Mathematics and Theatre

Mathematics and Theatre – at the first glance though the relation between the two seems irrelevant it perhaps isn’t.

One can design an entrance based on the concept of mathematical subject matter,inaugurate the exhibition by opening topological knot (instead of traditional cutting of the ribbon), and elucidate the notion of mathematical logic using the verse of the famous poet – Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla:

‘He mor xokolo xotroo tok Namaskar’ (O, my enemies- I salute you all!), we can have inline, poet Navakanta Baruah’s famous poem viz.

‘…..Leelar dingir moni xori pori….’ –“Leelavati” associated with the remarkable ancient Indian mathematician Bhaskara.

The university professor can really make things more interesting in his class by citing the example of the noted quote- Words, words and words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (when he was reading the letter from his beloved Ophelia) when explaining ‘Words’ in the chapter of Semi- group.

On a similar note one can explain the concept of form and content in mathematical logic referring to the evening prayers (Prasanga) in the Kirtan Ghar or (Namaaj) in the mosque or illustrate the analogy of ‘Manooh xokolobor dweep’ (“Human beings, all are islands” in a poetic manner (of some Assamese poet) to make the concept of Universal and Existential quantifier exemplified as “No-man is an island” in Hamilton’s book of mathematical logic more comprehensible to the students.

If one can have such plethora of artistically skewed examples intertwined in the intricate concepts of mathematics, it’s really a matter of wonder why we can’t have a relation between mathematics and theatre!

Noting this resemblance let us delve somewhat more into this. In this regard the author would like to mention his valuable thought provoking experience that has impelled him to compose this piece of writing. This happened in the year of 2006 in the International Conference of Mathematicians held in Madrid

In this prominent milieu “Springer-Verlag” published its internationally acclaimed publication – “Madrid Intelligencer” that carried a lovely piece of article by Luc Lemaire named – “The too discrete charm of mathematics”.

In 2001 Lemaire watched the play – Proofby David Auburn who was later felicitated with the famous Pulitzer award. Its unprecedented success can be easily understood by the fact that it was staged in Broadways for three years.

In June 2002, the theatrical troupe – ‘Le Rideau de Bruxelles announced that it would translate this to French and perform the same in September.

Lemaire was very much excited after watching the play and wrote to the director that in case of any doubt from the perspective of mathematics he would be more than happy to help him. Little did he expect any reply from this communication.

However indeed he got an encouraging response that kept him involved with this show for four years.

“Proof” was mainly focused on the world of researchers in mathematics. John Nash after his remarkable contribution in mathematics at the age of thirty suffered from mental imbalance. One of the characters in this play was influenced by this fate of John Nash.

It would be relevant to mention the path of development of his disease and research in his own words-

“While in Princeton I was absorbed in a problem related to Partial Differential Equation. As per my understanding this was limited to only two dimensions. Although I was able to find the solution to this I hardly knew that my contemporary Anou-de-George from Italy was too occupied with the same problem It was quite unfortunate on my part as George found the solution to it before me at least for the interesting elliptic equations. It was for sure that in case Nash or George wouldn’t have been able to solve this problem the person to accomplish this Herculean task would have been awarded the Fields Medal (the highest honor in Mathematics). I started to lose my mental stability from the beginning of the year I began to drop scientific reasoning and I started believing things that weren’t true.

Doctors declared that I was suffering from schizophrenia or paranoid schizophrenia.However I would refrain from a detailed description of this period as on the whole it encompassed my personal life. By the end of ‘60s when I returned to delusional hypotheses I became a person whose thoughts were impacted by delusion though accompanied by somewhat normal behavior. Thus I was able to keep myself away from the hospital and psychiatrists. I was able to project myself as a person with equipped with scientific reasoning.

Nevertheless it wasn’t something to be happy about. John Nash justified the same with his reasoning and supported it with the praiseworthy intellectual and logical fact that it isn’t the way an ailing person recovers from his illness. He opined that the rational thinking of a human being defined the limit of his understanding and views of the universe. As an example: a non-Zoroastrian might think that Zarathustra is simply an insensible and mad person. And such a person motivates thousands of others to perform fire-worship. Sans this madness he would be akin to those thousands and soon people would forget him the way he did. Time passed by and I initiated the process of rejecting those delusion-ridden thoughts in a row that became the characteristic of my orientation. As obvious I discarded the fact that surely politically motivated thoughts are an utter waste of the intellectual counterpart. ”

Let us come back to our discussion of the play that was based upon a long proof of a famous theorem. In the middle of his illness he was desperately trying to find it though vaguely and swayed between any proper success and failure. Lemaire noticed that this drama was able to infuse excitement in addition to the normal interest among the masses the reason being- the concept of a “proof” was radically different from the notion of a “usual and ordinary attraction”. The diseased character was able to impart this feeling among the captivated viewers of Bruxelles that in general a mathematician surpasses the limit of insensibility and instability of the mind. The director and actors in this play were somewhat unclear about the views of a mathematician and they actually wished to converse with one in flesh and blood. It took Le- mare four hours to convince them that a mathematician could sustain as a normal human being that was contrary to their belief.

In the course of popularizing of mathematics they had some queries related to those who didn’t belong to this world. Firstly, this play being based upon the proof a theorem and provided the spectator is not a student of mathematics they tried to surmise in reality what does a proof mean. What does it look like? How does it differ from a normal huge and complicated numerical calculation that generally forms as a belief on this subject among the common people?

Obviously, this wasn’t easy to explain. They had to be made aware that by and large mathematicians present their results in the form of conclusive forms. In the beginning it starts with definition, proceeds towards theorems and thereafter comes the proof. Le Mare had to also justify the enormous role played by intuition that was the key to attaining knowledge in the field of mathematics too though it hides an interesting feature in this course. It conceals the non-formal reasoning process whereas the mode of deductive logic reveals the same.

In the end they were convinced by the fact that mathematical and artistic creativity are somewhat analogous and that on the whole intuition and search for mathematical beauty play a major role in this branch of learning. And this understanding had to be coordinated between the director and the actors of this play. This fact reminds us of our own Jahnu Baruah as a director and actor Indra Bania. We remember the efforts put up by Bania by placing a heavy wooden log on his shoulder under the supervision of Baruah to comprehend the weight of a plough carried by a farmer. On a similar note we can think of Bishnu Prasad Rabha who used to tear his pillow to pieces and sit frantically when he wasn’t able to properly compose a tune (a creative art). This is how the depression of a ‘mathematics-researcher’ can be compared on his inability in the field of creative research similar to creative art and culture.

As the troop wanted to depict the same thought they tried to understand how mathematicians are guided under these circumstances and the manner in which they progress in their lives.

Lemaire had to put up considerable effort to make them understand that a play can be composed even on the lives of so many other mathematicians too professing in the University of Bruxelles From that point of time onwards whenever he had a chance to speak with students or would-be researchers he used to emphasize upon the fact that all their future teachers are researchers too and this is as important as the beauty of mathematics or the intuition that equips them to tread into newer aspects. But this wasn’t the end. Both Lemaire and the director decided to present their opinion from the perspectives of mathematics and theatre before the enact of a play. Though they planned to do this once, they ended up doing it ten times and that too in front of more than 1500 secondary school students. Le mare got a chance to address on the research prospects of mathematics and its sheer delight and its career aspects too.

In 2003 he read a criticism on a play that was presented only in Berkley, named “Partition”, by Ira Hauptman. He discussed this with his new friends in ‘Le Rideau de Bruxelles regarding the possibility of showing the same there, which they eventually did.

In the words of the author this was a fantasy based on the writings of G.H. Hardy regarding his wonderful acquaintance and association with Ramanujam. The fancy part accompanying this drama was the presence of Fermat in the scene with Goddess Namagiri whom Ramanujam worshipped.

As an amateur Lemaire had opened new vistas and avenues for himself by these kinds of association with the literature involving Hardy, Ramanujam’s notebook and Riemann Hypothesis, a call he instinctively accepted.

In this context it would be worthwhile to mention that Lemaire wondered with excitement and delight when he found three separate books on Riemann Hypothesis for laymen in the science section of a huge library in London. From a general perspective of the reader we should surely note the touch of intellectual beauty involved here.

Coming back to the play it was as successful as “Proof” and Lemaire even shared his views the way he did earlier, with the director of “Partition”- Jules -Henry Marchant. It was widely accepted that  Hardy’s “A mathematician’s apology” would call for an intellectual debate.

Henry Merchant believed that mathematics of primes was far more superior and immortal as compared to normal literature and to analyze this he used to recite the poem of Rimbaud. On the other hand Le Mare investigated into Euclid’s proposition on “Infinity of Primes” or looked into the formulae in Ramanujam’s notebook. In every instance they cherished the same beauty involved in all these aspects.

This is to focus and emphasize upon the fact that the wonderful relation between mathematics and creative art or theatre exists already. We want to knit our feelings on this, rather highly intellectual phenomenon in the following way modestly signifying the emptiness of our minds:

“Ore raati andhokaarot ,

aasile mor duar bandha

Kone aahi dile meli ,

Xonor pohor , dile dhaali—

Ki ananda, ki ananda!

[Alone I remained in the dark with my doors closed,

Who opened these and poured the golden radiance

And filled my mind with the unprecedented bliss!!

Oh this joy!! How wonderful it feels!! ” ]

(Parbati Prasad Baruah)


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