He is credited with creating the biggest digital archive of Odia language and literature. A digital compilation, running into a staggering 1.30 lakh pages, and containing rarest of rare, old Odia magazines, scientific journals, lexicons and newspapers was released for a new generation of readers earlier this year. Backed by a dedicated team, Nikhil Mohan Patnaik, the man behind this wondrous feat, has managed to do what elite institutions like the State Archive or State Museum could not all this time.
The collection(released as a series of CDs) includes 61 rare magazines chronicling Odisha’s glorious literary past and editions of 14 newspapers published between 1850 and 1950. Issues of magazines such Prabodh Chandrika (1856), Indradhanu (1894), Utkal Sahitya (1897), and Kumkum—a hand-written magazine published from Bombay in 1940s have also been digitised.
But Patnaik is not finished yet. A man of science through and through, he is on a lifelong mission to rescue the age-old heritage of Odisha’s scientific literature. Through his organisation Srujanika, Patnaik has built a nationwide network to develop science curriculum and inculcate scientific thought. You could call him a hermit with digital wisdom, a scientist and a chronicler whose house serves as a hermitage as well as a laboratory where the old and yellowing books of Odia literature are preserved digitally.
Patnaik says it was his professor Gokulananda Mohapatra, one of the pioneers of scientific writing in Odisha, who inspired in him a deep love for learning. “We had a science club under his supervision which infused the humanitarian consciousness of science in our minds. Then my stint at IIT Kanpur honed my love for science even further. Ultimately, it transcended the boundary of a job and became an integral part of my life,” he says.
Patnaik’s journey from his hometown Cuttack to Kanpur and then to Chicago University completely changed his approach towards education. The exposure to liberal education at Chicago helped him realise that science was not a compartmentalised subject; rather it interacted with various faculties of art and life in a broader spectrum.
In Chicago, he read voraciously and got a firm grip on political realism. A strong desire to encourage scientific thought among the young and make the education system more science-oriented took root. After a brief stint as scientist, Patnaik shifted his focus towards sensitization and education of teachers. Thus, Srujanika was born.
Patnaik realised the need for a participatory form of learning in schools and also the urgency of sensitising teachers. With this aim, he took up popularisation of science and scientific education.
In 1984, when Patnaik returned to Odisha, he started working with Ekalavya and Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad. Soon he launched a campaign called Bharat Gyan Bigyan Jatha whose theme was people’s science. Folk art was used as the basic medium to simplify science for the layperson. Later, all groups involved in the campaign decided to bring out a science journal in the local language. Thus, the very popular Bigyana Taranga was launched, which was published for 17 years.
“The magazine wasn’t merely a perfunctory exercise. Local people were actively involved. We never waited for capital grants to develop teaching materials for non-formal schools. We supplied study material to around 20,000 non-formal education centres. The most focused group was of high-school teachers,” Patnaik recalls.
Patnaik wants to make scientific thinking and knowledge available to all. “I had a childhood of freedom and uncompromised liberty which is the pith of my being. Studies hardly mattered in my life; the emphasis was on the foundation, not the curriculum,” he says.