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Indiaspora And Agastya Foundation Honor Ramanujam

Ranjani Saigal

Indiaspora and Agastya foundation donated a bust of Ramanujam to MIT. The unveiling of the Bust was a great tribute to the life and legacy of pioneer mathematician, Srinivas Ramanujan.

“Indian mathematicians have left an indelible legacy over the centuries, having developed some of the earliest mathematical concepts such as the decimal system, zero, and algebra” said  Indiaspora founder MR Rangaswami. He noted that two Indian Americans have received the prestigious Fields medal, an honor often equated to the Nobel Prize. Bhargava won the honor in 2014, while Akshay Venkatesh, of the Institute for Advanced Study, received it in 2018.“Ramanujan would certainly have received this award had he not died at such an early age,” said Rangaswami. “When I was growing up in India, mathematics was revered in our family,” said the community leader, noting that his father had received a gold medal for mathematics at his university. “With so much discussion about STEAM education — Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics — we thought it would be appropriate to showcase Ramanujan’s legacy and have a meaningful diaspora conversation on how best to contribute,” said Rangaswami.

Indiaspora is a network of global Indian origin leaders from diverse backgrounds.  The celebration began in the MIT mathematics department with a ribbon-cutting ceremony of a bronze bust of Ramanujan — created by sculptor Jayaprakash Shirgaonkar — which the Agastya Foundation donated to the university last year. In the afternoon, attendees were treated to a curated tour of the South Asian History Project at MIT, aimed at showcasing the deep connection between South Asians and academia.

The evening festivities featured a CEO panel with Dr. Reshma Kewalramani, CEO and president at Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Niren Chaudhary, CEO at Panera Bread; and an academic panel with  Harvard Business School professor Dr. Tarun Khanna, Dr. Sunil Kumar, incoming President of Tufts University, Dr. Sunand Bhattacharya, Associate Vice Provost at Boston College and Yale University professor Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan. Thiagarajan represented the Agastya foundation and shared the story of how this donation came about.

Ramji Raghavan, a former banker who launched the Agastya Foundation in 2009 with the aim of bringing science to children residing in India’s villages — via interactive mobile vans — said he first became interested in Ramanujan while reading Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Discovery of India.” “Of our millions, how few get any education at all,” wrote Nehru, while incarcerated in a British jail. On a visit to Madras in 1989, Raghavan met Ramanujan’s widow Janaki at her home in Triplicane. “A frail woman, nearly ninety, hard of hearing with bright liquid eyes and a sweet smile welcomed me. The small, nondescript room where we sat and talked for less than an hour was made exceptional only by an arresting bust of Ramanujan, made by Paul Granlund and gifted by a group of international mathematicians. Ramanujan’s presence shone through the bust and dominated the room,” wrote Raghavan. “Mrs. Ramanujan in Tamil spoke about her husband as if he had just died. For him, she said with tears in her eyes: ‘the only thing that mattered was numbers, numbers and numbers.’” Janaki Ramanujan believed her husband had been forgotten. Raghavan and a mathematics teacher from England had been her only visitors for some time.

“As our meeting drew to a close, I offered Mrs. Ramanujan a customary gift, a sari and some fruit. I leaned towards her, gently held her slender hand, and told her that she was exceptionally fortunate in having had the opportunity to love and care for her husband, who had found a lasting place among India’s greatest heroes.” “The years vanished, as a smile lit up her face,” recalled Raghavan. This visit motivated Raghavan to work to honor the great mathematician. In 2010, the Agastya Foundation donated a bust to Cambridge University to memorialize Ramanujan at his alma mater. The Agastya Foundation has also gifted a bust of Ramanujan to TIFR’s Centre for Applicable Mathematics in Bangalore, and the Indian Institute of Technology – Madras, with the aim of inspiring and sparking creativity amongst young Indians. Now there is a bust at MIT. 

The Erode-born Ramanujan — who was only 32 when he died in 1920 — grew up in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, in a one-room house he shared with five other family members. He had no formal education, and developed his theorems from his own discoveries. No one in his village or his state could understand his work; thus, the young mathematician started writing to professors at various colleges in England. Sir Francis Spring, a civil engineer who worked in Madras, is credited with discovering Ramanujan, a clerk in his office. Spring sent the young mathematician’s work to GH Hardy at Cambridge University.

“He proved more theorems in one day than many of us do in one year,” the luminary Princeton mathematician Manjul Bhargava told this reporter in 2016, during a preview of a film based on Ramanujan’s life “The Man Who Knew Infinity.”

The evening was  truly enlightening and we hope is the start of such tributes to the several amazing contributors from the Indian Diaspora who have help shaped the world today.

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