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Ekamra Nivas to university


HOME OF LEARNING: Professor Alladi Ramakrishnan's residence Ekamra Nivas.

The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Madras, a constituent of the Homi Bhabha National Institute and now declared a deemed university, was "the realisation of my Princeton dreams," Prof. Alladi Ramakrishnan once wrote. Those dreams were born during 1957-58, a year Ramakrishnan spent at the famed Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, then headed by Robert Oppenheimer, a person both renowned and reviled. Accepting the offer fulfilled another dream Ramakrishnan had nurtured, of working in an institution that had "Einstein (who had died in 1955) and Neumann as its luminaries, Dirac and Pauli as its distinguished visitors."

Back from Princeton, fired by the methodology of its Institute, Ramakrishnan started a series of seminars in Ekamra Nivas, the family home on Luz Church Road. He had hoped that the University of Madras would expand and strengthen its Physics Department and that he would have a key role in this. Instead, he found himself shunted out as Professor of Physics in an Extension Centre the University had created in Madurai, a Centre that later proved to be the nucleus for Madurai University. However, when he was permitted to conduct classes in theoretical physics in Madras, Ramakrishnan restarted the seminars at Ekamra Nivas, formalising the arrangement as an association called the "Theoretical Physics Seminar." Several eminent physicists and mathematicians visiting Madras contributed to the success of those seminars.

It was at a chance meeting in 1959 with C. Subramaniam, then Finance and Education Minister of Madras, at a tea for international students at Woodlands, that Ramakrishnan spoke aloud of the need for "suitable opportunities for creative science" and got the Minister interested. It was around this time that Niels Bohr, visiting India as Prime Minister Nehru's personal guest, arrived in Madras and, after participating in an Ekamra Nivas seminar, commended to Nehru the work and ideas of Ramakrishnan. It was a commendation echoed by Homi J. Bhabha, his mentor. But all this interest would materialise into something substantial only in December 1961, after much spadework in the intervening period by Madras Education Secretary K. Srinivasan. On December 22, 1961, orders were issued by the Madras Government appointing Ramakrishnan the Director of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences. Ramakrishnan was to later write, "What a providential coincidence that it should be the birthday of Srinivasa Ramanujan!"

The Prime Minister agreed to be its patron and C. Subramaniam, the Chairman of its Board of Governors. The Institute was to comprise the Faculties of Mathematics, Applied Mathematics, Theoretical Physics and Astrophysics.

On January 3, 1962, the Institute was inaugurated by Prof. S. Chandrasekhar, F.R.S. Distinguished Service Professor of the Enrico Fermi Institute of Nuclear Studies, University of Chicago, in the main English lecture hall of Presidency College. The first lecture was by Chandrasekhar himself: he had agreed to be an Honorary Professor of Astrophysics at the Madras institute. He addressed its first students in the Physics lecture room where his illustrious uncle, Sir C. V. Raman, Ramakrishnan and C. Subramaniam had all spent many hours as undergraduates. It was Raman who had persuaded Ramakrishnan, the physics graduate who had become a lawyer, to return to physics and mathematics.

The Institute, IMSc or Matscience as it is popularly known, flourished in its early years in two rooms in Presidency College with numerous lecturers from other parts of India and abroad visiting it. In its first year itself, the Board of Governors announced the institution of the annual Niels Bohr and Ramanujan Visiting Professorships — strengthening its teaching component with foreign faculty. Matscience in that first year also started a unique practice when it organised a summer school with visiting professors participating. The first summer school was held at the TVS guest house in Kodaikanal.

Prof. Alladi Ramakrishnan is the son of that eminent lawyer, Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Iyer, who together with B. R. Ambedkar, T. T. Krishnamachari, K. M. Munshi, N. Madhava Row and Benegal Narasingha Rao drafted the Indian Constitution.

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