Portrait Of An Institution Builder

Shiju Sam Varughese

By Indira Chowdhury
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, Year 2017, pp.274, Rs.895


Homi J. Bhabha, one of the stalwarts of Jawaharlal Nehru’s team who steered the growth of science in India, has always been a subject of great enthusiasm for historians of science. Often this interest in him has led to situating him within the frame of Nehruvian nationalism and the building of the nuclear technology establishment of the country, and of late, to addressing the relationship between science and the Indian state. The book under review veers away from these historiographical frames, and portrays Bhabha as an institution builder, and concentrates on the institutional history of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, one of the centres of scientific excellence in India. Such an approach of the book helps bring out the contribution of Bhabha and his brainchild in establishing the disciplines of mathematics, cosmic ray research, radio astronomy, and molecular biology in the country apart from (nuclear) physics, and this is actually a history always being sidelined or under-explored due to a strong focus of historians on the Indian nuclear technology programme. Similarly, the book also brings out the contributions of several other renowned scientists like D.D. Kosambi, K. Chandrasekharan, Bhibha Chowdhury (one of the few women scientists in India in that period), and Obaid Siddiqi. The book is an outcome of the author’s professional involvement in setting up an institutional archive at TIFR, which gave her unrestricted access to historical documents. As a part of the archival project, she could build oral history accounts by interviewing veteran scientists and other actors involved in the institution building. The strength of the book is its firm footing in archival sources and the author’s painstaking attention to the nuances of the story, although this makes the reader sometimes wonder about the methodological significance of such a detailed exercise. To some extent, this also prevents the author from spending more of her creative energy on theorizing the new historiographical possibilities opened up by the archive. These include, in the main, the partly explored theme of the connection between the city of Bombay (now, Mumbai) and TIFR, and also, the kind of ‘internationalist aspirations’ the Institute and its founder nursed ironically after the decline of the ‘internationalist moment’ that had shaped science in the 1920s and 30s. The author’s claim on taking cognizance of the views of ‘the subalterns of the scientific establishment’ such as ‘the laboratory assistants, kitchen ...

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