Sunday, March 30, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke brings back IIT Memories

The passing of Arthur C. Clarke brought back the experience of hearing him some twentyfive (no kidding!) years ago at IIT Madras. There was this marvellous series known as the `Extra-Mural Lecture' series. It was a stunning for all of us young men and women to see and hear these living legends. What I actually remember of those extraordinary lectures is very little. I do remember some of those we heard. There was Charles Duke who was an astronaut who had walked on the moon, and then there was a lecture by R. K. Laxman. He actually took a slide and a black pen and drew a cartoon for us with half a dozen pen strokes. Here in IISc we have (had?) this Frontier series which also has brought many impressive personalities. I remember a historian Sabyasachi Bhattacharryya, Medha Patkar and Mrinalini Sarabhai as being particularly impressive as speakers and/or personalities.

I must say that while we talk so much about all the `Institution builders', e.g., Bhabha, Sarabhai, Raman, etc.., it would also be great to know who are those that were behind the Extra-Mural series, the Frontier series. Who are the silent and men and women that actually turn the wheels of these great Institutions? Or atleast oil them? Why are they unknown, anonymous?

It is not just the extra-curricular activities that I wish to think about: Would all the great alumni of these great Institutes be what they were without the unknown men and women who established these institutes, set up the syllabus, ran the exams and gave out the grades? Would the Khoslas, the Vaziranis, the Madhu Sudans, the Rekhis, the Narayanamurthys, and my own classmate Phaneesh Murthy's be what they are? Of course there are others who have made their fame elsewhere: in academe, in letters, etc..

There were poignant stories sometime ago of one IIM Prof., Ramu Iyer, who passed away due to cancer and was unable to pay his medical bills, although his students were Wall street billionaires. I wonder how many such stories are there about the IITs and indeed of all the other myriad educational institutions in our country. I don't just mean sad stories; even happy stories which are all unknown.

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