Playing a different string – Prof. TT Narendran



Prof. TT Narendran is one of the longest serving faculty in IIT-M, having recently retired after a 40-year tenure as Professor in the DoMS department. In his time here, he held various positions including the Head of the Guidance Counselling Unit (now MiTR) and President of the Music Club. On the occasion of Teacher’s Day, TTN Mama, as he is widely known to students, talks to Arundhathi Krishnan and Shantanu Gupta about things close to his heart – teaching, research, education, students and music.


Prof. TTN



The Early Years


You’ve been here as a student, a faculty member, head of a department, a dean and in so many other capacities over 40 years. What has changed and what hasn’t?

What has been constant through all of this is the chatting. Be it with friends in the hostel, or with students or colleagues. Some of these have been very serious discussions too, although not necessarily academic. These discussions have also extended to music, politics and other things.


You graduated in 1971, did your Master’s and PhD here at IIT Madras, and then became a faculty member in 1976. Was that unusually quick in those days?

A correction. I finished my Master’s and applied for a PhD in my department, declaring my intention to get into teaching. In those days, in-breeding was not an issue because there were very few institutions that could award PhDs. The eligibility for becoming a lecturer at the time was only a Master’s degree. Within two years of my joining for a PhD, an advertisement appeared for the position of a lecturer. I wondered whether I should wait to finish my PhD before applying, but the head of my department pointed out that the same advertisement may not appear when I do finish! He encouraged me to apply, and I got in. So I completed my PhD in service. This was a common practice for my contemporaries. Some of us finished our PhDs years after becoming lecturers, since we had responsibilities of the job too.


But this lecturer position is not there anymore?

No. Because, you see, once you place the condition that a PhD is the entry level, they also upgraded; [they made] the Assistant Professor as the starting level. Those two changes occurred simultaneously.


More than a Prof.


You have been part of different extra-/co-curricular organisations the Music Club, the Guidance and Counselling Unit (now known as Mitr), Training and Placement… We also wanted to ask you about your (academic) research interests, if you would like to talk about those.

Largely related to operations research. Small part on human factors engineering, ergonomics. And, yeah, one thing is, that the problem that I worked on for my PhD, related to inventory control, I packed it soon after I finished my PhD. I did not guide anybody else [in that area], I just moved with [the times]. I looked at the topics that were of contemporary interest. So it had to do with a lot of manufacturing systems in the late 80s and the whole of the 90s. And then towards the end of the 90s and thereafter, it largely connected to routing problems — vehicle routing problems, convoy routing problems, freight train — and it got into logistics.

Here and there, of course, there have been some off-beat things. For example, a couple of theses relating to human factors and ergonomics. Also, one or two of them, in the end, they made me wonder why am I the guide!


Were you involved in the process of separating DoMS out as a separate department in 2004? Can you tell us about what went into this?

I was the head of the (HSS) department when the MBA programme started. We initiated the process. What we have in the humanities department [here] — every discipline here is a whole department in a university! In a primarily engineering institution, it became a ‘miscellaneous’ department. It is bad enough to have English, history, philosophy all in one department. Why add management also there? Management is certainly not humanities!


The MBA programme here follows the quarter (and not the semester) system…

IIMs follow the trimester system. But my friends in other colleges warned me not to bring a trimester system into a campus that follows a semester system. So we decided on the quarter system which could at least be synchronized with the semester system.


Teaching vs Research. Has that been an issue for you?

I am happy doing both. Yes, there is one viewpoint that there are plenty of places to teach, so why don’t we stick to research. Why don’t we cut down the teaching even less? There have even been suggestions that we follow [what used to be] the IISc model, close down the undergrad programs here, and have only Master’s and Doctoral level programmes and so on.


Your opinion?

Mixed feelings about it. See, you could say that it’s the undergrad programme that gives the brand image to IITs. We get the brightest brains because of our B.Tech. So how can we let go of it? That’s one way of looking at it.

The other way of looking at it is, that today hardly anyone seems to stick to their specialisation, and with many undergrad programmes, we don’t know why we have them and where they end up! There’s a minuscule minority that actually sticks to the discipline.

Also, there have been serious doubts raised in Western universities that probably a lot of the older branches of engineering have reached some kind of saturation point, and so, it’s really improbable that you do breakthrough research. So you do a lot of routine kind of stuff, and, let us say, flogging a dead horse… It becomes inevitable, because we tied ourselves to the American system in that everybody must have a PhD [to be a prof]. If we still had the CV Raman days, of what do you say, research and romance, then possibly it would have gone along different lines. We tied ourselves to the compulsion of having to do PhD. So, quantity came in, maybe at the expense of quality.


On our Education System


In a speech that Narayana Murthy made recently at IISc Bangalore, he said that no new ideas have come out of IITs and IISc in the last 60 years.

I disagree with Narayana Murthy on that. I think new ideas do keep coming. It’s just that IITs are not marketing specialists. We don’t publicise everything that we do. A lot of things happen quietly. The public don’t get to know about it. So, I don’t think that’s a fair accusation.

But yes, the system as a whole, when you lay down norms, when you lay down conditions, everybody starts working to beat the system. See, when we have an academic evaluation that consists of quizzes, you mug only the night before the quiz. And your entire mind-set becomes, quiz, quiz, end-sem. Crack them, get grades and keep going. Beyond that, you don’t show any interest. And so, whatever conditions are made — I have to publish, I have to show research, I have to show titles, I’ll fulfil all the norms to get a promotion, to get a higher position — that starts taking higher priority than finding meaning in what I do. And we, unwittingly, fall into the trap. I guess this happens everywhere, but at any time, anywhere in the world, [examples of] breakthrough research or innovative research are few and far between. We can’t be generating millions of researchers.


In the speech, he compared us with MIT…

MIT is in the first world, in a developed country. We have our own issues — socioeconomic issues, cultural issues. We are only copying them, and so, how do you expect us to fare better? I mean, if I am to do better, I have to ask far more fundamental questions. Why am I copying the Western system of education? Why am I forcing all my kids to go to the same school and do the same set of subjects and so on. Should I not find what each kid is good at and treat them differently? Maybe the old gurukul system did that, and we lost that because of the British ruling [us], where they wanted to train manpower to become clerks, who of course, went on to become officers and civil servants and what not. But the basic fact remains that our education system is geared to serve Western interests, and that is the biggest problem. Our highest salaries come for being slaves of the West, for serving multinationals who will pay you a fat sum, and you will do a slavish job, a stupid job…


You also talked about JEE, and how it doesn’t serve the purpose.

Yes, when you talk about JEE, the GRE, or any of those exams, only if there is instant testing — where you are totally unprepared and have to reel off something — do I get to know your true ability. The moment you are coached, you mug these wordlists, it’s defeated, gone. That is not the purpose of the exam.

The level-playing field is completely distorted by coaching institutions. Wherever there are good coaching institutions, you have more people coming through JEE; wherever you have fewer coaching institutions, you have fewer people coming in. And this is an interesting observation that if you look at branch toppers, the medal winners, and so on, they come from regions where coaching institutions are not so efficient. You can check the lists for the last few years, you will find that very few of them are from reputed coaching institutions. Because unless they had that stuff in them, they couldn’t have made it in; and once they are in, they show their class.


It might also be that the aim of coaching institutions is to get students into this college, but not to excel in it.

No no, the coaching process itself, it’s like sugarcane juice extraction. The student is like a sugarcane — the coaching institutions extract the juice and the bagasse is what gets into IIT. The day they get in, you can see it in their face: absolutely no enthu. I slogged all that time to get into IIT, now is my time to relax. And then there are four years of relaxation, after which if they apply abroad and go there, you become a slave again. I mean, the moment you have a white boss, you are willing to do anything. I have asked this openly in class so many times: up to the point you came into IIT, you slogged it out. And those of you who go abroad, there too you work like slaves. Why is it that it is here alone that you refuse to put any enthu into studies?


Is it also because there is a lack of information about what you actually study when you get into IIT, since the JEE is often unrelated to what we study here?

There are a lot of such issues, but a very fundamental issue is that most of the kids are here because of social pressures. In our society it is a very ‘in’ thing to crack the JEE and get into IIT. You are proud, your parents are proud.

A few years ago, Prof. Ananth (the previous institute director) strongly pushed for the branch to be decided after one year, which is how it was in the days [when] I did engineering. By then, they even give you a flavour of what various disciplines are and so on. Now, that met with stiff opposition. Because now everybody says, the day I enter the institution I must know what branch I am getting. A lot of kids feel at the end of the first year that they are in the wrong branch. Five to ten students score very high and get their branch changed; but it’s the sliders who have a lot of problems, because a lot of opposition from parents and everyone: “I want to leave Computer Science. I’d rather do, let’s say, Chemical Engineering.”

I’ve counselled a student who was in my class. He was in computer science. One quiz he cracked. He was generally irregular in attendance. His friends told me that he [plays] games a lot and so on. So I called him over for a counselling session, to check up, to find out from him what was wrong. He was from a fairly middle-class family in Mylapore. He said — and he’s in CS, very high JEE rank — “Sir, after getting into the branch I realised this is not engineering at all. I’m completely demotivated. I’m not able to come to terms with it,” and so on. And then he also said, “I dare not say anything to my parents. They just can’t understand this.” Fortunately, I think he graduated and took a job somewhere. But there have been cases like that.

See, the biggest flaw in the system of education we ape from the West is that the moment you have a classroom with 20, 40 students — whatever the size of the class — and this lecture format, you are assuming that all students are the same. And that is a hugely flawed assumption.

It is easy to discuss how to teach, how to impart education and so on. But have we looked at what to teach? Yes, it is discussed in terms of syllabus, content etc. But I have a far more fundamental question. Why this formal education with books? There are so many people who are good at other things. You may be good in music, say, somebody else may be good with his hands — it may be sketching, painting, sculpting, anything! We need a society in which all these command equal respect and pay. We don’t seem to be getting anywhere near such a society. If anything, we seem to moving farther away from it!


About the GCU

Farewell as Warden, Ganga hostel, 1993
Farewell as Warden, Ganga hostel, 1993


You have been head of the GCU. What has been the goal of the GCU (now Mitr) and is it serving its purpose?

The intention is to help students in distress, those with psychological problems and so on. I can only give you instances. Years ago, when I was in the GCU, there was a freshie who felt very homesick. We had a good counselling psychologist at the time. Some students told me about this particular student, and I sent him to the counsellor, who said this is a panic case. He is not even making eye contact, he is very depressed. Then we sent word to his home. His father came all the way from Calcutta — he was a physics Prof himself. He stayed with the boy, calmed [him] down. He even quoted a story by a Bengali author about how a kid shifting from school to college says “I wept the day I left thinking of all the friends I am going to miss… but after some time I realised, all my friends are still here… with different names.” After this, the boy got adjusted and didn’t have to look back at all. The next four years went very smoothly for him.

There have been cases where timely help has been given to students who were otherwise on the verge of suicide. But it doesn’t reach everybody. There were cases where hostel neighbours came and told me that someone known to them seems to have a problem, is missing many classes, and doesn’t seem to be normal and so on. In extreme cases, I have even gone to the room of the student, sat with them and spoken to them. Sometimes you need to reach out to that extent. Today I am not even sure if I am welcome in any hostel! Even during the days I was a warden, there were some who were not comfortable with me walking through the wings and visiting rooms.


Do you think we focus on first year undergraduate students alone in this respect? There have been cases of suicide amongst postgraduates and final year undergraduates too.

I know that final year is a very sensitive time. As all your friends get jobs, and you don’t, you start feeling depressed. There was one case that went as far as a final year student taking sleeping pills, writing a letter. A day or two later, some of his friends noticed that a letter which the postman had delivered was sticking out through the door for two days. They didn’t suspect suicide, but thought he might be sick. They broke open the door and realised something was wrong. They took him to the hospital, and subsequently to the government hospital in Royapettah. He was put on dialysis and was saved. It took a month for the treatment. His parents from far away Bihar came down. I went to visit him. Initially we were making general social talk. Then the moment I was about to bring up the sensitive topic, everyone including the parents vanished from the room. Initially his reaction was “Why did you save me?” It took a lot of talking, but finally he finished the course maybe six months late. He is now well-settled.

I must mention here the role played by the friends who called me and took him to the hospital. The maximum support comes from friends within the hostel. You guys need to be more sensitive. There was a case of a student whose parents were both no more. From the moment his seniors in the hostel came to know of this, they started guarding him, told others not to rag him and so on.

A lot of students are good at heart. But it is hep to be brash and rag. What is lacking, at your age — or why, even at my age — is being sensitive to the feelings of others. For example, as a Prof today I think it is wrong to insult a student in public, in a classroom. I’m not sure if all my colleagues agree with me.


On Music


TTN3 (1)
With the Veena. Credit: Shankar Subramanian


You were a student when the Music Club was started.

Music Club pre-dates me! Music Club was started in October ’70, while I joined as a student in August ’71.


And eventually you became the President…

That was much later. The progression was from a student volunteer — distributing circulars, putting up posters — to being a secretary. It all happened over a period of time. There was also a time when I lived off campus and I did not hold office with the Music Club. I took over again in ’88 or so and have been with the Music Club till 2015!


Is the Music Club like your average city sabha? If not, what makes it different?

We started with the aim of promoting listening to classical music amongst the campus residents. There has been criticism from one section of the audience, saying we have been promoting ‘unknown’ artists and so on. At the same time, there has been appreciation for the same! For one, there is a practical constraint. If you feature only popular artists, you end up paying through your nose! This would have required us to collect a lot more money from the members by way of subscription. I doubt if they would have all been willing to pay that much. In principle also, however, I think an organisation like this should feature a variety of artists. I can proudly say, for example, that people who featured in the Youthfests of the early ’90s are stars today. At the time we featured Sanjay Subrahmanyan, TM Krishna, Bombay Jayasri, Unnikrishnan. Ranjani–Gayatri were featured in a violin duet.


Are there some particularly memorable Music Club concerts you remember?

There have been some unforgettable musical moments in some concerts. A Hamir Kalyani by Mysore Doraiswamy Iyengar in the ’70s. T V Shankaranarayanan sang an unforgettable Vijayanagari once. From T N Seshagopalan, there was an unforgettable Sri ragam in ’96, and a brilliant Sahana in recent times. T M Krishna’s ‘Devi Sri Tulasamma’ at the farewell concert registered brilliantly. It was sung mic-lessly too!


Have Music Club concerts ever been mic-less?

I remember P S Narayanaswamy once came to perform at CLT. He looked around and promptly asked for the mic to be gotten rid of! Karaikudi Mani would often say that his mrudangam did not require a mic! We once organised a mic-less concert by Thiruvengadu Jayaraman. Nagaswaram concerts were almost always mic-less.


Do you think enough students attend Music Club concerts?

There have been times when even an M D Ramanathan concert had a pretty full CLT! I think part of the reason for non-attendance is the geographical composition of our students. But more importantly, there are too many other distractions now, for students.


You’ve said previously that, when you used to play the veena here, you “would open the concert with a few film songs that were in vogue and catchy.”

As a student, I participated in the inter-hostel competitions regularly. In pre-Mardi Gras times, we used to have a week long inter-college cultural festival. It happened only in the evenings and only local colleges participated. Each college would be given 45 minutes to present ‘variety entertainment’ — music, skits and what not, all packaged into that time frame. Hostel competitions also followed this pattern. The OAT would be packed for these, there being no TV or internet or anything at all!

I would make two appearances for my hostel, Cauvery. The first time to play film songs, and the next time to play some classical pieces, maybe ‘Raghuvamsa sudha’ or a ragamalika tanam. The compliment I was given was that, earlier if anyone had walked into the OAT with a veena, most of the audience would have walked out!


Do you think artists should do that more often these days to come down from their pedestal, so to speak, and make classical music less intimidating? So that it reaches more people? On our campus, for example?

I think this is a stiff problem. Today you have students who are addicted to the internet. It reaches ridiculous levels, wherein you’re chatting with your neighbour online! The inertia has increased quite a bit now. I have seen days when an inter-hostel music competition would see a full CLT or OAT! Today you can’t even fill HSB 356! Nobody is interested. Perhaps it is because there is a surfeit of entertainment. You can get most things online. The need to even watch live performances seems to have gone.

These things do follow circles though. Earlier, the only channel available on TV — black and white DD — would be on throughout the evening in houses. Today you have a multitude of channels but in most houses the usage of TV has actually come down. Perhaps the internet will also reach a saturation point, and people will want to go back to watching things live!


Live western and light music events held at Himalaya are quite well attended, though.

Yes, that can be done. We can certainly take the performances to where the students are. Just as T M Krishna says we must take music [back] to the temples. The idea of a temple today is very different from what it was, say 400 years ago. I think it was Pradeep Chakravarthy [a columnist for The Hindu] who said a temple is a revenue collection centre. Earlier, one looked at a temple from different angles. It was a place where you socialized. It was a place where you brokered marriages. It was a club, essentially. You also had dance and music concerts, so it was a cultural centre. It did its share of charity by say, giving free lunches. It served as a cyclone shelter, a drought relief centre and so much more than just serve as a place of worship.


Do you agree that sabhas have made classical music too elitist?

In my ‘family temple’ in Thiruvallur, we have very good nagaswaram artists. Listening to their playing in the open air is something else. Their playing is appropriate to the occasion (the ‘mallari’ is usually played), the bearers of the procession dance slightly to the tune of the nagaswaram and so on. These are not things you would even hear in a music concert. Music was integrated into the lives of people earlier. Mothers sang to lull their babies to sleep. I have seen temple archakas break into brilliant ragamalikas extempore. I also remember that a few Tamil pundits would read out classical poetry with a tune.

U. Ve. Swaminatha Iyer was a renowned Tamil scholar of the 19th–20th century. He learned music from Gopalakrishna Bharathi and Tamil from Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, and had to keep it a secret because the two detested each other! He eventually got caught and had to give up music.


Earlier you mentioned that our current education system has its flaws. Do you think music and dance should be incorporated into school curricula?

Yes! In Kerala, for example — just as we have drawing classes in schools here — schools have music classes. In 1967, when the LDF came into power in Kerala, there was a move to stop music classes. There was a novel protest then, wherein music teachers took out a procession with tamburas and started singing!

Most musicians will also tell you that Kerala is a major market for them. Somebody recently told me that maximum concert earnings are made in the US, followed by Bombay and then Kerala! Chennai is not a place for musicians to make money. The branding happens here, at headquarters, and money is earned elsewhere!

In Tamil Nadu, film music dominates. Reality shows have pushed many children into music, which requires a classical training background too. This has helped break some communal barriers within music, although otherwise reality shows do a lot of harm.


What are your feelings about leaving campus after so many years? Can we expect to still see you around, for a concert or two maybe?

Staying on IIT campus I avoided going to many concerts in the city. Now the idea of driving here from the city… the very thought of Madhya Kailash is enough to put me off!

I am okay with leaving. I had a good innings here, and must leave gracefully now. Change is inevitable!


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