Shakuntala Devi is popularly remembered as a mathematical wizard, honoured internationally as India’s ‘human computer’. But there is in fact much more to this multi-faceted genius, in addition to her astrological prowess, which may not be widely known.
In 1955, she had returned to Bangalore after her tour of Europe by which time her reputation as a young mathematical prodigy was well-established globally. It was then that she joined the Kalamandir School of Arts founded and run in Gandhi Bazaar by the renowned artist, Aa Na Subbarao. She became a prominent member of Chitra artistes, a popular amateur drama troupe attached to Kala Mandir, which I was closely involved with.
Playing main roles in many full-length plays, Devi surprised the masses with her hitherto unknown histrionic talent, adding sheen to our troupe’s ventures. What surprised us more was that, while we invariably used our dialogue-sheets during rehearsals till we had memorised our lines, Devi had her own way. She read the master-script just once and reproduced her dialogues and ours, scene-by-scene, without leaving out a single word!
It was, after all, hardly a task for Devi who had astounded audiences around the world by mentally working out the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in just 50 seconds — faster than the specially-programmed US computer — and multiplying two 13-digit numbers in just 28 seconds. These are only a few of the marvels that earned her many international laurels, including a place in the Guinness Book of World Records (1982).
Once, we were to stage a popular play at the city town hall where Sangeet-Vidushi Chennamma was to perform for about half-an-hour in between to enable us to change the stage-setting. Unfortunately, she had to drop out at the last moment due to a sore throat. As we were worried about keeping the packed audience engaged during this interval, the curtains parted suddenly, and there sat Devi on stage before the microphone, poised with a flute in her hand!
Before we could realise it, she was enthralling the gathering by rendering three Keerthanas and a couple of popular devotional songs, pulling off a brief but mature solo concert! Later, her brother Srinivasa Rao, from whom I was learning flute, told me that she had picked up all of that on her own simply by listening, with no guidance from him!
Around 1970, Devi, who ardently relied on the concept of mind-dynamics, was running a clinic for “psychological conditioning” of children at Hotel Kanishka in New Delhi. Her aim was to help school-level children, whose overall development had been affected by negative complexes, to devise an ingenious course to infuse confidence in them. As I stayed at this hotel whenever I visited Delhi on official work, I had the privilege of witnessing this workshop, which totally metamorphosed chidlren’s personalities from abject diffidence to supreme confidence, much to the delight of parents.
“I am not doing this for money; I get enough income from my shows abroad. This is my humble contribution to society,” the modest legend would explain, prompted by the untold adversities she herself had suffered in her childhood.