Professor Shiba Prasad Chatterjee

By: Staff Reporter
Awarded Padma Bhusan by the Government of India in 1985 for his contribution to geography, Professor Chatterjee is known for his relentless toil for national development. His pioneering work raised the profile of Indian geography within the country and in the world. Talking to Justice Umesh Chandra Banerjee, former Chief Justice of Andhra High Court, his son-in-law - Dr Sumana Bandopadhyay, and Dr Sarfaraz Alam uncovers hitherto unknown facets of the exemplary achiever and lifelong learner.
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Justice Umesh Chandra Banerjee remembers his father-in-law Professor S P Chatterjee as a disciplinarian with deep devotion towards his work.  As the greatest guiding spirits of his life, he looked up to two personalities and in his words ‘treated them as God’ – one, his own father, the best criminal lawyer of his times, and the other, his father-in-law Professor Shiba Prasad Chatterjee. As a token of his respect for these great persons, he dedicated his retirement benefits to the establishment of two Research Centres of Hyderabad, the work for which he started while he was Chief Justice of Hyderabad High Court – befittingly named the S P Chatterjee Institute of Environment Sciences and the N C Banerjee Institute of Intellectual Property Law, respectively.

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As a young man, Justice Banerjee was influenced by Professor Chatterjee’s sincerity and reverence for work, his energy, and above all, his towering personality. The same man was also extremely simple and down to earth who never seemed to be perturbed by the complexities of life and took every person he met at face value. Professor Chatterjee insisted on family get-togethers every Sunday and spent the morning selecting the menu and collecting his son-in-law’s favourites from the market. On one such Sunday, Justice Banerjee reached the Professor’s home earlier than usual and found him sitting cross-legged on his cot, clad in a dhoti, writing with immense concentration, sweat running down his bare back – the fan over his head, still.  He stood there for a good while, but Professor Chatterjee neither looked up nor moved. Much later, on hearing voices from the next room he complained why he wasn’t told of their arrival. When Justice Banejee asked why the Professor didn’t turn the fan on, as it was a very hot day, he said that the fan would make him feel too restful and the mind doesn’t work well when one feels too relaxed! Very often, while he worked, wrote or taught, it seemed as if he was in a trance, in deep meditation.

Born in Kolkata in a well to do Bengali family, Professor Shiba Prasad Chatterjee had a brilliant academic and professional career. His contributions to Indian geography are immense and he was a true institution builder. Professor Chatterjee obtained masters degree in Geology in 1926 from Banaras Hindu University and subsequently, under the guidance of French Geographer, Emmanuel de Martonne (who himself was one of the founding fathers of geomorphology and one of Paul Vidal de la Blache’s main disciples) completed research on Le plateau de Meghalaya. In fact, the name Meghalaya was coined by Professor Chatterjee. This pioneering study earned him
D. Lit. from Université de Sorbonne, which was eventually published as a monograph in 1936 in Paris. He then obtained a Teachers’ Diploma from the University of London and was awarded Ph.D. in Education from the same University for his dissertation on the Comparative Study of the British and French Educational Systems.

Professor Chatterjee worked as the head of the Department of Geography and Geology at Rangoon University from 1928 to 1932, when he left for Europe for higher studies. On his return to India he joined Calcutta University, and introduced geography first in the Teachers’ Training Department in 1939 and then at honours level in 1941. He was the founder professor and head of the Department of Geography in Calcutta University, and after retirement appointed as emeritus professor, and he remained so until his death. He was also a visiting professor at University of Georgia (USA), University of Austin (USA), Moscow University (the then USSR), Université de Sorbonne and California State University during 1960s and 1970s.

As an educationist, Professor Chatterjee constantly strived to enrich his students so that they could be at par with geography teachings across the world. His students remember his devotion to the subject as well as his love for them. Justice Banerjee recalls a student having shared such an experience. Once before boarding a return flight from London, the Professor called to inform his students that they were to wait for him at the Calcutta University. The flight was a good two hours late, but his students waited. He hurried from the airport to the Department to share his experiences and material he had collected, and the discussions continued for well over three hours!  Another student, he recalled, had financial problems and was on the verge of leaving the University – Professor Chatterjee met the Vice Chancellor and arranged for a scholarship as he did not want to lose the talented young student. Such care and nurturing can only be found in a true teacher, one with a golden heart.

Professor Chatterjee has published over 150 scientific papers for national and international journals. Some of his pioneering contributions were Bengal in Maps (1949), National Atlas of India (1968), Planning Atlas of the Damodar Valley Region, Progress in Geography: A Decade of Science in India (1973). He also wrote a chapter on the Physiography of India in the Gazetteer of India and about the Himalayan ranges in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica.

A predominant share of the time he devoted to his work as a teacher was spent in conducting field work, which he believed was the way geography could be learnt best. While in the field, or even while he worked at home, he constantly created maps – mostly mental maps and sketches of the natural world. His penchant for maps to create a greater understanding of geography and history was expressed in his ‘Bengal in Maps’ on which, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru congratulated him and enthusiastically set in motion, the creation of the National Atlas of India, which Professor Chatterjee drafted and submitted to the Planning Commission in 1958. When ‘Bengal in Maps’ was nearing completion, partition took place. Immediately, he decided to recreate the maps and also mark the affected villages – though a complicated task, all changes were incorporated before publication.

The Calcutta Geographical Society, later renamed as the Geographical Society of India, was established by Professor Chatterjee in 1936 and the research journal of the society, Geographical Review of India, was started at his initiative. In 1956, Professor Chatterjee was appointed as the founder (honourary) director of the National Atlas Organisation (later renamed as National Atlas and Thematic Mapping Organisation). The first ever atlas of India in Hindi, Bharatiya Rashtriya Atlas, and National Atlas of India (in English) in eight volumes were compiled in this organisation under his editorship in 1957. For these works, he was awarded Murchison Grant by the Royal Geographical Society, London. Professor Chatterjee was appointed the President of International Geographical Union for the term 1964-68 and was chairman of the National Committee of holding IGU Congress in New Delhi in 1968.

About the geography as it is today, Justice Banerjee feels that if one can inculcate within oneself, the devotion, sincerity and love for the subject, which Professor Chatterjee lived by, then one may fulfill dreams of establishing learning in its true glory.

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