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Roddam Narasimha (1933-2020): ‘Almost perfect guru, steeped in Indian tradition’

Some of his students, outstanding scientists themselves, say Narasimha, one of the doyens of Indian science who passed away in Bengaluru on Monday at the age of 87, was as great a teacher and mentor as an accomplished scientist.

Written by Amitabh Sinha | Pune | Updated: December 16, 2020 8:14:52 am
Roddam Narasimha, roddam narasimha scientistRoddam Narasimha

THE LAST major honour bestowed on Roddam Narasimha was a lifetime achievement award from Nature magazine in 2019 for ‘Mentoring in Science’. Some of his students, outstanding scientists themselves, say Narasimha, one of the doyens of Indian science who passed away in Bengaluru on Monday at the age of 87, was as great a teacher and mentor as an accomplished scientist.

“He was almost the perfect guru, deeply steeped in the Indian tradition. I could sense that in the very first lecture I attended from him at the Indian Institute of Science. He had already done some formidable scientific work during his stay at Caltech in the US by then. He had great insight into the subject, but the way he interacted with the students is something that left a lasting impression on us. We could immediately see that we were dealing with a very different kind of a person, very different teacher, and of course a very bright scientist,” said Suresh Madhusudan Deshpande, a student, colleague and collaborator of Narasimha.

A multi-faceted talent who was associated with India’s space programme, defence programme and even nuclear policy for decades, Narasimha’s main work was in the field of fluid dynamics, which deals with the behaviour of liquids and gases, an area he got interested in while studying for his diploma in aeronautical engineering at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in early 1950s. His original work in the field was so influential that while he was still pursuing his PhD at Caltech, he was hired as a consultant by NASA, which had been frantically building up its space programme after having been beaten by the erstwhile Soviet Union in sending the first satellite to space.

K R Sreenivasan, a professor at the New York University and another of Narasimha’s distinguished students, wrote a few years ago how his teacher’s performance and skills had opened up several opportunities in the US at that time, but he returned to Bengaluru to work at his alma mater, the IISc.

“It is astounding to realize that despite all the fame and international visibility and travel, RN (Roddam Narasimha) never stayed away from Bangalore, his place of birth, for long periods of time. It is evident in his conversations that he is entirely comfortable with western colleagues, ideas and ideals (and admires some of them)… but he is quintessentially Indian, very proud of his roots, Indian people and their outlook, including their foibles. He is extremely well-versed in the country’s history and analyses its present with open mind, while occasionally bemoaning the lack of strategic thinking on the part of the country which has a habit of getting embroiled in day-to-day survival,” Sreenivasan wrote in a profile of Narasimha for the Current Science magazine in 2014 that was co-authored by fellow student G S Bhat, an atmospheric scientist at IISc.

Narasimha was invited to help India’s space programme, which was still in its infancy, and also the ongoing projects at the National Aerospace Laboratories (then National Aeronautical Laboratory) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. The original concept for a Light Combat Aircraft is said to have come from him. Much later, he was appointed director of NAL where he remained for almost 10 years. While at IISc, he was instrumental in setting up the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences, which evolved into one of the leading research centres on Indian monsoon. In fact, monsoon was one of his long-term interest areas.

More recently, Narasimha was closely involved in shaping India’s science policies, serving in advisory capacities for several governments and as member of many committees. He also spoke frequently on India’s nuclear programme and related strategic issues.

“He had a very deep understanding of how science works,” said Anil Kakodkar, former chairman of Atomic Energy Commission who happened to be on several high-level scientific committees with Narasimha.

“When he was the director of NIAS (Bengaluru-based National Institute of Advanced Sciences), he dealt a lot with India’s strategic issues, and encouraged and supported healthy dialogue and discourse on these critical scientific issues that were very important for India as a nation. He was very deep in science, deep in technology and also deep in philosophy,” Kakodkar said.

Deshpande, his student, said he was as at ease with science as with Indian philosophy and history. “He had very good knowledge of Sanskrit, and of philosophical texts including Yog Vashishtha and even Charak Samhita. He took interest in international affairs, geopolitics, nuclear policy and strategic affairs. He was a scholar in best Indian tradition,” said Deshpande, who was at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) where Narasimha also held a position in his last years.

Incidentally, the founder of JNCASR, one of India’s most famous scientists C N R Rao, was Narasimha’s classmate in a junior school in Bengaluru.

Active till almost his end, Narasimha was delivering lectures till early this year. “He was regularly invited for reviews at the ISRO, and he used to come well prepared for these meetings. He was very closely associated with the planning and reviews of India’s space programme, till as recent as the Chandrayaan-2 mission,” said Pramod Kale, a former director of Ahmedabad-based Space Applications Centre.

In his profile in Current Science, Sreenivasan and Bhat had written how his earlier students thought Narasimha’s single minded love for research and his temperament made him unsuitable for a role in science administration. “But time has proven them wrong. He has shouldered great responsibilities with poise and effectiveness that can only come from inner strength and confidence,” they wrote.

“Professor Narasimha was a great man by any measure, and touched positively the lives of all those who interacted with him. He was a great mentor to me and to many others who worked with him,” Sreenivasan told The Indian Express.

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