"A nation's greatest assets are its brains," Indian Ambassador Nani A. Palkhivala told some 350 guests last night in a unique ceremony at the Washington Hilton, a celebration of the brain drain.

After a dinner of curried lamb and pilaf, the ambassador presided at the presentation of special plaques honoring natives of India, eminent in the arts or sciences, who have become residents - and assets - of the United States. He said it was the first such occasion in India's history and that he hope it would be served as a model to others.

In a lengthy evening of speechmaking, 11 of the 14 honorees rose to receive their plaques and to present variations on a basic theme: "it is the greatest of all honors to have one's work recognized by the land of one's birth."

Zubin Mehta, condutor of the New York Philharmonic and the plaque recipient most widely known in the United States, was unable to attend the ceremony. He was in Israel, where he is the conductor of the Israel Philharmonic. Also absent were two of the scientists being honored, both of whom were in Europe: H. Ghobind Khorana of MIT, who won a Nobel Prize for his research on genetics, and Dr. S. Subramanian, who has recieved many international awards for his work in the field of heart surgery.

Some of the recipients seized the occasion to plead for an improvement of conditions in the world or their particular discipline - for example, physicist E.C.G. Sudarshan, who lamented that education in India now seems dedicated to "competence for the many rather than excellence for the few." Or geologist Manik Talwani, who regretted the "suspicion and doubt" that impede international co-operation in oceanography.

Two mathematicans, Raj Chandra Bose and Harish-Chandra, reflected India's long tradition in that field but others such as atomic physicist Kundan S Singwi and solid-state chemist Rustum Roy are working on questions undreamed of a generation or two ago.

Astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar reminisced on the hope and excitement in the 1920s, when he was a student, cancer researcher Satyabrata Nandi declined to dicuss his work, because "you read about cancer research everywhere now - and if you believed what the researchers say, you would not dare to eat."

C.K.N. Patel, inventor of the carbon dioxide laser, noted that it allows new surgical techniques to be used and excitement of India in the 1920s, ducing energy by atomic fusion.

Two novelists were honored: Raja Rao, who spoke on linguistics and philosophy, and A. K. Ramanujan who read a poem to one of the ancient gods of India, begging him to "return the future to what it was."