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The Bengali shop that supplied the first ever survey equipment to IIT

16 January, 2020 06:15:58
The Bengali shop that supplied the first ever survey equipment to IIT

How is a quaint shop opened in 1848, by Pyary Mohan Soor in Calcutta’s China Town, doing? By general perception, one would assume it has shut down or sold off. After all a Bengali entrepreneur hardly sustains in the industry more than two generations! Well, that is the perception. However, here is a different story for sure. 

Since its inception, the shop has been a silent witness to the changing times. In 1857, after the Sepoy Mutiny broke out, India was placed under the British crown. Calcutta, the British capital until 1911, had its own share of upheavals – World War II, the great famine, the 1946 Calcutta Killings, the Partition of India, Independence of the country, large scale influx of refugees et al. But Pyary Mohan Soor’s shop, which he had named after himself, survived it all — and continues to be in business, selling survey equipment. Today, it is run by his grandson’s grandson, Somnath Sur. Over time, not only did the surname get shortened to Sur but even the shop was rechristened Ruth and Company.

The shop remained in China Town until 1930, when the construction of a new road forced it to relocate to the nearby Dalhousie Square, where it sits even today. At this point, Pyary Mohan’s grandson, Prasanto Kumar Sur, realised that almost all the shops in the neighbourhood had European names so he opted for a European name for his shop. A family friend suggested him to name it after Ruth, a character from the Bible.

Ruth and Company is not only ancient, it looks, and even smells old. The decrepit shelves of the shop are stocked with goods from the last century that share space with modern equipment. The secret of survival for this shop lies in its adaptability. The venerable shop has changed with the times. Earlier, manual survey instruments like the theodolite, dumpy level and prismatic compass were sold. These have now been replaced by high-precision instruments such as total station, auto level and GPS. Also, equipment like the cube-testing machines are sold, which are used during construction to test the strength of cement or echo sounders, which are used by the Port Trust for dredging and which are also used to located shoals of fish in water.

Thanks to automated equipment, some of the items that used to be a must for a surveyor — such as scales and tracing paper — are now outdated; unopened packs of scales gather dust on the shelves.  The shop is a rich treasure-trove of historical items. There are invaluable documents belonging to the bygone days including a picture of King George’s coronation, or invitation letters sent to Prasanto Sur to attend the foundation stone laying ceremony of the country’s first Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur by Jawaharlal Nehru, another invite him for the inauguration of the same institute by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and the third card is an invitation to the third annual convocation of the institute. After all, the survey equipment for the construction of IIT-Kharagpur was supplied by this company. 

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