Monday, February 17, 2020

Remembrance: Dr V.G. Phansalkar, Palaeontologist

In the February 2020 issue of the Journal of Geological Society of India, Anand Kale has written a very nice tribute to his mentor Dr. V.G. Phansalkar who passed away earlier in December 2019.  It captures very well both the professional aspects of Dr. Phansalkar's career and his endearing personal nature. Dr. Phansalkar was a paleontologist and a stratigrapher who taught with distinction at Banaras Hindu University, University of Pune (now Savitribai Phule Pune University) and Sholapur University ( renamed Punyashlok Ahilyadevi Holkar Solapur University) from 1962 until his retirement in 1999.

Photo credit: Anand Kale. 

I was fortunate to interact with him extensively when I was studying for my masters degree at the University of Pune . He was an original thinker with a penchant for asking that awkward question which you had not thought of or which you were hoping no one will ask. At our department seminars,we students always waited for that moment when Dr. Phansalkar raised his hand to inquire about some aspect of the presentation that he thought could be explored in a new direction. A spirited debate always followed! There was never any malice in his actions, just genuine curiosity and a wish to share his perspective.

During my time as a student in Pune, stratigraphy and sedimentary geology were subjects that were placed in two separate bins and taught as such. Stratigraphy deals with the way strata (sedimentary layers) are laid down and the relationships of bundles of strata across time and between those deposited in different locales at the same time. It is a hugely important subject, providing many of the organizing principles for piecing together the geologic history of a region. Unfortunately, Dr. Phansalkar did not get to teach us this subject. The lecturer who was assigned to teach it did a hack job of it with an insane emphasis on memorizing rock unit names from different parts of the country. Enlightenment came during our paleontology coursework. By interleaving palaeontology and stratigraphy in his lectures Dr. Phansalkar guided us towards understanding stratal layering patterns, sedimentary rock properties, and fossil occurrences as interrelated outcomes of the way sedimentary basins get filled up. I now realize it was an early jargon free introduction to sequence stratigraphy!

Years after my graduation from Pune, on a holiday from my PhD work in the U.S., I paid a visit to my old geology department.  In a conversation with Dr. Phansalkar I happened to mention that I was teaching sedimentary petrology as part of my assistantship duties. He looked at me for just a moment, leaned towards a drawer, and placed a box of limestone thin sections in my hand. Use these to teach he said. They were part of his precious collection of samples from the Cretaceous age sedimentary rocks exposed in the area around Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu. My lab benefited enormously from his thoughtful gift.

His home in Pune is quite close to where I live. In recent years we bumped into each other quite often during his evening walk in the park and on the nearby hill. Long geological stories peppered with humorous anecdotes became a welcome addition to my evening routine. I will miss that now that he is gone.

People often ask me why I took up science outreach. I have no hesitation in saying that it was in no small measure due to educators like Dr. Phansalkar who taught me that knowledge sharing is an immensely fulfilling endeavor to follow.