by Ravi Shankar
I struggled to keep my eyes open, my head straight and my attention focused on the task at hand. It was past two in the morning. I was fighting a losing battle at my friend’s apartment. The strong cups of coffee were not working. We were bringing out the next day’s edition of ‘Bullsheet’, the graffiti-style newsletter which was a PGI tradition during the institute arts festival. Taking on this added responsibility was tough but I enjoyed the creative freedom and the opportunity to look at the festival through a comical, non-serious eye. Most past literary and cultural secretaries had outsourced the task to others. We wrote out the magazine by hand using a black sketch pen with drawings and cartoons wherever necessary. By the time we put the issue to bed it would be after three in the morning.
PGIMER started in the nineteen sixties at the northern Indian city of Chandigarh. The institution of national excellence admits students/residents to postgraduate programs in various specialties and also offers undergraduate and postgraduate programs in Nursing and Allied sciences during the late nineties. The institute is among the few in the country which does not have an undergraduate degree program in medicine and admits residents twice a year in January and July. Competition was fierce with thousands applying for the fifty odd seats each semester.
Then I struggled back to my hostel room for some ‘shut eye’ before waking up at seven to get ready to reach the department by eight. In comparison to my undergraduate medical school, arts festivals at the Postgraduate Institute for Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) were a cramped affair. Patient care and academic activities continued and the program usually started after five in the evening when most of us were free of our department and hospital duties. The festival ran over four evenings providing students and residents with ample opportunities to show their talents.
Life for residents those days was hectic and tiring. Most were in the hospital nearly all the time coming to the hostels only for some much-needed rest and sleep. The arts festival is usually held during mid-March; this is spring time in northern India with flowers blooming and beautiful butterflies flitting about in search of nectar. The arts festival is appropriately called SpringFest. When I took over as the Literary Secretary, I knew I had two main priorities. The first was to bring out the annual magazine of the Association of Resident Doctors (ARD) and the second was to help the Cultural Secretary with the conduct of SpringFest. I also took the initiative to bring out a bimonthly newsletter of residents called ‘ARDent Voice’.
There was not much emphasis on arts and culture at the institution. Most residents were simply too busy. There was also little interaction between residents and nursing and allied health students. There were not many opportunities for residents of the same batch to interact. We did not really ‘know’ each other. The primary interaction was within departments. The other major bonding was among students who came from a particular province of the country and spoke the same language. The regional spirit was strong in the Indian federation. SpringFest was an opportunity for everyone to mingle and get to know each other. The ARD also organized get togethers during the festival of Lights (Diwali) and the Georgian New Year.
SpringFest provided us an opportunity to work together with cultural and literary representatives from Nursing, Research Scientists and Allied Health. One of the major events on the calendar was the Fashion Show. The Nursing students were enthusiastic participants. The institute carpenters created a ramp every year extending out into the first few row of seats for the cat walk. One of the major expenses was for the sound system. The auditorium system was primarily for academic events and did not have the juice and the power for cultural events and dance shows.
Dances were a major part of the festival. Most participants danced different group and solo dances from Indian movies (primarily Bollywood) on stage. Traditional Indian dances like Kathak, Bharatnatyam were also on the menu. The energetic Bhangra dance of the Punjab was a great favorite of the audience. One of the problems with copying dances from movies is that creativity is stifled as you are primarily recreating movie dances rather than creating your own. The traditional Indian dances also had their own set of detailed rules and did not offer much freedom to the exponents. Singing was also an important part of the program along with instrumental compositions.
The general quiz was a much anticipated and prestigious event of the festival. I and my partner had won the event two years back and this time I was the quiz master. In those days we still had to create physical slides and I spend quite some time in the audiovisual department. These days projecting from laptops and tablets has become so easy. Maintaining the confidentiality of the questions was another challenge. The medicos also perform creditably in ‘dumb charades’. The cultural secretary and his team had won the event previously. Dramas and skits were also popular. The residents and their families had a platform to get together and have a good time in the evenings.
During those days cellular services had not yet started. We hired a pager for important event managers for the duration of the festival so that they can be contacted when required. Landlines were the only telephone services in those days. The internet was at an embryonic stage. You could go to the Information Technology department if you wanted to send e-mails. Electronic browsing was still not available and you had to physically search volumes in the library.
The events during the final day evening were graced by different dignitaries including the Hospital Superintendent and the Institute Director. Dignitaries from outside the institution were also invited. Distribution of various prizes and awards was a highlight of the evening. The days were long and tiring. We went to bed early next morning and got up after a few short hours sleep but there was a sense of accomplishment and creativity. We got a chance to show our creative talents, explore the arts and interact with other residents, faculty members and students from other disciplines.
A few days after the festival, the organizers and the volunteers got together for a dinner at one of the many excellent restaurants in the city. Pride in a job well-done made it a happy and relaxed occasion. SpringFest is one of the glorious artistic traditions of PGI which continues to the present day. Being the literary secretary was a challenging but enjoyable assignment. Keeping the arts alive in a challenging clinical environment ensured you were on your toes most of the time!
Comments by Dr. Bhushan Kumar, Emeritus Chief of Dermatology PGIMER:
Long live PGI and Its SpringFest!
Nicely expressed life experiences of a PGIite. The feelings expressed are mixed – one wonders how did the resident feel at the time when he was going through the drill and the mill. The end though looks like it was a satisfying experience.
Yes, indeed the ‘Spring-Fest’ is a great event and every resident looks forward to it as an occasion to meet other colleagues (from different departments and with different language and culture), show some better / stylish party wear dresses, some facial and body grooming and make up, show your additional talents and of course a great psychological relief as well. Otherwise you are always in the scrubs, theatre greens or covered with a drab overall and speaking only the medical language, longing for some rest, sleep and food- which many times is cold, insipid – and has only to be gulped for survival.
I would think these are the travails of a very busy, grilling, grueling and tough patient care and teaching programme (entrance for residency programme is tougher). But it teaches the resident more patience and a broader vision- in addition to the art of medicine of course. While in residency most of them murmur and sometimes express the deficiencies and the difficulties they experience at all levels of the working and living conditions in Hostels (through the Resident Doctors Association) – some complaints are resolved- not all and not always. But when after the training is over and the residents are in another place- they remember with a sense of pride their experience and appreciate the training programme which looked (and certainly was) rigorous at that time. Indeed the living and working conditions leave much to be desired- but this is how life is in an overcrowded tertiary care institute, when the government spending on health is not intune with the need.
All in all, compared to the other medical schools and institutions – PGI has done extremely well in the field of medicine in India and it has trained residents in the whole world and for this the credit goes to the established traditions of the institution: punctuality, rigorous training, and patient care which the residents go through in their sweaty overalls, in congested and sometimes suffocating environs, long working hours, not caring much for their food, comfort, sleep etc. but have imbibed a will and commitment to serve.