Kolkata is a city known for many things, from being the capital of British India, to being the home of Cricket’s Mecca, the Eden Gardens. It is well-known for its iconic cantilevered Howrah bridge, and it is also known for being the only city in India that still runs trams. But one thing sets this city apart from others: it has, at one point or other, played a key role in the lives of six Nobel laureates, either by being their place of birth or being the place where they did some of their greatest work. Together, these six people have won a Nobel in five out of the awards’ six categories — Literature, Physics, Peace, Economics, Medicine and Chemistry — a feat perhaps no other city in the world can boast of.
2019 Economics Nobel: Abhijit Banerjee
Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and fellow economist Michael Kremer, won the Nobel Prize for Economics. A native of Kolkata, Banerjee, who happens to be married to Duflo, did his schooling and college here in the city.
The son of two economics professors, Nirmala Banerjee and Dipak Banerjee, he studied at South Point school and then attended Presidency College (now Presidency University). He completed his Masters from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.
Nirmala Banerjee said her son is expected in India later this month and during this time he is also expected to spend some time his hometown.
The students of South Point and Presidency University are understandably ecstatic and have been celebrating the achievement of their alumnus. Meanwhile, congratulatory messages continue to flood the Banerjee household in Kolkata.
Banerjee’s brush with Indian politics came when it was revealed that he was among the economists that the Congress party had consulted in conceptualising its Universal Basic Income or NYAY Scheme — the party’s poll platform in the 2019 elections.
Banerjee had also asked governments to stay off “thinking spaces” such as Jawaharlal Nehru University. Universities “provide a space to question whatever we are doing in the name of things we say we believe in or might believe in”, he wrote after Kanhaiya Kumar’s arrest in 2016. He himself had been jailed as a JNU student for agitating before the vice-chancellor’s office against the expulsion of the then student union president.
1913 Literature Nobel: Rabindranath Tagore, the Bard
Rabindranath Tagore, known as ‘Gurudev’ or “Kabiguru” is the first Indian to win a Nobel prize. Tagore has the rare distinction of writing the national anthem of two nations – India and Bangladesh.
In 1913, Tagore became the first non-European, non-White to win the Nobel Prize for Literature for Gitanjali, a collection of poems.
A polymath, Tagore was largely schooled at home. His works re-shaped Bengali and Indian literature and also the thought process of generations of Bengalis. In fact, his experimental school at Santiniketan – where he tried his Upanishadic ideals of education – remains unique to this day.
Tagore belonged to the illustrious and aristocratic “Thakur Bari” with his father Dwarkanath being among the first Indian industrialists and entrepreneurs. His family history and its contributions are strewn all across the city and the State. One cannot think of Kolkata without Tagore and vice versa.
“Rabindranath Tagore’s writing is deeply rooted in both Indian and Western learning traditions. Apart from fiction in the form of poetry, songs, stories, and dramas, it also includes portrayals of common people’s lives, literary criticism, philosophy, and social issues. Rabindranath Tagore originally wrote in Bengali, but later reached a broad audience in the West after recasting his poetry in English. In contrast to the frenzied life in the West, his poetry was felt to convey the peace of the soul in harmony with nature,” notes the website nobelprize.org.
Two years later, in 1915, Tagore was awarded a Knighthood. However, he returned it a few years later protesting the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
1930 Physics Nobel: CV Raman and the Raman Effect
Bringing further glory to the city was CV Raman, in 1930. CV Raman or Chandrashekhara Venkata Raman won the award for physics, becoming the first person from Asia to win a science Nobel.
Incidentally, Kolkata, then Calcutta, was not Raman’s city of birth. That distinction (1888) belongs to Tiruchirapalli or Trichy, in what was then the Madras province.
It was work that brought him to Kolkata. After finishing his higher studies at the Presidency College in Madras, Raman moved to the city. In 1917, he was appointed professor of physics at the University of Calcutta.
Between 1907 and 1933, he was associated with research at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS) in the city’s Bowbazar area. It was during his stint here that he discovered the ‘Raman Effect’, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize.
Founded on July 29, 1876 by Dr Mahendra Lal Sircar, IACS is the oldest institute in India devoted to the pursuit of fundamental research in the frontier areas of basic sciences. It was under Raman that the institute entered a new phase. He initiated serious research at IACS as a part-time worker, while carrying out his duties in the Accountant General’s office in erstwhile Calcutta. The celebrated Raman Effect was discovered in 1928.
The work stated that when light traverses a transparent material, some of the deflected light changes wavelength and amplitude. This phenomenon, subsequently known as Raman scattering, results from the Raman Effect. In 1954, the Indian government honoured him with India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna.
1979 Peace Nobel: Mother Teresa, Saint of the Gutters
The city then had to wait for almost five decades, until 1979, when the unwavering efforts of Mother Teresa, the Albanian-born Christian missionary who worked among the poorest of the poor, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
In 1950, she had founded the Missionaries of Charity (MoC), a Roman Catholic order that is active in several countries. Through this agency, she worked among the hopeless, hapless and helpless in and around the city. The MoC is still headquartered in Kolkata.
It was Kolkata that helped Mother Teresa’s missionary group grow from 12-odd in the 1950s to over 5,000 nuns and brothers across 750 homes around the world.”
The Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awarded her the Nobel Peace Prize, noted how Mother Teresa left her teaching post at a Roman Catholic girls’ school in Calcutta in order to devote her life to working among the poorest of the poor in the city’s slums.
“In making the award the Norwegian Nobel Committee has expressed its recognition of Mother Teresa’s work in bringing help to suffering humanity. This year the world has turned its attention to the plight of children and refugees, and these are precisely the categories for whom Mother Teresa has for many years worked so selflessly,” it said, in presenting the award.
Mother Teresa had earned the sobriquet “Saint of the Gutters” in the international press; she was canonised by the Vatican (officially declared a Saint) on September 4, 2016.
1998 Economics Nobel: Amartya Sen, the Argumentative Indian
Nearly two decades after Mother Teresa, the City of Joy and Bengalis, in particular, were once again celebrating. Amartya Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998 for his research in welfare economics.
Born in Santiniketan, Bolpur, some 160 km from the city, Sen was initially schooled at Dhaka in the pre-Partition days. He attended Presidency University in 1951 and holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics.
Sen also had a brief stint as a professor of Jadavpur University, one of the top educational campuses in Kolkata.
Despite the fact that he has worked mostly in the UK and the US since 1972, Sen keeps coming back to his roots in Kolkata and Santiniketan.
Sen used his Nobel Prize money to set up the Pratichi Trust, which focusses on research in areas such as primary education, public health and poverty, among other things. The trust continues to have operations in Bengal.
1902 Medicine Nobel: Ronald Ross, Turning the tide against Malaria
Incidentally, Calcutta’s brush with the Nobel Prize began as early as in 1902, when Ronald Ross was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Ross was the first Briton to be conferred the prize, for his discovery of the malarial parasite, which proved that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes.
Ross commenced the study of medicine at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London in 1875 and entered the Indian Medical Service in 1881. He began studying malaria in 1892 and in 1894 decided to make an experimental investigation in India on the hypothesis of Laveran and Manson, which stated that mosquitoes were connected with the propagation of the disease.
After repeated attempts without success, Ross succeeded in demonstrating the life-cycle of malaria parasites in mosquitoes two-and-a-half years later, establishing the hypothesis of Laveran and Manson.
On August 20 — now commemorated as World Mosquito Day — Ross discovered the malarial parasite in the stomach of one of his mosquitoes. The next day, he confirmed that it was growing.
It was in Kolkata in 1898, at the Presidency General Hospital (now called SSKM Hospital), that Ross confirmed how the parasite spread. Using bird subjects to study avian malaria, he found that after developing in the stomach of mosquitoes, the parasite would move to the salivary gland, from which it would infect new hosts.
Ross thus became, in a sense, Kolkata’s first Nobel Laureate. His work enabled the development of methods to fight the disease. To commemorate his breakthrough, a memorial was installed at the SSKM Hospital, unveiled by Ross himself, in 1927. The memorial still stands today, marking the city’s tryst with the Nobel awards.
Source: The Hindu