastic accomplishments were not backed by formal training, and yet leading scholars of the world looked up to him for reliable information, fresh interpretations and guidance.
I met him on Tuesday in the ICU of a hospital in Nerul, where he lived with his family. At 88, his faculties were sharp. His handshake was warm although his grip weak. My first thought was how would these hands be able to hold his new book in Gujarati titled, ‘Avnav: Collected research articles of Virchand Dharamsey’, being published by the Asiatic Society of Mumbai and awaiting release.
With his passing on Thursday, Virchand Dharamsey leaves behind a great legacy of rigorous scholarship for our young students.
Dharamsey’s book (in Gujarati and English) on India’s first archaeologist Bhagwanlal Indraji (1839-1888) is seminal. It prompted the eminent Sri Lankan archaeologist and scholar Senake Bandaranayake to write in the preface: “It is an encyclopaedic survey of the work of Bhagwanlal Indraji and a landmark contribution to the history of the development of archaeology as a modern discipline.”
In the 1980s, Dharamsey was part of the team of archaeologists from Pennsylvania University, who were working on the Harappan sites at Rojdi, near Gondal, Gujarat. Let me reiterate – he wasn’t a trained archaeologist himself, but his insights were so remarkably deep and his reading of the subject so vast that his analytical mind became indispensable to the American team at work here. Apart from Rojdi, he also took part in the archaeological surveys at sites such as Oriyo and Babarkot, located in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat.
Dharamsey applied this discipline to film studies as well. His chosen subject was Indian silent cinema and in that he established himself as a cut above the rest. He assiduously worked on the silent cinema filmographies previously prepared by B V Dharap and Feroze Rangoonwala, updating them with new information and corrections.
Dharamsey’s updated ‘Filmography: Indian Silent Cinema 1912-1934’ was part of the revised and expanded edition of the book ‘Light of Asia:Indian Silent Cinema 1912-1934,’ edited by author Suresh Chabria in 2013. He was a restless researcher. In the absence of the primary source – only 30 of over 1300 silent films are with the National Film Archives of India -- he continued his research through secondary and tertiary sources with sharp scrutiny.
Way back in 1982, when the Mumbai-based film society Screen Unit celebrated the golden jubilee of Gujarati cinema (1932-1982) by organising film screenings and seminars with a critical approach, it also published a small commemorative book titled ‘Gujarati Chalchitro: 1982 na aare’. It was co-edited with Manilal Gala, founder of Screen Unit, who joined Ketan Mehta’s production unit on ‘Bhavani Bhavai.’ I had the privilege of working with Dharamsey and learning from him on the project. We had, for the first time, included a chapter on silent cinema.
He was a relentless walker and we walked the streets of Mumbai, locating studios and cinema houses, meeting still-surviving Gujarati film producers, directors and scenario writers. Later, we also worked together on a coffee table book, largely illustrated with rare stills, texts and captions. Titled ‘Indian Cinema: A Visual Voyage’ (Publications Division, 1998), it is considered by some scholars as the Bible of Indian cinema. We spent many hours over months in Hussainibhai Bookletwala’s single dusty room in Mumbai’s Grant Road, where Dharamsey would apply his analytical mind to identify the stills – a first in the history of Indian cinema. Bookletwala was one of an important collector of Hindi cinema memorabilia.
Yet another book we edited together in 1980 was a unique foolscap-sized cyclostyled tome on Satyajit Ray and his early films. It was presented as part of the screening programme of Ray’s early films, including the Apu Trilogy, ‘Teen Kanya’ and ‘Rabindranath Tagore’ organised by the Mumbai-based film society Screen Unit and Amateur Cine Society, then headed respectively by me and Dharamsey. Incidentally, Ray was in Mumbai for re-recording of his telefilm ‘Sadgati.’
We went to meet him with our mimeographed tome containing some fascinating information, and the first time English translation of the well-known modernist Gujarati writer Suresh Joshi’s essay on ‘Pather Panchali’ written in 1956. Besides exhaustive bibliography including books and articles on Ray, we had also painstakingly included the list of periodicals that had included articles on and interviews with Ray. When he saw our reference to ‘Pather Panchali’ in Saul Bellow’s novel ‘Herzog’, he was very pleased with our hard work.
Ray already knew Dharamsey. He sat down and opened page after page of our first copy of the book, looked at us and smiled in admiration. That was 43 years ago, but seems like yesterday.
Dharamsey was my guru. He is gone, but only in body. He will live on in our hearts and spirit.
(Amrit Gangar is a Mumbai-based film scholar, curator, writer and historian.)