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Throwing Tradition To The Wind: How An Engineer Turned To Art History

A family was reunited for our first-ever Thanksgiving.
Snapshot
  • The author decides to evade business, finance, management, strategy and policy courses in his remaining three quarters at Stanford and substitutes them with the study of art, history, literature, linguistics, philosophy.

    This decision to switch signifies a renaissance for him.

It is 4pm on the last day of 2019. I sit down to pen this much-procrastinated blog with a determination, but get swiftly distracted by an incoming email. I am soon immersed in doing something which is certainly not, and never has been, a tradition of mine.

I eagerly browse through the newly-arrived syllabi for next quarter’s enrolled courses and am tempted to download textbooks and reading material.

As my IIT college friends will willingly testify, this was not something I did till almost the end of an academic term — it was usually as a last-ditch attempt to scrape through a course.

My approach to education then was like a second order differential equation such that ‘time spent in academic activity’ was minimised (to near zero). This study-model was finely optimised to cross the threshold of a passing grade…. But I digress. I do need to get down to my musings and finish the blog post before the earth finishes its revolution in its solar system. So here goes…

As a family we have our traditions. Once a year, we have a dinner of fried pooris with aaloo rasadaar and kaddu (pumpkin) sabzi. This is after our Diwali puja. It is a bit of a challenge to maintain traditions in a new place. The unavailability of appropriate utensils made poori frying unviable.

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The California fires rendered illegal any notions we harboured of lighting Diwali firecrackers. But we did enjoy a hearty weekend of extended festive celebrations.

An old IIT batchmate hosted an annual Diwali party, where I ended up having a reunion with a host of college and hostel friends, meeting many after several decades. Half of our class seems to be settled in the Bay Area!

It was indeed very therapeutic as it tested my brain cells to recall faces, names — actual and pet — and fun times from the days of yore.

On another evening, at our own home, we had some current college classmates — all American — join us for a semi-traditional Diwali meal, which gave us the opportunity to share our traditions.

Yet another evening, the Office of Religious Studies at Stanford hosted a beautiful cultural ceremony — replete with lights and classical Hindustani dance and music at the gorgeous University Memorial Church. This was followed by a fun student-led Bollywood-style evening of dance, music and delicious snacks — samosas et al. Each event of the Diwali weekend, although different, was rich and truly memorable.

A Diwali party hosted by Madan or a Bay Area IIT mini reunion? A Diwali party hosted by Madan or a Bay Area IIT mini reunion?

This year we also enjoyed a few American traditions: ‘friendsgiving’ and the turkey, tailgating, watching college football (sitting in the Stadium’s Red Zone — the students’ section), as well as Black Friday in the land of consumerism. I feel it’s best to use a photo montage to depict these traditional activities that have been highlights of the past few months.

Tailgating party with DCI cohort before the football game. Tailgating party with DCI cohort before the football game.

There are also a couple of notable, inspiring and memorable academic experiences which are worth narrating.

One of my favourite courses in the fall quarter was artificial intelligence (AI), entrepreneurship and society in the twenty-first century and beyond.

The course provided insights on the current state of the art capabilities of existing AI systems, as well as economic challenges and opportunities in early stage startups and large companies that could leverage AI. There were regular guest lectures from leading technologists and entrepreneurs, who employ AI in a variety of fields, raising issues at the intersection of AI and healthcare, education, computer security, AI bias, natural language processing, government and regulation, and finance.

The class format was typically a 20-minute presentation by the guest followed by a lively and engaging hour-long discussion with the class. Each of these was a superb learning experience and uniquely thought provoking.

One such guest was Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy. While I was very familiar with his product, I had never used or even visited his site, so I knew very little about him.

From his initial remarks, I found his self-deprecating humour very endearing, and the story of Khan Academy very appealing and impressive.

He had funny anecdotes of his previous life as a hedge fund analyst, a job he said he loved and found intellectually stimulating. He also had a hilarious and modest narrative of how Bill Gates acknowledged his early work.

When Sal Khan opened up the session to Q&A, I saw the youngster sitting in front of me put his hand up and begin hesitatingly “I apologise if I do not speak clearly….”. I was a bit surprised since the student (let’s call him ‘J’) had always seemed both articulate and confident.

As J went on, I realised the import of his message. He shared that he had been in prison for a drug related misdemeanour, where his mother had brought him transcripts of Khan Academy’s tutorials.

These had enabled J to stay on the right path and in fact help pave his way into Stanford!

“I owe my life to you, Sal” as he said this, there was hardly a dry eye in the class. I appreciated the way Salman took this gratitude with grace, asking J if he would be willing to visit his office in Mountain View at his own convenience ‘to repeat the message to 200 colleagues to whom it would mean a lot’.

The rest of the discussion was also uplifting, around the venture being a not-for-profit with an impactful ability to reach those who needed it. I found it stunning that Sal Khan still manages to remain fully connected as he tutors and influences over 85 million active users globally.

In fact, he is one of only five video lecturers for the academy.

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There was also a discussion about the rich data his website gathers relating to the calibre and subject competencies of individuals as they rigorously use the site over months.

I would think this data is more revealing than a three-hour aptitude test. I was very impressed by his reaction when asked about the privacy issues of this data. He was quite clear that immense value could be harnessed by sharing this data with universities or employers seeking potential talent.

He categorically stated he would be very keen to share this, with the consent of the individual. Overall, I have so many exhilarating takeaways from that one session.

Another fall quarter course that I did not enrol in (due to conflict with a venture capital class) was art history.

A lot of our DCI cohort had taken it and regularly waxed eloquent about the class. Prof Nemerov is widely considered as a marquee scholar of art history and through the quarter I had misgivings that I was missing out on something significant.

I did fully recognise that, being a complete philistine, I would not really appreciate either art or history. This information is contextually important to the reader to understand my state of mind as I made the decision to skip my finance lectures in the last two weeks of term to instead attend art history.

This decision to switch has been a transformational one. I am a neophyte — a new convert. I have decided to evade all business/finance/management/strategy/policy courses in my remaining three quarters at Stanford. Been there, done that. This time is to be substituted by the study of art, history, literature, linguistics, philosophy. It is to be my renaissance.

Let me elaborate on the reasons for this profound self-realisation.

The aforementioned course explores the relation of art to life, how and why works of art, even from hundreds of years ago, matter in a person’s life. It trains students to find the words to share their thoughts about art with their peers, friends and family.

Some fundamental questions the course considers: how do we go beyond the idea that the study and making of art are elite, privileged activities apart from the real world?

How do we develop a sense of discernment, of deciding for ourselves which artists matter, and which don’t, without being a snob?

I got rich insights and revelations on all this and more as I sat in Prof Nemerov’s class in a reverie listening to him beautifully articulate about Van Gogh and Cezanne, art and realism, phenomenology, poetry…

Appreciating the best of art with the master. Appreciating the best of art with the master.

I enjoyed picking up fun facts and connecting trivia: The Starry Night is a view from Van Gogh’s asylum room at Saint-Remy-de-Provenance and reflects his state of mind post self-mutilation of his ear.

That act itself may have been inspired by Jack the Ripper (someone I have always known was most likely a left hander like myself).

Also, I had never thought about the art of that period and Charles Dickens’ literature reflecting zeitgeist or spirit of the times.

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I have been trained in life thus far as an engineer, an economist and a finance professional and have thus relished and indeed thrived on an analytical and quantitative vocation. There is evidently a latent side to me which needs to reveal itself, and is clamouring to be fed, nurtured and developed. I do feel I am capable, maybe not of fully appreciating impressionist paintings (or Maurizio Cattelan’s The Comedian), but of at least understanding nuances of the words ‘unconcealed’ versus ‘revealed’; ‘falsehood’ versus ‘fiction’!

Also, I do need to better educate myself on the other side of the brain as there is a continuum of science and art, madness and genius, the schizo… so my added courses to the list above would be in neuroscience and psychology. It does look like I am slowly but surely moving away from my favourite subjects. Not always a bad thing to renounce tradition, is it?

A new year, a new beginning. A new year, a new beginning.

This article was first published on the author’s blog.

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