“Dr. Chittar Manohar meant a combination of simplicity, nobility, depth of science, humility and ideals! Such people are true diamonds” – Prof. D.O. Shah, Emeritus Professor of Chemical Engineering & Anesthesiology, University of Florida, Gainesville (USA)
Whenever, and wherever I have met Dr. Rajiv Desai, who currently works for Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, Mumbai, his topic of discussion with me invariably is how his career was shaped by Dr. C. Manohar. Rajiv had done his Ph.D. with Dr. Manohar at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Mumbai in 1983, and as a Ph.D. student, he had benefitted immensely through his interactions with Dr. C. Manohar, a famous soft matter scientist. But Rajiv is not alone. He is among very many researchers who learned to do frontline scientific research from Dr. Manohar, largely due to his helpful nature and a big-brotherly charm, which attracted students and young colleagues to him. It is difficult to count the number of his young beneficiaries, which would run into at least 40-50, and they were not just from BARC, they were also from ICT, Mumbai, IIT (Bombay), Mumbai University, and even some colleges, like Jhunjhunwala College in Mumbai. And once these aspiring young researchers came into Manohar’s contact, each one of them became his fan for a life-time.
Born in Shimoga (Karnataka state, India), Chittar Manohar did his M.Sc. from Dharwad, and completed a one-year Training School course at BARC, before joining Chemistry Division of BARC in 1962. Manohar was a high caliber theoretician, born to think and analyze. He published his first paper in Phys. Rev. (B) within a short span of joining BARC, and followed up with several other publications. But he was not happy to do just modelling/Density Functional Theory or band structure calculations. Instead, he found excitement in designing new experiments, which can also be useful to the society.
His first foray into experiments was on liquid crystals. He got a stencil made to screen-print the digit 8, and was thrilled to show to anyone that all ten digits could be printed by the same stencil by blocking parts of it. It was a liquid crystal digital display ‘demo’ experiment. From thermotropic liquid crystals, his interests broadened to surfactants, hydrophobicity, drug delivery, etc. This was during 1972-75, or thereabouts. Other topics that interested him were polymers and colloids. Together, these topics were named as ‘Soft Matter’ by the Nobel Laureate De Gennes, who was Manohar’s favorite.
If there was a Santa Claus among scientists, then it was C. Manohar. Manohar was a do-gooder, eager to help those in distress in their scientific careers. He knew that younger scientists normally keep their woes to themselves – a part of the human tendency not to open up, especially before a senior. This barrier was broken mostly by Manohar himself by mixing with young students and researchers very freely and often disarming them, so to say. The dynamics of his interaction was nearly identical in each case – Manohar would discuss with the young colleague the issues that he/she was facing as impediments to the research work being conducted by him/her. In view of his brotherly attitude, the barrier that existed between them would melt. Feeling comfortable, the young colleague would repose confidence in him, after which Manohar would attempt to orient his/her career along the best possible trajectory.
I and Manohar were in the same Section of Chemistry Division at BARC. Therefore, he knew that my career was passing through a valley, a death-valley! Until 1976, after a full decade at BARC, I had zero publications, even though I had obtained my Ph.D. degree. Santa Claus in Manohar was stirring up to resurrect my career. Knowing that I had built an apparatus that could be used to measure electrical resistance with a high resolution of 1 nano-ohm, Manohar designed an experiment, based on a crystal of Fe3O4 (magnetite), which is known to show a metal-to-insulator transition, called the Verwey transition, at ~124 degrees Kelvin. He gave me a crystal of this material, and asked me to try to drive the transition at a lower temperature by shining light on it. I quickly got a glass cryostat built, so that the sample can see light, and in a matter of days I could demonstrate that the Verwey transition of magnetite shifted to 95 degrees Kelvin, under exposure of light. We reported the results at a DAE Symposium in 1976.
The next experiment he designed was to measure refractive index of a liquid crystal sample by placing it in a wedge made from two glass plates. We were helped in this by Dr. R. P. Shukla, who later became Head of Spectroscopy Division of BARC. At this stage, Dr. V. K. Kelkar, who was also a theoretician, joined us and, together – he, I and Manohar published seven papers on liquid crystals and surfactants, in reputed journals during 1978-1982. These also included the first experimental research paper co-authored by Manohar. All these publications went on to show that although by training a theoretician, Manohar could design new experiments very successfully, with his limitless ingenuity.
Manohar wanted his work to be useful to the society. So, in 1981, he put me and Kelkar on using electro-flotation to extract gallium (Ga) from Bayer Liquor, obtained from Hindalco Industries. For this, too, a glass apparatus was designed, and our results were positive and were published.
At age 42, Manohar was already a leading scientist, but he had not yet gone on a post-doc fellowship anywhere. He tried with the famous liquid crystal group at Bordeaux in France, which kept him on hope for several months. Finally, Prof. D.O. Shah, an authority on surfactants and wetting process, invited Manohar to work in his lab at Gainesville in Florida, where he went in February 1982, to spend two years. Manohar didn’t want me to keep waiting for him to return and, therefore, while leaving, he left me free and independent. That gave me a golden chance to embark on research related to spin-density wave antiferromagnetism of Cr alloys, a successful venture in which Dr. I. K. Gopalakrishnan joined me. Upon his return in 1984, Manohar was delighted to see that we were doing well in our research work on so many new problems, including Cr alloys, Chevrel Phase superconductors, and organic superconductors. I was then 38.
Manohar gave me my strength No. 1 – confidence to work on the interface of Physics and Chemistry, which I continued to do for the rest of my life, working on molecular magnets, organic electronics, conducting polymers, self-assembly and sensors, etc.
I believe Manohar had a special soft corner for me. When he became Head of Chemistry Division, BARC and shifted to his office, he gave me the room where he was sitting till then. I sat in it till my shifting to Technical Physics & Prototype Engineering Division of BARC, as its Head.
Manohar was in the mold of Einstein – disheveled, disorganized and restless. He was never dressed up well. When he arrived at Gainesville, Prof. D. O. Shah noticed this and gave him a suit to wear. In India, he always wore chappals. If a button from his bush-shirt came off, he would just put a paper-clip in its place, for the day.
He was disorganized, very. He would leave anything, anywhere. A heap of files and books would cover the whole top of his table, behind which he sat. His table drawers were not closed, in fact couldn’t be closed as they choked on sundry items. Once he left a large bicycle pump on the side table in his room, unmindful that the room had co-occupants. Incidentally, he was using this pump in his experiments to generate air bubbles in a liquid containing a surfactant.
He was extremely good in designing experiments, but terrible in doing them himself. When I and Kelkar were conducting the experiments designed by Manohar, he will join us for a maximum of ten minutes, since he would lose patience quickly and excuse himself. If we did well, he would encourage us, but if it didn’t work or we spilt something, then he just said “Oh, Oh”. Intricacies of experiments didn’t interest him. What held his interest was designing them, or their end result. Don’t forget, he was our Einstein!
After he retired formally from BARC in 1999, he continued has research work at IIT, Bombay, and was always bubbling with new research ideas. In 2002, he started getting mild motor symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, though he continued his research work, nonetheless. The motor symptoms grew gradually with time, forcing him to discontinue his lab work altogether in 2012. He fought with the disease stoically, with active help from his family members.
Dr. Manohar left this world on Oct 7, 2020, leaving behind his family and scores of researchers, many of whom are doing exceedingly well in their careers, thanks to the quality of mentoring provided to them by him. His friends and students organized a meeting entitled “Progress in Surfactant Science: A tribute to Dr. C. Manohar and his scientific legacy” under the auspices of the Society for Industrial Chemistry and Indian Society for Surface Science and Technology (ISSST) – Western India Chapter, at Mumbai during Jan. 29-30, 2021, and recalled his contributions.
I have a flood of memories related to Manohar’s munificence towards me. He took me under his wings, when I was rudderless at BARC, even after having spent ten years in this great institution. I have often reflected on a unique combination of personal qualities that Manohar had, which brought several younger colleagues flocking to him for consultation, or to work with him. They came from within BARC, or from Mumbai University, IIT, Bombay, or ICT (Mumbai). This is because he was inquisitive, very approachable and went out of the way to help. All this clicked with any struggling juniors, who sought his help. In essence, he disarmed reticent sulking young researchers, worked on them, polished them and gave them wings to soar!
Manohar had several other capabilities. He was a cricketer; he could sing some of the old Indian classical songs well; and he was also an expert photographer. In 1976, he clicked some B & W pictures of my son, Ashish. I told him how nice it would have been if we had used a color roll, which was prohibitively expensive in those times. A few days later he surprised me when he gave me a color picture (shown below) of my son, which was the result of his carefully working on one of those B & W pictures, with colors used for paintings. Manohar was an artist, too.
For several years, I and my wife used to visit Manohar’s residence, once a year. The last trip was on Jan 11, 2020 when I, my wife, my daughter and my two grand-daughters spent about two hours with Manohar, his wife, her sister Geeta (who has retired a few years ago from Central Library of BARC), Geeta’s husband, and their maid Meena. Like each of our visits, it was a re-union. Following this visit, I published an article on March 27, 2020: ‘A Parkinson’s Patient Home-cared Well, Just by His Family’ . It was on him and his family, and I took his approval before publishing it.