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IIT Madras turns 60: Meet Srinivasan and Mahadevan, two friends from the first batch

R Mahadevan and S Srinivasan reminisces their college life   | Photo Credit: M_Karunakaran

The year was 1959. S Srinivasan had just finished his pre-university course and like many teenagers of that time, he dreamt of joining the College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG) — the preferred college for engineering then. Destiny, as they say, had other plans. Srinivasan’s uncle chanced upon a small ad in The Hindu, about the inauguration of this unfamiliar college called Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. He applied for it without expecting much, and was called for an interview. “To compensate for the entrance exam [Gate] — started in 1984 — they made the interview tougher,” recalls Srinivasan.

His story was destined to intertwine with that of R Mahadevan, who lived miles away in a small village in Kumbakonam. In the months that followed, they would live in the same hostel and study Mechanical Engineering in the same classrooms. Sixty years later, they are being featured in the same paper — that helped them learn about IIT-M — reminiscing their college days, ahead of the institution’s 60th anniversary.

 

Sounds like the kind of meta narrative you read in novels or watch in the movies? But this, is an inspiring true tale of two friends: Srinivasan and Mahadevan, both now 76-years-old. “I consider myself fortunate... because if there was an entrance exam back then, I’d never have gotten in,” laughs Mahadevan, who says his family was oblivious to the world of engineering.

Life at IIT

The first batch had an overall strength of 120 students from across India — of which 16 were from Tamil Nadu. Students were accommodated in two separate hostels; one for non-vegetarians located in Guindy and one for vegetarians in Saidapet, for as long as six months since the infrastructure was still underway. Srinivasan and Mahadevan stayed in the Saidapet hostel, a mile away from Guindy. Since the classes started at 7.30 am, they had to cycle around three kilometres to reach Alagappa Chettiar College of Engineering, adjacent to CEG, where the classes were held initially. Mahadevan remembers walking past YMCA ground to Adyar river and taking the ferry ride to cross the river and proceeding to the CEG. “We used almost all modes of transport to reach the college,” he says.

R Mahadevan and S Srinivasan, the extreme right pair

R Mahadevan and S Srinivasan, the extreme right pair   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Cauvery hostel was the first to be ready, after which students were relocated to the campus. Srinivasan says that he had the shock of his life when he stepped into the campus, for it was literally a jungle, populated by deer, snakes and monkeys.

There weren’t too many facilities in Cauvery hostel, which had a common room where most hostellers assembled to listen to the radio for cricket commentary. Hostel life was synonymous with sports such as table tennis, cricket and volleyball, apart from classroom gossip of course. Srinivasan recallls how he took the institution’s buses, which operated from 7 am to 9 pm and offered free rides till Adyar, during the weekends.

Around the second year, the film club was launched, screening popular movies every Saturday at 8 pm — a ritual that is followed even today at the open air theatre (OAT). “We used a 16mm projector to screen classic Hollywood and Bollywood movies in one of our workshops,” says Srinivasan. They vaguely remember the cornerstone at OAT being set, marking the beginning of its construction in 1961.

Blast from the past
  • IIT Madras was inaugurated on July 31, 1959 by Prof Humayun Kabir, former Union Minister for Scientific Research and Cultural Affairs. There were no women students in the first batch (1959-64).
  • The Civil Engineering Department was the first building to have been established in the newly-formed IIT-M.
  • The first batch had five departments — civil, mechanical, electrical, chemical and metallurgy. Students paid an annual fee of ₹500.
  • The government of Germany signed an agreement with the Indian government, to support the institution with the help of their distinguished faculties — which is why German was a part of their curriculum.

The numbers game

Mechanical engineering topped the bill, they say, just like how computer science does these days. Both Srinivasan and Mahadevan had signed up simply because it was considered to be “the thing” to do. The duo recalls their evenings enlivened by intellectually-stimulating conversations among ‘some of the country’s great masterminds’.

At the same time, Mahadevan says he always dreaded workshops. “The guy was a taskmaster. He would give us a lump of metal and ensure that we moulded it into a perfect cube. So much so that we had blisters,” shrugs Mahadevan. Srinivasan chips in: “We never missed English classes; it was so relaxing. In fact, some students used to attend English class, and skip the rest of the day.” The two, by their own admission, never felt the peer pressure which IIT has been associated with over the years.

The professors loved ‘surprise tests’. But here’s the twist: these were open book exams. “If a professor felt like having a test, he would announce it in class on that day. You can refer any number of books to solve the paper,” says Mahadevan, adding that the emphasis was more on lateral thinking.

The final exam was advanced by a couple of months due to the Sino-Indian War in 1964. The duo says the Indian government felt that they needed more engineers for the war, thereby shortening their academic year.

The class of 1964

By now, Srinivasan and Mahadevan are visibly moved by their memories about their big day — Convocation ‘64. The excitement that day, they say, hit the roof for two reasons: one, it was IIT-M’s first convocation and two, the chief guest was the then President of India Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

President S. Radhakrishnan giving away the Presidents prize to S.R. Thangavelu, as the Director Prof. B. Sengupta (left) looks on, at the first IIT convocation, in Madras on July 11, 1964

President S. Radhakrishnan giving away the Presidents prize to S.R. Thangavelu, as the Director Prof. B. Sengupta (left) looks on, at the first IIT convocation, in Madras on July 11, 1964   | Photo Credit: S_KOTHANDARAMAN

“It was a surreal and unforgettable moment to receive our certificates from the President,” says Srinivasan. It was a matter of pride for all the effort that went into making them “reasonably good engineers”. “Don’t ask me what Radhakrishnan said that day,” says Mahadevan, adding, “We were so elated that we didn’t even bother listening!” A tinge of sadness did prevail when they left the campus. The convocation may have marked the last chapter of their college life, but their association with the institution never waned and would continue for decades to come. As Srinivasan puts it: “We have grown with this institution.”


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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 11:16:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/iitm-turns-60-a-chat-with-first-batch-students/article28744533.ece

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