Many Ramayanas: The (hi) story of IISc

This is draft blog. I hope to refine it as I go along. I wil also add a narrative of the origins of the Department of Metallurgy and the National Institute of Advanced Studies
S Ranganathan

Many Ramayanas:
In Pursuit of the History of the Tata Institute at Bangalore

Myths travel through time and space and acquire many dimensions in multiple versions. In writing about the classic epic Ramayana, A K Ramanujan talks about three hundred Ramayanas. The version that is most appealing is the appeal of Rama to Sita not to follow him into the forest and her challenge to him to show one Ramayana, where Sita had not accompanied Rama to the forest. This vignette glitters with self similar, fractal character and shines like Indra’s pearls.

In reading the lively exchange in Current Science between B V Subarayappa and P Balaram about the early years of the Indian Institute of Science and their different perspectives on the role of Burjorji Padshah, one felt that even recent history can take on mythical proportions and multiple perspectives. Now Ramachandra Guha, an eminent historian, has waded in giving centre stage to Swami Vivekananda as having inspired J N Tata in founding the institute. This romatic idea is again vigorously contested by B V Subbarayappa.

This article is dedicated to Burjorji Padsha, who lurked among the shadows for over a hundered years to emerge along side J N Tata as a key figure leading to the foundation of IISc. In following this trail of Padshah through the Archives at the University College London, one is fascinated by the material that is available.

By all accounts Padshah was a remarkable personality. He may be enormously admired or violently disliked but can not be ignored. To an extraordinary degree he stuck to his views on what the Institute should be and did not mind crossing swords with Lord Curzon, Sir William Ramsay or Prof Morris Travers. In Ramsay’s words, Padshah was a theosophist, an anchorite , anti-thamaturgist and an admirable Crichton in the Indian Model. This gives valuable insight into their interaction. Crichton is a character from J M Barrie’s play. He comes from a poor background but outshines his master and lady. Ramsay had come to deal with the majestic industrialist J N Tata. Instead he was requested to deal with his secretary Padshah, who introduced himself as the servant to Ramsay and Lady Ramsay. In her diary Lady Ramsay remarks that ‘he was no servant but our master’ and decided to keep a safe distance. Even worse was the plight of Travers. Having been appointed as director of IISc at the age of 35, he had come to usher in science and technology to India from the rarefied atmosphere of the west. But Padshah had completely different ideas. He pleaded for Departments of history, philosophy, economics and archaeology! Travers fought valiantly and requested the intervention of Dorab and Ratan Tata. Both told him that he had to deal with Padshah, as he alone was privy to the details of the vision of J N Tata. In fact even though Tata wanted a Research Institute, it is Padshan who spent eighteen months travelling overseas and prepared the roadmap.

In desperation Travers wondered whether Padshah was a blood relation of the Tatas. There is a poignancy to his query. While the whole world knows about J N Tata and his two sons, it is not so well known that there was Dhunbai , a daughter between the two sons. She was betrothed to be married to Padshah , as he was the son of a close friend of J N Tata. Tragically she passed away at the tender age of ten. This tragedy bound Padshah and family close together. When Tata divided his property three ways between his two sons and IISc, was he thinking of the third child?

Padshah was a keen student of history. He may be pleased that it has found its place, as the Director of IISc is an avid student of history and more particularly that of the Institute over which he presides. He has brought out the role of Padshah in the foundation of IISc. In future articles we will explore that this was not a chance event but a presdestined one. In fact he is responsible for realizing the two other dreams of J N Tata, namely a steel mill and a hydroelectric plant. In the form of Vulcan and Jove and the miniature building all three are held aloft by J N Tata. But this is as much a monument to Padshah in turning those dreams of the visionary into reality.

It is also evident that the process of starting this higher educational institution started as a vision of an Imperial University gradually transforming into an Indian Institute of Science. Ramsay and Travers succeeded in frustrating the idea of Padshah of a University covering all subjects. The first three directors were all from Britain , the Patrons of IISc till independence were the Viceroys and the Chairmen of the council were the Residents of Mysore- a representative of the British crown at the Mysore Durbar. The first Indian facuty appointment was not till two decades after the foundation. True Indian identity came only when C V Raman was appointed as the first Indian Director of IISc. Even though the nationalist impulse of Tata led to the Institute, he was too influenced by Lord Reay’s convocation address in 1889:” It is only by the combined efforts of the wisest men in England, of the wisest men in India, that we can hope to establish in this old home of learning, real universities which will give a fresh impulse to learning, to research, to criticism, which will inspire reverence and impart strength and self reliance to future generations of our and your countrymen’. This speech led to the gleam in the eye of J N Tata, when he resolved to establish an Institute in India

S Ranganathan, School of Humanities, National Institute of Advanced Studies , Bangalore

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