Social activism and algebra

Updated - April 05, 2012 05:28 pm IST

Published - April 05, 2012 05:10 pm IST

Renowned educationist and MLC Chukka Ramaiah. Photo: Nagara Gopal

Renowned educationist and MLC Chukka Ramaiah. Photo: Nagara Gopal

Chukka Ramaiah is more than just a mathematician, freedom fighter, and an erudite educationist, discovers Vishnupriya Bhandaram

“If you ask me to appear for the IIT exam, I am sure I’ll fail,” smiles Chukka Ramaiah, whose coaching institute has become synonymous with the engineer’s utopia, IIT.

Eighty-four-year-old Chukka Ramaiah has had an interesting journey. Born in a Brahmin family in Gudur, he fought long and hard against feudalism and untouchability in his village. This, Ramaiah recalls, got him banished from the Brahmin community. “The struggle was never political; it was a struggle for economic independence coupled with social independence. The land should belong to the tiller. I got jailed at the Aurangabad Central Jail because I participated and believed in the movement,” says Ramaiah, unfettered and unapologetic. He feels that a social revolution needs to be directed towards the downtrodden. “Revolutions are nothing without the masses,” he adds.

Being the eldest in his family, Ramaiah soon had to set aside idealism to earn a living. Teaching, he felt, was the next noblest calling. “A teacher can open minds, influence and make a change,” says Ramaiah. His understanding of mathematics comes from understanding small monetary transactions. “In our village people used to repeat tables without even knowing the meaning of a number,” he says. Having taught mathematics at various schools across Telangana, Ramaiah retired from the Andhra Pradesh Residential School in Nagarjuna Sagar and made the big move to Hyderabad.

The institute, Ramaiah says happened by chance. He took it up as a way to fend for his family. In those days, Ramaiah says that IIT aspirants used to subscribe to Agarwals’ Correspondence Course. “Teachers wouldn’t let the students study that material because they wouldn’t fare well in the school curriculum. Teachers were judged not by what they taught but what ranks the children got,” says Ramaiah. Concept-based training is more important than learning formulae by heart, he believes. A few students came up to Chukka Ramaiah and asked him to coach them. From just a few students, the numbers began to grow, purely by word of mouth. He set up the institute around 1985. About its infamous 4 o’clock timings, Ramaiah smiles, “In fact I was obliged to take lessons at that hour. Students wanted to come before they went for class, the discipline just continued.”

In today’s competition-crazy world, over 10,000 students apply to Ramaiah’s Institute for IIT coaching, which has its own entrance examination. In fact, many other institutes have mushroomed across the state to coach students to get into Ramaiah’s Institute. Often called a “crammer” and blamed for increasing pressure on students to make it, the Ramaiah Institute has produced the largest number of successful IIT aspirants. Amused, Ramaiah says, “People call it the entrance exam for the entrance exam, but frankly, IIT is not for everybody. I don’t know if I am offending someone, but it is true. Only ten percent of the people who apply get in.” He stresses that innate talent and original thinking is most important to clear the IITs. “IIT questions are so elegant. Even teachers take pride in solving the question papers. Setting the

IIT question paper is as challenging as sitting for the exam. What is wrong about choosing the best? Isn’t that the purpose of any entrance exam — to choose the best?” A strict disciplinarian, Ramaiah says that most of his knowledge comes from his own students. “Originality comes from a fresh mind,” he says. “I am not a product of IIT, I stand on the elbows of 25 batches that I groomed. It’s important to remember that the source of knowledge is not the institution but the student,” he adds.

Ramaiah strongly believes that being exam-oriented has made students more superficial in their understanding of engineering. He sighs when he talks about the fall in quality of students. The IITs, once ranked fourth in the world, have fallen below the 100th mark. “A generation of intellectuals is lost,” he says. “We as a society and nation have begun to rely on borrowing technology. Where is the learning process? Where is the creativity? When does the time come when we make a machine out of nothing?”

‘It’s not me, it’s them’

Ramaiah says that credit goes to students who in fact set up space for him to teach. “Students took up the responsibility and a space in Gitanjali school in Nallakunta was created for me to teach,” he says. The students wanted to get all their coaching done in one place, so Madhusudan joined in to teach physics. If I got into teaching, it is on the insistence of my students. “I don’t believe in publicity because I believe that I would be forced to admit unworthy students. I can’t afford to do that,” he adds.

Bringing IIT to Basara

Ramaiah says, “A lot of people thought that my wanting to bring the IIT to Basara had everything to do with the Saraswati Temple. I always thought of Basara at Boston. I believe that an institution of excellence should be close to the resources. I hoped that the students getting out of IIT at Basara would explore the indigenous resources and, in effect, develop and create a better tomorrow. IIT has gone to Hyderabad, but that’s okay now.”

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