Dr. Leslie C. Coleman, a Canadian with many firsts to his name in agricultural research in India, found his sojourn in Karnataka the most challenging and rewarding, his daughter Ann Widdowson tells Bhumika K.
A young lady sitting on a chair in a hat and gown holds a bunch of flowers in hand. Next to her is a handsome, suited gentleman, also holding a bouquet in his lap, with his friend seated next to him. The row behind them has four Indian men standing — a perfect black-and-white formal group portrait. Just above and below the photo, they have signed their names.
“I suspect this photo was taken in 1934, when my father was retiring and leaving India. And that is my mother,” says Ann Widdowson. The gentleman in the centre of the picture is Ann’s father, Dr. Leslie C. Coleman.
Leslie Coleman has a strong bond with Karnataka and his contribution to the State and its history of agriculture has deep roots. Coleman started researching plant protection over 100 years ago (1908) in Karnataka! Coleman was appointed the first mycologist and entomologist in the Princely State of Mysore. “My father, a Canadian, was directly hired by the Maharaja of Mysore after he completed his PhD in Germany. Dr. Lehmann, a German-Canadian entomologist based in Bangalore, and who was also from the Gotteingen University, brought my father down here when the Maharaja asked for another person to help him in the department,” says Ann, tracing the beginnings of her father’s association with India.
And so it was that Coleman came here in 1908, and set up the Mycology and Entomology divisions in the Agriculture Department. In 1925, he set up a Coffee Experimental Station to conduct research in Balehonnur, now Chikmagalur district. It’s now known as the Central Coffee Research Institute, and Coleman is considered the founder of coffee research in India. Coleman was the Director of Agriculture in the princely state of Mysore for 22 years during which he implemented several initiatives to improve farming methods in the State.
Ann Widdowson, Coleman’s daughter by his second wife, has been deeply interested in her father’s work and has been visiting Bangalore often since 1955 to keep in touch with the family of Dr. K.S. Srinivasan, the director of agriculture (1946) .
“Between 1953 and 54, my father returned to India and toured Bangalore, Chikmagalur, and Mandya,” recalls Ann. “My father died in 1954, when I was 20. As a child and teenager, I remember him talking about coffee, farming methods here…but what fascinated me most at that age were stories of snakes! He did shoot a panther while he was in India and I still have the skin with me,” recollects Ann, who is now based in Victoria, British Columbia.
From her recollections of talking to her father, Ann says “I was born after my father retired, due to ill health. But I think he missed being here and found the job here tremendously challenging. He went on to teach at the University of Toronto later, but none of the jobs he held in Canada were as exciting as what he did here.” Dr. Coleman’s father was a farmer too, says Ann.
She points out, of course, that her interest in her father’s work now is more serious than when she was a teen. She has constantly made an effort to seek out information and document all that she has, keeping in touch with her father’s past. “I have an emotional attachment to this place, thanks especially to Dr Srinivasan’s family,” she acknowledges. Ann also made it a point to visit Balehonnur in 2000, for the 75 anniversary of the setting up of the station. In fact she was in Bangalore last week, trying to figure out what would be done this year to mark the centenary of the setting up of the department of agriculture.
She even has pictures that date back to 1912. “We have many pictures from Bangalore when my father was here, of my family, and social gatherings… unfortunately they are all back home,” she says. Her older brother remembers living in a house next to the Bangalore Palace and playing in the palace, she says! In May last year, Ann visited a niece in Atlanta, who has all the family papers and found in them handwritten pages of her father’s India experiences, and pieces on the founding of the Department of Agriculture and the politics of it all! She shows me yellowing sheets titled “The South Indian Village”, and another on “Cattle in India”. “My father had apparently begun to put down on paper his India experiences, but unfortunately didn’t get far.”
Coleman was also instrumental in establishing the sugar factory at Mandya. Ann had been told that there was a bust of her father in front of the sugar factory.
And so in January 2007, Ann and her husband Tom went to Mandya looking for her father’s statue. It was there, indeed! An attempt to photograph it took a very different turn as finally the management held an elaborate reception to fete her in honour of Dr. Coleman. Ann has also visited the grave of Dr. Coleman’s first wife in the Biligiri Rangana Betta.
Each time in the recent past she has come to India, she has brought down photographs of her father and his associates in India. “The Indian Institute of Science has an archives division. Though my father didn’t have any direct connection with the Institute, he knew its directors. The Institute has now digitised most of the photographs I shared because they are interested in historical material,” she says.
“All the original photographs of my father should eventually come back to India because that’s where they belong,” she says, putting her case to rest.