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Sir (Chandrasekhara) Venkata Raman (1888–1970), by unknown photographerSir (Chandrasekhara) Venkata Raman (1888–1970), by unknown photographer
Raman, Sir (Chandrasekhara) Venkata (1888–1970), physicist, was born at Tiruvanaikkaval, near Trichinopoly, in the province of Madras, on 7 November 1888, the second of the eight children (five sons and three daughters) of Chandrasekhara Iyer (b. 1866) and his wife, Parvati Ammal (Saptarshi Parvati). His ancestors were Brahman landowners, exempt by their caste from manual labour, trade, and military service. Opportunities outside landowning depended on taking up English education and entering a profession. Raman's father taught at the local high school and, when Raman was four, moved to a lectureship in mathematics and physics at the Mrs A. V. Narashimha Rao College in Vizagapatam (Visakhapatnam).

Education and early career

For ten years Raman studied at the high school, and then the college, in Vizagapatam. In 1903, aged only fourteen, he won a scholarship to the Presidency College in Madras. He graduated in 1904, being awarded the gold medal for both English and physics. With further education in England ruled out by delicate health Raman enrolled in the MA class at the Presidency College to study physics under R. Llewellyn Jones. Llewellyn Jones contributed little formally to his education but encouraged him to make free use of the laboratory. Raman was strongly influenced by the works of the third Lord Rayleigh, and Hermann von Helmholtz's The Sensations of Tone which, he claimed, showed him how to conduct research. He worked within the tradition of classical wave theory established by these books throughout his life, using it to investigate and explain natural phenomena. This programme was well adapted both to Raman's strong aesthetic appreciation of natural beauty, and to the perennial lack of funds which dogged Indian science, for much could be achieved with little, and home improvised, apparatus. Raman's first publications, in the Philosophical Magazine, on the unsymmetrical diffraction of light and on the surface tension of drops, were published while he was still an MA student (1906, 1907).

Raman took the MA exam in January 1907, coming top. Scientific careers for Indians were virtually non-existent, so he followed his brother into the financial civil service. While awaiting a posting, aged eighteen, Raman met Lokasundari Ammal (d. 1980). Defying convention he insisted on marrying her, even though she belonged to a different Brahman sub-sect, and, even more remarkably, he refused a dowry. Intelligent, musical, and self-effacing, Lokasundari ensured that Raman enjoyed domestic peace. Throughout his life Raman worked long hours, typically 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Lokasundari occupied herself in learning a number of languages and in social work. They had two sons.

In mid-1907 Raman was posted as assistant accountant-general in Calcutta. He rapidly discovered the existence there of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS), established in 1876 to encourage native Indian science. Once again Raman was given free access to laboratories and devoted all his spare time to physics. As well as optics he studied acoustics and musical instruments, later the subject of an article in the Handbuch der Physik (vol. 8, 1927), and established violin research as a scientific discipline. The ensuing stream of papers raised the profile both of the IACS and of Raman, who emerged also as a superb popular lecturer.

Professor of physics

In 1917 Sir Ausutosh Mookerjee, a member of the IACS and vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, offered Raman the newly created Palit professorship of physics. Raman accepted, even though it meant almost halving his salary and relinquishing a highly promising career. He described the next fifteen years as his golden era. His new duties included supervising research students, and he became an inspiring group leader with an infectious enthusiasm. Throughout, vibrations and optics remained the main themes of his group's work.

The discovery of the Raman effect, which established his position in modern science and won him the Nobel prize in 1930, was the culmination of nine years' interest in the molecular basis of refraction. That work started in 1919 with investigation of the Doppler effect in scattering, and was followed by extensive work on the blue colour of the sea, inspired by observations Raman made while returning from his first trip abroad, to England in 1921. Raman showed that, contrary to Rayleigh's suggestion that the sea reflected the sky colour, the blue was actually due to molecular scattering. His book Molecular Diffraction of Light (1922) recounted all his scattering work to date.

Following the discovery of the Compton effect in 1923, in which X-rays scattered by electrons suffered a discrete change in wavelength corresponding to absorption by the electrons of a quantum of radiation, Raman began to consider whether an optical analogue existed. His student Ramanathan had noticed that ‘when sunlight filtered through a violet glass passed through certain liquids and solids … the scattered rays … contained certain rays not present in the incident beam’ (C. V. Raman, presidential address to the Indian Science Congress, 1929). In 1925 another student, Krishnan, found that this ‘feeble fluorescence’ was partially polarized, unlike ordinary fluorescence. Further studies were hampered by lack of a sufficiently powerful light source. The problem was overcome in late 1927 when Raman redoubled his efforts to find evidence for optical scattering with a discrete wavelength change following the award to Compton of the Nobel prize. He used the IACS's new 18 cm refracting telescope coupled to a short focus lens to concentrate sunlight. Working with Venkateswaran and Krishnan, he found feeble fluorescence in a wide range of liquids and, on 7 February 1928, began interpreting this as the modified scattering predicted by the Kramers–Heisenberg dispersion theory. Experiments with a spectroscope on 28 February showed that wavelengths of modified scattered light did indeed differ from those of the incident light by discrete amounts, a result Raman rapidly published in Nature (vol. 121, 619). The differences were proved to correspond to absorption by molecules of a quantum of vibrational or rotational energy and the Raman effect became one of the main methods for elucidating molecular structure. Its importance was enhanced in the 1970s following the invention of lasers, which allowed Raman spectroscopy to be extended and pushed to new limits.

Institutional politics, 1933–1937

In 1932 Raman was offered the directorship of the prestigious Indian Institute of Science (IIS) in Bangalore, and was promised a new physics department there. He left Calcutta amid controversy over the appointment of a full time professor for the IACS. The Indian Institute was founded in 1911 following J. N. Tata's promotion of higher education and research as the key to solving India's technological, economic, and social problems. Bangalore was chosen largely for its climate, which proved so attractive to Raman that he remained there for the rest of his life. Yet once again he found himself embroiled in a power struggle. According to Max Born, who was visiting the Indian Institute, ‘the deepest sources of the trouble are: the English group resented an Indian director, who, as a political principle, was wanted and pushed through by the powerful Tata group’ (Born, cited in Venkataraman, 272). The Tatas apparently responded to commercial pressure from the English and soon turned against Raman, actively undermining his position. His personality made this easy.
Raman is a very able physicist, full of enthusiasm … [His] European intensity alone would be enough to make Raman suspicious to the average Indian professor. Now Raman, far too much aware of his own superiority, likes to make other people seem small in his presence … Raman came to the Institute with the idea of making it a centre of science of international standard. What he found was a quiet sleepy place where little work was done by a number of well-paid people. (ibid.)
Raman, who had spent four months at the California Institute of Technology in 1924, aimed at something similar for the IIS. Lack of additional funding for the new physics department forced him to reallocate money from other areas of the budget and in his pursuit of excellence he antagonized many staff. The climax was his proposal to create a chair of mathematical physics for Born, the first, Raman hoped, of many distinguished refugees from Nazi Germany whom he wished to bring to India. In 1937 Raman was forced to resign, following a government review.

A research school

Raman retained his professorship of physics. With his desire to pursue nuclear physics and develop a theory group thwarted by lack of funds and support, Raman reverted to optics and scattering problems. Inevitably the work was mainly experimental and his group's thinking remained largely classical. Most important was the development of the Raman–Nath theory of the diffraction of light by high frequency sound waves (C. V. Raman and N. S. Nagendra Nath, Proceedings of the Indian Academy of Science, 1935, 406, 413; 1936, 75, 119, 459). Raman and Nedungadi observed the vastly increased excitation of particular vibration modes at high temperatures, leading to deformation of the atomic arrangements and transition from the alpha to beta forms of quartz (C. V. Raman and T. M. K. Nedungadi, Nature, 1940, 147). This was twenty years before Cochran's well-known soft mode theory for such phase transitions.

Above all, Raman established a very active physics research school at the IIS, one of his most enduring contributions to Indian science. His influence convinced both Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, later founders of Indian nuclear physics and space science respectively, that they should remain in India. Born had commented that ‘The clever boys are very devoted to Raman, for he is most interested in their progress and asks very much of them’ (Venkataraman, 274). He trained a number of students as first-class physicists, infecting them with his enthusiasm and accessibility. In a country where obtaining an interview with even minor dignitaries meant penetrating layers of officialdom, Raman was notable for leaving his office doors wide open to all, and for his willingness to help students with even the most mundane of manual tasks.

National role

In 1934 Raman established the Indian Academy of Science, remaining president until his death in 1970. He aimed to improve communication between scientists, to promote science policy in India and to publish a national journal, thus stemming the flow of good papers to foreign periodicals. Monthly Proceedings appeared and, by hard work, Raman maintained his promise of punctual publication. The annual meeting became the high point of the year for Raman and many other scientists.

Before retiring from the IIS at the age of sixty Raman managed to obtain grants from private individuals and industry to build the Raman Research Institute at Bangalore, which he described as ‘a haven where I could carry on my highly personal research work’ (Venkataraman, 468). The Indian government elected him as the first national professor with an honorarium sufficient for his personal expenses. Determined, though, that the institute should remain independent of government control, Raman started some chemical companies and used the profits to finance the institute. He later gave most of his property for the same purpose. Raman devoted considerable care to designing the institute gardens and toured them twice a day. The inspiration for many of his later papers came from the flowers there.

Late research

Raman's fascination with natural phenomena and aesthetics had led, at the IIS, to research on iridescence and the optics of stratified media, and the discovery of the speckles effect in coronae. He now examined the colours of flowers, birds, and insects, and how the eye perceives them, publishing a treatise on The Physiology of Vision in 1968 (when he was eighty). He built special galleries at the institute to display his specimens, pre-eminent among which were his diamonds and other gemstones. Raman had a passionate interest in the physics of diamond. While at the IIS he had investigated X-ray diffraction in diamonds, discovering some unexpected reflections of a different kind from the well-known Laue patterns. Studies of the Raman spectra of diamond, which appeared to show sharp lines, now led to a controversy with Born over lattice dynamics, the origins of which lay in Raman's isolation from developments in quantum mechanics (C. V. Raman, Proceedings of the Indian Academy of Science, 1951, 61; 1955, 163; 1956, 327). Raman's interest stimulated research in many laboratories.

Bitter politics

Raman's retirement coincided with India's independence and he became emotionally involved in efforts to transform society through science. Yet his views on how to do this differed markedly from those of the government. He deplored both the import of expensive foreign instruments that left India dependent on the West for instrumentation, and the emigration of good Indian scientists abroad. He feared that, despite the rhetoric, funding for universities and excellent fundamental research was still scarce and that mediocrity was becoming institutionalized. Raman expressed himself strongly and was bitterly attacked in the press. Deeply upset, he became a recluse. He erected a ‘keep out’ sign at the institute, resigned his fellowship of the Royal Society, to which he had been elected in 1924, and became estranged from his two sons. Raman recovered, at least as far as the company of children was concerned, a few years before his death. He had continued working throughout and expressed the wish that he might not survive his final illness if it left him unable to research. He died at his home at the institute on 21 November 1970, following a heart attack a few weeks earlier. He was cremated in its grounds.

Raman became a legendary figure in Indian science. He published more than 500 papers and four books. Of medium height with striking eyes, Raman always wore a turban and adhered to a Hindu diet. Yet he had little interest in organized religion but sought God through understanding nature. His temperament has been likened to that of a child, and was expressed in his enthusiasms, his angers, his supreme ego, and his lack of tact, which hurt many.

Raman travelled a number of times to Europe and North America, visiting colleagues in England, Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, France, and Italy. He was knighted in 1929 and received the Nobel prize in 1930. He received honorary degrees from fifteen universities and was an honorary member of a number of scientific societies. He received the Matteuci medal of the Italian Academy (1928), the Hughes medal of the Royal Society (1930), the medal of the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia (1940), and the Lenin peace prize (1957). In 1954 the Indian government gave him the unique title of Bharat Ratna.

Isobel Falconer


G. Venkataraman, Journey into light (1988) [incl. bibliography] · A. Jayaraman, Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (1989) · S. Bhagavantam, Memoirs FRS, 17 (1971), 565–92 · DNB





Indian government, films division


oils, Raman Research Institute, Bangalore · photograph, Sci. Mus. [see illus.] · photographs, Raman Research Institute, Bangalore