A day at Anand Niketan, Sewagram

I was late. I had promised I would reach by 9 AM but by the time I walked through the gate of the Ashram, it was noon. I had sent a SMS about the delay so I was relatively guilt free when I walked through the gate of the school premises. I saw two boys outside the class, they looked sheepish. I asked them in my Marathi-English- “punishment midala ka? “ (Did you get punished?). They shuffled their feet in response. Peeked in to see Sushama taking a class. The first thing that Sushama asked on seeing me, “Itna late kyon?”(Why so late?) It was my turn to shuffle feet. I had assumed that sending a SMS is enough completely ignoring the possibility that she might be immersed in a fully functioning school day.

The room was cool, nice, and clean (just like the rest of the school premises- not a single piece of paper or plastic can you find abandoned!) - as compared to the heat and dust and noise outside . The children were sitting down on mats and had their low desks in front of them. I was eyeing the cool floor to sit down when I heard these Class 6 kids discussing amongst themselves whether I would like a mat or a chair. Very soon, one of them asked me directly, “What would I like to sit on?” I said a mat and they gave me one. It was the first of many things to come that I admired in the school that day- this confidence of talking to strangers and the initiative to make me feel invited and comfortable. Would my kids have done that either in their school or at home without a prompt from an adult? I doubt it.

I was sitting through their English class and the kids had to form sentences with a given set of words. Sushama kept switching in Marathi and English to give them a flavour of what they want to say and how best to say it. It was a fun class and the children came out with grammatically correct sentences. I saw everyone trying. Two bright eyed girls tried to make several. Sushama waited till everyone had their turn and had tried. I was amazed- my 1st classroom management lesson in Sewagram- no running with the first and best answers here. I made a mental note of trying it out in Azim Premji University (APU). In the meantime, she looked at me and asked, “how are you”? “I am hungry”, I answered! The kids laughed. Later, when they were asked to describe emotions in English language - one of them quipped, “Hungry” ! When Sushama asked if hunger is a state (Awastha) or an emotion (Bhaav) , they looked at me cheekily and said “Both”!

(Later, when I sat through the APU interviews listening to many aspiring APU graduate students lamenting about their poor English skills because they had studied in rural schools in Vidharbha , I kept thinking of the kids learning in this English class)

I also attended a history class with a different set of kids reading a lesson about Vedic Age. Once again, saw many alert, bright eyed, confident kids who were bursting with questions or comments but showing enough restraint to allow room for a teacher led discussion. The discussion led to the timeline of Dinosaurs and Sushama encouraged them to find out more about it. Half an hour later, while searching for my lost water bottle, I was amazed to find these kids sitting in the computer lab looking up information on Dinosaurs and noting it down. They were excited to find a few facts on their own and were telling Sushama who had accompanied me about their findings. The excited chatter and the hunger for knowledge was a wonderful thing to see.

We moved on to see the embroidery and sewing classes. A long discussion ensued between Sushama and the teacher on the quality of work and what it meant for the teacher who taught the skill to students. Never admonishing but at the same time standing her ground , I found Sushama spending time in her gentle but firm way reasoning why a better quality of jute in the same price was important and why children needed to spend time in embroidering well to improve the functional and aesthetic value of the piece they were working on. Deciding a child appealing motif was also important. So design and aesthetics of craft, a value for money, and its practical use – the “nichod” (essence) of my understanding of Nai Talim was there for me to see. After a long dialogue that was anything but preachy, I came away embarrassed thinking of all the time I have taken short cuts in life and avoided doing quality work. When I returned to my laptop several hours later, I read and reread the Kahlil Gibran poem, ‘Work is love made visible ‘, and each of its line transported me back to the long discussion I witnessed in the school earlier. Doing for doing sake versus doing for love. What a valuable lesson in life!

It is something to walk through the gates of the Nai Talim Ashram at Sewagram. The contrast of the peaceful, simple and aesthetic space with tree covers from the hectic pace of the world outside hits you immediately. I imagined how this school would have been in the 1930s. I picked out a small, slim booklet by Marjorie Sykes titled Foundations of Living from the school library and randomly started reading a description of life in the school in the 1930s just as happy voices learning Marathi grammar floated in from the adjoining room. Not very different, I told myself. Not very different. To confirm my thoughts, I went back to Bangalore and reread some of the assessment reports of the Nai Talim School in Sewagram in 1939. Wait, they were a close match with my casual observations in 2017!

As I sat reading in the library, a group of young kids in their break came in to play hide and seek. A boy had accidently knocked down a basket of assorted stuff in his excitement. Running the risk of being caught by his playmates, he came out of hiding to straighten things and keep it back in place. Sushama came to fetch me and found the kids hiding. After some laughter of being discovered by Sushama (but no fear of authority!) the kids got a mini lesson on how they needed to maintain a quiet atmosphere in the library and not because Sushama told them so but because reading requires peace . Again, I thought of how often I shout out rules to my children, not always having the patience to explain the purpose of the rule behind it.

When we walked towards lunch, Sushama saw some kids collecting fallen soapnuts /reetha from the ground so that they could make shampoo under the guidance of a school teacher. She stopped and told the kids that to avoid scorpions or snakes they needed to wear footwear and use a stick while searching through the dried leaves fallen on the ground. She could have ignored the kids and walked with me to Lunch but she stopped several times along the way and reasoned her instructions.

A small kid of around 5 years searching for reetha called out her name this time on our way back accusing her in Marathi which I translate here- “Sushama Tai, I thought you were my friend! “Ho”, she answered. “Why do you then talk to other kids as well, you should only talk to me!” I laughed at this innocent display of jealousy stemming from love for his Tai.

We saw the kids eating a nutritious snack post lunch- green moong khichdi. The teacher had served all and was waiting to dole out second servings. Sushama asked the teacher if it was good- as they had tried it as an evening snack for the first time with this set of students. Instead of answering her right away, the teacher asked the kids- how is it? And they responded in unison, “very nice”! Nobody was in the game of impressing the other- neither me, an outsider, nor Sushama, the administrator. If kids liked it, then it was good.

When I was in college, for years, I had kept a cutting of the print advert that the fabric company, Raymond's, ran in the Reader's Digest. It read, “Character is not what you are in the arc lights, it is what you are in the dark”. Here in this school, nobody needed to explicitly talk about building character. The school walls are bereft of inspirational quotes and it is quite apparent that work and their conduct in school with each other and towards their work is their guide.

As I bid farewell to this vibrant space after tailing Sushama for almost a whole day, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I sat in the noisy auto and then a state transport bus to reach the city. The bus driver was in a rush and we whizzed past the cotton fields. On the outskirts of Nagpur, a person dragging a hand cart had slowed the impatient traffic down and was getting incessantly honked at. Soon, we joined the mess on the roads of the city- the Metro is slated to come to Nagpur and the roads were dug up slowing the traffic down. Slowing it down now for a speedy future. What an antithesis to Gandhi’s imagined future.

I was overwhelmed after this visit. Why? What was that which hit me so strongly? After all, it was just another good alternative school and I have been visiting many like this as part of my “job”. But my heart was full. And I couldn’t find words to express it. As I write this I still struggle to articulate what touched my heart ; what is it that honest, sincere efforts, hard work, and voluntary simplicity residing on the values of care and love can do to you.

And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart,
even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection,
even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead
are standing about you and watching.

...

Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man's hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man's ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.

~ Kahlil Gibran, ‘Work is love made visible'

Further curations on Nai Taleem:

    The Story of Nai Talim
    Nai Talim Today: Some Issues and Possibilities
    Nai Talim - Learning through Productive Work: A Reflection
    Gandhi on Education by Krishna Kumar
 

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Pallavi Varma Patil, the author of this article is a faculty at Azim Premji University. Her current interests include environment education, activity based learning, and Gandhi’s Nai Talim- productive work as pedagogy. She may be reached at pallavi.vp@apu.edu.in.

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