In one of the quintessential alleyways of Kolkata lay the surplus army equipment from the Second World War to be sold as scrap later. A woman scoured through these and salvaged bits and pieces to build the X-Ray equipment she required for her doctoral research. The first woman from Calcutta University to earn a PhD in Physics in 1956 under the tutelage of the legendary scientist Professor Satyendra Nath Bose, Dr Purnima Sinha (Née Sengupta) was a scientist who broke the glass ceiling for other women wanting to spread their wings and make the field of science their home.
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“At that time, about ten of us were involved in experimental research at the Khaira laboratory. Each of us used to fabricate his or her own instrument according to individual needs. This was an unwritten rule in our laboratory. We had put together our X-ray equipment from World War II surplus gathered in the lane behind Dr. Bidhan Roy’s house. The rest of the parts were put together at the workshop in our department,” recalls Dr Purnima Sinha, in ‘Lilavati’s Daughters: The Women Scientists of India‘.
Birth, Upbringing & Inspiration
Born on 12 October 1927, in a progressive Kolkata family, Purnima grew up in a household that understood equality of the sexes. Her father, Naresh Chandra Sengupta, was a constitutional lawyer who advocated equal rights for all with an emphasis on women’s education. While her sisters went onto pursue economics, mathematics and chemistry, Purinma decided to study physics at university.
Her passion for the subject caught the eye of Professor Satyendra Nath Bose, who had joined Calcutta University as the Khaira Professor of Physics in 1945. Seeing her immense potential, Dr Bose enrolled her into his team of researchers and in 1951, she began her research in earnest.
Besides her work in physics, Dr Sinha was also a polymath who not only made the wonders of modern science accessible to ordinary Indians in their vernacular, but also embarked on outstanding endeavours in literature, art and music.
“My anthropologist father and my mother who has been as much of an artist as a physicist, had fostered an atmosphere for my sister Sukanya (now a physicist at ISI, Bangalore) and me, where learning, understanding and creating were an integral part of our lives. Visitors at home included poets, theatre personalities, filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, visual artists, musicians and scientists like Nirmal Bose, my father’s mentor and Satyen Bose, my mother’s mentor. In my younger years I had as much interest in the Fine Arts as in Mathematics,” writes Dr. Sinha’s daughter, Dr Suparana, for the Indian Academy of Sciences.
Research and Experiment
Dr Sinha’s thesis titled, ‘X-ray & differential thermalanalysis of Indian clays’, was submitted in 1955, although she received her degree only in the following year.
“Our efforts in the X-ray laboratory finally led to a complete classification of about fifty clay samples into categories like Kaolinite, Montmorillonite, Illite, Vermiculite, Chlorite and so on. The results of this investigation were put together in 1955 . . . Few will realise that it was S. N. Bose, one of India’s finest theoretical physicists, who first initiated research in X-ray based structural analysis of clay samples from different parts of this country,” says Dr Sinha.
Apart from creating her own X-Ray laboratory apparatus, she studied different types of clay from all over the country. Following her PhD, she went on to conduct research in Biophysics at Stanford University on their ‘Origin of Life’ project studying structures involving clay and bases appearing in the DNA double helix.
After her stint at Stanford, she worked at the Geological Survey of India and the JCB Bose Institute for the next two decades. She would finally go onto work at the Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute, researching on the physics of ceramic colour.
Following her mentor Professor Bose’s lead, she believed that science could be taught in the vernacular and dedicated her life to propagate scientific ideas in Bengali through an organisation he started called the Bangiya Bijnan Parishad (Bengal Science Association). She would go onto translate Erwin Schrodinger’s ‘Mind and Matter’ into Bengali and wrote multiple books of the life and works of Professor Bose.
Science and Beyond
Dr Sinha was more than a woman of science. She was equally proficient in playing the tabla learnt from the legendary Pandit Jnan Prakash Ghosh, Hindustani Classical Music and painting as well. Married to leading anthropologist Dr Surajit Sinha, who was the Vice Chancellor of the Vishwa Bharti University, she also took an avid interest in his area of expertise.
She would go on to write a book titled “An Approach to the Study of Indian Music in 1970” and chronicled India’s folk music tradition in numerous articles like ‘Jarawa Songs and Vedic Chant: A Comparison of Melodic Pattern’ for The Journal of Asiatic Society.
The couple also started an informal school for tribal children in Shantiniketan as well, where she also delivered a course on the Physics of Music and worked with potters there.
She managed all this work while raising two daughters, Dr Sukanya Sinha and Dr Supurna Sinha, without ever compromising on the attention they needed. Both daughters have gone onto pursue research in the sciences at some of India’s most prestigious institutions.
Though she may have passed away in 2015, the legacy Dr Sinha left behind is a beacon for many.
Breaking the ceiling for women in physics research, imparting scientific temper to ordinary people in West Bengal and her mastery of the arts leaves her in a league of her own.
Her life is testimony to the notion that anything is indeed possible.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)