An archival work on the life of the father of India's nuclear programme

Indira Chowdhury, who with Ananya Dasgupta wrote “A Masterful Spirit” (Penguin, Rs. 1,299) on Homi Jehangir Bhabha, explains that the “book is not a biography. It is an archival work”. It was while setting up the archives at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) that Chowdhury chanced upon letters written by Bhabha to his friends and family. This epistolary discovery initiated an idea of a book on Bhabha in Chowdhury's mind, and thus began a journey of collecting unpublished letters, photos, paintings and sketches from which the authors would piece together an enthralling narrative.

The launch at Crossword Bookstore featured readings interspersed with audio-visual presentations of the book.

"Once the idea of the book came together, we got serendipity, as they say. Homi Bhabha's childhood friend was Homi Seervai,the former Advocate General of Maharashtra. Seervai's wife, Mrs. Feroza Seervai gave us letters that Homi Bhabha wrote to Homi Seervai."

The book contains rare and exclusive items such as the title page of Bhabha's PhD thesis on cosmic radiation, and a letter dated May 28, 1941 written by Bhabha to Professor K.S. Krishnan about the Allahabad Chair of Physics.

The authors also spoke to Bhabha's family, friends and colleagues and recorded their accounts on the scientist-artist under 'recollections' in the book. One such recollection is of Gustav Born's, professor emeritus of King's College, who stayed with Bhabha at his home on Cunningham road in Bangalore between 1944 and 1945. Proof of Bhabha's zest for life can be understood from a letter he wrote to his friend Jessie Maver in which he emphatically writes of his distaste for idle pursuits and expresses his desire to lead a meaningful life.

The book is full of resplendent photographs of Bhabha's paintings of Shanta Rao, Amrita Shergill and M.F. Hussain, besides self portraits. Few know of Bhabha's remarkable talent for stage design—there is a photograph in the book of Mozart's Opera Idomeneo impeccably designed by Bhabha. In a telephonic interview with Chowdhury, M.F. Hussain said Bhabha's paintings are “Da Vinci like”, adding that Bhabha thought “like a painter”.

One of the hallmarks of the book is a letter written by Mulk Raj Anand to Homi Bhabha. The letter was never posted because of Bhabha's tragic and untimely death. With Bhabha's death ended an era in Indian science and Nehru's vision of the peaceful use of atomic energy was never realised.

"A Masterful Spirit—Homi J. Bhabha, 1909-1966" is a fascinating exploration of a man whom Sir C.V. Raman described as the 'modern equivalent of Leonardo Da Vinci'.

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