Rohit Gupta, the 'Compasswallah', plans to introduce Mumbai to the art in the science of astronomy

Nov 24, 2013, 08:32 IST | Kareena N Gianani

Unlike other groups in the city, Gupta's approach to astronomy is all about revealing astonishing stories, screening documentaries and initiating dialogue, not relying on technical equipment and stargazing, finds Kareena N Gianani

It is impossible to have a conversation with Rohit Gupta that is not labyrinthine. It starts off with his experience of trying to explain to his rickshawwala one morning that it is the earth which is moving around the sun. Somewhere along the way, it touches upon neutrinos (subatomic particles) and God Particle, meanders through his childhood in Jaipur, and comes back to his current love and muse, astronomy.

As ‘Compasswallah’, Rohit Gupta aims to trace the history of astronomy by taking participants back to where it came from. Pic/Satyajit Desai

Gupta, 37, calls himself the ‘Compasswallah’ and is in Mumbai to make the science of astronomy “more democratic”. Through his forthcoming workshops, he says he’d like to introduce the city to astronomy in a manner that’s soaked in history and debate, and does not involve a telescope and clear, stargazing-friendly nights. “Some years ago, I read this book, The Great Arc, by John Keay, which was essentially the story of William Landton and George Everest, two 19th century cartographers, as they went around mapping India from Kanyakumari to the Himalayas. It was the greatest, most ambitious experiment of their time.

Miniature depicting astronomers with their instruments in the observatory of the Galata Tower in Istanbul. Rohit Gupta’s new workshop will discuss the Golden Era in Islamic astronomy (800-1200 AD)

And you know what came out of it? That path-breaking experiment gave the world the measurement of the exact curvature of the Earth,” says Gupta. Their team of cartographers, who went around the country with compasses, came to be known as ‘compasswallahs’ by the locals. “They sold maths for their living. I am selling astronomy for mine,” grins Gupta.

Gupta says he is aware that astronomy, like most other sciences, appears arcane and inaccessible to the layperson. “Science has become like this black box,” says Gupta, tapping this mobile phone lying on the table. “You don’t know what is inside it, you aren’t ‘allowed’ to, because companies control that information. But this wasn’t the case earlier. Before the atomic structure was discovered in the 19th century, science was ‘visible’ - you could see components, explore them and put them back together. Now, it is all about control and power.”

In pursuit of this egalitarianism, Gupta wants to bring astronomy into the daily lives of people, and do it through storytelling. “Stories are not as terrifying as equations, after all,” he says with a smile. At his workshop, which will be held at Bandra today, Gupta says he plans to begin with the history of astronomy by telling stories of the Golden Era in Islamic astronomy (800-1200 AD) and the Kerala School of Astronomy, which rose into prominence between 1100-1600 AD.

He chose these topics because any non-western history of astronomy, he feels, must take into account not only the Indian and Islamic contributions, but also the culture of astronomy that existed in China, Japan and Africa. Islamic and Kerala astronomers have had a significant impact on the history of India. For instance, the Jantar Mantar of Jaipur was heavily fashioned after the great Maragha Observatory of Iran.

Gupta says there will not be a single telescope in his workshop, which was how astronomy was practiced before the telescope was invented in the 1600s. “I plan to have conversations, screen documentaries and short films on astronomy and put astronomy out in the social media.” His workshop, which has been fully booked, has an eclectic mix of writers, artistes, filmmakers and students.

In ways, Gupta wants his participants to go back to school, but not the way he studied the mysteries of the universe. As a child growing up in Jaipur, Gupta says he had a chemistry laboratory which cost him exactly R238 to set up, a sum his uncle never failed to reprimand his parents about, terming it wasteful expenditure. It seemed the most natural choice for a boy so interested in the sciences to pursue engineering at IIT Kharagpur after college. “But that’s where it all got beaten right out of me.

It destroyed my imagination, that culture of competitiveness. I finished it just to get a degree and decided to pursue writing instead.” Gupta came to Mumbai in 2000 to pursue writing and wrote columns and screenplays. He also discovered programming and software and began tinkering with that technology to develop digital content. That’s when the second wave of disillusionment hit Gupta. “I began getting interested in maths, but I could see that wouldn’t pay my bills in this city.” Gupta moved back to Jaipur in 2007 and says that “he locked himself up” to find himself.

It was maths which, in turn, got Gupta interested in astronomy, and he found his longstanding muse. At his workshops, Gupta also plans to tell stories about astronomy in colonial India, a subject which, he believed, has barely received its due. “A wide spectrum of scientific pursuit existed in colonial India - keepers of the Muslim almanac, Hindu astrologers, officers of the East India Company, French Jesuit missionaries and others. They participated as hobbyists and adventurers in global projects such as observing the Transit of Venus,” explains Gupta.

While many of us thronged to planetaria to observe the Transit of Venus last year, few know that, till the Transit of Venus in 1761, even the one in 1769, the Earth’s distance to the sun was undiscovered. To determine the exact number during the Transit of Venus in the 19 th century, expeditions were sent to the North and South poles, and astronomers came to Mussoorie and Madras, too. Few know that India played such a pivotal role to resolve a long-standing problem in astronomy,” says Gupta.

The mathematician and astronomy enthusiast, however, is not out to give credit to any country where it is not due. “I’d rather be objective about it. India has made significant contribution to astronomy - Sawai Jai Singh, built the Jantar Mantar, and Radhanath Sikdar was employed as a “human computer” for the Great Trigonometric Survey of India in 1840. But, on the other hand, The Kerala School of Astronomy makes some very implausible claims - India having invented calculus, is one of them. We have been light-handed with our documents and preservation, which really leaves little for us to be able to make tall claims.”

For now, Gupta would rather work at understanding our relationship to the rest of the universe, which, he believes, is reflected sharply in our everyday behaviour. He wants to help people in the city self up laboratories at home and help them understand astronomy through non-traditional connections. “We are obsessed with big space stations, pumping millions into big experiments. Such a unilateral approach is killing science. By bringing the culture of astronomy closer to home, we can understand better our place and significance, beyond the concerns of commerce and civilisation. One does not have to be a professional scientist to understand that. I think it is a deeply human desire, in fact,” he smiles.

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