Friday, 4 December 2015

Till you are Touched - Interview with Prof. Kiran Seth

IIT Bhubaneswar was honored to receive Prof. Kiran Seth, Emeritus Professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Padma Shri awardee and the Founder of SPIC MACAY. He shared some of his opinions and experiences with the members of Panacea. The following being just a small portion of what he had to offer us.

Did you associate with any form of art before Spic Macay or before college? Did you start learning it?
Yes, but in a very incidental way. Just like, sometimes as a kid I used to sing with a guitar in IIT Kharagpur; The Beatles at that time. I can still sing... (Laughs)
Ek baar gaake sunayiye!
Hopefully later! Abhi interview kare.

When you started SPIC MACAY in IIT Delhi, was it supposed to be a college society or did you see this happening?
No. The first name of SPIC MACAY was MEFOR - Mechanical Engineer Final Year Operation Research Group. It was just random. We said let’s do it, let’s get together and do it. Next we got the whole class involved. It changed to MEFYS – Mechanical Engineering Final Year Students. It just evolved. We never thought that it will be so huge and spread all over the country. It was just an outpouring of one’s own insights. It was a very organic growth. See, if you’re touched by something, if you’re really deeply touched by something, you don’t have to plan. It simply happens. You understand what I’m saying? You learn planning gradually. In such cases there is no looking back. You can learn anything of great depth, the characteristic of something of great depth is that it’s got the capacity to touch. Other things will go superficially off you, but a thing of great depth will touch you.

What exactly happens when you are touched?
I’ll tell you. The thing is that anything of depth takes time. You’re given a fleeting glimpse of something deep and you say ‘bhai, wah kya baat hai!’ Then you try to look at that, to get that experience again. But it doesn’t come to you so easily. Suddenly in a moment of realization something cracks and bingo, you see it there. An instant of random impulse and you have it. Initially it stays for an arbitrarily small time but what do these great masters do? They are able to extend that time, and then they’re able to constantly sit in that. What a fantastic thing! For example if you want to go deep into maths, first time when you’ll do it, it will be very painful. But when you get the true essence of one idea – one theorem, ‘kya baat hai! Kya likha hai!’ The struggle doesn’t get over so easily. It carries on as you keep learning more. These great mathematicians like Manjul Bhargav, or Higgs, they’d be sitting in the domain of maths all day long, in a sense. Similarly, a great musician, like Amrinder Dagar saab, even when he is brushing, his mind will be in a different domain. That is the ideal of anything of depth. It’s like falling in love, but without the negative effects of falling in love (laughs). It can happen to anyone. But, you must be ready to receive it. You can’t do nothing and just expect it to come. An effort has to be made. When you put in effort and you find it’s too tough, you tend to leave it mid-way. 

But when you love it, you don’t leave it.
No, but you don’t know yet. The real love comes later. The first love is not love (laughs). It comes slowly, as you go into it deeper. That is the time when you’ve come to really love it. Initially you may find it very good for a little while but then most people leave it. You do it every day and 99% initially, is done on faith. Your mother told you, “Try this stuff out. It’s very good.” Because why? Her mother told her that and her mother’s mother before that. They all tried it out. But when you try it then it’s your choice. You may not like it and drop it. It’s fine. The matter is over. But you have to keep trying, keep sustaining.
That’s why mothers are important. Some people say ‘I’m just a housewife’. When somebody says this, I get shaken up because it is such a powerful role! It has been abdicated a lot. I remember distinctly my father was one of the first professors of IIT Kharagpur. At that time, Kharagpur was just a jungle. I’ve seen tigers with my own eyes in our backyard. I even brought one deer home, you won’t believe. There was one station nearby called Higli — a very, very tiny station. Trains stopped there very rarely. My mother used to take me to Higli station and we stood there waiting for a train to come, for hours. She just stood with me, for I liked trains as a kid. Patience – what a lesson to learn. Do you have that sort of time now-a-days? Traditionally it’s been her role to pass on these very important things at a very young age.

You just said first love is not the real love. So we really have to explore many things?
Yes, you should explore. We’ve got a whole tradition of this. The whole tantrik tradition is experimentation, in a controlled manner. Controlled manner in the sense that you are doing experimentation, but knowing what you are doing. Knowing what are the pitfalls of that experimentation. You have to develop systems to counteract it. There were two of us (I’m giving you an example) who went from IIT to abroad. Me and one of my friends. He went to Yale and I went to Colombia University. At that time, the difference between an American student and an Indian student was huge. We were buddhus. It was very easy for us to get caught in the glamour of the whole thing. A big city — wine, women, song and what not; a totally different way of looking at life. So this boy, he got caught into drugs. He had to be deported back to India. Deport from Yale. Just imagine! What saved me? I tried everything, but what saved me? Just by chance I’d learnt a few of these things. It acted like an anchor. The anchor develops through things like yoga, classical music, etc. You must always check out. But, that has to be done intelligently. 

How did you get this idea? To start MEFOR?
Start? When you fall in love, you don’t think. There’s no logical thinking. You don’t think too much. 

When it started, did you start it alone or were there some other people with you? And do they still contribute?
No, I called my friend and they helped me.
One of my students, sent me the first MEFOR card. 38 years. It’s just — those friends, two of them already passed away. Others didn’t sustain it. Just for the first few, one or two, years they were there and then they moved on. It’s very difficult to sustain these things unless you are, like I said, really touched by it.

So how do you sustain it? My life is rapidly changing but how to sustain it?
You’ll always be in a different world but there are certain things which will always keep getting special. We went through so many things. You know I used to participate in inter IIT. I represented in basketball and swimming. But all those things are now in the past. Slowly you narrow things down. You check your own life, you find 90% of all things you’re doing is crap and if you don’t mind my saying it (laughs). All these things which most people do they’re just for a little while and then you move on. But you have to learn how to take out the wheat from the chaff. 

You are more famous as a founder of SPIC MACAY than a professor at IIT Delhi.
Unfortunately! I love my subject. If you ask me to teach, you just come and see how I’ll teach you OR.
I could have done a lot more in my field had I not been involved with SPIC MACAY. It did take a lot of the time out. For everything, you require time and you have to spend a lot of time if you really want to do some good fundamental research which I think I could do. No doubt about it. You can love your subject, but you have to choose. You can’t say ‘I’m going to be a master of everything’. That’s not possible.

At a point of time you had a love for OR as well as SPC MACAY. So how did you choose between them?
I didn’t choose! You can have two loves (laughs). I do love both of them. But as you rightly said, there are some choices which have to be made. If you have a family, you also have to make some choices, don’t you? I’m still a bachelor so my marriage is equal to SPIC MACAY in some sense. So I had to balance it. You can’t have it all, right?

You told in the talk Indian education system has always been largely based on practice. It’s always been practice. But some people ridicule it as mugging up. What do you have to say to that?
No. We should bring in the Gurukala element to the system. I’m not saying we have to make it a Gurukul — we can’t do that. But the elements can be brought in. One of my friends was Ashok Mishra. He was there at the starting time of SPIC MACAY in IIT Delhi. When he went to IIT Bombay as Director, you know what was the first thing he did? He hired two of the top musicians in the country as distinguished professors in residence — Ustad Fariduddin Dagar and Shastbuddhi and he gave them a place just next to Powai Lake, you know, the Dhrupad Sansaar. Full honour in a technical institution.
IIT Bhubaneswar has introduced Odissi dance as an elective, a wonderful thing they’ve done! Why can’t we think of, even Bhubaneswar should, having an eminent professor of one of the arts to be in residence. You go meet them every once in a while, sit with them. They don’t have to do it formally. It’s more like a guru in residence. A guru who encompasses not the teaching practice so much, but the presence factor. It can be any person, even a physicist, who has used the path to go beyond that. Students can go and say hi to him, sometimes listen to him. Not necessarily a person who is top in the sense of having made it in the professional world. But really someone who has imbibed it into and made it a part of his or her own life. When you all go the new campus, try asking to keep two residences as distinguished professors of whatever.

I still can’t figure out the meaning of the SPIC MACAY logo.
It’s just an abstract representation of the opening of your inner eye. When your eye opens, you see something different. Here you’re seeing opening of the inner eye. And the inner eye is different because the eyeball is red and the flames are black.

Why do we write SPIC and then space MACAY?
Just to make it sound macay-ish (laughs). You see, when we started this off, everybody was saying ‘you are anachronistic’, ‘you are not in tune with the times’. So I said ‘no, we are SPIC MACAY!’ We are selling old wine in new bottles, that’s it! It was a society, we were targeting the youth and we were trying to promote our culture, classical music. So it was like Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music Amongst Youth – SPICMAY. Didn’t sound good. So I said ‘we’re also into culture, aren’t we? If we add an AC it will become SPIC MACAY! So why not?’ We were sitting exactly like this. 

Today in the face of religious differences, in the face of diverse musical influences from all over the world, how do you think classical music can hold up? Especially among the youth because we are so impressionable.
It is very difficult. Even Western classical music is facing the same dilemma. You see, anything of depth is facing the same dilemma. All forms which have got a great depth — the deep sea fish is getting bajaao-ed! Really, because nobody has time to dive down and see the deep sea fish. So that’s the big challenge. I sometimes feel we’re fighting a losing battle. It depends on people like you. The youth is looking, that’s a wonderful thing. It is like examining critically. People get intuition that something might hold a value. That is the only saving grace. Otherwise, lots of things are getting lost. Who is there to replace KV Babu, or Sanyukta, in Odisha? No one wants to see this Prahalad naatak.
Either you come up, change the form or you die. So Gotipua, they have done a smart thing but then what have they done? The whole effect of it has become now of gymnastics. It’s not the same thing. The whole thing is totally different. What a great concept Gotipua, just look at it. Posing boys as Ardh-nareshwar. You can’t make an ardh-nareshwar out of a grown up. It has to be a kid. If he learns how to put his thing like this, he’ll never look at a woman in a different way. There’ll won’t be any rapes. Because you have made the child already half a woman. What a concept.
Have you heard of Vedantam Satyanarayan Sharma? He used to dress as Satyabhama. And when Satyabhama came on stage, you’d just fall in love with her. That man transformed into a beautiful woman. When he comes here he’ll look like an old man, haggard man. When he came on stage, he was Satyabhama! How did that transformation come, unless there was something very powerful within? He’s trained half a woman, he’s become half a woman. That’s a fact. 

We’re actually trying to promote so people come see different dance forms and then they get to know that classical dance can also be so graceful.
So it’s ok you’re doing that gracefully but actually it’s a plateau. All of us should try and reach the plateau. And many people can be on the plateau. It’s not one person who has to be on the plateau. It’s not like this. You know, it’s actually never a competition. It’s a competition with yourself. And you keep trying. Bismillah Khan told me something once. I can’t forget when he held my hand as I was sitting with him in Varanasi and talking. ‘Kiran ek din mein’, he held my hand, ‘shehnai baja raha tha Ganga ke kinare. Toh kya hua Ganga Mai aayi aur bola kya sur lagaya! Aur chali gayi thi.’ And his eyes glowed, I can’t forget, like light bulbs! I don’t know what he saw, whether he saw something or not. But the fact that he’d experienced something came out in his eyes. So that is an experience which I’m talking about. If once that achieved, then you can’t stop Bismillah Khan saab. He’ll keep trying to get that. He was really a great guy. No question about it. He had gone beyond music. The way he used to loose himself not caring about his surroundings. We all keep looking for facilities. He got everything inside him. It used to come out in his eyes.

Ok, are we through? All the best.

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