The Inheritance of Culture: Celebrating Obaid Siddiqi at 80 and his Founding of TIFR's National Centre for Biological Sciences

Friday, December 30th, 2011
Obaid Siddiqi

Graphic by Aathira Perinchery.

In a chaotic world spinning towards an 'interesting' future, many are self-absorbed in deciphering ways to ensure that our personal endeavors and ambitions meet with success. Intellectual depth and scholarship can give way to Lemming-like dynamics where the herd decides the direction for our personal and institutional trajectories. Intellectual stampedes are certainly not required behaviour, yet few refuse to participate and fewer still strike new paths. There are a daring few who define new intellectual quests, and whose courage and leadership create a culture, the nurturing of which makes us all feel special. Today, we celebrate Obaid Siddiqi whose foresight, determination and quiet courage has transformed research in molecular biology in India at least twice and whose scientific successes span many fields of biology. While establishing institutional excellence and instilling an iconoclastic culture of independence and freethinking, these pioneering efforts have led to wide-appreciation, both of the beauty and value of Obaid's science and of his leadership in institution-building, as models to emulate.

Obaid's research started in India, first in plant embryology and later in wheat genetics. A hailstorm ruined his experimental-plot, leading Obaid to hatch a new one and to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research to lose a future star.

Interested by the possibilities of doing genetics at a slightly faster pace than what wheat allowed, Obaid wrote to Guido Pontecorvo, Professor of Genetics at Glasgow. Pontecorvo asked him to come to Glasgow for an interview that would decide if he would be admitted to his lab or not. Reaching Glasgow, in 1958, Obaid was taken to the lab to get started. Puzzled, he asked when the interview would be held. Pontecorvo replied that Obaid had passed the test by coming to Glasgow: He just wanted to see that the applicant was interested enough to come all the way from India despite the possibility of being turned down. At Glasgow, as a PhD student, Obaid mapped the fine structure of the paba gene of Aspergillus by examining intragenic recombination and suggesting that this could be polarized. This work is a classic, with Obaid as the sole-author on the papers.

In 1961, Obaid joined Alan Garen at the University of Pennsylvania. In elegant and brilliant experiments, Siddiqi and Garen discovered the suppressors of "nonsense" mutations. This work stimulated research on conditional mutations of bacteria and viruses and was directly important to the discovery of "nonsense" codons, the stop signals in the genetic code. At this time phage and bacterial genetics was at its zenith and the new term Molecular Biology was coined. Obaid was a regular at meetings at Cold Spring Harbor and elsewhere. The young stars of that period, Obaid amongst them, were to become the who's-who of molecular biology in the next decades: Obaid being a recognized comrade, brought them to India later on during his next avatars, thereby transmitting the culture of scientific excellence more effectively and linking young Indian scientists to the best the world-over.

While in Philadelphia, Obaid met the physicist Leo Szilard, one of the famous 'Five Martians of Science'. Szilard recommended Obaid to Homi Bhabha at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research where Obaid joined in 1962 to set up the Molecular Biology Unit. Biochemists of that time did not like the term 'Molecular Biology.' "What other kind is there?", one famously is said to have asked. Yet, using genetics to infer the molecular nature of inheritance and of cellular function was new, elegant, thrilling and informative. Its effective practitioners could be forgiven their deserved pride and self-confidence. At the Molecular Biology Unit at TIFR, Obaid established a small but strong bacterial genetics group. Their work de-linking DNA transfer, DNA replication and recombination in bacteria was widely recognized and is textbook material. Under Obaid's influence Pabitra Maitra introduced yeast genetics to the Tata Institute and he and Zita Lobo become leaders in the dissection of the genetics of sugar metabolism.

Just when the ease of bacterial genetics could have become addictive, Obaid worked with his friend Seymour Benzer in the 1970s to change his scientific directions again, into using genetics to understand the nervous system and behaviour. Here too, Obaid struck gold with his study of temperature-sensitive paralytic mutants in Drosophila: Work which has been pioneering in our understanding of how nerve signals are generated and transmitted.

Starting with his student Veronica Rodrigues in 1976 and till today in a still bustling-lab, Obaid has pioneered yet again, this time studying the chemical senses of Drosophila. Obaid and his team have identified genes whose mutations block olfactory or gustatory responses. Some of these affect peripheral transduction processes, specifically the electrical activity of chemoreceptors while others interfere with olfactory network development. While Obaid's work has led to an improved understanding of how olfactory information is encoded in the brain of the fly, his study of chemosensory genetics has also inspired others to address this challenging field. They, all leaders in neuroscience today, admire him for showing the way and continue to be inspired by him.

In 1984, I was standing next to the geneticist E. B. Lewis at Caltech, doing what men in a row, looking blankly ahead, usually do. "Are you from India?" asked Ed. "From the Tata?" "Do you know Siddiqi?" "How does one person do such wonderful work in Aspergillus, Coli, Drosophila Physiology and behaviour, I can barely deal with one complex locus in a lifetime?" I didn't have an answer to the last question. I had not known too many scientists then and I did not realize that Obaid was unusual. This was an eye-opener. "The Tata (as TIFR is often called outside India) is a great place", continued Ed, "We had Babu from there and he's pretty good, and if they've hired you, you should jump at it". That chance meeting, and each of several others with the best (in other locations), showed how Obaid's name made you good friends. And, every meeting came with praise for the Molecular Biology Unit and TIFR. As students, we seemed to have taken the best courses conducted by the best as 'normal': Going out of the country we realized how privileged we were and what a wonderful culture and environment the Molecular Biology Unit (now the DBS) and the Tata Institute has given us. A culture of questioning and one which defines purpose in science by the quality of the question and its answer and not by the volume of herd-opinion. That this culture has been constantly passed on and lives in Colaba today is testimony to the effectiveness of Obaid and others such as him.

With the same culture that combines ease of interaction with rigour in science, Obaid developed a vision for- and founded-the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). While we celebrate 20 years of NCBS's formal existence, its birth took place much earlier. As Obaid's vision crystalized to reality, one theme stood out at every stage: The refusal to be hurried, compromising on quality, or in our core-culture, in the interests of speed. Well-meaning bureaucrats and friends offered advice, or sometimes insisted, that something counter to Obaid's understanding of good sense be done. Obaid would work hard to persuade them to change their view. If they did not, he would simply wait for their successor, hopefully of a different persuasion, to take office: "They will all retire," he famously said, somehow implying that he would himself never age or retire. And, that, is indeed true! We look forward to celebrating this year and the next and many more years with Obaid: Your scientific career has spanned many revolutions in biology and your institution-building has created, and continues to create, new adventurers. Many Happy Returns of the Day to you! And, the same to NCBS, whose 20 years we also celebrate.

Add your comments and reminiscences of Obaid and NCBS below.

You can also record your appreciation along with photographs here, on the NCBS FaceBook Page. If you have relevant photographs that you would like to share, please send it to ncbstalk at gmail dot com, and it will be uploaded on the NCBS news site.

We will compile these into a book for all to enjoy!

K. VijayRaghavan, on behalf of the NCBS-TIFR community: For Obaid and for all of Obaid’s friends and family.


Obaid is no more, but we

Obaid is no more, but we Indians will always remember him as a great scientist, human being and a nationalist. He was surely above the criterion for Nobel Prizes.

Hats off to Obaid Siddiqi for

Hats off to Obaid Siddiqi for advancing neuroscience in India. I am glad to have worked in his lab during my formative years which honed my interest in science. Having said that, I also think Obaid has nicely shielded himself from the cut throat pace of modern science. His methods of doing science as as fashionable as using a rickety typewriter. Only coming out of his lab did I realize how different modern science is done compared to what Prof. Siddiqi thinks it is. Only in a country like India can a scientist thrive solely based on laurels achieved in the past. This comment may never see the light of the day

Prof Siddiqi is no more he

Prof Siddiqi is no more he was buried in Bangalore today, May his soul rest in peace.

Congratulations Obaid, on

Congratulations Obaid, on your birthday. I am sorry that I could not be there to toast it! I feel fortunate to have been at the TIFR and to have had you as an advisor. Thinking back to where I was – a naïve incoming student, the powerful formative effect of your mentorship and my experiences at TIFR come into sharp relief. There were so many things about graduate school that were special, that it would be difficult to list them all – good friends, the intellectually stimulating environment, and ‘akoori on toast’ at the West canteen – to mention a few. However, for me, chief among them was the unquestioned belief that doing good science is important, something we should strive for, and even as students, could achieve. Visitors from all over the world helped set benchmarks, and underscored the international nature of science. You helped foster an intellectually vibrant community where we were encouraged to think for ourselves – such a different attitude from the regular university experience then, and perhaps even now. Personally, your love of genetics and belief in the power of Drosophila as an experimental system strongly influenced my own research direction. The point of graduate school is to learn through experience, and you made sure we did that. I remember lamenting about my frequent problems with the electrophysiology rig, and your stock answer was – think about it, you’ll figure it out! And even now, when writing papers I am reminded of your advice that I should ‘be pithy’. Looking at NCBS and TIFR today, it is clear that the ideals and attitudes that were so important to a beginning student decades ago still permeate both institutions and have helped them flourish. Congratulations again – and thank you.

"I consider myself to be very

"I consider myself to be very fortunate to have come in contact with Prof. Obaid Siddiqi early in my career. He has certainly been very instrumental in shaping up my career. With a strong background of classical botany, I had been interested in plant development and plant taxonomy. During the B.Sc. (Hons.) course at Delhi University (1956-59), the lectures of B. D. Sanwal on the structure of DNA really kindled to lot of excitement and interest. Later, Sanwal decided to move over to Canada but my fascination for DNA continued. While I was pursuing my studies and research during M.Sc. (1959-61) and Ph.D (1961-65), S.C. Maheshwari used to organize student seminars and there were talks on the structure, biosynthesis and function of DNA, RNA and proteins. There used to be a lot of discussion, if regulatory mechanisms similar to bacteria operate in animals and plants also. An overall integration of biology had not occurred but was slowly emerging. Traditionally, the departments of botany and zoology emphasized classical aspects and biodiversity. Most of the students thus failed to get a feeling of the physico-chemical basis of life and look at biology from a wider perspective. Dr. Maheshwari had a book on the structure of DNA by Porter and Porter describing how to make a model of DNA double helix using cardboard cut outs. I decided to make this DNA model and by the time I finished Ph.D., I was quite familiar with the right handed helix and the 10 base pairs for each turn.

Having submitted Ph.D. thesis in 1964, I was looking forward to an exciting career in biology. At that time, it was a Public lecture on the Genetic Code by Dr. Siddiqi that made a lasting and very strong impression on me. The abstruse style of doing science by molecular biologists was something very novel and unheard of among the classically-oriented biologists. Unquestionably, this lecture proved to be the turning point in my career and I decided that this is the type of biology I would like to get into in future. Every time I have listened to Dr. Siddiqi, there is always something new to learn. I continued as a Research Associate during 1965-68 at the Plant Research Laboratory (PRL, Michigan State University) and had a very broad exposure to the challenging problems on the emerging frontiers of plant molecular biology. This was also the time when the techniques and strategies of molecular biology were being increasingly applied to study plant development. In 1967, I wrote to Prof. Siddiqi and expressed my interest in joining TIFR to set up a line of work on the molecular biology of plants. He responded promptly and stated that I should visit him at MIT in June 1968 for a detailed discussion. I did visit him at MIT, had a day-long discussion and finally joined the Molecular Biology Unit (MBU) at TIFR in November 1968.

After joining TIFR, my earlier experience of making a DNA model proved very useful. In January 1969, MBU moved into the B-Block. During this move, I noticed a CPK-brand kit to make a model of double helix DNA using the space filling atoms. The new facilities and infrastructure were in the process of being created and established. As a challenging line of my own research activity had yet to emerge, I decided to assemble the DNA using this kit. It took a couple of weeks to assemble the DNA model and it proved to an instant hit for lectures and demonstrations. Currently it is in the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education.

In the early years of MBU, a major activity organized by Dr. Siddiqi was the ICRO courses and the winter schools. They had become very sought after training programmes that showcased the latest advances in the field of Molecular Biology including the Neurobiology. All of these were so good so as to be profoundly useful even in the research. Although each Faculty member pursued his own interest in a broad area, yet there was a lot of interaction and cross talk between the different groups. There used to lot of discussion about unification and or integration of the research activity of the MBU in a broad area. One of the earliest such discussion in 1972 (or 1973) took place at the Khandala Cottage (rented by TIFR’s Geophysics Section for experiments on hydrology). Undertaking the Neurobiology research in future by the Unit was discussed very actively. The unification did not happen for quite some time but gradually began to emerge after other faculty members joined and investigations on various aspects of Neurosciences were undertaken by several of the Faculty. The rest is all history already well-documented by others.

It has been a great pleasure knowing Dr. Siddiqi and his family. These interactions are gradually fading into memory. I wish him many more years of active life and happiness. The legacy he leaves behind will survive for a long time to come."

---M M Johri

32 New Cosmos

Juhu-Versova Link Road

Andheri (W), Mumbai 400 053

My contact with Guruji goes

My contact with Guruji goes back to much farther than any of you could even imagine. I met him first time immediately following his illuminating talk on Mendel’s centenary celebration in Indian Science Congress meeting. Since then I wished to work with him for my doctoral research. It took a longer time, but my patience eventually paid off when he finally agreed to take me as his student in 1976. I realize that I did not prove to be one of Professor Siddiqui’s illustrious students, but there is not a single day goes by when I do not think of him as one of the greatest educator that I had in my life. It may sound funny to hear from someone who has spent last 30 years of his life in the USA that he stands as a father figure next to my parent in my daily prayer. I do hope that in very near future, I will be able to meet him in person and pay my personal and deepest respect to him. Whatever I am today, I owe it to his training, wisdom and kindness. I cannot say enough to express my thoughts on this day except to wish our beloved Guruji a long and healthy life filled with love, true joy and pride in excellence for his accomplishments.


Narendra Singh

Narendra K Singh, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences,326 Rouse Life Sciences Building, Auburn University, Auburn, AL 36849

" ---Narendra Singh

"Dear Obaid: Even after all

"Dear Obaid: Even after all these years away from TIFR, it still feels strange to call you by your first name, perhaps because it is so easy to travel back in time, some forty years, and become a naive 18-year old with lots of hopes and dreams, many of which came true for me because of your interest and guidance, as it did for so many of your students. I especially remember the day I walked into your office and asked you if you thought I would make it America. This was well after arrangements to work with Dr. Apirion had been made, and I'd received my Fulbright travel grant. What else could you have said but "yes, of course"? Still, you said it with such confidence that I left feeling elated. That was back when I thought every one in America was brilliant. I hold very dear memories of you at the helm of our fledgling department with Drs. Maitra, Singh and Sarkar, Zita, Usha, Apte, Vijay, Shankar, Jagarnath, and Kalpana (of course,) and so many other faces whose names escape me at this moment. I recall Deeba and Kalim coming to the lab as babies and me carrying one of them; I think it was Deeba. I can see myself at the lab bench making crosses and looking for tryptophan deficient Aspergillus nidulans mutants. I remember those emerald green and orange spores as if it were yesterday. I am currently in New Zealand, working on my first novel, which I find far more daunting than writing short stories and poetry, which I've been doing in my spare time for a few years. But I retired from teaching this past Fall and am looking forward to being more productive in this new phase of life. Happy Birthday, Obaid, and may the year ahead be rich with all the things that make you happy. I hope that you have been keeping good health. Kalpana and I sometimes commiserate about our creaky knees, but not for long, because we spend a lot of time laughing at our young selves at TIFR. Please give Asiya my warmest regards, and take good care of yourself. Affectionately, Lalita


Blog:" ---Lalita Noronha

Congratulations, Obaid. As a

Congratulations, Obaid. As a graduate student, I admired Obaid not only for his passion for science but also for his outside interests in tennis, cricket and music. I had the opportunity to play both tennis and cricket with him. He was the better tennis player and he let me know that. Coming from a conservative, South Indian family, interacting with Obaid was an eye-opening experience. He was so open-minded and accepting. Working with Obaid, I developed a sense of independence, responsibility and risk-taking that was new to me. This early experience has strongly influenced my career, and I am very grateful for that. I also have fond memories of going to Kenilworth (hope I got that name correct!) for dinner with Obaid, Asiya and their children. I was impressed by Obaid’s record collection, but not by his Sarod playing. Sorry, Obaid. He was still learning but not practicing enough! I can still recall the first experimental result that led to my thesis project. We were standing in front of the scintillation counter looking at counts from a density gradient experiment. As the radioactive counts began to pick up at the H:L DNA region, Obaid turned to me and said ‘you should open a bottle of champagne’. His enthusiasm was infectious. Of course, I had to wait three more years before opening that bottle. One of my unique experiences concerns writing papers. Obaid and I wrote four papers that were published in reputed journals; remarkably, they were all accepted without any revision. That man can write! TIFR in those days was buzzing. We had a constant flow of visitors to the Molecular Biology Unit, and more seminars to attend than we really wanted to. Since there was no formal course work, most of the molecular biology I learned came from talking to the visiting scientists who came at Obaid’s invitation. Maury Fox explained to me what a (genetic) cross was. Obaid made to do all the problems in Sturtevant and Beadle’s An Introduction to Genetics. Obaid can be such a traditionalist! For that, thank you, Obaid. Before closing, I am happy to let Obaid known that I remain active in sports. I continue to play tennis but my golf game is much better. I still have not read Fred Perry’s book on tennis, you suggested forty years back. It is hard to keep up with that 80 year-old professor. All the best on your 80th Birthday and many more to come.

Saluting the scientist par

Saluting the scientist par excellence...architect of an illustrious institution churning out genuine science and distinguished scientists... Sir, a very happy birthday to you and to the institution that you founded, for its triumphant 20 years.... ...thanking you profusely for giving me an opportunity to visit your lab... brief but a memorable visit, not even once did I feel new to the place or to the people...whenever I look back I still feel the warmth of NCBS and the people who make it so friendly and vibrant...

I consider it my biggest

I consider it my biggest fortune that I joined this Institute, worked with three of the best groups in TIFR, Mathematics, Radio Astronomy and Molecular Biology and that the longest was with NCBS. We have heard lot of similarities or things they did alike - Prof Swarup and Prof Siddiqi. Both had a formidable reputation both in TIFR and outside, and depending on whom you talked to in TIFR, you were told it will be great to work with them, or no don’t work with them. And not to work with them was only because, I was told, they are very demanding taskmasters . I had fortunately worked closely with both Professors Swarup and Siddiqi at a crucial time in their respective large projects, and what I gained and learned from them is formidable. While Prof Swarup will get into lot of details, Prof Siddiqi always kept to the large picture, and some broad principles. Prof Swarup will tell me anything from SC/ST roster to what percentage to add for escalation when we make project estimates. And this was very helpful for me in that stage of my career. Professor Siddiqi will leave out all details and expect you to do a good job of whatever one does. Both NCBS (then called Centre for Fundamental Research in Biological Sciences) and GMRT (now part of NCRA) were approved with a projection of Rs.18 crores, in 7th and 8th Plans respectively, and both the projects were completed at a similar revised higher cost. Another similarity I must mention is that both identified a Vijay each – Vijay Kapahi and VijayRaghavan - to take forward their respective projects and set up their national centres! The massive 45 m dia antennae, networks and remote control of this constellation of 40 antennae across an area of 25 x 25 km was massive by any standard. The sight of it coming up, linking them up with optical fibre cables – all with unique ideas and solutions were unmatched. The growth of NCBS and along with that, what we now call Bangalore Bio Cluster (inStem and C-CAMP) and the massive growth, outstanding people all around, varied activities in any part of the Centre are all exhilarating. Something I had never imagined when Professor Siddiqi was in Bangalore and I helped him procure a Suvey of India map of Bangalore ( in 1988 – I was transferred to Bangalore in 1990 to work for NCBS), before deciding on the present location for NCBS. On 2 January 2012 at the function to celebrate 80 years of Professor Siddiqi and 20 years of NCBS, the presence of Professor B.V. Sreekantan who was Director of the Institute when these proposals were submitted to the Govt of India initially, and who must have made considerable efforts to get these approved and initiate these activities, and Professor Swarup were most appropriate. NCBS and NCRA were the largest projects that TIFR took up – and both outside Mumbai. I remember the comments made by many people when I left NCRA for NCBS as to why I was leaving the large world of telescopes and galaxies for the small world of microscopes and molecular biology. I have been fortunate that I made the move from Mathematics group, to Radio Astronomy, and then to Biology as this was the best – as I found each group that I moved to be better than the previous one. As a group I have found this group with full of energy and enthusiasm and always looking for ways to improve . And to know that the group even now remains very open, with lot of camaraderie, that differences are discussed, and decisions accepted by everyone with grace is I believe largely due to the legacy that Prof. Siddiqi left behind in this place. Professor Siddiqi, I had often felt, is like an artist with a phenomenal mind and a brush in his hand. The greatest lesson I have learned working with scientists is passion and commitment to their work and goals. And the ability to quit from something if they realize that it will not work, and go on to the next task immediately. Prof Siddiqi always insisted that not only the goals are important but also the means, and he always stuck to it. There were occasions I felt I will take a short cut to get something done, but he will never allow it. Professor Siddiqi always did things quite systematically, and we had never seen him doing anything in a hurry. And to do such multiple things in such a passionate and systematic manner and do them so well, as we have seen him and as we have been hearing for the last 2 days, has left a deep impression on all of us. He is one of those few people who practiced what he professed in all activities that he was involved. My interactions with Mrs Siddiqi – Asiya – were limited. However, I always looked forward to it. There was some bit of history I gathered whenever I met her leisurely – she would have conveyed something about Vasco da Gama, or about how grains were transported from one part of India to another on head before the railways came. I wish both of them many more years of long and active life.

"I did my Ph.D. under the

"I did my Ph.D. under the Guidance of Dr Obaid Sidddiqi from TIFR, Mumbai. I spent a good 10 years (1983-1993) doing my PhD. During this time I got married (1984) to Benaifer and our son, Sohrab, was born in 1992. We always reflect back as these 10 years being the best years of our life. The way of sharp scientific thinking that Obaid instilled in me has stood me good in all my endeavors. I am what I am really because of Obaid's mentoring over these crucial years of my life and there are not enough words to thank him with. I wish Obaid a wonderful 80th Birthday and may he guide the National Centre for Biological Sciences for many more years to come." --- Rasheed Mistri

"My Reminiscences on Obaid

"My Reminiscences on Obaid Siddiqi: My first serious contact with Obaid Siddiqi was in 1969-70 when I was finishing my Ph.D program at the Tufts Medical School, Boston. At that time Obaid was a Visiting Scientist in the laboratory of Maurice Fox at MIT. My thesis advisor, Edward (Eddie) Goldberg and Fox were friends and Eddie came to know about Obaid through Fox. Eddie had been advising me to return to India, if not immediately after Ph.D, to start a career on my own. He arranged for my meeting with Obaid at his house in Brookline (suburb of Greater Boston) over dinner. Obaid said I could write to him at Bombay (Mumbai) after finishing my Ph.D and he would take it up for further action. Eddie included Obaid as an external examiner during my Ph.D defence along with Maurice Fox (MIT) and Walter Gilbert (Harvard). This was around April- May, 1970. Obaid was back in India soon after and I was planning to write to him about the job offer he had made unofficially earlier. Meanwhile I was fortunate to get a Damon Runyon Post-doctoral Fellowship to work in the James Watson – Walter Gilbert group at Harvard. It was too tempting and I did not want to miss such a golden opportunity. I wrote to Obaid asking if the offer would be open for two years hence. Obaid not only responded in the affirmative but also kept up his word and I landed as a Fellow in the Molecular Biology Unit of TIFR in June 1972. I had an enjoyable and productive stay there till 1974. The work I did, along with my colleague MP Pitale during that period, resulted in a decent publication in Biochemistry. The stimulating company of seniors like Obaid, Maitra, Udai Singh, Kenkare and Johri, and a bunch of bubbling youngsters (too many to recount) was an unforgettable intellectual experience. I still have nostalgic memories of that golden period. However, with the non-availability of campus housing, the inevitable stay at the hostel and a family at Chennai waiting to join me etc., my stay at TIFR came to an end in 1974 when I moved to Madurai Kamaraj University where I remained till retirement. Looking back, I feel it was Eddie's conviction that I should return to India and Obaid's firm offer of a position at the TIFR that made me return home. All said and done, it has turned out to be a wise decision. I am very happy to know that Obaid is turning 80. I wish him many more years of happy and healthy life. I am happy to share my memories of him on this ocassion."--- R.Jayaraman, Formerly at Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai

"I met Obaid Siddiqi in

"I met Obaid Siddiqi in Bombay, at the TIFR, in 1978 during my first sabbatical visit in India. For more than 30 years I have had the opportunity to observe his devotion to science and his keen mind and his elegant manner. His life’s work in science and his devotion to Indian science are manifest in the scientists he trained, and in the outstanding institution, NCBS, he helped to develop. In the past ten years my wife Anna and I have had the opportunity to be part of the NCBS and to get to know Obaid and Asiya more personally. The scholarly culture they have developed around them have been stimulating to me and Anna, and we have had many inspiring conversations with Obaid and Asiya about science, history, art and culture of the scholarly world they grew up around. We look forward to many more such interactions with them and wish Obaid a very special birthday and many more years to teach, inspire and mentor others and to enjoy his passion for science and culture." --- Jim and Anna Spudich

Dear Obaid, Wishing you a

Dear Obaid, Wishing you a very happy birthday. I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude. First, for conceiving NCBS which has turned out to be such a brilliant hub of Indian Science. NCBS is not just a place where good science is done, but a place where unique ideas are being generated. We owe this all to your vision. Secondly, I owe it to you to introduce me to NCBS way back in 1996, which allowed me to do a PhD there and which has played an extremely important role in shaping my career. Your policy of recruiting students without boundaries helped me a lot, otherwise it was quite hard for a physics student to take up biology. Over the years I have appreciated that I could not have had a better training anywhere else in the world than what I received at NCBS. Your ability to grasp any new technique in the world and apply it to understand complex biology has always been and will always be a great inspiration. Wishing you good health and many years that will continue to inspire beginners like me. best wishes -Rajat


TREND SETTER IN SCIENCE: Dear Professor Obaid Siddiqui, You have set a path for future neuroscience research and academics in India. Your contributions are not only of high positive impact in the field of Indian science, but also equally contributed for trend setting with regard to work culture as well as guiding young aspiring scholars in science with a broader outlook towards research. I always enjoyed and cherished your high caliber talks, discussions, and your modest personality! Heartiest congratulations on attaining 80! With best regards, Ravi Hegde NIMHANS, Bangalore

"Obaid, thank you! There is

"Obaid, thank you! There is no better occasion than today to say thank you to Obaid; it was Obaid who opened the world of genetics and molecular biology to me. The first interaction I had with him was when I was doing my Ph. D under the guidance of B.M. Udgaonkar on elementary particle physics theory when he gave a colloquium on genetic code. His lucid talk on how nature's well kept secret of the genetic code was being decoded by clever experiments of geneticists and biochemists got us all at TIFR interested in the code. Later when I got back to TIFR from the post doc position at Murray Gellman's group at Cal Tech in 1968, I felt I was no good in particle physics and was convinced by Anil Sadgopal about the exciting areas in molecular biology and that I should pursue them. When I discussed with Obaid about the possibility my joining molecular biology unit, he not only readily agreed; he got me a chance to spend nearly 3 years at Sydney Brenner's lab at MRC laboratory at Cambridge. One can hardly think of a better place to be in than Sydney's lab in early 1970's if you are interested in genetics of development. Sydney was then furiously generating to near saturation various "unc", "dumpy" and other mutants of the worm; John Sulston was diligently peering down the microscope with Nemarsky optics to work out the cell lineage of the one cell embryo to 1000 cell worm, not to mention the large number of bright American post docs pursuing various aspects of development/neurobiology of the worm with great vigour. Just around that time the mechanism of apoptosis was also being characterised. I was totally blind to the power of genetics to bring clarity to these phenomena but instead pursued genetics and biochemistry of the auto fluorescence of the gut of the worm, the equivalent of eye colour mutants of the fly! But then that is another story. Among the many famous mentors I have had in my pursuit of science in my youth, my sympathies go out to Obaid; he had to put up with me the longest! Thank you Obaid!" --- Padmanabhan Babu

"Warmest wishes to Obaid.

"Warmest wishes to Obaid. Special thanks for guiding me through personal difficulties. It was always a good feeling to have him stare at the tip of his shoes while he walked past you in the corridors & knowing all the time that he was thinking of your welfare..!! (I was introduced to `Molecular Biology' in my MBU-TIFR interview in the only question that OS asked me: "What EXACTLY do you understand at the molecular level, when you say Km is the [S] at 1/2 Vmax?".!! To a typical (overconfident?) biochemistry student from Baroda that was a googly which BS Chandrasekhar could have given his right hand for..!!" ---Shashikant Acharya (1985-92).

Another facet of Obaid

Another facet of Obaid Two years ago when I gave my first talk at NCBS on Ayurveda I was surprised to hear Obaid ask questions with a real familiarity about the subject. After the talk, he prodded me with his incisive mind and I discovered that he had not only read about Ayurveda but also discussed its theories and practices with different scholars and Vaidyas. Since then I had the honour to have many more very interesting discussions with him. But I was in for another surprise when he told me of his passion for Hindustani classical music and his musical pilgrimage. So let me open a little window on this beautiful facet of his. He was born in a town not far from Benares. His father was an aficionado of classical music and Obaid grew up listening to great musicians on those early 78 rpm records played on hand-wound gramophone record players. When he moved to Benares, he had the unusual opportunity to listen to famous musicians in private concerts in the homes of local chieftains and at the Maharajah of Kashi’s palace. He even heard Bismillah Khan when he was the temple musician at the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Later when in Lucknow he had the opportunity to listen to great music at baitaks. At some point, probably at Cambridge University, he met Kalyan Mukherjea, a mathematician who had studied the sarod for years. It was Kalyan who got Obaid his first sarod. While working in Bombay, with the help of V.K.Narayana Menon, the Director of the National Centre for Performing Arts, Obaid approached Annapurna Devi to learn the sarod. Daughter of Allauddin Khan, sister of Ali Akbar Khan and first wife of Ravi Shankar, Annapurna is certainly one of the finest sitar and surbahar players of our times. She lives a life of a semi-recluse, and taught only a handful of carefully chosen disciples. She accepted Obaid as a student, something quite extraordinary, and he had regular talim from her for almost four years. During their stay in Calcutta, Obaid and his wife lived in a part of a big house belonging to Kumar Prasad Mukherji, a singer of some repute. Kumar’s father was a patron of musicians and organised baitaks in his house. Obaid and Kumar became great friends and spent hours sharing their passion for music. For almost a decade Ustad Bahaduddin Dagar has been coming to Bangalore and teaching him and a few students at NCBS. Now more than ever his love for music and the sarod is his spiritual food. He hopes to create a digital archive of his collection of Hindustani classical music. The Obaid I discovered is really the finest blend of modern scientific spirit and classical Indian culture. I wish him many, many more years of joy in science and music.

"Dear Professor K.S. Krishnan

"Dear Professor K.S. Krishnan and participants at the 80th birthday celebration for Obaid Siddiqi, It is my pleasure and honor to congratulate my colleague and friend Obaid Siddiqi on this felicitous occasion celebrating his remarkable career as a molecular biologist and leader in the development of molecular biology in India. Obaid and I first met in 1960 in Glasgow, Scotland, when Obaid was a graduate student with the distinguished geneticist Guido Pontcorvo. Obaid then joined my new laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania as the first postdoc, where we collaborated in describing a family of nonsense mutations in bacteria that led to the discovery of the three nonsense triplets in the genetic code. Although Obaid could have continued to develop a successful scientific career in the United States, he was intent on returning to India, and I was able to arrange for the renowned physicist and later molecular biologist Leo Szilard, who had been a colleague of Homi Bhabha, to ask Bhabha to provide Obaid with a position and laboratory at the TaTa Institute. After his return to India Obaid decided to enter the new field of neurogenetics, and he joined Seymour Benzer's laboratory at Cal Tech, which used Drosophila as the experimental organism. Following his studies with Benzer, Obaid returned to India to establish important scientific centers in the Tata Institute and TIFR for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. I am grateful to India for nurturing Obaid's outstanding career, which I am proud to have shared at an early stage. I am delighted to congratulate Obaid and his family on this lovely occasion, and to wish him a long future of further achievements." --- Alan Garen

"Dear Obaid, May your

"Dear Obaid, May your birthday bring
you as much happiness
 as you give to everyone 
who knows you." ---Bal Apte

"Obaid has contributed richly

"Obaid has contributed richly to Indian science and I look forward to his continued engagement with science." ---G.Padmanaban

"I have known Obaid for

"I have known Obaid for several decades and I admire him greatly. My hearty congratulations and good wishes to him. Best wishes." ---Vijayan

"I've always learnt something

"I've always learnt something everytime I've listened to OS" --Rajaram Nityananda

"We are absolutely delighted

"We are absolutely delighted to know that it is your 80th Birthday. Kindly accept our HEARTY CONGRATULATIONS. We have found in you a magnanimous, kind-hearted, discipline-loving, very humble and noble Mentor, who has guided us in our researches with bacterial transformation and neuroanatomy of chemosensory systems of Drosophila. All our achievements would not have been possible without your kind support and blessings. We are grateful to you for all the help, excellent support and able guidance through these many years. We wish you and your Wife a long, healthy and peaceful life. Yours sincerely, --RN Singh and Kusum Singh"

“ Obaid Siddiqi’s association

“ Obaid Siddiqi’s association with TIFR has enriched the Institute in many a superb scientist, a great leader, a builder of institutions, and a wise and wonderful colleague. NCBS, and TIFR as a whole, owe a great, great deal to him. When I think of him, the picture that comes to mind is that of Obaid in the West Canteen of the Institute – half sprawled on the chair, with the larger part of his ample height accommodated largely under the table, with his his legs stretched out. One heard many stories from him, but the ones I liked best were the ones that concerned amusing species of scientist, with pet obsessions. Discussions with Obaid on science over the tea table were always interesting and rewarding. In particular I remember a discussion on the nature of randomness, and the fact that most so-called random events are not truly so (radioactive decay is). I wish I could have been there on this occasion, but though I can't make it, I would like to record my appreciation of Obaid’s great qualities and contributions, and to wish him and Ayse all the very best for the years to come. With warmest regards, ---Mustansir Barma"

"Sometime in 1962 at one of

"Sometime in 1962 at one of the TIFR Faculty meetings Dr. Homi Bhabha surprised us by announcing that there is going to be a Molecular Biology Division in the Institute and one young man by name Obaid Siddiqi is going to initiate the programme. I remembered that on an earlier occasion in one his speeches Dr. Bhabha had mentioned that the British scientist Dr. A.V. Hill who was an adviser to Pandit Nehru on Science had told him when he founded TIFR ,that he should have Biophysics as one of the activities at TIFR since it is a promising area of new research. Dr. Bhabha had replied to him that he would wait for the right man to turn up to start this activity. Almost fifteen years later Obaid Siddiqi turned up and Molecular Biology unit came into existence in TIFR. At the time of the Seventh Five year Plan projection, when I happened to be the Director, Prof Siddiqi came up with the proposal to start another Molecular Biology section outside Bombay where the emphasis would be on fundamental issues in molecular biology and not on applications .Though the TIFR Council was supportive ,DAE was not happy to start yet another molecular biology division since there were already two under its aegis..Well, finally after some efforts it came through and became the National Centre for Biology (NCBS) at Bangalore. I am so happy that both these divisions are thriving as part of TIFR and undoubtedly the entire credit goes to none other than Prof. Obaid Siddiqi. I wish him many more years of rewarding activity." ---B. V. Sreekantan

"Obaid came to the TIFR in

"Obaid came to the TIFR in the early sixties. This was on the basis of a letter written by Leo Szilard to Homi Bhabha. This, in turn, arose from a letter that Guido Pontecorvo, Obaid’s PhD Guide, had written to Leo. Guido was the eldest of the siblings of which Bruno Pontecorvo was the one whom Homi knew quite well, since Bruno was a Member of the Enrico Fermi School of Rome. In fact Bruno had done enough to justify his receiving a Nobel Prize in Physics; indeed there are several who have received Nobel Prizes since then, based on the visionary ideas of Bruno. Homi had discussed with me the possibility of Obaid joining the TIFR so that I could take this up in a Physics Faculty meeting. There was a mixed response, since some were not sure that we should embark on a wholly new program in biological sciences with all of the infrastructure called for. I conveyed this response to Homi and told him that my own views were entirely positive. A great deal of modern biology had involvement of the most distinguished physicists such as Erwin Schrodinger, Max Delbruck, Francis Crick, Walter Gilbert, amongst many more. A great deal of what has happened since then has justified this confidence in the role of physics (and chemistry) in modern biology particularly the training in attitudes that research in these areas involves, and particularly, the use of powerful techniques of X-ray Crystallography, started by some of my old friends from UK: Bragg, Bernel, Perutz and Kendrew, as also the powerful capabilities now brought to bear on science in general through computers and modern IT. There was opposition from BARC, since they already had a Division to deal with biological sciences, particularly in areas of agriculture, medicine and the use of radiation for various purposes. They felt that duplication of facilities would not prove useful. However, one had the presence of a great leader in Homi Bhabha, to override these difficulties and to say that TIFR will enter biology through Obaid. The rest of the developments are all now part of history: the start of biological sciences in TIFR, almost half a century ago; the construction of an additional floor on the B - Block to provide the space for this new group; and the bridge connecting the A to the B-Block, the support from the Wellcome Trust, which was important in the early days; the flexible recruitment processes which enabled many of the young leaders in biology to join TIFR, such as Maitra, Johry, Veronica Rodrigues and others, who would give company to Obaid; and then the idea of setting up a National Centre for Biological Sciences about two decades ago. The original plans to enter biology were there when I was Dean of the Physics Faculty and, later, Deputy Director (Physics). This was before Homi’s tragic death in the air crash in January 1966, after I was to become Director. In 1975, I moved to Delhi. It is not my intention to recount the various jobs I did in Delhi, except to say that before I left the Department of Science and Technology in 1982, the National Biotechnology Board had been created and with it the present growth of modern biology at a national level. I then moved to the Planning Commission as Member (Science). It was then the proposal came to me for the support needed by TIFR for setting up a new Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. I have had many discussions with Obaid on this. It had my full support, including its autonomy, on which he was very keen; and I played a role I was supposed to, as a Member of the Council of TIFR in convincing Prof. Virendra Singh, the then Director TIFR. Obaid has always had the attitude and taste of a good scientist. He is not only a biologist but a true scientist across the whole spectrum of the sciences. It was thus that he is the only biologist of the post-War era, who had been elected the Fellow of the Royal Society. He was President Indian Academy of Sciences and is, today, a Member of the Raman Research Institute Trust. It is in all of these different areas that we come together so often. He has a close-knit family. His wife Asiya is highly knowledgeable and competent historian. He has two bright sons, Imran and Kalim, and two charming daughters, Yumna and Deeba. He has a daughter-in-law, Jyotsna, whom I have known since she was a baby, and I have always referred to ‘Dumbi’, the daughter of Satish Dhawan. Obaid is somebody who is very Catholic and secular in his outlook. It is these attitudes that have gone into the making of institutions that he has been so good at. It has been a great pleasure for us to know him and his family. We wish him many many years of happiness." --- M. G. K. Menon

"I have known Obaid for about

"I have known Obaid for about 50 years.Apart from our meeting often in TIFR, we used to travel many times in the same car from TIFR to the Bombay airport.This gave us opportunities to have extended conversations on various topics .Thanks to these interactions, I could appreciate his vast culture. Mathematicians are reputed to be absent minded,but it seemed to be that he was absent minded too or at least appeared to be so.On one occasion,he discovered while checking in at the Bombay airport that he did not have the ticket for the flight, since he had brought with him a used ticket. However,using his charm, he persuaded the airlines staff to let him board the plane! After he moved to Bangalore ,I did not have much contact with him.I met him once in Trieste when he was a director of a biology workshop and I remember that we had useful conversations regarding the organisation of workshops at the ICTP. Our families,especially our daughters, have been quite close. I wish Obaid all the best in the years to come." --M. S. Narsimhan.

Obaid's vision and

Obaid's vision and charisma: Let me sum up with what I think Obaid stands for. He is a visionary and true to Bhabha's expectations he steered the Molecular Biology (MB) Unit of Tata Institute to a great length. Obaid also possesses the knack of identifying leadership quality, and that is how NCBS took off under the joint leadership of Obaid and Vijay, and has flourished. When Obaid moved to Bangalore, we-at Biology, Mumbai, felt orphaned. It took us a while to struggle, survive and grow amongst the then 'hostile non-biologists'. However, it is a different equation now and Biology Department, Mumbai, has its own status and flavour. Several interdisciplinary research activities have also cropped up, giving unique value to the DBS, Mumbai campus. I recall my interview for a Ph.D. studentship at Tata Institute. As a chemistry student, who had not studied Biology for five years, I was prepared for the question as to why I wanted to join the MB group. I talked glibly about enzymes and RNA molecules-how living system is composed of just chemical reactions. While I probably satisfied the chemists among the interviewers, Obaid tried his best (and was visibly disappointed) since he could not get me to utter the word “regulation”. I admit freely now- that it was Obaid's charisma which had drawn me to apply to the MB group at TIFR. The prospects of working out the mysteries and regulation of life was more of an ethereal dream for which I was very under-prepared and continue to be so. I savor the nostalgia of having a wonderful time with my peer group when I was a student - Pratima, Meher, Handa, Subbarao, Satpal, Veronica, Gotam, Vijay, N. Gautam and so many others. I also recall having heated discussions with students and talented mentors such as Babu, Maitra, Johri, Kenkare, U.N. Singh and Obaid himself. My first course was on Developmental Genetics, taught by Obaid, Babu and Kalpana White. In the Shantiniketan style, we would carry the blackboard to the West-lawns with the magnificent sea-view, and sprawl around on the grass to discuss developmental mosaics and translocations in Drosophila. I relish the free atmosphere that Obaid created and what Tata Institute stands for. On behalf of the entire DBS (Department of Biological Sciences) unit at Mumbai, I wish Obaid and his family the very best on this occasion. I also congratulate NCBS for having completed a very successful 20 years. Shobhona Sharma, Tata Institute, Mum

Dear Vijay, For the last six

Dear Vijay, For the last six months after coming at NCBS I have been searching documentation on Prof Obaid Siddiqi but could not find anything except few lines in Wikipedia! I am extremely surprised that we are still not motivated to write about someone who put India into the map of Biological Sciences after Dr(?) Salim Ali... I am writing this because we still have the time & opportunity to explore Him... If anyone(or a group) takes the intiative we will not have to repent later...

I knew Obaid through stories

I knew Obaid through stories that my university teachers used to tell, about how science has been disseminated in India by this visionary persona, after joining NCBS I got to see him in person and the first thing striked me was he took stairs from -1st to 2nd floor at this age while his students always took the lift (same story I heared about Rodger Hardie in Cambridge). It was him who brought the opportunity of first conversation, in one of the fly retreat when a student from late Veronica's lab was talking about habituation and the attraction centre in fly brain I was intruiged to know if the attraction centre also acts as repulsion centre and Obaid caught this after the talk and spent 3 long hours standing in the aphitheatre talking about it until I was about to miss dinner in the canteen. Recently I had to use one instrument that was lying in his lab from prehistoric time and it was only Obaid who could give information about it. When I asked him if I could use it he became very excited and told me to teach that to all his students as well, he also mentioned that he was planning to expand his lab where that instrument would have bigger table. Now what else to say, while most of the Indian brains float away to work for first world countries and earning their own fame, person like Obaid stands out; one who does quality science being in India and also creates opportunities for future generations. I think NCBS has made itself a model institute that will provoke many other institutes in India to flourish. When I was visiting Cambridge University for one part of my PhD project from Gaiti's lab, I was really impressed by the way people recognised NCBS for its science and people. A very big thank to NCBS faculties for making NCBS a great place to do science. It feels great to be a part of such institution. Long live Obaid and NCBS. Wish you a very happy birthday.

Obaid, a stimulating Mentor:

Obaid, a stimulating Mentor: It is an exceptionally well written tribute to one of the finest researcher and mentors of Indian science. I congratulate both Prof. Siddiqi and Vijay for the fabulous opportunities they have created for modern biology researchers in India. Most importantly, for practicing a 'science first' approach in their own academic professions. I came to know Obaid as a senior faculty in TIFR and Vijay as a young startup. They were both extremely stimulating and made strong impressions on the minds of young aspiring students, learning their ways to enter into a career of serious scientific research. Later on, I learned even more as a colleague and collaborator. I think, what Vijay missed mentioning in his piece is that Obaid had, and still has, an uncanny ability to judge good science and accurately assess a person's ability. He always picked his associates carefully and mentored them to fit into his plan. One thing that he never lost is his patience. I wish all the best to Obaid and hope to engage him with extensive scientific discussions many more times in the future.

Prof. Siddiqi is patient,

Prof. Siddiqi is patient, supportive and available and inquisitive about his student’s interest. He has been a positive influence in my academic career. I feel lucky to have the opportunity to work with him as a Ph.D student in his laboratory at National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS). Prof. Siddiqi has always made time to review my work on weekly basis and give excellent guidance. I spent a great deal of time with him in terrace canteen with a cup of tea talking about my trouble shootings and experimental objectives. He always wants us to be focused and clear in our concepts. I truly believe he is an outstanding professor and I express my heartfelt thanks.

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