Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Living the Teachings

Ahalya Chari is an educator whose career has spanned 65 years. She was the force behind numerous schools, colleges and several institutions in India, including the Central Institute of Education, the National Institute of Education, the Regional College of Education, and Krishnamurti Schools for many decades. Ms. Chari’s extraordinary career in the field of education has also been an inner-journey through the many meanings of life.

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 India headquarters of the Krishnamurti Foundation in Chennai. As the day progresses she meets people from different walks of life who come seeking her guidance. Certain days she prefers quiet solitude for reading and listening to music. Ahalya Chari is not new to appreciating the value of maintaining a fine balance in life. She has striven for it in all her many years.

Born in Rangoon in1921, Ahalyaji belonged to the third generation of Charis, Tamil Brahmins settled in Burma. Her father was sent from Rangoon to study at the Central Hindu Boys School and College that Dr. Annie Besant had started in Benaras in 1898. After finishing college, he returned to Rangoon to teach at the Theosophical Society that had sponsored him and where he would go on to serve as headmaster. Ahalyaji’s mother, who married at sixteen, completed her studies after marrying and raising children.

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 Chari household that prevailed also affirmed integrity, truthfulness, purposeful study and space for affection and goodwill. “It was natural for us to follow, to obey and not to question the generation that laid down the law,” Ahalyaji told me. After moving to her father’s school in Grade VIII, Ahalyaji came into contact with the universal culture that the Theosophists believed in. “Unconsciously, we were brought up in a way that is today called a secular atmosphere. We believed that people of all faiths, and all nations should live together.” Despite a secular conditioning, Ahalyaji and her friends had no political consciousness. “We were not conscious that we were Indians living in Burma ruled by the British or that we were slaves of an empire!”

Growing up in the early 20th century Rangoon had its share of fun moments. “I remember the first time I heard the radio…..The first voice that came out of the radio was that of the King Edward VIII abdicating his throne for wanting to marry the woman he loved. And we all sat listening to his speech. I heard my father feeling glad at the end that England had stood by its principles . But I was saddened that someone had to do this. But I could not raise my voice or any questions.”

With new technologies making their way from the West to the colonies, the young in early 20th century Burma witnessed a life no different than across the ocean. Young Ahalyaji and her aunt would go out to watch silent movies like Charlie Chaplin films. But in a movie called Shirley Temple Curly Tops, a young girl on the screen started speaking. The awestruck audience got up and started clapping when they heard her speak on the screen. That was the first transition from a silent movie to the one that talked.

And there were also excursions to the countryside and to several Buddhist temples, or Pagodas as they are called in Burma. “We used to light candles, sit down quietly and pretend to meditate”.

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 Rangoon. A strange, half- naked man with a broad smile shocked her young eyes. After his speech, for some unkown reason, many of the women took out their bangles and their ornaments to give the old man, who was holding out a piece of cloth. To Ahalyaji’s utter disbelief even her mother put in some money! That was Mahatma Gandhi, Ahalyaji reminisces. ‘On our way back home, I asked my mother who this poor Gandhi thatha (grandfather) was and why did women give him so much money’. My mother explained that India was a colony of the British and it was struggling for freedom. Upset, I asked my mother ‘why must the British leave? ….’they are so nice and I don’t want my teachers to leave.’

At the University of Rangoon, Ms. Chari studied English with History as an ancillary. Some unrest in India had already penetrated into the minds of youth, even in Rangoon. She recalls Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit to the University, where he spoke to a captivated audience. She participated in several debates on non-political subjects like co-education, social reform set with other fiery students. Among these was Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, who was two years’, her senior.

In 1941, just after she had finished her bachelors, the Third war came also to the East. The Japanese were threatening to invade Burma. Despite, months of preparation, when incendiary bombs fell on homes, no one knew what to do but run. The Chari family spent the next four months running from one place to the other in the interiors of Burma, moving by train, cart and even walking. “We never took life for granted after those years on the run.”

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 Calcutta. And from there they went to Benaras which was the only place in India they knew.

After shifting to India, Ahalyaji’s subsequent years appear well planned and laid out in retrospect, but as she says now, “I just flowed with life. I never planned or applied for a single job or position.” In Benaras Ms. Chari finished her masters at Benaras Hindu University. Soon after she was offered a job as Lecturer at Vasanta College for Women.*

Ms. Chari had grown up seeing Mrs. Besant’s photo on the mantle piece at her family home in Rangoon but recognized Mrs. Besant’s extraordinary life and contribution to Indian education after working as an educator. Ahalya ji says, “She wanted to give a spiritual regeneration to the country through education and wanted the Indian spirit to be uppermost in our schools; which for her meant being not westernized but learning English, being open and liberal and learning Sanskrit and ancient Indian philosophy, history, and deep rooted Indian traditions of no competition and no fear...” Her job here was an excellent beginning for a teacher who was to discover the teaching was indeed her calling.

The waves of progressive education in the west and corresponding developments in India made way to Vasanta College. The college laid emphasis on universal mind and values and as for as possible no competition. For Ms. Chari, her time in Benaras was a very special period in her life’s journey when she absorbed influences from various concurrent academic, spiritual, progressive and cultural movements happening in the1940’s. Ahalya Chari served Vasanta College for ten years making most of her time as an educator- teacher, house parent to grow intellectually and spiritually.

Amongst other interesting colleagues and friends, Ms. Chari met at Vasanta College was a man who influenced her profoundly. Young Ahalya had grown up seeing his photograph on the mantelpiece of her house alongside Mrs. Besant’s. By now, away from the tutelage of Theosophical Society, J. Krishnamurti had taken the world by a storm.

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.

India between 1942-48 was unfortunately in great turmoil and she and her colleagues were inwardly challenged by a wave of Indian nationalism that surged around them. Ahalyaji remembers listening with rapt attention to the stalwarts of the times: Gandhiji, Jawaharlal, Sarojini Naidu, Sardar Patel and so on and getting emotionally charged. In 1947, she and a few friends were in Delhi to hear the famous 'Tryst with Destiny’ speech of Nehru's on August 15th. It was thrilling to see the tri-colour go up.

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 Benares wondering what freedom was all about.

It was at that point in January 1949 that J.Krishnamurti came back to Benares after the war years. Listening to him for the first time, she was shaken to the roots. 'Can't you see that nationalism is poison?' he asked his audience. "Is not war of any kind evil?” 'And are you not responsible for war? Are you free from violence within you? Are you not like the rest of mankind?' They sounded harsh at first but coming as they did from a source of great sorrow and compassion, the teacher held us in spell, she reminisced. After that there was no turning back. She knew he was the teacher she had yearned for.

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 Delhi in search of new pastures.

Delhi in the fifties and sixties was to see a resurgent India; a new creative wave of life could be discerned in every sphere of life. Nehru's passion for creating a scientific temper within India saw the emergence of many national science laboratories. Maulana Azad as the Education Minister pledged to bring about a new direction to education. It was his vision that helped set up a pioneering institution for the education of teachers. He appointed Prof. Ananthnath Basu who had had his training under Rabindranath Tagore as the head of the new Central Institute of Education in Delhi.

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 India.

In the early 1960s, USAID along with consultants from Columbia University came to the C.I.E for discussion about starting what later came to be the NCERT. Ms. Chari found that to be an exciting venture and became one of the initiators of the National Institute of Education (later NCERT). Ahalyaji recalls how she and her colleagues of that generation had worked hard to set up this institution and dreamt a new dream for India. That was also the time when the Centre and the States could work together exploring possible areas of improvement.

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 Edinburgh University training for a course in applied linguistics. Returning back to India at the NCERT, she started working on mother tongue learning and English learning projects. “I felt that unless reading skills in these two languages were established, there would not be much of an understanding of other subjects later. Reading was never encouraged in our country; the practice was to learn by heart.” With this challenge, Ms. Chari and her team started a reading project. They traveled all over the field before writing books and preparing material. The team came up with reading readiness material for pre-school so that a young mind could get ready for reading.

Around the late 1960s, four regional colleges of education at Bhubaneshwar, Bhopal, Mysore and Ajmer were set up by the government of India where the focus was to train future teachers. Ahalyaji was asked to join the Mysore Regional College of Education as principal.

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 Trivandrum. Such is the variety in our country that schools of this kind have a much larger role to play and indeed even now they do so.

Why then, I asked did she want to give up all this to go to the Rajghat Education Centre at Varanasi at this point in 1973. She paused for a while and answered that the decision came very naturally and was in fact the right one to take at that point of time. She was eager to work with Krishnamurti having listened to him for long decades, having participated in small discussions and having walked with him some way. There were fundamental questions that needed to be addressed and the ambience of the Krishnamurti centre seemed the right place for her to engage in this.

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.

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