Tarun Goswami
2023-03-13 06:32:04

The Owl Saga

The Owl Saga

It was way back in 1978 that Deep Mukherjee bought his first model of owl for only 25 paisa from Kenduli Mela thereby initiating his collection of 12,000 owls from all over the globe. However, it looked a little forlorn in the cupboard where he had displayed it and so a second owl was bought in to give company; this one was a model sculpted out of stone and bought from Susunia Hills in Purulia in 1980. A freelance journalist and a litterateur by profession, Mukherjee in the next 32 years built up an impressive collection of owls of every shape and size. He gave us a fascinating global tour at his residence on Rashbehari Avenue, replete with the history of the bird often considered to be a good omen or even evil by various civilizations.

Owls are often considered as bad omen and associated with black magic. People even do not keep their models in their houses. However, the white owl is thought to be a symbol of prosperity being the mount of Goddess Lakshmi. Baba Alauddin Khan kept white owls commonly known as lokkhipyancha as pets in Maihar. He would feed them during the day and at night his pets would quietly listen to his music. If Kaliprasanna Singha preferred the pen name, barn owl in his Sketches of Hutom Pyancha it was because the bird, considered to be the wise one, also made nocturnal forays that gave it ample opportunity to unearth the scandals rocking Babudom in Calcutta.

 Sukumar Ray's Abol Tabol has a delightful nonsensical dialogue between the owl couple where the male praises the female's 'soprano' voice. In recent time, litterateur-journalist, Benoy Ghosh used the pen name, Kalpyancha.

In ancient Roman Empire owls symbolised wisdom. Minerva, the goddess of knowledge is seen carrying an owl in her hand while Greek goddess, Athena also carries one.  Some Greek gold coins that were found during the excavation of Chadraketugarh in North 24 Parganas had owls embossed on them. In India the white owl is associated with the Goddess Lakshmi symbolising prosperity, particularly as it wards off rodents who cause damage to grains stored in households.

Mukerjee's fascination with owls began in his school days though he started collecting its models much later. “Owls can turn their head around, till 180 degrees and are also keen observers quite contrary to popular perception. They are innocent and highly social”, said the collector who had even kept an owl as pet for three months.

According to Mukherjee, the features on the face of an owl are close to that of humans and this is reflected even on the models made by the artisans. For example, the models of owls made in Arunachal Pradesh have snub noses whereas those from Rajasthan have sharp noses. In West Bengal, clay-owls of Krishnanagar are quite famous followed by the wood engraved owls of Bishnupur. In Birbhum owl artefacts are made of clay.  By mid 1980 Mukherjee had more than 40 owl models in his collection.

He has in his collection rare models of owls on smoked glasses and even of crystals. Paintings of owls on smoked glasses are quite popular in China. Similarly, in Peru and Brazil, owl artifacts made of crystals are collected as work of art. In Hondorous, postage stamps of owls were released by the government as the nocturnal creature is considered to be auspicious. There are models made of precious metals like gold and silver which are popular in England. Wood engravings of owls from Scotland have made to the global market as well. Similarly coat brushes with owls embossed on these are quite popular in England. In China, key and ear rings with owls are sold to create awareness for their preservation. In Brazil, coffee mugs have images of owls on them.

However, Mukherjee points out that he never bought custom made items as done by many collectors of Ganesh idols, as it ruins the originality of the piece. He even inspired three Durga Puja committees to decorate their pandals with models of owls as part of their 'theme'. Khidderpore Pally Saradiya won Sharad Samman for the year 2009 while Hindustan Park in 2010 and another community puja in Howrah in 2011 also picked up the same theme. Authorities of a museum in Thailand have approached Mukherjee as they want to put up a display of owls.

Noted Ornithologist, Salim Ali had written about 3,000 variety of owls found in Indian sub continent but many varieties have become extinct over the years. According to Mukherjee, it is rapid urbanization coupled with acute shortage of food that have led to this bird of prey into the path of extinction. Hopefully, Mukherjee's priceless collection will go a long way in spreading awareness as well as interest in this bird whose association with human civilization, to say the least, has been truly, a long one.  


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