The first concert was held in IIT-Delhi. It was a disaster, with some five-to-10 people sitting in an auditorium of 1,200 seats (Arvind Yadav/HT photo) PREMIUM
The first concert was held in IIT-Delhi. It was a disaster, with some five-to-10 people sitting in an auditorium of 1,200 seats (Arvind Yadav/HT photo)

Bridging the gap between the sciences and arts

The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Delhi has become the first major technology educational institution to have a chair in Indian classical music and arts
By Mark Tully
UPDATED ON SEP 11, 2021 07:34 PM IST

A survey conducted by economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera in 15 states and Union Territories was published this month. It showed the impact of online education on underprivileged children, and the all-too-justifiable gloom about school closures on children’s education. However, there is also some good news about education this week.

India’s education has been consistently criticised for being too narrowly focused and competitive. There is, inevitably, a tendency in an educational system as competitive as India’s for teachers to concentrate on the subjects their pupils are going to be examined on. This widens the gap between the arts and the sciences. Students pursuing liberal arts don’t get an appreciation of the beauty of math, and science students are not presented with the great questions of life addressed by philosophers down the ages.

India is not alone in this division in education. In 1959, British novelist and physical chemist, CP Snow, wrote a seminal essay called Two Cultures. He lamented what he saw as the great cultural divide that separates science and the arts, and called for bridges to be built between the two. Snow believed the breakdown of communications between the two cultures was a hindrance to solving the world’s problems. He was critical of the English education system, which, at that time, stressed the value of education in the arts, especially studying Latin and Greek, at the expense of education in the sciences.

Snow’s lecture acted as a wake-up call for Britain. Now, there’s been what may turn out to be a wake-up call in India. The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Delhi has become the first major technology educational institution to have a chair in Indian classical music and arts. The chair is to be founded in conjunction with the Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music And Culture Amongst Youth (SPIC MACAY). The society was founded by a teacher at IIT, Kiran Seth.

His passion for Indian classical music was sparked off by attending a dhrupad concert by Ustad Nasir Aminuddin Dagar while he was a PhD student at Columbia University, New York. When Seth returned to India to teach, he asked some of his students whether they had ever heard of Nikhil Banerjee. He was shocked to find that none of them knew who the sitarist was. So Seth got together with friends and the idea of SPIC MACAY was born.

The first concert was held in IIT-Delhi. It was a disaster, with some five-to-10 people sitting in an auditorium of 1,200 seats. Seth said many of his colleagues and friends asked why he was wasting his time on “gana bajana” (playing music) when he could be doing good research. That was in 1978. Today, SPIC MACAY is an organisation run by student volunteers spread all over India with some chapters abroad as well.

Every year, SPIC MACAY organises some 5,000 programmes in 1,500 different cities — all by student volunteers. Among the society’s purposes is “to enrich the quality of formal education by increasing awareness about different aspects of human life”.

IIT is taking its initiative to bridge the gap between Snow’s two cultures seriously. The director of IIT-Delhi, V Ramgopal Rao, has said, “Education at IIT is not complete anymore without SPIC MACAY being an integral part of it.” The dean of alumni, Navin Garg, told me the new chair will mean classical music and arts become part of the curriculum. However, two questions remain now that the chair has been sanctioned. Who will pay to endow it? Will other IITs and institutions follow Delhi’s example? Will it be a wake-up call?

The views expressed are personal

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