Tabla plays a crucial role in Fields Medal winner Manjul Bhargava’s mathematical research
The Medal is a top honour reserved for mathematicians under the age of 40.
The Indian parent stereotype often has, at its core, an expectation that their children study some stream of science. The message tends to be: focus on being an engineer or a doctor, put aside artistic, cultural and sporting interests. But perhaps hearing a Fields Medal winner credit playing the tabla for inspiring his mathematical research may help change their minds.
Manjul Bhargava won the Fields Medal, loosely described as the Nobel equivalent for mathematicians, in 2014. The Medal is a top honour reserved for mathematicians under the age of 40, for their present work as well as the promise of future achievement, once every four years.
Bhargava, who was present in Mumbai last week for the unveiling of a new education initiative, emphasised the importance of being able to marry aesthetics with science as the way forward.
The 43-year-old gave the example of Steve Jobs to illustrate his point. “He [Jobs] was often complimented on how he created amazing products by marrying top notch aesthetics and top notch science,”Bhargava said.“Jobs had said ‘I worked very hard to find artists and zoologists and musicians who also happened to be excel lent computer scientists'. That is a deep statement. It really means that you need both sides of the brain to make progress in this world.” He gave another example about historians and archaeologists using and studying carbon dating methods developed almost as a byproduct of chemists and physicists studying radioactivity. A marriage of humanities and sciences according to Bhargava.
“If you look at some of the most creative scientists in history, they’ve often had some kind of a musical or artistic background. The reason being that practising art develops this great innovative side of the brain. So, even if you are not explicitly painting, when you are doing mathematics or science, you are creating many things that are out of the box. Just that ability that is imparted when you do humanities and art helps the innovative process in science,” he said.
A former student of tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain, Bhargava turns to music often for inspiration. Of his own experience, he said, “I play the tabla every day for at least a few minutes. I don’t get as much time as I’d like. [But] If I’m stuck in something in maths, I go play for a little while and then I’ll come back and sometimes the mind has cleared. You think in a different way and you are able to make progress. The same applies if you are stuck in a tabla composition. Go and do maths for a little while. By going back and forth on both sides of the brain, you often make progress.”
But then Bhargava considers himself a product of the Indian liberal arts tradition, learning mathematics through Sanskrit poetry and Indian music. “I was lucky in that sense because I belonged to a home where humanities was represented in a big way, whereas I was interested in science. I could make those connections at home,” he said.