CHENNAI: As a prominent face in independent India’s list of mathematicians, CS Seshadri, a Padma Bhushan recipient, known for his notable works in algebraic geometry, passed away on Friday in Chennai. He founded the Chennai Mathematical Institute (CMI) in 1989.
Madhavan Mukund, Deputy Director and Dean of Studies at CMI, who has worked under the tutelage and alongside Seshadri since 1989, spoke to The New Indian Express about the years of perseverance that went into stablishing CMI and the little things that differentiated Seshadri from other accomplished mathematicians. Some excerpts from the interview:
Q: CMI was established in 1989 and you have known Seshadri since. Could you help us trace how your journey with CMI and Seshadri started?
A: I have been a student in his institution and I have been his colleague. I have known him for over 30 years now. Seshadri wanted to set up a full fledged undergraduate Mathematics programme and he got the chance to do with SPIC Science Foundation in 1989. My speciality is in Computer Science and Seshadri was among the few mathematicians those days who recognised Computer Science as something that went alongside Mathematics. It was called the School of Mathematics then. And I joined as a PhD scholar in 1989. Since 1992, I have been a faculty member at CMI.
Q: What did CMI look like in its formative years?
Initially it was a small institution. Seshadri spent the first few years developing high quality faculty. Initially it was a batch of 8 or 10 students. We operated out of a room in a building opposite Vani Mahal in T Nagar on the top floor. Many other commercial organisations were working in the neighbouring rooms. Eventually we expanded until we occupied the whole of the top floor and half of the floor below. But logistics was extremely hard as we had students from across the country and we did not have proper hostels. By 1999 Seshadri established an undergraduate programme and an open university had agreed to give us affiliation.
Q: Was the institution in high demand when you started out? How did this growth come to be?
A: Many students did not want to pursue Mathematics. The IT wave hit Tamil Nadu and students who were bright in maths were taken up by IT and computer science fields. Until the mid 2000s we had a limited number of students and continued to operate from T Nagar. In 2005, the campus in Siruseri was set up in a space of 5 acres. But remember that we di not have a hostel and students had to continue commuting from their flats in T Nagar. It was then that UGC liberalised its policies and recognised us as an autonomous institution.
Q: CMI has carved a niche as a premier research institution. Did Seshadri envision this for the institution?
A: Even when we were small, Seshadri was determined that his plan would not fail. Looking at him one would not think of him as someone who built an institution like CMI. He was the quintessential absent-minded professor. He was a willy headed person who always forgot your name even when he has known you for years. But he never forgot anything that had to be done for the institution. He also made all his colleagues buy into his project and dream and make it our own.
Without any outward management training, he had an innate ability to bring out the best in people and manage the institution. This distinguished him from other equally brilliant mathematicians. His vision was to create a full University that had high levels of scholarship with no compromise on quality. He would have loved to expand to having music and humanities classes. It was never meant to
be an institution for masses.
Q: Did he continue being as involved after he stepped down as the director in 2011?
A: I think he was 78 when he stepped down. He was happy to give up his administrative role to get back to doing Mathematics. He was physically and mentally alert when he stepped down and would interact with students all the time. He was a Carnatic musician. Even as he does not sing in public I have heard him a few times. He used to have a gathering with musicians at his house every weekend. He even roped in TM Krishna to help explore the possibility of introducing music into the curriculum. Six months ago his wife passed away and he has been down physically and mentally after that. Tthe lockdown was quite
depressing for him. At the end of it was a heart attack.