Mukund Padmanabhan looks back fondly at his days in the small and unusual Blue Mountain School, Ooty.
I was enrolled at Blue Mountain School when I was barely seven. Yes, it was an unusually young age for a boy to be sent to boarding school, but the underlying reason for packing me off to Ooty was not uncommon. We lived in Calicut (now Kozhikode), which did not boast of a school that could provide what was regarded as a well-rounded cosmopolitan English education. In those days, many children from other nearby provincial towns — Coimbatore, Pollachi, Ernakulam, etc. — were sent to Ooty for reasons that had a Macaulay-like ring.
I had a valid admission for Lawrence School, Lovedale, the first choice for most Ooty public school hopefuls. But my mother, who nursed ideas about alternative education, changed her mind during a holiday in the Nilgiris less than a year before I was signed up. Someone told her about Blue Mountain, which she visited and liked. “It is not regimented, much smaller and more homely,” she declared.
I took to the school easily, without any of the homesick pangs that some others went through. I remember going up the Western Ghats with my parents in our wheezing Ambassador, being introduced to the staff, and being taken up to the games field to play. When I came down half an hour or so later, my parents had gone, having been persuaded that an emotional farewell would leave me distraught. I began to cry. Not because I was homesick, but because I could not understand how they could have left without saying goodbye.
The year was 1963 and the school was just a couple of years old. Mr. Frederick Gordon Pearce was no more, having passed away within a year of the school’s opening. A framed black and white photograph of the Englishman, which hung in the Assembly Room, reminded us of who the school’s founder was. But it was only much later that I learnt F.G. Pearce was also a famous educationist and a founder of the Indian public school movement. It was he who assisted Annie Besant in founding the Indian Boy Scout Movement, which was later subsumed at the request of Baden-Powell into the Scout Movement of India. He also converted Scindia School, founded in the late 19 century by Maharaja of Gwalior, into a residential school; later, he served as Director General of Education for Gwalior. He wrote various books and pamphlets, including one on some famous names in history called Footprints in the Sands of Time, which was written because “there are students of science who are ignorant of Pericles and students of the arts who have no knowledge of Edison.”
In the late 1940s, he was persuaded to resign his well-paid job as Secretary to the Ministry of Education in Ceylon to become the Principal of Rishi Valley School. It had fallen into bad times and according to Roshen Dalal’s brief history of the first 40 years of the institution, Pearce “was given the difficult task of restarting the school when finances were low and friction was high.”
From all accounts, Pearce did well at Rishi Valley. Within a couple of years, Miss Payne, an associate of Jiddu Krishnamurti was pleased to see “the school beginning to smarten up a bit and the children looking a bit less… wild.” I was extremely pleased to learn that it was Pearce who thought up asthachal, that simple but beautiful practice where children collect on a hillock in the evenings to watch the sun go down in quiet reflection. It was a routine that my daughter, who finished her schooling at Rishi Valley, loved.
In time, Pearce’s experiments at Rishi Valley — which included attempts to involve children in farming, tailor the curriculum for individual students, and scrap the annual examination — began to worry a section of parents and the teaching staff. In 1958, he quit as a result of growing differences about what constituted freedom and what discipline implied. Determined to pursue his “experiments in freedom,” he launched another school — mine.
In Ooty, he rented what was the former ‘summer palace’ of the Maharaja of Vizianagaram — in truth, a large English mansion-styled house with wooden flooring and glass windows. It was situated at the base of Elk Hill and afforded a view of the Race Course and the town beyond. He came armed with the idea that the school should have no more than 60 students, that it should provide an individual approach to academic learning, and that it would function in a climate free from reward or punishment.
When I joined, the student strength was about 25. For someone with my provincial background, the teachers were a fascinatingly assorted sort. There was the kindly Mrs. Brookes, an Englishwoman who spoke impeccably and taught us English. There was the robustly built Australian Mrs. Flanagan, who taught us art, and who was unsparing when we asked ‘What?’ every time we failed to understand what she was saying, which was very often because of her unfamiliar accent. ‘Pardon’ she would thunder in response to remind us what the polite expression was. Then there were the Americans Mr. and Mrs. Wynne, the first a colossally built man who wrestled with us on a small lawn we called the quadrangle. His wife was a real charmer who took a particular liking to me; I suspect I got cast in a few school plays as a result.
It was the time that Mr. Trilokekar, in his brief stint, was Principal. But perhaps inevitably for someone my age, it was the school matron, the crinkly-faced kindly-eyed Irishwoman Miss Grant, who became the major figure in my early school life. She took me and my friend Vinod Parkkot (sent to school at a similar age) under her wing. She fussed over our food, ironed out our matted hair, and — in the face of much teasing from the older boys — supervised our baths. It was the portly Rosemary, the school ayah, who was actually tasked with the job of scrubbing us clean. Now and then, she would sneak in packets of sweetened betel nut and cheap boiled sweets in the folds of her sari for us. Miss Grant eventually caught her out. The result was a severe dressing down in her heavily accented Tamglish.
The two of us were housed in the girls’ dorm probably because there was not enough room in the regular one and in the almost certainly mistaken belief that boys our age would not be curious about the opposite sex. Young though we were, living with women demanded circumspection when entering the dressing room or bathing area. Shouts of ‘Don’t come in!’ or ‘I’m in here!’ were common. Most of the girls were older. The only one I remember who was roughly my age was someone called Sigapi. She wasn’t there for long and I have never been able to unearth who she was or where she is.
Being in a small experimental school also had implications for learning. I was put into a class with much older boys as there weren’t enough children to be staggered into separate classes. It was a decision that would come back to haunt me many years later, when the school realised — very belatedly — that I would appear for the ISC when I was only 13. As a result, I was kept back — something I did not mind at all and was, in fact, secretly delighted with. It meant more time in school.
What I regard as Blue Mountain School’s first phase — the sweet and innocent chaos of the days of Brookes, Flanagan and the Wynnes — gradually gave way to the second. I can’t remember the dates, but it is a period I associate with three unconnected developments — the growing numbers of schoolchildren, the entry of the uniform, and the advent of Sardar Mohammed Malik.
As far as I was concerned, the more kids the better. And I didn’t mind the uniforms at all. It was mandatory to have a blue-black pullover and a blazer/tie, which were mandatory for special dinners, at which we were invariably served macaroni and cheese. The battle jacket was optional, but with its epaulet-like shoulder straps and its air force associations, it was the one we loved most. Trousers were grey and Oxford shoes left us with no choice but the sturdy regulation Bata artifact, aptly called Toughie.
And Sardar Mohammed Malik? He was Soddy to us — in retrospect an unattractive and undeserving nickname for a hugely charismatic man. After quitting Doon School on a matter of principle, he had served in Rishi Valley, where he became one of Pearce’s lieutenants in his experiments with freedom. This was a man who believed in doing everything just right. It reflected in his appearance — the impeccably trimmed white beard, the tweed jackets with leather elbow patches, his spotless and gleaming shoes, his understatedly elegant watch, and his collection of fountain pens. There was a sense of style in everything he did — a style derived not so much from languid flourish but concise economy. It showed in the brisk manner he transported himself around school, his fondness for the short and pithy remark, and — on the odd occasion he chose to play cricket with us — in the tight snap of his forward defensive push. We managed to locate a book that explained why he played cricket so well even as it deepened the mystery about him. The Test cricketer Mushtaq Ali had a line in his biography referring to the Sardar as a bright young batsman who could have gone on to do much more for Holkar but suddenly vanished. It was much more than just his social origins — Muslim nobility in Madhya Pradesh — that set him apart. His cosmopolitan urbanity came with a mind that was full of ideas that he always engaged the students with. His most radical one was to infuse some of the philosophy that went into the making of Summerhill — the British residential school that was founded around the belief that children learn best when not coerced and when allowed to choose what they want to do with their time — into Blue Mountain.
It was a short-lived experiment, but I remember him reading passages from a book on Summerhill to us very regularly during one term. It was during that term when we were empowered to declare — to one or two teachers at least — that we did not want class but would rather play in the sports field. The result was a whole lot of Parakeet — a game the rules of which I can’t recall. It was he who sensitised me to the lilt and cadence of poetry. It was he who gave me the confidence that I could write. And it was he who advised me, in his discreet, diffident and non-intrusive way, about how to handle a couple of recalcitrant members of the school cricket team, of which I was captain.
The school’s third phase in my potted account of its development happened in the late 1960s, around the time the first batch was readying for the ISC exams. Perhaps inevitably, the reality of public exams necessitated a greater sense of order and discipline and longer hours at the desk. I remember the scramble to find teachers who could handle subjects at the ISC stage. Mock examinations were held to prepare you for the real thing. By the time I passed out in 1971, we were a very different school from the Brookes/Flanagan days.
But did we still remain a school with a ‘difference’? I would be lying if I said I have never asked myself this question of our third and most orderly phase. Small but significant things persuade me that we did. For instance, there were our classroom debates with the Sardar about everything from war and authority to nudity. There was our introduction to a string of fascinating people such as RAF-officer turned educationist David Hosbrough and artist Jyoti Sahi. I will never forget the sight of the former’s splendid vintage car with its gleaming brass horn as it turned the bends on the unpaved road up to school. Or visiting the latter at Channapatna, where he taught villagers art and craft.
A while ago, I accidentally got hold of an old issue of Blue Print, the school magazine, when my mother chanced upon it among her belongings. There was a poem in it by the Principal Mr. Thakkar dedicated to S.M. (Sardar Mohammed) and about the school bell. As poems go, it is a somewhat wordy and highly embroidered piece of work. But there is a delightful irony that shines all the way through. As I read it, I couldn’t stop smiling in surprise — here was Mr. Thakkar sending up the Sardar for his love of the bell, his fixation about time, and — by implication — for a certain routine and everyday orderliness! In other words, here was the sedate and kindly Mr. Thakkar portraying someone we regarded as an educational Che Guevera as an arch-conservative! If the two most influential people in school could differ in a jokey way through print, I thought, surely we must have been a school with a difference.
If there ever is a history of Blue Mountain School, I suspect it will be a very hard one to write. This is because there were probably many schools over the years — each influenced heavily by the succession of senior staff and principals that populated them. This multiplicity could have been because the school was too small to acquire a sustained institutional strength. It could also be that the changes in staff were too frequent for a certain kind of robust continuity. This is probably what resulted in the decline of the school and its eventual closure in 2003 after a period of turbulence and disagreement.
Or who knows. The many phases that the school went through could be merely because there are many ways of being different as opposed to the one way of being the same. Or perhaps, we were just many things at once — a little bit of J. Krishnamurti, the lingering legacy of Pearce, the subtle influence of the Sardar, and the collective but not always similar visions of a string of principals.
Whenever I return to Ooty and to the school premises, I cannot help noticing how things have changed. The road up to school — which was flanked by an uninterrupted stretch of vegetable patches — is now bordered by a rash of unattractive houses. The lovely little bungalow outside the school gates, which once served as an outhouse to the ‘summer palace’, has been flattened and sold as plots. Magnificent Elk Hill, where we picked and ate wild raspberries as we clambered up and slithered down, is savaged by development. In my time, the top of the hill was bald, in keeping with the grasslands of the region, and you could see the trishul of the makeshift temple on the summit from the school grounds. But some things remain comfortingly the same — the façade of the school building, the wooden floor of the Assembly hall, the dormitories, and the playing grounds. Inside the building, it is difficult not to be awash with nostalgia and filled with a sense of homecoming.
The school was revived in 2005 thanks to a unique initiative — a few determined members of the alumni got it reopened after a great deal of effort and persuasion. It’s been a slow road to recovery, but the school’s director Amukta Mahapatra — under whom BMS celebrated its 50 anniversary — appears confident that it’s back on its feet. Sure, finances are precarious and there’s lots more work to be done. But there are 50 students now (about half the strength when I finished and ten less than Pearce’s outer limit) and some 20 teachers (the kind of flattering student-teacher ratio we were used to back then).
If Pearce revived a school (Rishi Valley), the alumni revived his own. It deserves to live much longer. For it is always a source of comfort to know that somewhere in Ooty, there is a place where education can take place in an environment of social intimacy, where the lack of numbers signifies strength rather than weakness, where schooling does not mean instruction, where learning is not equated with grades or marks, and where children can dare to be free.
Keywords: Ooty Blue Mountain School, Frederick Gordon Pearce, F.G. Pearce, Indian public school movement, Annie Besant, Indian Boy Scout Movement, Footprints in the Sands of Time, asthachal, summer palace, Maharaja of Vizianagaram