Semiotics is a way of seeing the world. And it takes a while to figure out it’s enormous significance. It is an attempt to understand the underlying structures, modalities, relationships and significance of any aspect of our culture and world. It can be a way of looking at the significance of a chair lying in a bedroom or an understanding of the power relations between two groups in society.
I have attempted to do a semiotic reading of the management institute in India, taking it’s shining star: The Indian Institute Of Management as a case in point.
Management Institutes in India have become the new rite of passage for the hopeful Indian who wants his place in the sun, as an equal in the world. He no longer wants to be seen as a Third World snake charmer. They are not so much temples of learning as they are a branding system.
But before we can understand why, we need to understand the significance for the word “Applied” in India today. The diachronic analysis of the Indian middle class and it’s culture and various sub-cultures is something that is common knowledge. Terms such as “Macaulay’s children” and “brown sahib” are references to our colonized past, and the origins of the Indian Middle class. As interpreters of the British for a colonized people, this group realized it was the memo well written and not Shakespeare that would help them survive and prosper. As interpreters of the world to a mysterious Third World country and as interpreters for the industrialists and entrepreneurs of a liberalised, globalised India to it’s massive populace, they still hold this lesson dear.
And the lesson they learn the best, is that unless knowledge has some usefulness with regards to earning a living, bettering one’s status in life or a means to attaining more power, that lesson is useless. Which is why Phd courses in India, the Liberal Arts and other non-applied careers are looked on as “not-to-be-encouraged-too-much”.
“Respect” and “returns” are two words that the middle class hoards more than anything else. It is passed from generation to generation so that the slow difficult trek from the powerlessness of the village is replaced by power and choice of the fantasy city. “Choice” is the tantalizing gift at the end of the tunnel for each and every one of those children I spoke about before. It is the carrot dangled so that the nights of sleep-filled rote and days of longing and abstinence are worthwhile, some day.
For a parent who is a middle class working professional, who has lived all of his life in scarcity and self-denial of his inner desires and dreams, so that he can make ends meet and keep his family, safe, healthy and together, his child’s education is his chance to re-live his life’s ambitions. Almost nothing comes before it, not even the child’s own desires, passions and aptitudes. It is a system not very different from those of the guild or the caste system, where one is destined to do one thing for the rest of his life. For the Indian business class & the typical Indian woman too, this final destiny is often pre-determined. It is written the moment you are born. You can take your time to coming round to accepting it, but in the end you will have to join the family business; you will have no choice to but to get married at a particular age and justify your existence by bearing children. For the privileged, this is often no longer true, but they are such a miniscule portion of the populace that, in an analysis of India as a whole they are not yet significant.
For the middle-class child, his only hope of making his parents proud and coming of age is by taking science and becoming a doctor or an engineer-manager or a chartered accountant, lawyer or a Phd. Becoming a doctor or lawyer is not everyone’s cup of tea, for a variety of reasons. Also, given that the returns from a Phd course and an academic career, the “returns” are almost non-existent in tangible terms compared to the other two routes, it gets short shrift, unless the family in question has a respectable Phd heritage. For him, an education at a premier management institute, especially if he is an engineer is something he knows will transform his life, his lifestyle and the lives of his family, for the better, forever.
IIM-Ahmedabad & Others Of It’s Kind
Here in Ahmedabad, the city of the applied university, is IIM Ahmedabad, the Solomon’s Mine of modern India. Even if you did nothing all your life except graduate, even if it is in the Liberal Arts, there is the tantalizing promise of taking the Common Aptitude Test and keep taking it year after year, until you finally arrive at the Gates, clutching your new passport. Every year, a few hundred pass the trial of fire to be transformed into achievers who hob-nob with the financial wizards of the globe, such as the Lehmann Brothers, consultants such as Mc Kinsey and marketers such as Unilevers. They are, as their t-shirts say “Branded For Life”, as IIM-A graduates, the crème-de-la-crème of educated India. For the IIM graduates who get placed abroad, their job is not just personal. They represent how comfortable the Indian is doing what the Occidental struggles with, in an alien environment, day after day. They have to be comfortable for the carrot gets bigger all the time, but it also moves faster and faster. As choices multiply, so do the stakes. For the ones who choose to stay in India, as demigods, with a status of super-achievers, who can always get the job done, the risk of failing is far higher than the financial setbacks.
The New Indian Meritocracy:
The emphasis on education at any IIM, especially Ahmedabad, boils down to how much pressure you can manage, how much are you willing to put at stake and what you are willing to sacrifice to get the job done. In this world, the Aryans are the Engineer-Managers, and of those, the purest of the pure are the IIT-IIM A graduates. The last are, as the name suggest recognized and derive their sense of identity from the institutes they have graduated from. This is true the world over for any system of schooling. From the Eton-Oxford animal to the Yale-Harvard Law School species, in meritocracies the world over, where you have been trained and schooled is essentially who you essentially are.
There is a tremendous sense of liberation in that. It is irrelevant what your family background is, who your father has worked for or the clothes you wear, or the Gods you worship, as long as you have been under the wings of these institutions. This is branding in it’s most ultimate form: the branding of human beings, ready to be processed and utilized as one of the key resources of the industrialized world. Already assured of their status as some of the sharpest minds in the world in terms of quantitative application, due to most of them being engineers or having passed the grueling entrance examination, they are further honed and groomed for “leadership” roles in Industry. The CAT assures the promise of pure aptitude winning over all else. Of course, it is heavily biased towards a certain kind of education; but even so, it is, after the IIT-JEE examination, a shining example of how a bureaucratic, corruption-ridden nation can still have a sound national system of judging an individual’s intelligence and merit.
The pitfall of this apparently win-win combination is that which is absent: A tolerance for true individuality. You have to conform. Unless you do, you will not succeed. There is a constant need for all these intelligent and perceptive individuals to suppress interests which do not have a “return”, which they do only to please themselves, the things they truly have a passion for, since it does not fit with the risk of pursuing that area is either too expensive for some not born on privilege, too artistic or too esoteric. Thus their true selves often go missing and they can no longer separate themselves from the expectations heaped on their shoulders. Which is probably why one of the rituals so popular at management and engineering institutes like IIM-A is the affirmation of Pink Floyd. There is something about the band and music that signifies individuality, pain, loneliness and heaviness that makes so many engineer-manager.
There is also a lack of exposure to a deep, classical, understanding of subjects and areas of sciences due to the emphasis, throughout the learning process, post-school on applications and practicalities.
The Factors At Work:
Founded by Ahmedabad’s pre-eminent scientist Dr. Vikram Sarabhai and built by Louis Kahn, the towering monument-like buildings of IIM-A denote an austere, academic space. There is a dominance of geometric shapes and a play of light and shadow. The over-powering image though is that of something designed to break away, to be awe-inspiring and to be massive. The vast, unbroken, red-brick walls; the large circular spaces within the walls, the sweeping staircases, the modern drainage systems, the large open spaces, the Plaza, the New Campus, with loud echoes of the Old: all connote an institution constructed to induce awe, to be powerful and authoritative by it’s sheer presence, to be austere, ruthless and single-minded in vision and outlook. It has echoes of Slavic bone-structures and Howard Roark. The IIM Ahmedabad motif which is inspired from the Old Ahmedabad City Motif is the only aspect which speaks of it’s Indian heritage and origins. It is a beautiful Mughal architecture motif.
IIM-A is an institute which inspires universally. It is a name unsullied. It has an enviable position as one of the poster-children of India Shining. It boasts of alumni who are changing the face of the world around us, along with all the thousands of managers and techies India produces annually. But within the campus, with it’s state-of-the-art facilities, its massive sponsored events and festivals, reside students who learn to cope with each other’s diverse cultures, the pressures of an un-natural workload, a cut-throat competitive scenario and a single minded-focus.
There is an overwhelming impression of the Institute as being a high-pressure chamber used to test the melting point of a substance. Maybe, that is why the towering brick walls seem so appropriate to the culture of IIM Ahmedabad.