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


  1. I was particularly interested in the last sentence of the article as to how you will be rendering.It's a good job.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks a lot sir.I am so glad that I have translated the author's favourite sentence well enough to satisfy the author!!!

  4. Anna, what a father, what a scholar, what an honourable gentleman!