CS Seshadri — The man who established the culture of mathematics

Lakshmi Narayanan | Updated on July 19, 2020

Prof CS Seshadri (1932-2020)

Through the Chennai Mathematical Institute, he revolutionised teaching by putting students first and nurturing top talent

Mathematicians around the globe are paying tributes to the legacy of Prof CS Seshadri, a renowned mathematician, an institution-builder — and above all, a man of values, an embodiment of simplicity, integrity, and giving. He gave his all to the Chennai Mathematical Institute and was the man behind its culture: A culture of mathematics, of students first and of problem-solving.

CMI’s campus in Siruseri is a simple, compact and functional building with an understated sign board, whose fonts and waveform intimidate ordinary mortals, but inspire the inquisitive and the researchers. Amidst serene surroundings and a fully residential campus, we notice people walking thoughtfully — teachers, researchers and students alike — conversations in hushed but deep tones, and the booted security guards’ footsteps the only noise in the corridors.

The simplicity and minimalism of the campus is born of its founder, Prof Seshadri. His companion in building this culture was Chennai’s own R Thyagarajan, founder of the Shriram Group of companies and a mathematician and statistician himself — and, of course, another symbol of simplicity, charity and humility. They both believed that mathematics and statistics can solve all of India’s problems, just as FC Kohli believed technology could.

Convocations in the Chennai Mathematical Institute are a different story. Very little pomp and show, usually associated with a very important occasion and a big milestone in the lives of students. It is like attending yet another class in CMI. I recollect the convocation in which Prof Manjul Bhargava (the Indian-born Fields Medal winner whose collaborator was an alumnus of CMI) was the Chief Guest. As soon as the degrees and medals were awarded, the Chief Guest took to the board and started his address. The first step was writing an equation, making a hypothesis, filling the board with strings of letters and numbers Greek, Arabic and Latin. Then followed a complex and passionate process of establishing a mathematical theorem; the conclusion being a zillion things that have to be researched to understand this world. Bhargava was not an exception, the three other convocations I attended in the last five years were similar. Board and chalk are an integral part of every convocation and culture of CMI.

When it came to planning the next-stage growth of CMI, Prof Seshadri in his simple style put together a dream team — probably the only team with three Fellows of Royal Society — Dr RA Mashelkar FRS, Prof MS Raghunathan FRS of TIFR and Prof Seshadri himself. This small team — which included Dr T Ramaswamy, the then Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, and Mohandas Pai — deliberated in a small meeting room in the CMI campus and laid a cornerstone in the reinvention of the Institute into new areas of research and teaching. Prof Seshadri also worked with Prof SRS Varadhan, an Indian-born Abel Prize winner and a Professor at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York University, not just in mathematical sciences but also in attracting talent from the US to come and join CMI. An invitation from Seshadri is not something that anybody will say no to, because of the respect and the simplicity he embodied.

The legacy Prof Seshadri has left behind is not just CMI itself, but the culture of teaching and research, of putting students first and believing every student who comes in is the best and can aspire to be the best in the world. The team in CMI is so fortunate to have worked with the man and to have the responsibility to carry forward the culture of mathematics, undiluted.

The writer is former vice-chairman and former CEO, Cognizant and Managing Trustee, CMI

Published on July 19, 2020

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