Satish Dhawan was a visionary, a leader, a motivator, a patriot, a scholar, a scientist, and a teacher. He was affectionate, witty, kind, handsome and incredibly charming. It is hard to believe that someone can be so abundantly endowed. But Dhawan was truly an exceptional Indian.
He would have turned 90 on 25 September 2010, and the Indian Institute of Science, of which he was the Director from 1962-1981, decided to celebrate his birth anniversary at what proved to be a heart-warming function.
One was a little worried that IISc’s Faculty Hall would be less than full, especially because it was a lazy sort of Saturday afternoon. That would have been both disrespectful and sad. To one’s relief, and joy, the hall was packed to capacity. In the irreverent times that we now live in, it was reassuring to note that we still venerate a towering national figure like Dhawan, instead of just a Dhoni.
Dhawan’s first, and most illustrious, student, Roddam Narasimha was one of the afternoon’s three lead speakers. Narasimha spoke of Dhawan as a teacher and a mentor: his “informal, cheerful, but extremely serious” morning lectures, his strong focus on the role of science in engineering, his endearing habit of handing out little sheets of paper with notes, sketches and equations to his students, and his considerable generosity when it was time to grade his students.
Dhawan, Narasimha recalled, taught his students never to complain about the apparatus “because there’s always an ingenious alternative”; and he demonstrated this himself by building India’s first supersonic wind tunnel at IISc. Narasimha also fondly looked back at the path-breaking investigation on the performance of the Avro aircraft that Dhawan led. “They used to joke that the investigation was going on and on, but we eventually figured out many things that even the manufacturer probably didn’t know.”
K Kasturirangan, who worked with Satish Dhawan when he led India’s Space Programme, and eventually headed the Space Programme himself, talked of his days as the master’s protégé. “He was methodical and focused; he could see everything both in its totality, and in its deepest detail. I once told him that there were no problems with a camera system that we were designing for the Bhaskara satellite. Dhawan shot back: ‘Did you say ‘no problems’ Rangan? Then, I’m worried!’”
Kasturirangan also recounted how, after a major design exercise, his team went to Dhawan expecting accolades. Instead he sent them right back to the drawing board: “Just one design? I want to see alternate designs too!” When they went back with multiple design options, Dhawan still didn’t seem satisfied: “But where are the implications of these different options?”
M G K Menon, the afternoon’s third lead speaker, spoke of his “dear friend, Satish” with warmth and affection. “Our paths crossed many times, starting from the early 1940s in Lahore, to our days together in the Space Commission* till the 1990s”, he reminisced. Menon explained why he admired Dhawan so greatly (“especially his commitment to society”) and added that seeing “Satish in action” was itself exemplary education (“he seemed to know exactly how equipment could ‘work’”).
Menon also provided some missing details of what has always been a bit of a puzzle: how did the Delhi bureaucracy, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi herself, so readily agree to Dhawan’s condition that he would lead India’s Space Programme only out of Bangalore? Apparently Menon played a role: he reminded Mrs Gandhi that the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) model, with Homi Bhabha at the helm, worked remarkably well out of Bombay. Dhawan too, Menon argued, could achieve similar success with the Department of Space out of Bangalore, especially because most Space projects functioned out of establishments in South India.
Jyotsna Dhawan ended by providing a charming account of Satish Dhawan as a father: how he read stories from Kipling’s The Jungle Book to his children, how much he admired P M S Blackett, how troubled he was that local tribes would be displaced while creating the Shar satellite launch complex (now called Satish Dhawan Space Centre), how much he loved the birds of Shar (the only book Dhawan ever wrote was titled Bird Flight), how appreciative he was of Medha Patkar’s social crusades, and how, most unsurprisingly, Dhawan’s most precious possessions (hidden in his favourite bottom drawer) included a small saw, a hammer and an assorted set of nails.
— *It is not well-known that for a brief period after Vikram Sarabhai died, M G K Menon held the office of Chairman, ISRO. So Dhawan succeeded Menon when he became ISRO Chairman in 1972. Prof Menon passed away on 22 November 2016.