Hand in Hand: How the Arts Blended With Science in the Lives of 'Rocket Boys'

A new web show 'Rocket Boys,' centres around the lives of Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai.

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Hand in Hand: How the Arts Blended With Science in the Lives of 'Rocket Boys'
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It was on 21 November 1963 when India shot its first rocket into the skies, marking the start of a space programme that would achieve tremendous success in the decades to come. In the biography of Vikram Sarabhai titled Vikram Sarabhai: A Life, author Amrita Shah notes how an ecstatic Sarabhai, credited chiefly for conceptualising and executing the launch, sent home a telegram: “Gee whiz wonderful rocket show.”

Homi Bhabha, who was present at the site to witness the historic occasion, too sprang up in joy.

Rocket Boys, a web show centred around the lives of Homi Bhabha played by Jim Sarbh and Vikram Sarabhai played by Ishwak Singh, is expected to trace many such moments in the journeys of the two Indian scientists, both of whom pioneered path-breaking research in different scientific domains.


Jim Sarbh (left) as Homi Bhabha and Ishwak Singh (right) as Vikram Sarabhai in 'Rocket Boys'.

(Photo Courtesy: Rocket Boys Trailer/ YouTube Screengrab)

Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai are hailed as the founding fathers of the Indian Nuclear and Space Program, respectively. Together, they worked at establishing institutions and practices that were seminal for the experiments in the atomic energy and space sciences.

If their unfailing commitment to progress in the scientific realm brought them together, their inquisitive minds also lead them to nurture and nourish other walks of human life – from dance to music to architecture. The duo personified the holistic, enjoying and uplifting both, the artistic and scientific creations of the world.

Homi Bhabha, ‘The Modern Equivalent of Da Vinci’

Homi Bhabha’s artistic pursuits were equally if not more apparent than his research endeavours.

During his stay in Cambridge as an undergraduate student and a researcher later on, Bhabha visited a plethora of museums, attended concerts of the musicians he had always admired, living his interests to the fullest.

Bhabha’s consonance with music was a well-known trait from an early age, as his family observed the soothing effect it had in his crying state. His interests in paintings and literature too were inculcated via the vast collection of records and artworks available in the home he grew up in Bombay. Bhabha carried these inclinations with him across the shore as an adult to England, ensuring that he took out enough time to rear them.


The significance of art in Bhabha’s life can perhaps be gleaned from the presence of a complete chapter in the eponymous biography by Chintamani Deshmukh. Titled The Artist, Patron and Connoisseur, Deshmukh gives a vivid account of Bhabha’s sustained engagement with the music, literature, architecture, and paintings from the Eastern and the Western world.

Homi Bhabha in front of one of his paintings.

(Photo Courtesy: TIFR Archives/ Google Art and Culture)

That Bhabha not just admired but absorbed himself with any art form was a common knowledge among his contemporaries, ranging from great artists to fellow scientists.

His knowledge and passion came alive in the corridors of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), adorned as they were with paintings that were handpicked by the man himself.

Bhabha also made it a point to personally supervise the construction of the Atomic Energy Establishment (later renamed Bhabha Atomic Research Centre), zeroing in on the architecture and the flower gardens that surrounded the buildings only after careful considerations.

Atomic Energy Establishment (later renamed to Bhabha Atomic Research Centre) in Trombay.

(Photo Courtesy: TIFR Archives, Google Arts and Culture)

The research work for Bhabha, which he was to come to be known for, was not disparate from any of these indulgences. As he wrote to his brother once: ‘it was art that made life worth living.’ It was this impartial attachment to the fields of science and arts alike which led CV Raman to introduce him to the Indian Academy of Science as ‘the modern equivalent of Da Vinci'.


Sarabhai The Unflinching Supporter

Vikram Sarabhai’s passion for arts materialised more in the support and encouragement he lend to his wife’s dance than his personal endeavours.

There was still an affinity in him towards the artistic bend, as evident from one of Mrinalini Sarabhai's earliest meetings with the to-be spouse.

“One day, one of the students of the Indian Institute of Science came to the dance studio because he planned to build a theatre for the workers. This young man was very interested in dramatic activities and wanted to do something for the workers. The young man was Vikram Sarabhai,” she describes the encounter from 1941 in her autobiography The Voice Of Heart.

All throughout, when Mrinalini Sarabhai – one of India's all-time great dancers – was occupied with honing her craft and touring the globe with her performances, Vikram stood, as she calls him in her autobiography, as a ‘pillar of strength.’

There were instances when Vikram partook in some aspects of her performances too, designing the lighting of a stage show or a studio in their house she would practice and perform in.

Vikram and Mrinalini jointly set up Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad in 1949. The Inter Art festival of the school was subsequently named after Vikram Sarabhai.

Vikram and Mrinalini jointly set up Darpana Academy of Performing Arts.

(Photo Courtesy: Jighnesnhat/ Wikipedia)

Vikram, besides all his scientific affections, was also a deep admirer of both the Western and Indian classical melodies himself, and spent on collecting records and building record players without any inhibition.

His inquisition was, as in the case of Homi Bhabha’s, for all fields that could be explored and dived into. As Mrinalini put it,
“Vikram loved the arts and knew what was right...Vikram as a scientist, and I as a dancer, shared a togetherness that was hard to define.”

Science And Arts At Present, Poles Apart?

There is an almost unsavoury irony in the present popular ‘perception’ of the two realms Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai saw no difference in, where the Sciences and Arts have come to be viewed as the higher and lower end of the spectrum.

Rocket Boys will stream on SonyLiv from 4 February.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

The results of the latest All India Higher Education Survey of 2019-20, however, sprang up a surprise, denoting higher enrolment in undergraduate course in Arts as opposed to Sciences and Engineering. The National Education Policy (NEP) announced in 2020, too, promises to blur the lines between the two fields, allowing students in the school to choose subjects from either.

As Bhabha and Sarabhai’s worldview comes to screen with Rocket Boys on 4 February on SonyLiv, one can only hope that it diminishes some of the misconceptions that have found their places in the minds of masses over time, leading to a recognition of the sharedness of the fields of science and arts and their necessary co-existence. For the pioneers in Indian science espoused the very same.

(The author is an intern at The Quint. He's a final year student at IIT Delhi.)

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