A Legend Retires: An Institute Remembers

From the ability to curate electives across disciplines to participating in research at the undergrad level, from the freedom on campus sans curfews, to being responsible for one’s own actions, IIITH’s culture owes its genesis to one of its founding fathers – Prof. Rajeev Sangal. As he prepares for his second innings, we look back at this avant-garde multi-hyphenate who embodies the phrase ‘simple living and high thinking’. 

Over a 40-year dedicated career that includes a momentous tenure as full time Founding Director of IIITH, Prof. Sangal has crafted a legacy of innovation and change. He played a major role in envisioning that for India to ride the IT wave and become a leader, the nation needed to produce trained personnel in the new area of Information Technology. “This, he felt (along with other leaders in NASSCOM and the then united Andhra Pradesh government), can be best served by creating a new breed of institution dedicated to the new discipline of Information Technology and even designed a public-private partnership model for its implementation. IIITH is the result of this radical thinking,” says Prof. Jayanthi Sivaswamy, one of the first faculty who joined the institute. With the mandate of setting up IIITH as a research-led university, there was a realisation that the curriculum had to be designed differently allowing for flexibility. What thus began as an overhaul of the conventional engineering curriculum led to a new paradigm in instruction that has been adopted and rolled out by the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) to other institutes across the country. “The IIITH model has also succeeded in helping spawn many more institutions devoted to IT education and research,” observes Prof. Jayanthi.

Course Correction
“Prof Sangal implemented several important aspects while designing the academic model of IIIT Hyderabad. Undergraduate research is one such idea. Indian students are known as top-class researchers when they go abroad for their doctoral research. The simple question Rajeev asked is: how do we make use of the immense intellect and talent of the undergraduates while they are in India itself? The result is the UG research, a founding principle at IIIT Hyderabad. This required the curriculum to be redesigned in significant ways, with depth courses coming early and breadth courses appearing later, without breaking the integrity of the design. In fact, it facilitated more interdisciplinary activities as students are better trained in their core discipline while they learn others. Research orientation also gives the UGs better training to solve unstructured problems they face in their professional life. UG research focus has resulted in a disproportionately large presence of the global IIIT diaspora at the top echelons of areas like NLP, Robotics, Computer Vision, etc”, says Prof P J Narayanan, Director, IIIT Hyderabad.

“Prof. Sangal introduced the Practice-Theory-Practice approach and literally turned the curriculum on its head,” remarks Prof. Kamal Karlapalem, who joined IIITH in December 2000. It is the reason why IIITH offers a bunch of practical courses in the first three semesters where students are exposed to tools that they can use to build anything. “If someone wanted to build a robot in the first year and was told to wait until the 4th year or upon graduation to do so, it would lead to frustration and disappointment,” reasons Prof. Kamal, adding that the students are now industry-ready by the end of the third semester itself. It facilitated an undergraduate student to participate in and contribute to research.

To say that a great deal of thought went behind the composing of the curriculum is an understatement. With equal emphasis on the extracurricular along with the academic activities, the intent was to mould well-rounded individuals. “Students who were probably until the 10th grade moving and playing quite a bit typically hit a movement roadblock thanks to the endless hours of study necessitated by preparations for competitive entrance exams. So we introduced PT and yoga in the first two semesters to help them start their day well with some kind of exercise,” explains Prof. Kamal about how it became an integral part of the B.Tech programme.

Learning Sans Frontiers
Terming Prof. Sangal a consummate scholar unbound by discipline categories, Prof. Dipti Misra Sharma, whose association with the professor dates back to the early 90s, says that the ability to be flexible and agile is the hallmark of his persona. It was his faith in interdisciplinary study that not only saw students with electives across research centres but also witnessed the institute unveiling the first-of-its-kind programme on Humanities and Computer Science. “The idea was to understand the Indian traditional systems of art – dance, painting, music or sculptures – and connect it with the Sciences and Engineering. It was hugely successful and we graduated around 50-60 students with about 10 PhD scholars,” recalls Prof. Kamal. As an academic, Prof. Sangal is perhaps best known for his contributions to the field of Natural Language Processing (NLP). “He along with Vineet Chaitanya ji are the pioneers of this field in India and literally sowed the seeds for it in the country,” says Prof. Dipti. It comes as no surprise then that a large chunk of the faculty at the Language Translation and Research Centre (LTRC) is said to have kick-started their career under the guidance of the duo.

Parsing With Panini
The Sangal-Chaitanya ji partnership proved to be a glorious one for machine translation research. Along with professors from other institutes and a few Sanskrit scholars, they brainstormed on the application of NLP to AI problems. “NLP and AI are closely related but the addition of Panini’s Grammar to the mix overturned the dynamics,” exclaims Chaitanya ji. As a shishya in the Chinmaya Mission, Shri Chaitanya ji had been exposed to Sanskrit. “But the language itself didn’t interest me much. It was Panini’s ‘Vyakarn’ or grammar that caught my attention,” he says. In Sanskrit, the role of a word in a sentence is determined by the combination of its root and suffix. “While the suffix is the grammatical part, the root typically refers to the content. When this idea was abstracted and applied to languages such as English or even Hindi that are not so morphologically rich, we got great results for computing,” explains Prof. Dipti. It is the application of the mathematical or algorithmic aspects of Panini’s grammar to NLP that continues to be the underlying idea behind all the new-age language technologies being built today. The breakthrough resulted in the publication of a book titled, ‘Natural Language Processing: A Paninian Perspective’ that serves as the Bible for anyone who wants to learn the fundamental concepts of NLP and  also about the Paninian computational framework. Reflecting back on the group’s dynamics, Chaitanya ji says, “We were different people but worked in unison as a single brain. It was largely due to Prof. Sangal’s efforts that complex ideas could be put forth in writing, in a manner comprehensible to the academic community.”

Father of NLP in India 
Prof. Vasudeva Varma who currently heads LTRC and Information Retrieval and Extraction Lab was a budding researcher then. Crediting his deeper explorations into the field of NLP to Prof. Sangal, he narrates how growth in projects led by the erstwhile NLP group at IIT Kanpur coupled with increasing attention from the Government fuelled a demand for greater collaboration with Linguists. “I consider Prof. Sangal to be the Father of NLP research in India as the who’s who of NLP in India have been either directly or indirectly nurtured by him. He mobilised many activities, for instance he is responsible for starting the International Conference on Natural Language Processing (ICON), founding the NLP Association of India (NLPAI) that helped in connecting and bringing in the international NLP community to India. Countrywide, Prof. Sangal organised a series of workshops whose target audience was those teaching Linguistics at various universities and in various languages,” says Prof. Vasu. In fact it was to work closer with a set of distinguished linguists at Hyderabad Central University (HCU) that the entire team moved base from Kanpur to Hyderabad where they established a Centre for NLP. The next move of setting up of the Language Translation Research Centre (LTRC) at the newly minted International Institute of Information Technology Hyderabad (IIITH) would later go down in history.

Building A Legacy
Building a novel academic institution from the ground up requires concerted efforts over years. “Perhaps the biggest contribution that Prof. Sangal leaves behind is the strong foundation which the institute is now able to leverage,” muses Prof. Vasu, elaborating on the  right ethos and values that underpin its structure. As an administrator, Prof. Sangal stands out for the transparent manner in which he dealt with things. “Decisions were never thrust upon faculty, staff or the students. As a community, everyone participated in the discussions before taking a stance,” says Prof. Kamal. Prof. Pradeep Ramancharla who recently completed his tenure as the Registrar of the institute agrees whole-heartedly. “It was non-hierarchical,” he says in admiration. “When outsiders visited our campus, they remarked that there was some kind of innocence in the people they interacted with – from the students to the staff and faculty. Everyone seemed eager to support others.” This ambience though did not appear overnight. It was the result of painstaking efforts put in by Prof. Sangal and his team over a period of time.

Teaching Human Value-Based Skills
The initial momentum with which the institute kickstarted its activities hit a temporary roadblock with a growing disenchantment among the students. “At first there was a drop in attendance of classes, some reports of ragging, playing of the regionalism card during the student election campaign and other issues,” says Prof. Pradeep. In order to address these, a series of motivational talks by eminent speakers were organised. One of them was an 8-day-long workshop on Jeevan Vidya, a philosophy pioneered by Shri Nagaraj ji and propagated by Prof. Ganesh Bagaria. Its tenet lies in addressing conflicts that exist within the self, within families and other relationships by enabling self-knowledge. With several faculty members having undergone the workshop, there was a general consensus of proposing a formal course on this “teachable human value-based skill”. Human Values and their role in student education thus became a year to a two-year-long student-faculty interaction programme that officially commenced in 2005 much before any of the induction programmes in any of the IITs. “Rather than teaching or preaching anything, a faculty member who was assigned as mentor to every 10 students facilitated open discussions on a variety of topics. The idea was to help students find solutions to their own dilemmas, be it the pursuit of material wealth or interpersonal relationships or even harmonious living with nature,” says Prof. Pradeep. This concept of introspection has also been applied in the institute’s handling of truant student behaviour. According to Prof. Pradeep, “Prof. Sangal does not believe in punishments for instilling discipline or correcting misdemeanours. Rather he felt that atonement or ‘paschatap’ of one’s actions through reflection could bring about a profound change in consciousness.” Hence it’s not uncommon to find students engaged in community service either on campus itself or at an NGO supported by the Student Life Council as part of ‘paschatap’.

Value Education’s Domino Effect
The experiment on the Universal Human Values course proved to be so successful that it led to the establishment of an annual International Conference on Human Values in Higher Education where some of the SAARC nations such as Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh participate on a regular basis. Meanwhile, what began as teacher-training workshops on human values for teachers in various degree colleges across the state led to its formal state-wide adoption as part of degree curriculum and is now taught at 17 universities in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. It was only a matter of time before the human value-based skills were disseminated countrywide. Prof. Sangal was nominated as the first Chairman of the National Coordination Committee for Value Education. Even as Director of IIT, BHU, Prof. Sangal continued to propagate the Jeevan Vidya philosophy and proposed it at the IIT Council where it is now part of the Faculty Development Programme. He has also been instrumental in the UGC -Student Induction Programme aptly titled ‘Deekasharambh’ – an initiative to help students fresh out of school acclimatise to and feel comfortable in a new (degree) college atmosphere. “The human values component forms an integral part of that programme,” states Prof. Pradeep. The course on Universal Human Values is currently running in around 10,000 engineering colleges across the country.

Walking The Talk 
For someone who has pioneered several programmes and rolled out novel initiatives, Prof. Sangal believes in leading by example. A true Gandhian, the manner in which he conducts himself and lives his everyday is a humbling lesson in simplicity. “His house in Telecom Nagar, built in the traditional way which allows for free flow of air and light is a testimony to the fact that if you create such spaces, you have no need for luxury like air conditioning and so on. Similar is the case with diet. If you eat simple, nutritious food, you don’t need a doctor. The way you live determines a lot of these exigencies,” says Prof. Kamal.  One of the takeaways for Prof. Pradeep has been that an academic institution should not mirror society. “It should not succumb to the pressures of its surrounding environment, instead it should decide the future of society,” he says.

A phrase that has become commonplace in the faculty’s vocabulary – “always do the right thing” – owes its origin to Prof. Sangal. It refers to taking a firm stance on principles in the face of growing resistance. Like the unpopular decision of vesting students with more responsibility. Prof. Dipti especially recollects the uproar that took place when students were charged with washing their own plates after meals. “The idea was that they should not only play a role in their daily affairs but also be more aware of minimising food wastage.” The practice – among many other things – continues till date.

Inspiring Society
Prof. Sangal has left lasting impressions on the faculty, staff and many batches of students. Former student Prof. Ponnurangam Kumaraguru (PK) is one such. He was not only greatly influenced by Prof. Sangal but also it was thanks to the latter that the opportunities at Carnegie Mellon University came about for him. So, at the first chance of giving back, instituting a faculty fellowship in his mentor’s honour seemed most appropriate for Prof. PK while he was a professor at Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology Delhi (IIIT Delhi). “My interest in pursuing a PhD itself is due to him. Hence my family and I felt that the fellowship should be given to someone who’s doing something beyond research and teaching, a slightly holistic manner in which a faculty is influencing students,” says Prof. PK. Thus every year at IIIT Delhi, one faculty member who serves as a role model for developing students beyond academic enrichment is aptly conferred the Prof. Rajeev Sangal Faculty Fellowship.

Looking back at Prof Sangal’s years at the institute Prof P J Narayanan recollects, “Perseverance is a remarkable quality of Rajeev, along with his keen intellect and utter simplicity. He systematically formulated and implemented his ideas within the institute in an agreeable manner. This needs patience and a clear sense of purpose. One point I learned from is to understand the clear positive sides of an idea or a suggestion. World is full of people who show the imperfect or problematic aspects of any proposal. One can’t be obsessed with ideas with no negatives. One has to look at the positive parts and see if those are highly valuable to you and to the institution. In that spirit, he used to say that the response to a suggestion by a colleague should be a ready “why not?” That increases ownership and will result in a serious evaluation of all aspects by a team with a positive mindset, rather than a defensive frame.

Much of IIITH’s institutional and intellectual DNA comes from Rajeev Sangal. The challenge is to keep the core principles alive even as we grow and march into a world very different from the one in which those ideas were formed to begin with. As Emerson said, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man”. IIITH is in many senses the lengthened shadow of Rajeev Sangal.

In Sanskrit, there is no finality in a ‘good bye’ as the English language knows it. The term used instead is पुनर्दर्शनाय (punardarśaāya) whose literal translation stands for ‘To meet again’. As the IIITH community cherishes its long association with the professor, the hope is to meet him again and again.

IIITH is conducting a 2-day special event on 5-6 July to celebrate Prof Sangal’s work and accomplishments in Natural Language Processing and his contributions to Value Education at IIITH and beyond. Click here for details.

Sarita Chebbi is a minimalist runner, practising yogi and baker of all things whole-wheat, and sugar-free. Currently re-learning her ABC’s…the one that goes: A for algorithm, B for Bayesian, C for convolutional (neural network)….



  1. Dr. Sangal’s contribution in shaping up the language technology research initiatives is appreciable. Wish him good health and many more years of association mentoring the NLP community.

    Swaran Lata says:
  2. An out of BOX approach transforms the whole society to practice HUMAN VALUES for the betterment of Society itself. SALUTE TO YOU, SIR. पुनर्दर्शनाय 🙏

    Kailash Jajoo says:
  3. Wish him good health and many more years of association mentoring the HUMAN VALUES. 💐🙏

    Kailash Jajoo says:
  4. Nothing more.

    Kailash Jajoo says:
  5. Can publish email address.

    Kailash Jajoo says:
  6. Dr Rajiv sangal is a very simple and high thinker man in the world. One can learn the lesson of life to live with calm and simple way.
    I wish to him and his all family members for well future life.
    Thanks a lot

    Sunil Kumar Agarwal says:
  7. Prof. Rajiv Sangal has left very positive and transformative influences on many of us through his contributions in both the technical (NLP) and Life skills (Jeevan-Vidhya) domains. Strength to him and heartfelt best wishes to the Legend.

    OmPrakash VYAS says:
  8. Very nice

    Sunil Kumar Agarwal says:
  9. Its really inspring to read about Dr Rajiv Sangal. His life’s journey will inspire many young mindes.

    jayanta pattnaik says:

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