Spider Art and Science

In India this is the time of year when “spring cleaning” takes place. In the run up to Diwali, homes are thoroughly aired, dusted and cleaned, and every nook and corner cleared of dirt and cobwebs. Just as this frenzy of cleaning activity has begun, I read a news item that in one of the most famous art museums in the world, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the cleaning crew had been given an  order “No vacuum cleaners and no dusters”. They had been given special instructions not to clear, or even slightly disturb, a single cobweb inside the gallery for the last three months. In fact, the Museum Curator takes a round every week to check that all crevices and corners have adequate cobwebs!

This preparation has been the prelude to an exhibition titled “Clara and Crawly Creatures” which will open to the public from 30 September 2022. The exhibition explores how perceptions of insects in art and science have changed over the centuries. In the Middle Ages, lizards, insects, and spiders were associated with death, and with the devil in European culture, but the exhibition notes that in the 16th and 17th centuries there was a re-imagining of the role of insects after the microscope allowed artists and scientists to appreciate beauty that wasn’t always so obvious.

The exhibition prominently displays Albrecht Dürer’s 1505 painting of a stag beetle, its pincers raised. The exhibits take one through the history of how insects have been perceived over the centuries by artists and scientists who have been fascinated by the beauty and ingenuity of these small creatures. The culmination and the highlight of the exhibition is a dark room which has a huge installation by artist Tomas Saraceno– made from silk woven by four spider species that he houses in his studio in Berlin. In fact Saraceno emphasizes that it is not him, but the spiders who should be recognized as the artists.

Attention is also drawn to the uncleared cobwebs in the rest of the gallery by An Open Letter for Invertebrate Rights, written by Saraceno and placed next to one of the webs in which he makes a strong case for coexisting with creepy-crawlies rather than viewing them as pests. Saraceno, who allows spiders to thrive in his own home, suggests that it is humans who are living in the spiders’ world rather than the other way round. As he puts it: “Spiders have been on the planet almost 280 million years and we humans only 300,000. With this letter on invertebrate rights, we say: ‘Hey look, spiders have the right also to come to the museum, spiders are around you’.”

Tomas Saraceno, the person, also breaks all the traditional perceptions of ‘artist’ and ‘scientist’. Trained both as an architect and a visual artist Saraceno’s works demonstrate a stunning intermeshing of art, physics, biology, astronomy and engineering. Saraceno is also an environmental activist who is constantly exploring   new, sustainable ways to inhabit and sense the environment. In 2015, he achieved the world record for the first and longest certified fully-solar manned flight. In the quest for more sustainable ways of living he has worked closely with indigenous people as well as with renowned scientific and technological institutions.

Among all his other passions and accomplishments, Saraceno is an ardent ‘arachnophile’—an advocate for spiders and their ingenious airborne lifestyle, and spiders’ webs that inspire a lot of his work!  As he often reminds us: “Somehow, when people talk about spiders, they forget that some spiders weave webs; [in fact,] they’re very dependent upon their multifunctional webs that provide shelter, protection, food and, when vibrated, a means of communication.”

The multi-functionality of the web, as well its unique structure, can be attributed to the incredible spider silk which it produces and uses not only to spin its web but which has multiple functions. Any individual spider can make up to seven different types of silk, but most generally make four to five kinds. This is produced in internal glands, moving from a soluble form to a hardened form, and then spun into fibre by the spinnerets on the spider’s abdomen.

The sticky silk prevents the prey from slipping off the web, and is useful to wrap and immobilize the prey once it is caught. The spider used the long strands or draglines as a safety line, to keep itself connected to the web; these are also used for parachuting or ballooning to help the young to disperse and find new areas as food sources; they also act as shelter for the spider. The chemical properties of the silk make it tough, elastic and waterproof. Each strand which is finer than the human hair is believed to be five times stronger by weight than steel of the same diameter, and thus has an incredible tensile strength. No wonder then, that Tomas Saraceno can use it for his installations!

Spiders are master engineers, gifted with amazing planning skills and a material that allows them to precisely design functional webs, which they create in a mind-boggling variety of patterns. Saraceno sees the web as vital for the life of a spider. “The web is a tool for a spider to sense what’s around them—it’s part of their body, almost. Some spiders are blind, or some spiders have eyes but their vision is very bad. They also don’t have ears—they can’t hear. They feel vibrations on their web to understand what’s going on around them. I wanted to build something that allowed a human to be inside the mind of a spider.”

It is this that drove his first major show in the United States called Particular Matter(s). This included a giant spider web installation that enabled humans to experience (in a dark room) the vibrations around them, as a spider would.  

Saraceno was born in Argentina but currently lives and works in Berlin, and exhibits in different parts of the world. He is much more than an artist. He is a passionate social and environmental justice warrior. His mission, he feels, is simply to get humans to understand that they are not the top of a pyramid of power in what is called the Anthropocene era, but exist on a horizontal plane with all non-humans, to which they should be sensitized and from which they have plenty to learn. He advocates for what he prefers to call the Aerocene era in which interspecies-cooperation and clean air are required.

The exhibition that opens this week is yet another reminder of this message and its urgency. In India the first week of October is celebrated as Wildlife Week when the spotlight is usually on the more charismatic and larger mammals and birds. Tomas Saraceno’s mission to celebrate the less visible but vital members that make up the much larger proportion of ‘wildlife’ is a timely reminder that in the web of life, each and every strand is critical.


India’s First Law towards Women Empowerment: Sarda Act, 1929

September marks a momentous month in the saga of women empowerment in India. It was in Sept 1927 that the Hindu Child Marriage Bill was proposed in the Legislative Assembly of the Govt. of India. And it was on 28 Sept 1929 that it became an Act.

What was the Sarda Act and why was it so important? The marriage of girls as young as a few days or a few weeks old was rampant at the time when the law was being discussed (sadly one cannot say it has totally disappeared. Pre-1857, the British had tried to legislate on social practices. But after this period, they went slow on pushing any social reform in the fear of being accused of intrusion into traditions. Sadly, even the Age of Consent Bill 1927 making marriages of girls under the age of 12 illegal. was opposed by nationalist leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Madan Mohan Malaviya who saw it as British interference in Indian customs.

It was Har Bilas Sarda who took it upon himself to do something about this. Sarda was a scholar.  the administrator of Agra and Ajmer, and later Senior Judge of the Jodhpur Chief Court. He was first elected to the Central Legislative Assembly in 1924, and then for two more terms subsequently.

He was deeply moved by the plight of child-widows in India. Introducing the Bill to the Assembly, he made a passionate plea to bring in legislation in this regard.  Though a staunch Hindu traditionalist, he was ready to take a stand on calling for reform in this matter, stating: ‘No country in the world, except this unhappy land, presents the sorry spectacle of having in its population child widows, who according to the customs of the country, cannot remarry. Enforced widowhood is a feature peculiar to Hindu society; and when we consider that some of the victims of this pernicious—I had almost said inhuman—custom were babies eight to ten months old when they were married, Honourable members will realize how urgent and imperative is the call for legislation in the matter.’

But it was not just an emotional appeal though. He quoted facts and figures meticulously culled out from the census of 1921. To make it easier for the reader, here is a summary of the ghastly numbers he presents:


Age of childNumber of widows
Less than 1 year612
1-2 years498
2-3 years1280
3-4 years2863
4-5 years6758
Total Number of Widows below the Age of 512016

Sarda further goes on to state that the number of widows below the age of 10 was 97,596, and below the age of 15 was 3,31,793. Not a small problem!

He quotes Manu and Dhanwantri to support his plea to increase the marriage age of girls, saying Manu had said that girls should marry 3 years after puberty, which would take the minimum age of marriage to 15.

The Bill was referred to a select committee named as the Age of Consent Committee headed by Sir Moropant Joshi with several distinguished members. The Bill saw concerted advocacy by women for the first time in India, with the All India Women’s Conference, the Women’s Indian Association, the National Council for Women in India, groups of Muslim women, all presenting their pleas to the Committee to raise the age for marriage and consent, sometimes going against orthodox opposition. The Joshi Committee presented its report, and it was passed into law on 28 Sept 1929, as the Child Marriage Restraint Act (also known as the Sarda Act). It fixed the marriageable age for girls at 14 and for boys at 18, and was applicable throughout British India, for all communities.

Alas, like many other laws passed without either education or strict enforcement, the Sarda Act was not really successful in curbing the practice. Census figures in the next decade showed a steady increase in child marriages. The lack of success was attributed by Nehru and other scholars to the British reluctance to enforce the law as it would cost them the support of orthodox and communal elements.

After Independence in 1949, the age of marriage was further raised to 15 for girls; in 1978, it was raised to 18 for girls and 21 for boys.

But for all that, Census 2011 still shows that 3.7% girls were married before the age of 18. Which goes to show that while having laws in place is vital, there have to be concerted efforts to educate and enforce.

And at the same time to celebrate the battles women have won in the empowerment journey.

It is the moment to recall and celebrate the contribution of Har Bilas Sarda who with his persistence, propelled the first step in this journey.


Pic: New Indian Express

Cheetah Lore

The last week’s news coverage was unusual. The faces that dominated the newsprint were not those of politicians or movie stars, but of the new celebrities in India—eight cheetahs! The beautiful face and body of this graceful animal captivated our attention. The vital statistics of the new arrivals from Namibia were shared and analysed, compared and contrasted with that of the other Big Cats.

Indeed the cheetah is a beautiful creature. With its narrow lightweight body, the cheetah is quite different from all other cats, and is the only member of its genus, Acinonyx. The cheetah’s unique form and structure—flexible spine, long slender  legs, and long muscular tail that acts as a counterbalance to its body weight, allowing it to attain the high speeds for which it is famous as the fastest animal on land.

Unlike other cats, the cheetah’s foot pads are hard and less rounded. The hard pads function like tire treads providing them with increased traction in fast, sharp turns. The short blunt claws, are closer to that of a dog than of other cats. The semi-retractable claws work like the cleats of a track shoe to grip the ground for traction when running to help increase speed.

While these characteristics are studied by zoologists, these have equally been noted by the indigenous peoples who have traditionally lived in proximity to these animals. And these have found a place in their imagination and folk lore. The Bushmen of southern Africa have a charming story about the cheetah’s speed and special paws.

How Cheetah Got Its Speed

Long long ago, the Creator designated certain special qualities to the different animals that he had created. When it came to deciding which one had the greatest gift of speed, he decided that there should be a race. He shortlisted the cheetah and the tsessebe antelope to run the final race. The race was to start from the giant Baobab tree and the two contestants were to run across the plains to a hill on the far side. The cheetah was a fast runner over short distances, but it realised that its soft paws would not be able to take the rigour of a long run. So it borrowed the sturdier set of paws from a wild dog.

The Creator himself flagged them off. The tsessebe sprang off and was away, soon leaving the cheetah far behind. But alas! Suddenly it stumbled on a stone and fell, and broke its leg.

When the cheetah caught up, it found its rival lying on the ground, in pain. All the cheetah had to do was to run ahead and win the race. Instead it stopped to help its opponent.

The Creator, on seeing this was so pleased with the cheetah’s unselfish act that he bestowed on the cheetah the permanent gift of great speed, and the title of the fastest animal on land. He also allowed it to keep the paws of the wild dog.

Along with its streamlined form, the cheetah is also distinguished by its markings of solid black spots, and especially by the distinctive black stripes that run from the eyes to the mouth. These stripes resemble the track of tears and needless to say, this feature must have led to a lot of stories told around the fireplace in the days when the desert people in South Africa lived in close harmony with their natural surroundings.

Here is a Zulu story that tells one of these tales.

Why the Cheetah’s Cheeks are Stained with Tears

Long long ago a hunter was idly sitting under a tree. While most hunters were out all day in pursuit of food, this one was different. He was lazy, and always looking for an easier way of doing things. As he lolled under an acacia tree, he saw a herd of springbok (antelopes) grazing on the grassy veldt. The hunter was daydreaming about how wonderful it would be if he could get their meat without having to chase them. Just then he noticed a movement, and saw that that there was a female cheetah close by. He noted how the cheetah was silently advancing, keeping downwind of the herd, so that they could not sense her presence. As she stalked noiselessly, the cheetah identified a springbok that had strayed from the rest. In the blink of an eye the cheetah gathered her long legs under her and hurtled forward with the speed of lightning. Even as the rest of the herd sensed danger and fled, the lone springbok did not have a chance. The cheetah’s hunt was over.

The hunter, still unmoving, observed how the mother cheetah dragged her prize to the edge of the clearing. In the undergrowth he saw that there were three cubs waiting to be fed. The hunter thought: how nice to be given a meal without having to toil for it; these cubs are lucky. The second thought that struck him was: Imagine if I had a hunter who would do the hunting for me! And further, a wicked idea dawned. If he stole one of the cubs and trained it to hunt for him, his desire would be fulfilled.

The lazy daydreamer continued to lie there as he plotted and planned how to do this. At sunset when the mother cheetah went to the waterhole, leaving the cubs concealed in a bush, he took his chance. The cubs were too young to know what was happening, nor to protect themselves. He first picked up one cub, but then got greedy and stole all three, thinking that he was getting a triple bonus! And away he went before the mother returned.

When the mother cheetah came back and found her cubs missing, she was heartbroken. She cried and cried all night. By morning her tears had left dark stains as they flowed down her cheeks. An old hunter who was passing by heard her loud crying. This wise old hunter knew the ways of the animals. When he found out what the lazy hunter had done, he was very angry. Stealing the cubs from their mother was not only wicked, it was also against the traditions of the tribe which decreed that every hunter must use only his own strength and skill in hunting. Any other way of obtaining prey was a dishonour to the whole tribe.

The old hunter returned to the village and told the elders what had happened. The villagers became angry. They found the lazy hunter and drove him away from the village. The old man took the three cheetah cubs back to their mother. But the long weeping of the mother cheetah stained her face forever.

And so the Zulu believe that even today the tear-stained cheeks of the cheetah are a reminder to the tribesmen that it is not acceptable to hunt in any way other than that what the ancestors had decreed as wise and honourable.

As we in India welcome these unique animals, let us also welcome the ancient lore and wisdom from the days when humans and animals were closely linked in more ways than one.


Thanks, but No Thanks: Awards Declined

Last week I was ruminating on KK Shailaja and her refusal of the Magsaysay award. She is not alone. There are several people across the world who for principles or personal choices refuse awards.

Arguably the most prestigious award in the world is the Nobel. But there are two people who have refused the Noble too.

The first was the author Jean-Paul Sartre, who in principle refused all official awards. He declined the 1964 Literature Prize, stating: ‘A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honourable form.’

The other person who refused the Nobel was Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam. He and Henry Kissinger were awarded the 1974 Peace Prize together  ’for jointly having negotiated a cease fire in Vietnam in 1973’. However, Le Duc Tho refused the award ‘on the grounds that his opposite number had violated the truce’. He said ‘peace has not yet been established’.

Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman’s reason for declining the Fields Medal, considered the Nobel of mathematics, was similar to Jean-Paul Sartre. He said that he had no interest in money and fame and did not want to be on display like a zoo animal. Considering that the inaugural award was $1-million, that was a brave stand.

Arundati Roy
Arundati Roy

Protest against governments is often a reason to refuse awards. For instance, Arundhati Roy, Booker-winning novelist, refused the Sahitya Akademi Award for her collection of political essays  The Algebra of Infinite Justice saying she could not accept an award from an institution supported by the Indian government, whose policies on “big dams, nuclear weapons, increasing militarization and economic liberalism” she disagreed with.

Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe

Another author who refused an award from his government was the renowned novelist Chinua Achebe. Nigeria offered him the ‘Commander of the Federal Republic’. But Achebe in a letter to the then-president Olusegun Obasanjo expressed his great discomfort with events in Nigeria. His letter said ‘I had a strong belief that we would outgrow our shortcomings under leaders committed to uniting our diverse peoples. Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence.’ He again turned down the honour again in 2011

Not against the government, but Marlon Brando registered his protest against the establishment—in this case Hollywood. He refused the Oscar for Best Actor for the film Godfather in 1973, citing the ill-treatment of native Americans by the film industry as the reason.

Several Indians have refused the government’s high honours for several reason.  Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, freedom fighter and our first Education Minister declined the honour, taking the principled stand that those who were on selection committees for national honours should not themselves receive them.

PN Haksar bureaucrat and diplomat who served as Principal Secretary to the PM was offered the Bharat Ratna in 1973 specially in the light of his role in brokering the Indi-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, as well as the Shimla Agreement. He declined saying ‘Accepting an award for work done somehow causes an inexplicable discomfort to me’. Some other civil servants have also taken this stand.

A communist who probably set the standard for KK Shailaja was EMS Namboodiripad, General Secretary of the CPI (M) and the Kerala’s first Chief Minister who declined the 1992 Bharat Ratna–he said it went against his nature to accept a state honour.

Some others like Swami Ranganathananda have declined awards because it was given to them as individuals, and not to the organizations that they were part of—in this case, the Ramakrishana Mission.

Two prominent journalists—Nikhil Chakravarty and K. Subrahmanyam (who was also a civil servant)—refused Padma Bhushans because they thought it was not appropriate for journalists to accept awards from the government. As Nikhilda put it ‘journalists should not be identified with the establishment.’

Romila Thapar the distinguished historian refused to accept the Padma Bhushan twice. Her stand was that she would accept awards only ‘from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work.’

Several distinguished people have refused or returned honours due to specific incidents, as a mark of protest against the government. These include Hindi author and parliamentarian Seth Govind Das, and Hindi novelist and playwright Vrindavan Lal Varma, both protesting against the amendment of the Official Languages Act to allow for the continued official use of the English language. The famous Kannada novelist Shivram Karanth  returned his award to protest against the declaration of Emergency. PM Bhargava, scientist and founder-director of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology returned his award in protest of the Dadri mob lynchings and out of concern at the ‘prevailing socio-political situation’ in the country. Prakash Singh Badal ex-CM Punjab, and SS Dhindsa leader of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Democratic) party, returned their awards to show their support to the Farmers’ protests.

Some return awards because they feel the recognition has been delayed too long, or because they feel that people junior to them have been recognized before them. These include playback singer S. Janaki who felt it came too late. Sociologist GS Ghurye refused his award because he felt that people who had contributed less had been given more prestigious awards.

Whatever the reasons, when people of achievement refuse or return awards, governments and establishments need to seriously listen to the reasons. If they think the person is worth honouring, surely the point that they make by refusing the award must be worth listening to?


Engineering Woman Power: A. Lalitha

15 September is celebrated as Engineering Day in India to mark the birth anniversary of M Visvesvaraya, one of India’s greatest engineers who made a vital contribution to the field of engineering and education. Visvesvaraya is best known for designing one of India’s first flood protection systems, construction of dams and reservoirs, and setting up one of the first engineering institutes in the country, the Government Engineering College, now called University Visvesvaraya College of Engineering, Bengaluru.

Today there are hundreds of engineering colleges in India and tens of thousands of students, both boys and girls, compete to gain places in the best of these colleges. While the idea of a woman pursuing engineering is not uncommon today, the way had been paved by spunky pioneers who took on numerous challenges in a different time and circumstances. This is a good day to remember one of these women—A. Lalitha.

Lalitha was born on 27 August 1919 in a middle class Telugu family, one of seven siblings. Her father was himself an engineer, and fairly broad-minded, but societal norms and expectations took precedence over personal beliefs. Thus, as was the norm in those days, while Lalitha’s brothers were supported in pursuing higher studies, the girls in the family were educated only till the primary level, and then married off. Lalitha herself was married at the age of 15. But her father ensured that even in her new life she could continue to study till she completed class 10.

Sadly Lalitha’s married life was short-lived. Her husband passed away when she was just 18 years old. Lalitha had recently become a mother to a baby girl. Now she was a young widow with a four-month-old daughter, living in a society where widows were shunned and relegated to a life of isolation and austerity. This is where Lalitha’s fighting spirit led her to quietly start breaking the first of many barriers.

She moved back to her father’s house with a strong resolve to study and get a professional degree so that in future she could become self-reliant. Her father supported her decision, and Lalitha cleared the intermediate exam from Queen Mary’s College in Madras. This was the first step to moving ahead.

At the time there were women who were studying medicine. But Lalitha felt that a career in medicine would not leave her sufficient time and attention for her young daughter, who was her priority. Living in a family of engineers, this was an option that came to her mind. At that time technical education was itself in a nascent stage in India, and the idea of women entering this field was unheard of. No institute was admitting women. Once again, her father Pappu Subbarao helped to open a door for his daughter. He was a professor of electrical engineering in the College of Engineering (CEG) in Guindy, and he put up a special request to the then Principal of CEG Dr KC Chacko, that his daughter be permitted to take up an engineering course. He also put forward the appeal to the Director of Public Instruction, RM Statham. Luckily, both these officials were forward thinking and were agreeable to opening admission for a woman for the first time in the history of CEG. Lalitha applied for the electrical engineering course.

Thus Lalitha became the only girl in a college with hundreds of boys. But as accounts go, she never felt uncomfortable there. Accommodation in a separate hostel was arranged for her, while her daughter was looked after by her brother’s family; Lalitha visited her every weekend. While Lalitha was comfortable and happy in her classes, she missed having company in the hostel. Once again her father encouraged the authorities to open admissions for more women. In response to the advertisement two more women—Leelamma George and PK Thresia joined in the civil engineering course the following year.

As per the government rule then, engineering students had to put in four years of academic work and one year of practical training before they could graduate. Lalitha completed her practical training with a one-year apprenticeship at the Jamalpur Railway Workshop, a major repair and overhaul facility. 

Lalitha received her Bachelor of Engineering degree in 1943. Although they were technically junior, the three women engineers graduated together. Interestingly, the degree certificate of CEG had to replace the word He with She for their first three women graduates! 

Having already crossed several hurdles, Lalitha was ready to start a new phase of life as a professional. However she continued to give priority to her daughter Shyamala and looked for work opportunities which would not compromise her care. She accepted a job offer as an engineering assistant at the Central Standards Organisations of India, Simla. This was suitable as she was able to live with her brother’s family which offered support and care to her daughter. After two years in this job, she moved to Chennai work with her father helping him with his research which had led to several patents. This was intellectually stimulating, but financial pressures led Lalitha to find other work. She moved to Calcutta to work in the engineering department of Associated Electrical Industries. Once more her second brother and his family provided a home for her daughter. 

Lalitha got the opportunity to put all her education to practice, and gained experience and expertise. She worked on large projects, including the upcoming Bhakra Nangal Dam, which was then to be the biggest dam in India. Her tasks included the designing of transmission lines, substation layouts, and protective gear. Her brilliance and abilities began to gain national and international attention.

In 1953, the London-based Council of Electrical Engineers invited her to be an associate member. Visiting a British factory as an Indian woman dressed in a sari attracted a lot of press attention. She later became a full member. In 1964 she was invited to the First International Conference of Engineers and Scientists in New York. She was the first Indian woman engineer to attend. Lalitha subsequently became involved in several international organisations for women engineers. In 1965 she became a member of the Women’s Engineering Society of London.

Lalitha continued to work with Associated Electrical Associates (later taken over by General Electric Company) until she retired in 1977. She also lived with her sister-in-law in the same house in Calcutta for 35 years.  Throughout her career she championed the idea of women in STEM careers. Her daughter Shyamala followed in her mother’s footsteps by studying science and maths, and making a career in teaching maths. In an interview her daughter summed up the essence of her mother’s work and life: “What I take from her life is her extreme patience towards people and the quality of doing instead of just talking. She believed that people come into your life for a reason and leave when the purpose is over.”

Not long after retirement Lalitha suffered from a brain aneurysm and passed away at the age of 60, in 1979. Today as many girls take up engineering as a career, most would not know about the grit and determination of a woman who helped pave the way. A. Lalitha—a young widow, dedicated single mother, a brilliant student, a path-breaking professional clad in a sari, who did not need to wear power suits to break the glass ceiling. 


The Conviction to Refuse an Honour

The Ramon Magsaysay Award is undoubtedly a high honour and prestige. Instituted in 1957 (with the first awards given in 1958), it is called the Noble Peace Prize of Asia. It ‘celebrates greatness of spirit and transformative leadership in Asia.’ It has till date, been conferred on 300 individuals and organizations  ‘whose selfless service has offered their societies, Asia, and the world successful solutions to some of the most challenging problems of human development.’ The awardees are selected by the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation trustees who call for nominations from a pool of international confidential nominators. The nominations go through a rigorous process of evaluation by the trustees.  

Awardees include Vinobha Bhave, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Verghese Kurian, Tribhuvandas Patel, The Peace Corps in Asia, Jayaprakash Narayan, Muhammad Yunus….the list of luminaries is distinguished indeed!

KK Shailaja
KK Shailaja

This year, Kerala’s former health minister KK Shailaja (called Shailaja Teacher) was one of those selected. This was in recognition of her stellar performance as health minister of Kerala, especially the management of Covid-19 in Kerala. She was one of the first people world-wide to recognize the potential seriousness of the virus, and ensured that her state was ready to combat it.

When she got the news of her award, Shailaja informed her party, the CPI(M). They deliberated on this and asked her to refuse it. Being a loyal party worker, she politely wrote to the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation refusing the award, saying that the battle against Covid was a collective effort, and that she was not individually responsible for it, and thus could not accept the award.

Controversy has raged since then. Was it jealousy on the part of some of her senior colleagues that she was getting such a high-profile recognition? It has been perceived for some time now that some of the party leaders in Kerala fear her success and her being highlighted on the international stage, and that is why she was refused a second term as Minister. Was it misogyny? That some people will do anything to bring down a successful women?

Well, maybe a bit of both.

But there is more to it. In fact, deep ideological reasons.

The Ramon Magsaysay Award was instituted in memory of Ramon Magsaysay, former President of the Philippines, and his commitment to integrity in governance, courageous service to the people, and pragmatic idealism within a democratic society.And indeed Ramon Magsaysay did live by these ideals. He did a lot for the people of his country, cleaned up the administration and made government responsive. He created the Presidential Complaints and Action Committee, a body which heard grievances of the public and recommended remedial actions.  He established the National Resettlement and Rehabilitation Administration (NARRA) which redistributed thousands of acres of lands to the landless. He set up the Agricultural Credit and Cooperative Financing Administration (ACCFA) to make available rural loans to small farmers and share tenants loans at low interest rates.He played a significant role in regional affairs too. Magsaysay’s presidency was considered one of the cleanest and most corruption-free in Philippine history.

So he was a tall leader, no doubt. But the explanation for Shailaja’s refusal of an award names after him goes a little further back in time. In early August 1950, using his own experiences in guerrilla warfare during World War II he was the strategist behind then-President Quirino’s plan to fight the Communist guerrillas. He led this attack when he was named Secretary of National Defence in September 1950. All his life, he opposed communism not only in speeches and forums, but also on the ground through military action.  All through his years in power, he was a close friend, ally and supporter of the United States whose foremost enemy was communism.  All his life, Magsaysay was a vocal spokesman against communists. 

So that is one part of it.

Coming to the award itself. The Ramon Magsaysay award was instituted through an endowment from the Rockefellers Brothers Fund. The Rockefellers were staunchly anti-communist. For instance, as Assistant Secretary of State, Nelson Rockefeller played a big role in the establishment of NATO, its stance against the Soviet Union, and the resolution of NATO members to defeat communism and its spread. The Rockefellers also had a big hand in the shaping of the UN and its stance against communisim.

So the people who instituted the award as well as the man whom it commemorates were dead against communism.

To me, it makes sense why Ms. Shailaja, a life-long member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), with a deep committment to the communist ideology, refused the award. I am now a bigger fan than ever!

KK Sahilaja has a host of awards and recongitions from across the world, and awards probably do not matter to her.

But I hope that she will be able to play a bigger part in the management of public affairs not only in her state but the country too. We would be the poorer if she cannot!


From Tagore to Ken Robinson: Creative Education

Continuing musings on education this week. This time with some thoughts from Sir Ken Robinson, one of the most influential contemporary thinkers on education, and discovering uncanny similarities in his vision with that of Rabindranath Tagore.

British-born teacher, author and speaker Ken Robinson spoke out against what he describes essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity, and ‘batching’ people. As he said: We have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education, and it is impoverishing our spirits and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.

He viewed large school systems as being rigid and unresponsive, squeezing the creative juices out of children by overemphasizing standardized testing and subjects like mathematics and science over the arts and humanities.

Ken Robinson advocated strongly for schools not only to broaden their curriculums but also to support teachers as creative professionals; and to personalize learning by breaking large classrooms — artificial environments that invite boredom, he said — into small groups.

Over a hundred years after Tagore, he shared Tagore’s vision of a good teacher: Good teachers activate children’s minds instead of helping them to assimilate and collect information, and inspire children through their own self-development.

Ken Robinson made it his life’s mission to highlight the importance of systems and environments that nurtured creativity. In his book Creative Schools he describes how he views creativity.

 Imagination is the root of creativity. It is the ability to bring to mind things that aren’t present to our senses.

Creativity is putting your imagination to work. It is applied imagination. Innovation is putting new ideas into practice. There are various myths about creativity. One is that only special people are creative, another is that creativity is only about the arts, a third is that creativity cannot be taught, and a fourth is that it’s all to do with uninhibited “self-expression.”

None of these is true. Creativity draws from many powers that we all have by virtue of being human. Creativity is possible in all areas of human life, in science, the arts, mathematics, technology, cuisine, teaching, politics, business, you name it. And like many human capacities, our creative powers can be cultivated and refined. Doing that involves an increasing mastery of skills, knowledge, and ideas.

Creativity is about fresh thinking. It doesn’t have to be new to the whole of humanity— though that’s always a bonus— but certainly to the person whose work it is. Creativity also involves making critical judgments about whether what you’re working on is any good, be it a theorem, a design, or a poem. Creative work often passes through typical phases. Sometimes what you end up with is not what you had in mind when you started. It’s a dynamic process that often involves making new connections, crossing disciplines, and using metaphors and analogies. Being creative is not just about having off-the-wall ideas and letting your imagination run free. It may involve all of that, but it also involves refining, testing, and focusing what you’re doing. It’s about original thinking on the part of the individual, and it’s also about judging critically whether the work in process is taking the right shape and is worthwhile, at least for the person producing it.

Creativity is not the opposite of discipline and control. On the contrary, creativity in any field may involve deep factual knowledge and high levels of practical skill. Cultivating creativity is one of the most interesting challenges for any teacher. It involves understanding the real dynamics of creative work.

The real driver of creativity is an appetite for discovery and a passion for the work itself. When students are motivated to learn, they naturally acquire the skills they need to get the work done. Their mastery of them grows as their creative ambitions expand. You’ll find evidence of this process in great teaching in every discipline from football to chemistry.

We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is to create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.

Tagore dreamed the same dream and urged for the same process when he wrote: Do not be preoccupied with method. Leave your instincts to guide you to life. Children differ from one another. One must learn to know them, to navigate among them as one navigates among reefs.

This week as we all remembered the teachers who have, in some way or the other, contributed to making us who we are, words of such visionaries help us to better articulate what it means to be a real teacher.


Celebrating the Gurus: Teachers’ Day

Rabindranath Tagore was the one who gave Gandhiji the title of Mahatma. Gandhi in turn called him ‘Gurudev’ in reverence to his wisdom and his learning, and saw him as a teacher to humanity.
Gurudev and Radhakrishnan at Shantiniketan where Oxford Univ held a special convocation in 1940 to honour Tagore
Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore gave India a different vision of education, of teachers and the teaching process. It is appropriate to remind ourselves of his views on these subjects on the occasion of Teachers’ Day, Sept 5. Trying to paraphrase him would be useless.  So better, I thought, to share a few quotes:
About teachers:
‘A teacher can never truly teach unless he too continues to teach himself. One lamp can never light another unless it continues to burn its own flames. Similarly, the teacher who has come to the end of his subject, and has no living traffic with his knowledge but merely repeats his lessons to his students, can only burden their minds, he cannot inspire them.’
‘Good teachers activate children’s minds instead of helping them to assimilate and collect information, and inspire children through their own self-development. They encourage them to work on the teacher’s own original projects and thereby travel together on their journey to more understanding.’
Gurudev always looked for gurus for his schools and educational institutions, rather than teachers. According to him, gurus are ‘active in the efforts to achieve the fullness of humanity”. They ‘will give their whole selves to their students instead of merely sharing the material as prescribed by the curriculum’.
His message to teachers:
‘Do not be preoccupied with method. Leave your instincts to guide you to life. Children differ from one another. One must learn to know them, to navigate among them as one navigates among reefs. To explore the geography of their minds, a mysterious instinct, sympathetic to life, is the best of all guides.’
He wanted teachers and school administrators to recognize the importance of letting children discover the joy of learning and what nature has to teach them. Nothing sums this up better than an excerpt from a lecture he gave in London in 1933, where he recounts one of his encounters with a more ‘traditional’ educator:
‘I well remember the surprise and annoyance of an experienced headmaster, reputed to be a successful disciplinarian, when he saw one of the boys of my school climbing a tree and choosing a fork of the branches for settling down to his studies. I had to say to him in explanation that ‘childhood is the only period of life when a civilized man can exercise his choice between the branches of a tree and his drawing-room chair, and should I deprive this boy of that privilege because I, as a grown-up man, am barred from it?’ What is surprising is to notice the same headmaster’s approbation of the boys’ studying botany. He believes in an impersonal knowledge of the tree because that is science, but not in a personal experience of it. This growth of experience leads to forming instinct, which is the result of nature’s own method of instruction. The boys of my school have acquired instinctive knowledge of the physiognomy of the tree. By the least touch they know where they can find a foothold upon an apparently inhospitable trunk; they know how far they can take liberty with the branches, how to distribute their bodies’ weight so as to make themselves least burdensome to branchlets. My boys are able to make the best possible use of the tree in the matter of gathering fruits, taking rest and hiding from undesirable pursuers. I myself was brought up in a cultured home in a town, and as far as my personal behaviour goes, I have been obliged to act all through my life as if I were born in a world where there are no trees. Therefore I consider it as a part of education for my boys to let them fully realize that they are in a scheme of existence where trees are a substantial fact, not merely as generating chlorophyll and taking carbon from the air, but as living trees.Ideal Teachers: Gurus vs. Schoolmasters.’
On Teachers’ Day, as we commemorate Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, another of India’s great educators, let us think about what education means in this changing world, and how the role of teachers must evolve.

Sweet Offerings

Meena’s biscuit trail led me to look into the history and story of what is perhaps one of the favourite pan-Indian sweets—the modak or laddoo. This seemed appropriate in a week marked by the preparing, offering and the partaking of this sweet for Ganesh Chaturthi.

The connection between the elephant-headed God and his love for modaks can be traced back to ancient lore and legends. One story goes thus. One day, Anasuya, the wife of the ancient rishi Atri invited lord Shiva, his wife Parvati, and their baby son Ganesha for a meal. Shiva was ready to start eating but Anasuya said that the adults could eat once the Bal Ganesha was fed. She laid out a sumptuous spread, and Ganesha immediately started to partake of the goodies. He ate and ate everything that was before him, but just did not seem to have had enough. His parents and hostess looked on in wonder. Anasuya then went in and brought a single piece of sweet and offered it to the seemingly ever-hungry Ganesha. As soon as he ate it, Ganesha let out a loud burp. At last, he was sated! At exactly the same time, by now  the very-hungry Shiva also burped 21 times. Parvati was curious to know what this wonder sweet was that seemed to have satisfied the hunger of both father and son. Anasuya told her that it was a modak. Thereafter Parvati expressed her wish that all devotees of Ganesha should offer him 21 modaks. This tradition has carried on to this day.  

While the traditional modak recipe is said to have its origins in Maharashtra, modaks  are prepared across India in a variety of ways, and are known by various names– mothagam or kozhukattai in Tamil, modhaka or kadubu in Kannada, or modakam or kudumu in Telugu. Modaks are made both by steaming, and by frying. Their traditional recipe includes fillings of grated coconut and jaggery with a hint of cardamom or nutmeg, encased in a covering made of flour.

Churma laddoo

While in several parts of India, modak refers to the steamed and stuffed version, in some states like Gujarat the word modak and laddoo are synonymous. The word laddoo is used to refer to the spherical sweet primarily made from flour, ghee, and sugar or jaggery. Laddoos themselves have a long history, both in lore as well as in the culinary culture of India.

An interesting folktale traces the origins of what may have caused the difference between laddoo and modak. The story goes that Ganesha’s maternal grandmother Queen Menavati used to indulge her grandson by feeding him with laddoos that she made. As he grew, his appetite for the sweet was insatiable. Grandmother could not keep up with his endless capacity to gobble them down, especially as making  laddoos is a laborious and time-consuming process, as each ball has to be individually moulded and set . She thought that by making a similar stuffed sweet that could be steamed together in larger numbers would hasten the process. Her grandson was equally delighted with this variation. And thus came about the steamed modaks, and Ganesha’s moniker Modakpriya—lover of modaks.

The history of laddoos can be traced back a long way. The term ladduka first finds mention in the Mahabharata. Sushruta Samhita the classical Sanskrit text on medicine and surgery also has references to laddoos. It is believed that Indian physician, Sushruta, used ladoos as an antiseptic to treat his surgical patients. In the 4th century BC, he used a concoction of ingredients like sesame seeds, jaggery and peanuts which had nutritional properties, to make laddoos which provided strength and energy. Even today new mothers and pregnant women are given laddoos with special additional herbs and seeds to boost their immunity, and improve lactation. Old texts also mention laddoos being carried during long journeys, and wartime because of their long shelf life.  

The wonderful diversity of culinary traditions across India has led to a mouth-watering array of ‘speciality’ laddoos made with different ingredients. Over the years, people from different communities started experimenting with the ingredients and replaced them with whatever was readily available in their region. Other elements like geography, weather and diets of communities also play a significant role. For example laddoos with gond (edible gum) are eaten in winter as they are believed to give warmth and energy. The Sankranti festival in Gujarat is incomplete without the variety of laddoos made from seasonal ingredients like sesame, peanuts and jaggery. 

From the besan laddoos which are common to several states, the boondi or motichur laddoo that is originally said to hail from Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, churma laddoo from Gujarat and Rajasthan, coconut ladoo and rava laddoo from the southern states, the Assamese black sesame laddoo–each region-specific laddoo has its distinct identity, and has specific associations with the local traditions and culture.

The laddoo also has associations with celebrations. While traditionally the partaking of laddoos is a part of certain festivals, the distribution and sharing of laddoos is an important part of any happy or auspicious occasion—an engagement, a wedding, the birth of a baby, exam results, a new job appointment. All “good news” was heralded by sending and receiving a box of laddoos.

Times are changing though. In urban areas, the time-honoured tradition is now being represented by boxes of designer chocolates, and gift hampers with imported goodies. Celebrity chefs are conjuring up fusion recipes for old sweets to create innovative desserts. And yet, for many of us, there is sense of nostalgia and comfort that the very word laddoo or modak brings. For me it evokes memories of my mother-in-law’s literal labour of love in making trays full of churma laddoos coated with poppy seeds, family feasts where these were consumed with gusto, and the wonderful feeling of being happily replete before sinking into a deep siesta. A modak by any name tastes just as sweet!