In a Bollywood and cricket obsessed country, one seldom realizes what greatness from other domains moves amidst us, till they are gone. One such stellar personality from the world of science that we lost recently, on 6 January 2018, was Prof. Baldev Raj- the Director of the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS). Little did I know that the lunch I had with him just two days before his passing would end up being my last meeting with this unique, multifaceted genius! Even during that meeting he was brimming with ideas about new projects that could be done at NIAS and within strict timelines. "I will be back from Pune on 7 January, let's meet next week to discuss more," he told me as he hurried away into yet another meeting. It was, therefore, with utter shock and disbelief that we received the news of his sudden demise in Pune, where he had gone on work. He suffered a massive cardiac arrest and passed away instantly. He perhaps departed in the manner he would have always loved- being active, energetic, immersed in ideas and intellectual pursuits till his veritable last breath, though it left a deep void for all of us who love and admire him.
Born on 9 April 1947, Prof Raj graduated from the Government Engineering College, Raipur. He then obtained his PhD from the Indian Institute of Science and a Doctor of Science from Sathyabhama Deemed University, Chennai.
Numerous other degrees and fellowships decorated his illustrious career. His specializations included Non-destructive Science & Technology, Materials Performance, Technology Management and Nano Science & Technology. Prof Raj held several important positions including heading the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) in Kalpakkam. During his long innings as a leading scientist of the country, he made significant contributions to nation building in the fields of Indian Fast Breeder Test Reactor programme, radio-metallurgy, non-destructive testing, and strategic materials. Alongside, he provided unique solutions to challengesin diverse areas such as energy, water, healthcare, environment and cultural heritage. These contributions earned him a fellowship in all four academies of science and engineering in India.
Still, few may know of his humane side. Prof Raj and his wife, Aruna Kumari (Neeloo), acted with great compassion and farsightedness during the tsunami crisis which hit the coast of Tamil Nadu in 2004. The steps he took towards disaster management and risk mitigation at Kalpakkam in the wake of the tsunami are case studies in themselves. In Coimbatore, he launched a vigorous project to train and educate both teachers and children from underprivileged backgrounds. They were exposed to the best brains of the country from various fields to help expand their horizons. These anecdotes are barely known, even by those close to him, for he never made a show of his achievements.
As a material scientist studying the casting technology of Chola bronzes of Thanjavur, Prof Raj became an enthusiastic participant and contributor in the emerging field of archaeo-metallurgy. This penchant for bridging the gap between the arts and the sciences was something he carried on relentlessly at NIAS, making it a warm, welcoming, multi-disciplinary melting pot of scientists, artists, scholars, and writers.
He received nearly 100 awards (including the Padma Shri in 2007 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Indian Nuclear Society) as well as assignments, both nationally and internationally in over 30 countries; He has authored more than 1000 academic papers in peer reviewed journals and over 70 books. In February 2017, the Prime Minister appointed him as the Chancellor and Chairperson of the Board of Governors of the Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research (ACSIR).
What truly set Prof Raj apart was his endearing personality. Despite his monumental work and numerous accolades, he was a genuinely humble, compassionate, polite, and empathetic individual who had an almost infectious cheerfulness, a twinkle in the eye, and a childlike enthusiasm for any new idea that came his way. Colleagues effortlessly became family through the sheer charm of his disposition and his warmth.
I didn't have the fortune of a long association with him, although we developed a strong bond in a short while. I was struck every time by his immense faith in the power of the youth of India and their capacity to achieve the impossible. Any idea found in him a path to execution and excellence, he was never given to excuses over completing the task at hand. It was under his guidance, therefore, that we organized the first South Asia Regional Conference of the International Society of Music Education (ISME) at NIAS. Prof Raj sat through all the deliberations and evinced a personal interest in taking the initiative forward, intrigued by the fact that it brought music and the sciences closer together. "NIAS will be your nest, the place to incubate your ideas and bring them to fruition. Don't worry about the money and the logistics. Work towards your desired objective, I am with you in this journey," he would assure us, with a wide smile.
I will always regret not giving him a hug that one last time. Still, one takes solace in the thought that the best tribute to man like Prof Baldev Raj, a titan with a tireless mission, is to celebrate his life and try to live up to the immense hopes and dreams he had of young India. His legacy and enormous contribution to the nation will live on; the lives and souls he has touched and transformed will always vouch for what they learnt from him; the twinkle in those eyes and that bright smile will continue to inspire us to work tirelessly and ever consider mediocrity a sin. May your soul find everlasting peace, Sir!