‘Education for a caring society’, a two-day conference held at Vidya Vanam, threw up searching questions about our schooling system

It is a forest, surrounded by mountains. The sound of birds and a rustle of leaves drown the mobile beeps and vehicle horns. “It is so different from the grim seminars held in the closed air-conditioned halls of our college, isn’t it?” my friend asks me. World renowned historians, scholars and musicians sit side by side with the audience beneath a colourful shamiana at the National Conference for a Caring Society, held at Vidya Vanam, Anaikatti. As Prema Rangachari, the director of the school says, it is indeed a conference of ideas in a happy environment.

The first session of the day is by Shanta Sinha, a professor of political science from Hyderabad Central University. She shares her experience of working in a village in South India. “This is a village run by 70 children. Their parents who are migrant labourers often left the village and left them behind so that they would not miss their school,” recalls Shanta, who has headed the National Commission for protection of children’s rights. “The poor in this country might not be used to the culture of handling literacy. But, they yearn for education,” she says.

The session by musician and author T.M. Krishna on “Can art curb violence in classrooms?” raises debates on different forms of violence. “Imposing a privileged art form on a tribal child can also be a violent process. When you give priority for classical arts in the curriculum, you must be careful that you are not giving him the impression that his culture is less superior.”

We experience Santiniketan through black and white stills that Uma Dasgupta, a Tagore biographer and historian, presents. The bearded philosopher and poet, along with a few Santhal children, smile at us from the frames. Tagore’s vision of Santiniketan was a protest against the prevailing system of education.

Uma is followed by P.N. Mathai, who talks about Gandhi’s model of education that focuses on rural development.

Alok Mathur from Rishi Valley School and Ananda Reddy from Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, explain the philosophies of J. Krishnamurthi and Sri Aurobindo respectively, and their faith in an alternative education system that frees the individual and opens up room for their creativity.

In the afternoon, the warm classrooms turn into workshop rooms. Prema Surendran, Montessori head of Vidya Vanam, holds a storytelling session for the teachers. “You need to make your classes interesting and lively. And, the best way is to make the children enact the stories,” she says.

Sulabha Subramaniam, an independent counsellor from Thane conducts a session on handling violence in classrooms.

“When an individual gets aggressive, you must pacify him by being calm and reasonable. And, remember that you can only manage his anger, and not force him to come back to a happy state of mind.”

In another room, Neeraja Raghavan, an educational consultant from Aziz Premji University has asked the participants to raise a common problem they have encountered in classrooms, and discuss ways of tackling it. “The twelfth standard students in my school have become really rebellious,” a teacher says. The participants ask her to counsel the students or identify the gang leaders in the class. Neeraja advises her to hold a staffroom meeting to discuss the matter.

A cool light breeze marks the fall of dusk at Vidya Vanam. Scholars stroll around the school with their family and friends. Outside the shamiana, there are notice boards where participants can scribble their feedback. Revathi and S. Kavitha, teachers from GRD College of Engineering say they have a lot to take back from the conference. “The talk on Gandhian and Aurobindo education models was thought-provoking. Education has become so competitive today. It burdens the children and creates so much depression in them,” says S. Kavitha.

N. Unnikrishnan is a forest department official from Kerala, who has worked with tribal children. He says that the schools in India must bridge the city-village divide.

“Even when we talk about tribal upliftment, we mean to pull them away from their spaces into the city. Even our rural reconstruction programmes harp on converting villages into cities. Shouldn’t we imbibe the values of village and tribal lives as well? We still have a long way to go. This event hopefully could be a start for many discussions.

T.M. Krishna, singer and writer

“Is art some kind of a magic potion that can make a person a better human being? I do not think so,” says T.M. Krishna. “But then, there is something about a Picasso painting or a sculpture in Tanjore temple that does something to us. It is this brief moment that we need to hold on to; when you connect with an art emotionally and it rejuvenates your mind.”

Appreciation of art comes with a feeling of detachment, he says. “When you see tragedy you are not gripped by sadness but a heavy feeling. You go beyond the self.’

And this spirit does not have to limit itself to an art classroom. “You can bring art into mathematics or a physics class. But, if you cannot recreate this spirit of being alive as human beings, the art class can also become monotonous and dry.”

He believes that art froms must go to every nook and corner and be accesible to all sections of society. But Indian classical arts reflect a power discourse and hierarchy and schools such as Vidya Vanam must be sensitive to them. “For instance you call Carnatic music classical music. So do you mean folk music is not classical or sophisticated?

How do you define sophistication?” he asks.

Chintan Girish Modi, peace builder and writer

This Valentine’s Day, a unique project for love was introduced by Chintan Girish Modi. It is an attempt to build love and bonding between Indian and Pakistan. Called “Friendship Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein”, the programme’s objective is to share stories of cross-border friendships on Facebook. “When we use the term “cross-border”, the next word that comes to our mind is terrorism,” points out Chintan. But the Faceook page is filled with posts by individuals from India and Pakistan who have met at different parts of the world and struck up friendships.

Chintan feels we carry so many myths about Pakistanis, that need to be shunned. “Did you know people in Pakistan celebrate Diwali, like us? The children love Bollywood film songs and Virat Kohli.” Chintan has visited many of these schools and talked abut peace building. At Vidya Vanam, he screens short films on Indo-Pak friendship. At the end of the workshop, the teachers tell him they are glad to know that Pakistan is not as bad as the media projects it to be. He tells them it is important to open up conversations between children and teachers. “The children are fed with so much negative ideas. Flip through our history text books and you will find how Muhammad Ali Jinnah is projected.” There are now so many more exchange programmes between schools in both the countries. “The children are actually very curious and open.”

U. N Ravikumar, environmentalist

The rain water harvesting technique was introduced to a rain starved village called Gandathur in Mysore. One hundred and fifty seven houses practised it. Now, they get water through out the year.

It was popularised by U.N. Ravikumar, the founder and retired director of Centre for Appropriate Rural Technology at the National institute of Engineering, Karnataka. He was one of the few environmentalists in the state who introduced rain water harvesting in rural Karnataka.

Ravikumar was at Vidya Vanam to attend the workshops on environment.

Through his camps and campaigns, he has built a capacity 40 crore litres of water across the state.

Schools have been the focal points of many of his camps. “Adults are too critical to anything innovative and new. But children imbibe them fast without bias and prejudice,” he explains.

He had also invented a smokeless stove that ensures that women will not inhale smoke while cooking, as it uses bio residues like agro waste which is in abundance in rural areas. “These are simple things that can be practised for water conservation. Schools like Vidya Vanam that are nestled in the lap of nature and blessed with trees, land and water can be a space for such innovations. We must try to bring about change in the micro level through small groups and it will naturally lead to a bigger change.”

Uma Dasgupta, historian

When Uma Dasgupta visited Viswa-Bharathi University the first time, she fell in love with it. She quit her job at Jadavpur University and began to write books on Tagore and researched his contribution to the Independence movement through a series of letters exchanged between C.F Andrews, Tagore and Gandhi.

“In these letters, you can see that Tagore contributed to the Indian nationalist movement. Santiniketan witnessed this transformation. It was Tagore’s way of resisting the Western mode of education. He wanted to promote constructive social building.” “Tagore always believed that there should be a dynamic link between city and village. He felt the city must also learn from village. He sensed that the soul of India lay in the villages. That’s why he started Sriniketan, a centre for non-sectarian rural reconstruction so that villagers can keep their identity and lead better lives, at the same time.”

“Viswa- Bharathi that came into being in 1921, became a melting point of different cultures, where Indian and western scholars exchanged ideas.” These philosophies may be hard to implement directly in our schools, says Uma. “But these play in our minds and some of the integral components are picked out. For instance, the National Handicrafts Movements to encourage the rural artisans and craftsmen might not bear the name of Tagore, but it carries his spirit forward.”