Professor Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis (1893-1972) and the Indian Statistical Institute that he founded in 1931, are names that are inseparable from the history of the development of statistics in India.

The first statistical work of P. C. Mahalanobis was in anthropometry. It was entitled ‘Anthropological Observations on Anglo-Indians of Calcutta, Part I: Male Stature’, and it was published in the Records of the Indian Museum in 1922. At that time, the Director General of the India Meteorological Department was Dr Gilbert Walker, who himself had been deeply involved in the application of statistical correlation techniques for the purpose of long range forecasting of Indian monsoon rainfall. The work of Mahalanobis attracted Walker’s attention and he read it with keen interest, so much so that Walker offered him a job in IMD. Mahalanobis accepted the offer and served as a part time Meteorologist at the Alipore Observatory in Calcutta (now Kolkata) from 1922 to 1926. At the same time, he continued to work as a professor of physics at the Presidency College, Calcutta.

Coinciding with Mahalanobis’s tenure as a professional meteorologist, there were disastrous flood events, first in north Bengal in 1922 and then in Orissa in 1926. After the 1922 floods, engineers had recommended the raising of embankments to prevent future floods. But Mahalanobis, after analysing the pattern of rainfall statistics for the previous 50 years, suggested instead an efficient drainage system as the real solution to the problem of flooding. The Hirakud and Damodar river valley projects were subsequently designed on statistical considerations evolved by Mahalanobis.

Mahalanobis had found his love for statistics early in his life, and when it was a little-known subject. Surprisingly, among the few people who encouraged him to pursue it was the poet Rabindranath Tagore, with whom Mahalanobis was to later develop a special and lasting relationship. Mahalanobis was the General Secretary of Tagore’s Viswa Bharati University at Shantniketan for several years. The statistician-turned-meteorologist Prasanta Chandra and his wife, Nirmal Kumari, known affectionately as Rani Mahalanobis, regularly played hosts to Tagore at their official residence on the first floor of the Alipore Observatory building. Tagore had a room for himself, but he preferred the shade of the giant banyan tree that it overlooked, under which he sat and penned his literary masterpieces. It was in the fitness of things, that Tagore, who is sometimes called the Monsoon Poet, drew his inspiration from clouds and rain in the campus of a meteorological observatory! Tagore’s room at Alipore has now been converted into a small museum which houses some of his memorabilia and the banyan tree continues to stand at the hallowed spot in homage to his memory.   

(This post has been written by me on the basis of print and internet sources. It could be in need of some corrections. – R. R. Kelkar)

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