I recently heard the sad news of the passing away of one of the most fascinating and legendary people I have met in my life – Prof. M S Alvar. He had turned eighty just a few months ago.
He was then a lecturer in the civil engineering department of our college – National Institute of Engineering - NIE for short. He taught us one subject in one semester. Let me first share my memories of him and then some of the legends that surrounded him – apocryphal or not, I am not sure.
His charismatic persona was there to experience from
the first class. He comes into the classroom, clutching a duster, an attendance
register and bunch of chalk. He is long haired and mustachioed. A diminutive
figure. Smiling. Casually, almost carelessly dressed in brown cotton pants and
nondescript shirt. The first thing I remember him saying was something like
this. “I will teach you Fluid Dynamics. Well, your syllabus says Hydraulics. Ugh!
That is old fashioned. It is good to be fashionable. Like this” - and he
caresses his long wavy hair with a twinkle in his eye and a naughty smile). “So
we call it fluid dynamics in my class.” The easy manner, casual self-confidence
and humour. I was hooked.
Then he teaches us Bernoulli’s equation and explains
it in great detail. He makes it sound divine. “If you know this and understand
this, you know fluid dynamics. Without it nothing in this field is possible.”
There is never a dull moment in class. I watch spell
bound what happened a little later. The class room has a green fiberglass board
spanning almost the whole width of the classroom. It has three equal parts. He
has filled the first part by writing various notes. Now he moves on to the
second part. And while writing something there, his left hand seems to have its
own independent controls and is cleaning the first part with a duster, he is
talking to us about the next problem but writing something other than what he
is saying, on the board! That was really a jaw dropping performance!
Another remarkable thing was that after the first two
classes he never took the attendance. He would look at the class and know who
was not present. Marked them absent and rest were present. To the best of my
knowledge no one missed his classes.
I remember one instance when he dictated a problem to
be solved, of course, using Bernoulli’s equation completely from memory. Such problems
have a value for one variable (for frictional coefficient?) which is a number
after several zeroes after the decimal point. As we start trying to solve the
problem, he asks us to change that number to a different value since the
earlier one makes the calculations unnecessarily difficult. The principle
involved are more important than the actual values anyway is what he meant. He had
worked that problem out in his head and changed the values.
Another example of how humorous the way he taught
things is this. While telling us about the importance of units, he once said, “Ten
buffaloes and five cows shall forever remain ten buffaloes and five cows. They shall
never become fifteen buffaloes and cows”.
In one class he taught us about the water hammer
effect. He explained this in terms of springs, frictions and masses, LCR
circuits, and using Bernoulli’s equation applied to fluids. I forgotten the
details in the intervening fifty years. But the clarity and enthusiasm with
which it was taught is unforgettable
We had a classmate called Subhadracharyulu. Prof.
Alvar would very often call out his name and ask him if he understood what he
had just then taught. And a few days of this, he explained. “You know why I
always call on Subhadracharyulu? If I pronounce his name three times a day, my
tongue stays in shape” Again the naughty smile and twinkle in the eye.
Whenever he addressed me in class, he addressed me as
“You Scottish”. This was because I often wore chequered shirts reminiscent of tartan.
One day, outside the classroom, he accosted me and said, in an irritated way, “You,
Scottish! Why do you walk around as if you have nowhere to go and nothing to
do? Even if you do not have a purpose walk as if you have a purpose.” It
shocked me. I will not say that it changed me. That would be too easy. But it
definitely left an indelible impression on me. This is only to say that I was
lucky that he felt that I was important enough for him to point it out to me.
Once, I wanted to learn to read staff notation used to
write western classical music. I asked one of our teachers, another towering
personality, (Pun intended because he was very tall and a basketball player)
who was knowledgeable in many fields. He suggested that I ask Prof. Alvar and
he would definitely teach me. Diffidently I went to him and asked if he would
teach me. He invited me home. I was supposed to go to his house on a Sunday
afternoon. He asked his wife to make tea and we sat down. He told me, “You can
learn staff notation any time. You must learn to listen to western classical
music. You have to learn to recognize the various instruments. Let us listen to
some music. For the next hour and a half he played to me various pieces of
music each not more than ten minutes that he thought exemplified great pieces
of music for each instrument. He was very glad that I knew the names of most of
the instruments in an orchestra and had some knowledge about of some of the
types of instruments, (string, woodwind, brass, to name a few).
Here is one example of what he did with each
instrument just to give you an idea of the kind of familiarity he had with his
collection of long playing records (LPs). He described a piece of music in
visual terms. “Imagine a large stage and screen of a fine transparent material
descending from the top from either top corners of the stage. You will now hear
some twenty violins play and bring that image to mind. OK?” He then placed an
LP of Beethoven’s fifth symphony on the turntable and started it. He picked up
the needle arm and placed it somewhere in the middle of the LP gently. And
within a turn or two of the LP, the music he had described started!
A good friend of mine who was a student of Prof. Alvar
when he did his ME. He has this to say. (I am paraphrasing his WhatsApp message
here with his permission)
“He was a genius of a teacher. Very passionate. I used
to tell him (which I genuinely felt) that it was a big loss to the field of
engineering research that he did not pursue his PhD. The way he personally taught
me Real Fluid Flow (one of the toughest subjects) in ME is something that I
can't describe in words. He was able to sort of 'story-tell' on several complex
concepts & explain corresponding mathematically complex models like Navier
Stokes Equation. If someone says I am acceptable as a teacher, it was thanks to
Prof. Prof. Alvar. He has been a great source of inspiration and a role model
for many like me.”
As a teacher he was universally admired.
Now to the legends that surrounded him
He once met a student on an evening before an
examination. (For Mysoreans - this was said to be near Ramaswamy circle) Prof.
Alvar stopped him and asked him why he was loitering instead of studying. The
student said, he had not understood the subject, had tried to study and
realized that he would not pas the examination and had given up. Prof. Alvar
scolded him for thinking like that. He sat on a bench on the side of the street
and using a stick as chalk and the earth as the blackboard, he taught the
student the fundamentals of the subject which was not his specialization
either. He asked the student to go home and study as much as possible and take
the examination the next day. The grounding he got was so good that the student
did as told and passed the exam with decent marks.
In another such legendary incident, it is said that a
medical student was describing how difficult the study of anatomy was and how
difficult it was to remember the names and so on. Prof. Alvar borrowed the copy
of Grey’s Anatomy from the student and stunned the student in a week or two by
his knowledge of anatomy and taught him a trick or two of his own device for
remembering the names. It is said that later the student thanked Prof. Alvar
for making him pass anatomy paper with flying colours.
I feel that it was my great good fortune to have known him, however briefly.