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.



Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and Indian Association for Cultivation of Science (IACS) defined India before Independence!

On 27th May 2017, all students, faculty and staff of the Indian Institute of Science received an email from the Director that started with the following message: “Today is the 27th of  May,  on which day in 1909 the vesting order for the establishment of the Indian Institute of Science was issued.”(1)  On 27th May 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India passed away! Between 1951 and 1961, India established the five Indian Institutes of Technology. Nehru as the Prime Minister is credited with founding these institutes and they are governed by the Institutes of Technology act 1961. India had become an independent nation in 1947 and these five institutions of national importance were named Indian Institute of Technology.

How did Indian Institute of Science get it’s name in 1909, nearly four decades before India become an Independent nation? This was established in Bangalore which was part of the Mysore Presidency, ruled by the Mysore Royal Family. This question came to my mind following a comment by a friend in Facebook below my post on 27th May 2017 announcing the birth anniversary of IISc, as we call the Institute. He felt the Institute could have been named Mysore Institute of Science or Maharaja Institute of Science as it was the Mysore Maharaja H.H. Sir Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, who gave 371 acres of land to establish the Institute. He also gave additional financial support. This friend is perhaps from Mysore and he was emphasizing the Mysore King’s contributions to the Institute.

The Institute owes it’s existence to J N Tata, who was born in Gujarat. Once he was traveling in a ship from Japan to Chicago with Swami Vivekananda, originally from West Bengal. Both these eminent personalities were discussing what Tata as an entrepreneur could do to help the country, India, which was yet to become independent. One of their plans, that materialized a few years after the demise of Tata, was Indian Institute of Science. The locals call it Tata Institute even today. In front of the iconic building housing all the administrators today, there is a statue of J N Tata, which was installed in the early days.  Somehow, the contribution of the Mysore King was not adequately recognized for more than a century. Just a few years ago, the bust of the Mysore King was unveiled inside this building.  With some effort, the King and Tata could say hello to each other right in front of the iconic building:-)


Even as I was wondering how they decided to name the new institute as ‘Indian Institute of Science’ in 1909, another comment on my post reminded me of the Indian Association for Cultivation of Science,Calcutta, which was established in 1876 itself! Somewhat interestingly, the first Indian Director for the Indian Institute of Science, C. V. Raman came from IACS to IISc in the 1930s. The first Director of the very first Indian Institute of Technology, in Kharagpur, J. C. Ghosh, went from IISc to West Bengal. He was a Professor in the Department where I work and we have a best Thesis award for physical chemistry students from our Department named after J C Ghosh.

I learn that IISc started with the grant from Tata and the Governments of both Mysore King and the British gave some support. It seems to me that the name was chosen appropriately. IACS received no such support from any one! C V Raman worked there and got the Nobel prize before coming to IISc. Mysore king gave Raman a land too to start the Indian Academy of Sciences. Raman built a research institute named after himself and the Indian Academy of Sciences in this land, in the same road, now called C V Raman avenue across from IISc.

IACS was established by Mahendra Lal Sarkar (2) to carry out basic research. It generated funds by arranging public lectures on Science for which the audience had to buy tickets. Sarkar still named the institution as Indian Association for Cultivation of Science, though no Government or benevolent donors gave any support. Those were the days! Now the trend is to name a lecture hall, building, and institutions after the founder or a donor. When I learn about the name of IACS starting with Indian, IISc starting with Indian seems more justified. Still, why do we have such thoughts occurring on some people’s mind?

One of the reason is that the contribution of the Mysore king has not been recognized at all. If you search Google for images with ‘Tata statue at IISc’, you will see perhaps 1000s of images. I tried ‘Mysore king bust at IISc’, I could not find a single one. I could still see many images of Tata statue and others related to IISc. The diversity India has naturally leads to regional/local feelings based on State, Language, Religion, and Caste. There are some who try to identify a person of their back ground who may have played a minor role and attribute undue importance. On the other hand, some who have made enormous contributions do not get their dues!

It turns out the Mysore king was indeed a minor when the decision to give the land was made by the Maharani. However, he not only honored it as he became a major, he continued to support the Institute. I was indeed inspired to read from one of his speeches the following: “I cannot help feeling that the Council will be well advised to keep an open mind on the scholarship question until they are satisfied by actual experience that scholarships are not actually needed.” (3) Apparently, the Council decided that there would be no need to provide any financial assistance to students as the poor may not gain much by learning Science! May be the Mysore Royal Family should have insisted that the Institute be named after the King 🙂 Some of you may have read my last blog on naming things (4). It is indeed important!

Somewhat coincidentally, 27th May 1997 was the last day of my job at IIT Kanpur. I resigned my job effective that day and traveled to Bangalore on 28th May 1997 and joined IISc on 29th May 1997! This blog is published on my 20th anniversary at the Indian Institute of Science. I am glad it is the Indian Institute of Science and not Mysore Institute of Science or Maharaja Institute of Science. I do think Indians should avoid such regional feelings as borders between state/nations are arbitrary. My views on this could be seen in an Editorial published in Current Science recently (5). However, I do hope the contributions of the Mysore King is much widely recognized!


    1. (Accessed on 28 May 2017).
    3. (Page 128


I thank Dr. Sharath Ahuja who provided the image of the Institue’s Tower building, which was taken from a drone by Dr. Omkar of Aerospace Engineering Department at IISc. Dr. Ahuja in fact reminded me of this anniversary. I could not get the picture of the Mysore King’s bust before posting it, though I had personally clicked some pictures. What is shown in this blog is an image from Google search and the original page is

Added the picture of the Mysore King’s bust on 29th May 2017, courtesy Sharath Ahuja and removed the picture from the website quoted above.