Thursday, March 10, 2011
IIM-A Masala Dosa
I was in Amdavad- that is how Gujjus spell Ahmedabad - last week for a conference. Yeah, what is life without conferences? - it would be one long dry spell in which you just work, work and work. Conferences give you perspective - a perspective that in any profession, about 2% of the people do some good work, and the rest just goof off. They teach you that the world is not a fair place, but at least, you are fed and get to travel for free while learning such harsh truths about life.
Late Sunday afternoon, I landed in my hotel (which according to the Indian hotel naming guide had "regency" in its name. The other terms that are invariably used while naming hotels: "royal", "residency", "park", "paradise"). Immediately, I had a couple of hours on my hands to kill (what did I tell you about conferences?). I took an auto to IIM-A. Unlike in Chennai, this auto driver was pleasant and charged me 1/10th of what a Chennai guy would have bargained for. This immediately put me in a good mood. As I landed in the main gate of IIM-A, I approached the guard with some apprehension on whether he would let me in or not, and was preparing arguments in my head like "I am here to attend the World Conference on the Most Important Forum in the World" , and "The Director, IIM-A, personally came to my house to invite me and the guard better let me in" and so on. But, as I approached, the guard and I exchanged some understanding glances (with equal measures of reasonableness and accommodativeness), and he let me through.
I have been wanting to visit the IIM-A campus for a long time now. First reason, I adore Vikram Sarabhai - I have read all I could read up on him, and think that he is a true visionary. He was a phenomenal institutional builder and a humanist who could see the best in people and bring it out. IIM-A being an institution he founded, built and ran, was there on the top of my list.
Another reason is the architect who designed and built the IIM-A main campus, Louis Kahn. I saw a documentary on him made by his son, The Architect, sometime ago. He was one of the best architects of the 20th century and has designed some phenomenal, unique buildings which use exposed brick and concrete as design tools to maximum effect. He was also a deeply flawed man - he maintained three families with three different women at the same time, and died in a railway station, drowned in debt. Personal flaws aside, his buildings spoke very powerfully to people. He built Bangladesh's parliament building in Dhaka, and you should listen to the people of Dhaka talk about the building and Kahn's contribution in the documentary. The affection, gratitude and reverence they feel towards him leaves the viewer moved.
I wanted to see for myself what was so special about his buildings. I roamed the campus.
I landed in the middle of Kahn designed buildings. They ARE spectacular. I am not an architectural expert (and I need not be one to appreciate them). I can tell you how being in the middle of those buildings, walking through their corridors make one feel. It's great. The exposed brick walls give the buildings a timeless feel - the design or the buildings don't look aged at all. The semicircular and circular gaps expose some details, frame the building, break the monotony and give the necessary punctuation marks. Walking through the brick-walled corridors is a sheer pleasure - by doing less, they have elevated the building far from being ordinary.
In the new campus (which is connected to the main campus by a concrete fortified tunnel under the main road), they have used mainly exposed concrete and lots of bamboo plants to frame the buildings - this looks very elegant and sparse. In the tunnel, they have put up an exhibition on the story of how the campus was built, complete with photographs of Louis Kahn working with colleagues in front of a drafting table. And they have also put up a huge photograph of a beaming Vikram Sarabhai (I haven't seen an image of him in which he is less than beaming). I stood for a couple of minutes in front of the photograph. It was like you visited heaven and saw a huge photograph of God staring at you.
No visit to an institute is complete without a visit to the canteen. I found my way to one of the canteens and ordered a very authentic Gujarati dish which you get only in IIM-A: masala dosa. And did some student watching. Thoughts about pay packages and other cliches associated with such institutes flooded the mind. All of them had a sort of we know are in "IIM-A" kind of vibe. I hope these bozos (I know they are not bozos, they better not be- given how influential some of them are going to be; but it is still fun to call them bozos) realize they are walking the corridors and paths laid by Sarabhai, and better do something to hold up the tradition that they have, willingly or unknowingly, inherited.
The conference itself was held in the NID campus (National Institute of Design). The place was bursting with creativity and energy. Odd and no-so-odd artifacts, paintings, wood works etc. displayed all over the campus. Students working in groups on their projects at all times of the day. And just a general feeling of being in the middle of people who love what they do, and don't mind working hard, and having fun when doing it. If heaven existed, it could possibly look and feel like a combination of IIM-A and NID, filled with the same kind of energy and atmosphere. At least, my version of heaven would be like that. And, my version will also have a dozen theaters that screen movies from around the world all day and of course, 24-hour fresh coffee and ice-cream making/vending machines.