Kiran Seth | Without playing a note, he makes music touch the lives of many

Kiran Seth | Without playing a note, he makes music touch the lives of many
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First Published: Wed, Dec 12 2007. 05 08 AM IST

Lessons for life: The IIT professor’s Spic Macay has taught volunteers not just how to appreciate music, but also how to get along with other people.
Lessons for life: The IIT professor’s Spic Macay has taught volunteers not just how to appreciate music, but also how to get along with other people.
Updated: Fri, Dec 21 2007. 10 33 AM IST
New Delhi: Awispy mathematics professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, Kiran Seth refuses to buy a mobile phone, insists on driving a 1985 Maruti and pushes students to hang on to some old-world ways too, like giving more of themselves to others. He’s a simple man with a big idea—to spread Indian music, heritage and culture to youth across the country.
Lessons for life: The IIT professor’s Spic Macay has taught volunteers not just how to appreciate music, but also how to get along with other people.
For nearly 30 years, Seth’s group, the Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth (known as Spic Macay), has exposed generations of Indian students to culture—dance, music and yoga—through conventions, baithaks, camps, lectures and musical fests in cities and second-tier towns in every state in India. The volunteer-driven organization largely draws on the passion of young people and their desire to become a part of something bigger than themselves. Every few years, old students graduate and new ones arrive with new ideas, new energy and lots of commitment.
Seth, 57, who has watched students come and go, says even those who grew up listening to Bollywood and Bon Jovi are enchanted by the masters such as Allauddin Dagar, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ustad Shahid Parvez, Bismillah Khan, Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain. “They connect to something that is their own.”
And that is the goal.
Hunching over the formica table in his small office at IIT-Delhi, Seth tries to find the words to describe the magic of music under the stars, of men in kurtas and women in sarees, evenings laden with the smell of flowers. Those who have been part of the movement say the exposure to such scenes and the music sensitizes them.
“You feel deeply and experience life in a very intimate way,” said S. Jamuar, a volunteer and IIT student. After attending a few concerts, fellow IITian Anoop Kundal said the music opened him up: “I began hearing things I had not noticed before. When it rained, I heard the raindrops on leaves outside my room.”
Stacks of pamphlets, posters, drawings and plans for upcoming concerts surround Seth. The phone keeps ringing and student-volunteers drift in and out, clarifying details, logistics and strategy for the next convention. His own passion for music stems from his days as a wannabe drummer—in the US, of all places, where he was smitten by Indian classical music. He was at Columbia University, studying engineering when he saw an advertisement in the Village Voice, a New York newspaper, that announced the dhrupad experts, Ustad Aminuddin Dagar and Ustad Fariduddin Dagar, playing at the Brooklyn Academy. “My friends seemed to know a lot about it. I went too, you know, to check out the girls. I remember, they sang Poojan Chali Mahadev in Raag Malkauns. It blew me,” he recalls. “I cannot forget that evening… It was so moving, so, inspiring…and I thought that if this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”
After graduation, he went to work for Bell Labs, the research wing of AT&T, in New York. Then he was offered a professorship at IIT. “I thought let’s check it out and see how it goes, ” he says.
He never left.
In a sense, IIT has always represented home to Seth. His father, V.R. Bhojraj Seth, was the first professor at the IIT- Kharagpur campus, the first IIT set up by the government to train engineers and scientists in a newly independent India. Seth remembers his neighbours were representatives from the UN who had come to help establish the institute. “There were trees and snakes,” he recalls. Home life was dominated by intellectual conversations and discussions about complex math with students and professors; the only memory of music is his mother occasionally singing bhajans.
Still, he does not find it odd that music became so important to him later. “Music is like the mathematics my father taught and I teach,” he says. “They both explore something deep inside you. It is a very liberating experience.”
The feeling attracts students and volunteers. Shalini Vatsa, an actress from Patna, recalls the responsibility thrust upon her as a teenager, to deal with big-name artists and the logistics of organizing a festival. “There was a lot of challenge to it. There were no cell -phones, just one phone to share among 500 girls in the hostel where I lived,” she said. “I had to work with other students who were also young and vulnerable.”
She would complain to Seth about mischief-makers troubling her. His response: “We never reject anyone.”
The group’s 200 chapters run 1,000 events every year, and have earned the support of many classical artists, who charge lower honorarium. Funding comes from sponsorships and government grants.
There are challenges. Trying to run a movement that draws on the energy of student-volunteers alone without an organized structure means Seth is constantly on edge. He says when old students move on, a new set has to be eased into the vision and process again.
Spic Macay, which relies on Seth as torchbearer, has not found its next line of leaders. Without them, it will be hard to make the movement outlast its people. And yet, the new leaders must not hammer the concept into an organized hierarchical structure. Seth says his movement is a fluid idea that draws on the vision of the young. “Which means that the next person must also be equally open and passionate as Kiran. He must be in it for the music and the students,” Jamuar says.
The learning is not just in listening to performances, say those involved. It is in the process—of organizing, meeting and getting along with many other people—and developing leadership skills for life. For many, it has also forged lasting friendships. Vatsa explains, “It takes a lot out of you. You are barely sleeping, travelling with so many others, trying to work with such different kind of people. So those who tend to be drawn to a movement like this are usually very giving people.”
Seth says that for the moment, he is putting worries on hold. “This movement began with a premise: everyone has something to give. It was about bringing classical music to the youth, but also bringing out something within them,” he says. “I have always told all my students: Experiment. Live your life. Try everything. But hold on to your yoga, your meditation, and your values. They will anchor you as you discover yourself.”
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we are running through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to
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First Published: Wed, Dec 12 2007. 05 08 AM IST
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