BEING a poet, writer, novelist, playwright, actor, musician, and painter, Rabindranath Tagore was the very quintessence of the universal man as idealised by the intellectuals and artists of the Italian Renaissance. He tried his hand at writing poetry when he was barely eight, and before he was 15, his work began to appear in print. In 1887 Tagore wrote Manasi, his first fully mature work. Other works such as Chitrangada, Sonar Tari, Chitra and Sadhana followed, winning him wide acclaim. Apart from learning the arts and the sciences at a very young age, Tagore was very particular about his physique. He could swim the Padma (Ganges) at the Tagore estates, or walk 25 miles in the hills at a stretch. As a child, wrestling was part of his home-based education. He is supposed to have introduced judo into India.
In 1905, Lord Curzons decision to Partition Bengal shook the poet, as well as the rest of India. The members of the Swadeshi Movement were up in arms, but they were proving to be ineffectual because they did not have a good leader who could mobilise the masses. At such a juncture, Tagore was their only hope. Had Tagore accepted the offer, he well might have become the main leader of Indias freedom struggle, but that honour was reserved for M. K. Gandhi since Tagore did not wish to get involved in politics. Much later when Gandhi invited him to spin cotton, he said: Poems I can spin, Gandhiji, songs and plays I can spin, but of your precious cotton what a mess I would make!
In 1912 the renowned artist Sir William Rothenstein read Tagores Gitanjali, and immediately brought it to the attention of W. B. Yeats. They later arranged for the publication of the book that won the Nobel Prize for its author in 1913.
From his early days, Rabi was averse to formal education. In a film on Tagore, Satyajit Ray remarked: Rabi went to four schools and hated them all. Much later in life Tagore said: The main object of teaching is not to give explanations, but to knock at the doors of the mind. If any boy is asked to give an account of what is awakened in him by such knocking, he will probably say something silly. For what happens within is much bigger than what come out in words. Those who pin their faith on university examinations as the test of education take no account of this. In 1918, Tagore realised his most cherished dream of laying the foundation of the Visvabharati University at Santiniketan.
Sir J.C. Bose
THE year was 1923, the then Prime Minister of Britain Ramsay Macdonald and the inimitable Bernard Shaw were watching a demonstration by experimental physicist and biophysicist, Sir J. C. Bose, who with his indigenously developed instrument was trying to show his guests the feelings of a cabbage while it was roasted. Seeing the cabbages agony on being heated, Shaw was literally moved to tears.
Boses other great contributions were: Production of a compact apparatus for generation of electromagnetic waves of wave length from 22 mm to 5 mm and the study of their quasi-optical properties; discovery of the common nature of electric response of all forms of stimulation in animal and plant tissues as well as in some organic models.; and the study of response phenomena in plants. He concluded that plants like human beings, possess the power of response. He proved that roots are not the sole media for procuring food, that plants have nerves and they, too, feel the pain when hurt and that plant cells expand and contract like the heart in men and animals. His studies in molecular strain and recovery led him to a new photographic theory, which explained the gradual disappearance of latent image in a photographic plate left undeveloped, as recovery from strain.
In 1895, it is said, he successfully demonstrated in Calcutta the transmission of electric waves from his radiator in his lecture room to another 75 feet away, where his receiver managed to pick up enough energy to ring a bell and fire a pistol. Unfortunately he did not patent his invention, and in 1896 Marconi announced his invention of wireless telegraphy.
Bose was by no means preoccupied with his inventions all the time, he was also concerned about the socio-political situation of India, and he believed that Indians could get out of the abyss they had got themselves into. It was action, he believed, not weak passivity that was glorified in heroic India of the past. There can be no happiness for any of us unless it has been won for all. I would, therefore, urge the doctrine of strength and of undying hope.
ONE of the greatest mathematicians from India, S. Ramanujan would have rotted as clerk serving the Madras Port Trust had he not mailed his papers to Prof Godfrey Harold Hardy, the renowned mathematician of the Trinity College, Cambridge. Looking at the strange equations, Hardy at first took them to be a work of a crank, but the genius in him forbade him to consign the letter to the waste bin. He read the paper again and again, and later discussed the matter with Prof J. E. Littlewood. They worked late into the night and soon realised that the manuscript was the work of a genius. Soon Ramanujan was on his way to Cambridge where he grew in stature, and was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1918, and in the same year was elected fellow of the Trinity College, Cambridge where he made valuable contributions to the theory of numbers, the theory of partitions, and the theory of continued fractions.
Ramanujan was so immersed in mathematics that he could relate it to his everyday experience. Once, when Ramanujan was indisposed, Professor Hardy came to enquire about his health. After greeting the promising mathematician, Professor Hardy said, The number of the taxicab in which I came here was 1729. It seems to be a dull one, and I hope it is not an unfavour-able omen.
No, it is a very interesting number, Ramanujan quipped, In fact, it is the smallest number expressible as a sum of two cubes in two different ways.
That was Ramanujan, who, as Professor E. T. Bell put it, had arrived unexpectedly out of nowhere and astounded experienced mathematicians with his unique methods. But before he could make further strides in the world of numbers, he died at a young age of 33. Nearly eighty years after his death, scholars are still trying to evaluate the true merit of Ramanujans legacy. Until 1957, three of his invaluable notebooks were gathering dust in the cabinets of the Madras University. Fortunately, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research discovered them and published them, and mathematicians have been busy trying to solve the intricate equations of the greatest mathematician India has seen since Bhaskaracharya of the twelfth century.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
HERE is one figure from Indian history who hardly needs an introduction. Born into a middle-class family, educated at an elementary school in Porbandar, and the Samaldas College, Bhavanagar, M. K. Gandhi, with his foresight and remarkable practical approach became the backbone of the Indian freedom struggle.
After his fathers death in 1885, he was sent to England to study law so that he could take his fathers place as Prime Minister of Porbandar. In London, he read Sir Edwin Arnolds translation of the Bhagavadgita, and it changed his life forever.
He came back to India in 1891, and tried to set up practice in Bombay, but failed miserably. He was then offered an assignment in South Africa by Dada Abdullah & Co. Little did he realise at the time that it would prove to be a training ground for his future struggles against the Raj. In South Africa Gandhi saw the brutal discrimination Indians were experiencing, and he began to wonder if anything could be done about it. The writings of Tolstoy, and Thoreaus suggestion of Civil Disobedience gave him direction. He then came out with his own method of defiance which he called Satyagraha.
In the beginning even his staunch followers were at pains to understand how non-violence could succeed in face of brutal face, but his triumph in South Africa convinced them in the end. Ennobled by his success, he returned to India in 1915, and plunged into the national struggle for freedom. The Jallianwalah massacre in 1919 convinced him that he could have no dialogue with the British, and total Independence became his goal. But the path to freedom was strewn with difficulties. He was shaken by the Hindu-Muslim riots of Naokhali and other parts of India. His frequent sojourns in jail, and his Quit India Movement and the Salt March are too well-known to be repeated here. Finally Independence came, but it also brought about the Partition of India and the violent massacre that followed. Gandhi had not bargained for the division of India, but his detractors held him responsible for it and eventually shot him.
Even if he had not taken part in the Independence struggle, we would have remembered him for his message of universal love, and for his efforts to abolish social evils like the oppressive caste system, poverty, religious intolerance, and inequality. "I am not interested," he used to say, "in freeing India merely from the English yoke. I am bent upon freeing India from any yoke, whatsoever."
IT is rare to have two Nobel Laureates in one family, but astrophysicist and applied mathematician S. Chandrasekhar and his uncle, Sir C. V. Raman were one such exception. Taking into account his outstanding academic performance, the Madras University offered Chandrasekhar a research scholarship that took him to Cambridge in 1930, where he was to become Fellow of the Trinity College. He later moved to do research in the United States, and eventually became its citizen in 1953.
Quite early he observed similarities between stars and atoms, and he predicted the fate of dying stars by studying the behaviour of atoms. He showed that a star couldnt continue to shine forever in its present state. A time comes when fundamental changes occur in its interior because of the exhaustion of nuclear fuel supply, resulting in shrinkage of its core with an enormous distension of its outer envelope. But he argued that continual compression of the stellar core had its limit.
As the core of the star becomes degenerate because of stripped atomic nuclei and electrons, it loses the power to balance the pressure and gravitational attraction at its periphery by adjusting its radius unless the core happens to remain below a certain limiting mass. This is the famous Chandrasekhar Limit. He shared the Nobel Prize for his outstanding work in 1983 with W. A. Fowler. One of his ardent admirers, James Kemp, wrote to him, I am overjoyed, Professor Chandrasekhar. It is forty years late.
Although he did emigrate to the US, he was in constant touch with scientific and cultural developments back home. I mean it is a remarkable thing, he observed, that in the modern era before 1910, there were no [Indian] scientists of international reputation or standing. Between 1920 and 1925, we suddenly had five or six internationally well-known men.
Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy
IN the nineteen-twenties William Archer wrote a rather insulting article titled Is India Civilised? Stung by the authors groundless reasoning, a young scholar wrote a fiery rejoinder: We are abused with being wanting in truth, honesty and integrity; with being avaricious and perfidious; in short with being void of the noble qualities and generous feelings that ought to adorn a nation.... Let us tell the proud Europe that it will ever be the boast of Asia to have given birth to all the religions and sublime morality of the world. That was Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, a man of varied talents and interests a scientist, nationalist, interpreter of Indian art, and literary critic who often said that he was too Indian in his ways of thinking, and that his love for India was his destiny.
Born in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), his father was an enlightened intellectual, and his mother a very accomplished English woman. He was named Ananda after the famous disciple of the Buddha, and Kentish refers to the place his mother hailed from. He went to the Wycliffe College, and later to the University of London. When here was a mere lad of twentytwo he wrote Ceylon Rocks and Graphite for the quarterly journal of the Geology Society. He might have blossomed into a great scientist because his discovery of Thorianite was acclaimed as a first rate one, but with more than 500 publications, and innumerable research papers on Indian, Indonesian, and Asian art during his thirty-year association with the Boston Museum, he became an international authority in art, aesthetics and culture.
On August 15, 1947, he proudly unfurled the Indian flag in Boston and said: Our problem is not so much of rebirth of an Indian culture as it is one of preserving the remains of it. The culture is valid for us not because it is Indian as because it is culture.... Freedom is the opportunity to act in accordance with ones own nature. But our leaders are already denatured Indian in blood and colour but English in tastes, in options, in morals and intellect.
He and his wife had planned to settle down in India and devote the rest of their lives to Indian art and culture, but this was not to be as he died on September 9, 1947, in Massachusetts, leaving behind an awesome scholarly output which inspires young scholars to this day.
OVER a hundred years ago, a brilliant young boy walked up to Swami Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and asked a straight question: Have you seen God, Sir? Instead of giving a monosyllabic answer, Swami Rama-krishna placed his right foot over the boys body. The touch at once gave rise to a novel experience within me, the boy was to write later, With my eyes open I saw that the walls, and everything in the room, whirled rapidly and vanished into naught, and the whole universe together with my individuality was about to merge in an all-encompassing mysterious void!
The brilliant boy, who was later to achieve fame as Swami Vivekananda, was born on January 12, 1863, to Bhuvaneshwari Devi a devout lady, and Vishwanath Datta, an attorney-at-law at the High Court of Calcutta. While he was in Mysore, Viveka-nanda heard about the upcoming Parliament of Religions which was to be held in Chicago from September 11 to 27, 1893. His admirers urged him to attend it. The very first sentence that he spoke at the Parliament brought a thunderous applause from the gathering. One Mrs S.K. Blodgett, who was present there, later wrote:When that young man got up and said, "Sisters and brothers of America," seven thousand people rose to their feet as a tribute to something they knew not what. When it was over I saw scores of women walking over the benches to get near him, and I said to myself, "Well, my lad, if you can resist that onslaught, you are indeed a god!"
Back in India, he became the guiding force behind the spirit of freedom. He inculcated a religion of patriotism, observed Dr. S. Radhakrish-nan, not patriotism in the narrow sense of the word, but patriotism as the religion of humanity. C. Rajagopala-chari went so far as to say that but for Swami Vivekananda we would have lost our religion and would not have gained our freedom. But unlike many spiritual leaders, Vivekananda did not overlook the importance of the material world. "We talk foolishly against material civilisation," he once said. "The grapes are sour. Even taking all that foolishly for granted, in all India, there are seen a hundred thousand really spiritual men and women. Now, for the spiritualisation of these, must three hundred million be sunk in savagery and starvation?" And on January 27, 1900, long before the word feminism was coined, he said: No man shall dictate to a woman, nor a woman to a man. Each one is independent. Women will work out their own destinies much better than men can ever do for them.