Srinivasa Ramanujan: A Book and A Movie

April 26th marked the 101st death anniversary of one of 20th century’s greatest mathematicians, Srinivasa Ramanujan. By coincidence, I was finishing ‘The Indian Clerk’ by David Leavitt at just about this time. And then went on to watch ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’.

When it comes to the book, even with its various digressions, the mystic mathematical genius of Ramanujan comes through. The trials and tribulations of lower-middle class lad from the deep South of India, steeped in religious tradition, totally unprepared for the England of the 1910s, are heart-rending. The mathematical genius is an uncomfortable social being–moody, vulnerable, lonely, awkward, under-confident. Never mind food for the heart and soul in terms of companionship and friendship, he does not have enough food to keep in good health. First his strict vegetarian regime and various taboos make it imperative to cook for himself. But more seriously, as the First World War breaks out, he does not even get basic rations, vegetables and fruits. This, coupled with the cold, had lasting impacts on his health, which not only led to serious bouts of illness and hospital stays, but his tragically untimely death at the age of 32.

Away from anything familiar, longing for his wife, and with only a few Indian friends, how lonely life must have been!

But whatever the body, the heart and the soul missed, the mind just went on! And in Prof Hardy who was instrumental in bringing him to Cambridge, England, he had an intellectual companion, albeit they did not always agree on ‘ways and means’. Ramanujan’s refusal to provide systematic proof for his intuitive mathematical assertions led to many an argument. His insistence that his mathematical claims and insights were written on his tongue by the Goddess Namagiri irritated and baffled Hardy.

Ramanujan’s legacy was in the form of 37 published papers, as well as three notebooks and a ‘lost’ notebook (discovered only in 1976) with approximately 4,000 mathematical claims, most without proofs. Almost all of these have now been proved, in the century and more after his death. They continue to inspire modern-day mathematics and expand its boundaries.

I got a sense of all this from the book.

Coming to the movie, starring Dev Patel as Ramanujan, I found it sadly unsatisfying. To begin with, I could not reconcile the tall, debonair and poised Patel with my image of the short, stout, badly dressed and awkward Ramanujan. However good the actor, there have to be some physical similarities. It cannot be that the first Indian at hand is cast in a movie with an Indian protagonist. Ben Kingsley’s looks were as important as his acting, in bringing the Mahatma to life.

And then, small trivial details about life and mores in Tamilnadu of a century ago. Just a little fact-checking could have made it so much better.

Though both are for a general audience and cannot by definition get into too much math, of course a book can deal a little better with math than a movie can. So there is that too.

Both play up the ‘saas-bahu’ drama between Ramanujan’s mother and wife to the hilt, the movie a little more sympathetic to the MIL than the book.

All in all, worth it for anyone to spend some time on. It will surely awaken a sense of wonder about the unimaginable achievements of a short life—not only blazing paths that no Indian had trod, but impacting the course of mathematics for times to come. And give a sense of genius which is beyond rational explanation.

‘Man Who Knew Infinity’ by Robert Kanigal, is a more serious, and hence somewhat heavier read. There is also a movie titled ‘Ramanujan’, which I have yet to see.

–Meena

Silver-tongued Orator of the British Empire

As a student, he corrected passages in JC Nesfield’s “English Grammar” (the standard grammar textbooks used in India in those days). He was often consulted over spellings and pronunciations by the English. His mastery over the English language was recognized by King George V, Churchill, Lady Lytton and Lord Balfour. Many rated him among the five best English-language orators of the century. He is the man of whom the Master of Balliol declared, ‘I never knew that the English Language was so beautiful till I heard Sastri speak it.’ He is the man who found 27 mistakes when Gandhiji sent him the first copy of his newspaper “Harijan” for review. He is the man to listen to whom the British Prime Minister Lloyd George postponed a cabinet meeting.  He is the man conferred with the title of ‘Silver-tongued Orator of the British Empire’.

This was Srinivasa Sastri, born to a poor priest in 1869 in the small village of Valangaiman in Tamilnadu. He was a brilliant student who did his education in Kumbakonam. He graduated in Sanskrit and English, and went on to become a teacher, and later the Principal of the Hindu High School, Triplicane, Madras.  Though he went on to be many things—freedom fighter, politician, diplomat, administrator—he probably remained at heart an educator.

His foray into public life began from academic roots—he founded the Madras Teachers’ Guild when he was Headmaster of the Triplicane School. He was also a pioneer of the co-operative movement in the country, and started India’s first co-operative society, the Triplicane Urban Co-operative Society (TUCS) in 1904.

He is said to have been so influenced by a pamphlet written by Gopala Krishna Gokhale that he gave up his job and joined the Servants of India Society, going on to become its President. He joined the Indian National Congress in 1908, and was nominated to the Madras Legislative Council in 1913. He was later also a member of the Privy Council.

He was a part of delegation which visited England in 1919, a delegate to the Imperial Conference and the Second session of the League of Nations in 1921. He played a key role in getting the Government of South Africa to drop legislation which would have led to the segregation of Indians there. In 1927 he was appointed India’s first Agent to South Africa.

Gandhiji and Sastri were lifelong friends, and respected each other deeply. The Mahatma always referred to him as ‘Anna’ , never letting him forget that he was 10 days older! However, Sastri’s views and stands were often controversial. He was seen as too accommodative of British actions. He opposed the Non-cooperation Movement on the grounds that it was subversive of the law and would set a wrong precedent. This and other similar stances brought him in conflict with Nehru and others in the Congress, and he resigned from the Party in 1922, and subsequently founded the Indian Liberal Party.

Late in life, he returned to his first love, academia, serving as Vice Chancellor of the Annamalai University, Chidambaram. He was a legendary teacher. Far ahead of his time, he believed that students were ‘comrades engaged in a common task and whom one should meet with a smiling face not only in the school room but on playfields ..’. He persuaded Mahadeva Iyengar, then Head of the Tamil Research Department of Annamalai, to translate Kalidasan’s epic poem Abhignana Sakuntalam in Tamil. His lectures at the Annamalai University packed the halls, with faculty competing with students for seats.

He headed a Committee set up in 1940 to frame a set of general principles for coining words for scientific and technical terms in vernacular languages. The report of this Committee was controversial, since it recommended the continuation of Sanskrit loan-words in Tamil technical language and this was violently opposed by Tamil adherents.

It was his tenure in Annamalai University that has special meaning for me. At this time, my grandfather Shri Anantavaidhyanathan was Head of the Dept. of Chemistry there, and the Right Honorable Srinivasa Sastri became a family friend, and mentor to my father A. Nagaratnam who was a student there.

Our family dictionary was a Cambridge Dictionary gifted by him to my father with the inscription ‘To Nagaratnam, with a grandfather’s blessings’, and signed. Alas, when my mother closed up her house, the dictionary (still in decent shape, if in two pieces, disappeared).

What a loss of a family heirloom! But still, I like to think that the pages my grubby childhood hands touched, had been touched by the legendary Silver-tongued Orator!

–Meena

He passed away on 17 April 1946. This week marks his death anniversary.

Multi-faceted Nation Builder: Remembering Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

She persuaded Gandhiji to give a call for women to participate in the Salt Satyagraha.

She campaigned with Jawaharlal Nehru.

She argued with Sardar Patel, and convinced him.

She worked with the Kanchi Shankaracharya to defeat temple bureaucracies.

She complained against Indira Gandhi (and paid the price!).

She toured with her theatre company and mesmerized audiences.

She acted in the first Kannada silent movie.

She was the first woman to run for a legislative assembly seat in India

She pioneered thinking on legislation with regard to women in the workforce, and the safety of children.

She led international thinking on women’s Right to Health, and for the first time, brought to attention the economic value of women’s work in the house.

She revived Indian crafts and ensured their survival.

She founded institutions that are part of our national fabric even today.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay whose birth anniversary we mark this week on 3 April, was a woman of her times and before her time. She accomplished in one lifetime what many will not dare to attempt in three!

Born in Mangalore in 1903, her parents were immersed in the nationalistic cause and were a major influence on her. Freedom fighters and thinkers like Mahadeva Ranade, Ramabai Ranade, Gopalakrishna Gokhale, Annie Besant were family friends and set the course of her life. While her father died early, her mother pushed, supported and moulded her into a redoubtable force.

She was married at 14 and widowed two years later. After this, she married Harindranath Chattopadhyay. After several years, they were divorced.

There were three distinct phases to her life’s work for the nation:

Her contribution to the Freedom Struggle: She heard of Gandhiji’s Non-cooperation movement in 1923 when she was in England, and promptly returned to India to join it. She joined the Seva Dal, was a founding member of the All India Women’s Conference, and helped organize the Salt Satyagraha movement in Bombay.

Her work with Refugees: Seeing the plight of the people coming in from Pakistan after the Partition, she became active in their cause. Convinced that self-help and cooperatives were the way forward, she set up the Indian Cooperative Union to work on resettlement and rehabilitation of refugees, and built the township of Faridabad on these lines, rehabilitating over 50,000 refugees from the North West Frontier, building not only homes but their livelihoods through training them in new skills.

Her work with Artists and Craftspeople: Passionately committed to arts and crafts in every form, she recognized how fundamental they were to India’s way of life and the livelihoods of crores of people. She understood that the mechanization route that India was taking would impact these negatively, to a point where they might disappear, and she took on the mission to revive, revitalize and conserve these crafts and livelihoods.

Among the institutions she played an active part in setting up were the Sangeet Natak Academy, Central Cottage Industries Emporia, the Crafts Council, All India Handicrafts Board, National School of Drama, and the India International Centre.

Kamaladevi was a prolific writer too, and her works, including her autobiography Inner Recesses, Outer Spaces: Memoirs may be the best way to learn more about her. A great starting point however is the lovingly written biography by Jasleen Dhamija’s Kamaladevi Chattopadyay. Brought out by the National Book Trust, it is a publication of less than 200 pages, which amazes you with how much can be packed into such a little book. And currently costing Rs. 100!

–Meena

A March to Remember

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Last week there were a flurry of events to commemorate a significant March. It was on 12 March 1930 that Mahatma Gandhi embarked on the march that was to become a milestone in India’s non-violent struggle for Independence from British rule. The 241-mile walk from Sabarmati Ashram to the coast at Dandi in Gujarat was a symbolic protest against the prohibitive provisions of the Salt Tax imposed by the British. The Dandi March was the spark that ignited the flames of a non-violent resistance and protest movement, and caused the idea of mass civil disobedience to spread like wildfire across the nation. The movement culminated in India gaining Independence on 15 August 1947.

This year, the run up to the 75th anniversary of our Independence, was marked by the symbolic re-enactment of the 24-day Dandi March, following the original route that Gandhi and his band of 79 marchers took in 1930. According to newspaper reports all sorts of “events” have been planned around this, including ‘patriotic’ entertainment programmes where the marchers halt every evening; competitions and contests, and even a “virtual ultra challenge” to walk, run or cycle as per one’s convenience at any place and any time between the challenge dates.

In an age where histrionics make headlines, and memories are as fleeting as Instagram images and tweets, perhaps not many today would know the historical facts about the original Dandi March 91 years ago. This is a good week to remind ourselves.

On 2 March 1930 Gandhiji had written a letter to the Viceroy giving notice of his intention to launch a civil disobedience movement by symbolically breaking the Salt Law which in his opinion was “the most iniquitous of all from the poor man’s standpoint.” He was snubbed in return; which strengthened his resolve. He selected Dandi, a seaside village in Gujarat as the site for his symbolic gesture, and planned to walk the distance of 241 miles from his Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, along with a select band of co-workers. The date for setting off on the march was fixed for 12 March and 6 April was the date set for the ‘breaking of the salt law” at Dandi.

Gandhiji vowed not to return to the Ashram till his mission was accomplished; he was also sure that he would be arrested before he could complete his journey. On 11th March Gandhi addressed a gathering of over 10,000 people at the end of the evening prayers on the banks of the Sabarmati saying “In all probability, this will be my last speech to you. Even if the Government allow me to march tomorrow morning, this will be my last speech on the sacred banks of the Sabarmati. Possibly, these may be the last words of my life here.”

On March 12, 1930 at 6.30 a.m. Gandhiji, left the Ashram accompanied by 78 satyagrahis. These represented a cross-section of the people from all over the country: Andhra Pradesh, Bengal, Bihar, Bombay, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Kutch, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajputana, Sind, Tamil Nadu, U.P. Utkal, and even Nepal. The group included members of all communities. They fell in a broad age spectrum from 16-year-old Vitthal Liladhar Thakkar to 61-year-old Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi! The main criteria for the selection, that he personally made, was that the marchers were disciplined, and strictly adhered to the principles of ahimsa and satyagraha. Interestingly, the group did not include any women. One of the later historians attributed this to Gandhi’s concern that the British would taunt the marchers for being cowardly and “hiding behind the women.” He also anticipated that the marchers would have to face the physical aggression of the police, and did not want to women to bear the blows. But he encouraged women to participate and contribute to the struggle by taking up picketing of liquor shops and foreign cloth, and taking up spinning, as well as to make salt locally wherever they lived. 

The route of the 24-day march was meticulously planned; it would pass through 4 districts and 48 villages. An advance party of volunteers from the Gujarat Vidyapith were to go ahead and collect information about each village and its residents so that Gandhijji could plan his evening talks so as to be relevant to the local needs of the village where they halted. He admonished the villagers if their village was not clean and sanitary. In every village the volunteers registered new satyagrahis and received resignations from village officials who chose to end their cooperation with the British rule. The marchers slept in the open and depended on the villagers’ hospitality to provide them with food and water. Gandhi felt that this engagement would bring the poor into the struggle for sovereignty and self-rule. .

The group walked an average of 15 km each day, taking a mid-day halt, and reaching their night halt before dusk. Every sixth or seventh day was a rest day. The entire route was lined with huge crowds and decorated with arches, flags and buntings. Gandhiji led the group, walking with his customary speed and energy; he was indefatigable, spinning or writing letters even at the mid-day rest halts; he did not waste a single minute. He addressed public meetings and gave interviews until he retired at 9 pm. He was up at 4 am, writing letters, even by moonlight. After morning prayers at 6 am he addressed the marchers and answered questions, before setting off for the day.

His satyagrahis were expected to follow an equally exacting routine of prayer, spinning and writing their daily diary.  Even the advance party volunteers were not exempt. In a talk to volunteers on March 17 1930 he said: Ours is a sacred pilgrimage and we should be able to account for every minute of our time. Let those who are not able to finish their quota or do not find time to spin or write up their diaries see me. I shall discuss the thing with them. There must be something wrong with their time table and I should help them to readjust it. We should be resourceful enough to do all our daily duties without the march coming in our way.

Day after day, as the marchers covered mile after mile, of what he considered to be  “nothing less than a holy pilgrimage”.  Gandhiji addressed thousands of people; he urged them to join the civil disobedience movement in large numbers; to boycott foreign cloth, adopt Khadi, and desist from the evil of drinking. Every day, more and more people joined the march, until the procession of marchers was at least 3 km long by the time it neared Dandi.

On April 5 the marchers reached Dandi. Early the next morning, after prayers Gandhiji walked into the waters of the Arabian Sea; he bent down and picked up a lump of salt. The Salt Law was broken, and that simple gesture, triggered a groundswell of protest; across the country local leaders led people to the seaside to do the same; everywhere, in towns and villages, people made salt in pots and pans. The people of India had openly challenged the British Government.

A simple gesture, but one backed by a canny calculation of the tremendous impact that it would have; and a symbolic march that signified not just the determination of a nation to win their birthright, but equally the demonstration of a movement driven by the principles of discipline, ahimsa and satyagraha. As a nation that has, for 75 years, been savouring the fruits of this momentous movement, the best way to commemorate this would be not simply by symbolic events, but by reminding ourselves of, and adherence to, these principles. They are needed now, more than ever before.   

–Mamata

A Wise Lady from the 12th Century Guides Education Even Today

The Aathichudi is the alphabet primer with which every child in Tamilnadu takes its first step in education. It begins with: ‘A is for ‘Aram chaiya virumbu’. The phrase means ‘Intend to do good’. And this is the first thing that a child is taught. There cannot be a better way to start the journey of life.

And so the Aathichudi goes through the A to Z of Tamil, 108 lines in all, with short moral and practical aphorisms. It spans a wide variety of exhortations from ‘Control your anger’, to ‘Never stop learning’ to ‘Care for your parents’ to ‘Do not forget charity’ to ‘Do not allow suffering’.

If we think the ‘quote a day’ approach is new, let’s think again. The Aathichudi is a pithy moral-science textbook cum self-help book which was penned by the legendary Avvaiyar in the 12th century.  

Actually, there was not just one poetess called Avvaiyar  (meaning ‘Wise and respected lady’). There were at least three—the first was way back in the Sangam period (BC); the second probably in the 10th century; and the third, the author of the alphabet primer (among many, many other works) lived in the 12th century.

All of them were wise. They talked with kings and walked with common people. They effortlessly defied convention–they did not marry, they traveled alone across the length and breadth of several kingdoms, they advised kings. wrote poetry, and shared their wisdom. They shunned worldly wealth and power. They not only provided a moral compass to people of the time, but most of what they wrote is timeless.

How influential and independent these women were in their times—they were writing, advising, travelling, teaching, judging the literary works of others, acting as negotiators between kings to stop wars. Their works don’t just endure to this day; they are living documents which every adult, youth and child in the state can quote.

A few gems from Konrai Venthan, another of her works:

Oadhalin nandre vethiyarkku ozhukkam:  For priests, morality is more important than chanting.

Kutdram paarkkil suttram illai: Finding fault results in loss of relationships.

Kaip porul thannil meip porul kalvi: Education is the real wealth, more than the one in your hands.

Neraa noonbu seer aagaathu: A job not done well is not a job to be proud of.

Valavan aayinum alavu arinthu azhiththu unn: Even the super-rich should spend within limits.

Apart from being known to every school child through the Alphabet Primer, in Tamilnadu, the mass memory of Avvaiyar is, predictably enough, based on a film–one starring KT Sundarambal which was released in 1953. There are many, many stories and myths about the Avvaiyaars—from verbally jousting with Subramania (son of Lord Shiva), to being transformed from an attractive young girl to an old lady in an instant. This last was a result of praying to Ganesha, since Avvaiyar wanted to avoid getting into a marriage and family responsibilities, so that she could focus on her scholarly pursuits. There are besides, several statues across the State, including an imposing one at Marina (though how we know how she looked is not clear to me!). There are many college and educational institutions named after her.

For a long time now, people of Tamilnadu have been remembering her through the Avvai Vizha, an annual festival celebrated around mid-March, which is a gathering of scholars of Tamil and other subjects. This has, in recent times been taken over by the State Government. Besides this, the TN Govt. has instituted the Avvaiyar Award, to be given to ‘one eminent woman who has rendered excellent service in any one field such as Social Reform, Women Development, Communal harmony, Service for Language, Service in various disciplines in Art, Science, Culture, Press, Administration, etc., on the International Women’s Day which is being celebrated on March 8th every year’.

Avvaiyar even has a crater on Venus named after her—Feature 512!

But probably if she is looking down on us, what will please her most is that her work is still being used to lay the basics of literacy and education for children! And though she does not seem to make any explicit references to women empowerment nor set herself up as a role model, she will surely be happy that she is an inspiration for women through the centuries!

On the occasion of International Women’s Day…

–Meena

‘millennialmatriarchs’ was launched on 8 March, 2018. So this piece marks our third anniversary. Our heartfelt thanks to all those who have supported and encouraged us, and most of all, our kind readers!
Mamata and Meena

The Pied Piper of Young Naturalists

Photo source: deshgujarat.com

It was the interview that was to start my journey as an environmental educator. I had walked in with no formal academic or professional credentials to support my application, except for a great love for trekking and a passion for education. Among the distinguished naturalists that made up the interview panel was an avuncular gentleman who probed gently with questions that were probably meant to test what made me tick. I have no recollection of the exact questions, nor my answers, but I must have passed muster because I did get the job!

That was my first encounter with Luvkumar Khachar as he was later introduced. In the few years that followed I had the privilege of having Luvbha as a senior colleague, mentor, and continuing inspiration. Over the years I realised that Luvbha was all this, and much more, to thousands of young people, leading them like the Pied Piper on a lifelong journey of becoming naturalists. 

Luvkumar Khachar was one of the architects of the nature conservation movement in India. A renowned naturalist and accomplished ornithologist, he was also a passionate nature educator who made it his mission to instil the love for the outdoors in every young person. He conceived and launched the massive Nature Club movement for WWF India, and guided the Bombay Natural History Society for decades, just as he did the Centre for Environment Education after that. His own nature camps—in the desert, in the mountains, and on islands– were legendary, and perhaps every ‘not so young’ renowned naturalist today would remember being at one of those camps.

Luvkumar was born in the erstwhile princely family of Jasdan in Gujarat on 24 February 1931. His early days were spent in the great open spaces in close touch with the natural environment, planting a lifelong love for the outdoors. He always bemoaned the lack of such opportunities for later generations of youngsters. This was one of the prime factors that motivated his Nature Camps mission in the early 1970s. As he recalled, “I contemplated the  apparent lack of excitement among our youth for going out into the great open spaces. Comparing their upbringing with mine, I realized that I had had the great good fortune of  having spent my childhood at Hingolgadh with its wide views of the Saurashtra countryside, across which played the seasons, responded to by plants and animals. A majority of children, especially in urban situations, seldom see a sunrise! What struck me was the immense gulf developing between a city child and a tribal child. Were we not creating a schizophrenic society? The thought was disturbing.”

Having himself had a stint as a teacher in a conventional school he was aware of, and distressed by the fact that schools were becoming fetters to free growth, rather than liberating experiences. “We like to believe that we are descended of a civilization which nurtured intellectual giants, but fail to realise that these thinkers were leading unfettered lives in a land that was largely wilderness, replete with the bounties of Nature. By contrast, today’s child attending the most sophisticated of school is cramped and provides a constricted vision. The child of yesteryears, while enjoying advantages of limitless horizons, enjoyed the benediction of gurus who encouraged questioning. Today’s child seems sentenced to ten years of a concentration camp governed by a syllabus as tyrannical and circumscribing as any prison code! The system instead of exciting the wonder of growing minds, supresses their flights as effectively as any efficient prison warden following the prison code.”

Such scathing words were a trademark of this life-long educator who was always forthright in expressing his strongly-held opinions. But they also represented a warrior who fought tirelessly and hard for his beliefs, even in the face of hostility.

Like most naturalists of his generation, Luvkumar meticulously recorded his observations. His writing was a rare combination of science, intellect and emotion, ably supported by his natural ability as a writer. When Sanctuary Asia, one of India’s leading and best-loved magazines for wildlife science and conservation, was being planned, he told the editor “If you are going to start a wildlife magazine, please don’t make it a dry-as-dust scientific journal to be read by just 30 colleagues. Make it a popular magazine that thousands will enjoy. Because we need larger numbers to protect our wildlife.”

Luvbha was “old-world” in that he demanded high standards of discipline, integrity, commitment, and work ethic; just as he commanded respect and awe. As his young colleagues we were always a little tense about living up to his expectations, and were often pulled up by him, but there was always a twinkle in his eyes and a gentle smile that told us that we had his support in our efforts. For a while we were also lunch companions when we shared work space in the leafy environs of CEE’s Sundarvan. One of the rituals that he introduced was that one of us was to go to his office every morning with a packet of milk, and set the curd that we would all share with lunch.

Luvbha was always chided me for not going on more camping trips. I do regret that I could not attend one of his nature camps. But I am grateful for having had the privilege of learning much from him that has guided my work in environmental education, as well as life-lessons that are now deeply entrenched in me. Luvbha passed away in 2015 at the age of 84. Remembering him with respect, and many warm memories.

–Mamata

Stargazer to Trailblazer

Photo source: en.wikipedia.org

As we continue to celebrate women and girls in science, here is an inspiring story that goes back two hundred years.

 The common belief in nineteenth-century American society was that too much intellectual education would damage a woman’s health, and that too much thought would fracture or destroy the weaker among them. Women were expected to spend their time in household chores and needlework, in their role as dutiful wives and mothers.

In 1818, a daughter was born to William and Lydia Mitchell. They named her Maria. The Mitchells lived on Nantucket Island, a community of seafarers. The family were Quakers, a community that had somewhat different beliefs and lifestyle than the mainstream population.  One of the tenets of Quaker religion was intellectual equality between the sexes. They valued education and believed that the same quality of education should be given to boys as well as girls. Maria, one of ten children, was encouraged from a young age to exercise the power of her mind.

Maria began attending private elementary schools at the age of four. When she was nine, Maria’s father, who was an amateur astronomer, established a free, private school that Maria joined. Her father was an unconventional teacher who believed in hands-on education and a learning-by-doing curriculum. Students learned about the natural world by being outdoors and direct observation and collection of natural objects. This approach to scientific study had a profound effect on Maria who, throughout her life inculcated the same process of exploration, investigation and persistence.

Maria’s father played an important role in the seafaring community of whalers and fishermen who relied entirely on the stars and the compass for nautical navigation; there were no sophisticated and accurate devices. William Mitchell with his amateur interest in astronomy and daily roof top observations and astronomical recording was the person they all consulted to check the accuracy of their charts, sextants, and chronometers.

From an early age Maria developed a love of astronomy and learnt much from her father’s instruction on astronomy, mathematics, surveying and navigation. When she was twelve years old, the family observed a solar eclipse over the island and Maria counted the seconds of the eclipse to pinpoint the longitude of their house. Two years later, whaling captains entrusted the fourteen-year-old Maria to rate their chronometers on her own. Maria continued to pursue what was becoming a passion, with basic equipment from the small attic of their home.

When her father’s school wound up, Maria joined Cyrus Pierce’s School for Young Ladies. Cyrus Pierce was one of the first people outside of Maria’s own family to recognize her sharp mind, facility for mathematics and self-discipline. He encouraged and supported Maria in her intellectual journey. Later she worked for Pierce as his teaching assistant before she opened her own school in 1835. In a bold step at a time when schools were still segregated she opened her school to non-white children. One year later, she was offered a job as the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, where she worked for 20 years while continuing to pursue her astronomy studies.

On 1 October 1847, while the rest of the family was having a party, Maria was scanning the skies on the roof of the Bank where her father then worked. She spotted a blurry object that was not on any of the charts. She told her father that she had discovered a new comet. Her father was keen that the discovery be made public, but Maria was hesitant because she feared that the scientific community would not take seriously a discovery made by a woman. William was determined and wrote to the noted astronomers of the day, but was met with scepticism. Until he came to know that the Frederick VI the King of Denmark, himself an amateur astronomer was offering a gold medal to the first observer to spot a new telescopic comet. After a prolonged effort to get Maria’s discovery recognised, she was awarded the gold medal over a year later. The new comet was given the official name Comet 1847-VI, but commonly known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”.

Maria Mitchell’s discovery was recognised in a largely male-dominated field. In 1848 she was elected as the first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and one of the first women members of the American Philosophical Society. She also became one of the first women to work for the US Federal Government as part of the US Nautical Almanac. She continued her post as librarian even as she took on new roles and responsibilities in the world of science.

In 1856, she resigned her post at the Atheneum to travel to Europe as the chaperone of the daughter of a rich businessman. She took the opportunity to meet scientists and visit observatories, but also found that even in Europe biases against women scientists were well entrenched.  For example, she was not allowed to observe the stars through the Pope’s telescope because she was a woman.

In 1865, Mathew Vassar a wealthy and enlightened man started the Vassar College. This was the second women’s college in America, and was unusually progressive in many respects, including being the first to hire women as professors. Mathew Vassar saw Maria as a role model for intelligent and ambitious young women and hired her as the first professor to teach at Vassar, even as he faced a lot of opposition. Maria continued to teach at the college for 23 years. Though she was by far the most popular professor she was initially paid only one-third the salary of the male professors, and she was constantly subjected to the deep-rooted prejudice that women were unsuited to mathematical and scientific pursuits.

As a teacher Maria followed her father’s approach of hands-on learning, taking her students of study trips to observe and record. She infused her students with a sense of excitement, and a hunger for knowledge, while sowing the seeds of respect for the scientific method and temperament. She followed unconventional teaching practices; she slept in the same dormitory as her students and would often wake them to observe the night sky. Then she would invite them to her room to drink coffee and discuss astronomy.

On nights when the sky was too cloudy for observations, she would invite the students to the observatory for a social get together. As they entered, she would personally hand out a scroll to each student, with a poem that she had specially written for that student. Then they would go around the room reading each person’s poem in turn. This tradition of Dome Parties continues to this day at Vassar.

Thus Maria became more than a teacher for her students; she was guardian, mentor and surrogate mother. But she expected much from her students, especially a dedication to accuracy and scientific temper, just as she had been taught by her father. She treated her students as equals; as she told her class that “We are women studying together.” Above all she paved the way for women in science with the words to her first class of female astronomers at Vassar in 1876: “No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” 

Maria Mitchell retired from her teaching post in 1888, after a long distinguished career as the first professional female astronomer in America, She died a year later in 1889.

Maria Mitchell was more than just a trailblazer in astronomy. She was deeply involved in the emerging movement for woman’s rights to vote, own property, and receive the same type of education and opportunities offered to men. She was one of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Women in 1873. She proved to the world that women, especially nineteenth-century women, could do much more, than just embroider samplers or oversee the household help. As she wrote, “The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery, will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of a micrometer.”

The trail that Maria laid continues to open further every day. Just a week ago, the European Space Agency has put the call out for new astronaut candidates, the first time in 11 years. The agency is strongly encouraging women to apply for a place on the new team. The sky is certainly not the limit!

–Mamata

Kamala Breaks Barriers: Marking World Radio Day

Kamala Harris made headlines in 2020 when she shattered glass ceilings, but way back in the 1940s and ‘50s, another Kamala was already doing this. After studying Engineering at Guindy Engineering College Chennai, she became the second woman-engineer to join All India Radio.

To mark two relevant days which just went by–World Radio Day (13 February ) and International Day of Women in Science and Technology (11 February)– here is an interview with Mrs. Kamala Subrahmanyan.

Me: When did you do Engineering? Were you the first woman in your college?

Mrs. S: I did my Engineering from 1949 to 1953. And no, I was not the first in my college. I was in fact the seventh—the first woman had started her engineering studies in 1943 and had already finished before I joined. There was one more girl in my batch, and that made things easy.

Me: At a time when engineering was not a normal option for girls, what made you choose it?

Mrs. S: My father was a Deputy Registrar and on his single salary, he supported a large family. I was always fired with the desire to help him. At that time, there were only three professional courses available to anyone—engineering, medicine and law. Well, one of my uncles was studying to be a doctor and I had seen him dissect frogs. I knew I could never do it. So engineering seemed the best option!

Me: What was the reaction of your family?

Mrs. S: My parents were very supportive. And my grandfather who was my role-model encouraged me. So with this kind of backing, I had no problems.

Me: Was there any negative reaction from anyone?

Mrs. S: One of my uncles did not approve. He thought girls should only take up teaching or nursing if they wanted to work. I don’t know about society at large. I did not interact much with anyone outside a small circle, and even if there were negative reactions, I never got to know. Anyway, since my family supported me, I did not really care about anyone else.

Me: How was it at college? The reaction and support or otherwise of classmates, faculty etc.?

Mrs. S: Things were very normal. When we first joined, boys would throw paper planes at us. And when our roll numbers were called for attendance, they would call out ‘Present Sir’ in squeaky voices. But even that stopped in a while. Things were very decent and polite in those days. We all worked together with little differentiation.

We neither asked for any special concessions nor got any. We did our practicals on the lathe or foundry or in surveys just like everyone else. And nor did we face any discrimination.

Me: Then you joined work?

Mrs. S: Yes. Jobs were not easy to come by in those days. As a Telecommunications Engineer, I attended an interview in the State Broadcasting Corporation of Madras Presidency and got my first job there at a salary of Rs. 175 per month. My basic job was to assemble radio sets to be given to community listening centres. There was one more girl with me; she was in the Scientific Stream, not engineering. But we worked together.

Then I got selected in All India Radio and that entailed a move to Delhi.

Me: That was quite a move! How was it?

Mrs. S: For me, it was work, that’s all. I got a place at the YMCA not too far from my office. I would walk up and down. My salary was Rs. 325 per month. I saved most of it to send home. Well, our wants were also very few in those days!

I was the second woman engineer in AIR. Apart from the two enginners, there was also a lady who was a scientist there and senior to me. I was a Technical Assistant and my work was to monitor and control the broadcasting consols. I was the only woman there for quite some time.

Then sadly, my father passed away and on my request, I was posted to Chennai.

Me: What were the various responsibilities you handled during your career?

Mrs. S: Quite a variety. From controlling consols, to going out physically with equipment to do recordings, to doing desk jobs, to looking after maintenance of equipment in various locations, to being in charge of ‘duplicating’ station,  to technical purchases.

Not all jobs are equally exciting, but it is up to us to give our best and make it so and find ways to peform well and help the team perform well. For instance, at the High Speed Duplicating centre Vividh Bharathi and the Studios at AIR Kolkatta, I had a large  number of staff under my control. I made it a habit to go around the places of work the whole day to check if everything was going smooth  Those who worked sincerely were also happy that their work was noticed and appreciated.

Me: What are some of the challenges you faced as a woman?

Mrs. S: Nothing very daunting. Some bosses would not initially give responsibility to a woman. But if one was proactive and looked out for what needed to be done and did it, they would gain confidence and do so. My experience is that you learn a lot from difficult bosses!

Some peers would make things a bit difficult at times specially if they saw me doing well. But such things are a part of life and work, and one just has to take it in the stride.

When I was in charge of Purchase, I faced the most difficult time. But not because I was a woman. I found that there were some problems—there was a nexus of people and some purchases were not being done at all properly. Old or second-quality equipment was coming in. I got very hands-on—from going to the markets myself to find out prices, to ensuring that Standard Operating Procedures were put in place for every aspect and adhered to, to ensuring process and transparency. Of course I did raise quite a few hackles and faced some slogans and threats. Someone even complained to the CBI, who came one day to my office and took away all my files. They kept them for six months, and returned them because they did not find any irregularity.

Me: Any exciting experiences you remember?

When I was in the Studio Design section of the Directorate, one of my duties  was to inspect studios under installation before they are commissioned  One was at Bhuj.  As advised, I took a train  from Delhi Main to Jaisalmer which took almost two days including many long halts.  From Jaisalmer I had to take a flight to Bhuj.  I reached the Airport and boarded the flight (my first experience).  There was another boy on the flight who was quite excited. Suddenly there was an announcement that the plane hae developed a defect and another plane has to come from Cochin for us.  Since there were no facilities for night landing  at Jaisalmer the flight would be available only the next day. I was in a fix as I had planned my trip to be away from home for the minimum period so as not to leave the children  alone. Other passengers in the departure lounge were equally disturbed. Some of them seemed to be discussing about taking a taxi.They appeared to be business men. I asked them if I could join them. They told  me that they were going to Gandhidham the then capital of Gujarat They told me that they can take me up to Gandhidham  and from there I could go to Bhuj. The taxi drove along the Rann of Kutch, a barren patch of land with just white sand. It was pitch dark and there was an eerie silence. On reaching Gandhidham, they took me to the house of one gentleman by name Aggarwal. I contacted the Station Engineer at Bhuj and requested him to send a car to fetch me. He told that he would send the car the next day as it was too late.  The Aggarwals served me dinner and gave me a place to sleep. I thanked them. But I feel so sorry that I had not taken their contacts (there were no cellphones those days). I left from Bhuj the next day and lost half a day.

Me: What about home?

My husband and children were most supportive. My husband and I used to adjust our schedules. For instance, I often had to go on shift duty at 6.30 a.m., or be in the shift till 10.30 p.m. My husband always made sure he was at home.

And also, the establishment was cooperative. If my husband who was in the Railways got transferred, I would request for a transfer to the same place, and they would usually make it happen.

Mrs.  Kamala Devi Subrahmanyan retired as Superintending Engineering, AIR. I went to school with her daughters Giti and Suki. She inspired awe in us even when we were in school—maybe the first woman engineer I ever met.

Wish her all health and cheer!

–Meena

International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 11 February

Gagandeep Kang: Virologist, Professor, Department of Gastrointestinal Sciences at Christian Medical College, Vellore, India.  First Indian woman to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.  At the forefront of COVID science.

Kiran Majumdar Shaw: Chairman-MD of Biocon India Group known for its breakthroughs in clinical research. The first Indian company to export enzymes to the United States and Europe, the first Indian company to gain the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the manufacture of a cholesterol-lowering molecule.

Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath: Chairperson at Centre for Neuro Sciences at Indian Institute of Science, who leads research that will help us understand and cure Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Tessy Thomas: Expert in ‘solid propellants’, which fuel India’s Agni missiles developed by Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO). Called Agniputri by media, after the missiles she has helped develop.

Ms J Manjula:  DRDO Outstanding Scientist, and Director, Defence Avionics Research Establishment.

Minal Sampath, Systems Engineer working on India’s mission to Mars. Anuradha TK, senior-most women officer at ISRO. Nandini Harinath, Project Manager Mission Design, Deputy Operations Director, Mars Orbiter Mission, ISRO. And the many other Mars-Mission Women.

Inspirations, one and all. And they are not the only women-achievers in science and technology.

But still such a minuscule number!

Not just India, but the world and Asia too have this challenge of attracting and retaining women in these fields.

For instance, worldwide:

  • Only 35% of all higher education students enrolled in STEM-related fields are female.
  • Only 28% of all of the world’s researchers are women

Recently, UNESCO Bangkok brought out a report on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education for girls and women in Asia, 2020. The report points to a cycle which hinders girls for pursuing STEM education and hence careers in science.  It highlights the reality that right from a young age, girls receive messages that these subjects are not suitable for girls. One of the issues is that girls do not see any role models of successful women scientists around them. Even when girls do take up this stream of education, there are several barriers to success—from discrimination, to having to handle multiple responsibilities outside the job, to glass ceilings.

It is in recognition of these challenges that the United Nations in 2015, decided that ‘In order to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/70/212 declaring 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science’.

The theme for this year is ‘Women Scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19’. Indeed it is a matter of pride that so many women are indeed there—whether as researchers, as doctors, healthcare professionals or in manufacturing vaccines and medicines.

The journey has started, but there is such a long way to go. Leaving 50 per cent of humanity’s brainpower and entrepreneurial energies out of the search for fundamental scientific truths and putting these to the service of humanity, seems a sad waste indeed!

Make a resolution today to encourage a girl in science. Take her to visit a Science and Technology museum. Buy her a science kit. Take her on a visit to a Scientific Institution on its Open Day. Tell her stories of women-scientists. Gift her a book about science and scientists. In fact, gift a few boys some books about women scientists too!

Do anything, but do something…

–Meena

PS: Two books by women, to get the reading list started:

The Spark that Changed Everything. Veena Prasad. Hachette.

Fantastic Adventures in Science—Women Scientists of India. Nandita Jayaraj, Aashima Freidog. Puffin Books.

Remember Surabhi?

Yes, the weekly culture-magazine that Doordarshan viewers so looked forward to in the 1990s! I was surfing the channels one afternoon, and came across something called DD Retro, where Surabhi was airing. I scrolled down to see other programmes scheduled for the day. They didn’t resonate, but I have started tuning in whenever possible to catch Surabhi.

It was path-breaking in many, many senses of the word. It ran 9 seasons and clocked an incredible 415 episodes (as compared to 236 of Friends!). It was India’s longest-running cultural programme, and had among the highest audiences ever for a TV show of that time (without any TRP fixing!).

Long before such information was literally at our fingertips, Surabhi brought the length and breadth of the country into our drawing rooms, and introduced us to wonders selected most eclectically–from the ‘classical’ arts to the ‘folk’ arts; architecture to sculpture to music, dance, etc. etc. ; museums and individual collections; natural wonders to manmade marvels. It introduced us to parts of the country which in that era are even-less known than they are now, especially the North East and the Andamans. It went deep into the nooks and corners of the country. It made us proud of our art and craft traditions, and even more, brought home the sense that these were living traditions, not some artefacts in the confines of a museum.

It terms of format, it was not a documentary as was the wont those days for giving serious, highbrow information on culture. It was a lively magazine format with short segments covering a wide variety, with no particular discernable theme for the day. Something for everyone and just enough information to whet the appetite.

The key to the success was probably the anchors: Siddharth Kak who brought a gravitas to the proceedings, and Renuka Sahane who lit up the screen with a million-volt smile. Both spoke with so much sincerity and were backed with good research. Never flippant or frivolous, the script was informative and in pretty high-level Hindi, but never seemed to intimidate. Probably because the excitement of the anchors on each new discovery and their genuine joy in sharing it were so palpable.

Audience participation was another key. Many of the items covered were suggested by viewers and after due research, the Surabhi team showcased them. And the competitions! Each episode ended with a question posed by the anchors to the audience. And what a response they used to get. According to the Limca Book of Records, they once got 14 lakh responses in a week! And it was not about clicking something on the screen. People had to make the effort to go to the Post Office, buy a postcard, write down their answers, go to a post box and post it. The Indian Postal service is said to have introduced a special ‘Competition Postcard’ costing Rs.2 (as opposed the normal 15 paise) thanks to Surabhi!. Week after week, how did they even go through all the responses? But they did, and then all the correct responses would be piled up in the room in a special segment, and children would come in to pick the lucky winners from among them.

The prizes for the competitions were bang on in keeping with the spirit of the programme. Usually sponsored by state government tourism corporations and Indian Airlines, they went from air tickets and a few days stay at beach, mountain and tourism resorts of the states, to gift coupons to be used at State Emporia; to gifts of Mysore crepe saris and Mysore sandal soaps!

My family’s close encounter with Surabhi was a lovely one. I wrote in to them describing Raghu’s unique collection of old Indian locks, and unlike today, when one can write 10 mails to ‘info@’ and not get a response, they responded in a few weeks. After seeking more information and sending a local team to take a look, a time for the final shoot was set up, and the team including Siddharth Kak were at home! The airing of the collection on Surabhi is definitely an integral part of the story of Raghu’s lock collection!

Re-watching Surabhi, I felt it was still as interesting today (albeit a few things will look quaint to today’s viewers). Would surely be worth showing at better times and creating more publicity around it? And if there could be an easy-to-find Youtube channel with all the programmes, that would be amazing!

–Meena