Professor Madhusudan Amilal Dhaky is a most eloquent, well-spoken man radiating kindness and wisdom from a small apartment in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.
Eighty seven years old, fluent in five languages, revered by academics and ascetics alike, he has headed and conducted several research efforts throughout his life. He was trained in geology and chemistry, and brings his scientific acumen to several other subjects.
Dhaky ji was the Director of Research at the Centre for Art and Archaeology at the American institute of Indian Studies in Gurgaon for twenty years starting from 1976, and continued as Director Emeritus, Research for nine more years till 2005. He has won numerous awards, distinctions, and medals of the highest order from several bodies. The long list is topped by the Padma Bhushan awarded to him by the Indian government in 2010.
Considered the global leading expert in Indian temple architecture, he is well-versed in subjects spanning art, architecture, theology, linguistics, and history. In particular, he has written on a lot of Jain art, architecture, and scriptures, and he has established the historicity of and elucidated the meanings of several Jain artefacts. He is perhaps one of the finest mentors for our quest.
The first time we meet him in person, in October 2013, we sit riveted for over four hours as he draws us into an insightful and deeply engaging conversation. His voice, slightly feeble from age, holds us in awe. A profound man, he peppers his otherwise discursive speech with unexpected humour. His eyes sparkle every time we break into smiles and laughter. A connoisseur of delight, he is aware of his tastes. “I am a rasik,” he quips happily, with a wide smile.
Since our first meeting, we speak to Dhaky ji several times, both in person, and over phone. A practising Jain, he lives a restrained life. During one of our visits, between our conversations and his frugal routine, he gets ready for work. He continues his practise as a scholar out of his office; every person we spoke to through the course of our travels lavished him with praise, and it is easy to understand why this is.
He was keen to know about us and our lives, pitching in with small bits about the histories of our languages and our lineages. When we asked about his birthplace, he responds “Porbandar. Mahatma Gandhi’s house and our house were about two hundred and fifty or three hundred feet apart along the line of sight. The houses are visible from each other.”
Dhaky ji bears no illusions about the nature of religion or about the approach to any subject, in general. “There is a psychogenetic reality, and there is a historical reality,” he emphasized. This is the Jain ideal of samyak darshan in practice; samyak darshan is the quality of having the right approach to testing information.
He explains languages and dialects, exuding a sense of contentment at the great plurality of our country. At a point, he adds “Humari Hindi Banarasi hai.” (“My Hindi is the dialect spoken in Benares.”)
Speaking to us about performing arts and music, he hums a number of tunes to elucidate the fine nuances of Carnatic and Hindustani classical music. He is trained in both schools, and he learnt the disciplines at different times in his life, for seven years each. He touches upon other kinds of music, including baul geeti and the music of Rahul Dev Burman. The conversation extends into dance, mudras which are symbolic gestures and kala which is performance art in general.
We go back and forth on many subjects within the scope of Jainism; Dhaky ji explains and elaborates on these with great precision. To explain the nature of divinity, Dhaky ji draws anecdotes and examples from several religious traditions and concludes that “if you recognize the shape, you can see the shape anywhere.”
Enthused to know about our project, he gave us some condensed advice based on his years of deep experiences spanning several geographies, both physical and abstract: “Go out into the world; do good. You will do great things, but you have to be brave. Don’t worry.”
Text: Dhruva Ghosh
Photographs: Gayatri Ganju