Aug 1, 2008

India - What it was to be in the first batch of IIT-M

The photo - President Radhakrishnan addressing the first convocation of IIT-M on July 11,1964

CHENNAI: Today, they are CEOs, professors, scientists and entrepreneurs, proud of being the first graduates of what is now a global brand name. On Thursday, IIT-M began its golden jubilee year. However, half a century ago, the 92 B.Tech students who made up the first batch at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras were taking a chance on an unknown institution.
“I applied after seeing a small news item in The Hindu. My uncle recommended that I apply to this new institute rather than the more established CEG [College of Engineering], Guindy. My mother was so angry with him for sending me off to a jungle,” laughs S. Srinivasan.
The jungle was untouched in those days, with no buildings on campus ready for the first batch of students. “Back then, IIT existed in the minds of the planners and its physical presence was discerned in the borrowed classrooms of AC Tech,” said Mallik Putcha, writing in a campus paper a quarter of a century later. Students lived at the old Presidency College women’s hostel in Saidapet. “We used to cycle from there and cross the Adyar river by boat. I remember the ride used to cost us about 25 paise a week,” remembers R. Mahadevan.
There was no entrance examination, but one’s PUC (pre-university certificate) marks and performance at an intensive interview determined entry. “That interview was tougher than any JEE,” says Mr. Srinivasan. Dr. Mahadevan remembers that understanding the accent of the German professors on the panel was one of the tougher parts of the interview. “Dr. Koch, who taught Physics, would tell us we must learn to ‘sink’. It was some time before we realised he meant ‘think’,” says Dr. Mahadevan.
The German influence went beyond language mishaps.
They focussed on practical exercises, going so far as to insist on a week of workshop to follow every week of classroom teaching. Open book examinations, the importance given to analytical ability versus rote learning, and the ‘surprise tests’ for continuous evaluation made the IIT system different from its contemporaries, says Mr. Srinivasan.
After the first year, the students moved to the current campus to start classes at the Civil Engineering building and begin life at Cauvery hostel. “We lived with a cross-section of India, learning due to the cultural confluence,” says Dr. Mahadevan, recalling how they got used to a few days of familiar South Indian food, followed by Bengali or North Indian cuisine. In July 1964, the first graduates of IIT-M were given their degrees by the then President, S. Radhakrishnan, followed by dinner hosted by staff at the High Voltage lab. They have gone on to do their country proud.
Dr. Mahadevan went on to complete his Ph.D at IIT-M before joining India Pistons as a management trainee. Today, he is a director at the same company. Dr. Putcha went on to become a software engineer with Boeing at the NASA International Space Station.
Mr. Srinivasan worked with IBM, playing another role in IIT-M history by installing its first large mainframe computer in 1970. He taught at his alma mater for a stint before starting his own company in 1986.

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