Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Our crassly commercial youth?

Recently, Professor C. N. R. Rao wrote an article (link via nanopolitan) bemoaning the value system of young Indians. Since I happened to disagree with nearly everything he said, I sent a rejoinder to The Hindu, which I'd be surprised if they published in full (or in any form actually). So here it is, with some changes and additions for web-suitability and to accommodate 24 hours of further reflection.

Prof. Rao's is not an unusual complaint to hear these days. It never was unusual: some of the earliest deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics are reportedly of elders lamenting the youth of their day.

Professor Rao's main worry (for which he lays some blame on the media and government) seems to be that the youth of today are too busy making money and exhibit "hardly any concern about other matters." Though much younger than him, today I am approaching what many would call middle-age, so I presume I am not the subject of his diatribe. However, I myself was a student at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) shortly after Professor Rao retired as director there. I had no direct interaction with him, but vividly remember similar attitudes from the "old guard" in the faculty there, who opposed scholarship increases (it was Rs 1800 a month at the time, and many students supported families on that money) on the grounds that we would waste it on Bangalore's nightlife. Even today, most people regard going to pubs as somehow a sign of depravity.

But let us look at a few other indicators of our value system. Professor Rao says that "India has continued to progress as one country, by and large because of our Indianness." But I find today's urban, educated youth much happier, compared with their parents, to think of themselves as Indian. The older generation tended, and still tends, to think of itself as Iyer or Nadar or Saraswat or Vokkaliga first, Tamil or Kannadiga next, and Indian last, if at all. It would be untrue to say parochialism has disappeared among younger people, but it is certainly becoming less common in urban areas. Inter-regional and inter-caste marriages are increasingly common, they wear Indian clothes and patronise traditional arts from all over India.

Except on very formal occasions, older men wore western shirts and trousers, and older women wore mass-made saris of synthetic fabric. I remember, as a child, asking older women in my family why they wanted "imported" saris (made in England, of all places) when nobody wore saris out there. It seemed absurd, and it was absurd. Today, retailers of traditional cotton fabrics -- both government emporia, and private enterprises like FabIndia and Anokhi -- enjoy booming business, among both genders. In those days, "Made in India" was a label of contempt (an attitude my elders openly displayed); today it invites respect.

Professor Rao wants us to support the arts. But the Bangalore of a few years ago was a cultural wasteland, except for Carnatic and (occasionally) Hindustani music and Bharatanatyam dance, which were patronised mainly by elderly Brahmin families. While the NCPA in Mumbai was set up to support Indian performing arts, old-timers remember that the people who ran the show regarded their main priority as Western classical music. Today traditional folk arts have undergone a revival, thanks to institutions such as the late Protima Gauri's Nrityagram which gives tremendous importance to folk dance, and Arundhati Nag's Ranga Shankara which devotes over half its time to Kannada theatre; they, and others, attract a large, enthusiastic, diverse young audience who (importantly) are willing to pay for the performance. In Chennai, too, traditional folk dance and theatre (from all over India) have increased in popularity, and the Margazhi festival no longer features only Carnatic music and Bharata Natyam to the exclusion of everything else.

After castigating the importance given to money, business deals and commercial ventures, Professor Rao argues that we need to take pride in intellectual and creative accomplishments, and adds that "one is not asking for monetary support here, but moral support..." I beg to disagree. One is asking for monetary support: I am, and so is Professor Rao, as he has done throughout his career. He is known as an institution builder: he opened several new departments in his tenure as director of IISc, and subsequently built up a new institution, the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), in Bangalore. He is also known for running a laboratory, with dozens of people under his supervision, directly or indirectly, producing dozens of papers a year. These things require vast amounts of money, almost all of it from the taxpayer, and he is disingenuous to suggest that he is not asking for it. In fact, I would venture to suggest that the sciences have never been as well funded in India as they are today, both from the government and from the private sector.

An important part of our value system, at least according to our elders, is how the youth should treat their elders. But surely the treatment is a two-way matter. As a student, I treated my advisor, other faculty, and the IISc administration with respect, but on more or less equal terms. My advisor and other faculty members expected and encouraged this and treated me accordingly; some other senior officials were unaccustomed to it, but accepted it nevertheless. At the same time, I would witness some senior professors who interacted with Professor Rao (by then no longer the director, but still influential) genuflecting in an utterly demeaning manner (and Professor Rao did not seem to discourage this self-abasement). This was, again, not unusual in the older generation when they dealt with someone powerful, and such behaviour survives in our political culture today. Thankfully, in the better Indian academic institutions, such servility is a thing of the past and independence is encouraged.

If Professor Rao had opened his eyes in the past, he would have found much to bemoan, and if he opens them today, he'll find much to appreciate, in today's Bangalore and today's India.

Finally, Prof. Rao complains that the government and the media do not devote enough attention to scientists and artists, and too much to sportspersons and money-makers. I do agree that our cricketers' performance is far from commensurate with the coverage (and sponsorship money) that they get, and I'll be quite happy never to read of Aishwarya Rai or Salman Khan again (I do want to know when they run over pavement-dwellers or hunt deer, though). But I also see ample press coverage of academicians like Amartya Sen, or classical musicians like Amjad Ali Khan, when they do something newsworthy (and often even when they don't); and dozens of less eminent scientists and artists get government honours every year.

Some of the media coverage of Indian science is worthwhile, while some is decidedly dubious. I find the media, if anything, too uncritical of self-promoting charlatans. The joke about one professor in Bangalore was that, while his colleagues published in the Physical Review, he preferred the Deccan Herald.

If we don't have better science coverage, is it possibly because we don't do better science?


wildflower seed said...

"some of the earliest deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics are reportedly of elders lamenting the youth of their day"


Our brains are wired for survival, not for truth.

Anonymous said...

But off course, there's nothing to talk about in science. By his own admission, 'research has nearly come to a standstill in India'!


Rahul said...

ws - you're saying CNR said those things to survive? or I did?

Natasha - nice observation. But to be fair, he's talking (I think) of research in universities.

wildflower seed said...

I meant that this generic tendency to look back into the past and bemoan the current state of affairs is a survival strategy. It helps us to deny the inevitability of change and give continued sustenance to our memories.

sri said...

I think I should make this compulsory reading for my students! :)

I'm not really worried about the yester-generation bemoaning the youth. I'm more worried about several younger people who say very similar things! I've seen several young folks (myself included, some years ago) who took such bemoaning to heart, saw them as absolute truths since they came from an elderly respected person, and started hating themselves and feeling guilty about whatever they do.

Is it any wonder that the "slave mentality" is so prevalent in our society still?

Ashutosh said...

Well, one is asking for monetary and moral support. Prof. Rao's article does not mention one important point; the dwindling of the importance of a career in science or the arts for their children among the middle class.
One point I would also like to make is that the coverage the media gives to people of certain professions is not necessarily commensurate with the popularity of that profession among people. So just because Amartya Sen is touted by the media does not mean demand or encouragement for economists or economics increases among the lay public. As you say, even now for the middle class, the monetary aspect is the major problem. But so is a lack of scientific attitude. And yes, we have more budget for funding science than ever before, but sadly, it's still not good enough, and is largely diverted to 'popular' fields and not basic science in general.
On the other hand, I do understand Prof. Rao's bemoaning youth; his generation had many more scientists of excellent calibre than our generation, there is no doubt about that. Many reasons abound for this fact, but the fact that there were very few private engineering and medicine colleges then definitely played a role. Many promising and intelligent students who studied engineering today would have likely opted to study the sciences then.

Tabula Rasa said...

i typed out a comment this morning along the lines of i don't know about the egyptian business but i do recall reading something along similar lines in plato's republic.

anyway, i think it's interesting he said what he did, simply for the fact that he's bound to get a sympathetic audience regardless of the facts. can't go wrong on this one.

Rahul said...

ws - maybe you're right. (I'm not sure about the Egyptian thing -- can't remember where I read it and it may have been a joke -- but as tr points out it's pretty old.) But the world has evolved faster in the last 500 years (and especially the last 100 years) than at any point in history, so maybe that makes people feel insecure.

Sri - thanks. I too have met students, "self-hating" may be a strong word, but with very low self-esteem and excessively deferential. And worryingly, they're only a few years younger than me.

Ashutosh -- well there are two aspects to funding, funding for research and your own paypacket. I suppose the lay public is worried about the latter, which is tied for most of us to government pay scales. I agree this has to be sorted out if we want to attract better talent. Realistically though, it's not bad money at all even now... As for research grants, I don't agree that funding is not available for basic sciences.

tr - true. Others have said (see comments on abi's blog) that CNR stated things badly but they agree with him.

Anant said...


If you had been a diligent reader of my blog,
you would have found the quotation you
were searching for:

``The earth is degenerating fast.
Bribery and corruption abound.
Children no longer mind parents
and it is evident the end of the
world is approaching fast.''
(Assyrian Tablet, 2800 B. C., which
I first found in an email from
Sreerup Raychaudhuri, and
later confirmed by google search).

In any case, I think that a tirade against
CNR serves no purpose at all. I do not
dispute what you say, since I am in
no position to.

However, I think one would not earn
any sympathy by stating:

``But the Bangalore of a few years ago was a cultural wasteland, except for Carnatic and (occasionally) Hindustani music and Bharatanatyam dance, which were patronised mainly by elderly Brahmin families.''

First of all, I would seriously doubt what you
are saying. How was the spectral decomposition
of the audience done to determine the
caste quantum numbers? Besides, just because
it is patronized by Brahmins it does mean that
the art form should be despised or detested.
Did these patrons prevent others from coming?
You would also be well advised to note that
for the longest time Brahmins avoided
Bharatanatyam because of the stigma attached
to the form practised by Devadasis, but that
is another story. I would venture to say that
your remarks also betray chauvinism of a
certain kind, and is as reprehensible as the
chauvinism of the upper castes that you despise
so much. By taking the discourse on this route
one simply worsens the tensions already present
in society. And finally, if CNR is nostalgic
about this or that, it is his right. You and I
cannot decide what he should be nostalgic

Best regards, Anant

Rahul said...

Anant - actually I didn't know about your blog. One more to add to my akregator.

I do not dispute the artistic quality of carnatic music -- I often listen to it myself. However (this is not Bangalore-specific, but CNR was focussing on Bangalore), if one looks at either the performers (except for nadaswaram players -- that's another story) or the audience, they do tend to be predominantly from one community. I'm not suggesting there was a conscious exclusion process at work -- perhaps it just failed to appeal to other communities, including most north Indians I know. Hindustani music has been quite a bit more diverse.

Yes, dancers were looked down upon until Rukmini Devi came along. That was the early 20th century, and I was talking of more recent times.

Yes, CNR has a right to be nostalgic, and I have a right to criticise what he says about the youth. As sri points out, it's not a totally harmless thing to go on tirades against the youth. Note also that he published in a national newspaper and I published on my personal blog.

Anant said...


Thanks for your message. Let me try one
more time to convince you what it is that
I see in the CNR article. I have already
stated that it could have been written
differently, but the main essence that needs
to be extracted is simply this: no society
can continue in this manner where young
graduates simply go off into highly paying
jobs which are not particularly value adding,
and which do not lead to the growth of the
individual or the country. Much of the work
that goes on in the IT sector in Bangalore
is dull, repetitive, and soul crushing.
Many 'trapped' in this wish when it is
almost too late that they were doing more
creative, learning things, etc.. So, an avenue
has to exist for those that will contribute to
science, art, or whatever. I think one should
look a the CNR article in this perspective.
His call for greater recognition of those who
contribute in these spheres is a positive one.
In fact, we should contribute ourselves to
such endeavours. For instance, we should
feature on our blogs the important work done
by each other, as an example. It need not
be that India should be represented only by
the Nandan Nilekani's and the NRN's and
the Desh Deshpandes, and what the hell, my
B. Tech classmate Phaneesh Murthy. It should
be represented by, e.g., my other B. Tech
classmate Vijay Nambisan (author and poet)
or Prabhu Nott (IISc Prof.).

BTW I agree with your observation:
``If we don't have better science coverage, is it possibly because we don't do better science?''

Finally, I am reminded of an old anecdote
about someone who was complaining about
the great Abdus Salam in the presence of
his long time collaborator John Strathdee.
Strathdee at the end of this, is said to have
merely noted that great men have great faults.

Best regards, Anant

Rahul said...

anant - thanks for the comment.

I don't think it is as simple as highlighting achievements -- they are already well highlighted (such as they are). This is really the subject for a separate post (maybe one of these days...) but, in a nutshell, I really think it is about money. A lot of pressure to do engineering, etc, comes from parents -- you yourself say (elsewhere) that you started off in engineering and switched. And the reason is they don't want the kids to starve. We romanticise starving artists but don't want our kids to become one.

So the number one thing to do is remove the misconception that scientists starve. Our payscales are not great but are perfectly adequate to live on -- and, given that in India they're linked to government scales, this will stay that way (plus we get pension plans and LTC and the other usual government benefits). Jobs, for talented people, are plentiful. And there is even a demand in industry for talented people with PhDs in basic sciences.

There are other misconceptions but we should start with this one.

Really, given that other kinds of government jobs continue to be in demand, I don't see why academic jobs shouldn't be -- at least if you're an honest person.

Anant said...


Thanks for the message. I will
keep this short and will save
longer notes for your future
separate post.

I think that the fear of parents
about children starving from
going into a career is science
is not misconceived. While it
is true that our salaries are ok,
you know as well as I do that it
is VERY DIFFICULT to get such
positions. Unless you have the
linear track record of Ph. D.,
2-3 phoren post-docs, how does
one land a job at IMSc or at
IISc? What is the future of a
person who finishes a Ph. D. in
science at even a better one of
our better Universities? There
are innumerable unemployed
persons with Ph. D.'s in theoretical
physics knocking from pillar to
post trying to find jobs. Unless
the policy makers come up with
some kind of an assured
employment scheme, these
problems will persist. I must,
however, add that if one does
a reasonable Ph. D. in experimental physics, perhaps
it is not that hard to land a
reasonable job. Again this is
apparent only from the success
stories --- where are the real
statistics on Ph. D. acquisition
and subsequent career options?

More after your promised post.

Best regards, Anant

Rahul said...

anant - if you believe it's that hard to get a job, maybe we shouldn't be encouraging children to do science... but the problem is our university system churns out way too many useless degree-holders at all levels. (The subject of yet another future post...) I think almost nobody who comes out of IISc, IMSc, etc with PhDs fails to get a good job. Most do phoren postdocs, because they can, but I know some who didn't and haven't suffered for it.

Anant said...


Thanks for your message. I have always said,
whenever I have had a chance, that the
encouragement to science has to tempered
with the issue of career prospects. This is
why I do have a problem with the abstract
manner in which science is 'encouraged'.
See also the comments section to my post
on becoming a professional physicist, where
I have expressed my reservations [unfortunately
on this safari browser I am unable to provide
the link]. I must also add that part of my
pessimism is specific to the field of theoretical
physics, where a person who graduates with
a Ph. D. has practically no other prospects
except in research. This, obviously, is not the
case in other subfields of physics, biology, etc.
where a person can be gainfully be employed
in industrial research, or in general has the
background to diversify.

Best regards, Anant

Vidya said...

I came across your articel while I was surfing the net. I could not agree more with your opinion on Science in India. We need to be able to stop being so biased and be able to make a distinction between our "Indianness" and being a scientist. The two are different and being a Scientist is global, not localised. My rant is against all techers/professors in India who judje their sudents on their "Indianess" and very rarely on their capabilities and potential.

Vidya said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ninque said...


I am an Indian student who recently left TIFR and came to New York to complete my phd. Thank you for your post. It helps me to know that there are people denouncing such cliques openly. It makes the decision to come back to india and ply my trade easier

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