ORIE Professor Emeritus and Mrs. Prabhu establish the Rabindranath Tagore Modern Literature Lecture Series
Professor Emeritus Narahari Umanath (“Uma”) Prabhu and his wife Suman (“Sumi”) have enabled Cornell’s South Asia Program to create a lecture series in honor of Rabindranath Tagore, who in 1913 became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tagore wrote novels, stories, songs, dance-dramas, and essays on topics political and personal.
Anne Blackburn, Professor of South Asian Studies and Buddhist Studies and Director of the South Asia Program, said “The Cornell South Asia Program remains deeply grateful to Professor Emeritus Prabhu and Mrs. Prabhu for their gift supporting the Rabindranath Tagore Endowment in Modern Indian Literature. This gift makes possible the South Asia Program's annual Tagore Lecture.
Following an inaugural lecture on Tagore, Cornell’s Tagore Endowment has presented seminars on aspects of modern Indian literature written in Indian regional languages and in English. Speakers have been drawn from among novelists, poets, playwrights, screen-writers, columnists, critics, translators, musicians and professors, and, like Tagore, are typically engaged in a combination of these activities.
The most recent speaker, in September 2013, was Amit Chaudhuri, Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia in England. He is a classical Indian musician and author of five novels as well as the recent non-fiction work “Calcutta: Two Years in the City.”
Asked why the Prabhus chose Tagore to honor, Uma Prabhu said “Tagore brought East to West and West to East.” He also noted that Dorothy Whitney Straight, widow of Willard Straight, gave funds to Tagore through Leonard Elmhirst, a Cornell agricultural graduate, to start a farm - an “institute for rural reconstruction” - near Tagore’s home in Shantiniketan. Around the same time, Dorothy Straight funded construction of Cornell’s Willard Straight Hall, and in 1956 a room in the building was named in honor of Elmhirst, whom Dorothy Straight married in 1925.
“When people ask why I gave this gift,” Prabhu said, “I tell them it is to show my gratitude to Cornell, where I have spent the major part of my life.”
Professor and Mrs. Prabhu
The Prabhus came to Ithaca in 1965, when Uma Prabhu joined the faculty as an Associate Professor of Operations Research. He was educated at the University of Bombay (Mumbai), India and the University of Manchester, England. Before coming to Cornell he held positions at various universities in India (where in 1951 he founded the statistics department at the Karnatak University), as well as at the University of Western Australia and Michigan State University.
At Cornell he supervised the thesis research of 23 Ph.D. students, taught undergraduate and graduate courses in his field, and was recognized as an Outstanding Educator for having influenced undergraduate Merrill Presidential Scholar Rajiv A. Patel. Professor Prabhu achieved emeritus status in 1994 but continued to be involved in activities on campus for many years thereafter, including a Master of Engineering project in 1999.
Professor Prabhu is the author of dozens of papers on queuing theory and stochastic processes, a research area that deals with the evolution of random processes over time and is applicable to the analysis of storage systems (including water storage systems), manufacturing, vehicular and communications traffic, and financial engineering. He has authored five books, the latest of which, “Foundations of Queuing Theory,” was published in 1997. He is the founding editor of the journal “Queuing Systems: Theory and Application” and co-founding editor (with Julian Keilson) of the journal “Stochastic Processes and their Applications,” has been an editor of several other journals, and was President of the International Indian Statistical Association from 1999 to 2001.
Unlike Tagore, who was born (the youngest of thirteen surviving children) to a wealthy family in Calcutta (now Kolkata), in the northeast of present day India, Uma Prabhu was born (the ninth of eleven children) to a poor family in Calicut in the southwest of India. Tagore was largely home-schooled, while Uma Prabhu could only achieve his education by taking out loans.
Tagore was a prolific intellect whose work has appeared throughout the world, including India, Bangladesh (whose national anthem he composed), Europe, and the United States. He travelled to thirty countries on five continents, where he interacted with major figures of the day, ranging from Albert Einstein to George Bernard Shaw to Benito Mussolini. Tagore’s poetry, novels and stories have been widely translated; his poetry was championed by William Butler Yeats. His paintings were shown in museums around the world. With money from his Nobel Prize he founded at Shantiniketan what became Visva-Bharati University. An anti-nationalist, he was involved in the politics of his day, narrowly escaped assassination, was knighted by King George V of England, but renounced his knighthood in protest of a massacre of civilian protesters at the order of a British general in Amritsar, India.
The film maker Satyajit Ray, who as a student knew Tagore personally, said “Rabi[ndranath] went to four schools and hated them all.” In his autobiography, Tagore wrote:
“The main object of teaching is not to give explanations, but to knock at the doors of the mind. If any boy is asked to give an account of what is awakened in him by such knocking, he will probably say something silly. For what happens within is much bigger than what comes out in words. Those who pin their faith on university examinations as the test of education take no account of this.”
South Asia Program
Cornell’s South Asia Program is “an interdisciplinary hub for Cornell students, faculty, staff, community members, and academic visitors” headquartered within the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. In addition to supporting undergraduate and graduate education related to South Asia at Cornell as well as outreach around the world and in South Asia, the program provides “exposure to South Asia among a wider public through lecture series, conferences, exhibitions, publications, performances, and other forms of community engagement.” More than sixty faculty members from nearly all of Cornell’s colleges are affiliated with the Program.