W.We recently got Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata as the. rediscovered the greatest philanthropist in the world of the last century – a new report showed that he had donated $ 102 billion. I was reminded of his majestic statue in front of the main building of the Indian Institute of Science. A fundamental question was lost in our celebrations: why is ‘Tata’ associated with so many top Indian institutions that have long histories of excellence and continue to dominate their respective fields?
Think of the famous five – Indian Institute of Science (IISc, founded 1909), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR, founded 1945), Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS, founded 1936), Tata Memorial Center (TMC, 1941 in Commissioned) and National Center for Performing Arts (NCPA, inaugurated 1976).
These institutions were established with the support of the Dorabji Tata Trust founded by Jamsetji Tata. They all had some element of tripartite agreements between the trust, provincial and central rulers, with strong ideals of sustainability and governance. All but the NCPA originated in pre-independence India. All of them had the best and brightest leaders at critical moments in their long history: Homi Bhabha at TIFR, Satish Dhawan at IISc, S. Parasuraman at TISS and also JJ Bhabha who was synonymous with NCPA. The TMC was also instrumental in realizing the synergy between them and the Department of Atomic Energy to usher in a new era of radiation treatment for cancer therapy in India.
Many of the stars of modern India such as CV Raman, Vikram Sarabhai, GN Ramachandran, Brahm Prakash, and Vivek Borkar have also been associated with one or more of these institutions.
The “famous five” are characterized by the fact that, unlike most other institutions, they outlived their founders. In fact, they have grown stronger over the decades, finding new ways to maintain excellence and attract and retain great talent, despite working within the usual constraints of a developing country.
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The Tata campus exudes the vision of its founding characters and continues to inspire young people almost a century after it was founded. To get a physical feel, take a stroll around the TIFR Colaba campus. I can’t think of any academic institution in the world that can compete with their fabulous art collection. It is a constant testimony to the uniqueness of Homi Bhabha, for whom science, technology and art were equally important. In fact, he excelled equally in all three areas. As soon as you step into the foyer, you will be greeted by MF Husain’s 45-foot mural Bharat Bhagya Vidhata. From there, it’s a treasure trove of great Indian painters like KH Ara, VS Gaitonde, and even Bhabha’s own paintings. A unique design stands out across the campus, starting with a distinctive blackboard design and ending with a great view of the Arabian Sea (as viewed from the southern end of Mumbai).
The faces of the students, staff, and faculty within these campuses exude a certain intensity and passion to achieve academic excellence, which the institutes offer in a number of subjects such as computer science, math, medicine, performing arts, and theoretical physics, to highlight a few .
You can’t help but fall in love with the IISc campus and its quaint avenues named for the flowering trees that surround them. It is impossible not to get lost in the sorrow of the weeping willows of the main building in the evening rain showers in September or bask in the exuberance of the trees of the flame of the forest along the main avenue. A carpet of majestic yellow flowers awaits you on the parallel street.
In an institution like the IISc you are way ahead in new research directions and in the work at the interfaces of emerging disciplines. Research teams in different departments are likely to work on similar problems, albeit from different angles. To illustrate, research into diseases like Parkinson’s could involve electrical engineers applying probability theory ideas from Markov random fields, and work on designing optimal production systems in management could borrow from stochastic linear programming in construction. The recognition of such interdependencies means that institutions with a rigid scientific culture whose rank is proven, the freedom for interdisciplinary thinking and the opportunity to learn relevant subjects in an open and permissible environment are not possible.
Also read: Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, a Swadeshi who tried to turn India into a manufacturing center
“Stay ahead of the times”
To create these great institutions, you need money of the kind that JN Tata and later JRD Tata hired. But money alone cannot buy size. It must be used with care. For example, during Dhawan’s days, the IISc ventured into new research areas that were way ahead of its time, such as the Center for Atmospheric Sciences and The Cell’s Advancement of the Social Impact of Science for the Application of Science and Technology to Rural Areas (ASTRA) . The TIFR attracted Narendra Karmarkar, who, despite their prejudices in number and string theory, invented the polynomial time algorithm for linear programming for their computer science group. In addition, TISS has started several priority programs, for example in disaster management. The NCPA opened its legendary experimental theater, while the Tata Memorial pioneered bone marrow transplants and nuclear medicine exams in India.
All of these institutions in one way or another summed up the phrase – “staying ahead of the times”. This requires an extraordinary vision, an open mind from the key players, and a keen foresight to put resources on them.
JN Tata had a knack for seeing opportunities far ahead of his peers and rivals. When India had barely escaped the brutal oppression of 1857 that lasted into the early 1860s, Tata established his first major initiative, Empress Mills (1874), in Nagpur rather than Mumbai because of its proximity to the cotton fields, water and Fuel. He founded the majestic Taj Mahal Hotel near the Gateway of India in Mumbai in 1903 after he was denied entry to a hotel for being Indian. He also founded the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO), now Tata Steel, in Jamshedpur in 1907. This revolutionary thinking and scientific temperament led him to invest in the creation of the “Temple of Science” IISc in Bengaluru, which at the time was a small town, far from his comfort zone. While sadly not having lived to see the famous Five, his vision, compassion and pursuit of excellence are etched into the blueprint of these great institutions that, even a century after they were founded, are the world renown and honor of India.
Disclosure: Ratan Tata is one of ThePrint’s respected founder investors. Please click here for details on investors.
PG Babu is the director of the Madras Institute of Development Studies and is on leave from the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai. He is an alumnus of IISc and Madurai Kamaraj University and sits on the Senate of IIT Bombay and on the Board of Governors of the Institute of Economic Growth Delhi.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)
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