'Countries have to provide facilities for its nationals to do front-rank research within the resources which are available. It is equally necessary, having produced the men who can do research, to organise task oriented projects for the nation's practical problems' 

Born in Ahmedabad on 12 August 1919, Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai had his early education in the family school directed by his mother, Saraladevi. This was not a school as then commonly understood. Run on lines inspired by the theories and practical teachings of Mme. Maria Montessori, it was a veritable nursery of the ideals and aspirations cherished by his parents, which the children imbibed as their personality development and matured. On completing his secondary school examination, Vikram joined Gujarat College, Ahmedabad, but before graduating joined St John’s College, Cambridge (UK), and in 1940, took his Tripos in Natural Sciences. The outbreak of World War II necessitated his return to India where he took up research in cosmic ray physics at the Indian Institute of Science, Ban galore, working under the inspiring guidance of the Noble Laureate, Sir C.V. Raman. In Ban galore, he met and married the dancer, Mrinalini Swami Nathan, with whom he had a son, Kartikeya, and a daughter, Mallika. After the war, he returned to Cambridge and conducted research in photo fission at the Cavendish Laboratory. In 1947, he was awarded a doctorate by Cambridge University for his thesis.” Cosmic Ray Investigations in Tropical Latitudes”. On his return to India, Dr Sarabhai continued his scientific activities and in 1947 founded the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, which personally directed till 1971 as a center of excellence in scientific research. He also took over responsibilities connected with family business interests, applying to them the analytical and organizational skills he had so amply displayed as an experimental physicist, It was also in 1947 that he founded the Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association (ATIRA) of which he was the first Honorary Director, a post which he actively filled till 1956.

During the years 1950 to 1966, Dr Sarabhai was instrumental in establishing a number of industries in Baroda, namely, Sarabhai Chemicals, Sarabhai Glass, Suhrid Geigy Limited, Synbiotics limited, Sarabhai Merck Limited and the Sarabhai Engineering Group. In Bombay, he took up the management of Swastik Oil Mills, introducing new techniques of oil extraction and the manufacture of synthetic detergents and cosmetics. In Calcutta he took over the management of standard Pharmaceuticals Limited where he introduced large-scale manufacture of penicillin, besides increasing the range of pharmaceutical products. In 1960 he set up the Sarabhai Research Center, Baroda, for investigation of natural and synthetic medicinal products.

Management was among Dr Sarabhai ‘s major interests. In 1957 he had founded the Ahmedabad Management Association and in 1960 the Operations Research Group (ORG) now located in Baroda. To meet the great need for professional management in India he founded in 1962 the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad and was its Honorary Director up to 1965.

In 1962 Dr Sarabhai took over responsibility for organizing space research in India as Chairman of the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR). He directed the setting up of the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station and initiated a programme for the manufacture of French Centaur sounding rocket in Indian. He was the moving spirit behind the development of rockets of Indian design at Thumba-Rohini and Menaka are among them, in 1966, he was Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and Secretary to the Department of Atomic Energy, Government of India. He was President of the Physics Section of the Indian Science Congress in 1962; Chairman of the Electronics Committee of the Union Department of Defense Supplies and the Electronics Corporation of India Limited, besides being a member of various other Important national and international committees. He was a Fellow of the Indian Academy of Science the National institute of Science in India, the Physical Society, London, and the Cambridge Philosophical Society.

Dr Sarabhai saw tremendous potential in using science to help the process of development. Science was for him a passion and a useful tool to finally sculpt out social, economic and education change in India, to make the country great and her people happy. He drew up plans to take modern education to the remotest villages by using satellite television, later implemented as the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE). His interest in education resulted, in 1965 in his establishing the Community Science Center, Ahmedabad, for science education for children, on institution where new ideas in science education could be tried out. He often said that, on retirement, he would like to spend time with young children talking to them about science.

The Community Science Center was the first fruit of another institution, which Dr. Sarabhai was instrumental in setting up, the Nehru Foundation for Development.

Dr Sarabhai was awarded the Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Memorial Award for Physics in 1962 and was honored with the Padma Bhushan in 1966 by the Government of India; the Padma Vibhuhan was awarded to him posthumously.

Dr Sarabhai was a member of the International Council of Scientific Unions (1966); Chairman of the Panel of Experts and Scientific Chairman of the UN Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (1968); President, 14th General Conference, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna (1970); and Vice-President, Fourth UN Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy (1970)

Dr Sarabhai was an ardent visionary and had brilliant ideas on how to link atomic power development with the industrial development of large backward areas, such as his proposal concerning the development of Agro-Industrial Complexes in the Gangetic Plain and the arid area of Kutch. No less imaginative was his plan for the use of satellite communication to bring the benefits of television to the hundreds of villages in India on a most economic basis. This was the profile he had sketched for India ‘s development during the seventies.

Dr Sarabhai was a man of deep cultural interests- music, photography archaeology, and the fine arts- all these and more fell within his range. In 1948, with his wife Mrinalini, an internationally renowned exponent of classical India dance he started Darpana on institution devoted to the performing arts, the propagation of the ancient culture of Indian, and the creation of an environment where artists could study and work in an atmosphere of freedom, giving full scope for new experiments in dance and drama. He was ever convinced that a scientist should never shut himself up in an ivory tower or ignore the problems of society in a mere academic pursuit of “pure’ science, though “pure science” was after his heart. It was this acute awareness of the scientist’s obligation to the community that urged him to float project after project for the utilisation of audio-visual communication activity, including television, as an aid to agricultural extension, promotion of family planning and spreading of education in rural areas.

Dr Vikram Sarabhai combined the best of being “modern” and “Indian” blending aesthetics with science. He consistently canvassed the true role of the administrator as an innovator rather than as a conservator. Of work he was never tried and often put in 18 to 20 hours a day. “Stretch your working hours” he told his students.

Despite his stupendous workload, he could take time off to watch “squirrels and birds”. A warm human being, he was sensitive and intensely responsive to the beauty of life around him. He was plucked way. just as new fields were opening up as result of his ideas and exertions. This great scientist widely recognised internationally in space and nuclear research expired prematurely in his sleep on 30 December 1971, while visiting Thumba Equatorial Rocket Lunching Station (TERLS) Trivandrum.

Vikram Sarabhai lived the life of karma yogi-doing his self-allotted duties, swadharma, with selfless (anasakta) and tireless devotion.


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