Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar: Life and times

R. Kochhar (2004) S.S. Bhatnagar: Life and Times. (Review essay) In New edition, Life & Work of Sir S.S. Bhatnagar (by Norah Richards). (Delhi: NISTADS) first published 1948

Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (1894-1955) was, in a way, a bridge between two cultures and two eras. He came at a time when science was greeted with a sense of mission, but literature was still valued. Encouragement and recognition were sought from the colonial empire, not as an end in itself, but as a prelude to nation building.  An internationally acclaimed chemist, Bhatnagar wrote Urdu poetry under the aptly chosen pen-name of Seemab (meaning mercury) and went on to compose, in Sanskrit, the ceremonial hymn for Benaras Hindu University. Notwithstanding his knighthood and the official position of Director (since renamed Director-General) of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Bhatnagar had the courage to publicly touch the feet of the Congress president on the latter’s release from jail. If the chemical industry, along with its derivative the pharmaceutical, is an important part of Indian economy today, it is in no small measure due to the scientific and managerial efforts of Bhatnagar who half in jest claimed intellectual lineage from the pioneering Indian modern chemist P.C. Ray, Bhatnagar’s teacher having been Ray’s early student.  Chemistry was rather a laboured link with Bengal; what exercised great influence on the course of Bhatnagar’s life was the Bengal-born Brahmo Samaj movement.


Shanti’s father, Parameshwari Sahai, became a Brahmo, preferring the idealist vocation of a teacher to the family’s favourite practice of taking well-paying, middling jobs in revenue and judiciary. Leaving college half-way through on his father’s death and estranged from his uncles because of his religious beliefs, Sahai became second master at Anglo-Sanskrit High School, Bhera, district Shahpur, Punjab, from where, in 1893, he went to Lahore to serve as a volunteer at the Indian National Congress. In 1894, on 21 February, Shanti was born; in March Sahai privately sat for his B.A. examination, which he passed with distinction in history and English. Sahai however died when Shanti was barely eight months old. Cut off from the husband’s side and without any means of her own, Sahai’s young widow and her three children (one yet unborn) were received by her father, Munshi Pyare Lal, one of the earliest products of Roorkee engineering college who had now “retired with ample means” to his ancestral house in Sikandarabad, district Bulandshahar, UP. The old house was the repository of a rare collection of Persian books and manuscripts by an ancestor, Mirza Ghalib’s junior contemporary and friend, Munshi Har Gopal Tufta, himself a well-known poet. The collection came down to Bhatnagar who, in 1919, passed it on to the

university library, Lahore. One of the rarities was “a

Persian version of the Mahabharata for which Shanti

Swarup received a small sum from the library




In the comfortable, albeit sheltered and secluded,

atmosphere of his grandfather’s house, Shanti spent his

first thirteen years. Henceforth he would pay for his

education himself, by winning scholarships and giving

private coaching. In 1908, Rai Sahib Lala Raghu Nath

Sahai, Parameshwari Sahai’s childhood friend and soulmate

and Shanti’s future father-in-law, took the young

lad under his wings. How this happened is an

interesting story. Raghu Nath Sahai accompanied by his

son Bishwa Nath Sahai travelled from Lahore to

Panipat to attend a wedding. “Those were the days

when young children from the groom’s side and from

the bride’s side used to participate just before the

marriage, in a competitive spirit, in a function called

Ghazal-Khwani [Ghazal recital competition]. Young

Shanti Swarup was found quite outstanding in this

competition. Mr Bishwa Nath Sahai, who was a

graduate in psychology, gave an IQ test to young Shanti

Swarup and found him much above average. He

brought this to the notice of [his own father] R.S.

Raghu Nath Sahai, who immediately made enquiries

regarding the boy and found to his great joy and

surprise that Shanti Swarup was the son of his very dear

lamented friend Parmeshari Sahai. Soon R.S. Raghu

Nath Sahai made up his mind to take Shanti Swarup to

Lahore for proper care and better schooling.”1 Here

Shanti joined Dyal Singh High School of which Raghu

Nath was the headmaster. (Dyal Singh was a prominent


landowner and a leading light of the Brahmo movement

in Punjab. He also founded the influential English paper

The Tribune.)

At school, Shanti developed an absorbing interest in

science, “delighting in scientific experiment”.

“Whenever boys in senior classes failed to answer

questions in science, he was sent for and invariably

gave the correct answers. As a reward, he was asked to

box the ears of senior boys.”2 He “contrived for

himself a crude laboratory in one of the galleries of the

School Hall and had stocked it with old tubes, broken

flasks, batteries and any useful thing that by hook or by

crook could be got hold of.” “Then, it is said he gave

some chemical preparation as hair tonic to his

mathematics teacher, Mr. Ram Narain Gupta. To the

latter’s shock his hair turned white prematurely. Shanti

Swarup was given a few cane strokes as punishment.

Later on, Mr. Gupta used to proudly say that his cane

can work miracles and can send a student abroad.”3 The

teachers often complained to the headmaster that Shanti

“was a great trouble to them, perpetually plying them

with questions; that he was restless in the class room

and always too ready to retort when admonished.” In

1911, the schoolboy Shanti published a letter to the

editor in The Leader (Allahabad) on how to make a

substitute for carbon electrodes in a battery, by using

molasses and carbonaceous matter under pressure and

heat (Attempts to trace the letter have so far been

unsuccessful). Significantly, 31 years later, Bhatnagar

returned to the problem in his laboratory when material


for making electrodes could not be imported because of

the second world war.

On matriculation in 1911, he moved on to the newly

opened Dyal Singh College on a university scholarship.

A lasting influence on him here was the theatre

personality, Irish-born Norah Richards (1876-1971),

whose husband Philip Ernest Richards came from the

Unitarian Ministry in England as the Professor of

English literature and whose duties included “freethinking

religious discourse.” Having been a successful

stage artiste herself, under her maiden name Norah

Mary Hutman, she encouraged students not only to

perform the plays that were “prescribed for academic

study” but also to write original ones. In the spring of

1912, the Irish play “Spreading the News” by Lady

Gregory “of Abbey Theatre, Dublin fame” was

performed at Dyal Singh College, in which “the deaf

apple-woman was played by S.S. Bhatnagar with much

drollery” (as Norah Richards recalled later). The same

year, Norah Richards initiated an intra-college one-act

play competition in which Bhatngar’s Urdu play

Karamat (pronounced karaamaat, “miracle”) won the

first prize. The play “satirized the clash between

scientific and superstitious methods of healing”. Norah

Richards declared it to be “pure Bhatnagar!” “The play

was however banned by an over-cautious principal lest

it offended local sentiments”. In 1915, Norah Richards

founded an inter-collegiate Saraswati Stage Society

with herself as the president and Sir Rabindra Nath

Tagore as one of the associates. Bhatnagar by then in


Forman Christian College was among the honorary

members. Karamat was enacted by the Saraswati


Bhatnagar was greatly inspired by his professor,

N.N. Godbole, whose enthusiasm for indigenous

industrial products he imbibed. Bhatnagar in fact

contributed an article on “Fermentation phenomena of

pomegranate juice,” in a magazine aptly called

Raushani (light) brought out by the Society for

Promoting Scientific Knowledge launched by Lahore

Medical College students.

(Bhatnagar remained in touch with Norah Richards

through out his life. She left for Europe in 1920 on the

death of her husband only to return in 1924 for good.

Eventually she settled on a 15-acre property in a small

village Andretta near Palampur in the Kangra valley

(now in Himachal Pradesh), where she remained till her

death. Norah Richards wrote Bhatnagar’s biography

during January and February 1944 while staying in his

house in Delhi. “Originally a commission from a

Biographical Research Society in America, it missed

the last date for sending in… Two abortive attempts at

publication were then made, one with an English firm

in India and one in Britain.” A Lahore publisher

showed interest, but nothing came out of it. Finally the

biography with some additional material was published

from New Delhi in 1948. This affectionate and leisurely

biography written with full cooperation from Bhatnagar

remains our primary source of information on his

personal and family life.)



In 1913, after finishing his intermediate examination in

first division, Bhatnagar joined Forman Christian

College, “where he did not allow any distractions from

his studies in Science”. His unexceptional quest for

knowledge produced rather unexpected results. When

he sat for his B.Sc. examination in 1915, he flunked in

the subject his name is now associated with: chemistry.

One of the questions dealt with the nature of X-rays,

discovered ten years previously. Bhatnagar, on the

authority of the books he had read, wrote that X-rays

could be reflected, refracted and polarized just as

ordinary light. This however went against what was

written in the textbook, the examiner’s touchstone. (Did

the examiner know that Bhatnagar was right but felt

that he himself was duty bound to go by the textbook?

Or did he genuinely believe that the textbook was

right?). Bhatnagar eventually got his degree next year,

with honours in physics.

In retrospect, the incident of Bhatnagar’s flunking

the B.Sc. examination looks mildly amusing. But in its

time it increased his difficulties. The more so, because

he got married, in May 1915, to Raghu Nath Sahai’s

daughter, Lajwanti, who had received her early

education in Dyal Singh High School, “which was

purely a boys’ school” and where her father was the

headmaster. “Kumari Lajwanti would go dressed as a

tomboy with a Salma Sitara [decorated] cap.”

Throughout his college days, Shanti remained in

straitened circumstances. As an undergraduate he had


earned his examination fees by making an inventory of

the contents of the Forman Chemical Laboratories.

During this period, financially and professionally

rewarding was the consultancy work he did for a

leading Lahore stationer who could not import gelatin

duplicating pads from Germany because of the war.

The problem was referred to Bhatnagar by his

chemistry professor and the solution fetched him the

welcome sum of Rs.150.

After completing his B.Sc. in 1916, Bhatnagar took

up a job as demonstrator in physics and chemistry in

Forman Christian College, moving on to Dyal Singh

College as a senior demonstrator in chemistry. Youth

and love saw the couple through difficult times. They

lived in a hired two roomed first floor tenement within

the school campus. He took up private coaching to

augment his meager income as a Senior Demonstrator

at Dyal Singh college. “After college duty he would

rush to the hostel of Chief’s College, to tutor his ward.

He had to do nearly 20 miles up and down on bicycle

and would be quite late for his dinner with his newly

married wife. Her pleadings with him to return home

not so late did not cut much ice with him. One night to

his great surprise he found the staircase bolted from

inside. After knocking for some minutes, he could sense

the purpose of his young wife. Nobody could however

outdo this clever young husband. Adjacent to his house

there was a peepŭl [ficus religiosa] tree with a high

platform around it. Shanti Swarup just climbed it and

jumped from its branch over hanging the back yard of


his house and very lovingly woke up Lajwanti who had

dozed off.”4 In 1917, he studied for his M.Sc. as a

private student. Then for the next two years he worked

from the Forman College, receiving instruction from

professors of the Government College under the

scheme of inter-collegiate post-graduate teaching. He

obtained his M.Sc. degree in 1919, taking three years as

he had done for the B.Sc. As part of his degree

requirements, he studied the surface tension of water.

The next two years, 1919-1921, Bhatnagar spent at

the University of London earning his D.Sc. degree on

surface tension of oils, under the supervision of Prof.

F.G. Donnan, FRS. This was made possible by the

award of a scholarship by Dyal Singh Trust, thanks to

the efforts of Prof. Ruchi Ram Sahni, a science

professor at the Government College and a member of

the Trust. (Sahni was the father of the well-known

botanist, Birbal Sahni.) “It was during Bhatnagar’s first

years in London that H.R.H the Prince of Wales visited

University College and was shown over the Ramsay

Laboratories by the Director. The Indian students five

in number were at the time busy cooking their mid-day

meal…. H.R.H. looked closely at the preparations and

asked if he might have a taste. The students, thereupon,

invited him and Professor Donnan to share their meal

which they did.”

A travel grant from the British department of

scientific and industrial research enabled Bhatnagar to

visit France and Germany. He was in the group of

fourteen research students from London University that


went to meet Prof. Walther Hermann Nernst (1864-

1941, Chemistry Nobel prize 1920) in his laboratory in

Berlin with a letter of introduction from Donnan, each

name accompanied by nationality and research topic.

Nernst himself came out to say no; he “would not like

any Britishers to go round.” Later on a note came

addressed to Megh Nad Saha saying that Nernst would

allow the Indian students to see the laboratories because

“the last blow to the British empire would come from

India” (Ironically, the same Nernst took shelter in

England in 1935 after fleeing Nazi Germany).


Bhatnagar returned to India in 1921 to take up a

professorship at Benaras Hindu University on the

invitation of the founder Pt. Madan Mohan Malaviya.

Bhatnagar took over from one Prof. Mane, an

undistinguished elderly person of about 55, who broke

down while handing over the keys to the new man,

because he had already held them for 15 years.

Magnanimously, Bhatnagar permitted him to remain

the head. “At the close of the meeting [of the Council]

the professors, pleased at Bhatnagar’s action, gathered

around him while Pt. Malaviya hugged him.” (What

the Council thought of Prof. Mane’s attachment to the

keys does not seem to be on record.) In Benaras

Bhatnagar focused on pure research which stood him in

good stead in his later industrial research. Interestingly,

when he learnt about a fellow professor’s plagiarism,


Bhatnagar “leapt on him and gave him a good

drubbing.” (The plagiarist later resigned.) While

bidding farewell to Bhatnagar, Pandit Madan Mohan

Malviya remarked that “whoever leaves Benaras has a

seat reserved for him in heaven.” Bhatnagar retorted

good-humouredly : “I agree with Malviyaji in the sense

that Benaras town being so dirty that whoever leaves

Benaras feels that he is going to a heavenly place.”

In 1924, 30-year old Bhatnagar took over as the

director of the newly opened University Chemical

Laboratories, Lahore, having been chosen in preference

to his rather ineffectual European competitor who had

been Bhatnagar’s teacher. Bhatnagar remained here till

1940. The laboratories addressed problems in industrial

and applied chemistry brought in by agriculturists and

industrialists, such as Sir Ganga Ram, an engineerturned

neo-agriculturist; Lala Shri Ram of Delhi; J K

Mills Kanpur; and Tata Oil Mills. The most celebrated

consultancy, of course, was the solution of the mud

problem brought in by Messers Steel Brothers & Co.,

London. The company, prospecting for oil in Punjab,

used mud to lubricate its drilling jigs. However as soon

as the mud came into contact with the underground salt

deposits, it coagulated, bringing the operations to a halt.

The other experts from the university, consulted by the

company, suggested several “chemical” and

“mechanical” methods which were all impractical. But

“the theoretical chemist – Dr. Bhatnagar – insisted from

the beginning that it was a simple problem in Colloid

Chemistry”. He added an Indian gum to the mud so that


it would not harden on contact with salt. The company

was so pleased with the result that it offered Bhatnagar

the substantial sum of Rs.1, 50,000. Consistent with the

spirit of the times and his own idealism, Bhatnagar

converted this personal offer “largely to the benefit of

the University and research”, in the form of six research

scholarships for five years. (Synergy with research has

been the strength of Indian chemical industry ever



The first world war had given a chance to Bhatnagar to

do a bit of consultancy on his own for a Lahore

stationer. The second world war (1939-1945) provided

him with an opportunity to build scientific

infrastructure for the country. So far, India’s industrial

backwardness had been Indians’ concern; war made it

Britain’s handicap. Export of raw material from and

import of finished goods into India stopped. At the

same time, India was called upon to take up the

responsibility of “supplying the technical equipment of

a modern army”. The government decided to tackle the

problem of “shortages and substitutes and war

requirements” in two ways: conducting research under

its own auspices; and more importantly funding

scientific and industrial research in centres outside the

government system. It was a foregone conclusion that

the British would leave India after the war. Indians

were already in important positions in government as


well as in industry and science. Though still working

under British auspices, the Indians sought to dovetail

their country’s post-independence interests into the

British exigencies of war.

In December 1939 Dewan Bahadur Sir Arcot

Ramaswami Mudaliar, commerce member in the

Viceroy’s executive committee, visited Bhatnagar’s

laboratory in Lahore, was impressed by what he saw,

and advised the Viceroy that Bhatnagar be appointed to

head the government’s war-time science effort.

Bhatnagar stipulated that he should have at his disposal

a laboratory for research and that in addition his

Lahore-based research students, funded by Messers

Steel Brothers, be permitted to come along. This was

accepted and in August 1940 Bhatnagar took over as

Director, Scientific and Industrial Research. He was

based in Alipore, Kolkata, where a pre-existing

laboratory was refurbished for his use. (The laboratory

was shifted to Delhi University campus in December

1942, in view of the threat of Japanese invasion.)

In the meantime, on 1 April 1940, a purely advisory

body; Board of Scientific and Industrial Research

(BSIR), was set up with Mudaliar as ex-officio

chairman and a civil servant as the secretary. The Board

would receive research proposals from research

institutions, universities, industries and trades, and

advise the government “whether these proposals were

approved and if so what funds should be provided for

carrying them out.” A year later, on 14 November 1941,

the government agreed to sanction an annual amount of


Rs. 10 lakhs for five years towards establishing an

Industrial Research Fund for “fostering industrial

development in the country.” What was now needed

was a mechanism for utilizing this fund. Accordingly,

on 12 March 1942 a legal entity called a registered

society was set up in Delhi under the name Council of

Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) with

Mudaliar as the ex-officio founder-president. On 26

September 1942, the government transferred the control

of the fund to the Council, at the same time making the

Board an advisory body to it. (26 September is now

celebrated as the CSIR foundation day.) In December

1943, the post of vice-president was created. Sir M.S.

Akbar Hydari, ICS, served as the vice-president till

1946. The first vice-president after independence was

Dr Syama Prasad Mukherjee who held office 1947-


By virtue of his position in the government,

Bhatnagar was the key figure in the Board and the

Council. It is noteworthy that in the early years,

formation of CSIR hardly made any impact. The setting

up of BSIR was seen as a landmark, because it was the

first time official funding was systematically

forthcoming for research being carried out by

individuals and organizations outside the government

system. CSIR was seen merely as a clearing house. It is

only much later when national laboratories were

established that CSIR came to acquire its distinctive

identity. (Interestingly, Norah Richards’ detailed and

authorized 1948 biography of Bhatnagar does not seem


to make any mention of CSIR.) From the point of view

of later developments, an important date in the history

of CSIR is 29 February 1944, when the government

declared that “Rs. 1 crore will be forthcoming towards

capital expenditure on a chain of research institutions.”

The chain comprised five laboratories. Their foundation

stone was laid between December 1945 and April 1947:

Central Glass and Ceramics Research Institute, Kolkata

(CGCRI), 24 December 1945; Central Fuel Research

Institute, Dhanbad (CFRI), 17 November 1946;

National Metallurgical Laboratory, Jamshedpur (NML),

21 November 1946; National Physical Laboratory,

Delhi (NPL), 4 January 1947; and National Chemical

Laboratory, Pune (NCL), 6 April 1947. Significantly

for four of these, support was forthcoming from

industry and trade. The house of Tatas gave a grant of

Rs 8.3 lakhs for NCL, with the reasonable condition

that it be located in Pune, within the Mumbai industrial

zone. (The Tata suggestion that the laboratory be

named after them did not find acceptance.) For NML,

the Tatas donated 30 acres of land in their steel city

Jamshedpur, backing the offer with a grant of Rs 11.7

lakhs. For CFRI located in the central Indian coal-belt,

Raja of Jharia, Babu Shiva Prasad Singha, donated

about 100 acres of land, which lay near the colliery of

the Tatas as well as the Model Town being built by

them. CGCRI received Rs 10,000 each from the Bengal

and the UP glass manufacturers’ associations. CGCRI

was headed by Dr Atma Ram, who began his career in

1936 as a chemical assistant at the much-maligned


Industrial Research Bureau, and later (1966-1971) rose

to head the CSIR itself. For the futuristic NPL, Delhi

was chosen in preference to Kolkata partly on the

extraneous ground that this would enable the laboratory

“to keep in touch with the government.”

Interestingly the Punjab government was keen to

recall Bhatnagar after the war and make him the vicechancellor

of Punjab University, but the proposal fell

through because of the disinclination of the Union

government to relieve him. CSIR was transformed after

independence by Jawaharlal Nehru, who made the

Prime Minister ex-officio president of CSIR. (In this

respect, CSIR is unique in the country.) The five

laboratories sanctioned in 1944 were all opened

between January and November 1950, led by NCL,

Pune, which was inaugurated by Nehru on 3 January

1950, the occasion being provided by the holding of

Indian Science Congress. Significantly the first

laboratory planned after independence dealt with food,

and, equally significantly, was housed in a palace.

Thanks to the royal gift from government of what is

now Karnataka, Central Food Technological Research

Institute, Mysore (into which was merged the already

existing Indian Institute of Fruit Technology) was

ceremonially opened on 21 October 1950. During

Bhatnagar’s tenure as the Director-General (as the post

was later renamed), more specifically in the fiveyear

span 1950-1954, as many as 14 laboratories

were opened, acquired or had their foundation

stone laid. (These include the five sanctioned before


independence.) Being the solitary scientific

organization of its time, CSIR nurtured many

initiatives. Thus, as early as 1946, it set up an Atomic

Research Committee under the chairmanship of Dr

Homi Bhabha, a step that culminated in the

establishment of Atomic Energy Commission. It funded

research on “biological aspects of atomic research”, and

extended financial support to “the Research Institute of

the Indian Academy of Sciences”, directed by Sir C.V.

Raman. The building of Physical Research Laboratory,

Ahmedabad, was designed by the Council architects.

As a sidelight it may be noted that the 1000 – capacity

auditorium of the National Physical Laboratory, Delhi,

was a major addition to the capital’s culture life. It was

opened in time (14 February 1952) for a violin concert

by Yehudi Menuhin, visiting India on Nehru’s

invitation. The auditorium also had the distinction of

hosting Indrani Rahman’s first dance performance in


Bhatnagar concurrently held a number of posts in

the Government. In 1948 and 1949 he worked as

Secretary to the ministry of education, and educational

adviser to the Government of India. He was chosen to

become the first secretary to the ministry of natural

resources and scientific research, which was set up in

1951. He was also Secretary of Atomic Energy

Commission and later became the Chairman of the

University Grants Commission. He received a number

of honours. In 1936, the British Government conferred

on him the Order of the British Empire. A disappointed


Bhatnagar was consoled by his friends that in his case

OBE stood for Oil Borer of the Empire. A bigger

honour came his way in 1941, when he was made the

Knight Bachelor. From a scientific point of view, great

recognition of his work came with the 1943 election as

a fellow of the Royal Society of London. Independent

India honoured him with a Padma Vibhushan in 1954.


A casualty of his hectic life was his health. While still

in Lahore, he “accidentally exposed his eyes to some

harmful radiation. As a result he was in great pain due

to damage to his eye balls… In later year he had to use

refined glycerine and rose water as prophylactic

measure.” Heart was a bigger problem than the eyes.

“Climbing up a stretch of hill, for attending the function

at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute of Tenzing

Norgay, made him gasp for breath. Dr. B.C. Roy, who

was already there, examined him and cautioned him not

to be so indiscreet with his over-strained heart.”

Bhatnagar died on 1 January 1955 after a massive heart

attack. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, whose feet

Bhatnagar had touched in 1942 when the former was

the Congress president and who now was Bhatnagar’s

minister, remarked: “I often felt that the effect of such

hard work might fell upon his health. Inspite of my

repeated requests, he would not, however, refrain from

his hard work. Last year, we sent him out in connection

with the work of scientific research. I extended his


deputation by two weeks and asked him to take

complete rest for a fortnight in Switzerland. I have no

doubt that this passion for work reduced the duration of

his life. Action was the breath of his life and he could

not live without work.”5

Mahendra Nath Sahai, Bhatnagar’s nephew by

marriage (see note 1) recalled on the occasion of

Bhatnagar’s birth centenary, in 1994: “In his personal

library, at his residence he had a large number of books

from leading scientists from all over the world. There

were a few books on other subjects such as psychology,

English literature, Urdu poetry etc. There was a book

on happy married life by Mary Stopes. Also books on

palmistry by Cheiro and Benhem. I used to avail of this

facility quite often. After acquiring some working

knowledge of palmistry, one day I asked him to show

me the palm of his right hand… The only strange thing

about the palm was that his heart and head lines were

completely merged forming a straight line right across

his palm. Sensing that I was a little puzzled, he asked

what was my interpretation? I quickly replied that this

shows that he will put his head and heart together in

whatever field of activity he undertook. He nodded to

agree. Now it was his turn to have a look at my hand.

He at once remarked that I had a girdle of Venus, and

that the goddess of love will influence my life and

advised that I should read Marie Stopes’ book in his


“He regarded palmistry and jyotish as empirical

sciences and their followers as pseudo-scientist. I had


heard from some old and well read persons that “Bhrigu

sanghyata” [should be samhita] written by Bhrighu

Rishi was the last word in jyotish. Though he seemed to

be sceptical about it, his curiosity was certainly

aroused. He mentioned this to his cousin, Mr Keshav

Sarup, who had a good knowledge of the Vedas. “Soon

after, he was put in touch with a Bhrigu Sanghyata

Pandit, who was furnished with the time and date of

Bhatnagar’s birth. The Pandit unrolled a long long [sic]

continuous paper strip. Finding the right text matching

Doctor Bhatnagar’s particulars, he read out that within

the next few months he [Bhatnagar] would be receiving

some big honour from government. Doctor Bhatnagar

told that the only big honour he could expect was a

Knighthood but that would be after a few years rather

than a few months. Keshav Sarup told me after several

years that Dr Bhatnagar had his greatest surprise in the

following month. Lord Linlithgow, on the advice of

Lord Wavell the then commander-in-chief, had

recommended Doctor Bhatnagar’s name for a


Bhatnagar was a romantic at heart. He nursed the

hope that after retirement he and his wife would settle

in a village where he would take to farming and she to

gardening. He imagined he would be working in the

fields when his wife brought his lunch, carrying a pot of

butter milk on her head. Time left over from farming

would be devoted to chemistry and “service of Urdu”.

If chemistry was his passion, poetry was his retreat.

From his childhood, thanks to the literary atmosphere in


his grandfather’s house, he had enjoyed listening to

poetry in “my own language” Urdu and took to writing

it himself. While travelling on holiday he would

compose verses on scraps of paper and pocket them.

His wife shared his poetic interest. Often on Sundays,

the Bhatnagars played host to poets, inviting them to

recite their poems and actively participating in the

proceedings. On her insistence he prepared his own

anthology for publication, but tragic-comically it was

mistaken for a money wallet and stolen by a petty thief

from the person of poet Faiz Jhanjhaanvi.

On his wife’s death in 1946, Bhatnagar was moved to discover that she had collected many of his poems and carefully preserved them. As a homage to her he got the anthology published, naming it Lajwanti after her, and giving his own name simply as Shanti (She had once expressed the poetic wish that if she were a book she would always remain in his sight). The anthology went into second edition in which some new poems were included (Nothing seems to be known about the original edition.)8 “On the whole, his verses are topical, humorous and reflective. Those written after the loss of his wife bear a tender wistfulness and the stamp of loneliness.”


Much of the information in this essay is taken from Norah Richards’ biography of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, reprinted


in the following. Official documents have been consulted on his CSIR days. This essay is an expanded version of Ref. 2

1. Narrated by Mahendra Nath Sahai, son of Bishwa Nath Sahai, whose sister Lajwanti was married to Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar. See Ref. 1, pp 12-13.

2. Ref. 1, p.13

3. Ref. 1, p.13

4. Ref. 1, pp. 14–15

5. Ref. 1, p.24

6. Ref. 1, pp 21–22

7. Ref. 1, pp 21–22

8. The above information is taken from the preface of Lajwanti;

See Ref. 3.


1. Kayastha Bhatnagar Sadar Sabha Hind. Dr. Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Centenary Year Celebrations (A-1, Ring Road, South Extension I, New Delhi 110049)

2. Kochhar, Rajesh (2002) Resonance 7, 82-89

3. Shanti (1946?) Lajwanti (in Urdu), 2nd edition (Lucknow: Naval Kishor Press) (No publication date is given, but forewords to the book are dated 1946)

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