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Science with a soul

The Indian Institute of Science has produced Nobel laureates, trained many of India's greatest scientists and helped nurture some of the country's finest scientific institutions

Indian Institute of Science (IISc)

It was the thought of advancing India's scientific capabilities that motivated Jamsetji Tata to conceive of establishing an institution of advanced scientific education and research, the like of which even England did not have, at the end of the 19th century. He was aware that national resurgence was only possible through multi-level industrialisation, higher education and scientific research. "He was a visionary who had personally established industries which were at the forefront of technology in those times. Besides, he donated half of his personal wealth (14 buildings and four landed properties in Bombay) for the creation of this institution," says Dr Goverdhan Mehta, director, Indian Institute of Science (IISc).

After consulting several authorities in the country, Jamsetji Tata constituted a provisional committee to prepare the required scheme for the setting up of the institute. On December 31, 1898, a draft prepared by the committee was presented to Lord Curzon, the viceroy-designate. Subsequently, upon the request of the secretary of state for India, the Royal Society of London asked Sir William Ramsay, a Nobel laureate, for help. Sir William made a quick tour of the country and reported Bangalore to be the most suitable place for such an institution.

At the initiative of the dewan, Sir K Sheshadri Iyer, the government of Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, the Maharaja of Mysore, came forward with an offer of 372 acres of land, free of cost, and promised other facilities. Thus Jamsetji Tata's original scheme became a tripartite venture, with the association of the Government of India and the Mysore maharaja.

Finally, it was as late as 1911 that the Maharaja of Mysore laid the foundation stone of the Institute and, on July 24 that year, the first batch of students was admitted in the departments of general and applied chemistry, organic chemistry and electro-technology. Since then the IISc has grown into a premier institution of research and advanced instruction, with more than 2,000 active researchers working in almost all the frontier areas of science and technology.

During past decades, Nobel laureate CV Raman, Homi J Bhabha, Vikram S Sarabhai, JC Ghosh, MS Thacker, S Bhagavantam, Satish Dhawan, CNR Rao and scores of others who have played a key role in the scientific and technological progress of our country have been closely associated with the Institute.

The IISc has helped to create and nurture other laboratories and scientific institutions within the country. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the Atomic Energy Commission were born here. In fact, Homi Bhabha wrote the proposals for creating both these institutions when he was on the faculty of the Institute. The Indian space programme, too, was nurtured here. It also enabled CV Raman to undertake research in light scattering, which eventually won him the Nobel Prize in 1930.

JRD Tata took a keen interest in the Institute. He believed that it should contribute not just to science but to society as a whole, while emphasising the social relevance of science, says N. V. Raghavan, the Institute's public relations officer. He adds that JRD was always concerned about the well-being of the Institute's employees and, during his frequent visits, never failed to meet the members of the Tata Memorial Sports Club, which he was very fond of and to which he made generous grants periodically. JRD, who advocated the principle of population control, while mingling with the staff of IISc would jocularly ask, with a small grin, the number of children they had.

Says Mehta, "Jamsetji's vision was that the Institute should commit itself to the quest of excellence for the betterment of the people. That has been the endeavour of this Institute for close to a century: to be in the forefront of research for the benefit of humankind and the people of India. It is not a one-time activity, but an ongoing process."

JRD paid great attention to the maintenance and upkeep of the buildings. This legacy is being continued by Ratan Tata. In recent times, he has helped promote the Sir Dorabji Tata Centre for Tropical Diseases and assisted with the maintenance of the structure. His contribution is not just financial; he is also a strong motivational force.

Every institute is continually in an evolutionary phase. The world of science and technology has metamorphosed since the establishment of the IISc. The Institute has tried to keep pace, both in terms of training of human resources and its research contributions, which are widely recognised in India and abroad.

"The contribution of institutes like ours should be judged from how much it has enriched the intellects of science and technology in the country," says Mehta with a hint of pride. "We have been associated with some prestigious and nationally important missions and projects."

The Institute has also started the process of celebrating its centenary, while defining its goals for the next century of its existence. "My dream is to transform it into an international institute of science," adds Mehta. "I believe that we have done our best and maintained the vision of the founder. His spirit is still present here."

Uploaded in August 2004

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