IISc Bangalore: Birthing an Idea that was Ahead of its Time

IISc Bangalore: Birthing an Idea that was Ahead of its Time

In September 1898, pioneering industrialist Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata made an announcement that astounded the men of his day. He was to set aside 14 buildings and four landed properties that he owned, all in Bombay, for an endowment to establish a scientific research university. Worth 30 lakh rupees at the time, this was almost half his personal wealth.

Tata was a rare visionary but to realise that to march forward, India would need her own scientific and technical institutions was unprecedented for his time. After all, at the turn of the 20th century, research-based institutions were nowhere on the horizon in India. Even more astonishing, Tata wanted to use philanthropy as a means to promote higher education.

It took more than two decades, from inspiration to execution, to set up one of India’s preeminent and highest-ranked scientific institutions. Here’s the story of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore, whose alumni read like the who’s who of India’s scientific fraternity.

In 1889, Lord Reay, the Governor of Bombay (and Chancellor of the University of Bombay), in his convocation address said that “India was at the parting of the ways; higher education could no longer develop if the universities remained purely examining bodies… It is only by the combined efforts of the wisest men in England, of the wisest men in India, that we can hope to establish in this old home of learning real Universities which will give a fresh impulse to learning, to research, to criticism, which will inspire reverence and impart strength and self-reliance to future generations of our and of your countrymen. The sooner we recognise our weakness on the academic side, the better.”

This call to action made a deep impact on Tata and he drafted his ward and family friend, educationist Burjorji Padshah, to help him devise a scheme to set up a leading, research-based university in India. Padshah was a versatile genius who had helped Tata shepherd the business house through its formative years and beyond. He had also played a pivotal role in setting up India’s first steel plant, the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TICSO) at Jamshedpur, and a hydro-electric power supply company.

To acquaint himself with the nitty-gritty of higher education, Padshah spent 18 months visiting educational institutions in Europe and America before he selected Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore as a model.

Considered to be the first research university in the United States and founded on a donation given by the entrepreneur and philanthropist, Johns Hopkins, it shared many similarities with what Tata had envisioned.

On his return, Padshah prepared a blueprint for the proposed university and soon a provisional committee of about 25 field experts was set up to draft an action plan. The Chairman of the committee was E T Candy, Vice-Chancellor of Bombay University and an Oriental scholar; the Vice-Chairman was Justice M G Ranade, a social reformer and one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress. Tata and Padshah served as honorary secretaries.

The plan was presented to the new Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, in December 1898. R M Lala in his book The Creation of Wealth: The Tatas From The 19th To The 21st Century (2017), mentions the three departments proposed: (i) a scientific and technological department, (ii) a medical and sanitary department, including research in bacteriology; and (iii) a department for studies in philosophy and education, ethics and psychology, Indian history and archaeology, statistics and economics and comparative philology. Lala says, “The canvas that Jamsetji was working on was too vast for his contemporaries to fathom, far less to accept.” 

From here on, it was a struggle to convince the colonial administration of the need to set up an institute of this scale and scope in India, and one that would focus on encouraging Indian scientific talent. Moreover, Curzon’s anti-Indian bias is well known and he was doubtful about the success of such an institution. He didn’t think it would receive enough qualified students and, if it did, where would they find employment after their training? He also had misgivings about the philosophical and educational department developing along political lines.

However, the report was forwarded to many government officials in India and England, discussed at Shimla Conference in 1899 and finally, the first two departments were given the go-ahead. 

Burjorji Padshah and Seshadri Iyer

But where would this first-of-its-kind research institute be situated?

After Padshah, it was the Diwan of Mysore, Seshadri Iyer, who made the biggest contribution to the founding of the IISc. When he learnt of the plan to create a world-class university, Iyer approached the Regent, Maharani Kempa Nanjammani Vani Vilasa Sannidhana (who was ruling for her minor son Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV), and asked for support. She readily agreed and granted 371 acres of land in Bangalore, along with financial aid.

Sadly, J N Tata did not live to see his dream materialise. He died in 1904, five years before the Vesting Order for the institute was issued by Viceroy Lord Minto, on 27th May 1909.

The IISc was the second scientific research institution to be set up in India, the first being Kolkata’s Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS) in 1876, brainchild of Dr Mahendra Lal Sircar, a medical practitioner and social reformer, who was supported by scientist Eugène Lafont.

IISc's iconic Main Building, designed by architect CF Stevens | IISc Archives

Finally, the idea of the IISc now began to take a concrete shape. Architect C F Stevens, son of famous English architect F W Stevens, who built some of Bombay’s most iconic structures, was to design and develop the campus, while English chemist Morris Travers was appointed its first Director. 

Former IISc Director P Balaram writes in an editorial published in the Current Science journal, “Travers fought an unceasing battle with Padshah and Dorab Tata on the academic directions of the Institute. Padshah favoured starting subjects like archaeology and the humanities, while Dorab Tata had visions of bacteriology and a tropical diseases institute. Travers was sharply focused, realizing that resources, both human and material, would permit only a more limited approach.”

Thus, in 1911, the IISc opened its doors to its first batch of 34 students (there were around 500 applications) with two departments – General and Applied Chemistry and Electro-Technology. Over time, more departments were added and there are 45 today.

One of the first departments, Electro-Technology | IISc Archives

Travers once wrote, “When I first went to India, one of the first things I did was to look into the question of housing and feeding students drawn from all over India. I came to the conclusion that I should have to have several messes. Then I was right, for when we opened, I found that we had to have five (including a Brahmin mess and a European mess). Then a Muslim student turned up, and as no mess would take him in, I had to make a one-man mess for him. I still wonder how fish-eating Bengalis get on with meat-eating Punjabis.”

The founders of the IISc had set the bar high from the very beginning and, in keeping with the institute’s spirit of pioneering research, it has contributed to major technological breakthroughs and developments as well as scientific discoveries over the decades.

Statesman and celebrated engineer M Visvesvaraya was nominated to the IISc’s council and he urged researchers to focus on local industrial problems that were of immediate importance to the country. As a result, early work on sandalwood oil extraction, and lac and acetone manufacturing processes benefitted the Mysore soap factory and sandalwood oil factories. 

In 1933, the IISc saw its first Indian Director in Nobel Laureate C V Raman, who did his important research on crystals and spectroscopy here. It was during his tenure that the IISc opened its doors to women, but only after much controversy.

While there is no specific record of the first woman who enrolled here, there is mention of a ‘Miss M M Mehta’ in 1920 and a ‘Miss R K Christie’ in 1922. But in 1933, the institute admitted ‘Miss K Bhagvat’ or Kamala Sohonie, as she is more famously known. After graduating, she applied for the post of research student in C V Raman’s Lab. But despite being high on the merit list, she was denied the position as Raman was stubbornly against having women students work under him. She sat on a Gandhian-style dharna or protest, in front of his office, demanding justice, till Raman was forced to relent!

Sohonie’s impressive research work on proteins found in milk, pulses and legumes led to her being offered a scholarship to pursue a PhD at Cambridge University in England. Her success made Raman openly announce the admission of women to the IISc from the academic year 1937-38.

Students outside the first women’s hostel at IISc, c. 1945 | IISc Archives

Other eminent people who have been a part of the IISc include Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, Anna Mani and Satish Dhawan. This tells us that the IISc played an important role in nation-building and its story runs parallel to the story of science in India. No wonder the IISc Bangalore has consistently featured in rankings of the best universities in the world.

R M Lala writes in his book, “When asked what are the distinguishing characteristics of the institute, its [former] director CNR Rao says, “For success in intellectual endeavour, the first requisite is freedom. We are the most free in India; truly autonomous…People are able to devote themselves to research.”

This story was recommended by LHI reader Sharath Ahuja, Technical Officer-Retired, IISc, Bangalore. Have a piece of history you’d like us to write about and feature on LHI? Connect with us at contactus@livehistoryindia.com

This article is part of our special series the ‘Making of Modern India’ through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India’s exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.

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