Friday, May 22, 2009

Kosambi the Mathematician

Dr. CK Raju writes in the current issue of the EPW on DD Kosambi the Mathematician (pdf file). I will convert the pdf to html at a later point and re- post the full article here. Here is the summary:
Apart from his more popular work on numismatics and genetics, D D Kosambi worked on path geometry, exploring the foundations of general relativity. He also worked on statistics in infinite dimensions, computing, and probabilistic number theory. His whole mathematical career appears as one long clash of values. A rejection of the value of specialisation saw him leave Harvard. The high value he placed on research saw his exit from Banaras Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University. His attempt to impart real knowledge of mathematics saw him sacked from Fergusson College, Pune. His insistence on ethical and relevant research led to his exit from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research where, too, the diversity of his interests was portrayed negatively, though he continued his mathematical research till the end of his life. His mathematical career raises a number of questions regarding science management in post-independence India. These questions are vital today when the state is again making huge investments in science and technology.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Kosambis at Fergusson College

Dr Meera Kosambi, daughter of DD Kosambi, writes about her family's association with the Fergusson College in Pune. (via Arvind Gupta)
My father, Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi (1907-1966), followed in his father's footsteps by joining Fergusson College in 1933. He had completed his schooling at Cambridge, Massachusetts, and passed his Bachelor's degree from Harvard University with distinction, majoring in Mathematics. On returning to India he taught for two years at Benares Hindu University and then for two years at Aligarh Muslim University before coming to Pune and Fergusson College. Here he taught Mathematics and Statistics for 13 years, before joining the newly opened Tata Institute of Fundamental Research as a professor of  mathematics to work there until he retired.

The informal American style characteristic of D. D. Kosambi contrasted with the more British and staid atmosphere of Fergusson College. He gave extra help to the interested students (who also adored him), but felt little sympathy for those whose only interest was in scraping through the examination (and who found him to be strict and demanding). One of his foremost students was A.R. Kamat who was associated with the Deccan Education Society as a professor of Statistics for many years.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Review of DDK's Collected Works

A fitting centenary tribute (Source)


A compilation of Kosambi’s writings on Indology and other areas

THE OXFORD INDIA KOSAMBI — Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings: Compiled, edited and introduced by Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 1250.

D.D. Kosambi has been rightly described as responsible for a “paradigm shift” in Indian historiography. His writings went beyond providing variations in the narrative of history. However, most of them remained in journals that are not easily accessible to the ordinary reader. B.D. Chattopadhyaya has put students of Indian history under a heavy debt not only for bringing together the writings of Kosambi but also for the learned introduction and the piece “Remembering Kosambi” written specifically for this edition. In the introduction, Chattopadhyaya had earlier raised many refreshing questions concerning the methodological turn that Kosambi brought about in Indian historiography. A few of these questions, and the tentative answers he had given them, are taken up for reconsideration in the freshly written piece. This is a clear example of the self-reflexivity of an honest scholar constantly interrogating his own positions — not clinging fast to an opinion, however considered that may have been.

Distinct historian

What distinguish Kosambi as a historian are two things — unorthodox ways including a consistent application of Marxism and uncompromising fidelity to evidence whether textual or generated by himself through field work. Field work for him included not only walking the difficult terrain in a literal sense; it also meant going through the grind, discovering and deciphering inscriptions or comparing and collating recensions to fix a text. The first of these, Marxism, was not the official one — what one would have been initiated into by the Communist Party of India or through the Soviet Union. He and the party were ill at ease with each other: he had only contempt for the Official Marxists (“OM”) while the party thought that Kosambi’s Marxism was only skin-deep (to which he would retort that they did not know how thick his skin was!). Hence it is difficult to explain his Marxism.

So also, being professionally trained in Mathematics and staying at the forefront of its practice, what took him to Indological research of the most rigorous variety is another question. Chattopadhyaya suspects that he acquired both, as well as his somewhat eclectic approach, from his father although the two shared little ground. The rejection of the European model of historiography, too, is at the centre of Kosambi’s philosophy although it is seldom recognised by those who claim to follow him. Here Kosambi shares, strangely, common ground with Rabindranath Tagore.

Another uncomfortable question that Chattopadhyaya raises relates to the somewhat high decibel produced on the occasion of the birth centenary of Kosambi. Kosambi, in reality, has not been read as much as he has been sought to be appropriated. Both as a person and as a scholar, he has been somewhat inaccessible; and his writings were more so. This inaccessibility has been responsible for the relative obscurity of the genius. Despite this, scholars have sworn by him, chanting a few things he said as a formula. Chattopadhyaya shows that much of this is make-believe.

The instances of the major debate on feudalism and a recent book on prehistory, both by leading Marxist historians of India, where Kosambi is practically ignored in spite of his path-breaking work in these areas should open our eyes. Repeating mindlessly what Kosambi had said more than half a century ago is not the best way to achieve greater clarity on issues he had raised; but refusing to so much as consider him, even while swearing by him and his philosophy, certainly is not a step in that direction.

Besides these two pieces by Chattopadhyaya, the volume contains almost all articles Kosambi has written on Indology and have not been included in collections already available. It will be preposterous to say anything about the articles of the giant, except to salute the memory of the path-breaker. We are beholden to the publisher and the editor for the yeoman service of making these articles available to us, so that we can be partly absolved of the charge that Chattopadhyaya makes in remembering Kosambi. In short, it is the most fitting centenary tribute to the polymath.

The volume would have been even more useful had it contained a bibliography of Kosambi’s writings. This is important because Kosambi wrote on aspects outside Indology. Apart from mathematics and statistics — his own professional concerns — he wrote on many other subjects. An index would have been of help, particularly given the size of the volume, and misprints abound. The volume is too important and valuable to be marred by such minor irritants.