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A jurassic park in Tagore abode

Sankar Chatterjee

New Delhi, Aug. 3: Visva-Bharati has invited an Indian- origin American fossil expert to help establish a museum that will portray prehistoric life on the subcontinent over the past 300 million years, a dream he has nurtured for decades.

Sankar Chatterjee, professor of palaeontology at Texas Tech University, is expected to come to India early next year in connection with a Fulbright-Nehru academic excellence award and start work on the Santiniketan museum.

The museum will display casts of the fossils of several species of dinosaurs, dinosaur eggs and prehistoric mammals from the Himalayan foothills, and portray the arrival of modern humans into the subcontinent from Africa at least 65,000 years ago.

“India has left a marvellous record of past life,” Chatterjee told The Telegraph. “Scientific journals are loaded with descriptions of fossils from India in technical language. This museum will take them to the public in the form of prehistoric tales.”

Before he left for the US in early 1976, Chatterjee had, working with colleagues at the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta, discovered several specimens of dinosaur fossils. Many of these are now housed at the ISI Museum, Calcutta.

Visva-Bharati hopes to fund its museum using a sum of Rs 150 crore it was promised three years ago, during the 150-year celebrations of Rabindranath Tagore, by then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee.

Although the university has sent a detailed project report to the Union human resources development ministry, it has not received the funds yet.

“We’re ready to start the project using only a part of the allocation,” Visva-Bharati vice-chancellor Sushanta Dattagupta said.

“This is intended to be a unique concept in the Indian university system: a research centre as well as a public education centre,” he said.

Chatterjee, an authority on the history of dinosaurs and early birds, was honoured with two trophies — Sera Bangali and Serar Sera — by ABP Ananda in 2010 for his contribution to geoscience.

Chatterjee said the displays at the museum would cover the evolution of dinosaurs at the time India separated from Africa and Antarctica and moved as an island continent to collide with Asia and form the Himalayas.

“This may be the only place in India where visitors could see all major Indian dinosaurs at a single place,” Chatterjee said.

“We’re hoping to excite and inspire children from Bengal and India to marvel at nature through our past geological history.”

He added: “Through the tales of dinosaurs, children could learn about the origin and extinction of species, the antiquity of time, the changing environment, volcanism, meteorite impacts and plate tectonics and how continental collisions created the Himalayas.”

Dattagupta said the museum would also seek to increase awareness about environment and climate issues and instil a sense of history in students. “Tagore had great admiration and concern about the splendour of nature.”

While the central funds alone won’t be enough to complete the museum, Chatterjee is hoping that leading Indian industrialists and philanthropists with an interest in public education might contribute to the project.

“Many natural history museums in the US were funded by great industrialists and philanthropists. Now the time is right for India,” he said.

Chatterjee is among a group of scientists who believe that events in India played a key role in the extinction of the dinosaurs. He hopes to spend part of his January-to-June India stay next year under the Fulbright-Nehru programme to seek evidence supporting this hypothesis.

Most geologists believe the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteorite from space that crashed into Mexico about 65 million years ago.

However, Chatterjee has proposed that a larger meteorite, almost at the same time, crashed on the western shelf of India to produce the largest crater on Earth, which he has named the Shiva crater. The crater is today largely submerged, with its central peak near Bombay High, the largest offshore oilfield in India.

At the same time, volcanoes kept erupting in India’s Deccan region for nearly two million years. Chatterjee has proposed that the two events — the twin meteorite impacts and the Deccan volcanism — led to catastrophic environmental changes that caused the demise of the dinosaurs.

Chatterjee hopes to join a team of scientists from the National Geophysical Research Institute, Hyderabad, and the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, to study material dug up from deep boreholes that are being drilled in the Koyna region of Maharashtra.

“These boreholes are part of an effort to understand earthquake processes better,” said Shailesh Nayak, secretary of India’s ministry of earth sciences.

Eight boreholes, 1.5km deep, have already been drilled and studies from these boreholes will be used to pinpoint the suitable location for another hole that will be 4.5km deep, Nayak said.

By sheer coincidence, Chatterjee said, this continental drilling project is near the rim of the Shiva crater. He is hoping to find, in material retrieved from these deep boreholes, chemical signatures to corroborate the Shiva crater hypothesis.