Education

IIT-M hits the diamond

As the country’s iconic institute celebrates 60 years, its alumni look back at how it has transformed lives

“60 years young” read the banners at IIT-Madras, celebrating its diamond jubilee — “old” doesn’t figure in the institution’s culture of innovation, experimentation and entrepreneurship. This landmark in south Chennai has routinely spawned successful start-ups and business ventures, and sent out alumni who impact thinking across the globe. “The industry-academia interaction took a firm footing at IITM,” said Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwalla. “The success of IITM Research Park, incubation cell, and our incubated entrepreneurs has resolved the Saraswathi-Lakshmi dilemma.”

In true IITM style, events marking the occasion were held simultaneously in 80-plus cities, across the globe, on July 13. Organised by IIT Madras Alumni Association (IITMAA) in partnership with IITM, alumni from all batches, 1964-2019 — “from Seattle-to-Sydney, Toronto-to-Tokyo, Berlin-to-Bengaluru, Helsinki-to-Hong Kong and from Delhi/Mumbai/Pune in India” — gathered to share memories of their time at IITM. “The overwhelming response resulting in 3,500 alumni participating, is a testament to the emotional connect we have to our alma mater,” said Shubha Kumar, President, IITMAA. A video message from Prof. Bhaskar Ramamurthi, (Director, IITM), tech discussions, quizzes, competitions, cultural events and a screening of IITM’s 60-year history marked the celebrations.

Some 400-odd alumni got together in Chennai, to swap stories about their alma mater. IITM is a recognised identity, said CP Madhusudan (1989 batch), Secretary, Alumni Association. “Expectations are high, the toughest task comes to you.” Going back in time he said, “We talk of water shortage today, but we had the same problem in 1986-1987, we pumped water and carried it to the washrooms. The story goes that in the early 80s, wearing only towels, students marched to Director PV Indiresan’s office demanding water. “We can do a lot at IITM,” he reportedly said, “but can’t produce water.”

IITM started with German collaboration. So, all learning was hands-on, said J.Rathnakumar, 1980 batch. Students spent time in the workshop, 9-5, to learn welding, carpentry, making/fixing engineered goods and machines. “I spent two years with Crompton & Greaves on the shop floor, became a B-to-B consultant with hardcore industrial units — IITM gave me product knowledge, which helped with marketing strategy.”

Down memory lane

The fun thing was the on-going enmity between Saraswathi and Godavari hostels, said Sooraj Gopakumar (2017-batch). Unprintable language came in handy for constant one-upmanship, but it was all healthy rivalry. “We were the ‘power girls’, 12/130 students in electricity, ” said a 2017 batch alumnus. “We were the last to share quarters with seniors. We stuck together; freshers took gyan from seniors when it felt like being pushed into the water without a lifeguard.”

Coming from the protected environs of Ethiraj college, IITM was a huge change for Mridula Nair (1975) — with co-ed classes, wooded campus, and the need to live up to the institution’s name. “I was one of the six women together called the benzene ring,” she laughed. They had a wonderful professor in “Cheenu mama”, but female students were yet to be taken seriously. “I applied for a PhD. A classmate cornered me to say, ‘Why don’t you step aside so K gets this spot. You’ll marry and go away.’ ‘You don’t know that,’ I retorted. I went abroad for a PhD.”

One of seven women in 1994, Shuba Kumar finds IITM a different place now, with women in three digits in B.Tech. With mandatory shop-floor work — “no gender discrimination!” — you find yourself at sea (or the woods) in the first semester, but you get on with it; it is about character building. If you spoke no Tamizh, you picked it up fast. You had to deal with the dhobi and the supies in the mess. “Tamizh was operationalised”

Ah, the Saturday morning rava dosa, recalled Professor Mahesh Panchagnula, 1992 batch. The “power” dosas were squares — the greatest thing! “IITM boasts of very high IQ concentration in a half-a-kilometre radius,” he pointed out. You met the super-brilliant by the dozens, the level of debates — whether cricket, bridge, books or travel — the standard was high. Students were multi-faceted (guitarist Prasanna is IITM-ian), there were quizzards, Carnatic vocalists, academics. “Chennai has the single largest group of alumni, many in research, some are Profs.”

IITM is the best of the best, said 1997 -batch’s Prakash Damodaran, IAS. “I took a new job every couple of years without being asked for an interview. IITM prepared me for hard work, trained me to be analytical, figure out things, and understand human equations. Did you know that the course is tougher than in Harvard, MIT?” The experience is transformative, said a group of freshly-minted IITM-ians of 2019. “It gave us freedom to tinker with ideas, connected us with people. You can pursue an intellectual interest. The rapport opened us to more views; it is all so humbling.”

For J. Jeyapriya, 2005 batch, IITM’s USP is the independence it allows. “I was in mechanical, but had lots of options for other courses as well. You pass through a pre-incubation cell and an innovation centre, and interact with prominent CEOs — this is the best place to realise your entrepreneurial dream. The dean for international relationships and the alumni association work together to support you in every way.”

Prof. Bhaskar Ramamurthi, Director, IIT Madras, summed up the 60 years of IITM in one compact sentence. “Apart from the well-known alumni who have set the benchmark for achievement in different spheres, IITM stands out for the high impact its research has made in several aspects of life for the citizens of India — be it in the provision of clean water, electricity in grid-less habitations, affordable housing technology, access to healthcare through new technology, advanced home-grown tyre technology, and more recently in electric vehicles and artificial intelligence.”

Nostalgia flowed at the official function “Jog down the memory lane” to mark the year. Musician Sowmya recalled how the “research and analysis discipline at IITM helped her approach her musical career. Had she not chosen music, she would have been an excellent chemical scientist, said the MC.

“Sixty is a small number in an institution’s life, but IITM has packed huge achievements in them,” said former dean VGK Murthy. The German consul-general talked warmly of how its successful flagship programme boosted Indo-German relationship. The partnership has continued from the basic workshop to the Internet/AI age, she noted.

Go for inter-disciplinary classes for ecology and environment to solve today’s problems, advised Swaminathan Sivaram (1989 batch), best alumnus of the year. “I came as an 18-year-old, learnt everything I needed to know. The UG course here is the brightest shining star.”

A video library of all the firsts put together by Kumaran Sadasivam was screened, students showcased the “anything-goes” IITM couture in a fashion walk, Kris Gopalakrishnan (1979 M.Tech) narrated how he came back to IITM because there is no interview for joining M.Tech. The Heritage Centre put up copies of Campastimes, the in-house magazine that recorded events with blobs of humour, and a short film documented the extraordinary biodiversity of the campus.

Quick info:

Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IITM) was established in 1959 by the Government of India as an institute of national importance.

It has grown into a hub of technology and science with 16 academic departments and several advanced interdisciplinary research academic centres.

The Institute offers UG/PG programmes leading to degrees in B.Tech., M.Sc., M.B.A., M.Tech., M.S., and Ph.D., in a variety of specialisations.

IITM is a residential institute with more than 580 faculty and 9,500 students. Students from 18 countries are enrolled here.

Its Incubation Cell is famous for fostering entrepreneurial culture.

IITM has been ranked #1 in the Overall Institutions category in India Rankings 2019 released by National Institutional Ranking Framework, Ministry of Human Resources Development, Govt. of India.

The institute has also been ranked #1 in the engineering institutions category in the same rankings for four consecutive years – 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.

It was also adjudged as the ‘top innovative institution’ in the country in the Atal Ranking of Institutions on Innovation Achievements (ARIIA) 2019 launched by Innovation Cell of MHRD.

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 11:30:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/iit-m-hits-the-diamond/article28805741.ece

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