A passion for planetariums

Print edition : December 03, 2004

An aerial view ofthe Birla Planetarium in Kolkata. - PICTURES BY SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

The Birla Planetarium in Kolkata, the first of its kind to be set up in the country, is the culmination of the efforts of R. Subramanian, its director.

"TARA mandal?", asked the hawker on the Kolkata sidewalk when one wanted to know the way to the Birla Planetarium. He then nodded and thrust his arm to the left and said, "This way, straight on." Sure enough, at the end of the road, which was once called Chowringhee and is now named after Jawaharlal Nehru, stood a white building with a large dome, on the other side of which, at the flick of a switch, shine the stars in a simulated sky.

As the sun sets, the Kolkata skyline erupts into a dance of myriad shadows in the advancing twilight; darkness envelops the city gradually and the stars twinkle into view, one by one. Even the real sky never rivets our attention as unfailingly as this artificial canopy where the planets and stars enact their daily drama on a miniature scale. The level of sophistication of the equipment that create these awesome spectacles is being improved all the time and it can take one through the centuries, backward or forward, with the planets, the sun and the moon positioned almost exactly where they were or should be.

The Birla Planetarium, the first planetarium to be set up in the country, was the culmination of the efforts of Prof. R. Subramanian, its director. He achieved distinction as the president of the International Planetarium Directors' Congress, the only Asian to don that mantle.

Subramanian has had a remarkably varied career. He took a first class Master's degree in Physical Sciences from Madras University and joined the Madras Museum as curator for Chemical Conservation. Conservation of antiques was a fledgling discipline in the early 1950s and Subramanian took to it avidly and expanded its ambit.

As a Fulbright Research Fellow in the United States in 1954-55, he came in contact with eminent scientist Sir K.S. Krishnan, who was the Director of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in New Delhi. This meeting resulted in Subramanian changing his metier to science museums and science popularisation. Soon after his return to Madras (now Chennai) in 1958 he moved to the NPL.

Prof. R. Subramanian in his office. In the background is a portrait of M.P. Birla.-

The NPL had good facilities and Krishnan was enthusiastic about starting a science museum. Subramanian marshalled all the available resources to put together exhibits to set up what was the first science museum in the country.

In 1959, he devised a fascinating exhibit that told the story of Indian civilisation and the growth of science in India. It had commentary synchronised with lights that lit up relevant areas on a map of the country. The visitor could have the commentary in English or in Hindi. Another exhibit was a small planetarium, under an improvised dome, at a time when space as a new frontier had captured the imagination of scientist and layman alike. Even when he was in charge of the Chemical Conservation Laboratory, Subramanian had experimented with a toy planetarium. The ceiling of a small, darkened room came alive with a multiplicity of dots of light, which passed for stars.

The planetarium he set up in the NPL was a Zeiss instrument, which could be demonstrated to 40 persons at a time. It caught the attention of visitors to the NPL and students, who would throng the dome to watch the stars and planets in action.

Subramanian's planetarium attracted the attention of the late M.P. Birla, who wanted him to set up one in Kolkata. In 1962 Subramanian went to Kolkata.

The architectural firm, Ballardie Thomson Matthews, designed the planetarium building; J.K. Gora was the architect who got it constructed. The State government gave on lease a two-acre site in Kolkata for the project and the best of materials was used to build a pure white dome, which glistens like that of the Victoria Memorial a short distance away. Right below the dome is the auditorium, with a seating capacity of 689.

The Zeiss instrument at the planetarium.-

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated the planetarium, the largest in Asia, on July 2, 1963. Since then it has designed and presented to the public and students over 300 projects dealing with astronomy, astrophysics, celestial mechanics and space science. At present it functions as part of the Birla Institute of Astronomy and Planetarium Sciences.

In the circular gallery around the auditorium, exhibits tell the story of astronomy. Subramanian is keen that astronomy should be popularised. Almost from the beginning, he has offered free in the planetarium an evening course in astronomy. In 1993, the planetarium introduced a post-graduate diploma course in astronomy and planetarium sciences and followed it up in 1999 with an M. Phil course.

The planetarium has arranged special educational programmes for schools, including observation at its sophisticated astronomical observatory equipped with a Celestron C-14 telescope. It has also celebrated the centenaries of great astronomers such as Galileo, Kepler, Tycho Brahe and so on through lectures and exhibitions. Subramanian is Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the M.P. Birla Planetarium, which publishes papers by scholars in astronomy and planetarium science.

Whenever a unique celestial phenomenon occurs, Subramanian is in the thick of it. During the total solar eclipse in Kazhakistan in 1980, Subramanian was one of a group of 40 scientists that studied and recorded it from Shortandy valley near Tselinograd, four hours from Moscow. He and his staff covered on television the full solar eclipse of 1995, from Diamond Harbour in Kolkata.

His work and achievement in the M.P. Birla Planetarium has catapulted Subramanian into the international arena of planetarium directors and astronomers. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (London) in 1963 and he has participated in all the International Planetarium Directors' congresses held from 1972. The 7th international congress organised in Kolkata in 1980 was a resounding success, with delegates from the West and the Soviet Union participating together for the first time.

Subramanian was elected vice-president of the International Planetarium Congress in Moscow in 1987 and president of the International Planetarium Directors' Congress in 1999 in Florida, a position he will hold until December 2004.

He believes that planetariums have a big future in schools; they make astronomy entertaining and help children go through the paces for learning this rather forbidding discipline. Subramanian feels that planetariums at the district level would promote interest in astronomy in the country. He said: "This is after all the land of Varahamira, Aryabhatta and Bhaskara, and could still produce such giants of the discipline provided we give astronomy the much-needed boost through planetariums."

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