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Dr Raja Ramanna: Nuclear Physicist and Grand Pianist

Dr Raja Ramanna: Nuclear Physicist and Grand Pianist

Dr Raja Ramanna was one of India’s most celebrated nuclear physicists, a scientist who helped shape India’s nuclear programme. But there was one thing his colleagues could never figure out – the suffix to his name – ‘PhD’, ‘LRSM’. ‘LRSM’?

Yet those seven letters of the alphabet summed up the very genius of the man. The ‘LRSM’ was a musical flourish Ramanna added as if to remind us all that while science nourished his intellect, music filled his soul. ‘LRSM’, if you haven’t figured it out already, stands for ‘Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music’, a diploma from the Royal Schools of Music in England.

Ramanna was at once a brilliant scientist and an accomplished pianist. Such was his love for music that he used his precious allowance as a student in London, to play the piano for a few hours at a time in a music hall in the city. Throughout his life, music was a constant companion.

Raja Ramanna playing the piano | National Institute of Advanced Studies

Ramanna was born in 1925 in Tumkur, in the princely state of Mysore. His parents recognised his talent for music early and encouraged him to learn classical European music at school. At the Good Shepherd Convent, a missionary institution in Mysore, he was trained in piano by nuns who had also taught many Princes of the Mysore royal family. Ramanna was just six then.

When his family moved to Bangalore, Ramanna attended the elite Bishop Cotton Boys’ School, a part of the English public school system. Here, he immersed himself in playing the piano and attending lectures on musicology, thanks to the European warden and a missionary teacher at the school.

Now the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wadiyar, was a patron of both Western and Indian music. How could he not meet this schoolboy, who was being talked about in music circles for his talent as a pianist?

Ramanna was just 12 years old when he gave an audition at the Jaganmohan Palace. “On the day of the audition, the Maharaja listened intently to a new set of pieces that I played for him. Later, he came up for a chat and asked whether my teachers were guiding me properly and whether they discriminated between me and the European children. I was touched. The Maharaja was genuine in the care he showed towards a 12-year-old,” Ramanna later recalled.

Music always seemed to keep abreast of Ramanna’s academic achievements. When he acquired a B.Sc degree in Physics from the Madras Christian College, he also earned a B.A degree in Classical Music. While studying for a PhD in Nuclear Physics at King’s College in London, he picked up the LRSM diploma there. 

While studying for his doctorate in London, the budding nuclear physicist, who later guided India’s nuclear programme, revelled in attending the opera and orchestra performances as much as he did giving piano recitals at the Trinity College of Music in London.

This book, published in 1993, is one of two written by Dr Raja Ramanna. The other was his autobiography, Years of Pilgrimage, in 1991

Oddly enough, it was a shared love for Mozart that gained Ramanna an introduction to one of India’s greatest scientists – Dr Homi Bhabha, the father of India’s nuclear programme. The two met for the first time in 1944, while Ramanna was still a doctoral student, when they were introduced by Dr Alfred Mistowski, an examiner with the Trinity College of Music, London. 

One day, Dr Mistowski told Ramanna that a well-known Indian scientist and his mother were staying in the state guest house, where Ramanna too was staying, and would he like to meet them? Dr Mistowski said that the scientist too was a music enthusiast and he and his mother enjoyed listening to music on the gramophone records at the guest house. That scientist was Dr Homi Bhabha.

After that fateful meeting, the two met again, and Dr Bhabha offered Ramanna a position at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). Ramanna took up the offer after he completed his doctoral studies and joined TIFR in 1949. 

But in spite of his weighty responsibilities as a scientist, he continued to perform classical European music at concerts.

Often seated in the audience at the Cowasji Jehangir Hall in Colaba, Mumbai was a special guest, Dr Homi Bhabha. 

Dr Ramanna went on to join the Atomic Energy Establishment at Trombay, which was later renamed the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). One of his greatest contributions was creating a pool of trained scientific manpower and, as the Director of BARC, he guided India’s nuclear programme. Dr Ramanna was also the directing officer of the core team that carried out ‘Operation Smiling Buddha’, India’s first nuclear test at Pokhran in 1974.

For the rest of his career, Dr Ramanna worked with India’s nuclear establishment in various capacities including Director-General of the Defence Research and Development Organisation. He was also a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency. 

Dr Ramanna died at the age of 79 in Mumbai in 2004. He will be remembered as a scientist for whom both physics and the piano were music to his ears.

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