Ahalya Chari is an educator whose career has spanned 65 years. She was the force behind numerous schools, colleges and several institutions in
Today, at 88 Ahalya Chari feels that work has a central place in life. Her day begins with quiet watching, reading and contemplation in the serene environs of Vasant Vihar, the
Ahalyaji first attended an English-medium girl’s convent school. Growing up away from her grandparent’s homeland, of which she knew little, and studying in a British run school, she learned important life lessons. Her school laid emphasis on discipline and rigour in every aspect of life, qualities that she continues to sustain in herself even now. British schooling then gave students a love for purposeful learning. The atmosphere at the
Growing up in the early 20th century
With new technologies making their way from the West to the colonies, the young in early 20th century
And there were also excursions to the countryside and to several Buddhist temples, or Pagodas as they are called in
Ahalyaji’s first brush with her identity as an Indian came when she was about 12. She attended a ladies meeting with her mother in
In 1941, just after she had finished her bachelors, the Third war came also to the East. The Japanese were threatening to invade
Finding their way to a refugee camp at Shwebo, they were spotted by an old student of their father who kindly helped them get evacuated by air to
After shifting to
Ms. Chari had grown up seeing Mrs. Besant’s photo on the mantle piece at her family home in
The waves of progressive education in the west and corresponding developments in
Amongst other interesting colleagues and friends, Ms. Chari met at
At Rajghat, Ms. Chari realized the balance to have alertness as well as sensitivity to understand a child and understanding the young individuals as an ongoing learning experience. Discussions on freedom, intelligence, transformation, responsibility and order helped her see a new side to living and uplifted her. The teachers and students were encouraged to approach nature and the world around them with extreme care and sensitivity.
But there was also the anguish of partition, the killing of innocents, death and destruction unimpeded and so she was to witness war and violence once again. They came back to
It was at that point in January 1949 that J.Krishnamurti came back to
Her passion for education kindled by the wonderful initial training she had had as a teacher in Benares was even stronger after listening to Krishnaji and so in 1951 she went to
And it was to this institute that Ms. Chari went first as a student in 1951 and after a stint in the US as a Fulbright fellow to quench her thirst for what was new in educational philosophy then in the west, she joined the institute as a Lecturer after two years and was engaged for a couple of decades in the education of teachers. The Institute’s ideal of a teacher’s role being much larger than that of a mere transmitter of knowledge in a school was rather unique. It stood for giving attention to the whole life of the child and the creation of an atmosphere of participatory learning. Today, Ahalyaji feels that most colleges of education do not carry the same spirit any longer but have become commercial entities.
The fifties also so creative energies flow in the discovery of Indian art and culture in many ways. Women like Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya and Pupul Jayakar revived our traditional arts and crafts and textiles and there was a filling of pride about the extra-ordinary skill of our craftsmen and artisans in the villages of
In the early 1960s, USAID along with consultants from
At NCERT/ NIE, Ms. Chari headed the Curriculum Department where she prepared all the text books from those days. “My team and I went around to all the states communicating with the directors of education, training teachers about new ways of looking at curriculum and text books. It was tough work.” Ahalyaji worked with the NCERT for seven years, from 1962-69.
In 1961-62, she spent a year at
Around the late 1960s, four regional colleges of education at Bhubaneshwar,
Just when Ms. Chari was deeply into teacher education, she was asked to take charge of building the Kendriya Vidyalayas that had been set up by the Central Government. She confesses that initially there was great resistance to this idea for such vast administration would mean dealing with files and sitting in an office. But she was soon to discover that behind each file was a human problem. Also, a cabinet resolution signed by Pandit Nehru indicated a much larger opportunity when it said ‘these schools are meant to be not only conveniences for transferable central government servants offering a common curriculum but should also be recognized as opportunities for developing an all India mind in children. This gave much more meaning to the work. It was possible to visit schools, interact with principals, teachers and children to inculcate a spirit of oneness. Ms. Chari said that it was great to see a major general’s child sitting along with a jawan’s or a group of children from Manipur performing a folk dance in
Why then, I asked did she want to give up all this to go to the Rajghat Education Centre at
Ahalya Chari has spent her entire life in the field of education and continues to do so even now in Chennai as a trustee of the Foundation. Immediately after my discussion with her she met a group of teachers and asked those questions about their own experiences, their challenges as teachers and about the school as a whole. Her questions to each member of the group inspired a soul searching on our part. “Do feel that this is worthwhile?” Is there a spirit of enquiry in your own lives and in what you do at school? Have you understood what freedom is all about in a school? Where do you draw the line? – And so on.