Saturday 13 December 2014

Why was Labdhi Bhandari so brash?

Sometime in May, 2013, as the sixth edition of the Indian Premier League rambled on, cricket commentator and journalist Harsha Bhogle (@bhoglesharsha) took to Twitter to complain about a new breed of intelligent, young bloggers who he found ill-mannered. The tweet generated a complex web of several dozen replies and retweets. Hidden among them was a reply from Ramesh Ram (@rameshramsw), who posed an oddly profound sounding counter-question to his fellow IIM-A alumnus: Why was Labdhi Bhandari so brash? This post attempts an answer. 

Over the past several years, we have contacted many of LRB's students, colleagues, contemporaries, friends and family members and asked them to share stories and their impressions of LRB. Two threads emerge out of these diverse memories - a consensus and a paradox. There is widespread consensus in the way everyone speaks about LRB's sharp intellect, his clarity of thought and the precision and economy of his expression. On the other hand, when we consider what people say about LRB's other personal characteristics, a sharp and paradoxical division emerges between his friends, teachers, colleagues and contemporaries on one side and a majority of his students on the other.   Dozens of people from the first group have called him soft-spoken, down-to-earth, humble, unassuming, and above all, very warm and friendly. His students, however, paint a very different portrait of him, calling him wooden, unfriendly, inaccessible, robot-like, aloof, arrogant, and ruthless. In the kinder accounts of his students, he is called formidable, no-nonsense and tough. A satirical piece from the 1980s on the IIM-A student's deification of LRB said it clearly: "We don't love him, we idolize him."

We suggest that this paradox arises from LRB consciously adopting a tough, no-nonsense teaching persona that was at odds with his natural personality. LRB, as a teacher, had a clear objective. He wanted to create a classroom environment in which the students could not fly by the seat of their pants. He wanted them to put in the hard hours and rely on careful thought and preparation, rather than just on their smarts. And, to this end, he cultivated a persona that was made-to-order. Everything he said or did clearly signalled that he meant business. He was very serious in his demeanor and seldom smiled. He deployed an acerbic wit and a biting sarcasm that punished anything that betrayed looseness or a lazy approach. As Pranesh Mishra, PGP 77, recalled: "One would be a fool to attend his class without reading the case in advance. He would pick students at random and ask for interpretation and point of view. God help you, if you were not prepared." Late Prof. MN Vora, LRB's teacher and senior colleague in the marketing department, said in 1988, just after LRB's death: "He was perceived to be tough by the students. Students were careful in his class. This was because he had a very sharp diagnostic sense and would not tolerate any looseness."

LRB found ways to keep the focus of the discussion in the classroom solely on the case or problem at hand. As Rajnish Agarwal, PGP 88 recalls..."He was very good at setting the tone and direction of the conversation. I am reminded of a moment in his very first class. Labdhi walked in and we barely said good-morning. We just sat huddled together, partly in fear of his reputation and partly in awe, overwhelmed I think with his presence and his serious demeanor. After a few pregnant minutes of uneasy silence, Labdhi said, 'So, what should Mr. Shah do?' We all looked at each other for the 'sacrificial one'. He then repeated, 'Has anyone read the case?' ... to which a brave one amongst us, at the very back of the class, sat up and said "Sir, would it not be better if you introduced yourself to us first?....Labdhi, composure personified, looked at him and said 'Would that help solve the case?' That set us up for the rest of his class and the term, I think!"

LRB in an IIM-A classroom
S. Ramanathan, PGP 82, gives us a fuller description of LRB in the classroom, warts and all: "Labdhi occasionally used his sarcastic comments to restrain the thought process of the students going astray. Otherwise, by and large his interactions were "therefore"or "so?" (meaning "you are in the right direction, go ahead; can you stretch your brain a little more?") or "I see" (meaning "you are lost somewhere; do you see") and consistently maintained an unfriendly, wooden face with these monosyllables uttered in a mechanical manner, while his hand was busy scribbling something with chalk on the table. These writings were religiously wiped off the table at the end of the class. Some students used to claim that on a rare occasion when he left it unerased, they deciphered it to say "Bullshit". That was Labdhi with a strong aversion for mediocrity. Like Ashtavakra, who was said to have squirmed in the womb with every wrong Vedic chant, every illogical statement brought forth pain in his face. His acutely economic expressions were sufficient to punch holes in the collective verbiage churned out by the class and Labdhi intervened at the right time to sum up the case, leaving Dr. Watsons wondering why they could not think on those lines. The next class we were better equipped or so we thought and Labdhi took the logical combat to a higher level and the story repeated. Did it look like that he derived sadistic pleasure in proving his unequal opponents inadequate? Some of us thought so. What we did not realize was that in each of these sessions , our minds were being chiseled into better and better logical moulds without our realizing it. That was the biggest reward of having been a Labdhi student. Was this the best pedagogic method? I doubt. I have always felt that with a little more user-friendliness, Labdhi would have encouraged much higher level of participation. On the whole, do we affectionately remember Labdhi? I doubt we had such emotional involvement. Some of us, who have been victims of his ruthless massacre hated to love him."

Evidence that this classroom persona was made to order comes from those who had the opportunity to interact with LRB both inside and outside the classroom. Dr. Amlan Roy, who as a student saw him in the classroom as well as for a project, says: "He was clear, eloquent and nice to me in the 1-on-1 interactions for the 2nd year project I was doing, but he was arrogant and aloof in the marketing course that he taught." Vijaylakshmi Rao, PGP 82, tells us an interesting story: "To all of us whose interests in Marketing and Product Management were kindled by his lectures and case studies, he was a learned, bright, not-so-friendly and at times sarcastic, but much-worshipped Guru. not someone you could crack jokes or discuss South Indian cooking with. But that is exactly what I did many years after leaving the institute at a conference in Delhi that he was co-ordinating. What I found most amusing (and flattering as well!) was that Labdhi often chose to sit next to me in the back bench, whispering comments about speakers he did not agree with or found boring! He insisted that I come along for the valedictory dinner saying he would otherwise get bored talking only to the 'serious types'! He was no more a Professor to me - he had become a good friend like so many of my batch mates at IIMA. I told him that my friends would probably be very surprised to know that he was just like one of us. To which he said "Don't tell them, that will spoil my image." He was not just a Marketing Legend but a warm, friendly, modest, fun loving person with a great sense of humor." 

Outside the classroom, LRB's warmth and modesty often stood out in the minds of those who remember him. Dr. NCB Nath, a senior colleague at Hindustan Lever and later a fellow academic, said this about him: "Labdhi was a very humble person and didn't show off at all. Normally people who are bright, I think, talk too much about themselves. He came across as low-key and unassuming, someone who knew his strengths but did not exhibit them. Labdhi was also a very friendly person and there were very few people who spoke ill of him. He was able to get along with a lot of people of different kinds. For instance, the IIM-A faculty consist of a lot of very different kinds of characters. He was able to make friends with a lot of them and no one ever said anything against him. In Sanskrit there is a term that applies to him very well, he was "Ajatashatru" - one whose enemies are unborn."

Ravi Sreedharan and Vijay Santhanam, PGP 1988 fondly remember a story: "That he was outside the classroom an absolutely warm person is etched in my mind with the Holi hug. On Holi, a few of us met him in the morning. I still remember the white kurta he was wearing. He opened his arms widely and hugged us in a warm embrace. That from "The Tiger in the class" this was beyond surprising."

So, why was Labdhi Bhadari so brash? As a former student, Rajnish Agarwal, PGP 88, says "Labdhi carried a deep sense of responsibility in our development and he was very conscientious of his role and impact to that effect". LRB's goal was not just to impart marketing knowledge but to prepare students for the tough world of business by shaping their thinking, beliefs and values. The origins of his approach lie in his own experience as a student. His two years at IIM-A as a young PGP student had been a life-changing experience. He came in to the programme confident of his abilities and expecting to do well. Instead, he quickly found himself out of depth and suffered a serious crisis of confidence. To emerge successful, he had to learn how to work very hard and improve slowly. This gave him tremendous self-confidence, of a new, truer sort. The trial-by-fire had a deep impact and would shape LRB's attitude. It led him to value hard work, preparation, and careful, rigorous thinking over intelligence and ability and to abhor looseness and laziness. As a teacher, he worked to inculcate the same values and demanded the same kind of dedicated hard work from his students that had helped him excel.

Ravi Sreedharan, PGP 88, remembers LRB's own answer to the question: "In Labdhi's final class in PGP1, we had an open house with him and were giving him feedback. One of the students said to him: "Why are you so nasty with us in case discussions? You sometimes make us feel so foolish."....and his reply was "I would rather you look foolish in this classroom than when you are out there in the actual market place"" 25+ years later, do his students agree? 

*This article was put together by Apoorva Bhandari on the basis of the testimony of the people named in the note. Please leave your comments below and do share your own memories of LRB with us. 

1 comment:

  1. I was not a formal student under Labhdi, but through my limited professional interactions with him, I learnt a great deal. He was very gentle with me.
    Let me share one story. I'll tell it the long way, context and all, so bear with me.
    I thought of Labhdi today, replying to an email I received from Stanley Pinto, in his current avatar, pillar of Bangalore, bon vivant, raconteur, connoisseur, art collector ... previously jazz musician ... at the time of this recollection, a big shot at Lintas. I have only met Stanley once ... my connection is with Errol, his brother. The occasion was a business meeting presided over (and I mean presided) by Labhdi, at which he (Stanley, not Labhdi) made some withering comments about something I said.
    Lintas was presenting their creative strategy for an ill-fated 1980s venture, motorcycles produced by Enfield through a technical collaboration with Zundapp. The bikes were very different from the Bullet - two 50ccs and a 175 … zippy, sexy things. I was working with MBA, a market research agency set up by guys who were Labhdi's students at IIM-A. As the lead researcher on the project, I along with two of bosses, CK Sharma and Mathew Paul, was at the presentation. The creative presented was all speed and sex appeal. After the presentation, CK (I'll never forgive him for that) asked if based on the research findings, I had any comments on the creative.
    Now the research audience consisted of potential users and decision makers (thought to be fathers who would be shelling out to buy for their sons; women were not remotely in the picture!) and one of the key objectives was to understand the relative importance of various purchase criteria. Not surprisingly, what emerged was that both groups said they would pay most attention to aspects related to "safety and security". Given this and like an idiot, I said something to effect that the creative strategy appeared to be at odds with the research findings, in all likelihood (I was a young punk then, very early in my research career), using words rather less neutral and diplomatic. Which is what prompted the said withering comments from Mr. Pinto. Nobody rose up in my defense (!) and I never said another word.
    After the meeting was concluded, approval given for further development of the creative, Labhdi came up to me and (very gently) said, words to the effect, good on you for speaking your mind, but don't forget that research findings are not gospel … in fact, depending on what you ask and how, they can be complete garbage.
    In my time, I've disregarded much good and well-meaning advice. But I've never forgotten Labhdi Bhandari and what I learned that day.

    Shyam Joseph


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