V.S. Varadarajan

The eminent mathematician V.S. Varadarajan passed away last week at the age of 81. The following interview of his was originally published in Bhāvanā, a seminal initiative that aims to promote the excitement of mathematical research.

V.S. Varadarajan is Professor Emeritus and Distinguished Research Professor at the Department of Mathematics, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He received his PhD from the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata in 1960 and has been at UCLA for over five decades. In a gesture of gratitude for his long association, Varadarajan and his wife Veda recently instituted the Ramanujan Visiting Professorship in UCLA’s mathematics department. Varadarajan is the editor of the five volumes of Harish-Chandra’s collected works. In a conversation with C.S. Aravinda, Chief Editor of Bhāvanā, he fondly recalls the evolution of his distinguished career.

It is indeed a pleasure to welcome you on behalf of Bhāvanā to this edition of our “In Conversation” session. Many thanks for accepting to speak to us. When I was researching and forming my thoughts for this conversation, I noticed that you were born in Bangalore.

one can imagine that it must have been a modest living. When was it that you got interested in mathematics?

That’s actually the city I come from. And this location is all very familiar to me as I live in south Bengaluru, about two kilometres from Basavanagudi. Perhaps your parents lived there, or your mother’s parents lived there?

VSV: My mother’s side of the family lived there, and in those days, it was common for an expecting mother to go to her maternal house during her pregnancy. So I was born there but have never lived there. My mother’s parents come from Hosur, which is on the boundary between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. My grand-uncle – that is my maternal grandfather’s brother – was C. Rajagopalachari, or Rajaji as he is popularly known.

Oh, Rajaji is a very well-known personality who took part in India’s struggle for independence from British rule. That is a very illustrious background

VSV: Certainly the most distinguished man in the clan. He had that great feeling for the country, and he fought for independence. What we do is nothing compared to it.

We have heard his voice in the introduction to Bhaja govindam, in that long play gramophone record of M.S. Subbulakshmi; such a clear and wonderful introduction. That’s a lovely note to start our conversation! So you wouldn’t remember anything of Bengaluru?
Indian postage stamp in honour of Rajaji. Photo India Post, Government of India

Indian postage stamp in honour of Rajaji. Photo India Post, Government of India

VSV: Almost nothing. My mother’s elder sister and her husband lived in Mysore state but not in Bengaluru. They lived for some time in Shivamogga and I used to go there for summer vacations. He was a singer and I used to sing with him.

I see. Used to sing, meaning Carnatic music?

VSV: Yes. I sang before Rajaji.

That’s great. Did you have a formal training?

VSV: No, nothing formal. At that time, in the All India Radio, there was a programme for self-learning by K.C. Thyagarajan and I followed that everyday.

So music was there at home constantly. Did your parents live in Chennai at the time you were growing up?

VSV: Not in Chennai but in smaller places. My father, Seshadri, was an inspector of schools in the department of education, so we lived in what’s called Mofussil

. That is outside the [then] Madras city, and I came to the city when I was in my early teens and where my college education started.

Did your school education also happen in Chennai?

VSV: No. School education happened in Trichinopoly and Salem, because my father kept getting transferred. I was mostly educated in Jesuit schools.

Was it in English medium?

VSV: In Tamil medium, until I joined College in Madras. My father was transferred to Madras and there the medium of instruction was generally English.

When you say college, would it mean after high school?

VSV: Well, in the Indian system, after high school you [used to] study what is called intermediate, for two years. My intermediate was in Loyola College and then I went for a three-year honours degree in statistics in Presidency College.

All these are very illustrious institutions with a long history. So, at some point you moved there from Salem, which is a lovely place, located at the foothills of Yercaud. Did this ambience have any bearing on you, in the sense that you were attracted by the verdant surroundings or were you always sort of a studious person?

VSV: I was always studious. We were from a middle-class family and didn’t have the luxuries to go on outings.

ISRO has been touting Chandrayaan 2 as a south pole landing mission. This is technically incorrect.
Conditions unique to polar areas, including eternally dark regions and long periods of sunlight, are prominent from the 80° S/N latitude onward, not from around 70° S/N.

So ISRO’s claim of Chandrayaan 2 being the first mission to land in a polar region is wrong. Having said that, Chandrayaan 2 is landing closer to the lunar pole than any mission thus far.

VSV: Very early, when I was 12 years old.

In school, I happened to work out problems and so on, but it started seriously when I was in Loyola College.

Was Father Racine there at that time?

VSV: Yes, but he didn’t teach intermediate classes. I was taught maths by K.A. Adivarahan. He was a big figure in Loyola College. I liked to solve problems from books and so on.

Which books? The usual textbooks or was there any particular book that you found interesting?

VSV: I don’t quite remember, but I remember that when I was in honours, I read a book on projective geometry by Russell.

I was solving geometry problems, as I felt geometry was the easiest subject to have been introduced to. One studied projective geometry from the 10th standard, but it had nothing to do with modern mathematics.

Any special recollections you have of your teachers there, particularly Adivarahan?

VSV: I think Adivarahan was the one who made the strongest impression. I remember the other teachers but they didn’t make such a strong impression. Adivarahan was a legend in Loyola College and a very strict disciplinarian as well. A typical student would be scared to talk to him. Also, you see, the classes for maths, the special subject, were smaller. Whereas English class would have around 300 students from all the sections combined. So a lot more students, which meant a lot less discipline.

Did you also play any sport?

VSV: Well, we played cricket and soccer but we were always on the losing side. Soccer was the simplest because there was no capital needed aside from a ball. I don’t remember winning a single game.

I see. When you say game, would it be inter-class or inter-school competitions?

VSV: No, no. Outside, in the maidan near our house, but you had to be very careful because the end of sunlight comes like a crack in the tropics. And if you were outside the house when the lights are already on, then it meant trouble.

Exactly. Because it’s closer to the equator, the Sun almost sets at 90 degrees.

VSV: So you have to be careful in estimation. It is not like there is a long twilight. One moment it is sunny and then it’s suddenly dark.

Right. It’s interesting. The first time I visited upstate New York, I recall observing that the sun would set but at such an angle that, even after setting, it was still not too far below the horizon, and we still had some light. Talking about this, were you also interested in astronomy, star-gazing and such?

VSV: No. I was immersed in cricket! I was the storehouse of information in cricket. I used to listen to commentary on the radio – I even have listened to Bradman playing.

I see. Which year would that be, roughly?

VSV: 1948. It’s great to recall all that. In those days there was no television; so you couldn’t watch, but if you were a close listener, you could imagine the entire field placements. Commentary produces everything. You can actually visualise, and imagine the strokes played, where and to whom the ball went, and so on. You sat glued to the transistor or the radio sets.

And listening to the commentary is also a way to pick up some good English vocabulary. Did that happen to you too?

VSV: Yes, certainly. Though we studied in Tamil medium, the English teachers were very good. So the transition from vernacular to English in college was very smooth. We had very good training in classical English, studying the works of Shakespeare, poets like Wordsworth and so on.

My maths teacher in 10th standard, who taught geometry, was O.V. Rajagopalan. He had a habit that, once a week, no word will be uttered in the class. If the proposition is drawn on the board, you had to indicate what the hypothesis was, and you had to argue using your hands, without speaking a word, to reach the conclusion.

No speaking at all. I see.

VSV: No speaking. Only through hand movement. It was quite a challenge, but Rajagopalan was a great teacher.

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