In contrast, most convocation ceremonies at Indian institutions are boring affairs, with the chief guest's speech crowning the insipid cake with the dullest cherry of the day. It doesn't help that chief guests are often politicians, called to the ceremony because they are ultimately influential patrons of the educational system, or because the powers-that-be get a chance to rub noses with the ruling elites. On occasion, figures from business are invited, which is usually an improvement on the politicos. But oratory may not really be their strong suit. Forget diction or command, even the content is mundane and in danger of adding decades to Kumbhakarna's slumber.
The three convocation speeches that coincided with my stint at IIT Bombay were largely uninspiring. The first was the then HRD Minister, Arjun Singh (2005), incidentally in the middle of his reservations controversy. Montek Singh Ahluwahlia (2006) followed - decent, but I can't think of anything memorable that he said. Invited to preside over the convocation ceremony of 2007 was industrialist L.N.Mittal. On paper, it seemed a decent choice - he was riding several waves of fame. But the hour-long speech was, sadly, one of the most boring that it has been my fate to sit through. If it wasn't the small matter of picking up a degree certificate, I might have succumbed to that most primal of social urges: of escaping from a boring colloquium, by hook or crook. What made it worse was that he repeatedly referred to the hallowed institution as "double-I-T" or even on occasion "double-I-I-T". Depending on which rules of association one applied to the latter, we wondered if we were taking leave from "I2IT" or even "I4T". (Incidentally, earlier that year, his namesake Sunil Bharti Mittal had delivered a guest lecture in the nearby School of Management, which was quite impressive in content and delivery.)
I note that this year's IIT Bombay convocation featured more science-oriented individuals: Dr. Kiran Majumdar Shaw and Prof. Roddam Narasimha as chief guests. (I was even more intrigued to find out that the convocation had been split into two sessions over two days - apparently, too many people graduating! The Convocation Hall is huge, so the space overflow must have been considerable.) I don't know how their speeches went, and it's not a good idea to automatically assume people like these will be any more inspirational than their predecessors.
It's a pity that most public function speeches in India are so poorly delivered, and that everyone involved has come to expect nothing more. The speakers don't do us listeners the honour of diligent practice, and the listeners in turn, do the listeners no favours of attention.
Some of the more famous commencement speeches alluded to in the opening of this post:
* Steve Jobs at Stanford, 2005: video, transcript - probably the most famous of the lot
* J. K. Rowling at Harvard, 2008: video, transcript - titled "the fringe benefits of failure"
* Jon Stewart at The College of William and Mary, 2004: transcript - quite hilarious
* Atul Gawande at Stanford School of Medicine, 2010: transcript - interesting, cautionary, and thought-provoking thoughts for a graduating class of doctors
The inevitable top ten list is here.