Some people have made it big without guidance. Yet there are a thousand others who owe it to their mentors. “Without them, I would not be me…,” they say.

If you were feeling low at some point in your life — as if there was no direction, hoping that someone could just put his arm around your shoulder and say assuredly, “Hey, this is how it’s done...,” If that someone was to take hold of your hand again and again and make a difference to what you were doing then — in that you knew were finally getting it right. If at another point in time you felt that you were on the right track because of that one person — you would understand the significance of having that one figure in your life who had steered you in the right direction, to find a way to where you are today.

Laying a foundation

“You need a mentor to show you a mirror by way of showing you where you stand. Even though I was initially startled to see the sort of feedback I received during the writing of my thesis — it made me realise the significance of my ideas,” says Akhila Ramnarayan, theatre artist, teacher, writer, and learning and development manager at Pramati Technology.

The importance of having a mentor is seconded by P. Unnikrishnan, Carnatic vocalist, who says, “After a certain stage, it is imperative for a person to learn from a seasoned and experienced guru. Foundation and guidance are crucial to the performing arts, lessons in which can be imparted only by an expert.”

It is often a singular quality that teachers identify with in students. Moreover, it is the dedication of a student that makes him/her worthy of mentorship. Teachers inherently feel the need to nurture the aptitude of a dedicated student. “Students know what they want in their lives, yet it is the innocence and wonderment I connect with,” says Prabhu Mohapatra, professor of History at Delhi University. “There are students who are interested in a variety of interesting things. I want them to have the same kinds of experiences that enriched my outlook,” says Sreekumar Menon, professor at Asian College of Journalism.

Things have changed with the digital age and the burgeoning privatisation of education. Professor Mohapatra is not in favour of the growing impersonalisation of relationships as is reflected by online teaching. “Nurturing, growing, repairing and building were important elements of education in the 19 Century; it was not constrained to examinations. However, today the role of a teacher is being reduced to that of a career counsellor with the growing professionalisation of roles,” he says.

Other than formal training/mentoring, one often unconsciously learns from the conduct and mannerisms of people they are being instructed by. Sports Medicine specialist Dr. Kannan Pugazhendi says, “Some of the things which are not told, are learnt by observation. It is therefore important for mentors to be genial in their interpersonal relationships.”

Mentorship in workplaces is rare. If it’s there, it is often not in the sense of conventional mentoring — it is rather indiscernible. This is because juniors often learn a great deal from their seniors who end up giving significant insights in the process of giving feedback. “I never consciously took on the role of a mentor, but believed that those who wanted to learn would pick up from what I did. I also felt that imposing myself in such a role would cause resentment. But I did quietly keep a watch on what was being done. This way I could know the strengths and weaknesses of every staffer. I saw to it that the weaknesses were covered and rectified and the strengths exploited,” says K. Narayanan, former Reader’s Editor at The Hindu. He adds, “My mentor, Sri G. Kasturi followed this rule — he set out the parameters and watched; when I strayed, he would pull me up.”

Parents more often than not play the role of a mentor to their children by exposing them early to things they’ve learnt such as what goes beyond what they get to learn from formal education or even peers, books and the internet. Ramnarayan who hails from a family of writers, says that her parents played a crucial role in initiating her into literature and writing. “As a child I relished the stories that my great grandmother Rukmani Krishnamurthy narrated to me from the Kamba Ramayana,” she says.

While there are a string of successful people who have made a mark for themselves in the arts, the nature of certain other vocations such as Carnatic music necessitates life-long learning. Unnikrishnan, who initially trained under V.L. Sheshadri and underwent advanced lessons from Dr. S. Ramanathan, continues to take lessons from other illustrious gurus. He says, “An entire lifetime is not sufficient to master Carnatic music. His gurus always make it a point to stress the importance of notating compositions or Kritis so that their original structure is maintained and not compromised. It will always be a record for future reference.”

Your individuality

Although a number of people are mentored at possibly every stage of their career, a moment comes when they develop a definite perspective and come out of the shadow of their mentors. Ramnarayan says, “The criticism on my thesis helped me rework my ideas. But a time came when I grappled with the feedback to the point of being able to structure my ideas and stand by them.”

Professor Menon says that he does not consciously take on the role of a mentor. He only desires to introduce his students to a path such that they would carve their own way and explore the world beyond what he has taught them. “There comes a point where I have to let go,” he says.