Udita Narayana Singh: His life and Work

The following is an extract from the article by B S Yadav, U N Singh: His life and Work, Indian Journal of Mathematics 33 (1991), i-xxiv.
Professor U N Singh (1920-1989) was the President of the Allahabad Mathematical Society from 1976 to 1986.
U N Singh: His life and Work
B S Yadav

Udita Narayana Singh was born on 19 November 1920 at the home of his maternal grandmother in the district of Benares. By a quirk of fate, his recorded birthdate is 4 August 1917. He belonged to the village of Khataura, which is very close to Benares, where his father, Shri Mahavir Singh, was a petty landlord universally known and respected for his uprightness and saintly disposition. His mother Shrimati Dwija Devi was a warm hearted lady known for her generosity and cheerful temperament. From his parents U N Singh imbibed sterling qualities of character which were so prominent all his life.

Udita Narayana was a brilliant student excelling in all his subjects at the school level. He was extremely gifted in mathematics and it was always a feat of wonder for his schoolmates that he never studied for his examinations and yet always stood first. However, his school teachers felt that he was only living up to his name. Most of his schooling was done at Benares. He was well liked and respected by his friends and teachers for his rectitude, amiability and qualities of leadership. He also excelled as a debater. His teachers retained a very special kind of affection for him and he never forgot their part in moulding his life. In fact he stayed in touch with them all his life and took a great deal of personal care and interest in their affairs. In his high school, he was inspired by the freedom struggle. Several of his school teachers were frequently jailed and it was impossible for an impressionable and intelligent schoolboy to be unaffected. After an initial dalliance with a revolutionary group, he was brought to the Gandhian fold [Note: The ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, particularly truth and non-violent resistance] by his teacher Pandit Sukhdev Choubey and he took to wearing Khadi [Note: A hand spun natural fibre mainly cotton]. In fact he was instrumental in organizing a strike in his school when the authorities refused permission for the hoisting of the Indian National Congress Tricolour.

In 1937, Udita Narayana was married to Kamala Devi whose father was very keen on the match as by then Udita Narayana was being hailed as a very bright student with a brilliant future. There was a very happy match and Kamala Devi played no mean role in the achievements of her husband. They had four children, two sons and two daughters.

Udita Narayana took his intermediate degree from the Queens College, Benares in 1939 securing the Gold Medal. Guided by his teachers, he moved for higher studies to the University of Allahabad then at the peak of its glory as the famed 'Oxford of the East'. Here he obtained his B.A. and M.A. degrees in Mathematics in brilliant fashion in 1941 and 1944 respectively. He lost a year due to his participation in the Quit India movement of 1942. In fact in the wake of the arrest of all the prominent leaders of the freedom struggle, several spontaneous reactions took place. Udita Narayana led a group of over a hundred freedom fighters, gathered by him secretly over a period of time in Benares, and attempted to dynamite a bridge at night. While the efforts to demolish were continuing in poring rain, they were surprised by the police who had been led there by someone's treachery. U N Singh barely managed to escape and he had to spend several months incognito in Benares.

However, all through this period, he retained his love of mathematics and upon the completion of his M.A. he undertook research under the guidance of Professor B N Prasad in the area of Fourier series. In 1947, while he was still conducting research he was appointed a lecturer in the department of mathematics. In those days, a lecturer had a very punishing schedule and was required to teach all kinds of subjects ranging from hydrostatics and astronomy to analysis and algebra. He was also an exceptionally gifted and popular teacher and he gave his time freely to his students. Thus he was naturally left with very little time for his own research.

Nevertheless, he continued his research in his calm and dedicated manner and produced one of the finest doctoral dissertations of the University of Allahabad. His thesis examiner, none other than the late Professor E C Titchmarsh, F.R.S., of the University of Oxford had this to say while commenting on the work entitled "Strong Summability of Trigonometric Series": "The thesis displays considerable originality and the proofs of the theorems indicate that the candidate is an extremely talented mathematician". He was awarded his D.Phil. degree in 1949. We shall discuss later in detail the pioneering work contained in the thesis. [This is not, however, in this extract.]

However, he was not content to rest with such a fine piece of work and he proceeded to the Sorbonne (University of Paris) in October 1951 to work under the renowned French Mathematician, the late Professor S Mandelbrojt. After a stay of about two and a half years he was awarded the State D.Sc. of the Sorbonne with mention 'très honorable' in February 1954. His D.Sc. thesis was entitled "Transformée de Fourier Généralisée et les Problèmes qui s'y Rattachent". We shall discuss later in detail, the important theory of Generalized Fourier Transforms developed by U N Singh in his Paris thesis. [This is not, however, in this extract.]

Upon his return from Paris, Allahabad could not retain U N Singh for long and in 1954 he shifted to the Aligarh Muslim University as Reader. His days at Aligarh were memorable from several points of view. He helped in reorganizing the curriculum and he taught a number of modern topics. It was at Aligarh that I first came into contact with him when I attended his lectures as a student. I was struck by his impressive personality and his ability to make mathematics look beautiful and natural. He communicated this view superbly in his lectures. His stay at Aligarh lasted for no more than three years, but as he often recalled, it was a fulfilling and satisfying experience having worked at Aligarh during the time when Dr Zakir Hussain, the third president of the Indian Republic, was the Vice Chancellor.

From Aligarh, U N Singh moved to the Maharaja Sayaji Rao University of Baroda as the first Professor and Head of the Mathematics Department in 1958. At Baroda he performed the Herculean task of raising a department from scratch. The university had been newly formed. Resources and manpower scarce and the department of mathematics existed as a tiny entity with no researchers; only teachers of mathematics. However, he was undaunted and he set about building the department. He reorganized the courses of study on a thoroughly modern footing, and at the same time he began to attract several bright and young scholars to work with him, some of whom also joined the teaching faculty. Very soon the department began to gain international recognition in several ways. In 1966, the American Mathematical Monthly, in an article, lauded the curriculum of the Mathematics Department at Baroda as an ideal curriculum. It was during his stay at Baroda that what is probably the first Ph.D. thesis in Operator Theory in India was written under his guidance. Furthermore, the research work being carried out at the department and under his guidance began to be cited in standard treatises and on the subject, international monographs and books by various reputed mathematicians. During this period U N Singh's impact was not confined to only Baroda. It was mainly at this time that he lectured at various conferences and seminars in several parts of the most of the country and directed summer institutes on some of the most exciting developments of that time in Mathematics, especially in Functional Analysis. He played a major role in the establishment of Functional Analysis as a discipline of study and research in India. His influence on the state of Gujarat was naturally even greater. Prior to his arrival, there was hardly any pure mathematics in Gujarat. When he left, Gujarat was an important centre of research in pure Mathematics.

While at Baroda U N Singh spent one academic year (1963-64) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a visiting professor of mathematics where he established his reputation as an excellent teacher and mathematician. Despite efforts by the University of Illinois to retain him, he chose to return to Baroda. He did visit the University of Illinois again as part of a high powered team of Indian Scientists sent to study some of the leading universities of the U.S.A.

In 1969, U N Singh was invited to join the University of Delhi as Professor of Pure Mathematics and he accepted the offer. He was equally active at Delhi. He set about revising the curriculum. In almost no time he set up a very active school of research in Functional Analysis and Operator Theory by attracting several bright young mathematicians an the faculty as well as research scholars. This research group at Delhi is today amongst the most prominent ones in the country. This was the time when eminent educationists like Professor Sarup Singh and Professor K N Raj were Vice Chancellors and U N Singh thrived under the liberal and enlightened leadership provided by them. He was appointed, in 1970, as the Head of the Department of Mathematics as well as the Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics. In 1974 he was appointed the Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Delhi and he continued in this post till 1980 when he accepted the offer of Vice Chancellorship of his alma mater, the University of Allahabad. As Pro-Vice Chancellor his tenure was marked by his uprightness, foresight and administrative acumen. During this period, he played a key role in raising the standards of Several institutions in the country and served on numerous committees which worked towards the betterment of educational standards in the country.

In 1980, when U N Singh moved to the university of Allahabad as its Vice Chancellor, the scene on the campus was chaotic. The sessions of the university were running two to three years behind schedule. Unbridled indiscipline had manifested itself in two forms: violence and blatant cheating in the examinations. Mass copying had assumed shocking proportions. In fact it was indeed a black day in the history of the University of Allahabad when the British Broadcasting Corporation painted a shameful picture of the state of examinations. Facilities by way of hostel accommodation, teachers quarters and departmental buildings were minimal. Almost no constructions had taken place in the last fifteen years. No new departments had been opened, nor had the facilities of the existing departments been expanded or upgraded. There was near total stagnation. Sports and cultural activities of the university had come to a standstill. The university did not even have a guest house.

In his first few months as vice chancellor, U N Singh was successful in eliminating mass copying totally. This was made possible because of the fact that in the first examination that he conducted about two thousand students were rusticated for using unfair means. At grave personal risk, he took a courageous stand and refused to buckle under severe political pressure. His policies evoked an admirable response not only from the teachers of the University of Allahabad, but from the citizens of Allahabad as well. Very soon a fairly high standard of examination and teaching was achieved. The devalued degree was restored to its former status. Law and order was also restored on the campus mainly due to the moral courage and authority of U N Singh. He steadfastly refused to be intimidated and made no use of the police machinery.

Some incidents, during his early days as Vice Chancellor bear this out with remarkable clarity. When the first ordinance was issued by U N Singh, after due consultations with the entire teaching community, decreeing severe punishment for anyone caught using unfair means, there was a harsh and extreme reaction amongst the anti-social elements on the campus masquerading as students. He was subjected to a gherao [Note: This is a Hindi word meaning 'encirclement', but it was a tactic used by protesters, like picketing] in his office. However, he did not budge and also did not call in the police. After about 28 hours during which time he refused to partake of any meals the students realized that even threats of violent assault would not make him change his stand and they gave up in sheer frustration. On another occasion he was prevented from entering the University gates by some student leaders who had declared a lock out. U N Singh stood outside the gates, in the blazing sun and refused to return or call the police. Very soon the students gave up. It is not that he was unreasonable or rigid. He was always accessible to the students, karamcharis [Note: Manual workers] and teachers alike and was always willing to help. It is doubtful if any of Vice-Chancellor of the University of Allahabad achieved as much as U N Singh for the welfare of the students, teachers and karamcharis. His popularity soared not just within the university or the city but in the countryside as well, where students from the rural areas carried back tales of his achievements as Vice Chancellor. It once happened that the student leaders of the university gave a call for a strike on some pretext. However, within hours of the strike call, in a spontaneous gesture, truck loads of students began arriving at his residence, hailing him and vowing to support him. It was a very dejected and demoralised lot of student leaders, who came to see him secretly at night apologising for their mistakes.

The university began to hum with activity. The departments, through the untiring efforts of U N Singh began to receive funds from various sources for developmental work. He created several posts in various departments to remove stagnation and also to bring in fresh talent. Cultural life on the campus began to blossom as several music conferences, poetry and literary seminars and plays began to be held. He even organized a public function to felicitate the famous Urdu poet, the late Faiz Ahmad Faiz. On that occasion he managed to bring together on a single rostrum such eminent poets as Mahadevi Verma, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Firaq Gorakhpuri and several others. His own speech on that day, spoken in chaste Urdu was soul stirring and is remembered till this day by the citizens of Allahabad. In fact he was in great demand all over the city as a public speaker. Under his guidance the University began to celebrate the University Day. The annual sports meet was resumed after a gap of several years. Amongst the new departments that were opened by him were those of Computer Science, Microbiology and Journalism.

He convinced the teachers of the need to co-operate in righting the university and they responded generously. In an unprecedented gesture in the annals of higher education in this country, for three successive years the teachers took parallel and extra classes without any financial compensation right through the calendar year so that the academic session which was running three years behind schedule was regularised. U N Singh once said that the teachers of the University of Allahabad were its main redeeming feature.

He was now universally acknowledged as an administrative genius and an upright and fearless person. It will, therefore, come as no surprise to those who are familiar with the state of affairs in our institutions of higher education, that U N Singh had to face tremendous pressure from several vested political interests. Such attempts always failed to make him waver in his tasks.

However, what really annoyed and disappointed him and served as the proverbial last straw was the decision of the state government to institute an inquiry to investigate his refusal to withdraw rustication orders against three criminals masquerading as students. These three were notorious for the number of criminal cases registered against them in various cities. Their behaviour on the campus had been particularly violent and they had attempted to terrorise using firearms. The teachers association of the university had unanimously passed a resolution supporting the Vice Chancellor's decision to rusticate them.

U N Singh refused to accept such interference in the autonomous working of the university and he promptly resigned. His letter of resignation is a stirring document and I briefly quote from it: "Moments arise in the lives of institutions when individuals no matter how high a position they may occupy are irrelevant. Such historic moments demand searching analysis of the causes leading to the crisis, and fearless and decisive action. Only thus do institutions survive the test of times. Such a moment of reckoning, I believe, has now arrived for this great seat of learning. In this moment of trial I desire to live up to my duties towards it, guided by the wisdom of which I am capable."

"I resign because I have no desire to betray the academic community. I resign so that this great University may live to nurture and impart right values to posterity, and so that it may stand erect with the pride of its convictions."

It has been unheard of in the history of higher education in India, that the resignation of a vice chancellor has evoked such a wave of protest all over the country. Several teachers of the University of Allahabad wept openly when U N Singh announced his decision to resign at a meeting attended by almost the entire teaching community. The citizens of Allahabad formed a citizens action committee to protest. Almost all the national dailies and magazines wrote editorials and articles condemning the outrage and praising the stand taken by U N Singh. The Hindustan Times in an editorial called him a "Vice Chancellor of rectitude" and blamed the state government for what it said was "a shameful affair." The Indian Express in an editorial called him "the distinguished Vice Chancellor of Allahabad University who stood firm on principles." The Statesman in an editorial called it the "rule of the lawless" and in a leading article entitled "Day of Reckoning at Allahabad" praised U N Singh for his work as Vice Chancellor. The Times of India called it "a disgrace abounding" in an editorial. The Navbharat Times in a stirring editorial likened his resignation to the snuffing out of one more lamp in the ocean of darkness. It said that the flame of Allahabad which U N Singh had been protecting with his own hands could not withstand the evil wind generated by the state government. It praised him for refusing to bow before the dictates of the government. The famous poetess and Jnanpith award [Note: Indian literary award] winner Mahadevi Varma as well as several other prominent personalities wrote to the Prime Minister in protest. [Note: Mahadevi Varma (1907-1987) was a poet, freedom fighter, activist for women's rights and an educationalist.]

As for U N Singh himself, he remained unruffled and unaffected by the din or the publicity. Unfortunately for him, very soon after his resignation, tragedy struck his family when his son-in-law, H N Singh, a brilliant space scientist working at NASA died in a road accident in Benares. U N Singh himself sustained serious injuries in this accident.

Very soon after all this, in 1984, U N Singh was invited to join the Madhya Pradesh University Grants Commission as a member. As was his want, he took up the job as a challenge. He was one of the key figures responsible for initiating schemes in the educational set up of India's largest state. This culminated in a thorough overhaul of higher education in Madhya Pradesh. In a span of about 5 years he oversaw the revamping, modernization and streamlining of higher education in the state. The whole effort was a major exercise and in a sense it was a silent revolution. Madhya Pradesh can now be reckoned to have a fairly modern educational system in terms of course content, well trained teachers and other facilities.

The premature death of his wife Kamala Devi in December, 1988, must have broken his heart for theirs was a unique relationship. He "could survive her for long and passed away after a brief illness on 9 April 1989 at Delhi.

U N Singh's life was a shining example of a man who carried the courage of his convictions. He belonged to a generation that is fast becoming rare. A generation tempered by the Gandhian era [Note: Era of Mahatma Gandhi] and the freedom struggle and sustained by our institutions of learning which now seem to have degenerated. It was not in the nature of U N Singh to seek plaudits or publicity for his achievements. Quite aptly, his obituary in the Statesman was boldly headlined "U N. Singh the quiet Academic," He was a very modest man who derived satisfaction from performing his tasks well and was a model of the basic philosophy expounded by the Bhagavad Gita. Incidentally, he was an authority on the Gita and he had a complete mastery or the Sanskrit and Hindi languages, of our Vedic literature and of Hindi Philosophy. He was also well versed with Urdu, French and English literature. He had a finely developed sense of a appreciation of the fine arts, of music and of culture in general. In fact some of his closest friends were amongst the famous poets, sculptors, painters and musicians of India. His love of sports and sportsmen was unbounded and he did his very best to nurture sports and encourage sportsmen in our educational institutions. He was himself a champion swimmer having represented his university and was a gifted athlete. His friends recall that as a student he used to consistently win the second position in the high jump event of the annual sports meets of Allahabad university without any prior practise. He had an impressive personality and left a lasting impression on those who came in touch with him. U N Singh had a remarkable memory. He could recall with perfect clarity and ease events that had taken place years ago or any poem which he had read once at any time. He had a very good sense of humour which I am sure sustained him during tense times. He was a kind and generous person who went out of his way to help people especially the young. U N Singh made numerous trips abroad but he remained an Indian at heart.

Honours conferred of U N Singh

Numerous honours came his way. He had been the president of the Indian Mathematical Society for two terms. He was a recipient of the Distinguished Service Award of the Mathematical Association of India. He had been a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences of India. He had been the President of the Allahabad Mathematical Society, of the Society of Mathematical Sciences of Delhi, of the Indian Society for the History of Mathematics, of the Section of Mathematics of the Indian Science Congress and of the Gujarat Ganit Mandal. He had also presided over a session of the International Congress on Mathematical Education at Berkeley, California U.S.A. in 1980 and over a session of an International Symposium on Non-Linear Analysis at St John's, Newfoundland, Canada in 1981. He had also delivered the annual convocation address at the Indian Agricultural Statistics Research Institute, New Delhi in 1981 and at the Sir Ganganatb Jha Kendriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth at Allahabad in 1982. He had also been the chairman of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award Committee in 1981. He was also nominated on several occasions as the official Indian delegate to various conferences abroad.

The Mathematical Work

The most prominent and consistent aspect of U N Singh's mathematical work is its striking originality. His output, in terms of quantity, was numerically less than a mathematician of his calibre and talent would normally have produced. This was primarily due to his administrative preoccupations from a young age. It must also be remembered that U N Singh did not believe in publishing trivial stuff. He also shared his ideas freely with his students and younger mathematicians. His papers are full of deep ideas and elegance and include several gems. His work can be roughly put under four periods: His pre-Paris phase which includes his, now famous, doctoral dissertation at the University of Allahabad and extends up to 1951: his work at Paris which includes his highly praised D.Sc. thesis of the Sorbonne and which he continued during his stay at the M S University of Baroda and at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign up to 1965: his work from 1966 onwards till about 1974 which also partly covers his stay at Delhi: and finally the intermittent research work that he carried out from 1974 despite his, by then, heavy administrative responsibilities.

Last Updated February 2018