Grandfather of the pictures

My maternal grandfather, Sudhir Kumar Rakshit (walking left) with a business head from Demag Cranes AG (Germany), and a colleague, Dr. Bhattacharjee. Düsseldorf, Germany. 1937

Image and Narrative points contributed by Bidisha Basu, Goa, India

This photograph taken in 1937, is of my maternal grandfather, Sudhir Kumar Rakshit (walking left) on a business trip to Düsseldorf, Germany. Walking alongside him in the middle is a business head from Demag Cranes AG (Germany) – a heavy equipment manufacturing company, and to the right is his colleague, a Dr. Bhattacharjee from Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bengal Presidency (now West Bengal), India

I never actually met my grandfather; he had passed away in 1969 from a heart attack when my mother was only 12 years old. For me, his presence in my life was made known only through some framed photographs hanging on my maternal grandparents’ house walls – and I began to call him ‘Chhobir Dadu’ or ‘grandfather of the pictures/ photographs’, to differentiate him from my other living paternal grandfather. In personality, I am told he was mentally disciplined, physically strong, and exceptionally cool headed. He loved animals and even installed a small zoo in his Jamshedpur house, yet ironically, participated in the now unsavoury peer sport of the time, hunting for game, evidenced by the head of a Bison and a Leopard mounted on a wall of their home. 

This photograph was one of many on a similar wall, and I had seen it all my life growing up. Albeit for some odd reason, what should have been so obvious in this photograph, was a blind spot to me; and it took a school friend to gasp and point out that, “that is a German Swastika!” in the background. That is when I began to get curious about this story behind the photograph. This was the mid 1930s, a perilous era with Adolf Hitler in power, and so, what was my grandfather doing in Germany at such a precarious time?! Unfortunately, only the bare minimum was known about this trip to Germany in 1937, but we managed to put together a context, and short story about my grandfather with the help of my mother, and my uncle – her brother.

Sudhir Kumar Rakshit, my grandfather, was born on November 9, 1919 in Calcutta during the British Raj to an affluent business family. My maternal ancestors, the Rakshit family, were highly educated, and had close intellectual connections with Buddhist centres around Bodh Gaya (now in Bihar). While the family were essentially merchants, many of them also became teachers. My great grandfather N.N. Rakshit grew up to become an enterprising and renowned manufacturing industrialist with considerable influence, owning steel factories in Belur, Rupnarayanpur, Tata Nagar (later known as Jamshedpur). We discovered that he also championed the cause of tribal communities – for them to have an equal voice on the political stage. 

After schooling, and completion of his matriculation exams, my grandfather Sudhir was sent to the Tata Technical Institute (TTI) at TISCO (now known as Tata Steel) to be groomed into a knowledgeable businessman of his trade. At TTI, the chemistry department head, Guruprasad Chatterjee identified my grandfather as someone with good skill, and imaginative entrepreneurship (Chatterjee later received a doctorate from University of Pittsburgh and became a renowned metallurgist with several accolades from the Government of India); and it was Dr. Chatterjee who convinced my great-grandfather to send his son to the UK for further training. In 1936, a position was found at one of Europe’s biggest foundries, Stanton Ironworks, situated near Nottingham in the UK. 

It seems that during his training in the UK, my grandfather came up with an inspired idea to help reduce metal waste back in the subcontinent. He recommended installing a furnace that could extract steel from scrap and be moulded into bars – it would generate great value, and save the Indian manufacturing industry a lot of money. Thus post-haste my grandfather was sent to the headquarters of Demag Crane AG in Düsseldorf, Germany. Demag Cranes AG had among many projects, provided equipment for the construction of RMS Titanic, as well as heavy armoury used in World War I . My grandfather was to meet the directors, and finalise the purchase of a 10- tonne electric furnace to be installed at the NISCO (National Iron & Steel Corporation)-Belur scrapyard and return home.

This photograph was taken during that trip to Düsseldorf when the three men – my grandfather, the technical director of Demag Cranes AG, as well as a colleague from India, Dr. Bhattacharjee went on a walk through the city and were photographed in front of the Art Academy building. At the time the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labour Front, the national labour organisation of the Nazi Party) had converted the art academy into an exhibition space with a 6-month-long propaganda show called “Schaffendes Volk”(Creative People) – showcasing the domestic accomplishments of the Nazi party – in architecture, art, and science. What my grandfather’s experiences, conversations, thoughts and feelings may have been, whether during or after the trip, no one knows. 

After returning from England, my grandfather indeed became a valuable resource to the metal industry – he was in-charge of the rolling mill production in NISCO, he then managed to revive operations in an impossibly defunct factory in Rupnarayanpur. His expertise, and cool headedness made him the perfect person to allay big labour troubles, and improve production in the Jamshedpur factory – I am told he was a worthy force of the industry.

I may not have met my grandfather Sudhir, yet because of this photograph, today I know a little bit more about both his and my great grandfather’s lives and interesting experiences.

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