To take natural talent forward — T. R. Ramadas, Distinguished Prof, Chennai Mathematical Institute

(The following article appeared by the author T. R. Ramadas in today’s prominent newspaper, The Hindu, in print. The author is a Distinguished Professor with the Chennai Mathematical Institute, Chennai.)

Manjul Bhargava, born of Indian parents and raised in Canada, the U.S. and India, was known to the mathematical community before he was awarded the Fields Medal in 2014. An accomplished table player, he was invited to address the Sadas of The Music Academy as the Sangita Kalanidhi title was conferred to Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Bright young Indians will thrill to the words of Professor Bhargava that speak of the deep connections between Indian classical music and mathematics. They well do well to also read the text of Subrahmanyan’s wonderful acceptance speech, which is available at the website of the academy.

There are a number of lessons to be learnt from the lives and careers of these two extraordinary people — Bhargava, 42 years of age and Subrahmanyan, 47.

Let me spell them out.

First, arrange to have plenty of talent. Then,

  1. Make sure to be born in a middle class family with a tradition of learning.
  2. Find your metier at a young age. In magical fantasy as well as in real life, this calls for the intervention of a mentor — a parent, a close relative or a teacher besotted with the subject.
  3. Be lucky enough that charlatans or self-deluded messiah do not guide you down blind-paths. (This will be before you have acquired the good sense to distinguish chaff from wheat.)
  4. Get the best education possible.
  5. Acquire the habits of hard work and application; learn the craft and then the art.

How is a young person to follow this advice?

There is little one can do regarding points 1 and 2 — unless the state takes its responsibilities seriously and reverses decades of neglect of the school system.

Both for music and mathematics (and for that matter science in general) there are world class institutions in India — try your hardest to gravitate to one of these.

And, as Subrahmanyan says the Internet is the great leveller as far as access is concerned, whether it is music or math. There is an abundance of material available in the form of lectures and performances as well as textbooks and lecture notes, though ill-curated.

Look for something that engages you, seek advice when possible. Always keep  your nonsense-detector on. Learn to focus. Know that progress will be slow, but (hopefully) with sudden epiphanies. Once you find the resources you seek, shut off the computer and work with your teacher (if you are lucky enough to find one) at the desk with paper and pencil, in the laboratory of a clean well-lit room with the tanpura.

(If you like this advice from Prof. T. R. Ramadas, please send a thank you note to him at The Chennai Mathematical Institute. I too thank him. This will help my students immensely.)


Nalin Pithwa

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