Bend it like Zohra

zsAt recent meetings of the Academic and Executive Councils of the University, we had decided to confer the degree of Doctor of Arts (honoris causa) on Zohra Segal, doyenne of Indian theatre and cinema. Since she wrote to say she was unable to travel to Hyderabad, this was to have been presented to her daughter at our convocation on October 1 this year (see the correspondence below),  but now will be given posthumously.

I had written to her daughter, the Odissi dancer Kiran Segal on 25 June:

Dear Ms Sehgal [sic], I am very pleased to convey the information that the University of Hyderabad wishes to confer the degree of Doctor of Arts (honoris causa) upon your mother, Mrs Zohra Sehgal. We would be most honoured if she would accept this degree at the next convocation which will be on October 1, 2014.

The Departments of Theatre Arts in the Sarojini Naidu School would also like it if she would kindly agree to give a distinguished lecture at the University around that time and interact with the faculty and students.

We do hope that she will agree to be with us in October and I look forward to hearing from you. With regards, etc.

to which I got the very gracious response on 30 June:

zohrasegalDear Mr. Ramaswamy,

Thank you very much for the honour that your University is bestowing upon me! I am now 102 years old and therefore unable to travel anywhere. I hope you understand.

I still remember my visits to Hyderabad in days gone by & I must say that in each visit I had a lovely & delightful audience. In the past whenever I had visited Hyderabad, the ‘culture’ & ‘sensitivity’ of the Urdu language prevailed but, unfortunately it is rapidly fading!

As a suggestion and if it suits you, my daughter Padmashri Kiran Segal could come & receive the Degree and read out some excerpts from my ‘time spent in theatre’.

With best wishes, Padmavibhushan Smt. Zohra Segal

A suggestion that we are very happy to accept, and we look forward to having Kiran Segal with us at the next convocation.

There is a touch of sadness that she is no longer with us, but in her 102 years, she did so much in so many spheres. As a member of the Uday Shankar Troupe, then the IPTA, and of course the various movies that she acted in, including Bend it like Beckham. The demure photograph on the left dates from her time as a dancer, while the more characteristic one above is more recent, and wonderfully conveys the sense of mischief she brought to many of her acting roles.

Either way, she was a great ambassador for Indian theatre, and we at the UoH salute her several contributions to the performing arts!


My munia neighbours

220px-Lonchura_punctulata_(Nagarhole,_2004)A nesting pair of scaly-breasted munias  intend to set up residence on my balcony. Not quiet birds these, they announced their intention with much gusto and chirping, and over the last few days, there has been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, grass being gathered and dropped, discussions on architecture and placements, doubtless. The picture I took of them was not good enough to show, so here is one from the relevant Wikipedia entry-

There are many on the campus who take wonderful photographs- of the flora and fauna, of the landscape built and unbuilt, and it would be good to display these talents more publicly. The 2015 UoH calendar will celebrate our wildlife, and hopefully inspire us once again to preserve and conserve it…

Over a year ago, before I moved onto campus, I had gone to see the (still uncompleted) house. On a sill upstairs, I found the perfect welcome- a nest with two perfectly placed eggs. That of a pied wagtail, as I later discovered- a proud home within a home, but so apposite.

IMG_0463I’m not one to believe in signs and the like, but it felt reassuring then. In the next few weeks we watched the eggs hatch, the nestlings grow, and then one day, it was time for them to fly away. The transformation, even when it happened before our eyes, was startling.

And, of course, a very immediate metaphor. As I see the campus preparing itself for receiving students old and new, the parallels are more than obvious, from the shared hostel rooms to the visible testing of wings and the eventual flight away from the nest and to the flocking together… As people return to campus, its good to receive messages from students, like “Yeah it feels good… I mean it feels like home again. Look at this: LH1, the oldest hostel… hot climate … nothing like Kerala… But it feels like home.

And to see these emotions (posted on FB) when they leave. “There are certain things in this world which you think will not affect you, and you will always just walk by unaffected…but everything and everyone does affect you, they linger on in your memory: may haunt you, may make you reminisce, may just make you realize that you are what you are because of it, even though all this time you may not have completely comprehended this…. I realize it now, as I get ready to actually leave you now University of Hyderabad: Thank you for hosting me for the past five years…you have helped me grow, helped me find my path, and given me some wonderful friends. Although you do seem to be like an “acquired taste” but I am glad to have acquired it. Mixed feelings at University of Hyderabad.

But metaphors apart, our campus is very much a haven as the two representative comments above show, and for birds as well. Of course there are significant differences between the way that we and our fine feathered friends view the refuge, and the image of the nest above says much of it. The birds don’t dirty their nests- something that we, regrettably, don’t seem to care about. I’m talking about the litter on campus, of course. So much of it is so unnecessary, and something that can be avoided with a little thought and care. Its easy to say that there are not enough garbage cans or waste bins. The arguments get tired by repetition, and in any case its more fun to look at the birds, their nests and the trees.

So here’s a simple “Welcome Back!” to returning students, a “Welcome!” to the new ones, to invite us all to enjoy this campus and to keep it as clean and au naturel as possible.

…a hill of beans

originalMany in my generation will confess to having read Lobsang Rampa in our  teenage years- the heady mix of mysticism and the exoticism of Tibetan Buddhism…  the feeling that these were new thoughts, and independent ones… the times, 1968, Paris, Danny the Red, and the draw of Kathmandu, all of it was irresistible. But it passed… temps perdu.

One thing that I recall being struck by in the Lobsang’s writings, such as they were, was the whole notion of the out-of-body experience. And on my recent trip to Beijing, I had this surreal feeling that I was going through it after all. Landing at the airport (also, like New Delhi’s  called T3) and taking a ride into town, I had this feeling of being there and not quite, that déjà vu all over again. So much of the familiar layering the unfamiliar…

UntitledBeijing is monumentally grand, Tiananmen Square most of all. With the gigantic portrait of Chairman Mao verily dominating the proceedings, the feeling of space and of consequence is huge. But more than that, most of the city has reinvented itself, and in much of it, one gets the feeling that there is a sense of purpose, of design. Perhaps it is the contrast, but one cannot but note that there is relatively little (or no) litter, no stray animals, good public transportation. I am  told that the metro is a good example of order in chaos, but even that.

I was there for the International Conference on Biological Physics, one at which I was one of two participants of Indian origin. (In contrast, at the hotel at which I was staying, there was a meeting of The World Peace Forum, at which I think I saw at least five Indians, “In Pursuit of Common Security: Peace, Mutual Trust, and Responsibility”!)

The area of biological physics has been growing steadily over the past decades, some of it deliberately so. As biologists began to recognise by the 1990′s many of the problems of modern biology needed help from others trained in slightly different areas. Mathematics, computer science, statistics, physics… The manner in which they then set out to attract people from other disciplines was exemplary. A lot of carrots, but the payoffs have been worth every bit of investment- the area of quantitative biology is one that has seen considerable expansion over the past decades.

At the UoH, we also recognised that when we set out our agenda for the Integrated M. Sc. in biology, which we named the IMSc (Systems Biology). Indeed, this is something that always gets admiration when I bring it to the notice of colleagues, that we had started this course quite some time ago.

Untitled 2But, and there is a but, we have not taken ourselves as seriously as we should have. The Beijing conference had something like 400 local participants, of who 300 would have been students ranging from the third to the ninth year after high-school. Namely M. Sc. and Ph. D. students in our system. The seriousness with which they attended and participated in the meeting- or so it seemed to an outsider- was impressive. We, by and large, were not there. And should have been.

It is fashionable, in some circles, to make comparisons between the countries and to find ourselves wanting. It is actually difficult not to do that, but I feel that where we are wanting is in purpose more than anything else. Our obsession with the local and the everyday- important though they are- can make us lose sight of a higher purpose, if there is one. And not help us to see a higher purpose if one is not immediately apparent.

This is, regrettably, the script that gets played out at the local or at the national level day in and day out. Most of the problems we face nationally are major, whether it is on issues like water security, food security, public health, power, biotech… the real list is long, and to reach any kind of solution will need a lot of work from a lot of people. Our preoccupations, such as they are, keep us in the quicksand of the expedient, far from doing what we need to.

Untitled 2To the title of this post. As Bogart says in Casablanca (of course to Bergman, and of course meaning something else) it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.

We are more than three, but not really so many… and given the magnitude of the task we have to accomplish, I’d say it really it doesn’t take much to see that our little problems don’t amount to a hill of beans either.  So lets get on with it, shall we?

A Telangana State of Mind

TToday, Monday, June 2, 2014 sees the birth of a new state, and for us, a new state of mind. We are automatically and very naturally in Telangana, the 29th state of the country, and a state that has been eagerly awaited … and very emotionally struggled for.

Here’s wishing all of us the very best in the years to come, the years in which we look forward to seeing the state grow from strength to strength!

At the same time it does us well to remember that the new state is born out of the old- and the erstwhile AP was itself born in 1956 out of the Madras State, which was formed out of an older entity, the Madras Presidency plus the erstwhile Telengana… We should see that this, the formation and reformation of geographies, is an ongoing process, and hope that the present  bifurcation be as peaceful and as amicable as possible. 

Both the new states being formed this month will need much input for their growth and training of manpower. The University is here, willing, and ready to participate in the development process in whatever way possible,  and whatever way necessary. The UoH is uniquely suited for the job: as a Central University we aim to cater to the needs of the entire country without compromise on quality or access, but being situated here, it is fair to say that we understand the region, its needs, its special aspects with more sensitivity.

I believe that all of us share the commitment to see that our University will participate fully in the growth and  development of the new states. And we will do whatever we can to see that the University of Hyderabad continues to provide academic leadership and maintains its position as a standard bearer in the state, the region, and indeed in the nation!

Our Game of Thrones

HBO CANADA - #OwnTheThrone in Vancouver!The quote attributed to Henry Kissinger, namely “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small” is also seen as an instance of Sayre’s Law, that in any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue. Kissinger probably said it, but so have many people before him and since. Woodrow Wilson as President of Princeton University in the years 1902 to 1910 observed sardonically that the intensity of academic squabbles was a function of the “triviality” of the issues being considered.

My recent introduction to the TV series Game of Thrones has been most instructive. Having missed the first three seasons I’ve had a bit of catching up to do with the complex stories that are woven into the somewhat dark fantasy. Of course, the parallels with other sagas like the Iliad or the Odyssey, or the Mahabharata are there- not for nothing is it said (of the Mahabharata), Yennéhâsti na tadkvacit, namelyWhat is not here is nowhere else”!

Inevitably, one is drawn to the parallels that can be made to life at our University. Although our setting is not particularly dark, we seem to have our share of complex stories that have been woven into a not very long history- after all, forty years is not much of a lifetime. But still, memories at the University run long and deep, and there is often an event in our present that echoes another in our past.

The GoT analogies are somewhat direct- each of the kingdoms is like a School of study, only there there are seven and here we have twelve. The continents of Westeros and Essos are very real entities indeed- these are our two cultures! Of course we are spared the relentless wars, but we do occasionally have minor battles over the limited resources that come our way, and the smaller the stakes, the more intense the combat!

ceOne of the questions playing on my mind, for instance is how many Schools of study should there be in the University? At present we have 12, but clearly we don’t cover all the areas of studies that a University should or could have. The manner in which we grow is therefore important, and there are many models that are available to us. There is admittedly a chicken and egg situation: What should one do first? We could decide by fiat or by committee (a near impossibility!) as to what is desirable. Or we could start courses- hit the ground running- and then worry about getting faculty. Or we can wait for someone else to tell us what to do. As it happens, all these models have been employed at the UoH at one time or the other in the past, and there is always an éminence grise who will tell me of this or that situation which was similar to that or this in the past. All very useful, of course, but often an impediment to action. Nevertheless, we need to think carefully about this, since the only reasons for the creation of new Departments, Centres, or Schools can be academic ones, and no other motivation needs to be operative. This is where other analogies from the Game of Thrones come into play- who shall be lord and who the king…

If one cannot learn from the past, one is doomed to make more mistakes- first the tragedy and then the farce as Marx famously said. But this could also be a millstone that simply does not allow us to evolve new patterns and new structures. It can be stultifying to have to grow within the same formats, especially if the format does not allow for flexibility. I do hope that collectively and individually we can find the way forward.

Given the momentous events of the week past, it is not possible to close without commenting on the other game of thrones, the one being played out in Delhi. This blogpost was written over a period of time that includes both the elections and it’s denouement. It is of immeasurable importance as to who is named the Minister for Human Resource Development as the policies and practices that are in force in the next few years will be crucial to the further growth of our  University. The last two years of stasis have been an impediment that cannot be exaggerated, and while I do not anticipate the financial picture to become rosy overnight, one can only hope that the vision for change will be founded on sound principles of better education at all levels, especially the tertiary. And an unassailable respect for the autonomy of the University, our aims, and our aspirations.

#s 4, 5 and 7: A UoH triple play

Untitled 2For reasons that are truly too dreary to get into, I had to spend a little time on the Web of Knowledge, that useful (but often dangerous!) engine of discovery.  Again, for reasons too dreary to elaborate, I thought I would find out which scientific contributions from India were most significant in terms of their impact. Each of these terms is loaded, of course, but here are the filters that I applied.

  • I searched for papers that were published from India between 1 January 1999 and today. This amounted to a total of 540,649 publications in all.
  • I removed all papers from this list where one or more authors was from the USA, bringing the number down to 515,720. (That’s 24929 collaborative publications between the countries in the past 15 years. Not a lot.)
  • I further pruned the list by removing papers where there were coauthors from the UK, Japan, Germany, Switzerland and Russia. This brought the total to 484,153. (5 countries, 15 years, 31567 papers. Really not a lot.)
  • Since one needs a valid subscription to the Web of Knowledge to see the results, I’ve put up a snapshot of the results page above, using the feature in WoK of ranking papers by “Times Cited”. This can tell you which papers have been cited maximally by other researchers.
  • Judging impact by this indicator, it turns out that the paper with most impact that is purely “from India” is the 2002 IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON EVOLUTIONARY COMPUTATION publication,  A fast and elitist multiobjective genetic algorithm: NSGA-II by K. Deb,  A. Pratap, S. Agarwal and T. Meyarivan. Its been cited an impressive 5574 times.

What is really quite remarkable, and a matter of justifiable pride, is that the School of Chemistry of our University figures thrice in the top 10 papers in the list. The 2003 Chem. Rev. paper by  Basavaiah, Roy and Satyanarayana, the 2002 Acc. Chem. Res. paper by Desiraju, and a 2002 paper by Kotha, Lahiri and Kashinath in Tetrahedron figure at Nos. 4, 5 and 7. While Profs. Basavaiah and Desiraju were  on the faculty when these papers were written of course (and Prof. DB continues to be with us), Prof. Kotha of the IIT Powai is an alumnus, having earned both the M. Sc. and the Ph. D. from the UoH, in 1979 and 1985 respectively.

Some caveats. Of course, in this age of globalization the “from India” tag is not necessarily prized, and in any case it can be quite irrelevant as to which ideas are truly from India. Most cited is also not necessarily the most significant work, and a longer sense of history is needed to judge significance. In journal terms, the word impact has its own connotations, mostly negative, but still.

All this apart, its quite nice to see our work up there in the rankings. The institutional affiliations of other authors on the top 10 papers (to further normalize the list) include the IITs (Kanpur, Mumbai, and Roorkee), IUCAA (Pune), IISc (Bangalore), JNCASR (Bangalore), and JNU (New Delhi).

Pretty good company to keep.

UoH on Wikipedia

when searching for information on almost anything – and on our university in particular- one usually checks Wikipedia. Do that, and you are led to a page where the information (such as it is) is presented somewhat whimsically. For instance, one finds that the university imparts knowledge, in the Basic Sciences, Applied Sciences, Medical Science, Engineering Science, the Social Sciences, the Humanities, Arts, Fine Arts, Media Studies and Communication. In addition, traditional subjects like Folklore Studies, Health Psychology, Dalit Studies, Women’s Studies, Neural and Cognitive Sciences are also taught.

Traditional? If anything, the last named subjects are very far from traditional. But there other other inadequacies one can discover upon reading through the (rather dreary) text. There are no images, no photographs of Mushroom Rock, nothing. The description accompanying  Sukoon (सुकून) says (and I quote verbatim) that ‘Sukoon’ is an annual cultural meet for the university students. Organised by the Students’ Union, it is held in the March at the Open Dias. ‘Sukoon’(सुकून) means ‘Peace’. In this colourful event, many competitions are held for and by the students, like ‘Mr.& Ms.Sukoon Competition’, Rangoli, Shayari, Quiz, Antaakshari, Debate in English-Telugu-Hindi-Urdu, Dance, Singing, Spot Painting, etc. Other events like DJ night, Quawali, traditional folk musical events, etc. are organised. The School of Economics, we are told, offers M.A, MPhil and Ph.D in Economics, and optional subjects like Transional Economics, Law and Economics, Financial Econometrics, and Health Economics. Spelling errors apart, surely we can do better than this!

Wikipedia-logo_kaClearly, given the nature of the Wikipedia project, in the end we alone are responsible for this. I know that several of us at the University contribute to Wikipedia- in fact there are regular meetings of the Telugu Wikipedians at the Golden Threshold campus- but it remains a reality that the existing UoH page on the English Wikipedia is really not up to the mark. Nor is the one in Telugu, regrettably.

A little effort can change that, and that effort has to come from us. Its sometimes easier to be inspired by what others have done for themselves, so here are quick links to the relevant pages of some representative universities here in India as well as elsewhere. I’d like to ask all of you at the University to take a look at the UoH page and edit it to improve the quality of the information. And the quantity and the nature of the information as well. After all, this is often the first face of the University that others will see…