H.K. Kesavan

Dec. 9, 2014

Hiremaglur Krishnaswamy (H.K.) Kesavan (PhD Elec Egr ’59), a professor of electrical engineering and systems theory who influenced engineering education in three countries and explored the relationships between science and Hindu philosophy, died Nov. 26, 2014, in Waterloo, Ontario. He was 88.

Keshavan received his PhD from MSU under Herman Koenig in system science. Koenig had moved to MSU from Illinois and brought some of his students with him, including Keshavan. His first book, Analysis of Discrete Physical Systems, was co-authored with Herman Koenig (his former advisor) and Yilmaz Tokad. Later published by McGraw-Hill, it was considered a classic text internationally.

His funeral was Nov. 29 at Parkview Chapel in Waterloo. A memorial to celebrate his life is planned for 2015. A memorial website has been established at http://www.hkkesavan.com.


The following obituary is by Dileep Srihari and S.N. Srihari, with quotes from H.K. Kesavan's family reminiscences.

H.K. Kesavan was a son of India. He came to the United States to study in the 1950s and ultimately settled in Canada, building a career in electrical engineering and doing early work to establish the field of systems design while promoting engineering education around the world.

He was the first chairman of the electrical engineering department and head of the nationally known Computer Centre at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur from 1964-1968, and was later the first chairman of the Systems Design Department at the University of Waterloo in Canada. He also influenced the design of engineering education programs in several countries and the formation of a corporate research center in India.

His early research interests were in the field of multi-disciplinary system modeling and in optimization of deterministic systems, particularly using algebraic topological models (linear graph theory). His later research interests were in information theory, particularly the study of probabilistic systems from the vantage point of entropy optimization concepts. Computer-aided-analysis and design was an integral part of his research work.

Kesavan authored an influential book on systems theory and a book on the maximum entropy principle in information theory. His penchant for writing continued throughout his life, and in his later years he published two books on the broad subject of science and spirituality, viewed from the perspective of the Hindu and Vedic traditions that he practiced throughout his life.

He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Rajalakshmi, by his three daughters Rohini Srihari of Williamsville, N.Y., Anita Srinivasan of Mississauga, Ontario, and Kalpana Sarathy of Manhattan Beach, Calif., six grandchildren, three younger brothers and a sister, and many nieces and nephews.

Early Life, 1926-1940

Hiremaglur Krishnaswamy Kesavan, later known as “HKK” to family, friends, and professional colleagues, was born in Bangalore, India, on June 14, 1926, to Dr. H.K. Krishnaswamy, a physician, and his wife Lakshamma. HKK was named in part for both of his grandfathers – his paternal grandfather H. Kesavachar (an “amuldar” or government revenue officer) and his maternal grandfather N. KesavaIyenger (an excise inspector). He was the eldest of seven children, six of whom survived to adulthood.

HKK spent the first six years of his life living in his maternal grandfather’s house in Bangalore. In 1932, his father, Dr. Krishnaswamy, established his medical practice 200 miles to the north in Davangere, which at the time was a small town of 30,000 people. Dr. Krishnaswamy built his medical practice by serving a largely uneducated community of cotton growers and mill workers.

HKK’s early schooling came through a combination of attending schools – usually with children two to three years older than himself – along with some private tutoring. While he was in high school, the town of Davangere received its first electricity connection, an event he would later describe as a “moment of glory.” That allowed for having a radio at home, which opened HKK’s horizons to the wider world, including war clouds hovering over Europe. It also allowed him to “educate [himself] about our own nationalistic movement led by Gandhi.”

College and University Days, 1940-1950

HKK graduated from high school in 1940 at the age of 14, and moved to Bangalore that June to begin studies at the Government Intermediate College. Dissatisfied with various aspects of living with his extended family, he dropped out and his parents enrolled him in a new intermediate college in Shimoga, where he studied physics, chemistry, and mathematics for a year. He would eventually also spend time in Mysore, and pass examinations in 1942 that were delayed due to the outbreak of political unrest related to Indian independence.

He then joined the Central College, Bangalore, in April 1943 at the age of 16 to pursue BSc degree. Overcoming a two-month bout with typhoid fever that caused him to lose an academic year, he spent portions of his convalescence following newspaper reports of the war, and was also introduced to the works of Bertrand Russell. He graduated in 1946, and had his upanayanam (Hindu ceremony for spiritual initiation) later that spring, at the time of his sister Vimala’s wedding.

Ever uncertain about following his father into medicine, he was denied a position in medical school (one spot too low) due to quota-based discrimination and caste politics. Fortunately, he had applied to the Government Engineering College in Bangalore as a fallback – in civil engineering – but after two weeks a former professor asked him to change to electrical engineering. It was a field that, in the professor’s view, had uncertain job prospects but “would definitely be more challenging.” Later in his life, HKK would reflect that he had “often wondered about the sway of the element of luck,” ultimately convincing himself that “it is only the stigma attached to fatalism that makes one … deny the universality of the element of luck.”

Unfortunately, the quality of electrical engineering education at the time was poor, focusing more on studying heavy electrical machines rather than electronics. His professors included teachers who “did not know even the rudiments of electrical engineering.” It would influence his development of more mathematically rigorous engineering programs later in his life. However, his free time was used for a different purpose – on a lark, he applied for a military commission during his second year. He was offered a paid trip to Dehradun for the interview, and used the occasion to attend one of Gandhi’s prayer meetings in Delhi during late 1947, shortly before the latter’s assassination. As he later wrote in reflecting on the deaths of Gandhi, Kennedy, and King:

“It is so very easy to develop a cynical attitude towards politics in general where there are always forces at work which would threaten the very survival of leaders with great ideals. The only compensation, however, is that my generation could consider itself fortunate in having lived during those turbulent times when there was a unique opportunity to be exposed to a great clash of ideas. Consequently, the arousal of our political consciousness came at a very early age and lasted for a life-time.”

Teaching and Journey to America, 1950-1960

After graduating from engineering college in 1950, finding employment proved difficult. He began working with the Government Electric Laboratory, where his job was to test relays, transformers and industrial power meters – none of which required the skills obtained from his engineering degree. After almost two years of this “dull routine,” his name was suggested when the College of Engineering sought a lecturer from the electricity department – his first experience as a teacher.

With just one day to prepare, his nervousness was quelled when the students listened to his first lecture “with rapt attention,” despite delivering “an impromptu talk which must have gone on for most of the period about things that were not immediately connected to the subject.” After the students were “impressed that I was not constantly consulting my notes,” he made it a habit to never take notes to the classroom when teaching.

After graduate school was suggested by a friend, he visited the United States Information Service office in Bangalore to study up on American universities. Although he was accepted to Brown University, he chose the master’s degree program at the University of Illinois, Urbana, because Brown “had offered me less money than Illinois did by about $20 a month.” Meanwhile, at the age of 28 he was married on June 10, 1955, to Rajalakshmi, just a few months prior to his departure for the United States.

HKK’s first term at Illinois in the fall of 1955 was “extremely hard” for him, since the subjects he was studying “demanded better prerequisites than what I had from my undergraduate education.” But after being recommended for a pay hike by the faculty due to his good performance as a teaching assistant, he had gained confidence:

“From then on, there was no looking back. There was no need to lament over missed opportunities of the past. I had been transformed into a serious graduate student.”

HKK was eventually offered a position by a relocating professor Michigan State University in East Lansing, where he transferred as a PhD student and an appointment as instructor – roughly equivalent to a lectureship. Rajalakshmi joined him in mid-1957, and he soon bought his first car, a second-hand Chevrolet, for $275. He finished his PhD thesis in June 1959 and was given a one-year appointment as an assistant professor (the short term due to visa issues).

First Stay in Waterloo and Kanpur Days, 1960-68

HKK received an appointment as associate professor at the University of Waterloo beginning in 1960. During this period, the scientific research interests that would shape his career began taking shape. His early research interests were in the field of multi-disciplinary system modeling and optimization of deterministic systems, particularly using algebraic topological models (linear graph theory).

Early in his tenure at Waterloo, he spent a year on leave back at Michigan State, and his first book, Analysis of Discrete Physical Systems, was co-authored with Herman Koenig (his former advisor) and Yilmaz Tokad. Later published by McGraw-Hill, it was considered a classic text internationally.  Back in Waterloo, HKK taught post-graduate classes in systems theory that attracted “a number of students drawn from the various engineering departments,” and served as chairman of the electrical engineering department.

Tempted by the opportunity to return to India, he took up a position at the newly-established Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. From 1964-68, for a period of nearly five years, HKK was the first head of the Electrical Engineering department of IIT/Kanpur, and concurrently served as the head of its computer center. IIT/Kanpur was one of the first IITs to be set up in India, and was established with assistance from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

It is widely acknowledged that the hectic activity of the initial years of the computer centre at Kanpur helped ensure the pervasive influence of computers within Indian academia, and within the country at large. HKK “knew right from the word go, that the most important task for the computer centre was to raise the consciousness of the oncoming information age amongst the leaders of education, government and industry.” On one occasion in 1966, he gave a tour of the computer centre to the then new prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi.

(An image of Prof. H.K. Kesavan giving a tour of IIT-Kanpur’s TV Center to Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Sept. 17, 1966, is available in the Photo Gallery of this website. From An Eye for Excellence: Fifty Innovative Years of IIT Kanpur by E. C. Subbarao, HarperCollins 2008, p. 276.)

Over time, the IIT/Kanpur electrical engineering department was “considered to be the best in the country,” and the Institute eventually launched post-graduate programs. In addition, he served as chairman of a committee to propose an overhaul of the Institute’s guidelines for academic governance, guided by a mandate of ensuring academic freedom and faculty autonomy. It was a model widely emulated by other institutions of higher learning in India. HKK also served as the Institute’s first Dean of Research and Development, setting in motion policies governing R&D that have stood the test of time. A pan-IIT alumni organization would eventually bestow him with a lifetime achievement award in 2006 for his contributions in both India and Canada.

Meanwhile, HKK and Rajalakshmi’s family life was complemented by an active social scene: “Our social life on the Kanpur campus was excellent. Most of the faculty belonged more or less to the same age group and had shared similar experiences during our stays abroad. There were absolutely no artificial barriers to our friendships based on the positions we held in our work place. The children also had a number of friends from amongst their age groups. Dinner invitations were plentiful. The presence of American faculty amidst us also provided innumerable opportunities for social get togethers.”

Life in Canada, 1968-1990

In 1968, HKK returned to Canada to serve as the founding chairman of the Department of Systems Design Engineering. This latter academic program has become one of the most sought after engineering programs in North America. Waterloo has co-operative engineering education at the undergraduate level, the largest such program in Canada, where students alternate between the university and industry. HKK kept in constant touch with leaders of industry in order to ensure job opportunities for students in the new program, and to become aware of the ever-changing problems of industry.

In 1969, HKK purchased a house from a departing colleague, located at 279 Glenridge Drive. The house quickly became the center of life not just for his immediate family, but for a large network of extended family, graduate students, and other visitors to Canada. As he explained it:

“Throughout my life, I have been blessed with a number of acquaintances and friends. After my marriage, the trend has continued in a more pronounced way because Rajalakshmi also has a similar temperament to mingle with people with obvious relish. I could not have carried on my style of life in these matters without her cooperation. Consequently, our Glenridge home has attracted many visitors on a continual basis. Apart from my own professional friends, we have had the good fortune to entertain visitors from India, quite a few of them from our own community.

During his sabbatical year in 1973-74, he turned down opportunities in Delhi and elsewhere to accept an appointment as a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore – a return to his hometown of birth.

Even after returning to Canada “for ever,” his contributions to the IT industry in India continued from afar. In 1980, he prepared (along with two of his Waterloo colleagues) an essay titled Market-Driven R&D Centre in the Private Sector in India, for the use of Tata Consultancy Services. This ultimately formed the basis for the creation of the Tata Research Development and Design Centre (TRDDC) at Pune in 1981, and HKK continued to serve on a TRDDC technical committee for many years. He made significant contributions to the Computer Society of India (CSI), which named him as an Honorary Fellow in 1993.

Back in Canada, his interests in systems design theory also continued, which he once endeavored to explain in layman’s terms: “Although I was trained as an electrical engineer, I branched off to the emerging discipline of system theory towards the end of my Ph.D. degree. The electrical engineering discipline has spawned several new disciplines … this has necessitated a concurrent effort to determine the common intellectual origins of disparate disciplines in order to synthesize knowledge in a coherent way. System Theory is such a unifying discipline. It operates on a level of abstraction in order to forge the commonality of a heterogeneous set of ideas. *** I had the unique opportunity to inaugurate an entirely new program dedicated to the exploration of these new ideas. My own understanding of the external world has been greatly enhanced because of this intellectual venture. The relentless pursuit of the philosophical underpinnings … has enabled me to greatly extend my own mental horizons. For a serious researcher this is a reward in its own right.”

His interest in information theory and the study of probabilistic systems eventually led to co-authoring a book, Entropy Optimization Principles with Applications, published in 1992.

Throughout his career, he also made a very important indirect contribution to engineering and technology in India by assisting numerous Indian graduates to achieve higher education in North American universities including, of course, Waterloo. Several of his former students, including those from IIT/Kanpur or in Canada, have gone on to occupy important positions in Indian academia and industry as the country has become a modern-day information technology powerhouse.

Retirement and Philosophical Writings, 1991-2014

At the time of his retirement, HKK expressed a resolve to spend time reading and writing, and foreshadowed that in doing so he would “gradually put a stop to all my technical work and take to general subjects instead.” He was busier than ever as his actual retirement approached, an event that he described as “a fictitious moment in the eternal flow of time.” The University of Waterloo awarded him the title of Distinguished Professor Emeritus, the first faculty member to be so honored.

As retirement approached, he expressed a particular interest in giving “public expression to some of [his] convictions on spiritual matters,” a subject which he had been thinking about “off and on … ever since 1973.” This led to the 1997 publication in India of Science and Mysticism: The Essence of Vedic Philosophy, New Age International, New Delhi, which was eventually re-published for a Western audience as Science and Spirituality: A Hindu Perspective in 2003.

In this work, he offered reasons for why he believed there is no inherent conflict between the belief systems of science and religion, i.e., since they belong to “two different orders of reality.” He identified Vedic philosophy as a “valid means” for acquiring knowledge of transcendental truths that are quite distinct from those derived by scientific investigation, and as a “systematic methodology based on tradition” for imparting the knowledge by which spiritual experiences acquire a deeper meaning. He explicitly disclaimed any claim of superiority for the Hindu religion on the basis of exclusivity or uniqueness, instead concluding that all world religions, when properly interpreted, are alternate paths to realize an ultimate truth.

Meanwhile, his significant legacy of contributions to science and engineering did not go unnoticed or unappreciated in his retirement. In 1999, the University of Waterloo convened the “HKK Conference,” a special academic conference, in his honor. Reflecting the fields in which he devoted his professional endeavors, the conference featured five sessions with peer-reviewed papers in topics that included Linear Graph Models, Multi-Body Dynamics, Bond Graph Models, Information-Theoretic Entropy Methods, and Engineering Education.

In his later years, HKK continued to travel regularly to India and maintain the personal and professional connections across continents that were a hallmark of his life. Frequent emails to family and friends with commentary or advice on technical, political, spiritual, or other topics remained common, and he continued to regularly receive visitors at 279 Glenridge Drive in Waterloo.  He passed away at home on Nov. 26, 2014, at the age of 88, due to complications from multiple myeloma.