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Amar Bose: A life in pursuit of excellence

July 16, 2013 08:35 IST

Amar Bose: A life in pursuit of excellence

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Amar Bose never grew old. He simply oozed positive energy. He visibly cringed if anybody called him an icon but used to jump up to the blackboard with a chalk and wave his hand all over if you discussed physics, recalls Shivanand Kanavi

Amar Bose, creator of the well-known audio brand in the world, passed away on July 12, at his home, near Boston, Massachusetts, USA. He was born of an American mother and Indian father. Noni Gopal Bose, his father, was an Indian revolutionary, who had jumped into a ship to USA, in 1920, to escape from the British CID, who were chasing him.

Amar Bose was born in Philadelphia in 1929, where his mother was a school teacher and father ran a radio shop. Father continued to working as part of a support network for Indian revolutionaries in the US along with Taraknath Das.

When I met him, Amar Bose vividly recalled the hush-hush meetings in his house and the visit by a person who had escaped the horror of the massacre at Jalianwala Bagh. The stories of British atrocities, which he heard from this visitor as well as from others, left an indelible impression on him.

Bose's childhood in Philadelphia was not easy either. One pictures the deep south of US as the seat of racism and bigotry, but during the ’30s and ’40s, right in Philadelphia, the home of Bill of Rights, the Boses had to suffer intense racial discrimination and humiliation. “My mother was a vegetarian, a Vedantin and more Indian in her outlook than I and my father. Nobody would rent a house for us. We had to send my mother house hunting, since she was white American.”

“Every time we entered a restaurant we would keep on waiting and nobody would serve us. Finally my father would call the manager, the whole restaurant would suddenly fall silent and father would make a short speech: 'Sir, we are good enough to cook and wait and serve you. We are good enough to die for this country in the wars, but we are not good enough to pay and be served. Why is that?'. Obviously, it was largely a rhetorical question and used to have no effect on the proprietor. We all used to then stand up and leave the place. My father never tried to say that he was not an African-American but an Indian. But all said and done, as far as recognising talent for what it is, there is no country like the US,” he added.


Photographs: Palashranjan Bhaumick

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The teenaged Amar Bose picked up his love for electronics in his father’s radio repair shop. His brilliance showed at an early age and got him into the fabled engineering college at MIT, despite poverty at home. From there he climbed higher and higher peaks of academic brilliance, finishing with a PhD guided by Norbert Wiener, one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century.

He got an offer of a teaching job at MIT itself in 1956. However, Wiener, who had many friends in India, advised Bose to take a Fulbright Scholarship and spend a year in India. Thus Amar Bose spent a year in Kolkata at the Indian Statistical Institute led by Prof P C Mahalanobis and in Delhi at the National Physical Laboratory, then headed by Prof K S Krishnan. Bose carried fond memories of that year spent in India.

On his return to MIT he very soon became perhaps the most popular professor for over four decades. Many of his students vouch for his energy and his brilliant teaching. He also used to set the most difficult problems for them. “At times I used to give PhD level problems to sophomores. You should stretch the students to the limit. That is how you will come to know who is capable of what and results often can surprise you,” he said.

While at MIT he innovated many things in acoustics and audio systems which led to the revolutionary Bose speakers. MIT allowed him to set up his own company while continuing to teach. The motto of Bose Corp is ‘Better Sound Through research’. He stuck to it energetically and built perhaps the biggest global brand in audio surpassing many other bigger names like Phillips and Sony.


Photographs: Palashranjan Bhaumick

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The secret of his success has always been path-breaking research and development. However, what is not known to many is that he never remained confined to only acoustics. His outstanding innovations are also in automobile engineering, signal processing and so on. When I asked him why he had not taken the company public and raised money in the market by selling shares, he said, “As far as employees are concerned, we pay them top­ of-the-line salaries. I myself don't need the cash. In fact, every dollar of profit made in the company has been ploughed back. Moreover, taking it public will mean others (the board of directors- Ed) telling us how to spend our dollars in research. Some of the research pro­jects we are working on will take decades and some may not even be completed. I am sure we could not have taken up such projects if we were not free to do what we want to.”

His devotion to his alma mater, MIT, was legendary. It was marred a decade ago by his strong public disagreements with MIT’s IPR policy. But that did not stop him from going a step further and putting all his shares in Bose Corp in a trust fund, which will benefit his alma mater!

Clearly, knowledge creation is what excited Bose. We could see that in the sparkle in his eyes and the alacrity with which he jumped up to explain technical points about wave guides; normal modes and spherical speakers; or a subtle point about non-linear systems or stochastic processes. But this academic took commercial challenges also as intellectual challenges and either licked the competition or created totally new technologies. The way he conquered the Japanese market is an object example to American corporations who constantly wring their hands about 'fortress Japan'.

He leaves behind two children, son Vanu and daughter Maya. Dr Vanu Bose, an MIT alumnus himself, has founded a company, Vanu, providing solutions in wireless and cellular communications. Vanu again bridges the US and India with establishments in Boston, Bengaluru and Delhi.

To use a cliché, Amar Bose never grew old. He simply oozed positive energy. He visibly cringed if anybody called him an icon but used to jump up to the blackboard with a chalk and wave his hand all over if you discussed physics. May he rest in peace.

Shivanand Kanavi, a physicist, journalist and author of Sand to Silicon: The amazing story of digital technology, is now a senior executive with the Tata Group. He blogs at http://reflections-shivanand.blogspot.in


Photographs: Palashranjan Bhaumick

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