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To sir with love?

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A half-forgotten Chinese adage astutely goes: "Give a seed to a potter and you will get a bonsai. " If freshers in any field form the basic clay to be moulded, right mentors alone make the greatest potters, nudging their malleable proteges into shape. How far has the face of mentorship, with its once benign implication of learning at the feet of experience, changed down the decades?

Leadership lands differently in various walks of life. The well worn crusader's cap of journalism, fitting firm a quarter-century ago, has loosened. With what was solidly drilled into us 1980s rookie reporters - good literary pounding and the insistence on printing nothing but the truth - were added an outstanding pair of lessons. One taught scrupulous fairness: never exacerbate already present biases in media politics. The other rooted for feminism: urging men and women new to the profession to stay sensitive to gender in writing, with a nose to sharply sniff out sexism.

If journalism schools with formal courses mushroom, their laboured content comes nowhere near passing on a wealth of values and discipline gleaned on the job. The situation is typified by the recent discovery made by a 19-year-old trainee with a national daily. Her stint was useful to the extent that she was assigned plenty of responsibility very quickly. "Yet, I left with no input of real skills for the job. It was just 'Here is the subject, go get your interviews, submit the piece and we'll edit it'. "

With the best intentions, nurturing potential could prove an exercise in patience and generosity. Sculptor Arzan Khambatta feels that artists, especially, prefer their erratic work patterns secluded from the world. "I studied the styles of Adi Davierwala and Piloo Pochkhanawala working at their individual pace. There was less of a clamour to create for commercial demand. Art today being further magnified and quantified, active mentoring proves a burden and annoyance to some. "

Theatre person Sunil Shanbag admits the prevailing social climate offers chancy mentorship, compared with the established role of guidance through the formative years of a stage personality like him. When he trained, there were fewer defined theatre groups. Within this limited circle of companies, performers felt a sense of belonging and loyalty to the head of a troupe, who naturally assumed mentor status.

"I spent ten years of my life learning the ropes from Satyadev Dubey, " says Shanbag. "Are kids willing to surrender at least two or three such years of their life? They must have the hunger to imbibe before achieving and a realistic awareness of where they're at. A truly worthwhile mentorship programme we have is Writers Bloc from the Rage group, under the tutelage of Phyllida Lloyd Carl Miller from Royal Court Theatre, London. "

The glitzier drama fuelled by the multi-crore movie world poses another picture. The film industry's inbuilt system of assistantship grooms actors and directors. Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor were introduced in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya after assisting him on Black. Kiran Rao was AD to Ashutosh Gowarikar on Lagaan. Reema Kagti tops votes in "The Next Big Things" poll predicting directors to watch for in 2011 - an ace notched in the wake of her acclaimed directorial debut with Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd besides shadowing Farhan Akhtar for Dil Chahta Hai and Mira Nair for Vanity Fair.

Painter SG Vasudev believes mentorship works with symbiotic success when egos are shed. Each side should openly accept the role of the other and acknowledge it without any hesitation. KCS Paniker, under whom he studied at the Madras Arts College, became a father figure for the artist. "I could discuss anything and everything with him, from my approach to art to my personal life. Our deep friendship enabled us to criticise each other's work. "

Youngsters in less of a rush to arrive and fortunate to actually relate to an expert welcome the shifting dynamic of the hallowed guru-shishya equation. Interaction between even the most dedicated master and receptive pupil is definitely more democratic and free-flowing, leaving comfortable space for questioning and discussion. And the lack of "ji huzoori" need neither hamper the learning process nor reduce admiration or respect.

Strangely enough, this ease can yet be dogged by impersonality in the relationship. A third year undergrad majoring in Economics and Sustainable Development at Columbia University, Mrinal Mohanka says, "I've interned with The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and at Bombay firms. I think mentorship is being replaced by a relatively distant bond. Traditional mentor methodology, where you were taken under someone's wing, could carry on beyond the official learning period. The type now is less personal. Trainees simply replicate what they observe. "

Is playing Svengali obviously viable in service industries like hospitality, besides being critical to the corporate world, science and technology? True or not, grounding in the humanities tends to be considered casually and seen as less professional in the initial stages. At the same pre-professional grades, students of finance, medicine and science receive guidance regarded as crucial every step of their way up. Their options are thought to influence vital life choices at an earlier point than a liberal arts kid's. That might explain, to an extent, why some fields appear more ably led than others.

The circumstances for mentored medical studies are growingly conducive, with private sector hospitals playing an increasing role in postgraduate education. For example, Hinduja Hospital statistics show 1991 witnessed a solitary postgraduate student in one department there. In 1993 three students enrolled in two departments, following which 2010 saw a jump to 39 postgraduate aspirants in 24 departments.

Whether in the humanities or the sciences, a vital difference between an educator from the structured school and a friend-philosopher-guide kind of mentor may be that the latter is ever accessible to the shishya, adding a personal level to an otherwise didactic relationship. As Mohanka concludes, "Both are evident at American universities. I'd guess that both can be found in the world, it depends where you look. "

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