Homi J Bhabha (b. 1909, d. 1966)
A preeminent nuclear scientist and the architect of India’s nuclear programme, Homi Jehangir Bhabha was founding director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay, as well as a keen patron of modern art in India.
Born to an eminent Parsi family in Bombay (now Mumbai), Bhabha grew up greatly influenced by his father’s collection of paintings, books and gramophone records. As a young boy, he took lessons from the Parsi artist, Jehangir Lalkaka, and won several prizes at the annual exhibitions of the Bombay Art Society. After graduating from high school, he joined Elphinstone College and the Royal Institute of Science, Mumbai. In 1927, he enrolled at the University of Cambridge, UK to obtain a degree in mechanical engineering. Here, he made a brief foray into set design, working on different plays staged by his peers. In 1933, he received his doctorate in theoretical physics from the Cavendish Laboratory.
Bhabha returned to India in 1939 for a holiday, but decided to stay on and accept a teaching position in the physics department of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore (now Bengaluru). During his time at the institute, he encountered numerous difficulties due to a lack of facilities for research on nuclear and high energy physics. He reached out to his friend, businessman JRD Tata, who encouraged him to apply for funding. The funds he received from the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust resulted in the establishment of TIFR, Mumbai in June 1945, with him as its founding director.
In the late 1940s, Bhabha’s enduring passion for the arts led him to discover the works of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), and connect with art critics and patrons such as Rudi von Leyden, Karl Khandavala and Kekoo Gandhy. In 1952, with the consent of then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, he began spending 1% of TIFR’s annual budget on purchasing artworks as a way of supporting the modern art movement in newly-independent India. These works were displayed throughout the TIFR campus. In 1963, he invited artists such as Jamini Roy and KH Ara to create murals for the Institute’s foyer. For his exceptional contributions to nuclear science, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in 1954.
At the time of writing, TIFR’s collection comprises over 250 paintings and sculptures acquired between 1954 and the late 1970s. It includes a remarkable selection of art by PAG members such as SH Raza, FN Souza and MF Husain, as well as works by abstract artists such as Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, and VS Gaitonde. Besides these, the collection also includes an assortment of antiquities and Bhabha’s own paintings.
In 1966, Bhabha died in a plane crash near Mont Blanc, France.
Chowdhury, Indira. “The Laboratory and Its Double: The Making of the Scientist-Citizen at TIFR.” Center for Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania, June, 2012. https://casi.sas.upenn.edu/casiworkingpaper/indirachowdhury
Holmberg, Ryan. “Atomic Modernism: Indian Abstraction at TIFR.” Art in America, March, 2016.
Jehangir Nicholson Arts Foundation. “Homi J. Bhabha.” Accessed, July 27, 2021. https://jnaf.org/artist/homi-bhabha/