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Remembering Indra Bir Singh, a Consummate Geologist and Bold Thinker

Remembering Indra Bir Singh, a Consummate Geologist and Bold Thinker

Indra Bir Singh. Photo courtesy D.M. Banerjee.

Professor Indra Bir Singh, fellow of the Indian National Science Academy, a globally acclaimed Earth scientist and a  product of the geology department of Lucknow University passed away in the early hours of February 11, 2021. With his death, the  world has lost an international minded geologist of remarkable broad interest.

He is survived by his independent-minded wife and two sons.

Prof Singh was born in Lucknow in 1943 in the prosperous west Uttar Pradesh family of Chaudhri Atar Singh and Ram Kumari. He went to the local Mansa Din Shukla Inter College, moved to Jubilee College subsequently and joined the Lucknow Christian College in 1956, along with some other accomplished Indian geoscientists like Sayyad Abbas Jafar, Satya Prakash Rastogi and Avinas Chandra. It was here that my personal association with Prof Singh began.

He studied geology in the Lucknow University and obtained an MSc in 1962. The same year, he joined the ONGC Headquarters in Dehradun as a senior technical assistant (STA). In those years, the employment situation for geologists was depressing, so getting an offer to join on an STA was considered to be a great achievement.

However, Prof Singh was unhappy with the amount of work assigned to him there ONGC, so in mid-1963, he moved to Stuttgart in West Germany, where his elder brother Udaibir Singh worked as an engineer. He joined the Technical University of Stuttgart and worked towards a doctoral thesis on the Harz mountains, under the guidance of H. Aldinger. This work earned him a doctoral degree in 1966.

Subsequently, he  joined the celebrated mineralogist and petrologist Thomas Barth at the University of Oslo as a postdoctoral fellow. In this lab, he became close to another bright and punctilious Indian scientist, C.D.P. Singh, who – upon his return to India – did some commendable geochemical work in Patna University and in the Khetri copper mines. This association helped Prof Singh acquire and nurture his later days’ iconoclastic image.

While familiarising himself with hard-rock geochemistry and petrology in the research group of Barth, he studied rocks of the Telemark region of Norway and published remarkable papers on the sedimentary history of that region. In early 1969, he joined the research group of H.E. Reineck as Mitarbieter, or coworker, in the Seckenberg oceanographic institute at Wilhelmshaven, on Germany’s North Sea coast. Here, he worked extensively on the modern tidal flats of the North Sea, observed different sand grains rolling on wet tidal flat surfaces and studied their behaviour in changing hydrological and micro-morpho-tectonic domains.

This experience on the coast armed him with expert knowledge that helped him carry out precise geological interpretations of the geological events in ancient rock records. He became an expert at precisely defining the marine shallow facies that led him to join Reineck in writing a book, Depositional Sedimentary Environment. Published by Springer Verlag in 1973, the book became a runaway success in the community of sedimentologists and stormed the contemporary global market.

After Prof Singh returned to India, he joined Lucknow University in 1972, at the invitation of R.C. Mishra, the benevolent head of the department at the time. In 1984, he was promoted as reader and in 1986 became professor. Between 1995 and 2003, he served as the head of the department and dean of the science faculty. He also taught at the Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge (1984-1986) as a visiting professor and at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg (1998-1999) as the Alexander von Humboldt Professor.

He received prestigious awards like the L. Rama Rao Birth Centenary Award by the Geological Society of India in 1996, the Life Time Achievement Geoscience Award in 2014 from the Ministry of Mines and a Special Honour at the Centenary Function of  Lucknow University in 2020. He also served as a senior scientist and honorary scientist at the Indian National Science Academy.

Indra Bir Singh. Photo courtesy D.M. Banerjee

Administratively, he retired in 2006, but Prof Singh displayed no signs of mental retirement. He maintained his iconoclastic image and openly decried the stuff-shirt attitude of many of his colleagues and contemporaries. All through his academic career, he remained a rugged individualist and behaved like a terribly bold thinker.

His intuitive mind showed him the way to discover loopholes in numerous geological interpretations that the Indian geological community over decades had considered sacrosanct. The entire history of the evolution of the Lesser Himalaya had to be rewritten after he proved that a major part of the rocks in this region are Precambrian in age.

His scientific contributions touched the entire spectrum of Indian stratigraphy. His other monumental work includes depositional modelling and interpretation of the landform development in the Ganga Plains, geo-archeological finds in the Ganga basin and providing the evidence of domestication of rice from 6,500 BC.

He also interpreted the Karewa sedimentary succession in the Kashmir valley, suggested a new depositional model for the Bhuj formation in Kutch, and performed facies modelling of the Vindhyan basin sedimentary succession and Lameta rocks in central India.

He wrote another significant book, entitled Indian Deltas: East Coast of India, with A.S. Rama Swamy of Andhra University in 2006. It served as an important reference book for oil exploration companies.

Also read: The Story of How Mud Changed Earth

Prof Singh was also engaged in activities of the UN International Geoscience Programme and served on the advisory board of the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons, the Indian regulatory agency.

In his day to day attitude, Prof Singh was casual, always comfortable in his shredded blue denims and a pair of Hawaii slippers, and refused to drive anything other than his Nano car. He loved eating spicy foods, and listened to, appreciated and critiqued good classical music without being able to sing. He had a pleasant demeanour, and a sharp mind full of novel ideas.

He was also an excellent teacher and touched the lives of each of his students in a special way. All his  students carry a part of his personality as well as carry on his legacy. Above all he was a great humanitarian and an excellent friend.

D.M.Banerjee, FNA, is a former professor of geology at the University of Delhi.

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