Nandivada Rathnasree’s death on May 9 after a battle with Covid-19 has been mourned by the astronomy community not only in India but across the world. The Director of the Nehru Planetarium and Science Museum in Delhi touched the lives of innumerable young students and brought the story of the cosmos to their classrooms.

Rathnasree was appointed director of the Nehru Planetarium in 1999 and held the position until her death. In these 21 years of service, she was not only the torchbearer of astronomy education in India, but also a guiding light for astronomy communicators around the country.

During her tenure, the Nehru Planetarium became a hub of exciting astronomy activities. She mentored many students who worked with her on short-term astronomy projects. Over the years, she organised several exhibitions on important astronomical events and Indian astronomical and space activities.

“I have seen her relentlessly working on making planetarium shows on very short notice on an important astronomical phenomenon that had been in the news,” said Ravi Kiran, the director of Jawahar Planetarium in Allahabad. “She was perhaps the most enthusiastic among us.”

Added Shiva Prasad Khened, former director of the National Science Center in New Delhi, “Any astronomical event be it the recent super conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn or the solar or lunar eclipses, she was one constant whose unending passion to take this to the people was there for everyone to see.”

During Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary celebrations in 2019, for instance, she organised “Bapu Khagol Mela”, a year-long campaign during which she conducted astronomy outreach activities at many locations where the leader had lived. During my tenure at the BM Birla Science Centre, we were the South India nodal centre for the campaign and organised several lectures and public night sky observation activities. We also organised several activities to commemorate 50 years of the first moon landing in 2019.

Rathnasree believed that astronomy outreach done at archeoastronomy heritage sites and archeoastronomy instruments had great potential. She conducted fieldwork to study astronomical instruments at four extant Jantar Mantar observatories in Delhi, Jaipur, Ujjain, and Varanasi. They had been built between by Sawaii Jai Singh II of Jaipur between 1724 and 1730 but had been abandoned after his death in 1743. Thanks to Rathnasree, they were redeemed as active centres for amateur positional astronomy.

She made these gigantic instruments and their astronomy accessible to the public. She created an extensive body of work around these instruments and presented her research at several international conferences. She also served on the restoration committee of Jantar Mantar in Delhi.

A fortuitous meeting

Rathnasree was born on November 26, 1963, in Hyderabad. After finishing her schooling at Kendriya Vidyalaya in 1981, she went to University College for Women in Hyderabad. She did her Master studies at Hyderabad Central University from which she graduated in 1986. She was theoretical astrophysicist Alak Ray’s first doctoral student at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. She was awarded a doctoral degree in 1992 for her work on binary stars.

She later moved to study pulsars during her post-doctoral fellowship with radio astronomer Joanna Marie Rankin at the University of Vermont from 1992 to 1994. Here she carried out pulsar observations using the Arecibo radio-telescope.

Nandivada Rathnasree at Delhi's Jantar Mantar.

I first met Rathnasree as a ten-year-old student when she visited our school in Agra in 2004 to conduct a telescope-making workshop. My first memory of Rathnasree is her standing in the class and passionately explaining the basics of astronomy to us. After the class, I waited for her at the door and asked for recommendations for books about astronomy. Among other books, she mentioned Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

There was no way to order books except to ask a bookshop to get a copy but they were not very helpful. Besides, it was difficult for my family to afford books for me that were not part of the syllabus. I wrote a letter to Rathnasree telling her that I was unable to find books she’d recommended.

A few weeks later I received a parcel from her. Those were the first books I read on popular science and astronomy. It had a sky map that I used for the next couple of years to locate stars.

Flooded with calls

Throughout my school life, she was a constant source of inspiration for me. When I started visiting Delhi frequently, I volunteered at the Nehru Planetarium in 2008 and in 2009. Until I graduated from college in 2015, I spent a lot of time having discussions with her and working with her on small projects.

We used to receive an overwhelming number of calls from schools asking us they could send their students to attend her lecture on astronomy. I have never seen such enthusiasm.

In 2016, I organised a Winter School on Astronomy in collaboration with Shantanu Basu of Western University, Canada. Organising an international meeting on astronomy was new to me. Rathnasree took the onus of helping me help me plan the conference in detail. Thanks to her, we hosted an astrophotography exhibition during the winter school. She supported the school till the last meeting before the lockdown in February 2020.

When I got my first job as the curator of the Space Museum when it was still being built at the BM Birla Science Center in Hyderabad in 2017, I called her from Canada to give her the news. I was on a research visit to Western University. She was not only thrilled to hear that I got a job, she was also excited that we could collaborate on projects in astronomy education.

We had several occasions to do that during my tenure at the Birla Science Centre. She taught me how to write a planetarium script – a screenplay of the planetarium shows that requires meticulous details about voice overs, star positions, audio-visuals, and ia coding chart. She was involved in every step of the Space Museum design and made valuable suggestions to it. When the museum was inaugurated in July 2019, she called me to congratulate me.

A few years ago, when I started compiling an anthology of poetic work on astronomy, she invited me to look at the show that she had designed on astronomical references in William Shakespeare’s work.

The show started with a quotation from Julius Caesar: “I am constant as the northern star, / Of whose true-fixed and resting quality/There is no fellow in the firmament.”

She used that to indicate the Northern Star, Polaris, and built the story from there. She explained the entire night sky with Shakespearean sources. It was fascinating how she could ingeniously imagine different ways of astronomical storytelling. She did the same with John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Rathnasree helped transform the way astronomy outreach was conducted in India. It was her untiring enthusiasm that made it possible for the astronomy community to communicate to a wider audience. In her immense body of work over the decades, she inspired two generations of astronomers and science communicators.

She is survived by her husband Dr Patrick Dasgupta and her son Ujjwal.

Pranav Sharma is a science historian who lives and works in New Delhi.