Professor S R K Chopra
(8th October1931-3rd July 1994)
History of palaeoanthropology in India would be incomplete without acknowledging the contributions of Professor Shiv Raj Kumar Chopra, Founder Head of the Department of Anthropology at Panjab University, Chandigarh. Erudition, dedicated commitment to knowledge and valuing others above self are the few widely acknowledged attributes of this distinguished scholar. Admired for his charisma and ability to fight for the discipline and its contributions from India, he showed rare foresight. His fight to retain fossil find of intact mandible of Gigantopithecus from Shiwalik Hills as priced possession of Museum of Anthropology at Panjab University is legendary. He is rightfully recognised for putting paleoanthropological findings from the country on the world map.
SRK, as he was fondly addressed, was born on 8th of October 1931 in Ludhiana. He hailed from a family of educators, with a grandfather who was tutor to the Royal family of Bilaspur, and a father who was a Professor of English literature at the Delhi University. He earned his BSc Honours in Zoology in 1951 and his Masters in Anthropology in 1953 from Delhi University. In 1955, he completed his PhD from Zurich. While at Zurich, Switzerland [1953 - 55] he conducted research on the cranial suture closure in old world and new world monkeys. The findings, published as an inaugural dissertation in the proceedings of the Zoological Society of London [Volume 128, 1957], provided new information on suture closure in relation to physiological age in monkeys. This contribution gained significance as the data has been compared with corresponding ones for anthropoid apes and men. It finds prominent reference in textbooks and in standard works on primates.
At the University of Birmingham [1955- 58] under a grant from the Wenner-Gren foundation for anthropological research, New York, he designed the “Pelvimeter”, for the measurement of angles of torsion on the pelvis and other bones of primates including man, which had been impossible to achieve at the time with the conventional osteometry instruments. The design of the instrument and its applicability were published in 1958 in the Journal MAN, published by the Royal Anthropological Institute, London. His professional academic journey started in the year 1957. From 1957 to 1958, he served as an invited lecturer at the Duckworth Laboratory, University of Cambridge, U.K.
In 1959, he returned to India. He joined as a Reader in Anthropology in the Department of Zoology at Panjab University on 2nd April 1959. Within a year, he successfully separated from the Zoology department to establish an independent Department of Anthropology. In 1960 he married Krishna Taneja, his lifelong companion and a woman of great strength and resolve who stood by him through thick and thin. Same year, he became one of the youngest Founder Heads of an integrated Department of Anthropology in independent India. His academic and administrative genius started flourishing at the young age of 30. By this time, he was recognised as one of the leading paleoanthropologists in the World. He served as Chair of the department till 1981, a tenure of more than twenty years through which he positioned this young department as a pioneer in research in various domains of biological and social-cultural anthropology. Under his expert guidance, the department emerged as a centre of excellence for paleoanthropological studies.
From 1967 onwards, he, along with his team, investigated various hominoid and other fossils from the Sivalik region. To his credit, stands the discovery of a new fossil Gibbonoid tooth from the Sivalik Hills. His work, including the discovery of fossils like Gigantopithecus Bilaspurensis, Pliopithecus Krishnaii (in the Miocene beds) and Sivasimia attracted widespread attention. This was followed by several collaborative projects funded by different national and international institutions. Some of the findings from various collaborative projects were presented at the second international Congress of Primatology held in Atlanta, Georgia, USA in 1968 and were subsequently published in Recent Advances in Primatology.
Funds from the Kiel University in collaboration with the German Research Council (Deutche Forschung-Gemein Schaft) assisted him in his project on the biological surveys of select Himalayan populations. Between 1964 and 1968, the Punjab government and the CSIR continued to fund the project which was extended to Lahaul and Spiti regions in Himachal Pradesh. The Indian National Science Academy (INSA) further funded the research in this area from 1972 to 1974. In 1974, he presented some details of dryopithecine material from the Shivalik’s at the 5th International Congress of Primatology held at Nagoya, Japan. This was later published in Contemporary Primatology (1975). He contended that these remains refute the belief propounded by Simon and Pilbeam (1972) that the fossil ape species in the Haritalygar area in India are not diversified. The work of Professor SRK Chopra on human adaptability in varying climatic zones was conducted in association with the Cambridge Himalayan High Altitude Research Expedition in 1979, and the research was supported by the Medical Research Council and the Royal Society, UK. Its report was published in the international compendium, Cambridge University Press.
In 1980 he was invited by the President of the 8th Congress of International Primatological Society, Professor A.B Chiarelli of Florence University to share his findings from the “Shivalik Fossils Remains” with other experts and participants of the congress. His work on evolution of Early Man is well acclaimed, documented and cited. The Shivalik region may now be considered as an area where the earliest primates may have evolved. Professor Chopra's intensive and incisive research and experience extended over three decades. More than 100 research papers published in various national and international journals and cited in several significant textbooks on physical anthropology speak volumes about the excellence and intensity of his research.
In 1974, Professor Chopra conceived of a unique ‘Museum of Man’ within the precincts of the Department of Anthropology at Punjab University. The project was aesthetically executed with the help of celebrated artisans from Kolkata and was inaugurated by the then Chief Minister of Punjab, Giani Zail Singh. The life-sized models of fossil apes, primates and homo sapiens trace the evolution of humankind and are configured from the reconstruction of fossil material collected by him and his team in the course of various field expeditions. Some of these fossils from the Shivalik region date back to 14 million years ago. The museum also exhibits various ethnographic materials collected from different regions of India. It has been posthumously named the SRK Chopra Museum of Man in his honour. It is to his vision that the Department of Anthropology, Panjab University, holds the distinction of being a UGC funded Centre for Advanced Studies in Anthropology since 2011.
Professor Chopra made cardinal contributions not only to his primary interest in strengthening palaeoanthropology but also to the holistic approach and integrated character of the discipline. Research articles published in Nature and Human Biology symbolize that spirit. He identified and brought talent from different parts of the country to teach in this new department and encouraged them to take up challenging tasks and projects. He supervised 19 PhDs and was an examiner at both international and national universities with a fluency in both English and German languages. Students trained in the department were hired with ease by various national and international universities as also in allied institutions like anthropological and archaeological Survey of India because of the training they received under his supervision. The Department of Anthropology, Panjab University was one of the first departments in the country to introduce a diploma in Forensic Science/ anthropology under his visionary leadership. Ethnographic explorations in remote areas of Himachal Pradesh, Kinnaur and Lahaul Spiti was also initiated under his guidance.
He went on several international assignments to various Universities across the world. Few of the most prestigious teaching assignments were at the universities across the United Kingdom, West Germany and Japan. From 1965 to 1967, he was a Visiting Professor in the Institute of Anthropology at the University of Kiel in West Germany. Continuing to take his wealth of academic experience abroad, in 1979 he was invited to the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University in Inuyama, Japan, as a Visiting Professor. Among his many Awards, reference must be made of the Wenner-Gren Foundation Award for Excellence twice from 1955 to 1956, and then again in 1966 to 67. He was fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland as also fellow of the Zoological Society of London and Member, Permanent Council, International Association of Human Biologists along with several reputed national organizations. He also Chaired the session on Paleo-Biology and Evolution for the 7th Congress of International Primatological Society in 1979.
He received a silver plaque from the Ethnographic and Folk Culture Society, Lucknow in 1976 and also delivered the Majumdar Memorial Lecture there. From 1980-81, he served as the UGC national Lecturer. Some of the other prestigious lectures that he delivered in his career include the 1984 M.R. Sahni Memorial lecture to the Paleontological Society of India and the 1985-86 Dr. Panchanan Memorial Lectureship, Asiatic Society, Kolkata. He also served as the Editor of Everyday Science and as Member of the Advisory Committee of Anthropological Survey of India, and the Indira Gandhi National Museum of Man, Ministry of Culture. Additionally, he held the esteemed position of the President of the Indian Association of Physical Anthropology from 1976 to 1978. In 1989, he was bestowed the Excellence Award by the Shiromani Nehru Centenary Committee for enhancing India’s prestige and contribution towards National Development.
His academic commitments and frequent travels within and outside India impacted his health severely. His resilience, however, knew no bounds. In the year 1988, he had to undergo kidney transplant and received a kidney from his wife of twenty-eight years, the ever-resolute Krishna Chopra. He recovered and went back to the hectic life of an active academician and academic administrator. In 1988, he spent a year as a Visiting Professor at the United Medical and Dental School at the University of London. His administrative acumen was distinctively visible, when he held the office of the Pro Vice Chancellor of Panjabi University, Patiala from 1983-1986 and then as Vice-Chancellor of Kurukshetra University, Haryana from 1986 to 1989. On his return to his parent University, he was given the prestigious position of Dean of University Instructions, Panjab University till he retired from formal academic career on 31st October 1991.
In 1989, eminent geologist Professor Ashok Sahni and paleoanthropologist Dr. Rajan Gaur published S.R.K Chopra festschrift volume titled Perspectives in Human Evolution to honour his immense contributions. In recognition of his research contributions in promoting scientific explorations in the field of fossil primate discoveries, he was nominated as a member of the Explorers Club of the USA. He was the first Indian University don to receive the distinction in recognition of his astronomical scientific career, most notably his fossil primate discoveries. He also featured in the Indo-American Who's Who. His academic attainments are legendary and his meteoric rise in the world of paleo-anthropology is exceptional. He is recognised as one of India’s original intrepid explorers who conquered hostile terrain to dig up significant finds that pieced together major anthropological indications of our past.
SRK made not only an exceptional contribution to the growth of the discipline of anthropology but also made generous financial contributions to provide motivation to the students of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes to excel in the discipline. In the year 1962, his family contributed towards setting up of the Rai Bahadur Wali Ram Taneja Medal in the memory of his father-in-law which was to be given to the top-ranking student of B.Sc. final year. In the year 2005, the Syndicate of the Panjab University, Chandigarh (vide its meeting on 28th February 2005) has formalized the institution of the SRK Chopra Memorial Scholarship to be awarded to the topper in BSc (Hons. School) in Anthropology.
Chopra, S.R.K. (1978). New fossil evidence on the evolution of Hominoidea in the Sivaliks and its bearing on the problem of the evolution of early man in India. Journal of Human Evolution, 7, 3-9.
Chopra, S.R.K., & Kaul, S. (1979). A new species of Pliopithecusfrom the Indian Sivaliks. Journal of Human Evolution, 8,475-477.
Chopra, S.R.K., Kaul, S., & Pathak, R.K. (1982). Morphometric affinities in innominate bones of old-world primates including man. Journal of Human Evolution, 11, 105-108.
Chopra, S.R.K., Kaul, S., &Vasishat, R.N. (1979). Miocene tree shrews from the Indian Sivaliks. Nature,281, 213-214.
Chopra, S.R.K., &Vasishat, R.N. (1979). Sivalik fossil tree shrew from Haritalyangar, India. Nature,281, 214-215.
Chopra, S.R.K., &Vasishat, R.N. (1980). A new mio-plioceneIndraloris(primate) material with comments on the taxonomic status of Sivanasua (carnivore) from the Sivaliks of the Indian subcontinent. Journal of Human Evolution, 9, 129-132.
Gaur, R., & Chopra, S.R.K. (1983). Palaeoecology of the middle mioceneSivalik sediments of a part of Jammu and Kashmir state (India). Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 43, 313-327.
Simons, E.L., & Chopra, S.R.K. (1969). Gigantopithecus (Pongidae, Hominoidea) a new species from North India. Postilla, 138, 1-18.
Vasishat, R.N., Gaur, R., & Chopra, S.R.K. (1978). Geology, fauna and palaeoenvironments of lower Sivalik deposits around Ramnagar, India. Nature, 275, 736-737.
Vasishat, R.N., Gaur, R., & Chopra, S.R.K. (1978). Community structure of middle Sivalik vertebrates from Haritalyangar (H.P.), India. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 23, 131-140.
Contributed by Ms. Shalini Vahi (Daughter of Prof. S.R.K. Chopra and a Practising social and Cultural anthropologist)
Edited by Prof. Shalina Mehta, Former Professor and Chairperson Department of Anthropology, Panjab University, Chandigarh and Dr. Rajni Lamba, Anthropologist and CEO, The Rural Environmental Enterprises Development Society (THE REEDS), INDIA
Acknowledgment: Dr. Maninder Kaur, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Panjab University, Chandigarh for institutional support.