Far from the teeming crowds in Bengaluru, in what was once a leafy mango orchard, is a cradle of science attempting to meet the challenges of the future. Set up by Prof C V Raman (1888 - 1970), one of India’s most extraordinary physicists, the Raman Research Institute (RRI) is an august academy for young minds driven by a scientific temper.
RRI, situated in Sadashiv Nagar, a suburb of Bengaluru, is an 11-acre oasis donated by the then Maharaja of Mysore. But why did Prof Raman go to such lengths to build a small and autonomous research institute when he could have savoured the directorship or emeritus professorship in any of the country’s prestigious scientific organisations that were being set up at the time?
In 1930, Prof Raman became the first Indian to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, for discovering the Raman Effect. Soon after winning the award, he was appointed as the first Indian Director of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore in 1933. It was then that his dream began to take shape – he yearned to build an Indian Academy of Sciences (IAS) on the lines of The Royal Society of London and similar academies he had seen abroad.
In 1934, the Maharaja of Mysore, Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar, generously offered Prof Raman as much land as he wanted to set up his cherished institute.
The story goes that Prof Raman chose no more than 11 acres of the mango orchards near the northern limits of the city, then marked by the famous Kempe Gowda tower, because he couldn’t afford a bigger fence!
The IAS later added a research institute to its campus and it was ready on the day of Prof Raman’s retirement from IISc in 1948. It is said that the celebrated physicist literally walked out of IISc and straight into RRI. Prof Raman not only lived and worked there till the day he died, he was also cremated on this beautiful campus. Today, a lone flowering tree – Tabebula donell-smithi – marks the spot where he was cremated, on the central green lawn of the RRI.
Leading A ‘Double Life’
After graduating from Presidency College, Madras, at the age of 15, with gold medals in English and Physics, the budding scientist could not indulge his love for Physics as it would have meant travelling abroad. Lack of funds and ill-health held him back. Instead, he earned a Master’s degree in Arts and then topped the Civil Services examination, then the most lucrative career option for bright students. But the burning desire to pursue Physics never left him.
His first posting was in Calcutta in 1907 and, for years, Raman led a dual life – as a government servant during office hours and an experimental physicist outside them. He was able to do this fulfil his passion for Physics by reviving the Indian Association for Cultivation of Science (IACS) established by Mahendra Lal Sircar, a medical doctor, intellectual and social reformer.
Raman worked assiduously at IACS from the wee hours till 9.30 am, and then rushed home for a bath and breakfast before heading off to work. In the evening, Raman headed straight to IACS, only to return home late at night. This gruelling schedule made his newly wed wife, Loksundari, remark that maybe he had married her for the extra allowance it fetched him from the British offices (apparently in those days they paid additional sum of Rs. 150 for married officers).
During this time, Raman was mainly investigating Acoustics and Optics.
For nearly a decade (1908- 1918) he investigated vibrations of strings and other instruments like drums, Mridanga and wrote his treatise Mechanical Theory of Vibrations of Bowed Strings of the Violin Family. His path-breaking research began to draw attention at home and abroad, and Raman was offered a full-time Palit Professorship at the Physics Department at Calcutta University. This marked a decisive, professional shift into the scientific world (even though at a lower salary).
Despite his new commitment, Prof Raman continued his association with IACS, where he guided research students and mentored their work. But he was no longer shuttling between the university and IACS on foot or taxi; apparently, he had bought a horse-drawn cart to commute between the two addresses!
It was at IACS that Prof Raman and his students made observations that led to the discovery of the ‘Raman Effect’ in 1928, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930.
Against The Tide
As a scientist, Prof Raman had always sought two things – absolute freedom to pursue science without any demands from government or bureaucratic interference; and a team of his own choosing. After winning the Nobel Prize, he was offered the Directorship of the IISc in Bangalore in 1933, but it came with strings attached.
To everyone’s disappointment, including his own, Prof Raman’s vision and administrative methods did not always match those of his colleagues and British counterparts. Eventually, he stepped down as Director of IISc but continued as a Professor in the Physics Department, which he himself had founded. So, on the day he retired in 1948, it was a very disillusioned Prof Raman that left his last job, still passionately hoping to pursue science his way!
That is why the institute he set up – the Raman Research Institute – was so precious to him. It represented everything he had envisioned in a research body, free of fetters and ready to soar to great scientific heights. His experience at IISc was so unpleasant that it is said that Prof Raman planted eucalyptus trees to block the view of the IISc, obliterating any trace of the institute and bitter memories from his beloved campus.
Prof Raman steadfastly refused any funds and grants from the Government of India to build and nurture RRI because he believed creative freedom was crucial in the pursuit of science and excellence. So he embarked on alternative methods of funding.
He invested in two chemical factories in the hope that he could use the profits to spend on his institute.
He also toured extensively to lecture in India and abroad and often sought funds for RRI.
The eminent scientist’s funds-collection drive often made people uneasy but Prof Raman had no qualms. He often remarked that he was following in the footsteps of Gautama Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi, and there was no shame in begging for a noble cause. One of his students, Vikram Sarabhai (remembered as the father of India’s space programme) and his family too played a pivotal role in fund-raising and supported him till the very end.
Dream Comes True
After his stint at IISC, Prof Raman, quite literally, couldn’t wait to start work at RRI, for he started his research there even before the place had electricity. Prof Raman’s most favoured area of interest was investigating nature – light and sound, the natural colours of flowers, birds’ plumage, rocks and minerals. All he needed for his investigations were simple, innovative instruments that would use the best source of light present in nature – sunlight.
His hand-picked team would design innovative instruments like Heliostat and, together, they would collect samples of iridescent substances like rocks, gems, opals, pearls, mineral ore, diamonds, butterflies and anything that showed extraordinary colours and effects when light was shone on them. His students, A Jayaraman and R Ramaseshan, have written excellent biographical accounts and memoirs of their experiences of working with him.
Prof Raman investigated optical behaviour – luminescence, phosphorescence and fluorescence – using simple methods like irradiating them with sunlight or in a dark room with ultraviolet light, in order to understand their structure and properties.
He studied even the diamonds of a neckpiece gifted to him by the Maharaja and published it as a scientific work.
His foreign guests and students also gifted him rare stones, minerals, crystals etc and his collection grew over time.
This large collection is housed inside the main building of RRI, whose museum also exhibits musical instruments as his early work was based on musical sounds and distinct harmonies of the veena.
A Vision for India
The Nobel laureate had a clear vision that India needed home-grown talent and a blueprint for scientific research. He did not believe in big laboratories and institutions with instruments imported from other countries to conduct secondary research while following someone else’s line of pursuit. He abhorred the mediocre kind of work that required sending students and researchers abroad for training.
He did not shun Western science or scientists per se and even tried to recruit European scientists like Max Born, Erwin Schrodinger and other Jewish scientists who were in search of a good country to move into during the Second World War, when he was the Director of IISc. Renowned physicist Max Born was in fact appointed to the Chair of Physics in IISc but due to differences, he could not continue. He interacted regularly with his once PhD student Vikram Sarabhai till the end, even though the latter had an entirely different vision for the development of science – that of Jawaharlal Nehru, Homi Bhabha and others.
In his memoir essay, C V Raman – A Pictorial Biography, Prof S Ramaseshan has quoted Prof Raman lamenting towards the end of his life:
“My life has been an utter failure. I thought I would try to build true science in this country. But all we have is a legion of camp followers of the West.”
He strongly believed that the only way to promote science and build a scientific temperament was by encouraging a true scientific spirit of inquiry and investigation.
The truth is, Prof Raman did not entirely fail. His vision did produce extraordinary work by his student S Pancharatnam, an RRI alumnus who worked in the field of classical optics. His discovery of ‘Pancharatnam Phase’ was applied to quantum optics later. It is also true that we have produced barely any Nobel-winning scientific work on our soil despite following the path shown by the West.
Perhaps Prof Raman did realise the grave difficulties of running an independent research institute, after all. At the last board meeting with his management trustees, just before his death, he added a clause which stated that, if required, RRI could accept grants and funding from the Department of Science & Technology (DST), Government of India, provided it does not jeopardise the autonomy of the institute.
After his death in 1970, Prof Raman’s son Dr Radhakrishnan, well-known radio-astronomer, took over as Director of RRI. He expanded the scope of its research by adding new, dedicated departments. Today, RRI is an autonomous institution with funding support from the DST. It has various successful departments like Astronomy and Astrophysics, Soft Condensed Matter Physics, Biophysics, Light and Matter Physics and Theoretical Physics Group that are conducting cutting-edge research. Its Liquid Crystal department and laboratory is one of the pioneering labs in the field.
The pursuit of excellence at RRI is a legacy of Prof C V Raman’s vision. The Indian Academy of Sciences and its publication wing housed within the same campus is doing exemplary work too. But, in its truest sense, the essence, brilliance and scientific legacy of Dr C V Raman resides in RRI. Some may call it the ‘Raman Effect’.
Author extends gratitude to Prof. Supurna Sinha and RRI for all the support and cooperation.
Madhuri Katti is a Kolkata based physics teacher, heritage enthusiast and an aspiring writer.