Tuesday, Nov 29, 2022

The Raman Effect

The noted photographer recounts his first meeting with Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman. Exclusive full text of the abridged article that appears in the print magazine.

T.S. Satyan
My first meeting with Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, the eminent physicist, is still green in my memory.

One day, in l948, I telephoned the Nobel laureate to ask if I could meet him at his convenience and photograph him for an illustrated feature. I was apprehensive about getting an appointment from so busy a person, but was pleasantly surprised when he asked me, "How much time would you need?" An hour, I said. Raman went on to say those thirty minutes would do. I could see him the next morning at nine sharp. "Come on time," he warned.

I dutifully reported my success to Pothan Joseph, Editor of Deccan Herald, which had been started barely a month ago. "Be punctual and conduct yourself with grace," Pothan counselled me. He told me that Raman was a man of quick temper and so I should not throw my weight about in his presence, just because I was a newspaperman. "He may get angry if you direct him to act before your camera. He is particular about the rules he sets for himself," he warned. After listening to all these do's and don'ts I felt somewhat nervous because, I was going to photograph a celebrity for the first time.

I decided to take another person with me for moral support. My choice fell naturally on my alter ego of those days, M.S.Sathyu, now a noted film director, but barely out of his teens then. Sathyu and I were great friends from our school days and he used to keep company with me on my assignments. Contrary to our fears, we found Raman extremely affable and gentle. He seemed very cooperative as I photographed him in his study, laboratory, library and the garden he loved. All this took twenty minutes and I still had ten minutes left to complete my job. Then, a bright idea struck me and I told Raman that I would love to photograph him with Lady Raman. "Forget about her. She is not here," he said. And then a brighter idea came to my mind. Summoning the required courage, I asked the scientist: "Sir, may I take one last, important picture? Will you please pose for me displaying your Nobel Prize citation?" Pursing up his lips, Raman gazed at me, while my heart began to pound rapidly. He relaxed in a minute and, to my utter surprise, said, "Why not?" He went into a room to fetch the precious document.

"I'm lucky," I hissed in Sathyu's ear. I entrusted my brand-new Speed-Graphic camera to his care and set about adjusting the furniture and books in the room, for the all-important picture. Raman had meanwhile returned, holding the scroll, and stood beside a blackboard on which was scribbled in chalk, the diagram of a galaxy and other mathematical calculations. He looked at me and said, "It's getting late. Shoot!" When I was about to pick up my camera from Sathyu who was standing in a corner, the silence in the room was shattered by the sound of metal hitting the ground. We looked around and found to our dismay that Sathyu had dropped the camera.

Raman's face was livid with anger. He walked up to Sathyu, gripped him by the collar and thundered: "Do you know what you have done? You have damaged a beautiful instrument of science. Why weren't you careful?" We were shaken and mumbled our apologies. Our minds were a malange of shame, confusion and embarrassment.

Raman's anger subsided within a minute. Holding the camera in hand, he carefully examined it as an experienced doctor would a patient. He wrote on a piece of paper: "Prisms out of alignment. Replace one broken piece and realign. Set right the metallic dents." He pressed his prescription in my palm and gave us the marching orders saying, "You may leave now." My first photo session with the Nobel Laureate and Bangalore's most famous citizen, had ended in a fiasco.

My immediate problem was to get the camera repaired and I rushed to my friend, Tom D'Auguiar, who was working at the Central Telegraphic Office in Bangalore. Both of us were members of the Mysore Photographic Society. He suggested that I take my camera to his friend, C.X.Lowe, who owned the Elite Studio on South Parade, today's Mahatma Gandhi Road, not far from the office where I worked. It took a week for Lowe to set right my equipment. I was delighted when I got back my repaired camera from Lowe who refused to accept his professional charges. "Let me keep this 'prescription' that the famous scientist wrote for you." I parted with my invaluable souvenir. I met Raman again a couple of months later. By then I had been elected the secretary the Mysore Photographic Society. We had organized an international salon and wanted him to inaugurate the show at the Bible Society premises on South Parade, today's Mahatma Gandhi Road. Raman readily agreed but made it clear that he would go round the exhibition and not make any speech. I remember garlanding him. He smelled the jasmine strings as he looked at the pictures with a keen eye. At the end, he patted me on my back and exclaimed: "It's a wonderful exhibition. I'm sure it will draw many visitors." Raman was with us for a whole hour when some members coaxed and cajoled him to say a few words. Much to our surprise, he made a little speech. I fidgeted in my chair as he recalled the fiasco I had created on my first visit to his place. "Now that he is secretary of your Society and has helped mount this beautiful exhibition, I will at last forgive him!" he said amidst applause.

An hour had passed and the jasmine garland was still around Raman's neck. It was his habit to keep it on him until he reached home to pass it on to his wife Lokasundari. Fairer in complexion but shorter in stature, shy and soft-spoken, she was Raman's ideal partner and shared his love for music, particularly the veena.

When he was about to get into his car, I asked Raman if I could visit him again for more pictures to complete my feature article. "Come over after telephoning me. Are you going to bring the fellow who dropped your camera?" He burst into laughter.

I did not go to see him immediately after the event he had inaugurated. I knew that he would be preoccupied with things connected with his sixtieth birthday. I remember how it was celebrated in a grand manner in November, l948. Many of his distinguished students and colleagues were present at his home in the morning. They sat in a separate room animatedly chatting with each other, while Raman performed a private religious ceremony, sitting in front of the sacred fire with his wife. The whole house, filled with smoke emanating from the sacred fire, seemed to respond to the melodious chant of Vedic hymns. Wearing his dhoti in the orthodox fashion, Raman came out for a short while, as though to bless his students with a gentle nod of his head. I noticed the sacred thread that was conspicuous on his bare chest and the pigtail dangling behind his head. His forehead was smeared with sacred ash. The knight-errant of Indian science looked like a Brahmin priest from a south Indian temple. My fingers itched to freeze-frame him but, alas, I could not dare open my camera. The private religious function was not open to the Press.

The felicitation function in the evening, presided over by Sir Arcot Ramaswamy Mudaliar, the Dewan of Mysore, was a grand one. Looking regal in his black long coat and turban, Raman sat beside Mudaliar. I was there with my camera, all ready to record the event. Before the meeting began, Raman, who was in a jolly mood talking to his many friends, sighted me in the Press enclosure and beckoned me to his side. I had already established a rapport with him. When I went up to offer my congratulations, he held my hands in an affectionate grip, pumped them furiously, before breaking out into a hearty laugh. He took a quick look at my camera and asked, "Is it working al right? Don't drop it again!" I said 'yes' and mentioned that I hoped to meet him soon, for a second photo session.

When I went over to his place after two weeks, I found him in the company of children from a local convent. Raman bubbled with joy in their company, answering their questions in his characteristic, simple way. I followed him as he led them into a room saying, "I will show you something beautiful." Our eyes were focussed on a variety of stones of many sizes and shapes, besides crystals and minerals that had been beautifully displayed in the dark-walled room.

"They look ordinary to your eyes, don't they?" he asked. "Yes, Sir," the children chorused. Instead of remaining a silent onlooker, I ventured to say: "I like their shapes and unusual texture. But, I wouldn't call them beautiful."

"Nonsense," he retorted. What subjects did you study at college? Humanities, I suppose."

"Yes, Sir."

"No wonder. You don't seem to know even the rudiments of science. Colleges don't teach much."

So saying, Raman suddenly switched off the light. Standing in the centre of the dark room, he switched on a portable ultraviolet lamp and played it on the exhibits. The stones and minerals came alive and began to glow in breath-taking bright colours - violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and their myriad combinations. Raman had transported us into a fairyland. A bright little girl screamed in joy - " Alice in Wonderland!" The delighted scientist joyously hugged her and planted a soft kiss on her tender cheek. Having shown us the beauty of nature as revealed by the application of physics, he went on to explain the scientific basis of the fascinating phenomena of fluorescence and phosphorescence. "You must have seen the glow worm at night," he said and explained in a lucid, easy-to-grasp manner, the scientific phenomena behind what we had seen. He also spoke about the discovery of what came to be known as the Raman Effect, which concerns the molecular diffraction of light and won for him the Nobel Prize for Physics in l930. He claimed that the blue of the sea was due to the molecular scattering of light and was not a case of reflection of the sky in water as most people imagined. Raman had the knack of explaining the most abstruse scientific phenomena in a language that even ordinary people could understand.

Over the next few years I established a closer, affectionate rapport with Raman and showed him all the pictures I had earlier taken of him. I visited him often but only after getting a firm appointment.

One lucky day, I found him in an expansive mood when he told me the story of his trip to Sweden to receive the Nobel Prize. He recalled what he had said to the members of the University of Calcutta who had gathered to felicitate him, after he was conferred the Fellowship of the Royal Society. "I'm not flattered by the honour done to me. This is a small achievement. If there is anything that I aspire for, it is the Nobel Prize. You will find that I get that in five years." These words seemed shorn of modesty but they were indicative of his determination to achieve whatever he wanted to. And precisely at 7 p.m. on February 8, l928, C.V.Raman fulfilled his promise by a discovery so vital and so far- reaching in its effects on modern scientific knowledge that the award of the Nobel Prize for Physics to him became a certainty. It was the same spirit of adventure that compelled him to go to Sweden in order to receive the prize in November l930, even before the awards for that year were announced. His optimism and meticulous planning were such that he reserved berths for himself and his wife on the ocean liner to Sweden five months in advance.

His eyes were misted when he narrated to me the story about the award ceremony in Stockholm.

"It is celebrated with much pomp and dignity. There were about ten thousand persons in the assembly. The Swedish king was in the chair. Five persons had to receive the prizes. All of them were seated in their chairs flanked by their countries' flags. I was sorry to see that I was under the British flag. India was still under British rule. The Civil Disobedience Movement was in full swing and Mahatma Gandhi was in jail. I was overcome by emotion when my name was called and I went up to receive the prize from royal hands."

After receiving the Nobel Prize, Raman is reported to have visited his native village where his aunt asked him: "What is all this commotion about the big prize you have received?" He explained to her, in his characteristic lucid style, his discovery. After listening to him with rapt attention, the old lady is said to have remarked, "I didn't know it was so simple. I am surprised that such a simple thing should have merited international recognition!"

My last photo session with Raman was sometime in the l960s, during the All India Congress Committee session held at Sadashivanagar in Bangalore, not far from the Raman Research Institute in Hebbal. I had arrived in Bangalore from New Delhi with my friend Donald Connery, to cover it for the American magazines, Time and Life. He was correspondent of these magazines. Having extensively photographed the meeting, where Jawaharlal Nehru was the cynosure of all eyes, I suggested to Connery that we take a break from the politicians and spend some time with Raman. When I telephoned the scientist, he was happy to hear my voice and the progress I had made in my career from the humble beginnings he had known. "Bring your American friend along," he said and this delighted Connery.

We spent two hours with the scientist at the Institute he had set up with an eye for thoroughness and meticulous detail. During the interview, Connery asked Raman a number of questions on a variety of subjects, which the scientist answered with his characteristic candour, while I went on shooting pictures. Raman told him how greatly he admired Nehru and recalled the day in 1949 when the Prime Minister spent a long time at his place. " Nehru was fascinated seeing my collection of diamonds, stones and minerals and the gorgeous spectacle that unfolded before him when I played my ultraviolet lamp on them in the dark room." Like a consummate showman, Raman demonstrated the phenomena of fluorescence and phosphorescence for Connery and me. One never got tired of seeing that beautiful sight. Connery was full of admiration for Raman, who was brutally frank and unafraid when he spoke, sometimes caustically. "While I admire Nehru personally, I dislike the cronies around him," he remarked. He referred to the AICC session as "a big tamasha where they just talk, talk and talk from morning till night." When he was asked for a quick solution to India's food problem, Raman said, "We must stop breeding like pigs and the matter will solve itself." The two hours we spent with the Nobel laureate seemed like two minutes.

The scientific world is very familiar with countless anecdotes and affectionate memories of Dr.C.V.Raman and his gracious wife, Lokasundari. A story goes that Raman was once speaking at a gathering on cyclotrons. He abruptly stopped talking and walked up to an elderly person to pick up his cane. He returned to the rostrum and began swirling the cane above his head. As the movement picked up speed, Raman asked the gathering: "Tell me what will happen if I let go this cane now." No one answered. All the faces in the assembly exuded grave concern. Raman was still swirling the cane. "Don't be scared", he told them in a baritone voice. "It will of course travel towards one of you to break the head. I won't let that happen. I was only explaining to you the cyclotron principle."

Raman's aversion to politics and politicians was well known. It is said that he was once offered the post of the Vice President of the Indian Republic, which he politely declined saying, "What will I do with this ship?"

At a felicitation function in his honour on his 80th birthday, speaker after speaker praised him. One of them compared his intellect to a diamond - hard, brilliant and multi-sided. Raman intervened to say, "I wish someone had said that I also had the heart of a lion."

An abridged version of this appears in the print magazine dated 14 July, 2003