CNR Rao : Something more than Bharath Ratna

It's not often that those who inhabit the rarified world surrounding the prime minister keep their phones switched off. But Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao is a class apart. When the PMO's office was trying to get in touch with Rao to convey to him that he had won the Bharat Ratna, the scientist, who was at the Thiruvananthapuram airport with his wife, couldn't be reached.

"My mobile phone is only for my wife; it's only to receive her calls. As she was beside me, there was no need to keep it on," he says rather nonchalantly. Finally, "an airhostess told me that the PM was trying to reach me. I switched on the phone and Manmohan Singh said I had won the Bharat Ratna," he adds matter-of-factly. with a 'Why should this surprise you?' kind of look.


From giving early-morning reminders to science and technology ministers about the state of pure sciences, to telling the Centre that China has overtaken India in research, Rao calls a spade a spade. "I'm very blunt. That's because I am a very simple and ordinary man. Sometimes I wonder if this is the way to be. To tell things the way they are. But then, I don't know what else is the way," he says.

The 79-year-old who has been a professor for 54 years breathes science. When he isn't researching in his lab at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Scientific and Advanced Research (JNCSAR) off Jakkur, Rao is either reading or writing letters to the prime minister to revive pure sciences. "India cannot afford to be so lackadaisical about the way science is progressing. We ought to put in all our efforts to ensure that we do not lose out to other countries. And time is running out. Our research labs are getting empty and youngsters are not pursuing science. It's dangerous," he warns.

The doyen of science who has 1,500 research papers to his credit and honorary doctorates from over 60 universities across the world, has authored 45 books and is a member of almost all scientific organizations across the globe.

Rao's love for science began at the early age of 17. The love for science was sown when he was 17 years old.

Born in Bangalore, he is the only child of Hanumantha Nagesa Rao and Nagamma Nagesa Rao. "Whatever I am today, I owe it to my parents. They allowed me to do what I wanted. The love for Chemistry began in Acharya Patashala High School. When I told them I want to go to Benaras (Varanasi) to pursue my interests, they allowed me to do so. But it was in the United States that I blossomed. At 20, I published papers. It's so encouraging at that age. You want to do more."


Even today he wakes up at 4.30am everyday. A 40-minute walk on the plush IISc campus where he lives is followed by a 15 minute yoga session. "Music for me is therapautic. I listen to Devaranama. Work starts at 8am and I finish at 4pm. Once I'm home, I get down with writing or reading. I enjoy cooking too. I prepare Thai, Hawaiian, Chinese and Italian food when I am bored of eating South Indian staples."

From drawing a salary of Rs 720 in 1959 to winning the million-dollar Dan David Prize in 2005, it's been a rather illustrious journey for the Solid State Chemistry and Material Science professor. "When I asked my wife Indumathi what she wants from the prize money, she told me to contribute it towards science. We have instituted science awards to promote the subject among youth. She is from a literature background, and helps me bring out books for children. We go around the country telling students about the importance of science. To me science is what happens in small laboratories. Big ideas come from small labs where little discoveries take place," he says.

And what would he like to be known as? "Nothing, but a scientist. The word itself makes me so happy," he signs off.

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