As a child I went to an amazing
school. Today, I feel helpless and sad for I’m unable to offer such
an education to my son - Anand. “Our childhood was so different.
Things have changed beyond recognition,” old timers often moan and
groan about the past. Still, my heart is heavy. You may ask what was
so different about my school?
Until standard ninth I studied in a school which followed the tenets
of Nai Taleem (Basic Education) as enunciated by Gandhiji. Out of
these I actually spent four years in the Nai Taleem School located
in the Sevagram Ashram in Wardha. Education should not be confined
within the four walls of the classroom mugging up boring subjects
away from Mother Nature. Gandhiji’s Nai Taleem strongly believed
that children learnt best by doing socially useful work in the lap
of nature. This is how children’s minds would develop and they would
imbibe a variety of useful skills. To implement such a system of
education, Rabindranath Tagore at the behest of Gandhiji sent two
brilliant teachers to Sevagram. Mr. Aryanakam came all the way from
Sri Lanka and Mrs. Asha Devi from Bengal. This duo combined Gandhi’s
educational methodology with Tagore’s love for nature and the arts.
My parents were involved with this educational experiment right from
its onset. The school tried out many novel experiments in education.
Here, I will attempt to recall some of them.
Introduction to Animals
Today there is a great deal of talk about conserving
nature and wildlife. But 27 years back this subject was not so much
in vogue. Our Marathi teacher Mr. Patil used to conduct his classes
sitting on the branch of a jackfruit tree. He used to regale us with
stories from the jungle. He also told us tales about his experiences as a shikari.
Once by mistake he shot a pregnant she deer. Later, he simply
couldn’t bear to see the anguish in her eyes. This hurt him so
deeply that he abandoned the gun for good. Later he only shot
animals with his camera. Photographing wild animals became his
passion and often he spent nights sitting alone on a machaan atop a
tree to take a good shot. The stories he told us showed his deep
love and compassion for animals. Listening to his stories was like
going into a trance. It seemed as if we ourselves were trudging the
jungle trail. Mr. Patil was a wordsmith and could paint the picture
of the jungle in words. His stories made a deep impact on me and I
soon started loving the jungle and its wildlife. Nowadays chapter on
animals in Marathi text books usually begins with a drab sentence,
‘Animals are living beings too.” Will such inane words ever succeed
in firing the children’s imagination and inspire them? The
Gadchiroli District of Maharashtra in India is still verdant green
with thick jungles. But even here the school curriculum seems
totally disconnected with the jungle and its wildlife.
Festival of Saints
We did not have to swallow the couplets of Saint Tukaram like a
bitter pill. Every monsoon our school hosted a festival of saints.
We would write essays, draw pictures, build murals and enact short
plays depicting the inspiring events of the lives of saints. Not
just a few, but each and every single child participated in this
event. For a full fortnight there were festivities in the school.
Here I learnt to recite one couplet by Saint Tukaram in three
different ways. During the festival different holy songs were sung.
It’s in one of these musical choirs that I first learnt to sing raag
“Bhairavi”. We learnt many important lessons in a festive atmosphere
of play. These included the sermons of saints, their history and
their contributions to philosophy. There was however, one important
difference. All these we learnt in a very playful manner without
tags of ‘language’, ‘music’ or ‘philosophy’ attached to them.
After many years when I visited a Government School I saw the same
couplet by Saint Tukaram in a fat dreary Marathi textbook titled
“Kavya Kusumanjali”. Saint Tukaram himself would have felt pained seeing it.
How I learnt Botany?
In most schools botany is taught through textbooks with good
photographs or line drawings or with live specimens stowed away in
jars. Children try hard to mug-up difficult to pronounce botanical
names of various species of plants and the different varieties of
their leaves and roots. After the exams they soon forget all this
jargon. There were a lot of gardens and fields near our school which
boasted a vast variety of plant life. The best part was that our
teachers regularly took us for field visits and excursions. On these
outing we would closely observe plants. Our first introduction to
any plant was by its common name so that we become “friends” with
it. Later we observed their leaves, flowers and fruits more closely.
In the end we would pluck fruits and berries and eat them. (Later in
America I also ate and tasted “specimens” in class as an integral
part of learning. But in America there was also a strong tradition
of eating chocolates and drinking coke in the class). While eating
jujube berries and mangos we would discuss similarities in these
fruits. On seeing a drupe (fleshy fruit with a single hard stone
inside) we would note its characteristics. Our daily wanderings in
the gardens and fields brought us very close to nature and this
helped us understand the fine nuances of botany. The tall theories
and intricate principles of botany lay scattered in front of us in
all their pristine glory. Our teachers inspired us to touch them,
feel them and inspect them minutely. That’s why big words like
‘palmate, divergent and reticulate’ never ever foxed me. The reason
was simple. The Papaya leaf which these high sounding words
described was right there in front of me.
For the seventh class exam our teacher asked us to prepare a
scientific album (herbarium) of various leaves and flowers. For this
we scoured all the local gardens and neighborhood fields. Even
twenty-five years later I starkly remember every single location and
hideout where ‘palmate, divergent and reticulate’ leaves could be
found. It still seems to me that those Papaya trees are standing
right in front of my eyes. This had amazing consequences. During my
college days I did not have to struggle at all to learn botany. In
the final year, I stood first in botany in the entire college. When
my professor praised me, I uttered these words silently, “Sir, I did
not learn botany in college. I learnt it long back in my Sevagram
Mathematics which is related to real life
“There is a water tank with two taps.
One taps fills the tank, the other drains it out. How long will it
take to fill up the tank?” Our books on mathematics are replete with
such senseless questions. The moot question is, “Is there any link
between mathematics and real life experiences?” Any clever person
will get rid of the problem by closing the lower tap! I will give an
example how I learnt the concept of volume in my school. It was
mandatory for us to do constructive work for three hours every day.
This was an integral part of our education. This was part of
Gandhiji’s philosophy of “Bread Labor” where you labored to grow
your own food. It was also part of Vinoba Bhave’s vision of gaining
various skills by doing socially productive work. For this I had to
go and work in the cowshed for a couple of days. A new cowshed was
then under construction. My teacher gave me the job of solving a
specific practical problem. “Find the amount of water which a cow
drinks in a day. How much water will be needed for all the cows in
the cowshed? Then construct a water tank with the capacity to
satiate the thirst of all the cows. Find out how many bricks will be
required to construct such a tank? Then go and buy that number of
bricks.” For over a week I grappled with this mathematical problem.
There were numerous tanks with varying sizes. How to measure their
volume? What was the relationship between the volume and the outer
surface area of a tank? I actually constructed a water tank and in
the process learnt a great deal of real life mathematics.
Learning through Cooking
Here is another example of learning
good science by engaging in useful social work. In our school the
students had to take turns to cook. Everyday a hundred people ate in
the school mess. The responsibility of cooking was handed by turn to
a group of eight people. The expenditure per head per month was
announced in advance. The food had to be tasty, nutritious and the
expenses had to be within the stipulated budget. Balancing these
disparate acts was indeed a very tough task! Potatoes were the
cheapest but they mainly contained starch and had to be discarded on
nutritional grounds. By using the minimal quantity of oil stipulated
by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) we would have
exhausted our entire budget on oil itself! None of us had the
experience of a good housewife. So we would struggle between
food-value and money-value to try and strike a good balance. Many
times our food plan and menu turned out to be utterly useless. It
was just not possible to cook it. We often miscalculated the time it
would take lentils to cook. Then at night while washing a mountain
of dishes we felt like wounded soldiers! Also the next day’s cooked
stared squarely in our face.
But in the process of cooking for the community we learnt three very
important lessons. These were elements of a nutritious and balanced
diet, economics, and the art of cooking. I still remember that
coriander green leaves have 10600 units of vitamin A. In just a few
days I learnt many valuable lessons working in the community
kitchen. Unfortunately, I did not learn any such valuable lessons in
the entire decade I spent at the medical college.
Experiments in Agriculture
While in school, each child was
allocated a small patch of land to grow vegetables. We had to
plough, weed, water and grow stuff on our own. There would often be
a long line of students at the well wanting to draw water to
irrigate their crops. So, many children had to water their fields
only at night. At night the wail of the jackals would frighten the
children no end. But still they would gather courage to go and water
their fields in the dead of night. By growing our own fruits and
vegetables we leant the science of agronomy. Before applying any
fertilizers we had to study their chemical compositions and for this
we often went and had long chats with experienced farmers in our
area. These included Mukteshwar Bhai who studied advanced paddy
cultivation in Japan and Prem Bhai - a pioneer in cultivating
grapes. Mr. Haveli’s farm was just a stone’s throw away. He had
spent several years in Israel learning advanced agriculture. Often
Mr. Anna Bhai Sahasrabuddhey would drop by and enlighten us on
emerging techniques and economics of agriculture. In such a dynamic
atmosphere we learnt a great deal about agriculture.
There was a healthy competition amongst the students. We would vie
with each to maximum the yield in our vegetable patch. To increase
yields we would add a lot of fertilizers to our crops which
essentially meant pouring bucketsful to cow urine. By adopting this
novel technique I grew a brinjal with an astounding weight of
1.75-Kg. When I went to sell this super-sized brinjal in the Wardha
market no one touched it with a long pole thinking it had some weird disease!
Education for Life
The Nai Taleem methodology is often
accused of too much emphasis on manual labor, which becomes
detrimental while acquiring knowledge. When Basic Education was
introduced in the Madras Province people said, “A lot of time is
wasted on manual labor, and so our children are lagging behind in
their studies.” Because of such accusations the then chief minister
of Madras Rajaji had to resign. But what was the truth? People, who
think children’s minds should be cluttered with unrelated facts so
that they could regurgitate them out in exams, must have certainly
found some substance in this allegation. This group believed that if
a child cannot list four different ways of making Sulfuric Acid then
his knowledge base was weak. But how will this bunch of facts help a
ninth grade child. They are totally unrelated to his life. The Nai
Taleem students were found better than other children in every field
of science which had a direct bearing with real life. But how did
they fare in history, geography, political science and general
knowledge when compared to the others?
I never learnt geography at school in any formal way. Sevagram was
full of visitors who came from many lands. I used to hear to their
stories and from this I learnt a great deal about many countries. I
was fond of collecting postage stamps and this gave me interesting
information about different countries. I read many travelogues of
foreign lands which gave me a good “feel” for these countries. This
is how I learnt geography. In the ninth grade I read Sharatchand’s
“Pather Daavi” and Jhaverchand Meghani’s novel “Prabhu Padhare”. The
graphic descriptions of these novels later inspired me to travel to
Burma. For me the subject of geography was totally alive and kicking
and not drab and boring.
Our teachers taught us political science and general knowledge in a
unique way. Every evening they would read us out important news
items and interesting events from the newspapers. Later they would
explain us the history and politics behind those events. One
important new item at that time was America’s retaliation to the
weapons sent to Cuba by Russia. Then Second World War had broken out
and the whole world was divided into two - capitalist and socialist
camps. Our teachers would explain to us the reasons of mutual
distrust between America and Russia and also the significance of the
Cuban Revolution. Why Switzerland is called Helvetia? This question
confronted me while collecting postal stamps. I read a number of
books to find the answer and in the process I learnt a great deal
about this beautiful country.
Our school was the creative laboratory
where several novel experiments were undertaken to implement
Gandhiji’s vision of education and Tagore’s love for the arts. I
will illustrate them with a few examples. Apart from the written
exams we were also tested in our abilities to cook, write and
playact, give lectures to a large audience and write articles. The
novelty of the experiment was the flexibility inside the classroom.
Every class has some clever and some not so clever students.
Children did not have to appear for the same standard examination.
This meant that in one single year I could simultaneously pass
seventh grade English, ninth grade Mathematics and tenth grade
Marathi. Inculcation of good values was an integral part of this
education. As part of our daily school activities we lived these
values and imbibed respect for manual labor, self-reliance, equality
and working for the common good. Apart from these humane values,
students also took part in struggles waged in the country for social
transformation. For a few days the school was shut and all the
students went away to far flung villages in Bihar to take part in
the Bhoodan Movement.
Whenever I recount these experiences of my old school people
invariably ask, “Is that school still running? We too would like to
send our children there.” I would like to share one last detail
about my school.
Gandhiji’s vision of village industries did not find favor with the
Indian government. Soon small scale village industries couldn’t
compete and lost out to big conglomerates. Because my school had no
government recognition it couldn’t last long. In the absence of any
recognition, the children’s future hung in uncertainty. So, parents
withdrew their children from the school. Many parents who actively
participated in the Bhoodan Movement had admitted their children to
this school. Later, they also withdrew their children. Our
government and society both, failed to appreciate the value of this
unique school. Under such hostile circumstances no island of change
can survive for long. The harsh and barren social terrain outside
the school, gobbled it up. Finally, the Bhoodan Movement also
withered away. Deep rooted selfishness in society and the race to
compete finally rang a death knell of this creative endeavor. I have
a deep desire to send my son to such a school. But where is that magic school?