Sunday, May 31, 2015

Prof. K. Srinivasan aka Srinivasan Maama

HAB Parpia, G T Naryana Rao, J R Lakshmana Rao, T S Satyan, K Srinivasan - activists all, Picture from Star of Mysore.

I had the good fortune of being taught by four of the finest teachers in Mysore, of their respective subjects, during my PUC days. For the uninitiated, PUC is pre university course. It was a one year course between High school and college. Later, it was a two year course. One of those teachers was Prof. K. Srinivasan and he taught me Physics. He was also my father's classmate in Intermediate and B. Sc. classes. He entered active politics and did his M. Sc. years later.

When I sit down to write about him, it feels strange realising that I know him at two completely different planes. One, as I knew him personally and the other, as I heard my father talk about him. Here are my recollections as I saw him and also from what I had heard of him.

His first class addressing the new students in Yuvaraja's college was an experience in itself. There were nearly hundred and twenty students in the main Physics lecture hall which was huge. In comes this thin man in Khadi trousers and white Khadi shirt. When he started talking, a hush descended on the class. His voice was commanding and surprisingly loud and of a timbre that reminded me of a good temple bell. His command over the language, clarity of thought and expression and confidence was nothing less than awe inspiring. He did not teach anything that day but gave the rules of the game governing the lecture classes and the practical classes. Later, when he taught in the theory classes too, the same qualities were evident in ample measure. In the practical classes, his familiarity with the instruments appeared magical to me. The flow of thought and expression were so good that I can't imagine anyone not understanding what he taught.

Maama was politically very active in his student days. He entered active politics with M. N. Roy’s Radical Democratic People's Party. So, you could say that he was a Royist or a radical humanist in those days. He was also influenced by Marxism and in later years turned a Gandhian. I have heard him being referred to as a Gandhian in his later years. I have heard my father talk of him with great admiration - that he had a brilliant mind.

Though he always treated me with great affection, I was in awe of him when I was young and perhaps was very reserved and respectful. Only after I started working did it recede a little and it was always a great pleasure talking to him. He would often talk to me about work and what I did. One thread that was quite common was economics and the management - labour relationship at my place. His insights and comments were always enlightening.

Maama was a connoisseur of Carnatic Classical music. The two families would often go to concerts together and walking back from the concerts was always a pleasure since he would discuss the concerts with my father and they would also talk of other things and what an education that was.!

Maama took a great interest in Philosophy once again and a special interest in the philosophy of science, if I remember right, so much so that he registered for a PhD after he retired from the university and worked on the subject a seriously for years. He never completed it though. Even in his later years he remained a social, political and environmental activist. He helped organise and participated in various movements.

Apart from all this, visiting his house was always a pleasure. Thanks to his wife, whom we referred to as Subbulakshmi atte or Srinivasan maami and addressed her as atte*, the house was always spotless, bright and cheerful. Maama would be ready for a good conversation fueled, at the least, bya strong, aromatic cup of coffee served with great care and affection by atte.

Both maama and atte were excellent hosts - whatever the occasion. My eldest sister's first music concert was organised at their home. This and many other things made his house a second home. I have never learnt to cook. One of the people to be "blamed" for this deficit is maama and atte. When I was alone at home with all the others away from Mysore, it would be treated as a serious and personal affront if it was even suggested that I ate elsewhere or cooked for myself. (The other party to be "blamed" is referred to here) It seems almost churlish to use the term "blame" while talking about this but they would understand. They had such a great sense of humour. It always fascinated me that these people, with such serious interests and deep knowledge had such great sense of humour and never ever took themselves seriously.

I will end this with just a couple of anecdotes about how he allowed us to pull his leg. Maama had a large imperious nose. Especially on such thin, frail looking man it really stood out. Once when he was at our home, he was given a small glass of juice. The glass was shaped like a wine barrel. Maama could not drink since the nose came in the way. He loudly complained that we had chosen such a glass just for his discomfiture. He questioned our hospitality. Whenever my mother offered him a juice or something when he visited us later, he would say, "yes, but not in that glass!" Another time, many of us were atop Chamundi hills on a very windy day. Maama was wearing a Khadi coat. Every one of us was cautioning him to keep the coat buttoned lest the wind would carry him away. We also advised him that whenever he wanted to get home, all he had to do was unbutton the coat and fly!

With those two anecdotes, I have to come to the last and sad part of this piece. Maama passed away a couple of weeks ago. When I attended the last rites, my mind kept on wandering and I recalled my association with him a great sense of loss. I have put some of those thoughts down here, with great affection and admiration, as a tribute to a very special man.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

J R Lakshmana Rao, Pioneer of Science Writing in Kannada

This is a translation of an article in Kannada about my father by Sri. T. R. Anantaramu, translated with his permission. Since some friends who do not read Kannada were interested in the English version of the article, I translated it.


This is an incident from 1937. Kuvempu*1 was still in his youth.  Just 32 years young. In the intermediate class of science students, before teaching Raghavanka’s Harischandra Kaavya, he said, “many of you believe that only what is in Gregory and Hodges*2 is science.  That is not right. As a part of the curriculum, two or three branches of science may be prescribed for study. When you take up more advanced studies, it may be limited to just one. But, you should not become a “turtle in the well” by limiting your studies to only that field. You should at least have a broad understanding of the other branches of science. You should understand the expanse of science and imbibe the scientific method. There are books written for laymen, not experts.  By reading such books you can learn about other branches of science.” He showed them the book The Mysterious Universe by Sir James Jeans. “This is a very interesting book. Even people like me can read and understand it”, he said.

We don’t know what impact Kuvempu’s words had on others but one student, J. R. Lakshmana Rao was mesmerised by that talk. That very evening, he went to the bookshops and searched for the book. Apart from the book suggested by Kuvempu, he also bought Sir Arthur Eddington’s Expanding Universe, J. W. N. Sullivan’s The Bases of Modern Science and Julian Huxley’s Essays in Popular Science, for all of two rupees. Lakshmana Rao reminisces now that he read all of them in the next seven or eight weeks. “For me, it was like opening the doors to a new world. He adds, “It was not the science teachers who made me aware of the greatness of the scientific view but the Kannada teacher, Kuvempu”.

Teaching chemistry, grasping the essence of life, creating popular science literature, editing science magazines, creating a dictionary, managing conferences, founding organisations such as the Karnataka Rajya Vijnana Parishat, and along with these nurturing an unshakable belief in Marxism – each one of these were paths he created for himself throughout his life. He asked himself the fundamental question - what kind of science does the common man need - and went on to say some interesting things in answer.

“There is a sort of elitism among many experts who have studied science. They feel that it is beneath them to come down from their ivory towers to the plane of the common man and write and talk about science. Theirs is the dry ideology of “art for art’s sake and science for science’s sake”.  While he cautions them so, he conveys another truth:  “They have not been shaken even by examples such as Einstein, Max Born, Huxley, Haldane and Gamow, who came forward to write for the common man because of their natural broad mindedness.”

Give up Elitism

Like Kuvempu who preached the mantra of scientific thought with the words, “give up temples, churches and masjids, and come out” Lakshmana Rao has swung the whip of righteous anger at researchers with the words, “Give up the elitism of scientists and come out”. He has been constantly calling for science to be taken to the common man. He has not just waited for results while giving that call. “There is science in the dOsé” he said and explained fermentation. He has written about the retrograde movement of planets clearly, in a way understandable even to a school student. Every article he has written in the last fifty years is in this vein. Each one of them could be a model for how popular science should be.

Lakshmana Rao is now 94 years young. Even now he is restless. He translated Arnold Kettle’s work, Karl Marx, The Founder of Modern Communism, at the age of 93. “Is it printed? It is already a month now. Please send me the proofs” - he has prodded the publishers affectionately and has placed a unique work in the hands of Kannadigas.  This Marxist, who has never addressed the likeminded as “comrade” in his whole life, got attracted to Marxism while still in his honours classes in Central College.


JRL was born in 1921 in Jagalur, in the then Chitradurga district, in a Shanubhog’s (Village Accountant) family. He had his middle school education there. Even though the name is Jagalur, (Jagala means quarrel, in Kannada) he never fought with his classmates. When he came to Chitradurga for his high school studies, he lost his way. He failed in the exams too. He has written about all this openly in his autobiography – Nenapina Alegalu. (Ripples of Memories). By the time he came out of the Intermediate College in Mysore, he had attained a certain maturity. When he did his honours in Central College, along with Chemistry he had an introduction to the evil of casteism that had already infected Central College. As if to make him forget all that he also got teachers like Veesee*3. Soon after he finished his M. Sc. Examinations, in 1943, he got a call to be a lecturer of Chemistry in Tumkur. There, he came into contact with the incomparable Rajaratnam. (G. P. Rajaratnam was a great Kannada writer and poet) When he says that he ‘worked out’ in Rajaratnam’s Gymnasium, his eyes light up, even today. Those days, Rajaratnam organised University Extension Lectures. He was instrumental in bringing out Lakshmana Rao’s lecture on food (Ahaara) in print. Inspired by this, he asked Rajaratnam to edit the manuscript of ParamaaNu Caritre (History of the Atom). Rajaratnam extended a hand of friendship and said, “No! Let us read it together. The mistakes in your writing will catch your own eye”. He went through the whole manuscript like this. Later, the Madras University awarded it its prize for the best book written in the languages of South India. It was also this jewel of Kannada who helped him bring out that book in print.

In 1966, when the University of Mysore formed a committee to edit its English - Kannada dictionary, JRL’s was the first name to come up for the expert on scientific terms. It was here that he was introduced to the famous poet Pu. Ti. Na.*4 The opinions of Pu. Ti. Na. and Lakshmana Rao diverged on the question of tradition. Lakshmana Rao did not argue when Pu. Ti. Na. declared, “However much science you may have studied, however much Marx and Lenin you may have read, you are essentially an Indian”. Nor did he agree with him. He also met the great teacher of English, H. K. Ramachandra Murthy, while there. With him, Lakshmana Rao translated beautifully, Berthold Brecht’s play Life of Galileo.

Multifaceted Talent

Lakshmana Rao is a well-read scholar with many interests. His interest in music was so deep that Doreswamy Iyengar*5 once gave a performance in his house. JRL has recalled the occasion and the unforgettable experience that it was, in his autobiography. JRL’s wife, Jeevubai, has been his companion and helpmate all his life.

Among the many books that Lakshmana Rao has written in his long journey, some have received the Karnataka Rajya Sahitya Academy award. He has received the NCERT award and the Sahitya academy award for his work Galileo. The play Galileo has received the Nataka Academy award and the Sahitya Academy award. Vijnana Vicaara, Archimedes, Meghnad Saha, and the collection of essays, Chakra, have received awards too. He is also the recipient of the Indian Government’s National Council for Science Communication’s national award for communication of science in 1992. Mudabidare’s Shivarama Karantha*6 Pratishthana has honoured him with its Shivarama Karantha award in 1977.

There are many high points to the achievements in JRL’s life. The two volumes on science brought out by him during the golden jubilee year of the famous Kannada magazine Prabhuddha Karnataka were path breaking for Kannada. He ventured to trace the history of science in those two volumes. He was the editor, for eight years, of Vijnana Karnataka the ‘daughter’ magazine of Prabhuddha Karnataka, and through it, made writers out of teachers who had never wielded a pen. He took on the editorship of the magazine Bala Vijnana in 1978 and breathed life into it and cultivated it. It is still being published uninterrupted. He founded Karnataka Rajya Vijnana Parishat on the lines of Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishat (along with another activist, teacher and Marxist classmate, M. A. Sethu Rao) and created a platform for publications in science and science communication.

The English - Kannada Vijnana Pada Kosha (Dictionary of Scientific Terms) that he published along with the famous science writer Adyanadka Krishna Bhatta has already seen many editions. Feeling that he had sinned by writing ParamaaNu Caritre, he wrote Baijika Vidyuttu as atonement. (ParamaaNu Caritre was pro atomic energy.  Baijika Vidyuttu is against it)  The part played by J. R. Lakshmana Rao, G. T. Narayana Rao and Adyanadka Krishna Bhatta in smoothing the path created by Bellave Venkatanaranappa, Shivarama Karanth, and R. L. Narasimhaiah is really big. The writers of the present generation are cruising on that path, like vehicles travelling at high speeds on a highway.

Recently he received the Shivarama Karantha Award for lifetime achievement, given by the Shivamogga Kannada Sangha. Like Shivarama Karantha, Lakshmana Rao has not moved away from the values he believed in all his life. In spite of old age embracing him, he has not jumped ship.

*1 K V Puttappa, poet laureate of Karnataka, popularly known as Kuvempu
*2 Experimental Science for Indian Schools, by Gregory and Hodges
*3 Verse, V. Seetharamiah, famous Kannada litterateur.
*4 P T Narasimhacahar – a great poet of Kannada
*5 Mysore V Doreswamy Iyengar, a great Veena player

*6 Shivarama Karantha, A great Kannada litterateur