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DURGA NARAYAN BHAGAT (1910-2002)


Durga Bhagwat was a writer, Sanskritist and amateur archaeologist. She was born in Indore where her grandfather was Diwan (minister). Her mother was only seventeen when she was born, so she was brought up mostly by her grandmother. She was a tomboy as a child, demanding to be allowed to go to school (unprecedented for a girl child at the time) and fantasizing about joining a circus and performing feats of daring. In spite of her tomboyish nature, she also learned to knit and cook, both of which she enjoyed. When the time came to choose a subject of study for her graduation, she wanted to do history or economics, but her father chose Sanskrit for her. She fell in love with the language, teaching herself aspects of it that her professors were unwilling to impart. Sanskrit led her to Pali and she wanted to do her Ph.D. thesis on the tribal cultures of Madhya Pradesh, but in this she was thwarted by her guide, G.S. Ghurye, who forbade her to do any more research or writing. Dr Ambedkar interceded for her and urged Ghurye to let Durga complete her research, but to no avail. She observed many antiquities on the bed of the Narmada but was not allowed to publish any articles on them.

She then turned to writing in Marathi, and translated Banabhatta’s Kadambari from Sanskrit to that language. Her excursions into the forest continued, until some time in the 1940s she came in contact with an unidentified poisonous plant that made her desperately ill. Recovery took years, and this led her to spend more time reading and writing. She began to write critical studies of religion and published a study of the Mahabharata in Marathi. In 1976 she was elected President of the 51st Marathi Sahitya Sammelan, held in Karad. At this gathering she launched a scathing attack on the government’s policies, for which she was jailed during the Emergency of 1977. Released, she campaigned against the Congress in the 1977 general election, and remained opposed to it for the rest of her life. She therefore boycotted all government honours and refused all state awards.
 
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