Squaring the circle
The Ramanujan-Hardy story finds a new equation with a film on their relationship.
Beauty of mathematics: Ramanujan and Hardy shared a passion for numbers. Photo: The Hindu Photo Library
IT'S a story filled with the boundless possibilities of the mind. The Ramanujan-Hardy friendship is one that leaps across time, space and personal differences of race and culture to connect through the arcane beauty of mathematics.
When mathematicians talk about Srinivas Ramanujan (1887-1920) it's almost always about the beauty of his equations, the seemingly effortless thrust of his theorems, or his explorations into the nature of infinity and the number theory. He is like a musician attuned to the music of the spheres, an artist who could calculate the formula for what the Greeks called the Golden Mean. Until l913, when he wrote a 10-page letter to G. H. Hardy (1877-1947), a Fellow of the Trinity College, Cambridge and a well-established mathematician, Ramanujan was the epitome of one hand clapping, a native of Kumbakonam, who had failed to qualify in any subject, except mathematics. The theorems that Ramanujan had included astounded Hardy. He was inclined to think of them as an elaborate type of hoax and as the story goes he hurried to show them to a colleague John Littlewood (1885-1977), who is described as "one of the great number theorists". He recognised at once that they were in the presence of a truly original mind, a mathematician of world-class significance.
Now, Stephen Fry, another famous Cambridge mind, is about to make the connections between Ramanujan and Hardy work as a film with Indian filmmaker Dev Benegal. Stephen Fry, Gina Carter his co-producer at Sprouts Productions, the company that made Fry's debut feature film, "Bright Young Things" and Dev Benegal under his own banner of Tropic Films, were all three in Mumbai to talk about their Ramanujan-Hardy project. Fry was in India for the official signing of a new film making initiative called the India U.K. Film co-production trust. This will be their first venture and it promises to be a major undertaking with an International cast. As Benegal explained, they had just returned from New Delhi, where they met the President, Abdul Kalam, who had personally given them the paper where he had written about Ramanujan's number theory.
"It's a celebration of culture, two very different cultures that are represented in the lives of two very extraordinarily gifted people," explains Gina Carter, who was instrumental in bringing Fry and Benegal together.
NUMBER GAMES: Hardy and a letter written by him.
As Benegal explains it, he had been very reluctant to go to yet another film festival, but in October of 2005 he found himself talking to Carter at a British film festival at Dinard. She recalled that Fry himself had been looking for an Indian writer-director to co-produce and co-script a story that had been on his mind ever since his Cambridge days. When she met Benegal, she realised at once that she had found him.
"I've always been fascinated by the Ramanujan story, hasn't everyone?" asks Benegal. "For me he was amongst the great figures of early Indian nationalism Tagore, Nehru, Ramanujan. He is one of the genuinely charismatic figures that I can think of, but what really filled me with the desire to make this film was that about 20 years ago I made a documentary on the Cauvery." As he describes it, he travelled down the entire length of the river as it makes its way down from Coorg, sometimes travelling in the circular reed and leather-covered coracles that where used by Tipu Sultan and his army and as he went he absorbed the ethos of the temple towns that border the Cauvery as she passes through Tamil Nadu. Some of the towns he skirted are familiar to Ramanujan seekers. Erode where he was born; the temple town of Namakkal, where his family's titular Goddess, Namagiri, was enshrined; Kumbakonam, where Ramanujan finished his early education. Pachaiyappas College at Chennai, (or Madras); Triplicane where he lived; the Port Trust where he worked as a clerk and the house off Harrington Road where he died at the tragically young age of 33, of a mysterious illness, probably tuberculosis that was brought on by the stress of living all by himself in wartime England. Benegal knew that he had a great subject for a film, but no one was interested in the project at that time.
Like everyone, he had read Robert Kanigel's The Man who knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan. Kanigel has written a passionate biography of the man, following him every step of the way from his humble beginnings to the extraordinary passage in wartime England, which he spent, secluded at Cambridge, under the stern eye of Hardy. Kanigel writes about the drama surrounding Ramanujan's departure from Chennai. He would be breaking caste rules by crossing the seas, but finally when his mother had a dream in which the Goddess Namagiri herself sanctioned the trip, Ramanujan was given a warm send-off. Amongst his well-wishers was Kasturi Ranga Iyengar, the publisher of The Hindu, who later visited Ramanujan in England.
Like several others, Kanigel emphasises the difference in approach between Ramanujan, the deeply religious man, who believed in an intuitive approach to mathematics and Hardy, the dry intellectual, who was an atheist, socialist, anti-imperialist, and anti-war when the Great War was being fought in Europe. The one thing, however that both men were passionate about was numbers. Ramanujan proposed his theories Hardy subjected them to the rigour of his training. "Prove it!" he countered at every step and Ramanujan for the most part, but not always, as Kanigel notes, was able to show Hardy that his instincts had been right. The intensity of their relationship may have contributed to Ramanujan's eventual breakdown.
Stephen Fry disguises his many roles as actor, academic, comic at large, novelist, columnist and film director, under the rumpled garb of an over-grown schoolboy. He has an instinct for being outrageous. When asked what it means, as someone has noted that he has a brain as big as Kent, does it mean that it's big or small he stretches his hand out over his head as if pulling at a pizza and says, "Well, I think it was meant to be flattering. Kent is really large it's a county you know." And then he laughs at himself. He's played the part of Jeeves in a Wodehouse series and written about the genius of Wodehouse in a brilliant essay. He's acted as Oscar Wilde, whom he describes as a deeply tragic figure.
But these are in the past. Right now, Fry is only interested in his film. He becomes almost lyrical when he describes the contrast between the worlds of Ramanujan and Hardy. "You have the vibrancy of Tamil Nadu, the colour, the noise, the nature of the Tam-Brahm, the women walking down the street and you contrast it to Hardy's Cambridge, the greyness of those walls, the closed-in atmosphere of the halls, the solitude, but also the cricket that he loved, and through it all the deep philosophical meaning that they attached to mathematics. You could not find two more charismatic figures."
"Think of it," adds Benegal, "Ramanujan's ideas are the fundamental building blocks, the DNA of what powers digital technology today." Ramanujan and Hardy, the Kumbakonam Brahmin and the Cambridge Don; Fry, the comic spirit, and Benegal, the inspired film-maker, these are Prime Numbers, unique individuals who can sometimes meet and make an equation sublime.
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