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?