/Interview with Prof. Anupam Saxena

Interview with Prof. Anupam Saxena

Equipped with a disarming smile and a self assured gait, he has an irresistible charm. An absolute favourite with his students, he connects to them instantly with his youthful energy and dynamism. A master of all trades, he steals the show wherever he goes. Be it playing a game of badminton or singing a Kishore Kumar number, he does it with equal finesse. An artist par excellence, he augmented my interest in art through the TA101 course I took under him last semester. With his firm authority on the subject matter and masterful delivery, he manages to hold even a packed L7 in rapt attention. Debonair and suave,à la Bond, the name’s Saxena, Anupam Saxena.

(I enter into his office with a certain amount of hesitation, it being my first interview as an interviewer. He asks me to take a seat and offers me tea which I politely refuse. Sensing my nervousness, he asks me to put down my bag and sit back comfortably. By this time my nervousness has diffused to a great extent. I take a look around his office room. Decorated tastefully, his room is minimalistic yet aesthetically appealing. Averse to any kind of publicity, he says he believes only in work. He takes a look at my Questionnaire and finds the questions interesting. Then he lets me take a look at some of his sketches. I am left spellbound. There is one particular sketch of Amitabh Bachchan, which is still lingering in my mind. I tell him I am into sketching and show him the only sketch I had with me. He is very impressed. Having further gained confidence, I set off to a great start.)

 Excerpts from my tête-à-tête with him.

  1. You are a professor by choice. You had once told in our TA101 class that in your final year at IITB, you were at crossroads, not knowing what to do and finally after long introspection you chose to teach? What exactly was going on in your mind?

I like academics, I like problem solving. I do not like bosses, which does not at all mean bosses are bad.  Just that for me, working in a private/public firm was ruled out. I didn’t really know what to pursue as a career option till my final year. My father is a researcher, my mother is a teacher. Those aspects were in my mind! It was Professor Vinay Kripal, a faculty member with the HSS department at IIT B with whom I was taking a course on Communication Skills in my final year, who, I believe, changed my course of life! She listened to me very patiently and suggested I did a SWOT (Strength Weakness Opportunity threats) analysis. Putting it simply, I listed down the bunch of traits (my likings – things that make me happy) on the left column and a bunch of job options on the right.  Then, I did match making  — faculty position emerged as a top option which I could relate to very well. I was so impressed with Professors who taught me then – Profs. Seshu, Maiti, Chinchalkar, Gaitonde, Amarnath and many others. I wanted to be free, to be my own boss. I wanted to pursue what I liked, what my interests were (and are). I wanted to be free yet be totally accountable to myself!

2.20 years hence, I am sure you must be proud of your decision.

Has it been 20 years! No kidding (laughs). I still feel I am a student. Well, actually I am a student, because I am still learning. I will always keep learning, I guess. 20 years down the line, not a bad choice, not a bad choice at all. I do whatever I had envisaged 20 years ago.

3.How does it feel to be closely in contact with the next generation?

Fantastic! Fantabulous! – ‘Fun’ tabulous!  They say it’s generation gap, but I don’t know, I can relate very well with students. I reckon, and my colleagues will probably agree with me, that professors stay young because they get a chance to interact with a lot of young minds, over and over again!

4.Any particular incident that has stood out in all these years of association with IITK.

There are many. I would rather talk about only positive instances —  I am super proud that IIT Kanpur has won the General Championship this year for the first time. I am a B. Tech from IIT Bombay. During my time there, we were sports crazy people. Here in IITK, we have a lot of faculty colleagues who are into serious (competitive) sports – in cricket, badminton, table tennis, basket ball, volley ball, squash and many others. All of us actually wanted the IIT Kanpur student contingent to win the General Championship, as much as the students wanted themselves. This has been our(faculty, students and coaches inclusive) collective dream! Most of us sweated for many years and thanks to the hard work and good wishes of all that we finally have the General Championship Trophy – one of the many highlights of my stay over here. I feel tremendously happy about it. The challenge is now to retain it! A hidden lesson, at least for me – Sports teaches us to not give up – I like the message Rocky Balboa gives – it is not about winning but the ability to stand up every time one is down. And of course, one has to win right!

5. You have been on both sides of the table, as a student and as a professor. How does it feel?

I wish the table wasn’t there. I still feel I am a student and learning. Ya so the table, the way I see it, isn’t there at all.

6. How do you feel the IIT system has changed over the years?

Quite a difficult question for me to answer! I feel (my colleagues may agree or disagree) that the IIT system was for long quite focussed on teaching as it was perhaps expected to be. The academic curricula developed over the years have led the entire system to offer a fantastic undergraduate programme we are all proud of. Our postgraduate programmes are now equally good and at par with many leading universities worldwide. The efficacy of our training is exemplified by the alumni from different IITs doing so well worldwide. And that is something as a faculty member of the IIT system, and IIT Kanpur in particular, I am very proud of. I only wish the quality of our training/teaching is not compromised. You know, OLD is GOLD. Of course research is very important, and so are many other activities. The overall development of our students is also essential and that is something we focus on implicitly. There are plethora of opportunities in fields other than academics (e.g., Arts, Sports, Adventures, Dance, Music) we provide that students can pursue outside their regular classes. Students have complete freedom to pick (m)any activity(ies). I know many of my colleagues, who themselves are IIT alumni, have become fantastic musicians. I remember my conversation with Somesh Mishra (a flutist) a few months ago. He goes like Sir, what I realize now is how we actually got trained. We thought we were learning only the material provided to us through the courses. Years down the line, I realised something. If I want to learn anything new now, I can do so much faster and with so much ease. That’s the actual training the IIT System provides. Well, I was in complete agreementwith him. I can still sense this attribute of the IIT system to be present. The system now is in transition – and a lot is expected from it. You know, there is this concept of inner beauty and outer beauty. It is the inner self (already so beautiful) in the system we need to focus on, because if we do that the outer self will automatically be beautiful. We should not make compromises and should not let go of the good things that have served us so well over many years.

7. You must have been an all rounder in your college days at IITB. What were the various activities you were involved in?

Well, I used to play table tennis, cricket and soccer. I still remember getting injured when I was playing barefoot in my hostel’s quad and my left foot got pierced through by a piece of glass. I used to sing, I had sung for Surbahaar for a couple of years. In my final year I had participated in Mood Indigo – I did a bit of Arts as well. (I ask him about his painting ‘The Corridor, 1995’, he shows it to me and explains it enthusiastically. It is a single point perspective of a corridor, 4 people sitting in the corridor, he could be spotted among them. Medium used is spray water-color. I almost took it for a photograph.)

8.You had also quipped once that you have been associated with nearly all IITs. Could you elaborate on that.

Absolutely! My father did his Phd from IIT Kharagpur. I did my B.Tech from IIT Bombay. My former Phd advisor, and my mentor for life, Prof. G. K. Ananthasuresh, he is a B.Tech from IIT Madras. And I am teaching at IIT Kanpur. If my 12 year old goes to IIT Delhi, the affiliation (with older IITs) will be complete. Naah! there are many new IITs now in place, I am very positive that around that time,  they will come at par, and hopefully the overall IIT system will make our country proud.

9.Age does not seem to have caught up with you. You still have that childlike enthusiasm and vitality. What keeps you motivated?

Perhaps my profession because I like to interact with my students. As I said before, one advantage of being a faculty member is to always stay in touch with young minds. And of course in my personal opinion, it’s a nice idea for one to have that child within. You need to play every now and then – you need to have fun. And why not? You should always have fun. You should not pretend to be an adult everytime. You should unleash that childlike aura as often as possible, if not always, and enjoy to the fullest without really worrying about what others think. Prof. R. Balasubramanium, a great friend and colleague, a multi-faceted personality, a fantastic human being and my personal role model, was miles ahead. We have played together on the field and stage so many times.

10 . You are actively involved in a lot of things, academic and non-academic. How do you find time for your passions?

I don’t worry about time at all. Frankly speaking, I don’t plan anything; I just do it, impulsively. If your heart tells you to pursue something, just go ahead and pursue. That’s what I believe in and try to practice. I fail so many times but I still keep trying.

11. You have a rather peculiar habit of not carrying a cellphone around. A lot of people are curious to know the reason.

Unfortunately that is not true anymore. I am now affiliated with the Office of International Relations and I have to carry a cellphone. You know it’s very funny, the way I feel. These gadgets, this technology has been invented to facilitate communication. But what’s happening (and I am not sure if this is only my observation or of others as well) is that people are not communicating face to face these days. Looks like this has become a thing of the past! People are now shying away from communicating conventionally, rather they are getting addicted (possibly heavily) to these gadgets. They don’t find the need to come together and have, say, a bulla session or Cak session, what we used to have in IIT Bombay. We had a group of 13 members, wingmates, of different backgrounds, of all batches and even PG students. Often I used to find myself in a common room, a very large room at the end of our wing which could accommodate all 13 people in there. We used to Cak away on all topics under the sky  till 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock in the morning. That thing seems missing, or I could be wrong. If I am not, you know, having these gadgets is fine so long as one does not let go of the conventional modes of communication.

12.You never felt the need to carry a cellphone?

No, absolutely  not! I can already sense some sort of dependence in the question. But I have a different, rather personal reason. If I start using something, I become totally addicted to that, so I try to refrain from using such gadgets. I know I am totally addicted to emails, and to something else you folks know well (Of course we do!).

13.Word is around that you had earned the nickname ‘Bond’ at IITB. How did it come about?

It’s not how it seems. Back then, we used to have a senior Hemal Naik, he was in Chemical engineering, and was in my anti wing. In my first or second year, I don’t remember quite well, every morning when I used to walk along the corridor of my wing, I often used to spot him. He used to see me walk towards him, and used to go like, “My name is Bond”, followed by a very long pause, and then “Black Bond”. Well, thanks to my complexion! That’s how it started but sooner or later ‘Black’ faded away and what remained was ‘Bond’. It’s definitely not related to the 007. By the way, we have another colleague bearing the nick name Bond, a graduate from IIT KGP.

14.Words you live by.

Contentment (Anyone who has done the TA101 course under him last semester will be able to relate to it). That is the most important word everybody lives by. Everybody wants to be happy, everybody wants to be content. Some think they would get it by making a lot of money, some want to be celebrities, some want to make a difference, some go for social work etc. etc. Whatever it is, everybody wants to be satisfied and happy every moment.

15. Any final message for the student community.

I will share one thing that one of your seniors, Manish Dwivedi, told me way back in 2002-2003 or around that time: Whatever one does, one should do it well – irrespective of whether it is academics, sports, or any interest or any hobby one wants to pursue. That makes a lot of sense because if one is not putting her/his own best, it’s a waste of time and effort. If one puts in 100% in the task one is engaged in, either by choice or (hopefully not) by force, he/she should do it as best as possible to extract maximum possible satisfaction. I still keep this mental note to myself; Whatever you do, do it well (give your 100%), otherwise there is no point.

(With this he signs off but not before getting into a philosophical mood. He shares with me his insights on life in general and tells me about an article he has written which delves into the deepest recesses of his mind. After this profound discussion, I leave, absolutely mesmerised.)

 –Samanwita Samal