Up the hill from the legendary Veena Stores, on the junction between 8th Main and 15th Cross is one of Malleswaram's, and Bengaluru’s, iconic homes: “Panchavati,” the residence of Sir Chandrashekhara Venkata Raman, the first (and so far, only) Indian to have won the Nobel Prize for physics. It isn’t the vast jungle of Panchavati where Rama spent years in exile. But it’s a house amidst a 2.5 acre plot filled with flora of all sorts, so it is, in fact, in the realm of myth as far as today’s Bengaluru is concerned.
In Bengaluru, the house is usually passed in hushed reverence – not just out of respect for the man’s feats in science, but the man himself. As brilliant a scientist as he was, he was also a contrarian, had an irascible temper and no tolerance for fools. It’s almost as if his reputation lingers around the property, getting mistaken for his ghost.
However, it’s also the penultimate stop on Bengaluru By Foot’s “Houses of Malgudi” walk in Malleswaram. Since the theft of two valuable sandalwood trees from the premises, special permission must be obtained from the Raman Research Institute to enter – but we do find that security isn’t particularly tight: we encounter only a gardener and an unarmed guard.
So this is nerd heaven, we think: more than a hundred years old, but is best remembered for its most famous resident who lived there for twenty-eight years from 1942 till his death in 1970. It certainly does not look its age in the way of the dilapidated buildings that dot Malleswaram every few yards. The greenery on the plot is a reminder of Malleswaram’s once-abundant fertility, now buried under concrete, bricks and tarmac.
From the outside, Panchavati looks rather young: its design is the only thing that gives it away. Raman didn’t build this house himself – he bought it from BJ Krishna Raju, who bought it from the original builder Jagadeo Krishnaswamy Naik, deputy commissioner.
Does its true charm lies inside, we wonder, where Raman lived and breathed? Is there stardust in the rooms of a man awarded a Nobel prize for his work on the scattering of light? Will we find his furniture? His art? Music? Books? Botanical pursuits?
Reader, your correspondent entered thanks to our friendly guide, who had the door opened after some negotiation with the guard and some shouting over the phone. We stepped inside, to find --
The inside of Raman’s house is a disappointment. It needs little by way of artificial lighting given its abundant windows and doorways; but this only means that the disorder within is visible in crystal-clear detail. It is stacked with random bits of furniture (his?), dusty pieces of wood (sandal-?), odds and ends (instruments? Broken?) and one painting carelessly stashed in a cupboard (that was definitely Raman). The high ceiling, the openings for ventilation and even the hexagonal main living room seem, well, mundane.
Did one of the foremost scientific minds of the twentieth century really live here, we asked? Did he hold court here with peers and admirers, berating the Nehruvian focus on applied science and needless extravagances such as the Apollo Programme? Is this really the site of legendary performances by legendary flautist TR “Mali” Mahalingam who used to take breaks to step outside the gates for a long swig of a forbidden brew?
We peer through the window of the outhouse and kitchen, hoping for some traces of the minutiae of the life of Raman but are greeted, somewhat incongruously, by an abandoned cardboard box for an iMac.
The only traces of Raman lie in the trees and plants on the estate – everything from aloe vera to valuable sandalwood grows here. It is said that he personally supervised the planting of various species of trees and took great pleasure in pointing out the birds and butterflies which made their home there. The trees and plants (save for the two ill-fated sandalwood trees) are still there, but the birds and butterflies less so.
We left, thinking that there was no such thing as nerd heaven - fitting, of course, since it is a bit pointless to look for Raman here in his erstwhile home. His true legacy lies some kilometres from Malleshwaram, in the Indian Institute of Science and the Raman Research Institute. They continue to undertake research that is cutting-edge not only for India, but for the world. The flute concerts may have faded away, but not the music of the spheres.
Getting there: Learn more about Bengaluru by Foot’s Malgudi walks here.
Alok Prasanna Kumar is a lawyer based in Bengaluru. He tweets at @alokpi.
Wake up to daily updates on what to eat/shop/do in your city