IANS | 9th October
When the Venerable Shri Hardeep S. Puri wrote to me about his plans to make an anthology celebrating the 100, he was the wrong person to do it.
I didn’t think I would fall into the category of “outstanding personalities” he called because my years at university (1958-61) were an academic embarrassment for me. If I were to write anything, I told him it would all be pretty frivolous and not up to the grace and purpose of the anthology. But he insisted and I gave in.
The DU (North Campus) where I applied for admission and studied was perhaps patterned after the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford in the United Kingdom (UK), where several colleges stood side by side in a prominent location and shared many common boundaries – not not only the physically built environment, but also a deeper educational ethos of instilling the attitudes, values and knowledge needed to build generations of leaders.
This is a shared situatedness imbued with immense camaraderie among the students. We strolled into each other’s colleges, mingled with fellow students, relaxed in each other’s cafeterias, rode the same college bus to our hometowns, became bitter rivals in intercollegiate competitions, and instantly forgot all the animosity we had to cheer with our voices the University when playing against another.
It was 1958 and I was attending Kirori Mal College to complete the BSc General course, which I was just completing in my senior year. Academically, going into science was the wrong decision, but the years spent there were an education in many other areas that have proved invaluable in my life. Looking back at the impact my education has had on my career, I realize that it is the fusion of disciplines that inspires any form of creative activity. For example, where would writers be without a printing press, theater actors without a proscenium and lighting, painters without pigments and canvas, and, in my case, film actors without a camera? Education creates myriad symbiotic opportunities in technology and humanities.
The odds are very high that I would not have gone to the cinema or any other creative aspect of life without having a foundation in education – education that is consistent with the belief that “what sculpture is to a block of marble, Education for man is soul’. Before we leave the sacred grounds of the university, we form our identity; we strengthen and solidify our beliefs in such a way that we do not fall into a trap – the trap of being influenced by the prejudices of caste and creed, race and religion.
During my time at the university, classes took place in the main building of the university, while the minors and internships took place at the individual colleges. It goes without saying that there is a palpable nostalgia when I think back to the hours I spent at the coffee house or at the bus stop in front of the Miranda House (yes, always in front of the Miranda House) or at the sports field, on the inter-collegiate and inter-university cricket matches and of course in the classroom where regular attendance at end-of-semester exams paid off.
If I may go back a little, it was with DU that I received my first serious encouragement as an actor. The tall and imposing Mr. Frank Thakurdas of the Theater Club paid me my first compliment when I appeared in a stage production of Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset. He recommended me to the USIS Drama Company to play the part of Abraham Lincoln and chose me to play Zeus in Benn Levy’s The Rape of the Belt, which is being staged at the Miranda House.
Mr. Thakurdas remains a part of me. So does Dr. Swaroop Singh, a Messianic educator who was rector of Kirori Mal when I was a student there and later became vice chancellor of the university. Without saying it in so many words, he made it clear to us that we don’t need to pursue a degree just because of peer pressure or parental pressure. He reminded us that we should strive to become graduates because we feel a desire to be complete with the benefits of formal education.
For the sake of argument, some may now argue that education is no longer compulsory as there are a growing number of professions and occupations that some describe as “unconventional”. Some might wonder about the relevance of a degree if you can’t apply it later in your job. In my view, these arguments are superfluous. Of course it’s a bonus if we can integrate our training directly into our everyday work – that would even be ideal. But even if that weren’t the case, the years on campus serve a much more important purpose – expanding our knowledge of the world around us and promoting personal development.
Requiring initiative in reading in the library, participation in cultural events and more from ourselves and from our educators clearly helps make us conscious and concerned citizens. As the saying goes, what is good to know is hard to learn.
Furthermore, no one can argue that campus life is the defining stage in everyone’s life; then we loosen the shackles, so to speak. From a regimented life we are suddenly free in our decisions and aim heuristically at the field of study or the profession that we want to take up. It is a key time in every young person’s life – a time of choice. My father taught English and poetry and expected me to choose art in college. When I didn’t, he was accommodating and understanding.
Certainly the youth of today – actually of every day and age – do not want to be preached. Over time, they become more enlightened and more aware of their needs and desires. They can see which route they need to take on the highway of the future. But believe me, that’s not enough. They also need to know their speed limits, when to turn and when to brake. The University of Delhi was absolutely necessary in this regard.
Time flew by, and then one fine day, almost 50 years after I started at Kirori Mal, I was told that the University of Delhi would award me an honorary doctorate. The first feeling was to express my boundless gratitude. Who would have thought that an ordinary college graduate would one day have such a stunning homecoming?
My immediate response afterward was to ask myself if I deserved an honor of such magnitude. Was I worthy of being honored by my university, my own family, which gave me some of the happiest years of my life? This was the same institution that inculcated in me the values and life principles that I hold dear and will hold to my death. Of all the awards I have been very fortunate to receive, it is, perhaps ironically, this honorary doctorate that I consider one of the highest honors.
The University of Delhi is entitled to a lifetime debt. I think it is only fair that I reciprocate the tremendous trust and honor that the university has shown me. This anthology edited by Shri Hardeep S. Puri ji, which includes some fascinating contributions from other more deserving DU family alumni, allows me to pay my respects. It was indeed a privilege to be at the nation’s premier educational institution – one that has always championed the cause of education since its inception a hundred years ago.
My best wishes to the University of Delhi.
With gratitude, Amitabh Bachchan