I believe a scientific conference must instantly jump deep into science. It must throw up elegant ideas, contain illuminating talks and create intense interactions.

But that never happens; there is always a lot of accompanying tamasha. When I was young and hot-headed all this nonsense used to make me really angry. Now I try to see the funny side.

Let me therefore formally introduce all the elements of an Indian scientific conference. These elements are sacrosanct; your conference may lack science, but it cannot ignore these rituals. 

The sunflower badges

The most compelling evidence that a scientific meeting is on is when a cavalcade of taxis drive towards the meeting spot. The taxi drives as close as possible to the conference hall (can’t make the great man or woman inside walk too much!) and the door is then opened to reveal the smiling visage of the VIP sporting a large badge which has always reminded me of a sunflower. The  greater the diameter of the badge, the more important is the VIP (a very important VIP is called a ‘VVIP’).  

The invocation

Every meeting must start with an invocation. Now it is probably a good thing to start an important event with a well-rendered verse (which could also be tied up to the theme of the event), especially if the rendering is suitably brief and dignified. But I am often dismayed, and acutely embarrassed, when the invocation becomes a 3-minute song in which the singer, with an accompanying musical troupe, loudly implores the Lord to bestow His holy benevolence. It’s a terrible feeling; and just as you heave a sigh of relief that the song is tapering off, the song resumes!

The ‘dignitaries’ on the dais

The name placards and the seating arrangement are usually planned in advance. But it is now time for those required to sit on the dais (who are called ‘dignitaries’), to walk into the limelight. This can be a little uncomfortable and the recommended course is to just go up there (unobtrusively) and quickly sit down. But it isn’t quite so simple. First we have a MC (more about this fascinating individual later), who calls out your name (and gets the pronunciation wrong!), then there is a young lady in a blue uniformed sari who is supposed to ‘escort’ you (and you have to negotiate a narrow staircase together as you climb up!), and finally there are the photographers and bright lights awaiting you upstairs (and, of course, a flower bouquet!).

 Lighting the lamp

This ritual is on the verge of assuming the hallowed No. 1 position among the events which characterize a scientific conference or meeting (which is why all photographers jostle for vantage positions to shoot this event; even the local TV crew doesn’t leave till this event is over!). There can be strong arguments in favour of this ritual (including the culture pitch with references to Indian tradition and parampara), especially if it is done with the traditional grace and finesse. But this event has now become the platform to hog the limelight. So everyone on the dais moves over to light the lamp (in the good old days only the chief guest lit the lamp), and it is an occasion to show off the (real or put on) bonding and camaraderie between the ‘dignitaries’ — but hierarchies are still respected; the VVIP among the VIP’s lights the first lamp.

The introductions

An accurate, courteous and warm introduction of the speaker is certainly good etiquette. The event becomes even more charming if the gentleman making the introduction has a personal word of praise, or anecdote, to recount. But quite often the person making the introductions is reading out of a badly printed fax output in poor light. So he’s likely to get the facts wrong. He must also articulate those mandatory plaudits or phrases; for example, “our speaker requires no introduction” (after which the introduction commences), or, “our speaker is the recipient of countless awards and distinctions” — even if the best he has is a Good Citizen Award from the Rotary Club of Raichur, or, worse still, has been recently listed in the Marquis Who’s Who — or, “our distinguished speaker is the author of a large number of publications in national and international journals” (which can sometimes mean exactly one joint paper in an obscure journal from Papua New Guinea).

The MC thanks the speaker

If you haven’t noticed the MC so far, this is definitely the moment when the MC announces his or her (usually ‘her’) compelling presence. After what could actually have been a splendid and thought-provoking lecture raising, addressing or answering serious scientific questions – and requiring a suitable acknowledgement from a scientific peer – the MC usually goes up to say “Thank you, sir (or ‘ma’am’) for a wonderful lecture. The poet Keats has said that a ‘thing of beauty is a joy forever’; your beautiful lecture will always evoke the most joyful memories. Thank you very much again. May I now request the President to offer another flower bouquet to our speaker …”.

Presentation of mementos

This is another of my favourite events. Every ‘dignitary’ on the dais, or sometimes also on the first row (which, incidentally, must always be marked ‘reserved’), must receive a colourfully wrapped and yellow-ribboned memento (which usually contains a sandalwood Nataraja idol nestled among shredded paper). Even here, the hierarchy must be respected; the more important VIP’s receive a bigger memento — which usually contains a larger Nataraja with more shredded paper. The presentation itself involves two steps: first, the name of the dignitary receiving the memento must be called out with a suitable prefix in appreciation (the preferred expression is “our most beloved”), and then the dignitary must actually receive the memento (which again is tough work because the angles must be right for the photographer). While handing over, both the individuals must sport dazzling smiles and shake hands if they belong to the same sex. If it’s a lady receiving the memento from a gentleman (or vice versa), it must be a polite namaste (sometimes one of the two holds out a hand and the resulting discomfiture is great fun to watch). Finally, if the camera’s flash fails, step 2 must be repeated as often as necessary.

Vote of thanks

I have often wondered if we really require a vote of thanks (and also about how this unusual phrase originated). It is certainly polite to thank a distinguished guest or speaker, or anyone who has made a very special effort to organise the event, but there may be other ways to do it. Today’s vote of thanks starts with “It is now my pleasant duty to .. ” (when the task is usually quite painful) and involves reading out a long list of names using phrases such as “I would be failing in my duty if ..”, “last, but not the least ..” or “and above all ..”. The real problem arises when some names are forgotten or Mr A is thanked more profusely than Mr B. The idea of a vote of thanks is presumably to make everyone involved happy; but we may be guilty of doing just the opposite.

 ‘High’ tea

This is truly a delightful expression and it gets even better when we ask: “how ‘high’ is the high tea?”. Depending on the sponsor’s generosity it can be just tea with biscuits, or a generous spread with vegetable cutlets, rich cakes (with a pink icing), 4-6 roasted cashew nuts, potato chips etc. A high tea dramatically raises the recall value of a scientific meeting. A bad lecture with a good “high tea”, often rates higher than a good lecture with “low tea” or no tea.

5 thoughts on “Elements and rituals of a scientific meeting

  1. Hmmm..Just how many scientific meetings did you attend to have come up with this great list of identifying features? Seems to me that these features belong to unscientific meets as well – I have seen cultural functions follow much the same formula. Some of these features are very useful. For example, the badge and the lamp lighting ceremony helps us spot the VIP amongst the rabble, especially those VIPs who are not that I. The introduction is important to identify the other NI players and gives you a chance to escape if you have wandered into the wrong conference by mistake. The MC provides comic relief when everything is much too serious. The mementos are important for supporting cottage industry, so I fully support this! As to the tea, high or otherwise, I fully agree with you that this is quite the most important feature of any conference!

    • I worked in a national lab for over two decades. So at 10 a year for 20 years I’d estimate 200.

      Yes, these are possibly elements of ALL Indian events; I wrote ‘scientific’ because those are the events I most often attended.

  2. I just could not stop laughing while reading this piece. I was once the core corodinator of a technical festival in my university and I had to go through the same tasklists aka rituals. I wish we could cut down on the ‘Tamasha’ and get to the actual event (which would be hardly for 30 mins, as the guests and crowd would already be tired of the preceding events..). The high tea is something everyone looks forward to. Once a guest asked me while the meet was on “What is special in the evening snacks today?”

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