The legacy of Srinivasa Ramanujan

In search of the man who knew infinity

KUMBAKONAM, TAMIL NADU, 14/03/2018: A view of Museum for our great Indian Mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan at SASTRA UNIVERSITY at Kumbakonam campus in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. Photo: M.Moorthy   | Photo Credit: M_Moorthy

Ninety-eight years is a long time. It’s close to a century, a period when change is inevitable.

Kumbakonam, the home town of mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who died on April 26, 1920, has been no exception to the rule. But there are still a few landmarks here related to the mathematical genius that are well worth visiting.

At the age of 31, Ramanujan was one of the youngest members of Britain’s Royal Society and the first Indian to be elected a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge University. Despite no formal training in the subject, Ramanujan made significant contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series and continued fractions.

Commemorating a genius

To get an overview of the prodigy’s life, head to the House of Ramanujan Mathematics, situated inside Srinivasa Ramanujan Centre (SRC), an affiliate campus of the Thanjavur-based Shanmugha Arts, Science, Technology and Research Academy (SASTRA) Deemed University in Kumbakonam. Inaugurated in 2002, the museum has archival material related to the mathematician’s personal life and correspondence between the Indian and British scholars who helped nurture his talent.

TIRUCHI, TAMIL NADU, 14/03/2018: Bronze statue of Srinivasa Ramanujan at Town Higher Secondary School, Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. Photo: M.Moorthy

TIRUCHI, TAMIL NADU, 14/03/2018: Bronze statue of Srinivasa Ramanujan at Town Higher Secondary School, Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. Photo: M.Moorthy   | Photo Credit: M_Moorthy

Born on December 22, 1887 to K Srinivasa Iyengar, who worked as a clerk in a sari shop and Komalatammal, a homemaker who also sang at the local temples, Ramanujan was for long his parents’ only child, as three of his younger siblings, two brothers and a sister, died in infancy . This was to change after his brothers Lakshmi Narasimhan and Tirunarayanan were born in 1898 and 1904 respectively.

KUMBAKONAM, TAMIL NADU, 14/03/2018: A view of Bronze statue of Srinivasa Ramanujan at his house Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu.
Photo: M.Moorthy

KUMBAKONAM, TAMIL NADU, 14/03/2018: A view of Bronze statue of Srinivasa Ramanujan at his house Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. Photo: M.Moorthy   | Photo Credit: M_Moorthy

Ramanujan, described by writer Robert Kanigel as a contemplative child in his authoritative biography The Man Who Knew Infinity (Hachette India; 1991), showed an early talent for arithmetic that would eventually see him compile nearly 3,900 results linked to identities and equations. However, as the museum’s pictorial displays show, Ramanujan’s preoccupation with mathematics proved to be a hurdle in his academic life. He lost the Junior Subhramanyam Scholarship that he had been awarded after a competitive exam while studying at the Government Arts College in Kumbakonam when he failed to pass English and Sanskrit in his FA exam.

Undaunted by his failure, and perhaps under pressure to seek a livelihood because he was a married man in 1909 (at the age of 21), Ramanujan continued to work on his theorems alone. He recorded his calculations (mostly without proofs) in three notebooks, from 1903 to 1914, copies of which are also available in the museum.

“There are many ways in which we could honour Ramanujan today,” says V Swaminathan, assistant professor, Department of Mathematics, SRC, who takes visitors around the museum. “We have thousands of results in his notebooks, which we in India could do more to prove, so that the world will be forced to look at Indian mathematics again.”

The annual SASTRA Srinivasa Ramanujan award carries a citation of $10,000 for outstanding research in the areas influenced by the mathematician. It is open to scholars worldwide, under the age of 32.

KUMBAKONAM, TAMIL NADU, 14/03/2018: A view of our great Indian Mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan's house at Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu.
Photo: M.Moorthy

KUMBAKONAM, TAMIL NADU, 14/03/2018: A view of our great Indian Mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan's house at Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. Photo: M.Moorthy   | Photo Credit: M_Moorthy

And to see where it all began, visit Ramanujan’s home that sits snug between two towering buildings on Sarangapani Sannidhi Street, its board announcing its heritage status. Like the buildings of the day, it has a design that facilitates both a flood of daylight and a cool refuge from the heat. The residence is being maintained as a national monument by SRC.

As a boy, Ramanujan would talk to friends from the window overlooking the street. Today, the same front room and thinnai (verandah) look out to a snarl of human and vehicular traffic.

Inside, the kitchen with its small stone stove and a tank that used to be filled with the water of the well in the backyard (which, amazingly, hasn’t run dry), gives a glimpse of a life that was shaped by orthodoxy.

Lessons from school

Close by, is the Town High School , an institution that Ramanujan attended for six years from 1898. Founded as a primary school in 1864, and built on a plantain grove, the campus is an oasis of calm.

Shortly before he left school, Ramanujan chanced upon a book that was to start his mathematical journey in earnest. A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics written by G S Carr, a text written as a guide to pass exams, is thought to have inspired Ramanujan in a significant way.

Blossoming talent

Encouraged by the response to his work among Indian mathematicians, Ramanujan started corresponding with British scholars in Cambridge University in 1913. G H Hardy, Cayley Lecturer in Mathematics at Cambridge, would later prove to be the man who introduced him to the world.

Getting there
  • Nearest airport: Tiruchirapalli
  • By road: From Tiruchi, 2 hours and 4 minutes (97.6 km) via NH83 and Thanjavur-Kumbakonam Main Road.
  • For more information on the museum and Ramanujan’s house, contact: The Dean, SASTRA Deemed University, Srinivasa Ramanujan Centre, Kumbakonam – 612001. Ph: 0435-2426823; official website: http://src.sastra.edu

Ramanujan was persuaded to overcome his community’s taboo of foreign travel by Hardy’s friend, mathematician E H Neville and came to Cambridge in 1914. His collaboration with Professor Hardy was in many ways, a re-education for Ramanujan, as the former showed him the importance of formal proofs to support his work.

KUMBAKONAM, TAMIL NADU, 14/03/2018: A view of our great Indian Mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan's house at Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu.
Photo: M.Moorthy

KUMBAKONAM, TAMIL NADU, 14/03/2018: A view of our great Indian Mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan's house at Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. Photo: M.Moorthy   | Photo Credit: M_Moorthy

In March 1916, Ramanujan was awarded a Bachelor of Science degree by research (the precursor to today’s PhD) by Cambridge University for his work on highly composite numbers. But while his talent blossomed in Cambridge, Ramanujan’s health suffered a setback. He returned to Kumbakonam in 1919 and died on April 26, 1920, at the age of 32.

How would a self-taught prodigy like Srinivasa Ramanujan have fared in the modern Indian education system that leans so heavily on marks-based assessment?

The lingering landmarks in Kumbakonam must have some answers hidden in their walls.


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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 6:53:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/rediscovering-the-genius-of-mathematician-srinivasa-ramanujan/article23669116.ece

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