Influencers of Gujarat: Vikram Sarabhai, the Father of Indian Space Program

Vikram Sarabhai

01/05/2021 by : Ravi Bhadja
Influencers of Gujarat: Vikram Sarabhai, the Father of Indian Space Program

The famous physicist, Vikram Sarabhai was an Indian scientist. His efforts helped to establish the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). He is also called the ‘Father of Indian space program’. Born on August 12, 1919, Vikram Sarabhai’s parents were Ambalal Sarabhai and Sarla Devi. Vikram Sarabhai has two children; son Kartikeya and daughter Mallika.

In 1966 he founded a Community Science Centre at Ahmedabad. This is now called Vikram A. Sarabhai Community Science Centre. He also established the Operations Research Group (ORG), the first market research organization in the country. He also established Nehru Foundation for Development in Ahmedabad, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad ((IIMA), Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) in Jaduguda, Jharkhand, Faster Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) in Kalpakkam, and Variable Energy Cyclotron Project in Calcutta.

From his school, he proceeded to Cambridge for his college education and took his degree from St. John’s College in 1940. When World War II began, he returned home and joined as a research scholar under Sir CV Raman at the IISc IISc, Bangalore. This study with CV Raman helped in observing terrestrial magnetism and the atmosphere, the nature of the sun and outer space.

He was awarded the Padma Bhushan (1966), Padma Vibhushan (after-death) (1972).

Here are some of the interesting facts about Vikram Sarabhai that not many of us know:

1. He was from a prosperous family in Gujarat who owned many mills and industries in India. His family was known for the social work that they did for the underprivileged people of the society.

2. He pursued his education from Gujarat College in Ahmedabad and then moved to study at the University Of Cambridge, England.

3. He married Mrinalini Sarabhai, a renowned classical dancer. His family members could not attend the marriage as they were a part of Quit India movement led by Mahatma Gandhi.

4. After India gained independence, Vikram Sarabhai unbolted a charitable trust set up by his family and friends for the research work in the field of Science. This was the beginning of the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad which is till date a distinguished national research institute for space and allied science.

5. Vikram Sarabhai was the one who convinced the Indian government to set up Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). He was only 28 years old when he made it clear to the government that India can also be in the League of Nations stepping on the moon, after the Russian Sputnik.

6. Vikram Sarabhai was assisted in his trouble by Homi Jehangir Bhabha, who helped him in setting up India’s very own rocket launching station.

7. It was Vikram Sarabhai’s efforts that brought television to India. His consistent communication with NASA formed the base for Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) in 1975. This further steered the coming in of cable television in India.

India’s First Satellite, Aryabhatta was his Brainchild.

8. He was one of the founding members of Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, in 1961 along with Kasturbhai Lalbhai. This was the second IIM to be established in the nation.

9. For his visionary work, he was awarded Padma Bhushan in 1966 and Padma Vibhushan in 1972 (after his demise).

10. He was the man behind the genesis of Operations Research Group (ORG) which was the first market research organization in India.

11. He was the vice president for the fourth UN peace conference organized in 1971. The topic of concern in this issue was ‘Peaceful uses of atomic energy.’

12. He completed his Ph.D. in ‘Cosmic ray investigations in tropical latitudes’ under the Doctoral Advisory of Sir C. V. Raman.

13. He died due to a heart attack on 30 December 1971 at Halcyon Castle, Kovalam, and Kerala. It is said that he was visiting Thiruvananthapuram to lay the foundation stone in Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station.

To ensure that an overall development of the society takes place thoughtfully he set up a number of institutes including:

Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad

Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad

Community Science Centre, Ahmedabad

Darpan Academy for Performing Arts, Ahmedabad (along with his wife)

Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram

Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad (This institution came into existence after merging six institutions/centers established by Sarabhai)

Faster Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR), Kalpakkam

Variable Energy Cyclotron Project, Calcutta

Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL), Hyderabad

Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL), Jaduguda, Bihar

The reason why IIM was built in Ahmedabad: the love triangle of Vikram Sarabhai

Bombay and Calcutta (now Mumbai and Kolkata) were the two original choices for starting of the Indian Institute of Managements. Calcutta was the first city to get an IIM in 1961 while Ahmedabad got it a few months later in the same year. The credit of bringing IIM to Ahmedabad goes to Vikram Sarabhai, the father of Indian space program.

The story goes like this; Vikram Sarabhai married a classical dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai, got friendly with her friend Kamla Chowdhry. She was a young widow with whom his relationship lasted for more than 20 years.

Dr. Vikram Sarabhai was the founding member and director of Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association, an institute where Kamla Chowdhry worked as an academic.

After getting exhausted and uncomfortable with the strains of this extra-marital relationship, she started considering offers from institutes from Delhi, Bombay University and Hyderabad. Dr. Vikram Sarabhai desperately wanted her to stay close to him and first offered her a post of director at a research center and later to work with another institute in Ahmedabad.

When this didn’t work out, he used his influence and pushed Indian government to establish the Postgraduate Institute of Management at Ahmedabad instead of Bombay. Also, since both Sarabhai and Chowdhry were connected to Harvard, it replaced the University of California as the original collaborator with IIMA.

Vikram Sarabhai became the first director and Kamla Chowdhry the first research director at IIM Ahmedabad. This story is given by Sudhir Kakar, the nephew of Kamla Chowdhry in his book “A book of memory”.

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