Not many Indians born in India could become Nobel Laureate in pre-independence India. Even till date only five Indians are listed as the Nobel Prize winners: Rabindranath Tagore-1913 (Literature), Sir C.V.Raman-1930 (Physics), Mother Teresa-1979 (Peace), Amartya Sen-1998 (Economics) and Kailas Satyarthi-2014 (Peace). Sir Raman was unique in many respects as the winner of Nobel for his discovery. He never studied abroad since his health did not permit him even when he had an opportunity to go for a master’s degree in the United Kingdom. Even when he was invited to join the Calcutta University as a Professor endowed the Palit Chair of Physics, he refused to fulfill the condition to carry out research in other countries to increase Indian expertise. Instead, he said the scientists should come from other countries to learn from him! Raman was the first Asian and non-white individual to win a Nobel Prize in science. He was not only an expert on light, he also experimented with acoustics. Raman was the first person to investigate the harmonic nature of the sound of Indian drums such as tabla and mridangam. Raman, on 28 February 1928, made a path-breaking discovery which later was named the Raman Effect. The day is celebrated in India as National Science Day. While on a voyage to England, Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (7 November 1888-21 November 1970) was amazed by the spectacular blue of the Mediterranean sea. Seven years of research lead to the Raman Effect, an explanation of the molecular diffraction of light that won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930. His biographer, Uma Parameswaran, notes : “Raman had long been attracted to the phenomenon of light scattering. During his short stint in astronomy, in the 1910s, he had talked about light scattering from Jupiter. His 1921 voyage had made him realized that this was one of nature’s secrets that he had to unravel…Between 1921 and 1927, Raman pursued the phenomenon of light scattering in gases and liquids.”
Born with “a copper spoon in his mouth” at Tiruchirappalli, in a Brahmin family when his father, Chandrasekhara Ayyar, was earning the princely sum of ten rupees per month as a teacher, Raman matriculated at the age of twelve at the end of 1900. He completed his intermediate courses in December 1902 and left for Madras in January 1903 to do his BA. His elder brother, Subrahmanya (CS), had already moved to Madras(now Chennai) the previous year. Focused on research from the very beginning, Raman completed his master’s degree in physics from the Presidency College. After passing the Indian Financial Service exam in 1907, he took up a government job as an Assistant Accountant –General at Calcutta, the seat of Raj, now known as Kolkata. Raman got two of his research papers published in the Philosophical Magazine and received a letter from Lord Rayleigh, the eminent scientist, addressing him as “Professor Raman”, not knowing that a boy of eighteen was the author of the papers. Even when he took up the government job at Kolkata, he continued his scientific research at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science(IACS) as his part-time passion. Sir Ashutosh Mookerjee, the Vice Chancellor of the Calcutta University, had his eyes set on Raman who had made the IACS his second home. Mookerjee made the offer to appoint Raman for the post of Sir Taraknath Palit Professor of Physics. Raman accepted the University offer since it was to fulfill his dream; despite some administrative hassles.
His scientific research did not slow down, even though his teaching and administrative duties increased. Raman groomed his students in research and accepted many assignments to deliver talks on his research. He was becoming popular and his research was getting recognition world over. His trips abroad and the award of knighthood in June 1929 made some people jealous of him. When his name for the Nobel Prize was announced in 1930 for the Raman Effect and his contribution in other scientific research, the rivalry between Meghnad Saha and Raman became visible. Ten Nobel Laureate scientists proposed Raman’s name for the Nobel Prize. Even Saha was aspiring to get the world renowned prize. From here the moves were initiated in the name of Bangla Nationalism to get rid of Raman. “Towards the end of 1932 there were letters to the editor in the local newspapers against Raman’s management of the IACS and the Palit Professorship. The accusations were that he had only south Indians around himself as scholars, and that physics was given too much prominence, to the exclusion of other sciences. The main grouse was that Bengalis were being sidelined in their own province”, records his biographer, Parameswaran.
Once Sir Raman decided to settle down at Kolkata forever but was considered an outsider, even after twenty-five years of service. With heavy heart, he left for Bangalore (now Bengaluru ) to take over his position at Indian Institute of Science(IISc). “But the politics of rivalry was to follow Raman to Bangalore, affecting his progress in more ways than one.” On 24 April 1934, Raman registered the Indian Academy of Science in Bangalore and started inviting scientists to join, leading many in Calcutta to be upset. It increased opposition to his position within the IACS. At the next annual general meeting of IACS, towards the end of 1934, Raman was “democratically” stripped off his secretaryship with the help of the new life members admitted by Syama Prasad Mookerjee. The combined forces of Bangla nationalism and individual rivalries exiled Raman from the city he had thought of as his own. There would be no coming home for him, now or ever. Even after that the Calcutta Group headed by Mookerjee managed to remove Raman from the Directorship of IISc. “ Rajinder Singh has documented proof that Dr. Mookerjee, who was on the council of IISc, had a hand in promoting antagonism against Raman…He cites a letter from Syama Prasad to Meghnad Saha where he wrote he had cancelled his trip to England so he could attend the special council meeting that was to look into Raman’s directorship tenure.”
During his difficult years as Director, Raman had found great support from the ruler of Mysore, Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV and his Dewan, Sir Mirza Ismail. The Maharaja saw in Raman a man worth honouring and supporting. He donated eleven acres of land for Raman’s vision of the Indian Academy of Sciences where the Raman Research Institute(RRI) was opened after Raman’s retirement from IISc in 1948. He nourished the institute till his death in 1970. Even today it continues to be a living research monument of Sir Raman.
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( The writer is a Socio-political Historian. E-mail : [email protected] )