A little known museum
The Ramanujan Museum is a small, one-room museum visited mainly by school children. Few adults even know about it and it is on no tourist map of the city, not even in guides meant for more scholarly visitors to Madras. But in this little-known museum, there's a treasure of pictures, letters and documents focussing on one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th Century.
I TAKE another detour this fortnight, this one necessitated by a rather stern admonition from Dr. K. Srinivasa Rao of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences who pointed out to me the dangers of relying on secondary and tertiary sources and repeating the errors in them. He was referring to my piece on Sir Francis Spring on January 15th and my reference to an Englishman named AIGAR who had helped Ramanujan in the Port Trust. Dr. Rao and several others have pointed out that the benefactor was, in fact, S.N. (Narayana) Aiyar. I had apparently been perpetuating a printer's mistake, though I must say that in the three or four articles I had seen `Aigar' used, it was repeated that he was the Port Manager and I had accepted the name as being correct, as an Indian was unlikely to have held the No.2 position at the time. That mystery too has now been solved.
Reader T.V. Ranganathan, a retired Port Trust Superintending Engineer, says that Narayana Aiyar was brought to the Port as Office Manager by Sir Francis Spring who had known him in Trichy where he had been a lecturer in Mathematics at St. Joseph's College before joining the PWD. Subsequently, I received from Dr. Srinivasa Rao a brief biographical note on Narayana Aiyar that had been written by that American Ramanujan expert Bruce C. Berndt of the University of Illinois. That article says that Aiyar was promoted to Chief Accountant, the highest ranking Indian in the Port Trust at the time, and served in that post till his retirement in 1934.
In 1907, Aiyar was a founding member of the Indian Mathematical Club, which grew into the Indian Mathematical Society, of which he became an office-bearer. Mathematics was indeed a passion of his and of him it has been related that when he was requested to give his blessings to a prospective bridegroom for his sister-in-law, he rather set the poor boy back with the testing question, "What is the value of SYM,80>(pi)?" This fascination with mathematics as much as the fact that he had been born poor and took a lifelong interest in the needy, resulted in the action he took on an application for a clerical post that he, as Chief Accountant, received one day in 1912. The applicant was named Srinivasa Ramanujan. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Aiyar, Berndt records, often worked with Ramanujan at night on various mathematical problems. He also drafted the letters to Prof. Hardy in Cambridge and he persuaded Sir Francis Spring to sanction the leave of absence Ramanujan needed to accept Hardy's offer. When Ramanujan died, the austere but generous Aiyar offered his home to Ramanujan's parents. It was Aiyar's son-in-law, M.S. Venkataraman, who joined the Port Trust and became, in time, the first Indian to officiate as its Chairman, who gathered all the files connected with Ramanujan and transferred them to Delhi. Aiyar's son Subbanarayan also worked in the Port Trust.
Not unlike Narayana Aiyar is P.K. Srinivasan. Just as the former encouraged Ramanujan and smoothed the way for genius to find expression, the latter, also a maths teacher, has dedicated much of his life to ensuring that Ramanujan is remembered more widely and that the young are inspired by the memory of genius to take a greater interest in the magic of mathematics. In 1962, on Ramanujan's 75th Birth Anniversary, he set himself the task of establishing a permanent memorial to Ramanujan, a building with a planetarium, wings of mathematics exhibitions, auditorium, library and museum displays. It's a dream that's a long way from being fulfilled. But in March 1993 he completed the first step towards that dream when the Ramanujan Museum, "a museum with a mission" he had organised, opened in the Royapuram premises of the Avvai Kalai Kazhagam (9, Somu Chetty Street, 4th Lane), nurtured round the corner, so to speak, from the Port by A.T.B. Bose, who is more philanthropist than businessman.
It's a small, one-room museum visited mainly by schoolchildren, who crowd in and rush out. Few adults even know about it and it is on no tourist map of the city, not even in guides meant for more scholarly visitors to Madras. But in this little-known museum, there's a treasure of pictures and letters and documents focussing on one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th Century. Amongst the treasures here are Hardy's replies to Ramanujan's first two letters sent to him in early 1913.
Prof. Srinivasa Rao has since then taken the Ramanujan Museum idea another step forward. In 1999, he and Dr. R. Jagannathan helped establish at the Periyar Science and Technology Centre, Kotturpuram a Ramanujan gallery, which includes, a poster-rich `Pie Pavilion', a multimedia presentation on the life of Ramanujan and a replica of the Ramanujan Museum. A Ramanujan Photo Gallery, with 110 photographs on the life and work of the maths genius, was later set up by Prof. Srinivasa Rao, next to the Gallery. The Museum display includes a bronze bust of Ramanujan by a European sculptor Grandlund that was presented to Mrs. Janaki Ramanujan, Ramanujan's original passport and facsimiles of his notebooks.
During a recent visit to Science Centre for a special exhibition on another subject, I found schoolchildren streaming past exhibits, not even stopping to stand and stare. Elsewhere, there appeared almost no life. Are these the alternatives the Ramanujan Galleries are faced with? But that's the fate of most museums and galleries in a State where the past and heritage do not seem to stand for much. Nevertheless, enthusiasts like P.K. Srinivasan and Prof. Srinivasa Rao continue to hope a National Science Museum will be established in Madras, focussing on the work of India's great modern scientists, like Ramanujan, Raman, Satyendranath Bose and Chandrasekhar, and preserving in it memorabilia such as the notebooks of Ramanujan now in the Wren Library of Trinity College, Cambridge. May dreams come true.
FOOTNOTE: A reader telephoned to ask what happened to the Kerala-style `caps' that were seen surmounting the two main towers of the General Post Office in my picture (Madrascapes, January 28). They don't exist today, he pointed out. Indeed they do not, and it was remiss of me not to have drawn attention to their absence in that piece. The `caps' were damaged in the cyclone of 1920 and then dismantled, a correspondent had once informed me in another connection, adding that they must have been restored, because he saw them in place in the 1930s but was shocked to find them missing in the 1950s. When and why were they dismantled? I wonder whether anyone has an answer to the mystery.
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