The Director of IIT Madras, Prof. Bhaskar Ramamurthi, spoke to Chennai36 about his time at insti, experiences as a faculty member and Director.
On his fondest memories as a student
There are two things I want to talk about when it comes to fondest memories. The first is quite obviously hostel life. I distinctly remember the 1977 general elections. All of us were awake the whole night. Initially, the news broadcasted on the radio and on Doordarshan was doctored. It showed that the congress was in the lead. One of my hostel mates happened to have a shortwave radio, and through BBC, we learnt the truth. Later that night, suddenly AIR and Doordarshan changed the story. At that time of the night, the only place with food was the Taramani tea stall. All of us sat there at Taramani with a small transistor radio all night. Early in the morning, it was announced that the opposition won. We were very excited, for we had become quite cynical, and believed that the elections could be rigged. Next day, I had smithy workshop, and could barely stay awake, but the excitement! We never expected the opposition to win.
Another thing I will always cherish is the interaction we had with the professors at the department. We used to spend a lot of time with the faculty, well into the evening, sometimes going out for a cup of tea. These interactions helped us, and moulded us. For one, I had no idea that I would get into research and academics till my fourth year. My professors played a crucial role in this. They asked me why I wasn’t considering doing a PhD abroad, and the time I spent with a few research faculty members introduced me to communications. All I knew before that was circuits, and I never dared to explore communication systems. These interactions were a turning point in my career.
On regrets as a student
It’s quite difficult really, to figure out. As a student, the courses that were taught well, I learnt and put effort to understand the concepts. However, there were a few courses that I just dumped. Given the intense coursework, and the fact that there was a lot to do, I don’t know if I could have actually tried in those courses as well. But the fact remains that for a few courses, like Electromagnetic Fields, I regret not trying hard enough to learn.
Also, we had a five year course, and I believe I wasted the four summers. That translates to a whole year. I just spent a lot of time at home, and met friends, and had fun. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but perhaps I could have done something productive in that time.
On Hang out Junta:
In the first two years, when we had common courses outside the department, I had a number of friends from other streams, like mechanical and metallurgy. Somehow, I developed a fascination with Tamil movies. I had a circle of friends with whom I’d cycle all the way from Taramani gate to Jayanthi or Thiyagaraja theatre in Tiruvanmiyur to watch a black and white Tamil movie every Wednesday.
I had a group of friends I grew very close to in the later years when we started courses in the department.
We had a lot of fun back then, and I am still in touch with most of them. We are still together.
On the Literary and Social scene
I was greatly interested in watching debate and JAM. IIT, along with MCC and Loyola had a very good speaking events culture. I also play the Mridangam, and greatly enjoyed classical music. Now, we have a number of high achievers here at IIT, who learnt music before joining the institute, but back then, it was not so. The classical music has greatly improved over the years in Saarang, and it’s great to see.
Quizzing was very big back then. We did not have proshows or anything of that sort back then. We used to have a quiz at OAT, which attracted a huge audience.
Dramatics back then was not perennially active throughout the years. You could say it was On-Off. We had a few great performers and voice artists. I remember Bhaskar Bhat (now MD at Titan) was a great mimic. He could make sounds like insects, like water flowing. Joe Cherian was a wonderful actor. He would be on stage while Bhaskar gave his voice backstage. But when a couple of very active people passed out, the scene would die. So, I don’t remember or cherish the dramatics scene as I do the quizzing, debate and JAM.
On the change of the students and their mindsets
See, the change in the mindsets is not localized to just the institute. It’s a worldwide phenomenon and is natural with the generation gap. That being said, the students are fundamentally the same even now. We have very bright students, who want to do a number of things. But one difference between then and now is how we spent our time. Back then, we had no T.V. or computers. So a lot of time was spent with friends. The ways of socializing have changed, but the people have not changed too much. For example, the fraction of students playing sports now is about the same as the fraction back then, around 25%.
On the Director back then
I knew Prof. Indiresan personally as a family friend, but as a student, I never met him. He was a young director, and was quite a visionary. He was willing to question everything. The credit system that is in place now, and the choice in the courses you study are all his contributions. He was also the one to motivate faculty to go beyond just teaching, to work on industry related projects and take up sponsored research. He also tried to get in a multicultural group of professors from across the country, and wrote personally to a number of US based professors who showed interest in returning to India. In fact, he was the one who called Prof. Jhunjhunwala to IIT Madras.
On previous Directors and inspiration:
From Prof. Indiresan, I learnt to approach anything, any problem, with a fresh mind. Ask yourself why do you have to do it with this way. Is there any way I can do it better? It is very easy to fall into this rut and do things like they’ve always been done, and form Prof. Indiresan; I learnt to try things with a different approach.
From Prof. M. S. Ananth, my work is a continuation. A number of things, projects and plans that were initiated during his time in office are being implemented and completed now. M. S. Ananth began this trend of developing infrastructure and recruiting new faculty. In his eleven years as director, he hired about 350 new faculty members. I have continued this trend, hiring around 30 to 40 every year. Under Ananth, I worked as Dean Planning, and many of the plans I made then, I execute them in my capacity as Director now.
On why he chose to teach at IITM
After earning my PhD at UC, Santa Barbara, I wanted to return to India. From childhood, I always had this sense of, for want of a better word, patriotism. In 11th, I had actually wanted to join the Air Force. I was also in NCC and took it very seriously. This element was what brought me back to India, and Prof.Reddy said “If you are coming to India, why not here. It’s closer home, and we need people here. Why do you want to go to Arunachal Pradesh just to prove a point?”
So, I decided to come back here to IIT Madras.
On why he loves IITM
This is the only home I know. It’s very simple. Why do you love home? You can’t have a single reason. It’s just a great place. It’s “home”.
On his vision for Insti
As an institute, I would like to see that the PhD programs are as good and sought after as the UG/PG degrees. I would like to see an increase in the research output. Also, wherever the institute can push ahead, with respect to the industry, we should. Prof.Jhunjhunwala and I are working on telecommunication. A subset of this is to push ahead with projects that can have an impact on human lives directly, like solar power, water treatment and low cost housing. Also, while we are making this transition, it is extremely important to not lose the grip on the UG program. As you know, our UG batches are growing in size. From the 250 in our batch to over 800 now, the increase means that there is a more diverse set of people, who want to develop and grow in many ways, and as a residential institute, I believe IIT Madras should accommodate that. So my vision for IITM is to improve research, while still keeping the UG program tight.
On who the Director is, beyond the mystery
What can I say? It’s a little sad. I’ve been struggling to figure out how to connect with all the students. How do I connect with 800 every year? I really want to, but then, where is the time?
At one level, I am no different from a guy who was a student here. My mind works in the very same way. Of course, there will be a few differences, on account of the generation gap. It’s just like with your own fathers and mothers. But I believe I am a down to earth, simple person. I think I am easy going and friendly, and not too different from you guys.
On Faculty-Student interaction
The faculty student interaction has gone down over the years. It is a matter of attitude.One thing which is definitely there is that life is faster now. I spend less time with students than I wish I did. Home is different now. Homes used to run themselves but nowadays you can’t do that. You have to do your chores since everyone is working now. Small things like picking up kids must be done, and these daily chores take time. Also, expectations change. Now, we can fly to visit parents every now and then, while back then, it was once in two years. So there is much less time to hang around with students in hostels or departments. The fact that we are residential and we could have more informal interaction is a matter of concern.
On a resolution
To improve interactions with students, I can take a resolution. I will try to not fill my calendar and my daily schedule to such an extent so as to not have any time. I should make time to go and know the people who make up this institute. It is very important and I am aware of it.
On HS students
Because of the HS program, we are getting students with a different outlook to life and who have different interests, and this is a great thing for the institute. Once upon a time, the HS department took in only research scholars and taught courses to the engineering undergrads. As the department grew, it was decided that it should have its own program, and the last seven or eight years of its existence has been a wonderful experience. In universities abroad, we see the numbers of students in the different streams are more or less equal, but here the ratio is quite skewed. Ideally we should have had a system with IIT’s, JNU and AIIMS together, but that is not what happened. I hope the department keeps growing and doing well.
For the MBA students
Be focused on your MBA, but do remember that this is not like an IIM where you have only management students. Being a residential campus with a vast diversity of students, you have the opportunity to interact with so many kinds of people. You must all try and build your network.
Dr.Bhaskar Ramamurthy graduated with a B.Tech in Electrical Engineering in 1980 from IIT Madras.