Dharmalingam Venugopal, who is on a mission to put the beleaguered Nilgiris on the world map.
Dharmalingam Venugopal is an angry man, and an anguished one too. A Badaga, he has grown up with stories woven around his beloved hills. Pointing to where a herd of gaur grazes on a Kotagiri hillside, he talks of the wisdom of his forefathers, who spoke of the emme thada, aane thada and aan thada (the gaur path, the elephant path and the one for human beings).
One would not trespass into the other's territory; there was none of the man-animal conflict. “If only we had the intelligence of our forbearers, and the sense to leave well alone,” he laments.
Venugopal's anger is at the wilful devastation of the hills. He knew the land sharks in the Nilgiris would get their comeuppance. “I only wish it had not happened in so violent a manner. So many innocent people suffered,” he says.
He quotes a 1982 study by the Tamil Nadu Government and the Geological Survey of India. The report predicts dire consequences for the Nilgiris unless immediate measures are taken.
Astonishingly, the warnings seem to have gone completely unheeded. Twenty-seven years after the report, in the recent deluge in the Nilgiris there have been more than 1,000 landslides, which have left many dead and homeless. Loss to property has been immense. Venugopal says, simply: “I rest my case.”
The Save the Nilgiris Campaign that he launched in 1985 (it started as a one-man pamphleteering campaign, he laughs) has been instrumental in improving the social conditions and the environment of the Nilgiris. Stalwarts such as Sundarlal Bahuguna and former President R. Venkatraman, have actively supported the campaign.
Then, in 2006, Venugopal initiated the Nilgiris Documentation Centre (NDC) and Nilgiris History Museum, of which he is the founder and honorary director. “I have always believed no activism is meaningful without the backing of proper research.” Venugopal's ambition is to bring under one roof all Nilgiris-related material available in India and abroad so that researchers can work on them in the future. He hopes those who have lived here will contribute information and memorabilia related to the Nilgiris. He is also looking for help from the British Library India Office Collection, Mission 21 Protestant Mission Basel, and from anthropologists abroad. He has himself donated all records and other material pertaining to the Nilgiris that his family has collected over the decades.
Today, the NDC makes its home in the restored bungalow of John Sullivan (Coimbatore collector from 1815 to 1830), the man who made the English sit up and take note of the Nilgiris. Called Pethakal Bungalow, Sullivan built it in Kotagiri in May 1819 and lived there till May 1823, when the better known Stone House in Ooty came along.
Pethakal Bungalow or Sullivan Memorial as it is known, is framed between a cabbage patch and a few grazing cows in a small village called Kannerimukku. Venugopal says the idea was not to isolate the hill folk from this museum; rather, it was to make it an organic entity that hopefully would grow and enrich itself as the years went by. “It has always been the outsiders claiming to protect and preserve the tribes of the Nilgiris. We say it is time local people took the initiative,” he adds.
The museum boasts some splendid photographs of A.T.W. Penn, one of the earliest photographers to settle down in the Nilgiris. Works of Samuel Bourne, Wille Burke and M.S. Appa Rao and Philo Hruthayanath provide brilliant pictorial documentation. One finds rare books and documents (dating back to the 1820s) pertaining to the Nilgiris.
There are pictures of famous visitors including Kenneth Anderson, Salim Ali and George B. Schaller. NDC is also in the process of recording local balladeers. They have already recorded 500 songs.
Venugopal acknowledges the support of individuals and organisations that have worked tirelessly for the NDC. He makes special mention of Bhakther Solomon (CEO, Development Promotion Group that looks after the Memorial), the British Council, Chennai (for documentation) and local artist Gokul, who has rendered some fantastic paintings of personalities and places from faded photographs, and, of course, the many Nilgiri lovers.
He says, “These innumerable friends contribute to my dream of making the NDC a full-fledged history museum and documentation centre that will put the Nilgiris on the world map where it belongs”.
For details, visit www.sullivanmemorial.org, call 94443-65360 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org