Indian Institute of Science, J N Tata, Uncategorized

J N Tata planned the Indian Institute of Science and Swami Vivekananda did not influence it!

It is 27th May again! In 1909 on this day, the vesting order for the establishment of the Indian Institute of Science was issued. Last year on this day, I had written a blog about this great institute and the Indian Association for Cultivation of Science and argued that they defined India before independence (1). One of the reasons was the choice in naming these institutions as Indian. Calcutta in the state of Bengal and Bangalore in the Mysore Kingdom built educational institutions named as ‘Indian’, many decades before India got independence. In Uttar Pradesh, Banaras Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University were established in the following decades. One can still see this difference in the view points of the people of eastern and southern India in comparison to the northern states. Often I feel that there is a huge communication gap between the people of these regions in India for historic and geographic reasons.

This blog is not about the names though. It is about whose vision led to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). It is become a popular myth that IISc resulted from a stimulating discussion between J N Tata and Swami Vivekananda while on a ship from Yokohama to Vancouver. A recent post in TheBetterIndia mentions that they met on 31 May in 1893 (2). If one is not careful in reading this post, the myth will resonate as a fact. I have written a few blogs about learning history and pointed out how difficult it is to learn history (3-5). I also believed in this myth and have written about this in my first blog on ‘Learning History’ (3) and also a recent editorial in Current Science focusing on conflict of interest (6). I had email discussions with two experts: Dr. Subbarayappa who authored a book on the history of Indian Institute of Science (7) and Prof. P. Balaram, our former Director, who ensured that we will have an Archives and Publications Cell at IISc. I have also been helped by Mr. Sharath Ahuja, who was taking care of the Archives and Publications Cell in the initial years. I am pleased to share the images from Mr. Ahuja, of the Tata statue at IISc and the commemorative stamp issued by the Government of India during our Centenary. You can see the replica of our Main Building held by Tata in his hands! It is a fitting statue for the founder in front of the iconic building shown in the stamp.

The letter written by J. N. Tata to Swami Vivekanada, on 23rd November 1898, offers the most important clue. This is reproduced in the book by Subbarayappa and also the TheBetterIndia portal. This is what Tata says at the beginning: “I trust, you remember me as a fellow- traveller on your voyage from Japan to Chicago. I very much recall at this moment your views on the growth of the ascetic spirit in India, and the duty, not of destroying, but of diverting it into useful channels.” Clearly, he does not mention about any discussion about the need for a research institution. On the other hand, Tata continues this sentence with: “I recall these ideas in connection with my scheme of Research Institute of Science for India, of which you have doubtless heard or read”  (emphasis added).

Prof. Balaram gave an excellent talk on the history of the Indian Institute of Science at the National Centre for Biological Sciences recently. Thankfully his talk is available on YouTube (8). I would encourage anyone interested in the history of Indian Science in 20th Century, not just IISc, to listen to this talk spending the 90+ minutes! Prof. Balaram quotes from primary sources about J. N. Tata’s plans for Science and a research Institution in India years before he met Swami Vivekananda during his voyage to Chicago. Why then, Prof. Balaram decided to include Swami Vivekananda in the commemorative stamp during the centenary of IISc? His talk has some clues as to how this happened. If you are keen, you may listen to the talk.

Tata in his letter went on to say the following: “I am of opinion that if such a crusade in favour of an asceticism of this kind were undertaken by a competent leader, it would greatly help asceticism, science, and the good name of our common country; and I know not who would make a more fitting general of such a campaign than Vivekananda.” Tata clearly wanted Swami Vivekananda to lead the Institute. In his book, Dr. Subbarayappa mentions that Swami Vivekananda’s reply to the letter by Tata could not be traced. However, an Editorial was published in April 1899 in Prabhuddha Bharata, a magazine started by Swami Vivekananda. The editorial is not signed and perhaps was written by the Swami. It starts with this sentence: “We are not aware if any project at once so opportune and so far reaching in its beneficent effects was ever mooted in India, as that of the post-graduate research University of Mr. Tata. The scheme grasps the vital point of weakness in our national well-being with a clearness of vision and tightness of grip, the masterliness of which is only equalled by the munificence of the gift which is ushered to the public”. The scanned image of the editorial can be seen below:


Clearly, Swami Vivekananda recognizes IISc as an outcome of a project mooted by Tata and was very enthusiastic of this project. He was invited by Tata to be the first head of the Institution. However, it is clear that Indian Institute of Science was the result of J. N. Tata’s vision and this vision was not influenced by any discussion with Swami Vivekananda. J. N. Tata not only planned IISc, he also built steel and power plants to help India become what it is today. One cannot celebrate IISc or India, without celebrating the great J. N. Tata.

  6. E. Arunan, Curr. Sci. (Weblink: )
  7. B. V. Subbarayappa “In Pursuit of Excellence: A History of The Indian Institute of Science” Tata-McGraw-Hill 1992.



Learning History

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it!” It was an interesting exercise to find out who said it first as there are various versions.  ( This and other web references accessed on 2 April 2015. It credits George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher). Learning from history is as important as it is difficult for many reasons.

One obvious reason is that learning by reading is much less efficient than learning by experience. Most every one ends up repeating history and (re)learning. May be it is better that way, as even as the 7th billion person in the current world, one has to live the life one had no choice of getting. There may really be nothing more to do other than repeating what someone has done and fail/succeed.

One often hears the quote ‘History is written by the victors’ attributed to Winston Churchill. According to the website “History is written by victors” may itself be an example of history written by the losers! While the quote is commonly mis-attributed to Winston Churchill, it’s origins are unknown!” I really do not know the history of these statements.

Let me tell you about two things that I know for sure. Indian Institute of Science was the result of a dream by J N Tata and this was influenced by the inspirational dialog he had with Swami Vivekananda on a ship. We celebrated the centenary over a whole year during 2008-09. In 2011, we started an undergraduate programme for the first time, 100 years after we started admitting students. The first batch was admitted in 1911. Clearly the students admitted in 2011 are the 101st batch and not the 100th batch!

While only some can create history, every one would like to have their name etched in history. I have been part of the Inorganic and Physical Chemistry Department at the Indian Institute of Science from May 29, 1997. I learned that this was the first Department to be started by the founder Director Morris Travers who happened to be a Chemist as well.  Interested readers may go through an article I wrote in Resonance about Travers’ contribution to the discovery of Noble gases. ( Another Department on Electrical sciences also began and these were the only two Departments initially.

I recently found a discussion in Linkedin about the History of Indian Institute of Science started by Chief Engineer at TRIAD OMAN CONSULTANTS INTL.  I had not known him personally but somehow was in the circle. He claimed that “Soil Mechanics and Metallurgy were the First Departments to be Set-up.” I had put a comment pointing out the mistake but then there were 100s of comments applauding the authors for the interesting information and one is not clear if all the readers would go through all the comments to find out the truth. I get messages from Linkedin for more than two years about people still reading this piece.

There is a book about the History of Indian Institute of Science written by Subbarayappa titled ‘In pursuit of excellence’.  I have heard from our former Director Prof. P. Balaram that there are some inaccuracies in the book though it does give the first two Departments as chemical and electrical sciences accurately. I have witnessed some attempts in the recent years to take credit away from some and attribute credits wrongly to others in the campus.  One cannot take anything and everything that is written on paper or even on stone, on face value. One need not mention about the accuracy of what is found on the web, which is readily accessible anywhere and everywhere now.

Around 2000, I got a newly built laboratory to house the new spectrometer that we built. Almost a century old Department got four new laboratories built thanks to some funds that came from the Central Government. Of course, it was decided that the Director would inaugurate the new lab.  The estate office arranged for a stone with the name of the Director and the date of the Inauguration and most of us participated in the inauguration without taking it too seriously.  Around 1991, two other laboratories were inaugurated and the information was carved on stone. You can see the information written on stone:

238 239

According to these two stones, Department of Inorganic and Physical Chemistry was opened by Prof. C. N. R. Rao on 27th February 1991 and by Prof. Goverdhan Mehta on 8th March 2000. It did not occur to any one involved, including me, to suggest that the stone should mention ‘This laboratory for IPC Department was opened by’. What  more evidence does one need than what is carved on a stone! In another 100 years from now, two historians may be arguing with solid evidence that Chemistry Department was not the first one and Subbarayappa had his facts wrong. If the Linkein discussion would still be available that would establish soil mechanics and metallurgy as the first Departments and these two stones can give the date of Chemistry Department within two decades, but certainly not in 1911! May be some one changed 1991 to 1911 by mistake and that mistake was carried through 🙂

Somewhat coincidentally after witnessing the way politicians, scientists and of course every one else getting influenced by money, I was reminded of the beautiful song in Parasakthi, the first movie of Sivaji Ganesan who might be considered the best actor in 20th century Tamil Cinema by many. The song is ‘Desam gnanam kalvi easan poojai ellaam kasu mun sellathadi “தேசம் ஞானம் கல்வி ஈசன் பூஜை எல்லாம் காசு  முன் செல்லாதடி”. It means, ‘the nation, wisdom, education, God, praying rituals would all be secondary to money’ and it is a great song. I thought it was written by M. Karunanidhi who became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and popularly known as Kalaingnar Karunanidhi and Mu Ka. He also had written the story and dialogue for this movie and it became a cult classic. Mu Ka is still alive and active in politics and is close to his 90s.

I mentioned this song to some one when I heard about the central Governments decision to withdraw pictorial warnings about the dangers of cigarette smoking. A committee had concluded that ‘no study on Indians has found the correlation between cigarette and cancer’. One does not know if we should laugh or cry. The greatest book on cancer, “The emperor of all maladies” was written by Siddarth Mukherjee, a person of Indian origin. A real scholarly work and a must read for every one including our law makers. Of course, their main concern is the tobacco companies and money. How can one run a party without money. So, I was reminded of this beautiful song. And that brings me back to History. One of my friend contradicted me and said this song was written by Udumalai Naryana Kavi. I was almost convinced of my memory and I checked with my elder brother who is knowledgeable as well and he confirmed it.

I thought I would check on google as it is widely known to be aware of everything. I found the song in YouTube and it did not have the lyricist’s name. It had the names of the singer (C. S. Jayaraman)  and composer (R. Sudarshanam). Then I found the website, and it gives the Tamil lyrics in full but gives the singer’s name as Chandrababu! This is certainly wrong and appalling to me. It has the composer’s name correct but the lyricist’s name as Bharathidasan. It cannot be correct either.

And then I found another site, This has the song in Tamil, transliteration in English and also a good translation in English. While most of the information is correct, it also has the lyricist name wrong in my opinion. It gives the name as Kannadasan, perhaps the most popular lyricist in Tamil cinema during the 20th century.

So much for learning the history of recent events! Buddha seems to have mentioned: Three things cannot be hidden for long: The sun, the moon and the truth! ( While I am convinced about the sun and moon and would very much like it to be true for ‘truth’, how can we ever be sure. No wonder, Thiruvalluvar said this ‘எப்பொருள் யார்யார்  வாய்கேட்பினும் அப்பொருள்  மெய்பொருள் காண்பது அறிவு ‘ Irrespective of what you hear, and irrespective of who you hear from, you need to use your intelligence to see the truth’.