About the Author
D C V Malik-a Professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, has an abiding interest in the history of science. This biography is the result of several year of research on the life and times of K S Krishna. His professional research has been mainly in the area of interstellar matter and astrophysics of nebulae.
Sabyasachi Chatterjee-a trained condensed matter physicist, joined the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in 1985 and has since been working on problems in optics and stellar dynamics. He has a very keen interest in the popularisation of science and science teaching and has been actively involved in furthering this cause for the past thirty years.
I never enjoyed the pleasure of speaking with Sir K S Krishnan. On my only visit to India-to Kashmir, that lovely country of hills, terraces, streams and brilliant rice fields-it was to take part in a conference on physics education, at which Indian, English and American views were freely expressed and discussed. Krishnan was our father-figure, but he was so surrounded by disciples that I had no chance of meeting him.
As a student, colleague and friend of David Shoenberg for 60 years in Cambridge, I became familiar with Krishnan’s work on magnetism, but more intimately with ideas he gave David in a talk at the Cavendish Laboratory. The experimental method he had developed and explained there provided David with a starting point for the research which dominated his life afterwards. They both did great work in their different fields, and the debt owed by the younger to the elder was never forgotten.
It is good that a sincere study like this should have been undertaken, and I welcome it as a contribution to the history of science, and especially of science in India and the leader who gave so much of his life to it.
The setting was grand. It was a festive occasion for the eminent men of letters and sciences, who had gathered at St James’s Palace in London on that evening of 29 June 1954. The Queen of England was hosting a reception as part of the bicentenary celebrations of the Royal Society of Arts, of which Her Majesty was the patron. Among the fellows of the society present were poets and philosophers, scientists and industrialists, civil servants and educators.
The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce was founded in 1754 with the main objective of promoting the arts, productivity and trade in the colonies. Granted the Royal Charter in 1847, it came to be known as the Royal Society of Arts, or RSA for short. Its activities over two centuries had a significant impact on the British public life and the life in Britain’s imperial colonies. The society had always taken the lead in organising exhibitions, granting awards, and launching new schemes and developmental programmes. The Great Exhibition of 1851 organised by it led to the institution of named scholarships commemorating the event, which even to this day talented young men from the member countries of the Commonwealth avail themselves of to pursue studies in premier academic institutions of Britain. The society could boast at any time of having among its fellows distinguished authors, great scientists, renowned civil servants and other eminent men and women. Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, William Hogarth and Charles Dickens were all fellows of the RSA.
The bicentenary celebrations started as early as March 1954 with a commemorative service at the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. The council of RSA had begun its planning of the celebrations several months earlier. The overseas fellows were given almost half a year to plan their visit to England to participate in the festivities that were to last till the end of June.
Sir Kariamanikkam Srinivasa Krishnan, one of the foremost scientists of India and also the director of India’s first national laboratory, the National Physical Laboratory in Delhi, was elected to the fellowship of the RSA in June 1951. More than a decade earlier, he had been elected to the Royal Society of London for his scientific contributions. With that election he had become a member of an exclusive club that had only three other living Indians on its rolls at that time, namely, C V Raman, M N Saha and Birbal Sahni. The election to the RSA was in recognition of Krishnan’s emerging role as a statesman-scientist of India. The invitation to participate in the bicentenary celebrations reached him in the beginning of January 1954, but the earliest he could be in London was the end of June. In his response to the invitation, he expressed his regret stating that he would have to miss the commemorative service on 22 March and also the banquet at Savoy Hotel on 26 March. However, he was pleased to inform Secretary K W Luckhurst that he would attend the royal reception at St james’s Palace on 29 June. The invitation was for his wife as well, but Lady Krishnan hardly ever accompanied her husband to such events. Krishnan requested the society to send him only one ticket, which arrived in the end of May in a special diplomatic postbag, delivered at his Kushak Road residence.
Krishnan was looking forward to the event. The diverse and distinguished membership of the RSA always made its general meetings memorable. One ran into a great many learned people-people who were well travelled, who had a broad view of culture and civilisation and who were interesting to know and talk to. No topic, be it political, philosophical, literary, scientific or that relating to the fine arts, was left untouched in the conversations at these meetings. Among the fellows were Englishmen who, as members of the Indian Civil Service, had served and known an India that had been vastly different from what it was then. It would be an enlightening experience to talk to such people. Also among the fellows would be good friends whom Krishnan had not met for many years. Perhaps he would meet somebody who had served in Madras Presidency, for memories of his childhood and his early years as a student in Madras Presidency were still so dear to him. Although he visited his native village regularly to meet his mother, attend important social functions and attend to work related to the family-owned agricultural lands, it was more than thirty years since he had actually lived in the South. His close association with the South had not, however, weakened by his being away, and each visit had been a great homecoming.
Krishnan had been a frequent visitor to London since the time the Second World War got over. He was a member of the Planning Committee appointed by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research to set up India’s National Physical Laboratory. The laboratory was to be modelled after the National Physical Laboratory of Britain in Teddington and was supposed to fulfil similar functions. During the years of its planning, Krishnan did make a visit to England to familiarise himself with all that went on in Teddington, and after June 1947, when he took up the directorship of the laboratory, he made several visits to Britain to procure equipment needed for carrying out the programmes of the new laboratory. India was yet to start manufacturing many of the precision instruments that normally formed the backbone of such a laboratory, and Krishnan had decided to purchase many of these from companies in England. Krishnan was a founding member of the International Union of Crystallography; he was also vice-president of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics. Since both these international bodies planned to hold their triennial General Assemblies in July 1954, Krishnan had scheduled a trip to Europe in summer. The invitation to the royal reception in St James’s Palace fitted in perfectly with his summer plans.
The day of the reception dawned in London under a grey sky. By afternoon a steady drizzle had started. It was just past the summer solstice, and the days were long. As Krishnan arrived at the palace a quarter of an hour before the scheduled arrival of Her Majesty, the drizzle held up for just a while, and a faint glow of sunlight lit the western skies. The large gathering had spilled outside the halls of the palace into the adjacent gardens. The liveried palace staff were busy laying out food and drinks to be served to the guests. The queen arrived at the stroke of six and received the guests, in particular the overseas fellows, who were given preference over the local fellows in the restricted roster of invitees. Krishnan with his unique Madras turban attracted the attention of many.
As Krishnan moved about among the gathering, exchanging a casual nod with an acquaintance or a word or two with an old friend, he found himself being approached by an Englishman, rather advanced in years and with a kind look on his face, which broke into a smile when he reached Krishnan’s side. It was obvious that the old man had been attracted by Krishnan’s turban and had sought him out in the crowd to speak to him. Krishnan nodded politely and extended his hand.
‘Surely from South India, but from which part, may I ask?’ said the Englishman, shaking his hand.
‘South of Madras’, said Krishnan.
‘I thought as much. I know the South quite well and remember what people from there look like,’ continued the gentleman. ‘Well, your turban gave that away. But where exactly? In the Madras Presidency, I suppose?’
‘Yes, Sir,’ said Krishnan, ‘further south of Madurai’,
‘How very interesting!’ said the Englishman. ‘Where exactly? I have known Madurai and surroundings very well.’
‘Oh, in the Ramnad district, close to Srivilliputtur,’ replied Krishnan.
‘I remember Srivilliputtur,’ said the gentleman. ‘Wasn’t it in 1910 or thereabouts that they created the Ramnad District? I remember so very well. I used to camp at the village called Watrap. There was this tamarind plantation, they used to call it Kowtapoli Thofu.’
The words in Tamizh came out with a hesitation, but Krishnan could hardly conceal his excitement any more. Watrap, the village of his childhood, where he had grown up and where he had started his schooling, and Kootapuli Topu, the tamarind plantation close to his ancestral land! Oh, he could hardly believe the coincidence.
The gentleman continued, ‘Ah, this Thofu, that is where I used to pitch the tents while doing my round of collection. It used to be so pleasant there under the trees, the balmy tropical air, the Ghats at the distance, glorious sunsets.’
Krishnan’s excitement had reached a feverish pitch by then for he remembered too well the occasion when he had to walk to the collector’s tent with a petition in his hand. His father was not keeping well. An application, with a plea for the change of title of some land he had purchased, had to be given to the collector, and Krishnan had been entrusted with the job. Since his memory hardly ever failed him, Krishnan even remembered the collector’s name.
‘Pardon my audacity, Sir, if you were the collector of Ramnad, are you not then John Bryant?’ asked Krishnan.
‘Oh indeed, I am,’ said John Bryant, now at the age of eighty-two, looking at Krishnan with benign amusement. And then to continue with the dialogue on this most amazing of coincidences, he ventured the question,
‘Have we met before?’
‘Yes, Sir,’ said Krishnan, ‘I was in Watrap during those years. My father had sent me to you to request the mutation of the title of some agricultural land that we had purchased. He wasn’t keeping too well. You were then camping at Kootapuli Topu, and you had received our application. That was more than forty years ago and I was only fourteen then.’
As the words drifted to John Bryant’s ears, his mind had already embarked on a journey into the past. As he walked down memory lane, many a nameless face from the years of his service in Ramnad District flitted through his mind, and he wondered whether one among them bore a resemblance to the man standing in front of him. He had left the shores of India in 1929, and his memories had faded with the passage of years. He couldn’t be sure but somewhere the face of a young boy with sparkling eyes did lurk amidst images of tamarind trees and villages and hills. Perhaps he was the one, or perhaps Bryant was dreaming!
As the evening wore on, the good food and the exquisite wines warmed the hearts of the people who had gathered there that day, but history has left scant record of just how many of them would have had such a wonderful and significant encounter as the one just described. For the boy born as Kariamanikkam Srinivasa Krishnan in the village of Vizhupanoor, in the Srivilliputtur Taluk of Tamil Nadu, it was a long journey from Watrap, where he spent his childhood, to St james’s Palace. This journey took him from the precincts of his native village to bigger and bigger arenas of human activity and he adjusted to all of them with ease as he walked his own way in life. It was Madurai first and then Madras, and then faraway Calcutta followed by Dacca (now in Bangladesh) and then, Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh-places vastly different culturally from the one where he was born. Later in life he returned to his native village, but only for short visits and mainly to look up his mother, who he loved and respected deeply. He did not ever work in the South. He became very much a man of the world and now in 1954, as the director of the National Physical Laboratory, he was truly at the pinnacle of his career. Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of India was a personal friend and so were the vice-president, Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and the chief minister of the state of Madras, Sri C Rajagopalachari. In fact, all the three gentlemen had a role to play in persuading him to accept the post of director of India’s premier science laboratory. Krishnan was now on every conceivable board, on the councils of various national and international institutions, and was a member of the prestigious Indian Atomic Energy Commission. In a few years he would also be made a National Professor, an honour accorded first in independent India to his guru, India’s proudest scientist, Sir C V Raman.
This is then the story of the life and work of K S Krishnan, a scientist of great distinction, an exponent of the Vishishtadvaita philosophy and a great scholar of Tamizh and Sanskrit who, along with the other luminaries of his generation, assumed the task of giving India the thrust needed in scientific and technological endeavours to make her a strong and self-dependent nation.
Childhood and Schooling
Science Education and Its Beginnings in Calcutta
Scattering of Light
Discovery of the Raman Effect
Bonds of Magnetism 1: The Dacca Phase
Winds of Change
Bonds of Magnetism II: The Calcutta Phase
Graphite and Its Anomalous Diamagnetism
Honours and Offers
The Physics Chair at Allahabad
Rejuvenating Physics in Allahabad
The Widening Vista
Krishnan in Delhi
NPL: The Initial Years
Oscillating Lattices, Emitting Surfaces, Heated Tubes
The Broader Stage
Into the Twilight
1. Raman Scattering
2. Diamagnetic and Paramagnetic Susceptibilities
3. Formulae for Electrical Resistivity of Metals
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