India’s Nobel quest completes a cycle of sorts

In the 21st century, one connecting thread is the synthesis of the search for knowledge and effective purposeful action that Nobel Prize accomplishments have come to mean, more so when the winners have some connection or other with India

October 13, 2014 05:42 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:14 pm IST - Chennai

Peace Nobel winners Kailash Satyarthi; R.K. Pachauri, who headed the IPCCwhich was selected for the honour in 2007; and Mother Teresa. File photos

Peace Nobel winners Kailash Satyarthi; R.K. Pachauri, who headed the IPCCwhich was selected for the honour in 2007; and Mother Teresa. File photos

More than 100 years after Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel for Literature in 1913, India’s quest for the Nobel Prize has attained a certain philosophical completeness under all categories for which it is awarded, with Kailash Satyarthi of India being chosen along with Malala of Pakistan on Friday for the Nobel Peace Prize 2014.

While C.V. Raman won the Nobel for Physics in 1930, Har Gobind Khorana bagged it under the category of Medicine in 1968. Khorana shared his prize with Robert W. Holley and Marshall W. Nirenberg.

The Albanian-born Mother Teresa who later worked out her spiritual destiny in Calcutta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, even as India was again crowned with the Nobel Physics in 1983 in the hands of Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar. He shared it with William Alfred Fowler.

If in 1998 Amartya Sen won extraordinary laurels for India by winning the prize for Economics “for his contributions to Welfare Economics,” it was then followed by Venkatraman Ramakrishnan chosen for the Nobel Chemistry in 2009. Dr. Ramakrishnan shared it with Thomas A Steitz and Ada E. Yonath.

Five years later, an Indian has again bagged the Nobel Peace, this time sharing it with a courageous Pakistani girl, rounding off a rare sub-continental partnership to work together for suffering humanity at large.

Across generations in the past century, alongside the birth of Modern India, for the common man the Nobel Prize has been an extraordinarily distant goal, often invoking a mixed feeling of awe and the other-worldly recognition even if most of the prizes are in the empirical sciences.

However, a century later, into the 21st century, one connecting thread in these accomplishments, is the synthesis of the search for knowledge and effective purposeful action that Nobel Prize accomplishments have come to mean, more so when the winners have had some connection or other with India.

Pre-Independence British Indians

While some people would want to even include pre-Independence British Indians in this list - notably Ronald Ross, who according to the Nobel Foundation website was born on May 13, 1857, in Almora in India and was awarded the prize for Medicine in 1902 “for his work on Malaria”, and the Bombay-born writer Rudyard Kipling who was awarded the Literature prize in 1907, two other Nobel winners associated with India also need to be mentioned here.

The first is the controversial writer and Literature prize winner in 2001 V. S. Naipaul, whose ancestors had their roots in India, and second, more recently Dr. R. K. Pachauri, who as then Chairman of the U.N. body, ‘Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’, shared the Peace Prize laurels with Al Gore Jr. in 2007, “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change.” Yet, the new assertive Indian middle class in the new millennium was in no great hurry to seize ownership of them as Indian icons.

Historically, that original pride of India’s intellectual soul being recognised by the West has largely been associated with Tagore, C. V. Raman and the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan in terms of modern paradigms of knowledge. This is notwithstanding the fact that philosopher-scholars like Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Sri Aurobindo made waves in the West.

While Tagore, being the first Indian to win the Nobel followed by C.V. Raman, have long dominated popular consciousness, in the post-1960s , the excitement about the prize itself looked more pronounced in the public sphere, at least from a journalist’s point of view, first with Mother Teresa demonstrating the importance of humane action, and when Chandrasekhar won the Physics Prize “for his theoretical studies of the physical processes of importance to the structure and evolution of the stars”.

It was a fairly rapidly changing India in terms of social mores that was stepping into the 1980s’. All this was happening even when the debate over why Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence, was not considered for the Nobel Peace Prize, continued however muted it may have been.

This intellectual excitement reached a peak when Professor Sen was honoured and more recently when Dr. Ramakrishnan won the prize in 2009 for the study of the “ribosome- one of Life's core processes” as the Nobel Citation put it. Venky, as he was popularly known among his peers until the prize brought him to public limelight, started off his career as a theoretical physicist, as he himself put it, and then moved on to Molecular Biology.

‘Nationalities don’t matter’

When Dr. Ramakrishnan addressed the Madras University students soon after his winning the prize that year, he was quite candid that he did not care much for nationalities as his research effort was a testament to how the search for knowledge is truly universal. And he also drove home the point that world class work in science was taking place in India itself. It came as sweet music to hundreds of University students that day, by then attuned to the former President Abdul Kalam’s “dream big Mantra”.

Nonetheless, it was Professor Sen who more lucidly explicated the sense of completeness in his Nobel Banquet Speech 1998. Referring to economists being frequently asked whether “are you against or in favour of the market?” or “Against or in favour of State action?,” Professor Sen said: “This is an invitation to replace analysis by slogans — to be guided by grand dogma, either of one kind, or of another. We do need the clear stream of reason. What Tagore, the poet, and Chandrasekhar, the physicist demanded, we need in economics too...” Tagore's own “universalist, tolerant and rationalist ideals were a strong influence on my thinking and I often recollect them in these divisive times,” Prof. Sen said.

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