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Dr. P. K. Kelkar

Period of Directorship: 
14 April 1970 to 1 July 1974

Dr. Purushottam Kashinath Kelkar, known to many in India and abroad as the first founder director and architect of the highly regarded Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, India. His success as the director of not just IIT Kanpur, but also IIT Bombay (of which he had previously been the planning officer and deputy director), made him a legend in his time in the field of technical education in India.

Childhood and Education

PKK was born on June 1, 1909, in Dharwar, Karnataka, India. His father, Kashinath Hari Kelkar, was a professor of philosophy in the Bombay Presidency, the regional colonial-political administrative unit. He was, therefore, subject to transfers within the area. As a result, PKK received his elementary and secondary education in Bombay and Poona. Some memories of his childhood days from his cousins give us a glimpse of the future educator. As a young girl, one of his cousins had learned how to make a doll from a square piece of cloth. The day she tried to show off her skill to PKK she was not able to make the doll and started crying. After PKK let her have her cry, he put his hand over her shoulders and said, “Do you know why things went wrong? You wanted to show off to me how you can make the doll. On the other hand, if you made the doll just for pleasure, you would have done it right.” This made her feel much better. Her brother had a different experience. He did not do well on his first year exam, he was afraid of being taken to task. In his characteristically soft-spoken manner PKK said, “The first year exam should have been very easy had you worked at your full potential.” The cousin was taken aback by the response and marveled at the stern warning he received in those gentle words. That was the way PKK dealt with his young cousins, kind and yet firm. Later, when his cousins were of university age, he encouraged them to take science courses. From his childhood PKK was interested in public speaking and earned prizes in elocution competitions. At the age of 11, he was moved to make an extempore speech at the funeral of Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a national leader in the Indian independence movement. PKK graduated with honors in Physics in 1931 from the then Royal Institute of Science, Bombay. The next year he joined the Indian Institute of Science (IISc.) in Bangalore. He obtained the Diploma in Electrical Engineering in 1934. After that, instead of taking a job in industry, he decided to further his education. He joined the University of Liverpool as a Ph.D. student. This was possible because of a scholarship from the Ichalkaranji Trust, which was established for financing deserving students. His subject for Ph.D. involved acoustical measurement and the performance of synchronous machinery on load. He completed his Doctorate in Electrical Engineering in 1937, under the guidance of Dr. J.C. Prescott. Just before finishing his doctoral work there was a fire in the laboratory. PKK lost a lot of his data and had to do the work all over again. He also lost his only warm jacket to the fire and Laboratories of Applied Electricity at the University were gracious enough to replace it at a later date. After getting his Ph.D., he worked at Metropolitan Vickers as an intern in power systems.

Head of Electrical Engineering, Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute, Bombay

In 1943, he accepted the post of Professor and Head of the Department of Electrical Engineering at the Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute in Bombay (VJTI), where he continued until 1956. Some of his colleagues like Professor Char(2), who knew PKK from Bangalore, thought it was a step down in going from a research institution like Indian Institute of Science to a diploma engineering college like VJTI. Char fondly remembered the interviewing technique he learned from PKK. The purpose of an interview is not just to list the skills and knowledge the candidates possess, but also how these would be put to use in helping with the current needs and growth of the department in particular and the institution as a whole. Char believes that a number of PKK’s ideas, such as the purchase of high voltage equipment for VJTI and his vision for a science based engineering institution, may have been formed during his tenure at IISc. Bangalore. PKK’s tenure at VJTI proved to be a fruitful period for the Institute, thanks to a series of initiatives through which he sought to modernize and update the Electrical Engineering Department. The first degree-granting program in Electrical Engineering was started at VJTI in 1947, through its recent affiliation with Bombay University. (Before this, the Institute only awarded diplomas in various engineering disciplines.) PKK was also responsible for establishing a Master’s degree program in Electrical Engineering. Perhaps even more significantly, PKK started a high-voltage equipment-testing laboratory - the only one in and around Bombay, thus facilitating a liaison between industry and the technical institute. In addition, he ensured that the VJTI library was of high quality and included the latest engineering periodicals on its shelves. Since PKK had a Ph.D. in electrical engineering (which was rare in those days), students were a little intimidated by the mere aura exuded by this silk suit clad, calm person with a ready smile. Other professors used chalk and board to draw diagrams and write points, while PKK used them only to explain some ideas if a student asked a question. From beginning to end he spoke in a quiet voice in flawless English. The students had to concentrate very hard to hear him well. One of his students, Mr. A. V. Pandit, mentioned that he and other students referred to PKK’s lectures in electrical engineering as “Electrical Poetry.” An example of PKK's subtle sense of humor was provided by Dr. Arvind Dighe(3) who was the secretary and coordinator of a party arranged for seniors of the mechanical engineering department at VJTI. At the event, Dighe sat between Kelkar and the principal of VJTI, Mr. B.B. Sengupta. When the snacks were served, PKK quietly passed one snack to the next person and another snack to Dr. Dighe. Dighe pointed out to Mr. Sengupta what PKK was doing. Mr. Sengupta quipped, “Look, he is a professor of electrical engineering, knows only transmission and distribution and no consumption.” PKK rejoined, “Yes that is why my machines always have efficiencies above 95%, unlike mechanical machines.”

Inception of the Indian Institutes of Technology

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, realized that newly independent India would progress more quickly in the fields of science and technology through collaborations with the advanced nations of the world. Nehru conceived of and established the system of Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) in different regions of India. They were originally envisioned by the Sarkar Committee in the late Imperial period. The post-independence IITs would be engaged in Research and Development in science and engineering in addition to teaching. The first IIT was established in 1953 at Kharagpur in West Bengal. Nehru then secured collaboration with the USSR through UNESCO for IIT Bombay, the second institute within the IIT system. PKK was a member of the joint India-UNESCO Mission, which visited the USSR in 1955, with the other members of the mission.

Planning Officer for IIT Bombay

PKK was appointed as Planning Officer for IIT Bombay (IITB) in 1956, and later became its Deputy Director. He had good rapport and working relationship with the team leader, Professor Vladimir Martinovsky. A group of Russian experts collaborated on the initial development of IITB, staying in Bombay for about three years. During his tenure at IIT Bombay, PKK witnessed the first class of students admitted in 1958, and when the first Faculty appointments were made about 80 individuals joined. During this period of his life, I recall how much he enjoyed planning banquets for the visiting professors, and their spouses, and other guests. PKK was an avid connoisseur of fine cuisine. Most of these parties were arranged at restaurants of well-known hotels, since his apartment was small. On returning home he would regale us children with descriptions of decorations, seating arrangements, and mouth-watering delicacies on the menu, often bringing back some leftover pastries from the spread of desserts. Having established the institute from the beginning, PKK was very disappointed to learn in late 1958 of the appointment of someone else as Director of IITB, who would assume directorship in January of the following year. He thought of returning to his professorship at VJTI but stayed on when the Education Ministry informed him that he was being considered for the directorship of other IITs. In November 1959, the Ministry appointed him Member Secretary of the Postgraduate Committee, which was commissioned to study postgraduate education and research in engineering and technology in India. PKK saw his appointment as an exciting research opportunity, which would bring him in contact with the engineering institutions around the country. PKK returned to IIT Bombay in 1970 as Director, replacing, Brigadier S. K. Bose who went to IIT Kharagpur as Director. It was more difficult to make changes in IITB than had been the case in IITK, which he had shaped from the outset. Here are some of the observations made in Dr. S.P.Sukhatme’s book titled “Four Decades at IIT Bombay.”(11) Sukhatme thought PKK was in some sense a visionary. PKK had a philosophical outlook and a tremendous feel for education. To him, education meant a rounded individual, not learning a subject here and there. It meant a person, who while being an engineer had a broad feel for the humanities and the sciences. Humanities and Social Sciences were to be taught for their own sake as beautiful subjects and then, of course, engineering subjects were taught first as science and then as an art. To him this was education. In a sense, this is the guiding philosophy of many of the world’s best universities. PKK believed in this passionately. This vision had been implemented in IIT Kanpur, and he also wanted this to happen in IIT Bombay during his four years there. Policies that were in place at IITK such as the semester system and the special curriculum were unique for an engineering institution at that time. PKK wanted all these things to happen and he could see immediately that this would also require a change in the structure of the academic bodies at the Institute. In order to get things moving in IITB, PKK appointed a high level Senate committee. The committee circulated a questionnaire, then consulted many faculty members and presented its report to the Senate in a few months. Basically, the committee agreed with PKK's thoughts on the required changes. The other two committees were the Rules Committee and the Curriculum Committee. ccording to Sukhatme the procedure followed by PKK was a good example of the approach to be followed for tackling a complicated issue involving a major change to an existing system. “Never try to go into the details first. First secure an agreement in principle to the broad outlines of what you want done. This way, you have the Institute committed to something; then appoint a committee or committees to work out these details. When you recall these events in perspective, you begin to appreciate the person's art in getting things done.” Sukhatme was a member of both the committees. The committees were formed in March 1972, and PKK wanted a beginning to be made in July that year. The committees got their approval from the Senate, and from July 1972, the semester-based system was introduced. PKK was a respected, senior figure. In the Senate, he presented his arguments for change so convincingly that he could get things done. Variations have been proposed at a later date to the grading system and continuous assessment. But the essential features have remained the same. PKK was able to effect these lasting changes in a short span of time. PKK also created the positions of Dean of Academic Programs and Dean of Research and Development. In a span of four years PKK did many things that have influenced the Institute in a remarkable manner. During PKK's tenure the scope of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences expanded from six faculty members to fifteen or sixteen faculty members. According to Sukhatme, PKK’s way of doing things was always to speak politely. There was never any unpleasantness in what he said. His way of speaking was refined, and even when he was annoyed, you had to understand his language to know that this was the case. At times PKK could be ambiguous. If one sent him a note requesting permission to serve on some committee outside the Institute or to do some work for an outside agency, the note would come back with his initials PKK written on it in big letters and nothing more. When Sukhatme asked a colleague what it meant he said, “If the note comes back with PKK's initials, it means he has approved your request.” Through his work in IITB, he established contact with industrialists and research leaders in Bombay. PKK retired from IIT Bombay in 1974.

Honors and Awards

Towards the end of his distinguished career, PKK was honored for his achievements in India and worldwide. In honor of his contribution to technical education, the Government of India conferred the title of Padma Bhushan on him in 1969. He was elected a Fellow of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, London U.K., and of the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore, India. In 1981, IITK conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Science. The recognition of his achievements also led to a number of significant administrative positions. For example, he served as President of the Commonwealth Inter-university Board of India in 1969 and was also a member of the Sarkar Committee of the Government of India for reviewing the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research). In addition, he was on the governing board of the Institute of Science, Bangalore, India, for many years. PKK’s public addresses during this time also highlighted his commitment to addressing the economic and educational imbalances between developed and developing nations. In 1968, he was asked to give a talk at the conference on “The Role of the Professional as an Agent of Political, Economic, and Social Changes in Low Income Countries” organized by the University of California, Berkeley. The title of the paper he presented was “Establishing a Technological Institute, with Special Reference to KIAP.” In 1971, The Institution of Electrical Engineers, London celebrated its centenary. PKK was one of six speakers invited from throughout the world and read a paper titled “Disparate World – Challenge to Education.”(12) The paper was very well received by the audience and by people in India.

Contributed by Ms. Madhura Gopinath, Daughter of Prof. Kelkar.