By Anand Ranganathan (2000 B.Tech, CS),
Academic Affairs Secretary (1999-2000).
For those who are unaware, Shaastra is IIT-M’s new-ish technical festival. It started off in the year 2000 and has grown rapidly to become one of the country’s major technical festivals. This article is a behind-the-scenes look at some of the events that led to the first Shaastra in 2000.
“IIT is a necessary evil between JEE and GRE,” claimed one of the speakers during the orientation week at IIT-M in July 1996. The speaker had a sarcastic under-current in his comment, but the group of 350 or so wide-eyed students quickly lapped it up for use as a motto in their lives in insti. And they proceeded to go through the various courses with a feeling of sheer inevitability and mild cynicism.
All right, maybe that was probably a bit harsh. There were plenty of things that excited the IITians and encouraged them to reach new creative, physical and organizational heights – Saarang, Lit-Soc, Schroeter, etc. However, in the technical aspect of life, there was nothing to excite the IITian. Even if the odd IITian got any spurts of scientific or engineering inspiration, there was no arena for him (or her) to channel that spurt. Besides, there was the risk of being named a geek or nerd by the rest of the junta.
It was the late 90s – the waves of economic change were just starting to hit India: the dot-com boom was starting to append 0s to everybody’s dream salaries and retirement accounts. Suddenly, the whole population was having great ideas, looking for people with great ideas or thrusting great ideas upon everyone else. For a while, though, it seemed that the only attention IITians would give the economic revolution outside was a brief glance at the business page of the Indian Express, before flipping to the crossword. What really lacked was an appropriate forum for exposing the outside world to the lay IITian and arousing his latent technical creativity and entrepreneurial spirit.
So, in 1997 (if I remember right), the first Pragma was held – Pragma being the first take at a technical festival in campus. However, as it turned out, the average IITian wasn’t particularly aroused by that event and one could miss it in the blink of an eye, which I did. The idea of Pragma was noble though – it included various technical events including tech quizzes, demonstrations and paper presentations that attempted to get junta interested in applying their technical knowledge.
After another low key Pragma in 1999, a group of individuals decided to take the risk of staging a big technical festival and see how much interest it could garner among IITians. They wanted a technical festival with enough glamour and chutzpah to generate interest and enthusiasm among IITians. They wanted a festival that made tech cool. This group was a motley bunch of folks propelled by different motivations including honing organizational skills, adding nice lines to resumes and looking to do something interesting and different. This group also came to include me, Academic Affairs Secretary at the time, a post which, for some strange reasons, also carried the responsibility of organizing co-curricular activities. So, I became the head honcho for this brave new idea, and the rest of the motley bunch became the self-styled “core group.”
The first thing, of course, was to come up with a name for the festival. After veering between various names like Phantasmagoria, we finally landed upon “Shaastra.” Next we needed to define what this event should contain. Ideas were coming in fast and furious. There should be different kinds of quizzes (after all, it was being held in IIT), other competitive events, demonstrations, lectures and some food, fun and frolic. We decided to have it in March, after the excitement of Saarang had died down, but before people started getting nervous about finals. After hammering out an approximate idea of what we wanted the festival to look like, we proceeded to the next big task of convincing the rest of the campus that this was worth their time and they should help in the organization.
Now everybody in IIT was already familiar with Saarang and the organization behind it. Every year people would make a beeline towards the cultural secretaries asking for “coord-ships” (or the post of coordinators) for various kinds of tasks like sponsorship, publicity, catering, event organization, facilities, etc. So, there was a ready supply of IITians willing to slog it out for Saarang in exchange for a few food coupons and the chance to walk around with a backpack during Saarang looking important. But what was Shaastra and why should they do the same for it? We needed a grand opening. So, we got CLT for a whole evening and somehow managed to convince a whole bunch of students to come for an evening of publicity. I gave a presentation (on an LCD projector, no less, something which was surprisingly difficult to procure in IIT those days) about our vision of Shaastra and what we needed in terms of organizational man power. Luckily, something clicked, and we got a whole bunch of requests for coordinator positions. This was probably sometime in November.
After the different organizational posts were filled with able-bodied IITians, things started progressing at a rapid clip. The various event coordinators got busy coming up with new technical events. There were some very interesting tech-oriented competitions including a debugging contest, a sci-fi quiz, an IT quiz, a How-Things-Work quiz, a game programming contest and a tech crossword. There was also an engineering design contest with problems give by both the industry and professors at IIT. There was a stock market competition where people bought and sold stocks in a fictional market. There was also a series of online events (like brain games and crosswords) that allowed people from around the world to take part. Finally, as a salute to the times, there was a business plan competition. Then there were a bunch of demonstrations planned including a computer repair demo, an astronomy workshop and a robotics demo. We also attempted to get lectures by people in the US via vide-conferencing, but weren’t able to work out the technical details in time. I believe future Shaastras did manage to get video-conferences with people like Stephen Wolfram, Kevin Warwick and Martin Perl.
Apart from the events, the other aspects of the festival were also moving along nicely. The publicity team targeted a whole set of colleges around the country and also came up with a plan for generating internal interest through posters around the campus. The sponsorship team, helped by the economic bubble, were able to raise a tidy sum. The hospitality crew started preparing to receive large numbers of outstation participants.
Excitement was building up and finally, the event came. It was hectic as expected. Most events and processes went off smoothly. External participation was encouraging. Evidently the name of IIT and the curiosity of a technical festival was enough to pull some people to the event. Internal IIT participation was reasonable, but nothing to write to your grandmother about. In fact, a couple of talks required forceful intervention by coordinators to get people to sit in the auditoriums and listen. There were some scheduling snafus and equipment shortages. At the end of the day, though, everybody was reasonably happy – the faculty didn’t at all mind a technical festival, the students enjoyed some of the events, or at least enjoyed the days off from college, and the organizers had the satisfaction of an event go through without too many hitches.
Shaastra was there to stay. The idea of a technical festival had caught the fancy of many students and interest was sky high for the next year. The spirit of co-curricular activity had taken hold and it was now cool to be a geek. Technical creativity and entrepreneurial spirits were the rage of the moment. I, being in my final year, migrated with the herds to the US and had to be content on getting accounts of the growth of Shaastra by email. Several of the core group and coordinators at Shaastra 2000, however, were not in their final years and they returned the next year and worked on improving and streamlining it.
Since the first Shaastra, there have been Shaastras almost every year, and by the enthusiastic reports I keep receiving, it’s been growing from strength to shining strength. Here’s wishing continued success to it, especially in what I believe is its main mission: providing a venue for students (both IITians and from other institutions) to let loose their technical creativity.
About the author: Anand Ranganathan is currently working in the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in New York. He finished his PhD in Computer Science from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 2005. When he is not doing research in stream data processing, he enjoys running marathons, travelling and languages. Anand headed the first Shaastra team.