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November 15, 2007

Rabindra Sangeet

Ay monihaar aamay nahin shaaje
Roy je kaangal shunno haathe
Aaji Jhoder Raate Tomar
Hridoye chile jege

Roy je kaangal shunno haathe

roy je kaangal shunno haathe dinero sheshe
dai she dekha nishitho raate shoponobeshe

aaloy jaare molino mukhe mouno dekhi
aandhar hole annkhite taar deepti eki
boron mala keje dolai tahanro keshe

dinero beenay je kheen tare chilo hela
jhonkariya othe je taay ratero baila

tondra haara ondhokarer bipulo gane
mondri othe shara aakash ke ahbane
tarar aaloy ke cheye roy nirnimeshe


You, who appear to be empty handed during the day reveal your true nature at night. You seem pale and quiet in the light, what then is this spark I see in your eyes in the dark? There is no music in your being during the day but you produce such wonderful, resonant notes at night..I embrace this true personality of yours and watch it untiringly - that personality which is filled with endless music that echoes in the skies...

I find the allusion to day-night a reference to situations when I am just existing as against being alive. Sure, I do things to get by in this world, things that don't necessarily motivate me. What makes me alive is when I simply am. I enjoy the expression that comes forth then, enjoy the moment. It is like encouraging the yellow in me to grow (find the yellow-stripe story here).

October 12, 2007

Using the cup

I am sitting here thinking about how my period felt before I used the cup and I don't remember much. I guess the system shuts out unpleasant memories quickly! This post is long due and is another attempt at talking about the keeper cup (my attempts at getting folks to use it by gifting them cups hasn't gone anywhere), an amazing product I have been using for almost 2 years now.

Last Jan, I was browsing through Aravinda's articles and I came across one called "Greeting Aunt Flo". She talked about the keeper cup and I looked it up immediately. The website had pictures of a cup with a little stem that you essentially insert in, so the menstrual blood is collected inside your body. The cup essentially acts as a seal, a plug. The principle is different from the rest of the sanitary products for women - pads and tampons, both absorb. The cup, on the other hand collects.

I used various pads as a teenager, always hating the wetness and perpetually in fear of a leak. Pads with wings weren't all that great either. Then came the thin ones, again not very different. It atleast seemed better than using a cloth and washing it each time, the way my mom described her experience. I started using tampons when I started running. I was training for the marathon and did not want to miss runs because of the chaffing caused by a pad. The tampons worked fine, though they made me feel a little dry. Since I had already used tampons, the idea of using the cup didn't seem so different, from the point of inserting something in. So I decided to give it a shot.

After a few attempts, all their instructions of push, twist and tug made perfect sense. It really is a simple process. The only problem here, and a big one at that, is your mental block about the product. I just don't feel the cup. I love not having to deal with wetness, smell, rash, leaks that were so common with the pads. I have run with it, gone swimming with it. In short, its been great with letting me do all the things I want to.

That is one aspect. The other, very important aspect for me is having a product that is reusable. All I need to do is wash the cup with some warm water and soap and reuse. I have been trying to reduce the amount of waste I generate and am really glad finding an alternate to chucking pads and tampons every 4 weeks.

The cup also makes sense from an economic point of view as well. It is supposed to last 10 years (Mines 2 years old and seems fine). It cost me about 30 dollars, I would have spent that much in 4 - 5 months on pads!

For those of you who use tampons, this is a no-brainer. For those using pads, you don't know what you are putting yourself through unless you try the cup! You won't dread your period, infact, you will hardly notice it.

You can buy menstrual cups at:
Keeper Store
Kristas Cups

Great running, bloos!

Four of my running buddies have been running crazy terrains and distances this whole year (Running rim to rim to rim on the Grand Canyon should make you sit up!). They are planning to finish it off with a 100 miler in Bandera, TX this November. This is the longest distance any of them has ever run. The distance by itself is crazy. And Bandera is certainly not a walk in the park - exposed to the elements, rocky, hilly. A challenging run. Sure they are doing it for the challenge, for the fun of running, for being for nature, for living in the now and so on. They are also trying to raise money for some developmental initiatives in India that Asha supports. I draw a lot of inspiration from all of them, to push your limits, to continuously challenge yourself. And none of them are trained athletes, they just picked it up along the way...

Santhosh was one of the first people I met when we moved to Austin. We started talking about having a marathon training program as a fundraiser for Asha and thought we should perhaps train too, else how can we get others to run. And did he look concerned about training for the marathon! Santhosh has this helpless, innocent look that he can turn on at will and he had the bamby-eyed expression all through the meeting. After the Austin marathon, he has been just hooked! Then followed another Austin marathon, Chicago, Rocky Raccoon 50k, Sunmart 50 miler, Big Horn 50 miler, Pikes Peak, Grand Canyon...phew! With his parents around, the 100 miler is sure going to be an interesting one!

After we decided to go ahead with the marathon program, we met Vinod at an AID meeting. He looked very excited about a marathon training program (he had trained with Asha Silicon Valley) in Austin and pretty much took over! A good thing, coz the rest of us had never run such distances before and didn't know what was involved. He spoke to Steve Sisson and got us under the Rogue umbrella. He was the grand old man with lot of running experience, telling us about the illiotibialband and whatnot! I keep hearing that he is the brain behind this year's running schedule, picking the crazy races mentioned above, upping the distances and elevations, pushing everyone to run with no sleep etc :) Not surprised he just took over ;)

Met Ganesh once the program started (he was one of the few people I didn't already know who had registered for the program, many being volunteers, so was curious to meet him). The one thing I remember clearly about our first chat was he said he regularly ran about 10 miles around Town Lake. That was a big deal! (Apparently he also showed up for his first run without his shoes on :)) Its been crazier since the the ultra bug bit him. Running 20 miles in a pair of jeans proves it no?

Gaurav decided to run just after he started volunteering for Asha. He started off saying a half marathon would be good enough and quickly became the A+ around! Wouldn't miss a workout, would do everything as should be done, ask questions of Steve till the latter threatened to saw his leg off! He has to date not been very convinced about upping the distance but does it nonetheless - the 50k quickly turned into a 50 miler and the 100 miler which was not even being considered sometime back is now happening!

All very quirky weird characters yet down-to-earth folk who also want their personal endurance challenges to mean something more. They have a fundraising target of $40,000 for the 400 miles they plan to cover together come November. Read more on their blog to support them...

October 04, 2007

Composting at home

Composting at home
About Daily Dump
Composting experience: it is better to do the right thing wrong

Daily Dump's website

About Daily Dump

Daily Dump is based in Indiranagar, very close to our place and I went there to buy my first composter (I eventually hope to have a cow that can eat my kitchen waste but thats later and I'll stop before some animal-lovers pounce on me for this utilitarian view of a cow!). Poonam Kasturi, a designer, started this initiative. The product that I bought, the Kambha, has three terracotta pots one on top of the other. The pots have tiny holes in the side that are covered with a mesh, to enable air circulation. It is beautiful! Poonam's house, where this is based, was full of kambhas of various designs. I was given a demo, was shown waste in various stages in the kambhas they have in their backyard. They told me about tending to the composter every 3-4 days, to use neem powder for any undesirable life forms, using lemon grass spray for flies etc.

Poonam has made this design along with some students of hers (from the Srishti School of Art where she teaches). The interesting thing is she is open to sharing the design with anyone who wants to take it up. (This is important stuff and makes sense, no IPR and such here please!) Here is what she says on the website:

"We can delve into another tacit knowledge system that has stood the test of time because of reasons that cannot all be articulated - the technology of small production - with terracotta. If I really wanted to enable this existing network and system, I had to design a production and distribution system that I would not eventually control - hence the decision to create an open-source method for knowledge dissemination - of drawings, communication material and business information." Read more

Daily Dump holds demos in residential areas, apartment complexes and schools (get them when they are young!). I think what they are doing is needed in the urban set up today. The entire garbage problem would seem less intimidating if it could be dealt with locally, in a decentralized manner rather than all the trash getting shipped across the city every day! It would be great if apartment complexes are designed with composting pits...we'll probably get there in a few years.

I loved this quote on the Daily Dump website:
“The distinguished systems theorist Russ Ackoff describes a common trap that guides all the work our globalised world tends to do as "doing the wrong thing righter."
"The righter we do the wrong thing," he explains, "the wronger we become. When we make a mistake doing the wrong thing and correct it, we become wronger. When we make a mistake doing the right thing and correct it, we become righter. Therefore, it is better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right. This way we learn and actually get righter. Most of our current problems are, he says, the result of policymakers and managers (and designers) busting a gut to do the wrong thing right.”

Composting experience: : it is better to do the right thing wrong

I naively assumed that we just feed the mud pots our kitchen waste, add some dry leaves and Eureka, we get compost. For the first few weeks, nothing much happened to the kitchen waste. I added the leaves, the neem powder religiously and the waste just dried up inside. You could see dried onion peels, dried banana peels and so on, not that I gazed into my composter that often! Then suddenly, we decided to eat more fruit and indulged in papaya (never liked it as a kid for it looked like a mango and wasnt - felt cheated). We both started devouring a papaya every other day. The peels and seeds went to the composter and they were promptly covered with dry leaves.

Around this time, Sanjeev's mom was visiting us and I was proudly showing off the composter. She wanted to look in and I enthusiastically decided to add more leaves and turn it around. Little did I know what effect the papaya had had. And then I saw them - white creepy crawlies aka maggots. I freaked out, closed the lid and ran to consult google. My dear composter that had been dry so far was suddenly all wet (thanks to the papaya) and housing these creatures. How did they get there? And what do I do now? Most of the links on google had people as squeamish as I was about maggots. I didnt get much help on what I was to do. One suggestion was to put a slice of cheese and all the maggots will come for it. Then pull out the slice and feed it to the chickens! Great! Where am I going to find these chickens now? I sent a help email to Garima and she told me they get maggots too. That was good to hear but I wanted to know what happens to them. According to google, they are fly larva and will eventually fly away.

Common sense finally prevailed and I called Daily Dump. Poonam came on the phone and asked me if the maggots were white or brown/black. When I told her white, she said they were young ones (well, whatever, I dont want them in my pots)! She was a little amused that I had a maggot crisis. She also told me that they are ok and I should look at all the bacteria that work in my stomach etc. That was maybe it was natural. She said someone would come over and fix this. That sort of relaxed me. In the meantime, Sanjeev was enthusiastically turning the waste. He had been wanting to throw in some worms from when we got the composter and was excited to see some life (Too bad I couldnt share the excitement)! A person came the next day and he mixed the kitchen waste with dry leaves, added neem and put it in one of the other empty pots. He said in the initial stage, dry leaves need to be added to counter all the water that comes out. So what we learnt (it took a while to put it in practice)
- add dry leaves regularly
- turn the waste every 2-3 days. Otherwise parts of it, especially in the center, towards the bottom of the pot get very wet. A perfect breeding ground for the maggots (I still dont know how they are born. And no, they dont just come on rotting flesh as some folks told me. We dont eat meat. The maggots just come in our veggie waste)
- as the pot gets about half full, turn it, add more dry leaves if needed and put in a new pot. That way I get to the bottom. Sometimes if you try to turn the waste in the pot, you cant reach all the way to the bottom.

So, initially it is important to keep it dry. Now after the waste was put in a new pot, I checked it after a week and it was bone dry. There were some black dead maggots (haha, little did I know they were only sleeping. They would soon turn into flies!). I just left it that way. When someone from Daily Dump came for another check, he told told me the pot hadnt composted because it was left dry. So at this stage, it was important to keep it wet. He anyway sieved the dry stuff and there was about a kilo or so of compost. But there was a larger quantity (a nice big fat sack!) of dried waste. I could still see some dried peels and such. I wasn’t very enthusiastic about having bags of dried garbage in my balcony. That’s hardly called compost. He told me that we needed to add water to such dry stuff. I nodded vigorously (as I would do the next time he came for a service and repeated the advice) but did not add any water - the composter should know what needs to be done no?

Recently, when I went to Navdanya, I somehow got over my squeamishness and picked up some vermicompost with the worms. I could feel it so much wetter than what we have in our composter. So after I got back, decided to add water to wet the waste. We've done this twice already (once each week) and it does look like something is happening. We still have maggots and flies but am less squeamish about them. How they get there is something I’m just going to leave as one of the things I don’t understand. And probably I don’t need to. If we can manage the composter, so we don’t have too many of maggots and keep the stuff wet enough so it composts, it will be awesome!

Sanjeev had been talking about throwing in some worms into composter since we got it. I dont know if that will work in the pot scenario but will ask Daily Dump for suggestions.

We have been at this experiment for 6 months now and all in all, it feels great not leaving kitchen waste in a plastic bag out in the corridor every morning. Composting at home feels right, though we might take many wrong turns in our experiment. What is important is that we are learning in the process and trying to be responsible for some of the mess we create.

So, if you have a well-ventilated balcony, this is a no-brainer. It smells a little but it’s not bad (unless you haven’t turned the waste in a while) and you get used to it. And no, we haven’t had any cockroaches in the composter as some folks were concerned (only maggots:)).

Composting at home

Just after we moved to Bangalore, we were at Garima's place and she was separating the kitchen waste that she said goes into the composter. Got the contact of the composter people (the group is Daily Dump - what a name! :)) and promptly called them up. We had never composted at home before, so did not know what this entailed. Just wanted to do our bit in trying not to mix plastics and organic waste. In the US, I would sometimes use the recycle bins but not as a rule. I would just have to chuck my garbage and not know what happened to it. But in India, the garbage dumps are plenty and visible too. This sort of pushed us into action. It's easy not to worry about something if you can't see it but if you pass a garbage dump each time you are on the road, it can get to you. It bothers me when I see the people who come to take out our trash - they walk through this stuff, no shoes, no gloves. They sort things out by hand. We are externalizing our lifestyle on them and our surroundings. Anyway, we decided to try it out :)

September 28, 2007


Why Navdanya
Monocultures, distress sales and farmer suicides
What's with biodiverse organic farming?
Green revolution not so green
The 2004 Seed Act
Terminator technology
Bija didi & the seed bank
Panch naja...bara naja
The case of the organic onions
Organic is about building relations - Links between farmers and consumers
Fighting the Neem patent
Uttarakhand is an organic state

Pictures from Navdanya
Navdanya's Website

The 2004 Seed Act

This act is for regulating the quality of seeds that are used in agriculture. However, if it comes into effect (I don't think it is in effect yet), farmers will not be able to breed their own seed or barter. In other words, they will need to purchase certified seeds. The penalty for not obeying this act could be anywhere between Rs 5,000 - Rs 25,000, quite a price for a small farmer.

A majority of the farmers in India use seed that has been bred locally (according to one of Vandana's articles, 80% of all seed in India is saved by farmers). This quality control will result in fewer varieties of grains being grown, indeed a second Green Revolution. Centralized seed production does not work since the seed might not be suited for the local conditions whereas the local seeds have evolved over centuries to soil, climate and pests. Also, this will make the farmer dependent on an external agency for seed.

The Act

A critique

Uttarakhand is an organic state

This was mentioned a few times during our course. It was mentioned by some visiting professors in the same breath as exporting organic. I just looked up their website and it is not clear if the motivation behind this is primarily to export. Nonetheless, it seems great that such an initiative has come from the government. The website talks about the green revolution does not make much sense in the mountains. 500l of water are needed to dissolve 1kg of urea, it says. And follows it up with the following quip: “It is a million dollar question to answer- “what would replace the 1.5 lakh hectare of dry land farm area of finger millet and other course grain in Uttarakhand”.”

The website mentions several crops that have been growing in the region for ages and they seem keen on promoting these which I think is awesome. I have my reservations about an export-driven mentality for that is not ecologically sound, both in times of food miles and because nutrients from a region are just being packed and sent far off. Organic food, I believe is not the prerogative of those who can afford it.

Organic Uttarakhand's website

Fighting the Neem Patent

An American company, W R Grace applied for a patent on the fungicidal product made from the seeds of the Neem tree. The European Patents Office (EPO) granted the patent, which was then contested by three people: Vandana Shiva, Linda Bullard (former president of IFOAM) and Madga Aelvoet (President of Greens in the European Parliament) for biopiracy. Neem leaves, seeds, bark, oil have for centuries been used for their fungicidal properties – the idea about using Neem seeds was based on traditional knowledge and not something the company had come up with. This case was fought for 10 years and the patent was finally revoked.

“W R Grace's patent gives the company exclusive rights to methods of extracting stable chemical compounds for use in pesticides. Yet, Indian villagers have been extracting the tree's chemical for pesticidal uses via similar processes for several centuries. Indian villagers used water and alcohol solvents years ahead of the company's patented processes. Even W R Grace itself acknowledges that India's traditional knowledge inspired the company's patent. This prior use is well documented and should invalidate the patent." Read more

In order to counter such biopiracy, Navdanya has started Jaiv Panchayats (living democracies) that would document community knowledge, in order to have a sort of library of various traditions and practices. Such a resource would not only help share community knowledge, it would also be useful in fighting cases of biopiracy.

More on the Neem biopiracy case here.

The case of the organic onions

How does Navdanya convince farmers to go organic? Organic usually comes up as the natural solution to farmer problems. Farmers in a particular region in Uttarakhand were having problems in storing their onion. The onions would go bad very soon. Negiji from Navdanya was talking to the farmers about this and he told them the onions would stay longer if they were grown organically. A few farmers were willing to try this out and found the onions had a longer shelf life. This kind of proof of principle helped others to adopt organic methods too. The Navdanya farm attempts to do exactly this – to show farmers that crops grow and grow great without the NPK inputs they have been made to believe are essential.

Organic is about building relations - Links between farmers and consumers

Vandana Shiva spoke about the importance of creating linkages between the farmers and the consumers, in a scenario where Reliance is entering retail sector in a major way. It makes a lot of sense, to know where your food is being grown, to have a sense of attachment to the land that is producing your food because somewhere, there is a piece of land that is producing for you. It takes away the facelessness of a huge super market and I think automatically one starts to care. Navdanya currently purchases produce from about 10,000 farmers and sells it to the urban market in mostly around New Delhi. They have a store in Dehradun and are planning to open one in Mumbai.

How much do the farmers get paid? The farmers are paid 10% more than the market price. The produce is picked up at their farm, so this saves them another 10% in travel since in the typical scenario, the farmer has to truck all the produce and bear the expenses. So in all they make 20% more than they would have. Navdanya sells the produce at another 20% hike to cover their costs of travel, storage etc.

Is the food organic? The farmer members of Navdanya pledge to cultivate crops in an organic way. So, yes, it is organic. However, to get the organic certification is expensive. Till very recently, the European certification cost about Rs. 20,000 per farm per year. This is very expensive. So Navdanya used to group many farms together and get them a collective organic certificate and pay for it. Recently, the Uttarakhand state has started a certification agency whose certificate is valid in Europe too. This costs a little less: Rs. 2000 per day and the certification requires 2 visits and 1 surprise visit, ie, Rs 6000 per farm. I don’t think all their farmers are certified organic.

You can check here for information about their stores.

Panch Naja ... Bara Naja

This is a traditional method of growing crops wherein 5,7,9 or 12 varieties (I think any number is ok, they somehow mentioned these:)) are planted together. It is a mixture of rice, maize, millets, daals and oil seeds. Apparently people in the mountains have small pieces of land and they grow crops in this fashion since it provides them with the different food items they need. It makes sense in the face of today’s volatile market to diversify. In case, the price of one of the items falls, the farmer does not go broke as he or she would if they were growing a single crop. With this kind of diversity, they also eat well. The plants are not all competing for the same nutrients and they complement each other in what they draw out of the soil. Pests don’t turn into epidemics since they do easily encounter another plant that they are infesting. The harvesting time of each crop is different, though they are sown at the same time. So the harvesting work is sort of spread out. This is good way to improve the fertility of the soil within a year. What would usually take about 3 years can be done in 1 since the plants support each other.

Too many positive aspects. There must be some problem with this set up, no? Well, harvesters will not work in this kind of a set up. And who needs harvesters on a small farm anyway. Small is beautiful, what else can I say! :)

Bija didi & the Seed Bank

Navdanya has a seed bank on the farm. In fact, Navdanya started off as a seed bank. Vandana started Navdanya to conserve indigenous seeds. Today they have 34 seed banks across the country. During my visit to Navdanya, 400 varieties of rice were being grown on about 3m X 3m plots. These will be used to replenish their seed bank. The seed bank provides seeds to farmers free of cost, with the condition that they will employ orgaqnic methods of farming and return 1.25 times the quantity they took from their harvest. They encourage farmers to save seeds from their own harvest as they used to do earlier.

I met Bija did who works in the seed bank and has been with Navdanya for 14 years now. She is an unassuming woman in her 50s who talks with a lot of enthusiasm while she is working. The first time I met her she was removing corn from the cob, both for the next season and to make corn flour. The next time, we removed seeds from Bhindi (okra). She comes from a farming family (though she doesn’t have land anymore) and they always saved seeds for the next sowing season. At Navdanya, she is the seed keeper. She selects the best seeds and keeps them aside for the next crop and to give to farmers. That she is a seed keeper and her name Bija also means seed is one of those coincidences! She told me about different kinds of vegetables and grains, most of which I could not recognize (I would like to think it was because I couldn’t tell from their Hindi name but I am sure I have never seen them…). She told us how today, people don’t want to go through the process of saving seeds, she was talking about vegetables in particular, because you could buy a packet of seeds in the market. No one ever sold seeds when she was growing up. She remembers people coming to their farm to get seeds of a particular variety of rice that they used to grow. That’s how it was done, she said. She has planted different kinds of vegetables in Navdanya, some of which have come up well.

She was very clear on not using chemicals in farming. She said when a mother who is breast-feeding her baby eats spinach; the baby’s poop is green in colour. So what do you think is entering your system when you drink milk from a cow that has been eating fodder sprayed with all kinds of chemicals?!

Bija didi was given the Slow Food Award for her contribution in biodiversity conservation. Read more here.

Terminator Technology

The seeds from the green revolution could be used in the next few seasons but the yield would progressively go down. So the farmers had to purchase new seeds every few seasons. The current technology being used is one wherein the seed from a crop cannot be reused again. The seeds are sterile. This is a terminator technology that is being employed to ensure that farmers keep coming back every season to buy seed. Here is an excerpt from Vandana’s writings:

“When we plant a seed there's a very simple prayer that every peasant in India says: "Let the seed be exhaustless, let it never get exhausted, let it bring forth seed next year." Farmers have such pride in saying "this is the tenth generation seeds that I'm planting," "this is the fifth generation seed that I'm planting." Just the other day I had a seed exchange fair in my valley and a farmer brought Basmati aromatic rice seed and he said "this is five generations we've been planting this in our family". So far human beings have treated it as their duty to save seed and ensure its continuity. But that prayer to let the seed be exhaustless seems to be changing into the prayer, "let this seed get terminated so that I can make profits every year" which is the prayer that Monsanto is speaking through the terminator technology -- a technology whose aim is merely to prevent seed from germinating so that they don't have to spend on policing.”

Green Revolution Not So Green

The green revolution in India and other places is hailed as a success story. Vandana Shiva argues that the farmer suicides we are so alarmed by today are but a natural consequence of the green revolution. The green revolution focused on increasing the yield of rice and wheat and in the process created vast monocultures that are not sustainable. The seeds developed during this time and known as the HYVs (High Yielding Varieties) are in actuality, HRVs (High Response Varieties) that perform well when supplied chemicals and water. In the absence of these inputs, these seeds perform much worse than the indigenous ones. Farming was a mixed affair till the monoculture way of thinking gained prominence. This has led to loss of soil fertility, excessive use of water, high input costs and farmer suicides.

The varieties developed were such that most of the energy taken in by the plant was converted into grain. Subsequently the biomass (straw) that is used on the farm for fodder, fuel, compost goes down. Dwarf varieties of rice and wheat are characteristic of the green revolution. Nitrogen from compost and biomass that is used by plants is released slowly whereas when one uses urea, a lot of nitrogen is suddenly available. This leads to plants absorbing high quantities of nutrients. So what happened was plants grew very tall with heavy grain heads. They were unstable since they were tall and had a heavy top – this led to lodging, ie, falling over. To address this problem, dwarf varieties of rice and wheat were created.

With a decrease in the quantity of straw, feeding livestock becomes a challenge. Then land is dedicated to growing fodder. Since the HYV/HRVs were dependent on extensive irrigation, systems had to be put in place to ensure water supply. Today, in many places we find that groundwater has been exploited. Dinesh (from Timbaktu) pointed out how such water thirsty crops have played a big role in the construction of large dams - another externalized cost that we never talk about. Do we really want a second Green Revolution?

Read more here.

Whats with Biodiverse Organic Farming?

Organic has come to mean many things. Whole Foods stocks organic strawberries. Well, they are organic in that they haven’t been sprayed with chemicals. But how have these strawberries been grown? More often than not, on large monoculture farms in California. That’s organic, isn’t it? Yes, in terms of the being synthetic chemical free. But one needs to question where the organic compost, mulch etc is coming from. The minute a farm is huge and mechanized, it becomes difficult to prepare these on the farm. The farm is still dependant on external inputs, which are perhaps being shipped thousands of miles. So is this model really sustainable?

Navdanya argues for biodiverse organic farming. Monocultures extract specific nutrients from the soil whereas if you have a diverse variety of plants, they all complement each other. In case of a pest attack, in a monoculture farm, the pest can easily travel from one plant to the next since they are all of the same type and develop into an epidemic (which is what happened to the monocultures the Green Revolution promoted). On a biodiverse farm, this would not happen easily. The other plants provide a kind of fence.

From the perspective of a small farmer, growing one kind of crop makes her vulnerable to market prices since she might not need all that she has grown. So she tries to sell her grain and buy everything else she needs. In the case of biodiverse farming, a variety of seeds are planted: rice, corn, millets, lentils, and oil seeds. These provide the farmer with their basic requirements and the rest can be sold in the market. A person in the audience asked Vandana if through such a model we would be able to feed everyone in the country. Vandana explained that the notion of yield has come about to mean yield of single crops. Today, post the green revolution, we all eat rice and wheat. Everything else has been wiped off many fields. The above model would ensure we eat a diverse healthy meal, while taking care of the environment and the farmer. In short, the above model does not imply lesser food but a more diverse food basket. Sure, it might mean lesser rice and wheat but for the better!

Navdanya also believes that farmers should be able to generate all the inputs they need on their land. The seeds that were encouraged during the green revolution and the GE seeds now, all require many inputs in terms of water, pesticide, fertilizer etc. This has led to an increased cost for the farmer with the promised yields not always materializing or with a loss in a volatile market. Hence they focus on being self-reliant wrt the inputs. They encourage farmers to generate the biomass needed for their plants on their farms, grow plants and trees (like neem, vitex, onion, garlic, turmeric) that can be used in case of an attack by pests and breed their own seeds since this reduces their dependency on external sources. They make compost using a few different methods: vermicompost, pit method, heap method and another method, I forget its name. The important thing for all this is to have livestock on the farm (So much for bullshit…).

Monocultures, Distress Sales and Farmer Suicides

The farmer suicides that have sadly become commonplace in our villages have been documented in some regions by journalists, P. Sainath and Jaideep Hardikar. Everywhere, farmers have been adversely affected by the increasing costs of inputs, fluctuating crop prices and everywhere, we find monocultures. What can a farmer do when the only thing growing on hes or his land is cotton? The farmer is pretty much at the mercy of the market leading to distress sales of crop. The buffer that biodiversity provides is lost in this culture of monocultures. Navdanya champions for biodiverse organic farming for many reasons: it is ecologically sound, a good economic model for the farmer and brings diverse nutrients into our diet that has been reduced in most part to wheat and rice.

Read more about farmer suicides in India:

Why Navdanya

I had heard of Vandana Shiva before I heard of Navdanya. I was watching the movie ‘The Corporation’ and it had some snippets of an interview with her. She put across her point about empowering communities very powerfully, about farmers saving their own seeds and thus breaking a cycle of exploitative dependence on corporations. Later, I read many of her essays on the importance of biodiversity, the current dominant paradigm in our society of a monoculture of the mind while working on a paper on sustainable development. Her writings on seed sovereignty, biodiversity, monocultures, and empowerment of communities made a lot of sense to me. I watched another video of hers wherein the interviewer asked her if she supported communism since she so strongly criticized capitalism, corporations etc. To which she responded saying one needs to look beyond capitalism and communism since both are heavily centralized systems. The corporations call the shots in one instance and the state in the other. I am talking about the participation of communities and their empowerment. Very interesting….

A few months back, I was looking through Navdanya’s website when I found a link to courses they offer. I decided to attend the one that talks about what organic is, the importance of biodiversity. So there I was, on the Jan Shatabdi (the cheaper, faster train) to Dehradun...

September 03, 2007

Articles on this blog:
Travelogue Running Rambling
In search of home-base
The Thulir Experience
Timbaktu Collective
Sita School, Vishram
50k in Sunmart - Ani
My first Ultra-Marathon - Sanjeev
Trail Running
Warda: My second marathon in back-to-back weekends - Sanjeev
Bandera and the 43 mile weekend - Sanjeev
Reminiscences of Chicago Training - Ani
Rabindra Sangeet

Education at Timbaktu

Timbaktu is currently running two schools in CK Palli – Prakruti Badi (Nature School) in the village and Timbaktu Badi in Timbaktu. Both schools employ child-centric learning methods. Academics are part of the morning routine. Afternoons are devoted to arts and crafts. Across the road from Prakruti Badi is the Child Resource Center. The resource center has among other things a library, computers, carpentry equipment, and equipment for science experiments.

I first visited Timbaktu in May. The children had summer holidays and the teachers from both schools were undergoing a sort of teacher training. They were planning curriculum, exchanging ideas. I sat through one session that Bablu was moderating on the teacher-student relationship.

Timbaktu Badi (Timbaktu School)

Timbaktu Badi is a residential school in Timbaktu. There are about 60 children; the youngest ones aged about 7 years (Since they want children to be able to do all their chores themselves). The school teaches children upto Std 7. After that they can attend the Prakruti Badi that goes on till Std 10, while staying at Timbaktu if needed.

The children in Timbaktu Badi mostly come from financially poor families, or have no parents or have parents are not in a position to take care of them. Children of people who live in Timbaktu or work in Timbaktu also go to school there. The families are charged a nominal fee of Rs. 20 (if I remember right) per month. This money is placed in an account for the child and will be given to him/her upon their completion of Std 10 to help them with their future plans.

The children live in a dorm, with 2 large rooms for the girls and 2 for the boys. The building has a nice corridor running inside where children read etc. One of the outer walls of the dorm was painted by the kids – its just amazing to see all that vibrant colour. Their classrooms are thatched structures that are pretty much open on all sides, except for the wall with the blackboard and the parapet wall that runs around – very pleasant due to the cross ventilation. There was also a nice, tiny room that the children said was for a little class or when someone wants to read. We later found out that this room was built when Anu, an architect who now has a resource center for children, Thulir, in Sittilingi had visited Timbaktu. The children wanted to learn some construction and they all built this! As Ramudu, one of the senior children there said, we learn something from everyone who visits us or we teach them something! :)

I spoke to some of the teachers about how they like it here. A few of them had taught elsewhere before and love it at Timbaktu. A lot of formalities are done away with and teachers are also learning with the kids. The children share a wonderful rapport with their teachers. I could not find the fear of school or teachers in any of them. I was chatting with Subba, who coordinates the education program there, and he narrated an incident about how the children are confident about getting along in life. Some students (I forget from where) were trying to gauge the impact of the education on the Timbaktu kids. Their concerns about future careers etc. Apparently they found some children saying not only would they have their own endeavor going, they would also provide employment to others! And they have some wonderful examples in the older children. One of the boys is really good with electrical circuitry, setting up solar panels etc and has been doing this kind of work for a few people while pursuing his own studies. Another, studying for his Bachelors degree, was training the younger children in making pen stands out of bamboo. He also talked about doing a course on screen printing. Another is currently working as a systems engineer in Bangalore. Their optimism was very infectious.

The children tend to the kitchen garden, and the chickens and goats that are reared in Timbaktu. The vegetables are used in the kitchen and a corresponding amount is added to the children’s accounts. I think it is awesome that such activities of primary production are part of their daily lives. That way one does not grow up alienated from these activities, that are not only important but also very much a part of village life.

Every Sunday evening the children have some cultural programs. Since Sanjeev, Krishna and I would be leaving by Sunday evening, they had it on Saturday. They had recently put up a cultural show at Timbaktu’s Annual Paryavarana Parasa (on June 5, World Environment Day) and did a nice chakka bhajana and sang many songs. I specifically remember two songs: Rela rela rela and Timbaktu Badi Pillalam (we are kids from Timbaktu badi) that they sang over and over again! :) It was very nice.

Prakruti Badi (Nature School)

I spent a day at Prakruti Badi, the Telugu-medium school Timbaktu runs in CK Palli. I got to the school with Kalyani, one of the teachers there and her son Prithvi, who studies there. The day started with an assembly. The children sang some songs and then moved to their classrooms. I sat with the young ones first. Kalyani was taking the class and we all sat in a circle and the children were asked to introduce themselves. Most of them were in this school the previous year and happily chattered away. A couple of new students simply refused to talk initially and they warmed up in a few minutes.

The next class I sat in was an English class for 7-9 year olds. There were 6 children and they were learning some new words. After that class, I just sat on there and the next teacher saw me with the kids and assuming I could handle them, went to run an errand (school had just started and he had to get some admin task done). The kids were initially very excited about singing and dancing. They did all that and soon lost interest. I tried to teach them “If you are happy and you know it, clap your hands”. Two minutes and they said this is boring, something in Telugu please. A window of opportunity of about a minute for me to come up with something fun and then they went on with their stuff. One of them was swinging from the roof, two were busy in a fight and two more were singing I think. The last one was quizzing me about my short haircut despite being a girl! I was quit lost, didn’t know what to do with the kids and was hoping none of the teachers would pop in now. It was quite an experience and I think I am more appreciative about what a teacher has to deal with! I decided that in the future, I would go with something interesting for the kids. It was time for the next class – Telugu. I sat for sometime. They wrote down some words, then read a story from their book. Some of the kids seemed to have read it already and were very keen to do that again. The teacher made sure everyone got their chance.

It was soon time for lunch. We all sat down and some of the kids were serving us. The food was wholesome – rice, sambar, buttermilk and rasam. That day there was also payasam since one of the teachers had just become a parent.

Afternoon time was arts time. One group had been taught cartooning by a student who interned at Timbaktu for about a month. They spent the afternoon finishing up their cartoon stories. The group I was with was creating 1 cm square grids on paper that would later be used to make maps. That afternoon, children took some time to draw the grids, ie, mark the paper with a ruler etc. They then started created patterns of the squares, coloring them.

They spent about 2 hours doing these activities and then it was play time. All kinds of games were being played. I then spent some time in the teachers’ room in the afternoon. A couple of new students were to be admitted and their parents / guardians had come. The children were given some questions in Telugu and Math (I don’t remember if other subjects were also part of the questions). While they were working on the questions, Kalyani, who has been teaching at Timbaktu for over 10 years now was interviewing the parents / guardians. The details of both parents were taken: name, occupation, whether they were members of Timbaktu (for the women specifically since Timbaktu has a women’s collective). Kalyani enquired about the childrens’ interests and what, if any, kind of work they (the children) did at home. The parents/guardians were informed that they were expected to participate in the progress of their child/ward (I think they are expected to meet the teachers once a month). They were informed that Prakruti Badi is not a government recognized school, so they will not be able to provide a TC if the child wants to transfer. The children however take the state board exams for Classes VII and X, so those are results they can use to gain entrance to schools/colleges. Kalyani looked at how the children had tackled the questions to gauge their understanding. She explained to their parents/guardians what areas needed more work etc. They were charged a nominal fee (I think Rs.20 a month or in that range) that is put aside for the children. They get the entire sum back once they write their Class X exams.

The interviews took about 30-40 minutes and then I headed to Timbaktu with some others.

Children's Resource Center

Timbaktu's Children's Resource Center (CRC) is in CK Palli, across the road from Prakruti Badi. It has two high-roofed, well-ventilated rooms and a verandah. One of the rooms is a library. It is very well equipped with different kinds of books in Telugu and English. There are a few desks and chairs and the few times I was there, there were about 5-6 kids reading. Many of these books belong to Subba, who decided to put them there since he believes they would be best used in a library. He suggested I read Totto-Chan and it is an amazing book (More about it here). Children can borrow books – they need to enter it in the register and a lady who works at the CRC keeps track of the books.

The other room has a few computers, material for arts and crafts and science experiments. The verandah is the base for activities like carpentry and sewing, both of which were going on then. The carpentry unit is pretty cool. They were, at that time, making pen stands for an order they had received. About 5 children, Ramudu and two others were involved in the process. The bamboo was first cut, then scraped clean with sandpaper, then burnt to get the darkish shade in, then painted on, and finally varnished. The kids with more experience were patiently explaining what needed to be done to the ones new to this. And all the new ones, myself included, started off with scraping the bamboo. I had a lot of fun with the children, scraping the bamboo clean and then painting on it. They also make these neat chairs with bamboo (Ive also seen them with regular wood). It is a very low chair, essentially just two planes made from bamboo that are connected at a point and the chair has no legs, it rests on the ends of these planes. Well, I sure this is not a great description but the chairs are pretty cool. Some of the older children from Thulir, a resource center for children in Sittilingi, had spent time at Timbaktu to learn carpentry. The chair was a hit in Sittilingi :).

Back to Timbaktu…sewing classes were being held in the summer. There were about 10 – 12 children learning. There was one boy and the rest were girls. In carpentry, all were boys. I asked Ramudu about the gendered interest in arts and crafts. He said all the children are exposed to all kinds of arts and crafts. No one is forced to take up something based on his or her sex. Children are free to work on what interests them. He mentioned some girls were really good at carpentry and they were not around now since it was summer holidays. Fair enough though I think the conditioning that goes on at home and in the community does influence what kinds of activities children choose to work on. If people want such a change, I think it will happen slowly and organically :).

They do some clay work as well. I was shown some artwork of the children. Some of the younger ones who showed up at the resource center were working with clay. Ramudu showed them how to sieve sand and add it to the clay and they started making beads.

The CRC is a great place for children to come and learn something, read books and just have a nice time – its their space. This is the basis for the WAH proposal from Timbaktu to create resource centers in some of the villages they work in.

August 22, 2007

Sita School, Vishram

At Sita School
Jane Sahi's talk on Dialogue
Roshan Sahi's Blog

Layers of Dialogue

I think that sometimes we are drawn to a topic that we do not necessarily have the answers to or that we have resolved but that somehow continues to jolt us back to essential unanswered questions – questions that won’t go away! A reflection about dialogue raises some of the key issues about learning and teaching and touches us both personally and in the broader debate about what makes an effective and possible school.

It is a vast topic and could be explored in a number of ways and so in this short talk I would just like to raise some of the questions that I have been thinking about in relation to the place of dialogue in my own reflections about working in a non-formal school and to the particular question of how we perceive our role in bringing about change.

There is a Telegu folk story called A Story in Search of an Audience that captures the mutuality of the storyteller, the story itself and the attentive listener. The story tells of a woman on a festival day who longs to share not only the special sweet dish that she has prepared but also the story that inspired the celebration itself. Her own family are far too busy to spend time listening to stories when they want to get on with their work and neighbours are also impatient at the idea of wasting valuable time . The woman searched on the highways and byways asking everyone she met to listen to her story. At last she finds a pregnant woman who struggles to make a living by selling salt. This poor woman agrees to listen to the story but first asks for a bowl of payasam.

The woman soon falls heavily asleep but the woman is surprised by the voice of the unborn child who asks to be told the story. The tale changes the destiny of the same child who is born some months later and the lullaby that the old woman sang as a blessing comes true. Wherever the daughter of the salt seller went cotton seeds turned to pearls, poor villages began to prosper, dry trees bore fruits, lost jewels were found and dead men came to life.

This could be understood as one essential aspect of dialogue where there is an independence and also an interdependence between the different elements. In some ways the person or organization who is seeking to change, improve existing structures could be compared to the storyteller looking for a receptive audience.

In the last two or three years I have been involved in a small programme here in Chamrajnagar District in thinking about how art could be integrated into the curriculum of Government Schools. The idea was to think in what ways art could be for all the children rather than thinking of art as an extra curriculum subject that was done occasionally by a few talented children.

I have not been so involved in directly implementing the programme but more in the background . The question is in what way has this been a process of dialogue .This is part of a larger question as to how far can we assess any of our efforts to improve or change quality in school as dialogue ? What are the layers of dialogue involved when we think about change in schools ?

Towards a definition of dialogue

Dialogue has been understood in different ways so it is important to begin by clarifying in what sense I am using it. The word dialogue comes from two Greek words - dia meaning ‘ through’ or ‘breakthrough’ and ‘logos’ which is translated as ‘word’ or ‘meaning’ . It gives the sense of a movement and growth towards a greater understanding or unfolding – the creation of a whole picture. It also conveys the notion of a relationship and collaboration.

The everyday, familiar definition of the word dialogue would be a conversation between two people – but dialogue in the sense I am using it has many more layers of meaning. It might include a conversation between two people but it might also mean a response to a text, a story, an image or piece of music, a consideration of a theory, a response to nature or the environment, our connections to our past and it might even be a time of shared silence between two or more people. It is the quality of the encounter that is crucial.

Further every conversation between two people might not be classified as dialogue – or dialogue in its fullest sense. The word ‘discussion. comes from a very different root word ‘cuss’ which means to break apart or to analyse . Dialogue could be understood as moving from the parts to the whole and in contrast discussion could be defined as moving from the whole to the parts or even breaking into fragments. Dialogue is qualatively different from empathy or sympathy and implies a meeting in the space between people but without surrendering one’s sense of integrity .

Monologue in the negative sense implies a lack of relationship because it excludes listening of any kind . The ‘other’ becomes a target or object of word, action or gesture. In education this is when the teacher becomes a propagandist or manipulating the other for his own ends or when the would be reformer forces change regardless of what others need, want or understand.

In a practical way there was a real challenge when I was asked to be involved along with three others, in the art in education programme in Chamrajnagar. First it has to be said that the suggestion of introducing art activities in school did not come from within the community or the school staff . It was perceived as a need from those outside who had the means to carry the project through. There was a question that needed to be addressed but the question was coming from a source other than those directly involved.

A preliminary visit to some of the Government schools did nothing to allay our fears that this project was somehow being generated from outside. There was very little evidence of art work of any kind done by children in the Government schools with the exception of one school in Chamrajnagar itself which under the influence of NIAS staff had done some origami work.

There was also not much interest on the part of the teachers and so it was not easy to identify activities within the school that we could build on. A sense of diffidence was expressed by the teachers – for example one teacher remarked – "If I can’t draw how can I expect the children to draw?

Most teachers thought that only professional artists could support children’s art and that the pictures on the wall should be done by professionals. The hesitation of teachers about encouraging art activities seemed to be connected with the sense that the product is all important and that the process is not part of learning experience.

It became clear that there were real differences in perceptions about
the nature of art,
about teaching and learning ,
and what was in need of change
and these were all interconnected.

Where were these differences coming from ? There is a tendency for the person who takes on the role of reformer to assume that he or she is in a position of knowing what is good for others and is therefore only required to find the most efficient way of communicating answers and ensuring the solutions are put into practice. Experiential learning and the hands-on, discovery method need to be built into the training itself if different methods of pedagogy are going to take root.

But the fact is that even when we think that we are being most practical, focussed on the particular we communicate a stance about our basic attitudes because it inevitably reflects a larger framework that has conditioned us in positive and negative ways.

We cannot imagine that we are neutral - cultural, historical economic, political and personal factors make up our world view and affect the way we shape a curriculum – what we consider is worth teaching and the method we choose to impart it.

To imagine that we can be objective, neutral and unaffected by the outer situation would mean the folly of the inexperienced traveller who journeyed for the first time on a three tiered night train. He boarded the first train that came into the station of Nagpur without enquiring which direction it was gong in. Then, in his habitual friendly way asked a fellow passenger where he was going and was told Chennai. Our traveller declared that he was going to Delhi and then marvelled aloud at the wonders of modern technology that allowed people within the same compartment to travel to different destinations depending on which tier they were booked ! We are in fact sometimes on different tracks!

Soon after this first visit we were asked to do a baseline study. This would have provided a kind of a yardstick to show what we had found on arrival and what we had achieved over a period of time in realizing our stated goals and objectives. Initially I was rather quick to make a judgement that art had little place in the school or in the lives of the children. I looked on the walls for evidence and found almost nothing done by children and concluded that this meant art was not there.

An incident intervened that dissuaded us from carrying out such a study. Roshan conducted a short workshop with the children of one of the Ashram schools. He had taken the children for a walk and asked them to collect things that they particularly noticed . The children then returned to the school and together they made an elaborate design of stones, leaves, sticks and clay . The children’s capacity to transform natural materials into a work of art not only reflected their own creativity but also the community’s sensitivity and relationship to the natural environment and sense of the sacredness of things. Similarly we became aware of a vibrant, traditional dance form that was popular in some of the communities of Chamrajnagar District.

It became apparent that some of the aspects of art that we were concerned with were already there within the community – a sensitivity towards natural materials, crafts in house building, basket making and skills in farming were a necessary part of life. Were there aspects of the Lambani and Soligar way of life , their usage of materials, their crafts and sensitivity to the environment that could be valued in the school?

More problematic was to see where art could in anyway be part of learning within the school. The teachers we met and spoke to seemed to find it easier to appreciate the need to acquire skills and learn techniques but art as a form of expression or as a means of communication or a way of thinking and learning and as an evolving process related to a child’s development did not appear to be important.

We realized that it might be unreasonable to expect a free approach to art when other subjects are taught in prescribed ways. For example within the school children are not usually expected to write poems or stories of their own nor are they given much scope for exploring and experimenting with materials in a science lesson. Dance and drama are also directed and the idea of children expressing themselves through these media would not be given much support.

The lack of relationship to the immediate environment and the fact that it is not used as a resource to draw on either in terms of materials or in terms of experience is again only part of a larger context of not engaging closely with the immediate surroundings and children’s every day experiences. In one class we noticed second standard children were writing the names of the days of the week but when asked which day it was they were unable to say. In one school for Solighar children the class we asked what birds they had seen – the teacher prompted the class by asking what was the national bird to which they readily answered “Peacock.”

Bruner in his essay, The Language of Education describes two distinct kinds of teaching – transmission and transactional which might be another way of talking about the differences between monologue and dialogue. Monologue excludes an active participation on the part of the listener and is neither a discussion nor a dialogue. It is typical of the teacher who expects conformity where the pupil becomes passive and subservient and accepts uncritically and mechanically information given.

He proposes that there is a need to accept a level of uncertainty, wonder and questioning if the teaching is not to become dogmatic and if a culture is going to evolve and not stagnate or decay.

The teacher who remarked that she could not teach because she herself was unsure was not surprising. Teaching is most clearly recognized when it is in the form of direct instruction and the child is an empty vessel to be filled. This raises the question how to enter into a dialogue where several very different viewpoints are at work. On the one hand there is an understanding that the teacher should be in a position to instruct children what to do, how to improve and how to reach a certain standard of perfection and on the other hand a method was being advocated to encourage children to discover their own means of expression and to allow children to explore the materials in their own particular way. This means among other things to recognize that to make mistakes is an inevitable and necessary part of the process. and that the teacher is not in control in the way that he or she is maybe accustomed to being.

Are these two views inevitably opposed to each other?

The relation between teacher and pupil has elements of dialogue but it is an asymmetrical relationship in the sense that it is neither an equal relationship nor one of friendship. The teacher tries to include the students perspective and to understand the relationship from two points of view but the teacher has an openness that makes the meeting a negotiable one. Inclusion is different from interference. In other words we expect that the teacher should try to understand the child’s context but we do not expect the child to understand the teacher’s perspective.

Martin Buber, (the modern Jewish Existentialist thinker) compares the teacher pupil relationship to the consistent but detached concern of the doctor or therapist towards a patient.Such a relationship has intimacy and distance but does not get confused with empathy or positive and negative projections. However Buber does not see the relationship wholly as a vertical one and he writes that we can only expect to change someone if we are ourselves are open to being changed.

The teacher who denies a voice to the student – for whatever reason maybe a clash of personality or may stem from a prejudice that labels a child as slow or inadequate - effectively closes the possibility of dialogue. Language, cultural, religious, gender and economic differences as deficits are often reinforced by a teacher or by the text itself in a destructive way. Murali Krishna, a Marathi, Dalit writer speaks in the following way of his school experience :
I was not silent out of choice. I did not like to be silent. In fact I resented it. It was the school that forced me into silence.

There are other patterns of learning that have elements of a dialogical relationship that do not usually come into the school. According to Buddhist teaching there are various ways of teaching or responding to a question and each has its own right place and time. These include direct instruction, silence , the story or metaphor, life itself and analysing the question itself until it no longer is seen as a relevant question. Examples have been handed down to illustrate how the master responds to the student in quite different but appropriate ways.

In the course of the Lord Buddha’s teaching a disciple, Kashyap sought to probe the meaning of Nirvana. He asked many searching questions but remained unsatisfied with the answers Buddha gave. Finally the Lord Buddha showed him a flower and at that moment the disciple was able to move beyond words to a new understanding expressed in a smile. This is one aspect of dialogue where the teacher’s total response enabled him to meet the need of his student.

Yet another disciple asked the master how to attain the wisdom of the Buddha. The master began to polish a brick. The disciple enquired what he was doing and the master replied that he was polishing the brick to make a mirror in order to see his reflection. The disciple was incredulous and remarked that such an exercise would be fruitless and the Master retorted that it would be as helpful as sitting in the lotus posture to attain enlightenment.

In both these examples we see the teacher responding not so much in words but through direct action to meet the needs of the student. Direct instruction is the most common method of teaching in the school situation and is often appropriate . However this sometimes means that other ways of teaching or thinking and learning are not usually encouraged. Traditionally apprenticeship into skills of craftsmanship and survival skills were taught within an often unspoken dialogical process. The dialogue may include not only the relationship between the teacher and the learner but the relationship between the learner and the material and tools themselves which may become the teachers.

Barbara Rogoff broadens our understanding of apprenticeship by referring to it as “guided participation”. The drawing of rangollis or kolams is part of a shared tradition (albeit only among women and girls) as with the learning of dance, when it involves the whole community seems to be an unpressured, gradual assimilation of practice through observation and participation through trial and error.

Teaching in whatever context must meet different children’s capacity, style and pace for learning without under estimating or over estimating the child’s potential for learning. A vivid example of a teacher trying to understand the particular needs of different students is Dr. S. Suzuki, the renowned Japanese music teacher. He describes how he struggled to find the appropriate way to teach a blind student the violin by experimenting in blindfolding himself and thus experiencing directly the sensations of his student. He imaginatively entered into his student’s dilemma in order to find the most appropriate way to support him in becoming independent. It is comparable to the math teacher who, in a spirit of enquiry takes pains to examine how a student came to a wrong answer.

In an apprenticeship there is a shared meaning and purpose between the teacher and the taught. The teacher maybe the community itself or the professional teacher in the school and sometimes there are real differences in perceptions. Rogoff quotes an Afro American mother’s criticism of the formal school when it comes to teaching for life

“He’s got to learn about the world. Nobody can tell him about it. How crazy it is! When white folks hear their kids say something, they say it back to them – they ask them again and again about things as though they are supposed to be born knowing. Do you think I can tell my son all he’s got to know and how to get along? He’s just got to be keen (observant) keep his eyes open then he won’t be sorry. He’s got to watch himself by watching other folks. It’s no use my telling him ‘ Learn this! Learn that! What’s this? What’s that?’ He’s just got to learn got to know. If he sees something once at one place and at one time he will he will know how it goes. Maybe he will do the same but maybe he won’t. He has to try it out. If he doesn’t he’ll be in trouble. He’ll get left out. You’ve got to keep your eyes open. You’ve got to feel to know. “

In some respects the school mirrors the values and aspirations of the society. The way the ethos of a school evolves reflects a congruency of shared meaning about the past, the present and the future. This very solidarity sometimes feels like an impregnable fortress and is difficult to challenge most especially by the unarmed or less powerful. . Sometimes the consistency of approach serves only the needs of a powerful minority and the voice of the marginalized is hard to hear.

Changes in school come when this very congruency is challenged. There is a change in expectations of what is possible, a shift in perception and a demand for realignment between children, home, school and society (and at the present time this includes the global community) takes place. There are so many forces that resist change because changes in some ways threaten the status quo but also there are changes imposed that are spurned as inappropriate.

A conflict of interests and different ideas of remedies often polarizes the issues so that extremes are positioned against each other – alternative or mainstream, conservative or progressive, traditional or modern, process oriented as against functional; but beyond the external style, fashion and theory what is more difficult to gauge is the level of dialogue which enables the child to learn in a way that leads towards autonomy.

In a recent article (Constructions of Educational Inequalities Through Classroom Routines and Practices – published In Teachers Talk July 2006) by Dr. Baljit Kaur describes how children in New Zealand in an apparently free and democratic setting were actually being manipulated by the teacher to conform in a particular way. The seeming non-authoritarian attitude of the teacher masked a very clear agenda to control the children’s behaviour and very thought processes. The idea of autonomy was as alien in that outwardly informal classroom as any more overtly rigid and controlled classroom.

There are very different understandings of what congruency means in practice. By ‘congruency’ I mean a unity of purpose and methodology and value system between the child, the family, the local community and the larger society.

Is the management of a private school that offers English medium and the assurance of certification to children by paying exorbitant amounts to local Government officials more in tune with the parents aspirations than the alternative school that advocates vegetable gardening and creative writing in the mother tongue? Where is the possibility of dialogue in this context?

The many parents who are ready to go to great expense and sacrifice to provide an English medium education for their children which they did not have themselves are not likely to respond to what at best seems like patronizing concern and at worst suspect that an already privileged person is intent on perpetuating differences and inequalities.

The well-intentioned liberal position that advocates individual expression and autonomy and is averse to direct instruction is quite often identified as part of a culture of power that represents the educated middle class. Access to funding and to people in authority make it possible for decisions to be made that might not be appropriate for people in different cultural contexts.

In an article called The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children the writer Lisa D. Depot sharply criticizes the reformer who seeks to improve, as she puts it, ‘other people’s children’. She writes about her position as an Afro American teacher who resists, for example, process oriented, creative writing in favour of imparting literacy skills that enable students to compete equally for jobs and opportunities in an open market. , She concludes her article: We must keep the perspective that people are experts on their own Lives… We must learn to be vulnerable enough to allow our world to turn upside down in order to allow the realities of others to edge themselves into our consciousness….

Both Gandhi and Tagore challenged the imbalances of the systems of their day in fundamental ways and endeavoured to draw the lines of congruency anew. In different but not necessarily contradictory ways both Gandhi and Tagore saw clearly art and craft as central to the discussion of a fundamental change in school. They both were not afraid to articulate their concerns and not only to suggest solutions but put them into practice. Gandhi succeeded for a brief time to transform government policy in an effort to create a just and balanced system of education, as he understood it.

An essential dimension of dialogue is to hold on to one’s own experience of truth. Buber says
One can be truly open and ready to meet others only if one stands on the ground of one’s uniqueness and deepens that ground through each meeting. Gandhi speaks in a similar vein of Swadharma.

Dialogue does not mean accommodating everyone’s suggestions, otherwise we would get into the absurd position of the story of “The man, the boy and the donkey” who follow everyone’s advice and end up struggling to carry the donkey and the load.

The more we got involved in the art project the larger and more basic the questions seemed to loom. What changes are relevant and possible? Who has the right to define art and its purpose in education? It was only in the actual working with the trainees that some clarity began to emerge because there was a realization that we could not provide the answers on our own but only insofar as there was an openness to look again and again at the questions.

Before beginning work it was important to clarify what seemed to be the essence of what we were trying to do.

1. Art provides a language, ‘graphic speech’ for children to relate to the outer world and to their inner world of feeling. *
2. Any written material for teachers describing methods and reasons for doing artistic activities with children might not have much impact unless it is strongly supported by a sustained process of training through practical activities.
3. The problem is more complex than providing tips or recipes for artistic activities and it would be important to help teachers to understand the patterns of development so that they could be sympathetic to a child’s artistic efforts and provide the right kind of balance that would be both supportive and challenging.
4.The teacher’s role would be not only to help the child to learn to respect and use materials but also to begin with the child’s experience and then to extend and build on it. Copying is of limited value and the uniqueness of each child’s response should be recognized.
5.That the workshops would be to some extent shaped by the trainees’ response and questions. This would mean that there would be some direct instruction but also time and space given for experiential learning and an effort to respond to questions raised.

In the course of the workshops that 15 trainees came to there was a lot of emphasis on the teachers themselves exploring ideas and materials practically. For example in the workshop on materials the teachers were asked to explore ways of making things with paper and thread before any direction was given. In all the workshops time was given for discussion and many question were raised. Some of these questions really challenged the very idea of children doing art in school. The response of a number of the teachers was very open and enthusiastic but questions were raised

In response to the teachers request an effort was made to see more directly how art could be used to support learning in the curriculum as given in the text books.

How much impact was affected by all the inputs? It is a slow process and inevitably some things will be quietly dropped as irrelevant, others modified and adapted but there are the beginnings of some change and in some schools at least teachers have taken the initiative to do art activities other than those suggested in the Resource book or already done in workshops which is possibly the most positive thing.

It has been important that some of the NIAS staff work in the schools without access to additional resources. Recently Roshan went to a school and was working on the story of Gulliver’s Travels, which comes in the 4th standard text book. Groups of children were asked to choose one of several scenes that were listed. In a class of thirty-four children there were ten children without pencils and two small boxes of crayons. The project has not been a glorious success in terms of fantastic displays or all the trainees doing daily activities with the children but some serious work has been done and an important process has been started. I think there has been real learning on all sides and many questions raised and the children have certainly been eager participants when given opportunities. A number of the teachers expressed their surprise that when children are given a chance they respond so positively and in unexpectedly independent and original ways.

The process itself requires a suspension of judgement, pausing to reflect and listening to learn on all sides. The kind of exchanges, different interpretations, successes and failures surprises and disappointments were a part of the process of reaching something that might take root.

Supporting a spirit of dialogue – objective – learning to listen, examine assumptions, suspending judgement

In all our efforts to transform, change and improve methods unless we seriously look at the demands of dialogue our work will be limited. As mentioned before one of the important aspects of dialogue is that we stand firm in our own particular vision so that we listen and are open but do not feel overwhelmed by the other.

There is a story of a Chinese teacher who had been asked to give a talk in the town. The hall was filled with the students and the townspeople. Unexpectedly the nearby ruler arrived to join the audience. He was a wealthy and important man used to being obeyed and respected. The teacher saw him and faltered and was unable to continue in quite the way he had been speaking. The next day he called his students and announced that he would be leaving. The students were dismayed and pressed the teacher to explain the reason for his sudden departure. The teacher said that he felt unfit to be their teacher because when he saw the ruler he had trembled and had felt lost for words.

In these days we are not faced with a feudal lord but we are sometimes confronted with demands to meet the expectations and prove success to those in power and in fashion – in the form of donor agencies, religious leaders or even politicians and so may compromise what we see fit to do.

The criterion for judging success or failure does not only lie in outward achievement and it is possibly more in our willingness to respond to the questions that we are asked. It would be a contradiction to demand an openness to dialogue when there is no felt need. It has been compared to trying to play ‘hide and seek’ on your own. Buber says “One can be ready for a dialogue but one cannot will it.” .

I will conclude with a legend about the great Chinese teacher Lao Tzu. The story goes that Lao Tzu as an old, frail man was rejected by the community whom he had served for many years as a teacher. He left without bitterness along with his ox and a boy. They met a gruff rather coarse customs official who demanded that they should declare their valuables. When the official realized that they had nothing of monetary value but that he was a teacher whose wisdom lies in the discovery that like water on rock, hardness gives way to gentleness he realizes that these are different kinds of travellers. The official suggests that they stay and that Lao Tzu writes down his teachings for him because he also wants to know “ Who gets the better of whom”. The sage remarks “Those who ask a question deserve an answer”. And so Lao Tzu stayed for seven days as the custom official’s guest and the Tao Te Ching was written for him and for the world at large. The poem by Brecht concludes;

But not to that wise man alone our praise is due
Whose name adorns the Tao Te Ching
For the wise man’s wisdom must be dragged out of him too.
So the customs man also deserves our thanks for the thing:
He did the eliciting.

The teaching is given in response to a deeply felt question. The teacher finds a purpose in his teachings because he has been asked. (“The student asks and by means of his questions he unconsciously cause an answer to take shape in his teacher’s mind that would never have seen the light but for that question being asked” - Or Hagunuz)

This essay started with the story of “The storyteller in search of an audience” and I am ending with the story of the learner in search of teaching. It is a relationship of mutuality that makes learning possible.

-Jane Sahi, July 2007

August 14, 2007

Ay monihaar aamay nahin shaaje

This necklace of precious stones does not suit me. It torments me – neither can I bear to wear it nor am I able to pull it off. Lost in such conflict, words fail me. My heart cries out, my mind wanders distracted. I find no solace in work.

I cannot face you with this necklace – my head hangs in shame. I don’t want this necklace; you take me, accept me. Only if you take the burden of this necklace, will I be able to breathe.

- Tagore

This song of Tagore's talks about the emotions that ran through him after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The same empire that had knighted him, had murdered so many people. He renounced his knighthood subsequently.

I have been learning Rabindra Sangeet from a supercool teacher in Bangalore for 2 odd months now. I find it very emotional and soulful, the best words I could come up with to describe the music! Atrei used to sing some of the songs when we were in New York. Heard Tuku sing them too. I just loved the music, though I could not understand what was being sung. When Gau mentioned that a friend of his had recently taken up playing the violin, I had an aha moment and decided to look for a teacher.

I came across Nandini Mukherjee on a google search. Thankfully the Hindu article had a phone number. She is great! Needless to say, she loves Tagore's songs and sings beautifully. She takes time out to explain the meaning to me and contextualize the songs. I love singing with her, our conversations in between practice about life, Tagore and everything :)