Monday, January 24, 2011

Sur Bane Hamaara

For those of us who were not initiated in to classical music appreciation, and to whom the fondest memory of television is still Doordarshan of the nineties, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Dr. Balamurali Krishna represented Indian classical music. The reason was the widely popular musical "Mile Sur Mera Tumhara", which opened with the voice of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. Hence his demise today leaves a void not just in the Indian music landscape, but also in hearts of many non-connoisseurs of Hindustani music like me.

I do not know anything to tell about his Kharana or his profoundness with Khayal. But still, I can vouch that his rendering had a power to tell word-less stories to the film-songs-trained ears of mine.

For me, his appearance in "Mile Sur Mera Tumhara" or "Ek Sur" (the official name of the song) is enough to make memory of him eternal. Written by Piyush Pande, composed by Ashok Patki, directed by Suresh Mullick and telecasted first on the Independence Day of 1988 after Prime Minister's speech, "Ek Sur" was a celebration of the diversity of India. It almost caught the status of the unofficial anthem of India. Covering fourteen languages and as many cultures, it was literally a free tour of India from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, from Kutch to Assam.

Those were the days when I did not realise that nationalism, even when superior to regionalism and casteism is something that had to be slowly replaced with the feeling of universal brotherhood. Wish I could select a song that celebrates universal brotherhood to dedicate to Pandit Bhimsenji's memory tonight.

Monday, November 01, 2010

ബോധി കോമണ്‍സ് (Bodhi Commons)

സീസറും യേശുവും കൊള്ളയടിച്ചിട്ടും, കൊന്നൊടുക്കിയിട്ടും,
വറ്റാതെ നില്‍കുന്ന മനുഷ്യന്റെ സര്‍ഗശക്തിക്കു
തങ്ങളില്‍ തങ്ങളില്‍ സംവദിക്കാന്‍,
ലോകത്തോടുറക്കെ പ്രസംഗിക്കുവാന്‍.

വിഷവാതകം പോലെ മനുഷ്യനെ ചുറ്റിനും മൂടുന്ന
അധിനിവേശങ്ങളെ ചെറുത്തു നില്‍ക്കാന്‍,
അബദ്ധസിദ്ധാന്തങ്ങളെ തിരിച്ചറിയാന്‍,
കപടവിശ്വാസങ്ങളെ തച്ചുടയ്ക്കാന്‍.

സമത്വസുന്ദരമായ ഒരു ലോകത്തെ
സ്വപ്നം കാണാന്‍, സൃഷ്ടിക്കാന്‍.
അതിനായി ഒത്തുചേരാന്‍, പഠിക്കാന്‍,
സംഘടിക്കുവാന്‍, പോരാടുവാന്‍.

ചിന്തകള്‍ തന്ന തണലിന്റെ കീഴില്‍ പണിതുയര്‍ത്തി ഞങ്ങളിന്ന്,
കാറ്റാടിക്കഴകളെ ചകിരി പിരിച്ച കയറും,
വിയര്‍പ്പും, പ്രതീക്ഷയും കൊണ്ട് വലിച്ചു കെട്ടി,
ബോധി എന്നൊരീ പൊതുവേദി

തളര്‍ന്ന കൈവിരലുകളും, അല്പം നീരുവെച്ച പുറംകഴുത്തും,
തളര്‍ത്തുനില്ല തെല്ലുമീ രോമാഞ്ചത്തെ.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

I know what you are thinking.

Two nights back Vinita, my wife, said to me : "I know what you are thinkng."

I was surprised. I asked :"How come! Do you follow me on Twitter?"

I slipped to sleep somewhere in the middle of the long lecture that followed from her.

Monday, April 12, 2010

When the past takes a flight and alights on your present.

I do not have an adjective to qualify the happiness that you feel when a leaf from the past takes a flight and alights on your present. The name of the flight that my past chose to fly yesterday night was Joby Joseph.

Joby was the conscience of my lab during my master's studies at IISc. He was then working on his PhD thesis topic : "Why only two ears? - Some indicators from the study of source separation using two sensors". In fact, with out making a big fuss about it, he was showing us all that two ears are indeed enough for us to be sensitive about the world around us. I have learned a lot from being with him and admiring him all the while. But it seems that the only thing he ever tried to "teach" me was bird watching and he failed. His skill at spotting birds is pure magic and its futile trying to learn it. After PhD he had moved on to NIH Maryland to pursue post doctral studies in neuro science and has been there for last five years.

That is the leaf from the past. And see how it alighted onto my present
Today at 2.30 pm while attending a class, I got a call on my mobile from an unidentified number. As usual, I didn't bother to return the call. But when I reached the department, the security told me that some one had come for me and got my mobile number. He showed me the visitor's register and there I found these letters - J, o, b, y, J, o, s, e, p, and h. I couldn't believe it. I returned the missed call, but there was nothing to be heard from the other side. (Later I found out that his phone had a dysfunctional microphone.) Then I got it confirmed that Joby is in campus and in fact will be giving a lecture in ECE department at 4 pm. I rushed to the venue and there I met with my past.

I hardly understood any of the biological terms that he used. For a self proclaimed theoretician like me, his work seemed so frighteningly real. He cuts open the head of grass hoppers by hand and implants sensors in them to directly record the field potential at the scale of single neurons. The last two slides had quite a surprise in it. The penultimate one was a photo of his home laboratory. It was quite surprising to know that these kind of experiments could be performed using equipments that will fit well onto a single table and costing no more than a few lakhs of rupees. The last slide contained portraits of each one of his lab team - fellow researchers, technicians and students. I do not recollect any presentation which ended with such a slide.

Joby has not changed.

But IISc has.

At least according to him and one of our famous friend - Natasha - the nature lover and the nature photographer. After the talk we and one more friend took a walk to what according to them was once the corridor of life in IISc and what is now a construction site with four massive buildings nearing completion. The area near D-gate and the air field. Both Joby and Natasha seemed to be really depressed at the loss of such biodiversity. I had to admit that I had never noticed the richness there when it was there.

Even when people walk together, they see, hear and smell very different worlds. Some just see, hear and smell the tensions inside their heads. Some see the buildings, hear the roads, and smell the dust. Some see the trees, hear the birds, and smell the flowers. For example, now Vinita is seeing the rain and I'm seeing an LCD monitor! Wish I had a greener heart.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dangerous Knowledge

This is a 90 minute documentary telecast by the BBC two years ago on the biggest leaps made by mankind in understanding the foundations of mathematics. Any serious student of mathematics would have already found that it qualifies for the genres Drama and Mystery - but at a much more abstract level. The documentary does good justice to the drama and mystery part of the history and does not do any damage to the math part. The investigation is traced by narrating the contributions of four great investigative and imaginative minds - Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Faculty Shortage in Indian Universities

This is a letter that I'm emailing to members of the task force setup by MHRD to look into shortage of faculty in our universities. I'm also linking this blog post in the email letter. Hence please read and post comments.

Dear Professors,

I came to know from newspaper that the Ministry of HRD has set up a task force to look into shortage of faculty in our universities. I also learn that the task force will design a performance appraisal system for the faculty in such institutions. In this regard I would like to express some comments.

About me :

After completion of my B.Tech in Electronics and Communication from College of Engineering Trivandrum and M.E. in Signal Processing from IISc Bangalore, I have worked in the industry (Private owned) for about a year, then as a lecturer in Government Engineering College Bartonhill, Trivandrum (Kerala State Government Institution) for around 2 years, and then as a lecturer in NIT Calicut (Autonomous Institution under Central Government) for another 2 years. I had resigned from NIT Calicut last July and am currently pursuing my PhD in CSA department, IISc.

The comments that are expressed in this letter are judgments made from my experiences (good and bad) in the above places.

I. On attracting and retaining good people in academia :

Four things that (I believe) will attract and retain good people to academia are
  1. Entry level qualification requirement,
  2. Sufficient monetary compensation and career advancement prospects,
  3. Meaningful work culture and
  4. Prospect for academic growth.
1. Entry level qualification requirement :

Most of the universities, even those with significant undergraduate teaching load, are restricting permanent tenure only to candidates already with a PhD. This single factor alone will reduce the number of academia aspirants by many orders in magnitude since Indian academia looses most of its young brains to the Industry not after PhD but immediately after their under-graduate or post-graduate degrees. Hence, hiking the entry level qualification to improve the quality of academia is a short sighted strategy. Instead, our academia should catch good people right after their graduation or post-graduation offering them not only a permanent tenure but also a promise for academic growth. I'll elaborate on academic growth part under point 4.

2. Monetary compensation :

I think this point is already well discussed (as evident from media reports) and I personally think that the present pay revision has put the compensation at reasonable levels (especially when comparing with the same for our primary school teachers). I even believe that too much money may attract the wrong people into academia.

Career advancement schemes are reasonable in autonomous institutions with flexible cadre ratio and rotation schemes. But the vacancy based promotion scheme still existing in State Government Institutions have left many people disillusioned and forced some of them to quit.

3. Meaningful Work Culture :

A meaningful work culture plays a very important role in retaining our best recruits. Shortage of faculty and excessive work load have reached a mutually destructing loop in many universities. I understand that a heavy teaching load is inevitable in the higher education sector in a country like India with limited academic resources and a large knowledge seeking population. But, the the excessive administrative jobs (admissions procedures, campus networking, stock verification, tender tabulations etc.) that come on the already stretched teaching staff in such places is unjustifiable and can be corrected. The failure to recruit permanent non-teaching staff and the attitude towards the value of a faculty member to the system are the key factors contributing to the situation.

Most of the service rules for teaching staff are still modeled on the ones originally designed for administrative jobs and hence comes as a misfit in many occasions. There is no reason why a rule like prohibiting public expression of ones views (to the media for example) should exist in a university. After all, education is not about hiding information. A good academic culture demands, among other things, a flexible work pattern, and freedom of public expression.

4. Prospect for academic growth :

Every faculty member should be permitted and encouraged to update his knowledge and skills periodically by going to better centers of learning. The various staff development programmes surely help in this regard. But the most important step in this direction was the FIP/QIP schemes through which a faculty member could avail a deputation to do higher studies in any of the reputed institutions in the country. This scheme is severely being discouraged in many institutions now, NIT Calicut for sure. Instead, these places force the faculty to do their higher studies on a part time basis in their own home institution. This is another short sighted strategy which not only over stretches the faculty, but also forfeits a chance of larger exposure level for the institution. Instead, our universities should encourage their faculty members to do higher studies at the best universities around the world, providing them QIP deputation/Study leave etc.

The third and fourth points are precisely the reasons why I, and also a few other colleagues of mine, had to resign from NIT Calicut.

II. On performance appraisal system for faculty :

Personally, I don't believe we can improve the teaching quality of a faculty by providing external incentives. Teaching is a profession in which the rewards are immediate and visible in the eyes of the students in front of us. Instead, what the system should do is to facilitate good teaching by providing a work culture of freedom and interaction.

III. On promoting good research :

This again is something which is bound to fail if we think short term. We cannot promote good research by forcing the already stretched faculty to publish. In the medium term, we may encourage and facilitate research among existing faculty by providing funding and time. I'm incompetent to comment on what would encourage good research among faculty. But i guess it should be our level of curiosity and peer recognition.

What is more important is that, we should groom our next generation into serious research and this can be done only by good quality teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Hence it is critical to ensure that the pressure on faculty to publish, patent etc, should not be at the cost of sacrificing the quality of teaching.

Conclusion :

If I can take the liberty to suggest a few action items that might help in the cause, then the list will include
  1. Keep the entry level qualification to a minimum and provide timely opportunities and encouragement for higher studies.
  2. Encourage FIP/QIP schemes and also leave/sabbatical for study purposes.
  3. Recruit sufficient non-teaching staff and give more value to the time of a teacher.
  4. Amend the service rules to fit to the needs of an open and non-hierarchical academic culture.
  5. Encourage research among faculty but do not force it so as to make her compromise on the teaching effort.
Dear Sir, I hope at least some of the points mentioned can be considered in your discussions. I'll also publish this letter on my blog so that others can express their comments on it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Footpaths make all the difference

“The single biggest difference between the infrastructure of an advanced nation and a backward nation is its footpaths, not its highways,”
Enrique Peñalosa, the former Mayor of the Colombian capital Bogota tells to The Hindu.

I have never before heard anyone speaking about ensuring an enjoyable street life within your city life. And ever since I heard that (which was this Sunday), I'm missing my home town (Thiruvananthapuram). In particular the Rajbhavan road from Kawadiar to Palayam and the dear friends with whom I had enjoyed the walks along them.

I wonder how this one phrase - street life - covers so much of the things that I miss when I'm out of home town. Am I street sick?