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"A First Class Man" Celebrates India's Math Genius Ramanujan

American playwright David Freeman’s “A First Class Man” is an ode to self-taught Indian math prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   01-07-2016
Srinivasa Ramanujan & G.H Hardy

Los Angelis playwright David Freeman and his wife found themselves in India during the height of the colorful centenary celebrations to mark Indian math genius Srinavasa Ramanujan's birth.

"He’s a great South Indian hero and the newspapers were full of stories about him. Reading more about Ramanujan led me to G.H. Hardy, and that’s when I saw a story, a drama," Freeman told "Sloan Science & Film."

Freeman's travels to India inspired “A First Class Man,” a crowd-pleasing drama which looks at Ramanujan's relationship with G.H. Hardy, the eminent British professor at Trinity College, Cambridge University, who "discovered" him and helped work out proofs for Ramanujan’s highly original theories.

"Faith was central to Ramanujan. He believed formulas came to him through prayer. Hardy, in addition to being an atheist, was a Westerner to his toes: He believed in proof, that without proof there was nothing. I could not imagine a greater conflict: two men who worked together as colleagues but had different views of everything," said Freeman.

Ramanujan was a poor shipping clerk in Chennai when he shot off letters crammed with brilliant theorems to Cambridge mathematicians. Two didn’t even bother to reply to the largely self-taught Indian mathematician.

In 1913, Ramanujan finally wrote to G.H Hardy after reading his book "Orders of Infinity." The sympathetic Cambridge don who preferred the poor and disadvantaged to the "confident, booming, imperialist bourgeois English" invited Ramanujan to Britain and the two began an extraordinary collaboration. The play looks at the five-year relationship suggesting that Hardy without intending any cruelty; emotionally neglected Ramanujan who was plagued by illness, loneliness and stress in Britain.

According to most accounts, Hardy initially thought Ramanujan's 10-page letter, containing over 100 statements of mathematical theorems, was a prank. But after showing them to his peers, the academics concluded that the "results must be true because, if they were not true, no one would have the imagination to invent them."

Freeman's "A First Class Man" had a successful off-Broadway premiere in 2006, staged by the Alter Ego theatre company, which used to be run by corporate lawyer-turned- finance professional Bhavna Thakur.

"Freeman's drama explores the complex and dysfunctional relationship between Hardy's precise world of mathematics and scientific orthodoxy that clashes with Ramanujan's more intuitive and spiritual relationship with numbers,” theatre loving Thakur who is head of capital markets for Everstone Capital Advisors, told

Ramanujan was a devout Tamil Brahmin who claimed his discoveries were revealed to him by a Hindu Goddess. “Hardy was atheist so the conflict is pronounced,” said Thakur, who holds a Masters in Law from Columbia University.

The play deconstructs Ramanujan’s Cambridge years, touching on the loneliness of an outsider trapped in Cambridge University's elitist and very closed society. His vegetarian diet in war-time Britain and the harsh winters took their toll on his health. Ramanujan returned to India in 1919, depressed and remote; he died a year later of tuberculosis at the age of 33.

"A First Class Man" adds to a growing number of mathematics-rich stage productions. David Auburn's "Proof," which hinges on the disputed authorship of a mathematical work, won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for drama while Tom Stoppard's play "Arcadia," which brings fractal geometry and chaos theory into a 19th-century setting, continues to thrive in a variety of US venues.

British Canadian film maker Roger Spottiswoode who has directed hits like the James Bond movie "Tomorrow Never Dies" has picked up the film rights to the drama about the Indian mathematician.

Ramanujan's work and ideas power digital technology today. When your automated teller machines divide and arrange your money before coughing it up, they are all using the Indian mathematician's partition theory.

Uttara Choudhury is Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site and writer for Forbes India. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London



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