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The Finance professor who spent most of his student life with Economics, and keeps interest in Sociology, Psychology and Education.
Pallavi Agrawal and Aashay Verma, Class of 2019
Coming from a well-to-do business family, college education wasn’t a natural path for Professor Gurbachan Singh. His family didn’t place much merit behind it. He says that this shaped his attitude towards college- he never took any of his exams seriously. He spent that time instead on reading, not necessarily what was prescribed for his course, though. After he finished his bachelor’s degree, his family wanted him to join the business. He warded this off, convincing them to let him pursue a master’s degree. He says that they let him carry on only because the subject was economics- that was a “respite” for them.
Having finished his master’s degree, Professor was all set to join the business, and join he did: he went on business trips to a few countries before he realized that this wasn’t his true calling. One day after he had returned from his business trip, his friend came to seek his advice on investing in the stock market. Surely, having completed his master’s degree, our professor would’ve hit this one out of the park: except he didn’t. The question drew him a blank- our Professor didn’t have any idea of the stock market. He was embarrassed for a while, but only till he drove back home- he soon forgot about it.
Professor Singh then started teaching a course in Macroeconomics early days at Hindu College, University of Delhi, and being the avid reader that he was, kept abreast with world affairs. A number of events in the world of finance at the time caught his attention: in 1987, when US financial markets fell by 20%, in the 1990s, when liberalization in India had caused a boom in the financial market, and in 1991, when the Iraq war had caused financial markets to fall by 50%; the last one intriguing him the most. However, as an instructor, his course had little to do with any of this, so he never probed further.
Then, one day he came across an article on Efficient Market Hypothesis, a concept in finance. Just reading half a page on it piqued his curiosity. He immediately contacted a few of his friends for advice and tried his hand at investing in the stock market for the first time- and he made some money! This is where the seeds of finance were sown for him. Having profited from investing, he continued, albeit cautiously, to invest as a “saver”. Eager to do something with his new-found interest, he decided to pursue his PhD. His thesis, after “making a compromise” with his adviser, was something to do with banking crises. As the day of submitting his PhD came closer, our Professor was sitting in the university library when he came across a paper on finance. He started reading it, only to realize that he couldn’t make head or tail of what was written. While he understood the technicalities of the paper, he was not able to understand the overall message it was trying to put across. Naturally, being so close to completing his PhD, this irritated him a little and got him worried. Again and again he would go back to the paper to try to understand its crux. After several attempts, he succeeded in cracking it, but only after making the grave realization that whatever he had covered in his PhD was not enough.
Immediately after earning his doctorate, he started teaching at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, where they wanted him to teach a course that included stability in financial markets – something he hadn’t covered directly in his PhD. As a result, Professor Gurbachan taught himself the concept while teaching his class, which caused him to struggle initially. Today, he takes the same course under the name of “Theory of Finance II” at ISI, and has developed mastery over the subject, having taught it so many times. He stopped being a professor in a regular position in 2010 when he left JNU and has only taken visiting (but full time) roles since then.
Professor Singh isn’t the all-work-no-fun type, though. He is a huge fan and a close follower of cinema — both Bollywood and Hollywood. As an undergraduate student he only watched commercial films, but over the years he has begun to appreciate art films as well. While some all-time favourites are Aakrosh, Gaman and Muzaffar Ali, he doesn’t let himself miss movies like Black Panther. When we asked him what he looks for in a film, he clarified by saying that he doesn’t watch cinema for entertainment. Cinema for our Professor is a means to observe other people’s behaviour and habits.
It was only later, however, that our Professor realized that these interests are often called psychology and sociology.
Films by Gulzar are what he marks as the break of the commercial and art film dichotomy in Bollywood; he believes that they managed to get brilliant traction while being a little of both genres. In Hollywood, the film that had caught his attention the most, and which he considers both art and commercial, is Godfather. He can also recite dialogues from multiple movies, Sholay being among the famous ones.
While cinema is an interest our Professor pursues, he is extremely passionate about education as well. Our Professor traces this interest in education back to his schooldays. He was forced to write an article for his school magazine and decided to talk about the introduction of the 10+2 system in India. Even at an early age, our Professor knew that while this move might benefit, its effects were not strong enough to tackle the growing problem of quality education in India. In his college days, this interest continued and the first article he wrote, “Economics of Education”, was picked up by a Journal and published. After becoming a Professor, he tried his best to make his classroom as conducive to learning as possible. He runs a joke that with stereotype questions on a given pattern, there is hardly a need for a leak of question paper. When we asked him what he felt was the problem with the Indian Education system, he said that it was a multitude of problems: Apart from insufficient government funding, he believes that institutions are often run by those who have minimal, if not zero experience in academics or education, which sometimes leads to profitability becoming a higher priority. He says that the rather unique set-up of Ashoka University in the sphere of education is what encouraged him to begin teaching here.
Professor Singh is an ardent believer in the quote “Live as if you were to die tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever.” For him, it summarises his philosophy of life and learning. He enjoys the small things in life — a hot meal in the mess even if it isn’t the tastiest or watching Tour de France on the Television (his window to traveling the world). For him, it’s more important to relate what one learns in the classroom to the world around, and he recommends this to all his students in the long run as well.
Favourite movie — Godfather
Favourite book — The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
Recommended Finance Book — Irrational Exuberance by Robert J. Shiller
Favourite Newspapers — The Indian Express, Mint, Business Standard
Professor Gurbachan Singh is a Visiting Professor of Finance at Ashoka University. He has taken the first half of the FIN101-Introduction to Finance course for the last two years in the Spring semester.