A different world out there at Brian Jenkins’ offbeat Sholai School in Kodaikanal

When the entire neighbourhood plunges into darkness -- thanks to the State Electricity Board’s crippling power cuts -- the 65 students and their 18 teachers at Sholai School, Kodaikanal, are not power-starved for a moment. Their school was never connected to the grid. It uses renewable energy to meet all its requirements.

The man who made this mechanism possible is their principal, Mr. Brian Jenkins, a British-born social anthropologist. Painstakingly, he has built a creative green campus with the greater social good in mind. This disciple of J. Krishnamurthy is living his utopian dream in the verdant hills of Palani.

“I don’t believe in teaching values” he says. “It is a pompous adult attitude, like an old chestnut. My idea of education is about applications and trying new things. It is not just being sentimental but developing genuine sensitivity to all life forms. It’s also a lot about growing a sense of responsibility by speaking up.”

Mr. Jenkins likes being primal. He navigates the pot-holed roads from the valley to the hills in a vintage 1934 Baby Austin. “It’s tiring. But unless you make a mess of things, you will never learn to innovate,” he grins. His students are making a power engine for his car, which arrived dismantled in a box from London to Mumbai 43 years ago.

“It was prohibitively expensive to transport the car across the seas. Putting it back together was fun,” he laughs. He is proud of the engineering department he has set up for his school. “Our students are adept in repairing old bicycles into new and with a bright coat of paint they are back in market. They have modified an old ambassador car engine to run on both petrol and biogas.”

Running a self-sufficient alternative school is hard work. Jenkins invested all that he inherited from his grandmother to showcase a unique curriculum. “This is a stress-free school where there are no awards, no punishment, no exam fear, no rat race. You only have to take a liking to the environment and work in harmony with nature.”

Dream project

The Sholai School became Jenkins’ dream goal when his spiritual guru and philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthy asked him to “free his mind from all types of conditioning”. Having trained for 14 years at Krishnamurthy Foundation Trust at Brockwood Park, England, Jenkins first arrived in India in 1969. He travelled 7,000 km in search of a suitable place for a school.

The Sholai School foundation was laid in 1986 under its parent body, the Centre for Learning, Organic Agriculture and Appropriate Technology, with one local boy and one each from Ladakh and Moscow. It has grown into an astonishing place in the last quarter of a century. Half the students are poor and rural children from the district who pay no fee and the remaining half are students of all nationalities from across the globe. They mingle famously, enjoying a higher-quality education than what is normally available in their region.

The activities

At this 1,150 metre altitude, there is always a nip in the air and a floating mist. The sunshine available 205 days a year is harnessed optimally. The entire school is powered by solar panels and generators powered by micro hydro energy. The campus buildings are built with bamboo, local stones, mud and bricks on 100 acres of delightful greenery. Four biogas plants fuel the kitchen.

The school engages in organic farming and grows coffee, pepper, banana and seasonal vegetables and fruits. All school meals are from these farms. It also runs its own dairy, producing organic milk and cheese and even exports home-grown coffee to Germany. Students follow the University of Cambridge syllabus here but equally important are their other experiences. They farm, collect, segregate and recycle waste, manage the livestock, learn carpentry and make every piece of furniture for the school. In addition they are trained in horse riding, swimming, outdoor and indoor games, yoga, trekking and bird watching. They have also built check dams and a wooden bridge across a small river that cuts through the campus. They are the first ones to rush to put out forest fires any time of the day.

Social change

Education is a holistic experience here and Sholai students are lucky to spend the day creating positive changes. Mr.Jenkins addresses socially conscious issues. “The aim is to produce responsible citizens of the Earth, who would not only relish the fruits of the earth but also learn to preserve it in return.”

He does not believe in hierarchical system. Students from any class and of any age are clubbed together to “explore the truths of daily life.” “Learning ceases in classrooms but it is the practical knowledge out there in the field that teaches you the values of existence. And in a hands-on-work class, anybody can assist anybody, you don’t have to be divided according to age group,” he asserts.

Everything is undefined here, yet, there is a sense of security, a spirit of sharing, openness and freedom. Jenkins feels it is important not to be intimidated by the present marks-driven education system. “All we need to do is to explore a new culture of alertness which is sustainable, emphasises self-awareness, dialogue, and right relationship among all.”