When Gautam Sengupta joined Kolkata's St Paul's College to study English literature, little did he think that he would ultimately veer towards his first love – history. 'History was something I was always interested in. After studying literature for some time, I soon realised that it is not really my strength,' muses Sengupta, sitting in his Janpath office. And thus began a really long journey that continues till this day.
On January 2010, Gautam Sengupta took over as Director General, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and since then has been working to help archaeology reach out to people. In its 150th year, ASI has taken up a flurry of activities both in India and abroad to involve more people in its activities. And Delhi, says Sengupta, is a prominent area of concern with more than 100 ASI protected monuments.
'We have majorly collaborated with the Aga Khan trust to work on Humayun's Tomb,' he says. This apart, Red Fort and Qutab Minar belong to a special category because they are World Heritage sites. There are museums inside the monuments which need looking after and the light and sound shows in various museums along with India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC). 'We have changed the communication strategy and the historical notice board has also undergone a sea change in terms of look and content. 'We are doing special programmes with children and collaborating with NGOs who work with children. This is being done across the country and not just in Delhi,' says Sengupta.
And in the 150th year, the strategy is to 'relate more intensely with younger people'. What about involving adults and making them take more interest in their own history? 'By and large, adults are preoccupied with their own lives. We should target younger people, especially schoolchildren. They are the future custodians of our past and heritage,' he says.
For example, ASI did a programme with the NGO Space to motivate youngsters on skywatching. So a programme was organised at Jantar Mantar in Delhi for the same. 'Students got to study the traditional instruments and later engaged in skywatching,' says Sengupta. Similarly, another such event was organised in association with Itihaas. 'We designed a special programme for children and gave them books. They also drew monuments and interacted with our own people,' he adds. There were also various events with differently-abled children and also with children from neighbouring states of Delhi.
So between so much work, does Sengupta get time to relax? 'I have not really been on a vacation for the last two and a half years. Even when I went to Kashmir last year with my family, it almost turned into a work visit because so many people came to me with their complaints,' he rues.
And what about off days? Sengupta says there are no off days per se and he even comes to office on Saturdays and Sundays sometimes. 'ASI job is literally 24x7,' he adds.
Having spent so much time amidst history, Sengupta has some personal favourites too, especially in Delhi. He loves Humayun's Tomb for that matter. 'It prefigures the Taj Mahal. I like it for the grandeur and the simplicity and the ambience,' he says. Another favourite is Feroz Shah Kotla Fort. 'I don't look for rationality all the time (while choosing between monuments), says Sengupta.
He is also an avid reader and says reading is his favourite pastime. Sengupta says he reads all kinds of stuff and is especially fond of Bengali classics. And while he has travelled abroad quite a bit, southeast Asia remains Sengupta's dream destination.
Interestingly, the ASI has also taken up three major projects on southeast Asia. There is the Ta Prohm temple at Angkor in Cambodia, the Ananda Temple at Bagan in Myanmar and Wat Phou, a ruined Khmer temple in Laos. The ASI will also be actively involved in training young archaeologists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
In a career that started in 1977 (he joined ASI right after completing an MA in Ancient Indian History and Culture from University of Calcutta), Sengupta has worked at places like Visva Bharati in Santiniketan in West Bengal, the Northeast Hill University in Shillong and taught archaeology and museumology and done a PhD On early sculptures of Eastern India.
Sengupta recalls one of his most memorable moments when he was teaching in Shillong when a simple question from a student left him thinking. 'I went there with the arrogance of an average middle class Bengali and was asked to offer a course on the Gupta period. As an average Indian, we are used to thinking [the Guptas] are great. However one of my Naga students got up and asked, where were [the Nagas] then? We were not even a part of India,' he says. 'I tried to point out that all local history merges into global. But that question haunted me for years. Even half a century after Independence, have we managed to relate to the Northeast?' he asks.
And now as the Director General of ASI, is he taking corrective measures to add history of the Northeast? Sengupta says the ASI has taken up a number of projects there. There are collaborations with ONGC to develop tourist facilities in the heritage sites of Ahom era in upper Assam. ONGC has chalked out a Rs 3.96 crore plan for the same. Also, for the first time Mizoram (the megalithic sites) will figure in the list of Nationally Protected Monuments. Arunachal Pradesh is also on the radar.
'The Northeast requires a strategy that will involve local universities and scholars,' says Sengupta.