1909 - 1966

Homi Bhabha and the TIFR Art Collection

Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

Homi Bhabha

Homi Jehangir Bhabha was born in Bombay on October 30 1909 to Jehangir and Meherbai Bhabha, and named after his paternal grandfather, Hormusji Bhabha, Inspector General of Education in Mysore. He had his schooling at the Cathedral and John Connon School, Bombay.

Homi with his father Jehangir  and mother Meherbai Bhabha
Hormusji Bhabha, grandfather of Homi Bhabha

Homi's love for aesthetics began early, in an environment pervaded by music and culture. His grandfather's vast library opened up a world of unimaginable treasure for the young boy. His father Jehangir's equally impressive collection of books on art and music, collected during his student years in Oxford and London, revealed further worlds that Homi would grow to love.

In their teenage years, Homi, his brother and their cousin would spend hours listening to the family’s large collection of gramophone records of Western classical music. It became a ritual for the three youngsters to take turns winding the gramophone, turning over the records and sit in absolute silence, with lights dimmed, absorbing the music as it played.

Homi Bhabha and Jamshed Bhabha

Homi  showed an early inclination for painting and drawing. He took lessons from Jehangir A. Lalkaka, a celebrated Parsee artist.

 As a young boy, he had won several prizes at the Annual  Exhibition of the Bombay Art Society.

Self Portrait  at age 17

After attending Elphinstone College and the Royal Institute of Science, both in Bombay, Homi was sent to England in 1927, to the Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge.

Bhabha enrolled for Mechanical Tripos in Cambridge but his interests soon shifted to theoretical physics and mathematics. He completed Mechanical Tripos and enrolled for Mathematical Tripos. 

Bhabha joined the Cavendish Laboratory, from where he obtained his Ph.D with  Prof. R.H. Fowler as his thesis supervisor.

Bhabha painting the "Dove sono I belli momenti"  in Cambridge

Cambridge opened up a whole world of art for Bhabha, giving him the opportunity to visit the great museums of the world, attend concerts and hear the music that he loved so much.

In Cambridge, he designed the stage décor for Calderon’s play “Life is a Dream”, for Handel’s “ Susanah”  and for Mozart’s opera “ Idomeno”.

Stage set for Mozart's opera 

On his return to India in 1939, he was invited by Prof. C.V. Raman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, to take up a position at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

While introducing him at the Annual Meeting of the Indian Academy of Science in 1941, C.V. Raman described the 32-year old Bhabha as “ the modern equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci.”

Bhabha's sketch of C.V. Raman
Bhabha's sketch of Pipsy Wadia

It was during his five-year stint in Bangalore that Bhabha first came face to face with the difficulties then involved in carrying out first-class research in India.

He discovered that none of the existing research institutions in the country had proper facilities for original work in nuclear physics, cosmic ray physics, high energy physics and other frontiers areas. 

He wrote letters about this sorry state of affairs to his friend J.R.D.Tata, the famous entrepreneur and Chairman of Tata & Sons

Reading Bhabha’s letters, J.R.D. realized the need for a world-class Research Institute for India.

He advised Bhabha to write to the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust for funds to set up such an Institute.

    Homi  Bhabha and J.R.D. Tata

In May 1945, the Trustees decided to sponsor an institute for fundamental research, in co-operation with the Government of Bombay.

The new Institute was named “The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research”. Bhabha remained its Director till his death in 1966.

Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

TIFR became the birthplace of the nation’s atomic energy programme.  It was here that the early work of the Atomic Energy Commission began.

The Department of Atomic Energy was set up in the year 1954, with Bhabha as Secretary to the Government of India.

The Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay (AEET) was formally dedicated to the nation by the Prime Minister Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru on January 20, 1957.

Bhabha remained the director of Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay, till his death.

After his sad demise in 1966, it was renamed as Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.

Atomic  Energy Establishment Trombay, later renamed as Bhabha Atomic Research Centre

Bhabha was a truly a Renaissance man. Professionally, he was a trained engineer turned physicist of international stature, but equally, a serious painter; a lover of music and literature; a great collector and patron of the arts.

In the words of J.R.D. Tata: “Scientist, engineer, master-builder and administrator, steeped in  humanities, in art and music, Homi was truly a complete man.”

According to his brother Jamshed, Homi was as passionate about the arts as he was about science:

“For Homi Bhabha, the arts were not just a form of recreation or pleasant relaxation; they were among the most serious pursuits of life and he attached just as much importance to them as to his work in mathematics and physics. For him, the arts were, in his own words,'what made life worth living'.”

  Bhabha in front of one of his paintings
Bhabha's sketch of Shergill
Homi Bhabha, M.G.K. Menon and M.C. Chagla admiring the bust of Einstein by Epstein

TIFR is also home to a priceless collection of art, making it unique among scientific institutions anywhere in the world.This collection is very much the product of Homi Bhabha’s vision along with that of his successor Prof M.G.K. Menon.

Bhabha's sketch of Niels Bohr
 Bhabha in front of his sketches

Tata Institute of Fundamental Research owns and manages an art collection which was financed entirely by the institute.

Along the corridors of the Institute are displayed some remarkable works of art, spanning several decades of the second half of the twentieth  century.

Decorating the new Institute provided Bhabha with  the opportunity to simultaneously indulge his love for art and also showcase what was best in contemporary Indian art…

Thus was born the TIFR Art Collection.

 Reception area of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research
Bharat Bhagya Vidhata - A mural by M.F. Husain

The Progressive Artists’ Group was formed in 1947 to establish new ways of expressing India in the post-colonial era. As an important patron of this Bombay-based group, which produced artists like F. N. Souza, M. F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, K. H. Ara and S. H. Raza, Bhabha selected some of their most impressive early works for the TIFR collection. Today the TIFR collection is one of the finest repositories of Indian Contemporary Art.

Alap by M.F. Husain
Untitled by F.N. Souza
Abstract  by V.S. Gaitonde
Bust of Einstein by  Jacob Epstein
Jhabua Bhils  by N.S.Bendre 

The most important single work in the TIFR art collection is the remarkable 45-foot mural executed by M.F. Husain and titled Bharata Bhagya Vidhata.

This work was commissioned by the TIFR and came out of a competition process that ran from the end of 1962 into the first months of 1963.

The idea behind the competition was simple – each artist was asked to create a preliminary design at a scaled-down size.

Thirteen artists were invited to submit their designs to a Committee set up to help Homi Bhabha decide the winner of the competition.

Ten artists responded…

Krishna and Balaram by Jamini Roy
Man Triumphant by R.D. Raval
Civilization by K.K. Hebbar
Black Moon by B. Prabha
Cosmos in the making by N.S. Bendre
Spring Festival by K.H. Ara
Bharat Bhagya Vidhata by M.F. Husain
Vigil by Satish Gujral
Tree of life by Badri Narayan
Abstract by G.M. Solegaoankar

The committee comprised art critics Mr Karl Khandalavala, Mr Rudi Von Leyden, Mrs Phiroza Wadia, and Professor K. Chandrasekharan, then head of Mathematics and Deputy Director. All the judges seem to have shared Bhabha’s view that Husain’s entry was the most convincing and the Director made his final decision sometime in March 1963.

The mural’s physical presence at the institute is so overwhelming that it can be said to be the collection’s emblematic artwork.

Bharat Bhagya Vidhata - Mural by M.F. Husain
A Block Lobby  of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research
Woman with Ankh by A.M. Davierwalla
Abstract by Homi Bhabha
Dead and the Dying by Krishen Khanna
Untitled by Tyeb Mehta
Vishnu  from Antiquities Collection of TIFR

During his stay in Cambridge, Bhabha would regularly attend live concerts and hear the music that he loved so much since his childhood.

After attending one such performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, he wrote in a letter to his brother Jamshed:

 “It is now almost one o’clock, but I cannot help writing to you. I came back from the concert at about eleven or earlier, and have been thinking of the Ninth Symphony all the time… Never before have I been so moved. The performance was by no means faultless… but all the faults of execution are forgotten in the greatness of the work. I was drawn out of myself and raised to sublime heights, and my mind hardly got back to earth till a long time after the end…”

Inspired by such musical experiences, Bhabha would make it a point to include at least one evening of a musical or dance recital at every conference or event at TIFR. 

Great artists like Ravi Shankar, Alla Rakha, Yamini Krishnamurthy, Bismillah Khan were among those artists who gave performances at TIFR.

Ustad Allah Rakha  and Pandit Ravishankar
Yamini Krishnamurthy
Prof. M.G.K. Menon with  Ustad Bismillah Khan
Credits: Story

Archival Images — TIFR Archives
Photos of artworks  — Anil Rane
Reference — The TIFR Art Collection by Mortimer Chatterjee and Tara Lal, published by TIFR, 2010, Mumbai
Reference — The Visionary and the Vision, published by TIFR , 2009, Mumbai 
Finance — Tata Education Trust

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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