Ominous thunderclouds are gathering as we wend our way through the verdant campus of IIT Madras, slowing to let the occasional deer pass. The skies will come crashing down soon but before that, we have to make it to the Bose-Einstein guest house for a luncheon meeting with V. Kamakoti, Director. He’s the first academic we are featuring in the Table Talk series but then Kamakoti is no ordinary academic.  

A Ph.D. in computer science, 54-year-old Kamakoti’s life has been governed by music and religion. His father N Veezhinathan, a renowned Sanskrit scholar of Madras University, is an ardent devotee of the Kanchi Periyava, Sri Chandrasekhara Saraswathi Swamigal, the erstwhile Sankaracharya of the Kanchi Mutt, and it was he who directed that Kamakoti study CS at the Kanchi Mutt-incubated Venkateswara Engineering college and also said that he should not go abroad but study in India only.  

A trained Carnatic violinist, Kamakoti’s passion is evident as our conversation, in a free mix of Tamil and English , segues often into music and musicians.    

Violin love

As we settle for lunch, we ask Kamakoti how much time he spends for IIT, considering that he doesn’t stay on the campus. “7 am to 10 pm; the institute demands that much time,” he says, with his trademark grin. His father, he says, has a large library, and shifting to the Director’s house on campus would take two years, so he prefers to continue in the house his father built years ago.     

Lunch is sumptuous: chapattis with channa,  arbi fry, a mixed vegetable  poriyal, steamed broccoli, slices of tandoori paneer. For Kamakoti, it’s no onions or garlic so he gets separate portions of each. The conversation veers to Carnatic music and his violin playing.    

The violin came into his life, Kamakoti says, because of cricket. Veezhinathan was never happy with his only child’s obsession with (street) cricket, but once Kamakoti broke his glasses in a match, the elder threw the cricket bat into a well, and practically thrust a violin into the boy’s hands. Very well, said Kamakoti, who was equally charmed by Carnatic music. Favourite raga?  Bindumalini, he says.     

MS Subbulakshmi, the Bharat Ratna Carnatic great, was a family friend and was an influence on Kamakoti’s music. Kamakoti recalls an instance when MS sang a few sangatis (same lyrical line with subtly different underlying notes) for him to learn, of the Maa kela ra vichaaramu, the famous Ravichandrika composition of Thyagaraja — and phoned him the following day to teach him a sangati that “got missed yesterday”.  

The genesis

Kamakoti’s early life was with his grandparents in a village, Vishnupuram, in southern TN. The formative years, he says, were important, as he learnt the difficulties of growing crops and understanding a tough rural life. “My father made me understand that luxury is artificial poverty and simplicity is natural wealth,” he says, that wide grin again.      

For his primary and higher secondary school, he moved back to the city and later studied in the renowned PS Senior Secondary School in Mylapore in the heart of Chennai. His teachers gave him a good grounding in Maths and physics. Weekends were spent at the Kanchi mutt, as his father was a devoted disciple of Sankaracharya. “My formative years were deeply influenced by him,” he recalls.    

Veezhinathan’s conversations with Sankaracharya would practically be endless pearls of wisdom from the pontiff, which Veezhinathan would pass on to his son. For instance, once when Veezhinathan was invited to deliver a discourse on Ramayana, Sankaracharya cautioned him not to get heady when people would praise his lectures. 

“People will garland you, but remember it is all God’s work, not yours,” Sankaracharya said. Kamakoti’s palpable down-to-earth-ness can be traced to such telling influences from the Mutt.   

All that grilling in Maths at PS enabled him to score 99.5 per cent in his CBSE 12 th standard exam. He wanted to pursue BSc maths at the famous Vivekananda college; their house was just behind then. But he was surprised he didn’t get a call. Enquiring with the Principal, a close family friend, he was told that with those high marks he would definitely opt for engineering. Kamakoti promised to give an undertaking that he won’t leave.

“I came home to collect my papers when I received a letter. My grandfather was in Kancheepuram at that time and the letter said that Sankaracharya wanted me to join CS at Venkateswara, which was started by the Mutt. K Ganesan, the college head, was emotional when he saw the letter and said I’m a blessed soul to have gotten that advice,” recalls Kamakoti.    

We are served with some tasty  puliodarai (rice mixed with a paste of tamarind cooked in oil, friend lentils, peanuts, and curry leaves) and curd rice with pickle and second servings of channa and  poriyal. The food is delicious, we comment.      

After his BE, Kamakoti joined IIT-M for his MS and continued to do his PhD, specialising in computer architecture, information security, and VLSI design. We ask him if he missed not going abroad to study. “If I can prove that I can do good work in India, that’s good motivation for youngsters to stay in India. Looking back, I can say I have made an impact for the country and I have also shown that there could exist an eco-system that can work in India,” he explains.    

If I can prove that I can do good work in India, that’s good motivation for youngsters to stay in India. Looking back, I can say I have made an impact for the country and I have also shown that there could exist an eco-system that can work in IndiaV. Kamakoti, Director, IIT Madras

Future plans

We ask him about his plan to democratise IIT education, a goal he’s quite passionate about. “There are two levels at which we are trying to democratise IIT Madras education. Firstly, we have a BS data science programme online. We are making it a very easy entry while the course itself is very strong so that students get a very good foundation and get good employment opportunities. We already see a lot of government school kids enrolled. Industry is also willing to back this by trying to employ them,” he elaborates.   

The next level has been recently launched: a scheme called DESI – Democratising Education in Science Initiative.

“We would like to give free quality online education in science for classes 9-12 in the biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics. We are involving some of the best teachers at IIT. We will give them regular practice assignments so that their concepts become clear. And also train them how to use these concepts for problem-solving which is also very important in science. This introduction to science will be strong and their inclination to take up engineering or medicine will also increase,” explains Kamakoti.   

We would like to give free quality online education in science for classes 9-12 in the biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics. We are involving some of the best teachers at IIT. We will give them regular practice assignments so that their concepts become clear. And also train them how to use these concepts for problem-solving which is also very important in science. This introduction to science will be strong and their inclination to take up engineering or medicine will also increase V. Kamakoti, Director, IIT Madras

We can now hear thunderclaps, as if the skies are calling time on our meeting. We quickly eat the dessert of jhangris. Kamakoti is already over 20 minutes late for his next meeting, his harried and restless assistant is reminding him gently, but the Director is unfazed. As we leave, the skies open up and the rain and all the surrounding forest straddling the quiet roads make for a magical drive out to the exit.

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