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Updated: October 2, 2010 15:55 IST

On a wave of wonder

NEERJA DASANI
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Dashrath Patel: Celebrating the beauty of science. Photo: Sadanand Menon
Dashrath Patel: Celebrating the beauty of science. Photo: Sadanand Menon

‘I wanted it to be a book for opening the mind'. Visual thinker Dashrath Patel talks about why it took 42 years for Why the Sky is Blue, a compilation of his photographs and Dr. C.V. Raman's speeches, to be published.

If the year 1968 is any indication, then December 22 should be designated as the day of Curiosity. That day, an energetic 80-year-old scientist urged his audience, seated under a canopy of neem trees, to wake up from their stupor and marvel at the world around them. Speaking at the foundation laying ceremony of the Community Science Centre in Ahmedabad, Dr C.V. Raman, Nobel Laureate in physics, proved that the kernel of life's mysteries lay not in laboratories or textbooks, but in the simplest of questions such as: why is the sky blue?

Sharing in the magic of the moment were two celebrated ‘visual thinkers', Chandralekha and Dashrath Patel, intuitively and playfully participating in this process of learning. This unusual choreography of wonder resulted in the first manuscript of Why the Sky is Blue, a compilation of Dashrath Patel's photographs and parts of the speech selected by Chandralekha.

But perhaps this vision of science, and indeed life, as a celebration of the unknown, unbound by formal rules and theories, was too ‘simplistic/ idealistic' for the time. After 42 years, the book has finally found a nurturing publisher in Tulika, Chennai, which will soon release the manuscript in eight languages across the country.

Chandralekha passed away in 2006. Dashrath Patel (now 83) shares the significance of this moment:

What is the spirit behind ‘Why the Sky is Blue'? 

You know, our intention was not publication; that was the last thing on our minds. It was simply the excitement of this new understanding of science that Dr C. V. Raman had opened out for us. Chandra would use the word sahaj; a certain spontaneity that allows one to respond to the life around without any conditioning.

Chandra, whose visual richness and inner mind made her curious about every aspect of life, literally roused my consciousness when she woke me up that morning saying “Wake up! Raman is speaking at the Community Science Centre. Grab your camera and let's go!”

We sat just a few feet away from him. Chandra had a much deeper understanding of science than me and she would indicate to me when to click. It was a unique coordination of three disciplines without any of us being burdened by our identities.

What did that experience mean to you?

I became very rich by that experience. It opened me out to understand the beauty of science. For the first time I realised that science was not only for scientists and that it was possible to communicate its complex truths in a simple way.

Fortunately it was not like now, when eminent people deliver lectures only in auditoriums with mikes, surrounded by speakers and to an invited audience. We watched him speak under the neem trees, with no microphone, very few chairs and almost 80 per cent of the audience seated on the floor. The setting seemed so appropriate for the beginnings of a Community Science Centre.

How would you describe the impact he made on you that day?

The entire lecture was so inspiring. I would not say that I understood all of it but he demystified his subject so effortlessly. The most exciting moment was when Raman raised his finger and asked ‘Why is the sky blue?' It was such an unexpectedly simple question, which was followed by similarly simple questions and the audience was carried with him on this wave of curiosity.

At no point in time did he seek to ‘educate' his audience. His words had warmth, feeling, concern, which all reflect so clearly in his expressions and gestures. He was not merely a great scientist but also an inspiring performer.

What is the relevance of this book at this point in time?

Today we live in such an authoritative world that we are unable to question anything, especially if a ‘learned' person has said it. The whole education system is based on this and students are forced to accept their teachers' word as the final one, even if so many of them are frauds.

Raman was in fact addressing this very system when he told his audience that ‘Science does not flourish in laboratories'. The editors changed it to ‘only in laboratories' because they were afraid the children would misunderstand, that it would…

…upset the educators?

Exactly. So to bring that awareness to students is so important. Most schools are simply concrete blocks, devoid of any concern for students. Education is looked upon as an investment with even banks investing in students! It is so important to break out of this compartmentalisation of knowledge, where you selectively study only that which will provide you the best job opportunity. But if you cannot respond to the life around you, to the people around you, then your work is incomplete.

You began rejecting this aspect of formal education at a very early age, didn't you?

Yes. In the third standard I found my teachers were reluctant to address some of my doubts. For instance, it may seem laughable now, but they couldn't explain to me the logic behind why one plus one is two. They said the whole world counts like that. Then I asked why I must recollect the alphabet in a particular order just so it's convenient for them to test me? When I asked them why they didn't change textbooks, which on the one hand said the sun rises and sets and on the other says the sun never moves from its place, it is the earth that revolves around it, I was told it had been taught like that for centuries.

I explained all this to my ‘uneducated' mother, who was very supportive. She told me I could discontinue my studies but would have to attend school so I didn't wander aimlessly/get up to mischief. As a result I sat in third standard for seven years after which I finally went to study art!

What do you think about the practice of labelling people as ‘artistic' or ‘scientific' minded?

I think the entire notion is false. People want to label their friends, families and even themselves for their own convenience. They label children before they've even begun opening out. It is ridiculous to freeze their growth with such useless labels. For many years I had the burden of being unable to write but my friends taught me that to communicate with words, it isn't grammar or spelling that matters, but placement. I just learnt to keep my sentences short!

Why has it taken 42 years for this book to be published?

Chandra and I both agreed that the essence of Raman's words and gestures, which is conveyed through our careful selection of text and photos, should be as is. That is why Chandra did not offer any unnecessary explanation of the text. But when we showed our dummy to a few scientists, they all felt the need to expand and explain which we resisted. Offers began to come in from other publishers but I realised they all wanted to ride on Raman's shoulders, insert their own interpretations of his work and his personality, which to us was inappropriate.

So this time when Tulika asked, I requested my friend Sadanand Menon, who would be at the centre of this publishing adventure, to see that 42 years of resistance should not go to waste! I wanted it to be a book on the opening of the mind rather than one on education. Today I am very glad that it has finally happened and that too addressing the parallel concerns of readers in nine different regions/languages. It has been worth the wait

Neerja Dasani is a Chennai-based freelance journalist.

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