Senior educationist Ahalya Chari — who passed away on Saturday at 92 — was one of the architects of the education system in independent India, dedicating seven decades of her life to the field of teaching.
Ms. Chari began her career as a teacher in 1943, at a girls’ school founded by Dr. Annie Besant in Varanasi and went on to serve at the Central Institute of Education (CIE), Delhi, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and the Regional Institute of Education (RIE), Mysore, in different capacities, and later headed them at different times.
It was a time when a new India was being born, after decades of struggle. Education was recognised as a crucial requirement and there was an evident need for active research, teacher training and curriculum development.
Ms. Chari, who remained single, was involved with institutions entrusted with these responsibilities at the time of their inception, and also made key contributions to chalking out their vision.
She was the first commissioner of the Kendriya Vidyalayas and helped formed the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan as well. Ms. Chari represents a rare clan of pedagogues who could combine their academic and administrative roles with enviable ease, with insights from one role enriching the other.
In the 1970s, after about 30 years’ engagement with students, teachers and teacher training at different State-run institutions, Ms. Chari began showing signs of disillusionment as education in India was gradually becoming more competitive.
“Children suddenly became raw materials. Teaching was a transaction in class and learning was dissected into behavioural outcomes. We asked for targets…,” Ms. Chari recalled in an interview to Seminar in 2008.
In 1976, she joined the Rajghat Besant School in Varanasi, founded by J. Krishnamurti, whose ideology she was drawn to.
She later moved to The School in Chennai in 1982, and headed the institution through its crucial stages of development, according to K. Krishnamurthy of KFI. Ms. Chari started the journal of Krishnamurti schools and served as its editor, bringing in valuable insights from practising teachers.
Though engrossed in developments in the field of education, Ms. Chari was, till her very end, completely updated on current affairs in India and the world over.
“For someone her age, she was unbelievably sharp,” said S.P. Kandaswamy, secretary, KFI.
Since 1999, Ms. Chari had made Vasant Vihar, headquarters of the KFI, her home. Surrounded by neatly-arranged books and journals, she loved entertaining guests at her cottage-like space with tea and long conversations.
Spending hours editing her journals, she would meticulously insert each comma and hyphen using a pencil.
While writing, she would revise her drafts multiple times. She also had an enviable memory and often surprised people by recalling even small details of their earlier meetings.
Prof. Krishna Kumar, former director, NCERT, said: “I met her this January and at 92, she was fully in-charge of things. She had incredible confidence and surety of purpose. She was the embodiment of Krishnamurti’s teachings and when you meet her, you realise this is what he meant. Ahalyaji represented that dimension of NCERT which stood for innovation, research and deep engagement with the field. She was constantly positive and believed there was a way out of any challenging situation.”
For Alok Mathur of Rishi Valley School, Ahalyaji’s ability to engage with both children and people almost her age with the same ease and enthusiasm was remarkable. “She was always full of energy and hope. She initiated a forum for alumni of The School and held wonderful discussions,” he said.
What moved Jayashree Nambiar, principal, The School, was Ms. Chari’s deep concern for every child and teacher. “She had a desire to know the reality in every detail. She would interact with people at a very real, everyday level, never losing sight of the larger vision. We found that very inspiring.”
Keywords: Ahalya Chari