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Bhabha and the art of science

A book on Homi Bhabha,published as part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research’s Bhabha centenary year celebrations,intersperses his previously unpublished letters with his doodles and photographs,bringing alive the multi-faceted personality of Bhabha as a lover of the arts,food,gardening and more....

Written by Kavitha Iyer |
June 6, 2010 12:34:06 am

In April 1947,Dr Albert Einstein wrote to Dr Homi Bhabha,on the letterhead of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists in Princeton,New Jersey,formed to spread awareness globally against the use of nuclear warfare. “Through the release of atomic energy,our generation has brought into the world the most revolutionary force since prehistoric man’s discovery of fire. This basic power cannot be fitted into the outmoded concept of narrow nationalisms… We scientists recognize our inescapable responsibility to carry to our fellow citizens an understanding of the simple facts of atomic energy and their implications for society. In this lie our only security and our only hope—we believe that an informed citizenry will act for life and not for death,” Einstein wrote.

Dr Bhabha responded on July 15,1947,promising that the Association of Scientific Workers of India under the chairmanship of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru would support the scientists’ efforts. He signed off: “With kind regards and happy memories of our meeting in Princeton.”

All this and more,including not just correspondence between the father of India’s nuclear programme and the global who’s who of science,art and philosophy,but also sketches and paintings by Bhabha and rare photographs of the Renaissance man who built some of India’s most enduring scientific institutions,blend seamlessly in A Masterful Spirit: Homi J Bhabha (Penguin,Rs 1,299) by Indira Chowdhury and Ananya Dasgupta. Published as part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research’s (TIFR’s) Bhabha centenary year celebrations,the book also presents extracts from Bhabha’s speeches and writings,as well as recollections of his family,friends,colleagues and students.

“I actually see the book moving beyond the 100-year theme,” says Chowdhury,an archivist,historian and writer. “Long after the centenary celebrations are over,the book will still be relevant.”

Having spent many months going through Bhabha’s papers in a loft next to his office in TIFR,Colaba, while setting up the TIFR Archives since 2004,Chowdhury says when the idea of a book took shape,she thought it would be enriching for the reader to see what the archivist saw. “The letters were beautiful. Every day,I’d find a new one and my day would be made,” Chowdhury says of the extensive correspondence that’s part of the book. Some letters have even been reproduced as scanned versions of the original,including Sir CV Raman’s signature,among others,as proposer for Bhabha’s certificate of election to the Royal Society in 1941.

The innovative design,interspersing the authors’ narrative with the letters,doodles and photographs,reflects the post-colonial times,bringing alive Bhabha’s multi-faceted personality as a lover of the arts,food,gardening and more. So there’s the witty ‘Shakespeare Orders Lunch’,composed by Bhabha in 1935,when he was 26,featuring Shakespeare and a serving man as the dramatis personae. There’s also the title page of his thesis at Cambridge,“On Cosmic Radiation and the Creation and Annihilation of Positrons and Electrons”; pages from a notebook he maintained in 1943 with observations in his handwriting about the scientific papers he was reading then; and his pencil sketches of CV Raman,Mrinalini Sarabhai and several scientists of that time. There’s the front page of The Statesman,dated January 25,1966: “Air India Plane Crashes Into Mont Blanc Range”. Dr Bhabha was among the 117 killed.

Sometime in 1959,having returned from being conferred an honorary degree at Cambridge,Bhabha wrote to Nehru,who he addressed as ‘Bhai’,describing what had been a “particularly good year for roses” and then added: “I hope some of the scientific laboratories and establishments we are building today will have a beauty of their own… I think both Trombay and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research will be architecturally,and botanically,beautiful when they are completed.”

Later,in 1962,he wrote to JD Bernal,a crystallographer and one of the founders of modern biology,regarding a previous conversation wherein Bernal had promised to find out if Picasso would be persuaded to paint a mural for the TIFR building in Colaba. “It is quite impossible for us to pay anything in foreign exchange,leave aside the type of price which would be appropriate for Picasso,” Bhabha wrote to Bernal,whose flat at Birbeck College hosted a mural by Picasso,the only one by the artist in England. Bhabha suggested instead that Picasso could visit and stay in India as a guest,“at our expense,together with arrangements for visiting and seeing some of the famous archaeological monuments in India,such as Elephanta,Ellora and Ajanta,Khajuraho,Halebid and Belur,and the Moghul architecture in Delhi and Agra.”

“Sometimes aspects of his personality revealed themselves suddenly,” says Chowdhury,as in nuclear scientist MR Srinivasan’s recollection,where he mentions Bhabha’s legendary love for food,describing a meal in Washington when Bhabha,with an uspet stomach and advised by the doctor to order yoghurt,ordered “grapefruit,poached eggs,toast,coffee and two helpings of yoghurt”.

There are many levels of story telling here,in a book that’s not restricted to those with an interest in science,scientists or biographies. This is one of many chapters on how modern India came to be built,one brave thought followed by another.

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