In Conversation with Dr. KJ Kamath: Teachers’ Day Special

“Don’t just transfer knowledge from the past to the future, create it in the present.”

MTTN had the privilege of interviewing Dr KJ Kamath, who belonged to the first batch of MIT. He served six years as the Head of the Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, spent nineteen years looking after placements and now assists in the Mechatronics department, teaching subjects like Essentials of Management and Engineering Economics. Here’s an insight into how times have changed, as he transitioned from student to teacher.

How has teaching at MIT changed over the years?

One thing that I’ve imbibed from my teachers is to go out of your way to make the student more comfortable, outside as well as inside the classroom. As the saying goes – “More than the calf wants to suckle, the cow wants to nurse.” All my teachers from back then, whose children are teachers in this institution today, have had a profound influence on my teaching.

Back in the day, the faculty members participated in club activities and were involved to the extent that the deputy warden stayed alongside the students in the hostel. The teaching now is more fast-paced and the teachers are mainly research-oriented.

Tell us about your journey from student to teacher here in Manipal.

I was part of the Mechanical Engineering batch of ’61-’66 in this very institution. I was brought up here as well. My father used to work in the Manipal Group under the small industries like the foundry and the printing press. As soon as I finished Pre-University, I wanted to pursue a B Sc in Mathematics. However, my father was 63 and almost retired, so times were tough. To achieve my dream, I sought the help of the TMA Pai foundation for a study scholarship. On meeting Mr Pai, he took a look at my mark sheet and immediately suggested I pursue engineering, as it could be completed pro bono. This is why I am emotionally attached to Dr Pai. Some of my favourite hangout spots were, and still are, End Point and Tiger Circle. I remember cycling to Malpe beach and looking for monkeys and peacocks in the forest that used to be in front of Syndicate Circle. My favourite club was the Philosophy Club and the Debate Club.

On the completion of my degree, I sought to pursue a masters in Aerospace Engineering. I required access to a library. Once again, I approached Mr Pai to utilise the college library resources, in exchange for my teaching services. I saw this as more of an advantage, as teaching has always been my passion. Even when I was in my first year, I assisted the teacher in instructing a subject that most of you dread, Engineering Drawing. Ultimately, TMA Pai was compassionate enough to offer me a salaried job in addition to access to the library. This kicked off my teaching career.

What is the most enduring aspect about MIT students that has not changed between then and now?

From the very beginning, MIT has had a cosmopolitan atmosphere, with a heterogeneous group of students, which has made education more effective over the years. This is incomparable to any other campus. People become more modest as they pass out from MIT. They hold an exemplary professional outlook, along with the ability to dream big. They realise that goals are only achieved by the tenacity of purpose. Nothing happens with only wings; it requires courage to fly.

What do you value most about your interaction with students as a teacher?

Every teacher is a student until he guides students. Once he guides students, he becomes a true student. Life at MIT for me has been generous regarding knowledge, experience and opportunities. As a teacher, I have had direct contact with 8000-9000 students, and 15,000-16,000 through placements. My experience as a teacher is highly emotional, just as my experience as a student and a fellow MITian. Dealing with students reminds me that my learning is not complete, and it never will be. You have taught me to be young, and never grow old.

At the 2014 MAHE convocation ceremony, the CEO of General Electric South Asia was invited as the chief guest. I’m proud to say that he was my student. In his speech, he mentioned that my encouragement made a world of difference to him, pushing the right buttons. Compliments are the biggest reward. This is the highest honour for me and I truly cherish it.

It was a delightful morning that we spent talking to this living legend, and hearing about his valuable contribution to this college and the dominant role that it has played in his life. His warm and positive demeanour was charming, as he inquired about each of us personally. His heart-warming anecdotes about black belts and enlightenment left us inspired. After a nostalgic talk over tea and biscuits, he exuded one last bit of advice to us:

“Every day is a new day. Use life to evolve, unfold, create, innovate and discover. Like a tree, we must create new leaves and branches every day, spreading in new directions. When you were born, your mother didn’t just see you as a shapeless, fragile baby, she saw you as a prominent person in the future. My salutations to tomorrow’s innovators. This is not the end of your learning; it is just the first step in your eternal journey towards excellence.  What we know is a grain of sand, what is unknown is infinite. Open your mind and be humble.”

Every student is a rising sun; every teacher is a setting sun.

Our teachers have always been there to clear away the clouds on a rainy day and bask in the sunlight of knowledge when the sky is blue. Happy Teachers’ Day!

Interviewed by Mahia DeSylva and Janice Coutinho

Photographed by Tushar Machavolu 

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