“They cannot make history, who forget history.” B.R. Ambedkar’s words resonate well with the work of Vijay Surwade. A 63-year-old retired bank manager, he has dedicated almost his entire life to collecting old photographs, letters, books and memorabilia of, for, and by Ambedkar. A humorous, witty and well-read man, I catch up with him one afternoon at his cosy Kalyan residence. The first thing I notice when I walk into his flat is a large Jai Bhim Chakra inscribed just beside his nameplate. The sun filters through his huge grilled window, casting light upon his ceiling-to-floor bookshelf that is full of thick books on the icon that has consumed his life and the accolades that he has won. Against the backdrop of a framed photograph of Buddha, Ambedkar’s dentures, his old gold-rimmed spectacle frames, a broken violin wire, his wife’s watch and a photograph of the couple lie side-by-side, occupying a small glass shelf on the wall. This is no ordinary collection, I realise, even as my thoughts are politely interrupted by a grinning Mr. Surwade who has just walked out of his room. The stout old, spectacled man resembles his idol in a lot of ways. He lets me peruse his collection a little before I sit down to ask him my questions. And then, Mr. Surwade takes me through a very interesting journey into the past – not just his own, but that of Ambedkar as well.
As a child growing up in Usawad village in Jalgaon district, Mr Surwade would often hear stories about Ambedkar from his grandfather. “He would tell me about all the movements that he led, and all the struggle that he waged for our caste’s upliftment and I found myself growing very intrigued,” Surwade reminisces. Inspired by Ambedkar’s biography penned by Dhananjay Keer, he started out by cutting and pasting Ambedkar’s speeches and photos from magazines and newsletters into a small notebook when he was still in high school. “I did not have any final aim with the project, I still don’t. But it is a continuous education,” Surwade admits.
Higher studies brought Surwade to the city of dreams in 1970 where he found his desires actualised at the college’s library. “Siddhartha college’s library was humongous and I would spend hours there reading about Ambedkar,” he says excitedly. “I would sit with a dictionary as I struggled with English. Ambedkar was such a fine writer. My language improved over time, so did my knowledge, but the more I read, the more curious I got. I felt that the best way to understand Ambedkar was through his photographs because pictures don’t lie. Being a photographer and an artist by hobby, I then started my quest to get his original photographs. That took me around the country,” states Surwade, proudly narrating an incident where he spent an entire weekend at an old studio looking for negatives.
The first floor of an old shabby building at Parel Naka housed the iconic Veer Studio that Ambedkar would often frequent. According to Surwade, the owner of the Studio was the main photographer of the Ambedkar family and Baba Saheb wouldn’t go anywhere else to get his picture taken. Surwade met the late photographer’s nephew and became great friends with him. One Saturday while going about his daily quest for original photographs in the Studio, he saw an old locked shaft and convinced the nephew to let him look into it. “ I was positive I would find something in it. The nephew friend knew about my passion and agreed. I spent an entire day there with a friend at the studio. We would take turns going up there with a handkerchief around our mouth skimming through the negatives in the dusty shaft until I stumbled upon my most treasured photograph,” Surwade says, his eyes twinkling. He then rummages through his collection and hands me an old 12*15 family photograph of Ambedkar. “When I found this negative, I felt like I had indeed stumbled upon treasure. I gave it to develop the very same day. I cannot describe the happiness that I felt,” he says, evidently overwhelmed.
Surwade has many interesting tales from his crusade, and he relives them through his animated narrations. Thinking back to a time in Nagpur, he says, “While walking on the streets one day, I passed by a barber’s shop that had a very rare photograph of Ambedkar’s dead wife Ramabai being supported by Ambedkar and his son and other people. It was quite weird because Ramabai had died in Mumbai and the photo must have been taken there. To find it in some random barber shop in Nagpur was quite strange for those times. Nevertheless, I wanted that picture but I knew I couldn’t just go ask for it. So my friends and I started visiting the place for random shaves and haircuts and also tried getting close to the owners by making conversations. After a few days when I thought we were on friendlier terms, I asked him if I could borrow that image to create a copy. The answer was a resounding no. I decided to play it smart and looked for the name of the studio in the image. It read ‘Surya Studios’. I then went in there and got a copy from them,” he tells me with a mischievous glint in his eyes.
Surwade’s quest for Ambedkar’s collectibles has taken him to each and every state of the country except Kerala. He has spent most of his weekends and audit trips going around various cities looking for anything and everything related to the icon. From being the first man to find his employment certificate in the Government Archives of Baroda, to finding letters of political and historical importance in Delhi and Ahmedabad to even getting a copy of his master’s degree from Columbia University in the States, Surwade claims to have the biggest collection of Ambedkar’s collectibles in the world.
Surwade’s knowledge and information about Ambedkar have resulted in him authoring more than 17 books which have been released by various politicians, including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “I would come home after office and stay up late, just researching and writing my books. My weekends would be spent in the same too. My wife would often complain, but she gradually understood my passion.” His coffee table book titled Baba Saheb Ambedkar has been released in multiple languages. He claims it to be one of the most prolific and accurate books in Ambedkarite literature. Surwade has also extensively researched on the life of Ambedkar’s second wife, Savitri Bai, and written a book on her. Surwade and his family shared close relations with her and fondly called her Mai Saheb – they have even hosted her many times at their house when she came to Mumbai.
Ambedkar has contributed tremendously to the development of the country. Right from rallying for women’s rights, Dalit rights and fighting for the upliftment of the social, economic and political scenario in the country, the father of the constitution’s life needs to be documented and studied meticulously and that is what Surwade strives to do. “I feel that my entire collection of photos, letters, books, papers, belongings etc is part of a very important period in the history. It is a first-hand proof of all the events that have taken place in the country, a part that has shaped the nation in a lot of ways. I think this collection is a beacon for future generations. I plan to turn my house into a research library where people can come refer to any book or material about Ambedkar or make it into a trust so that this collection can be well preserved even after I die,” Surwade explains.
There is a lot that today’s politicians can learn from Baba Saheb and his clear vision for the country but Vijay Surwade refuses to comment on this. “Today, everyone is sold, everyone is corrupt. I know a lot of politicians personally, but I stay away from politics,” he says defiantly. “So would you call yourself an Ambedkarite?” I ask him, posing my final question. He flinches and then shakes his head, smiling awkwardly. “I would not want to label myself. I am a great admirer of Ambedkar. But I am not a blind follower of him. Being a human being, he has made certain mistakes too. I have learned greatly from him and his life is a continuous lesson but I would not associate myself with any political ideology. I believe in my work and in humanity. That’s about it,” he states simply.
It has almost been 50 years since a young Vijay Surwade first cut out Ambedkar’s picture from a magazine. He has definitely come a long way since and has even been recognized and acknowledged for his collection, his extensive research and his books. But his journey isn’t over yet, and though he has never met the man himself, he continues his search for Ambedkar. He now wishes to visit the London School Of Economics where Ambedkar studied. “Ambedkar is my icon and what I do is my treasure, it is my passion, it is my mission and I will continue doing it till I can,” he says.
I spend the rest of the evening looking in awe at Surwade’s collection. His letters, pictures, books – everything is carefully preserved and protected in plastic sheets and Surwade patiently explains to me the significance of everything in great detail. As I bid him adieu, feeling vastly more educated, my eyes suddenly fall upon another Ambedkar quote scribbled behind a book that sums up my day and Surwade’s life perfectly. In a bright yellow font, it reads, “ Cultivation of the mind should be the ultimate aim of human existence.”
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