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What got JRD Tata "hooked on aeroplanes" and other histories to discover at Science Beyond Borders

'Science Beyond Borders', curated by the Institut Francais en Inde and its partners, showcases collaborations in the fields of maths, astronomy, aviation, medicine, culture and space programmes.

May 15, 2022 / 08:54 PM IST
JRD Tata's flying licence, 1929. (Image courtesy: Tata Archive)

JRD Tata's flying licence, 1929. (Image courtesy: Tata Archive)

While most of our colonial legacies are associated with the British, there has been a shared scientific history of Indo-French collaborations too. Science Beyond Borders, a travelling exhibition curated by the Institut Francais en Inde and its partners, showcases collaborations in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, aviation, medicine, culture and space programmes.

From snippets from the Tata archives showing the journey of Air India, to the electrification of the Indian Railways, the highly researched panels disseminate information from the 75-years of association.

We bring you some of the highlights, courtesy Science Beyond Borders:

JRD Tata and Louis Bleriot – the inspiration for the legend!

J.R.D Tata spoke about his passion for aviation, which gave India its first licensed pilot (J.R.D. Tata!) and an airline.

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In his words: “My first important memories...were about cars and aeroplanes. My father decided that we needed a home of our own in which to spend holidays, and he picked on a new and developing beach resort on the Channel coast of France, south of Boulogne, called Hardelot... In fact, one of the two main streets of Hardelot was officially named Avenue des Indes. The legendary Louis Blériot...also chose Hardelot for his family’s summer resort. Blériot built not only a fine villa close to ours but also a hangar near the beach. On the beach his personal plane used to land much to the excitement of everyone there... From then on, I was hopelessly hooked on aeroplanes and made up my mind that, come what may, one day I would be a pilot.”

Incidentally, his sister Sylla Petit became the first Indian woman to get her flying licence in India. Later, also having learnt at the Bombay Flying Club, his younger sister Rodabeh was the second Indian lady to get her flying licence in India.

He remarked, “But unquestionably the best flyer and most naturally gifted airman among us all, was my youngest brother, Jamshed or Jimmy... A born flyer, Jimmy was released solo only after four hours.”

The aviator par excellence from Mysuru

Venkata Subba Setti of Mysore was a pioneer in Indian aviation. He was the first Indian to fly as a pilot; and as an aeronautical engineer, to design and build an aircraft, which he did for AV Roe & Co (Avro) in Manchester in June 1912.

On his return to India, V.S. Setti submitted plans for the manufacture of an aircraft of his own design to be built at Mysore. The aircraft was to be powered by a French Monosoupape (single-valve) Gnome engine. However, permission was denied by the British authorities.

In June 1912, Setti designed an improved Avro aircraft for which he received a specially minted medal from AV Roe & Co.

On return to India, the now Professor V.S. Setti was appointed superintendent of the Mechanical Engineering School at Bangalore.

Indian aviator S.V. Setti Indian aviator V.S. Setti

The world’s first official airmail flight was in India

Henri Picquet (1888–1974) was a French pilot who flew the Blériot in a demonstration flight at the UP Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition held at Allahabad on 10 December 1910.

The next year, he flew the world’s first official airmail flight from Allahabad to Naini across the river Yamuna, on February 18, 1911. This time Picquet flew a French Humber-Sommer biplane carrying more than 6,000 mails from a polo field in Allahabad, over the Yamuna River, to Naini.

All mail received a special cancellation (post mark over the stamp to prevent reuse) depicting an airplane, mountains, and ‘First Aerial Post, 1911, U. P. Exhibition Allahabad’ (see photo below). Picquet flew the first regular mail postal service for the entire duration of the exhibition.

the world’s first official airmail flight from Allahabad to Naini across the river Yamuna, on February 18, 1911. This time Picquet flew a French Humber-Sommer biplane carrying more than 6,000 mails from a polo field in Allahabad, over the Yamuna River, to Naini. All mail received a special cancel depicting an airplane, mountains, and ‘First Aerial Post, 1911, U. P. Exhibition Allahabad’. All mail received a special 'cancel' depicting an airplane, mountains, and the words ‘First Aerial Post, 1911, U. P. Exhibition Allahabad’. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

When a photo archive caught an art thief

The photo archives of the IFP (Institut Francais de Pondichery) is one of the very few visual databases of temple idols and artefacts in South India.

It is routinely consulted by national and international law enforcement agencies looking to establish the identity and provenance of stolen idols.

A notable instance is the investigation of idol theft from the Brihadishvarar Temple in Sripuranthan village in Tamil Nadu. The investigation led to the uncovering of an extensive international smuggling ring masterminded by Subhash Chandra Kapoor, a New York-based art dealer who had sold the stolen idol to buyers in Australia.

However, without documentary evidence no case could be made. The photographic evidence from the IFP archives indicated that a team had visited the temple and photographed the idol in question in 1994, directly contradicting Kapoor’s claim that the idol had left India by 1971.

This crucial evidence from the photo archives led to the arrest of Kapoor and the return of the idol to India by the Australian Government.

From the IFP photo archives From the IFP photo archives

Satyendra Nath Bose could never tell Marie Curie he spoke French

The intense collaboration between Satyendra Nath Bose with French scientists started during a trip Bose made to Europe to meet Albert Einstein in 1924–25.

Instead of visiting Einstein directly, Bose stopped in Paris, he knew French quite well, and met many personalities there, including the French cardiologist Bertrand Zadoc-Kahn.

He stayed with Probodh Chandra Bagchi who was doing his research under Sylvain Levi, the famous French Indologist. Levi had a fondness for Bose and his intellectual calibre. He introduced Bose to his contemporary and friend Paul Langevin who was a professor of physics at Collège de France.

SN Bose (right) S.N. Bose (right)

Bose had the opportunity to work with Langevin in his laboratory. Since Langevin had previously worked with Pierre Curie and was part of his laboratory for a long time, Bose wanted to work with Marie Curie, an idea that got attention from Langevin as well.

Langevin wrote a letter of introduction for Bose and he went to meet Marie Curie. She was aware of Bose’s work and showed some benevolence for him being in Paris. Unfortunately, Marie Curie said that Bose could work with her only if he learned French and asked him to come back only when he was able to communicate in French. She did not even give him the chance to explain to her that he knew French quite well. Bose later regretted his inability to tell her so.

Science Beyond Borders (@sciencebeyondborders) is on at Bangalore International Centre (11am to 8pm) till 21st May.
Jayanthi Madhukar is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist.
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