Mahatma Gandhi and Madam Montessori

India is currently in the process of introducing the New Educational Policy (NEP 2020). Exercises are ongoing to develop the curricula and frameworks for education at all levels, starting from Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE).  As per the Policy document: The overall aim of ECCE will be to attain optimal outcomes in the domains of physical and motor development, cognitive development, socio-emotional-ethical development, cultural/artistic development, and the development of communication and early language, literacy, and numeracy.

This vision for laying the strongest foundation for lifelong learning has its seeds in the thoughts and writing of many educationists and thinkers. It has a deep resonance with Gandhiji’s thoughts on education. In 1937, at a conference in Wardha, Maharashtra, Mahatma Gandhi seeded an important idea to revamp the educational system through Nai Talim or Basic Education.

Gandhiji’s vision was that this new paradigm of education should prepare the young learners to become morally sound, individually independents, socially constructive, economically productive and responsible future citizens. The foundation for this was to be laid in early childhood. Gandhiji believed that education should develop all the capacities of the child so that he becomes a complete human being. “By education I mean all-round drawing out of the best in child’s and man’s body, mind and spirit. Literacy is neither the beginning nor the end of education. This is only a means through which man or woman can be educated. 

In Gandhiji’s educational thoughts the integrated development of the personality of child is more important than mere literacy or knowledge of different subjects. Thus his vision was of life-centred as well as child-centred education. Besides learning of three R’s–Reading, Writing and Arithmetic in school, he insisted on development of the three H’s–Hand, Heart and Head.

While these thoughts took formal shape in the form of Nai Taleem in 1937, they had long been brewing in his mind. Over the years he was also assimilating the writing and educational philosophies of other thinkers and practitioners of alternate and innovative systems of teaching and learning. One of these was Madam Montessori.

The two had already met in spirit before they met in person. Gandhiji was in London to attend the Round Table Conference in October 1931. Maria Montessori was at the time holding one of the International Training Courses for teachers. Common friends brought them together. At their first meeting which was around 9 October 1931, the interaction was recorded thus:

Gandhi greeting her said: “We are members of the same family”.

“I bring you the greetings of children” said Madam Montessori.

Gandhiji said: “If you have children I have children too. Friends in India ask me to imitate you. I say to them, no, I should not imitate you but should assimilate you and the fundamental truth underlying your method.”

Madam Montessori: “As I am asking my children to assimilate the heart of Gandhi. I know that feeling for me over there in your part of the world is deeper than here.”

Gandhiji: “Yes, you have the largest number of adherents in India outside Europe.”

On 28 October 1931 Gandhi gave a speech at the Montessori Training College in London wherein he traced his own Montessori journey.

Madam you have overwhelmed me with your words. [Madam Montessori had welcomed Gandhiji as “a soul rather than a man”.]

It was in 1915 when I reached India, that I first became acquainted with your activities. It was in a place called Amreli that I found there was a little school being conducted after the Montessori system. Your name had preceded that first acquaintance. I found no difficulty in finding out at once that this school was not carrying out the spirit of your teaching; the letter was there. But while there was an honest—more or less honest—effort being made, I saw too that there was a great deal of tinsel about it.

I came in touch, then with more such schools, and the more I came in touch, the more I began to understand that the foundation was good and splendid, if the children could be taught through the laws of nature—nature consistent with human dignity, not nature that governs the beast.

…I see the same thing here, and it was a matter of inexpressible joy to me that from childhood the children were brought to understand the virtue of silence. It and how in ,response to a whisper from their teacher, the children came forward one after another, in pin-drop silence. It gave me great joy to see all the beautiful rhythmic movements and as I was watching those movements of the children, my whole heart went out to the millions of the children of the semi-starved villages of India, and I asked myself as my heart went out even to those children, “Is it possible for me to give them these lessons and the training that are being given under your system, to those children?

It was this first meeting that inspired Mahatma Gandhi to visit Montessori schools in Rome on his way back. He declared there, his interest in promoting them in India. The two continued to be in touch. Just after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 when Maria Montessori came to India, Gandhiji was one of the first to send her message of welcome. They met and corresponded during the nearly 10 years that Montessori lived and worked in India. After Italy’s entry into the World War, restrictions were imposed on Montessori as she was being considered as an enemy-alien. Gandhiji expressed sympathy, and regret even, though he was under restrictions himself.

In March 1940 when Madam Montessori was in Ahmedabad she inaugurated the Bal Mandir (kindergarten) in the Sabarmati Ashram campus. Thus the long friendship between two visionaries took concrete form.

As we mark Maria Montessori’s birth anniversary on 31 August, it is a good time to revisit the close links between her and the Mahatma. In these turbulent times, we urgently need to remember their strong belief that to have real peace, we must begin with the children.  

If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children. MK Gandhi

Averting war is the work of politicians; establishing peace is the work of education. Maria Montessori

–Mamata

Fruity Names

I have a guava tree which has just started fruiting this year. And with the enthusiasm of a newbie, it is overdoing the act. But I must marvel at its boldness—a thin, weak tree, it has literally 10s of fruits on each branch and is completely bowed down with the weight. Even after the birds and squirrels have done feasting on them, we are left with about 5-6 fruits every day. Which is a lot more than we can eat.

So I decided to check out some guava-based recipes. A visit to cooking sites threw up a few promising ones. But I got side-tracked. Browsing through the pages, I was reminded that guavas, apart from being called amrood, are also called peru. I was intrigued. Where did that name come from? A fairly straight forward explanation: Guava is believed to be a native of Peru in South America. Guavas came to India only around the 16th century, and probably because consignments were received from Peru, people in and around the port of Bombay started calling it that.  The fruit took well to Indian growing conditions and became popular here. Today peru or guava is the fifth-most widely grown fruit crop of India!

Guava
Guava, also called Peru

That got me thinking of the names of other fruits and vegetables which take their names from the names of places. Obviously, they are not called that in their place of origin, but when they travel, they take along the name. I doubt if anyone in the country of origin knows that the fruits are carrying the names of their countries far and wide, albeit in a strange context (how confusing it would be if people in Peru called a fruit ‘peru’!). And for sure, most people in the destination country after a passage of time, don’t link the name of the fruit to anything–a name is a name is a name and just is.

Here is a look at some more such fruit names

Peaches were called persicum—‘Persian apples’–by the Romans because they were traded by Persians. And a variation of the name stuck in English.

The name ‘currant’ is derived from the ancient Greek city of Corinth, which was known for its production of small dried grapes now known as currants.

Musk melons are sometimes called Cantaloupe. Though the fruit is not native to Italy, it was brought to the Cantus region of that country from Armenia and gained popularity there. As it slowly spread from there to other parts of the world, it carried the name of the Cantus region with it.

Oranges are indigenous to India and the origin of the name is from the Sanskrit naranaga. Most languages call oranges by some variation of this name. But in Greek, it is called portokali  because Portugese merchants traded in them.

Oranges spread far and wide, and variations developed. A type of blood orange which originated in the Mediterranean islands of Malta circled back to India and we call it the ‘Malta’. It is widely grown in Uttarakhand today. Tangerines are a variant which come from Tangier, Morocco.

Though the tamarind probably has its origins in tropical Africa, it has been cultivated in the Indian subcontinent for so long that it is universally known as Tamarind—the date of India!

Even apart from being named for the place of their origin, fruit and vegetable names are often prefixed with place names. The Devenahalli Pomelo for instance, is a special variety of the fruit which grows only in the Devenahalli area around Bangalore airport, and is tagged with Geographical Indicator (GI) status.  Another example is the Shimla Mirch. When the British brought capsicum to India, they first cultivated it in Shimla, so the name of the district is still used to refer to the now-ubiquitous vegetable.

The Nagpur orange, Lima beans, Brussels sprouts, are all named for places where they originated or where they grew abundantly. Ponni rice, so popular in the South, derives its name from the Cauvery, also called Ponni (meaning gold), since it grows in the deltas of this river.

Interestingly, the origin of the word ‘fruit’ itself can be traced back to the Latin word fructus, which comes from frui meaning ‘to enjoy’.

What could be more appropriate!

–Meena

PS: I found a few recipies for peru subzi and chutney, which shall be tried out in due course.

Fighter for Many Freedoms: Hansa Mehta

This week as the Indian national flag flew proudly across the land, it was also a time when we were reminded of the fact that the right to fly this flag was won through a long struggle in which millions of people played their part, big or small.

Going back to the midnight session on 14 August 1947 which marked the birth of a free India. As the session was about to conclude, a lady member of the House came up to the podium in the Central Hall. She handed over the tricolour to the Chairman and announced “It is in the fitness of things that this first flag that will fly over this august House should be a gift from the women of India”.

This lady was Hansa Mehta who was not just a representative of the Indian women, but a champion for universal women’s rights, all her life.

Hansa was born on 3 July 1897 in an affluent and cultured family in Gujarat. Her father was a professor of philosophy at Baroda College and later served as the Dewan of the states of Baroda and Bikaner. Her grandfather Nandshankar Mehta was a social reformer and well known author.

As a student in Baroda Hansa was influenced by the progressive thoughts of the Maharaja of Baroda Sayajirao Gaekwad III, and the philosophy of Aurobindo Ghosh. After graduating with honours in philosophy from Baroda, she left for England to pursue further studies in sociology and philosophy. She also travelled to the United States as an exchange student, and was keenly interested in understanding how their educational system worked. While in England she got to know Sarojini Naidu and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur who planted in her the early seeds of nationalism.

The spark was truly ignited when after her return to India, it was once again Sarojini Naidu who introduced Hansa to Mahatma Gandhi. It was 1922, and Gandhi was locked in Sabarmati Jail in Ahmedabad. Hansa was, as she, recalled “visibly moved” by this meeting. This also proved to be the turning point that launched Hansa into the freedom struggle. She got actively involved in the Non-Cooperation and Swadeshi movements, organising protests, and boycotts of foreign goods, and courting arrest.

Her decision to marry Jivraj Mehta, the then Chief Medical Officer of Baroda, met with opposition from her family and community as the groom was from another community. But she received strong support from the Maharaja of Baroda Sayajirao Gaekwad III. The couple moved to Bombay where Hansa continued her active involvement with the freedom struggle.

On Bapu’s advice, on 1 May 1930, Hansa led the first batch of the Desh Sevika Sangh in a satyagraha which involved picketing foreign cloth and liquor shops. Her organisational skills led to her appointment as President of the Bombay Congress Committee. Hansa was arrested and sentenced to three months in prison. She was released along with the other political prisoners under the Gandhi-Irwin Pact signed on March 5, 1931. In 1932 Hansa and her husband, who was not actively engaged in political life, were once again arrested and detained.

Following her release, she got deeply involved in the political processes which would go on to define the future of Indian polity.

She contested and won the first provincial elections from the Bombay Legislative Council seat in 1937. This was significant because she refused to contest from a reserved seat and was elected as a general category candidate. She remained on the Council till 1949. With her entry into mainstream politics Hansa also began to get closely involved with the All India Women’s Conference, and became its President in 1946. Her progressive vision for women’s empowerment in all fields, starting from education, was reflected in all the work of this organisation.

She became President of the Conference in 1946. In this role she piloted the drafting of the Indian Women’s Charter of Rights and Duties—which became a manifesto for women’s equality. Embodying the spirit of progressive politics, the charter sought among other things equality with men in terms of pay, civil rights, access to health and education, distribution of property, and fair marriage laws.

The next significant milestone was Hansa’s election to India’s Constituent Assembly in 1946. She was one of fifteen women in the Assembly. Rubbing shoulders with other founding fathers, with the shared vision for a new India, Hansa infused the deliberations with her own passion, vision and championing of women’s rights and justice. While the world over suffragettes were fighting for women’s equality, Hansa Mehta was ensuring that India’s constitutional document ensured that women were equal partners. Even as she fought for her own countrywomen, Hansa got the opportunity to carry her mission to an international arena.

Hansa Mehta and Eleanor Roosevelt Source:www.un.org

Around this time Hansa was appointed as an Indian delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. She found serving on the Commission as Vice-Chair to the Chair Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady of the United States. During the discussion on the document that we know today as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it was suggested that the opening words of the first Article should read “All men are born free”. It was the Indian delegate Hansa Mehta who registered strong protest at the wording. Hansa argued that this could later be read to exclude women, and suggested that the word ‘men’ should be changed to ‘persons’ or ‘human beings’. The proposal was seconded by Eleanor Roosevelt. The suggestion was put to vote and was finally enshrined in the document thus: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Thus Hansa put her indelible mark on what is, even today, a milestone document in the history of human rights. Her legacy is not forgotten. In 2015, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon reminded that “The world can thank a daughter of India, Dr Hansa Mehta, for replacing the phrase in the UDHR”.

Hansa Mehta continued her advocacy of women’s education and rights, even as she herself went to attain many “firsts”. She became India’s first woman Vice Chancellor with her appointment at the SNDT University in Bombay. In 1949 she was appointed as the Vice Chancellor of the newly established Baroda University, the first woman to head a co-educational university. She was a prolific writer, and researched and published over twenty books, many focussing on women and children. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1959. She passed away in 1995.

‘Feminist’, ‘Activist’, ‘Reformist’—Hansa Mehta was all these well before the labels became fashionable. A woman ahead of her time, who spent her life fighting for many freedoms, for the cause of her fellow women.

–Mamata

The Jawaja Project

One of the criticisms against academic institutions is that they are far removed from every day realities and seldom contribute in solving real-life challenges.

The Jawaja project undertaken by IIM Ahmedabad in partnership with the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad is an early exception.

It was in 1975 that Ravi Mathai, IIM-A’s legendary first fulltime director, set out on a journey to see how corporate management principles could be used to solve the major problem facing India-poverty. Ravi had stepped down as Director and could now devote time to such a project.

The decision was taken to work in Jawaja, a drought-prone district of Rajasthan, consisting of about 200 villages and 80,000 population. There seemed very little scope for development there, given the arid landscape and lack of water and other physical resources. But Prof Ravi Matthai had a different perspective, because he saw people as the biggest resource.

As they understood the area better, they found that the area had a 300-year tradition of leather-craft. The communities there were also skilled at weaving. And so they decided to build on these skills to develop sustainable livelihoods for the communities there. Prof. Mathai roped in NID to join hands with IIM-A, to work on livelihoods and empowerment of the communities in Jawaja. He and Ashoke Chatterjee, his counterpart in NID, started the journey which involved many faculty from both institutes.

The idea was to connect artisans with contemporary disciplines of management and design, and knowledge institutions which had this knowhow. There were some important basic principles underpinning the effort. The first and foremost was that the relationship was one of mutual respect and learning—after all, even as the communities learnt new skills, the faculty of the institutions were learning how their knowledge could be put to use in solving social problems. Another important aspect was to see how much of the value chain could be controlled by the artisans and communities themselves, so that their incomes could be enhanced. The idea was to innovate and design new products which would have new markets, so that the traditional value chains could be broken and the craftspeople could play a greater role in more areas. The focus was also on working in groups, to give greater resilience and strength to the efforts.

Jawaja bag
A prized Jawaja bag

The process was by design a gradual one, moving from basic products which did not need very high quality—e.g, leather school bags and woven floor mats, to higher value ones like office supplies, more trendy bags, and high-end furnishings.

The challenges were of course many. Apart from the need to design new products which would use the old skills, technologies and equipment, another major concern was quality control.

With regard to production of new designs, a train-the trainer model was envisaged, which did not work quite as planned. With regard to quality control, the idea was that it would initially be done by external experts, and would then be taken over by the crafts groups themselves. This again went slower than foreseen. Funds and resources for developing new products and for procurement of raw material were always a constraint.

But the enduring success of the bold experiment is seen even today at several levels.

The first was the creation of self-reliant institution of crafts people– the Artisans’ Alliance of Jawaja and its associations. These started to manage all links of the value chain in Jawaja, from raw material procurement, finances, bank dealings, design and technology know how, and marketing processes. These are still active today and continue to innovate, produce and market these products which are highly valued.

The second is the impact of the project on the larger development scene. It was the learning from running this grassroots education and empowerment project that the idea of setting up a specialized institution for education in rural management came up, and the Institute of Rural Management (IRMA), Anand, was born. This was given shape by Prof Ravi Mathai and two other professors who had been with IIM-A—Dr.Kamala Chowdhary and Dr.Michael Halse.

The Jawaja experiment widespread legacy is that it influenced development sector thinking on how to approach community-based livelihood interventions in a spirit of mutual respect and learning.

It is an initiative which needs to be much more widely known, understood and discussed.

–Meena

‘Gandhi Budi’ Matangini Hazra

It is in this week, 80 years ago, that Gandhi’s call for Quit India reverberated through the length and breadth of the country, and struck a chord in the heart of old and young. People everywhere gave up their all to heed Gandhi’s call of “Do or Die” as they joined protests against the British government, boycott of foreign goods, and demonstrations in support of swadeshi goods. Last week we remembered a young girl Kanaklata Barua from Assam, who gave her life for the tricolour.

The movement was not confined to the young. People from every walk of life, and of every age threw themselves into the nationalist cause with fervour, undaunted by the challenges, and the risk to their own life. One of these was a poor, uneducated woman from Bengal who lived, and died, for a dream of a free India. This is the story of Matangini Hazra.

The first statue of a woman revolutionary put up in Kolkata in independent India was that of Matangini Hazra.

Matangini was born in 1870, a girl child in a very poor family in Hogla village near Tamluk in Midnapore district in what was then the Bengal Presidency. Her family could not afford to send the child to school, and she remained unlettered all her life. The family circumstances also led to her being married off early to a sixty-year old widower. The child bride became a widow herself by the time she was eighteen. Thereafter, Matangini returned to her parent’s village but chose to live separately. Over the next few years she spent most of her time helping people in her community.

The turn of the century also brought a turn in the life of the young widow. The nationalist movement was gaining momentum; the idea of engaging in a cause that transcended her own village and community attracted the interest and attention of Matangini. She began to participate in local events of protest. Even as she continued her work with local community, she was following the growing movement for independence across the country.

Years passed, as Matangini grew older, but still full of spirit and passion for the cause. On 19 December 1929, the Indian National Congress passed the historic ‘Purna Swaraj’ (total independence) resolution at its Lahore session. A public declaration was made on 26 January 1930 – a day which the Congress Party urged Indians to celebrate as ‘Purna Swaraj’ or ‘Total Independence’ Day.

The Purna Swaraj declaration was followed by the announcement of the Civil Disobedience movement which was led by Mahatma Gandhi. Protesting against the taxation on salt production, Mahatma Gandhi led his followers on a 26-day Dandi March which lasted from 12 March 1930 to 6 April 1930.

On 26 January 1932, the menfolk of Matangini’s village took out a procession to create awareness about the non-cooperation movement, and the political situation in the country. As they passed by her hut, Matangini felt herself being irresistibly drawn into the heart of the action. She joined the procession and marched with the young men, chanting slogans against the British. She was 62 years old, small, and frail in health, but strong in resolve; and she vowed to proactively fight the struggle for independence.

There was no looking back. She joined the nationwide Salt Satygraha. She walked long distances to attend various Congress meetings, and threw herself into all the protest activities. She was arrested for the first time when she took part in salt manufacturing at Alinan, her late husband’s village. After her arrest she was made to walk many miles before she was jailed. She was then released because she was a woman, and her advanced age.

She later participated in the movement for the abolition of the chowkidari tax, a tax collected from villagers to fund a small police force in their areas. This was not only unfair, but the police troops were also used as spies against the villagers by the British Government

During a march towards the court building, to protest against the Governor’s harsh decision to punish all agitators, Matangini was arrested again and made to serve a six-month prison term at Baharampur jail.

In 1933, the then Governor of Bengal Sir John Anderson came to Tamluk to address a gathering. There was tight security everywhere but Matangini managed to reach the dais and stage a black-flag demonstration. She was sentenced to six months rigorous imprisonment. While she was incarcerated, she came in contact with other political prisoners and used this opportunity to learn more about the movement and Gandhi. She was strongly drawn to Gandhi’s ideas and committed to following these in practise. After being released she became an active member of the local unit of the Indian National Congress. She took to regular spinning of khadi on her own charkha, even as her eyesight was failing and her health was deteriorating.

In an incident during the same period, the story goes, that one summer afternoon Matangini was part of a freedom march in the district capital. The marchers reached the residence of the Governor who was standing on his balcony and observing the demonstration while his soldiers cordoned off the immediate area. Matangini, who was leading the protesters managed to break the cordon, and holding aloft the freedom flag rushed ahead shouting Go Back. She was beaten up by British police for this daring act, and was severely injured.

Even as her age increased year by year, so did her rebellious acts. So closely did she associate with Gandhi and his movement that she began to be locally called Gandhi Budi or ‘old lady Gandhi’.

Her feisty spirit and commitment to the cause culminated with the tidal wave of Quit India that was sweeping India. On 29 September 1942, Gandhi Budi led a procession of about 6,000 protesters, mainly women, heading for the Tamluk police station. The plan was to take over the police station from British authorities, and establish home rule in the small town.

Just as the team reached the outskirts of the town, the British police arrived and ordered the marchers to disband, or else be penalised for violating Article 144 (Unlawful Assembly) of the Indian Penal Code. There was chaos. The police tried to stop the march by threatening to shoot at the advancing crowd. Matangini appealed to the police force to refrain from shooting at the protestors. But the police were in no mood to listen. Even after they started to fire, Matangini continued to advance alone, holding aloft the tricolour. The police bullets hit her three times. Injured on the forehead and both hands, Matangini continued to struggle onwards, uttering Vande Mataram and not letting the tricolour fall. She continued marching till she collapsed and died.

Matangini Hazra was 72 years old. She lived a life of dedication to service, and died a hero’s death in the service of the cause of freedom.

–Mamata

I

Fabrics for Freedom: Khadi and Beyond

We are all aware of how central khadi was to our struggle for independence. It was not only about defying the British and refusing to buy their imported cloth, but a potent symbol that it was not mere freedom from colonial rule that was critical, but also economic independence—a means of livelihood for millions of people of the country. In the words of Divya Joshi: ‘Gandhiji presented khadi as a symbol of nationalism, equality and self-reliance. It was his belief that reconstruction of the society and effective Satyagraha against the foreign rule can be possible only through khadi….The spinning wheel was at one time the symbol of India’s poverty and backwardness. Gandhiji turned it into a symbol of self-reliance and non-violence.’

Khadi

But India is not the only country where spinning and weaving of textiles were a core part of a movement for independence. Another large British colony also used this as a weapon. This was the USA!

Britain saw its colonies including the American territories, as suppliers of raw material, insisted that they export all cotton to it, and buy all finished cloth from it. And of course it imposed huge taxes on all these products including fabric.

In defiance, the people in the American colonies started spinning their own cloth, and the spinning wheel because as important a symbol of patriotism in Americanin the 1760s and 1770s as the charkha was to the become in the 20th century in India.

Women were at the forefront of the spinning movement in the American War of Independence, and created their own homespun cloth to disrupt the British monopoly.  Fabric made this way was called “homespun.” Wearing homespun was a symbol of patriotism.  

In certain areas like New England, women showed their protest by going to ‘spinning bees’ where they would set up spinning wheels and keep each other company while they spun yarn. And these were not isolated events—for instance, in a single area, from Harpswell, Maine to Huntington, Long Island, over 60 spinning meetings were held over 32 months starting in March 1768.

The Daughters of Liberty, a group of political dissidents who got together to fight for liberty, were at the forefront of these spinning bees. They organized boycotts of British goods, especially tea, and they manufactured replacement products, especially cloth.

As in India, spinning was at the centre of a lot of publicity and was a rallying point for the freedom fighters. Newspapers reported elaborately on the smallest cloth-making development to amplify the message. Spinning schools were set up and awards were offered for the person who wove the most cloth. Old and young learnt to spin—it is reported that a 70-year-old woman in Newport, R.I., learnt to spin for the first time during the movement. Competitions were held—‘in 1769, two Connecticut women held an all-day spinning contest in which the winner spun seven skeins and two knots of fine linen yarn, just a little more than her competitor’.

The boycott of imported fabric and other goods from tea to molasses, worked, and it is estimated by some sources that the value of imported goods from Great Britain to the US fell by half in 1769 over the previous year, from 420,000 to 208,000 pounds.

So ‘swadeshi’ proved a potent war cry against imperial colonizers halfway across the world!

As it did in India almost 150 years later–rallying self-confidence, morale, giving a sense of identify.

Happy Independence Day!

Buying one pair of Khadi clothes a year can contribute to livelihoods for our millions of weavers. And they need it more than ever now, as the spinning of the national flag, which was their monopoly, has been taken away.

–Meena

‘Birbala’ Kanaklata: Teenage Martyr for the Tricolour

Here is a mantra, a short one that I give to you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is ‘Do or Die.’ We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery. Every true Congressman or woman will join the struggle with inflexible determination not to remain alive to see the country in bondage and slavery.

These words spoken by Gandhi on 8 August 1942 launched the Quit India movement. Although Gandhi and many other leaders were arrested within hours of his speech, with the expectation that without their leadership the resistance movement would be rudderless, the effect was the opposite. Thousands of Indians, young and old, heeded this call and plunged into the movement, each contributing in their own way.

This mantra shared by Gandhiji at the Gowalia Tank Maidan Park in Bombay echoed across the country. Its reverberations reached the eastern corner of India, to Assam, and lit a spark in the heart and mind of a young girl named Kanaklata.

Kanaklata Barua was born on 22 December 1924 in Barangabari village of Gohpur, now in the Sonitpur district in Assam. Her mother died when Kanaklata was only five years old, and the young child developed a sense of responsibility much beyond her tender age. Her father remarried but he also died when she was thirteen. With added household responsibilities, and caring for her siblings, Kanaklata had to drop out of school and could not continue her studies after third standard.

Even as she was growing up in her village in Assam, the sparks of the nationwide freedom movement were spreading across the length and breadth of the country. The non-cooperation movement was gaining strength. The movement reached a climax with Gandhi’s call for “Do or Die”, and the wave of the Quit India Movement surged to new heights.

In Assam too there were widespread protests against British rule, and young and old joined in. Initially the protests were peaceful, but the British arrested all the Congress leaders of the state, and stepped up their brutal repression of the people. This only strengthened the opposition, and engendered underground conspiracies to fight the British. Among these was the setting up of a suicide squad which engaged in subversive activities like derailing and burning trains, attacking army outposts and snapping communication channels.

Seventeen-year-old Kanaklata was inspired and fired by the cause, and eager to contribute. Her dream was to join the Azad Hind Fauj, but as she was still a minor, she was not permitted to do so. Undeterred, she volunteered to join Mrityu Bahini–a suicide squad. For this too she was technically underage, but her determination and passion for the freedom movement was considered suitable for granting her membership. Subsequently she became the leader of the women’s cadre of the Mrityu Bahini.

The then president of the local Congress committee, Kushal Konwar was an ardent believer of non-violence proposed by Gandhi. He was falsely accused by the British for derailing a train which killed many British soldiers, and he was hanged. After the martyrdom of Kushal Konwar, the revolutionary camp of Gohpur division, under the leadership of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, decided to mark their protest by removing the British flag and unfurling the National Flag at the local police station.

On 20 September 1942, Kanaklata led the procession of members of the Mrityu Bahini, walking proudly with the national flag in her hand, and with cries of Vande Mataram. The officer-in-charge of the police station was anticipating this. He warned the procession not to proceed further. He threatened that the police were duty-bound to start firing if the protesters advanced. Kanaklata responded by saying that he could do his duty while she carried on with her duty.

The procession carried on towards the police station; Kanaklata was leading, with the tricolour held aloft in her hands. As they neared, the police fired. Kanaklata fell to the bullet, with the flag still firmly held up. Before the flag could touch the ground it was taken by Mukunda Kakoti, another member from the group. He too was felled by a police bullet. Two young lives, snuffed out even before they attained adulthood. Kanaklata was not yet eighteen years old, and did not live to see the independent India of her dreams.

Their martyrdom did not go in vain. Even as their comrades were breathing their last, the others in the group did not let the tricolour down. They picked it up and with cries of Vande Mataram, the flag was eventually unfurled at the police station. One of the millions of small but significant gestures that added nail after nail to the coffin of the end of British rule in India.

While Kanaklata’s tale is not well known, it has at least been told. This month as we remember the many struggles and sacrifices that contributed to the unique non-violent movement that led India to become Independent, let us also pay tribute to the many unsung heroes and heroines who gave their all, even their life, for this cause.  

And as we swell with pride to see the Indian tricolour fly freely and fearlessly, let us not forget the brave young woman “Birbala” Kanaklata Barua who gave her life for it.

–Mamata

Animal Tales

Since the beginning of human history, people and animals have lived in close contact. Animals are an integral part of our lives. The relationships vary: animals may be domesticated for work; they may be loved as pets; they may be hunted as food; they may be admired and envied for their strength or other qualities; they may be. But even beyond these relationships, animals fascinate humans and so the numerous myths and stories, the worship of animals, and their symbolism.  

In last week’s post marking International Tiger Day, we saw a few myths, stories and legends about tigers. While there are many tiger-stories, it is not just tigers, but many, many animals and birds—real and imaginary who feature in these tales.

The book ‘Adbhut: Marvelous Creatures of Indian Myth and Folklore’ by Meena Arora Nayak, provides an overview of many of these. The book compiles 55 stories, drawing from all religious and cultural traditions.

The book is organized into different sections: Creatures of the Sky; Creatures of the Sea; Creatures of the Earth; Other Creatures of Air, Water and Land—Worms, Insects, Reptiles and Dragons; and Creature of Amalgam.

The last two are less familiar categories, so here are a few fascinating stories drawn from these sections of the book:

Bhramari the Beehive Goddess: Aruna was a daitya who had received a boon from Brahma, giving him immunity from death by war, weapons, man or woman, biped or quadruped or a combination thereof. To circumvent these conditions, Goddess Adi Shakti took the form of Bhramari, and her body became a beehive from which swarms of bees emerged. The bee swarms attacked and destroyed the daityas, who had no weapons against them. And at the end of the mission, all the bees merged into the Goddess’ form.

Shamir the Stone-cutting Worm: Shamir the worm was just the size of a grain of barley, but his gaze is so sharp that it could cut through stone, iron and even diamond. It is believed that the Shamir was used by Moses to engrave the names of the twelve tribes of Israel on the breastplate of a priest. After this, Shamir disappeared. It was with great difficulty that King Solomon found him and brought him to help build the First Temple in Jerusalem. The King did not want to use any tools to cut the stones because the use of such tools symbolized violence. He therefore used the shamir to cut the stones.

Nariphon the Plant Women: Both Hindu and Buddhist traditions talk about these. The mythical mountain of Meru stands in the midst of thick forests. The trees in this forest bear not fruits but beautiful young women. They emerge from the pods feet first, hanging from the trees on stems attached to their heads. They are about eight inches long. It is believed that in the last incarnation of Buddha before he was born as Siddhartha Gautama, he was so generous that his people banished him, his wife Maddi and children, to the jungle so the kingdom did not go bankrupt. Indra is said to have created Nariphon so that the eyes of itinerant sages would be drawn to these exquisite little creatures rather than to Maddi.

An interesting book which gives insights into the fascinating relationships of humans and animals, and reminds of the close bonds between humans and other animals. While not told in a story-telling style, it does indicate how our love, fears, imagination all come into play in the creation of myths and legends. The book lends itself to creative illustrations, and one wonders why only the back and front covers have them.

–Meena

Paper Tigers

29 July is International Tiger Day. The day was first launched at the Saint Petersburg Tiger Summit in Russia in 2010 and is observed annually to remind the world about the decline of the global tiger population, and to encourage efforts for tiger conservation. On this day we will see many reports and statistics about tigers and their falling/growing population, and many conferences and seminars will be held on research and studies on tigers.

This is perhaps a good time to look at the tigers that roam not the forests, but that have also populated the pages of language and literature. The tiger has been a dominant character in folklore and mythology in many cultures.  

Perhaps China is the richest country in myths, representations, traditions, and legends related to tigers. Tigers have been a Chinese cultural symbol which has inspired story tellers, singers, poets, artists, and craftspeople for over 7000 years. In Chinese folklore, tigers are believed to be such powerful creatures that they are endowed with the ability to ward off the three main household disasters: fire, thieves and evil spirits. A painting of a tiger is often hung on a wall inside a building, facing the entrance, to ensure that demons would be too afraid to enter. Even in modern- day China, children wear tiger-headed caps, and shoes embroidered with tiger heads to ward off evil spirits; they are given tiger-shaped pillows to sleep on to make them robust. During the year of the Tiger, children have the character Wang painted on their foreheads in wine and mercury to promote vigour and health.

The tiger has equally captivated the people of the Indian subcontinent since time immemorial – feared and revered at the same time. These majestic beats and the lives of the people, especially those that live in close proximity to the tiger and its habitat, have long been intertwined, giving rise to several myths and legends surrounding them. Tiger lore has been interwoven with gods and legends, giving it a mythical status.

According to stories from Indian mythology, the tiger is believed to have powers to do everything from fighting demons, to creating rain, keeping children safe from nightmares, and healing. Humans are often attributed as having tiger characteristics. The consecration ceremony of a king in ancient times required the king to tread upon a tiger skin, signifying the King’s strength.

Songs, proverbs, and sayings in most Indian languages feature tigers as part of their treasury of folk lore and literature. Tigers appear in many stories in the Panchatantra.

A popular belief among many tribes in the Northeast of India is that the cosmic spirit, humans, and tigers are brothers. There are many folk tales based on this theme, with local variations. The belief that the tiger is a human’s brother has meant that the people of these tribes would rarely kill a tiger. There are traditional rituals performed even today to honour and worship the tiger.  

In more recent times, tigers were introduced to non-Asian audiences through the writings of Englishmen who had lived in colonial India by authors such as the famous hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett. His books like The Man Eaters of Kumaon were perhaps some of the early depictions of human-tiger conflict.

In the culture of the West, where they are not found in the wild, tigers have nevertheless sparked the imaginations of writers, and have become popular fictional characters in stories, films, cartoons, songs, and even advertisements. Perhaps the best recreation of the fearsome tiger is Shere Khan of the Jungle Book fame.

Anthropomorphized tiger characters in children’s books have won their place in millions of hearts. There is boisterous and exuberant, Tigger, who is a one-of-a-kind friend in the world of Winnie the Pooh. He eagerly shares his enthusiasm with others—whether they want him to or not, and steals our heart.

Calvin and Hobbes

And we have the imaginary stuffed tiger Hobbes in the cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes, who is very real to the irrepressible six-year-old Calvin—a faithful companion in all the capers, sometimes a comforting friend, sometimes a savage beast. The two friends have deep philosophical conversations, ruminating on how best to find meaning in their lives, the essence of which is what all of us are seeking.

Other than literature, tigers have permeated our language through numerous aphorisms, proverbs and sayings. Here are a few ‘tigerisms’.

Paper tiger: Someone who at first glance seems to be in charge but who, on closer examination, is completely powerless.

Tiger economy: A dynamic economy usually referring to of one of the smaller East Asian countries, especially that of Singapore, Taiwan, or South Korea.

Tiger mom: A particularly strict mother who makes her children work very hard in school to achieve success.

Catch a tiger by the tail: Try to control something that is very powerful; have a difficult problem to solve.

A tiger cannot change its stripes: You can’t change your true nature, even if you pretend or claim otherwise.

Eye of the tiger: Determined and focused

A new-born calf has no fear of tigers: A Chinese saying that means that the young are brave, but often due to inexperience.

As tigers in the wild continue to be threatened and pushed towards extinction, International Tiger Day is also an occasion to celebrate the power of words that keep the tiger alive and vibrant in the pages that they also inhabit.

Some beautiful words by Ruskin Bond capture this spirit.

Tigers Forever

May there always be tigers

In the jungles and tall grass

May the tiger’s roar be heard.

May his thunder

Be known in the land.

At the forest pool by moonlight

May he drink and raise his head

Scenting the night wind.

May he crouch low in the grass

When herdsmen pass.

And slumber in dark caverns

When the sun is high.

May there always be tigers

But not so many that one of them

Might be tempted to come into my room

In search of a meal!

Ruskin Bond

–Mamata

The Proud Tricolour

75 years ago, on 22 July 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru moved the motion for the adoption of the national flag. This is what he said on the occasion: ‘the national flag of India shall be horizontal tricolor of deep saffron (kesariya), white and dark green in equal proportions. In the centre of the white band, there shall be a wheel in navy blue to represent the chakra.’

Indian flag

Today, there are many who interpret the symbolism of the flag in different ways. But it would make sense to go back and understand the thinking of the founding fathers of the nation, who discussed and debated these issues long and hard. And what better way to understand this than through the words of one of the most eminent thinkers of the 20th century, academic, statesman and philosopher, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan?  Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan later President of India, speaking on the motion moved by Nehru, explained the meaning of the flag design. Here are some quotes from this speech:

‘The world is full of misunderstandings, suspicions and distrusts. In these difficult days, it depends on us under what banner we fight. Here we are putting in the very centre the white, the white of the sun’s rays. The white means the path of light. There is darkness even at noon .. but it is necessary for us to dissipate these clouds and control our conduct—by the ideal light, the light of truth, of transparent simplicity which is illustrated by the colour of white.

We cannot attain purity, we cannot gain our goal of truth unless we walk the path of virtue. The Ashoka wheel represents the wheel of the law, the wheel of Dharma. Truth can be gained only by the pursuit of the path of Dharma, the practice of virtue. Truth, dharma, virtue, these ought to be the controlling principles of those who work under this Flag.’

‘The red, the orange, the Bhagwa colour, represents the spirit of renunciation. …Our leaders must be disinterested. They must be dedicated spirits.’ ..’That stands for the fact that the world belongs not to the wealthy, not to the prosperous but to the meek and humble, the dedicated and the detached.’

‘The green is our relation to the soil, our relation to plant life here on which all other life depends. We must build our Paradise here on this green earth. If we are to succeed in this enterprise, we must be guided by truth (white), practice virtue (wheel), adopt the method of self-control and renunciation (saffron).’

 In the same speech, he refers to the need for our society to change what is wrong with it. ‘Dharma is something that is perpetually moving. ..There are so many institutions which are worked into our social fabric like caste and untouchability. Unless these things are scrapped, we cannot say that we either seek truth or practice virtue. ..Our Dharma is Sanatana, eternal, not in the sense that it is a fixed deposit, but in the sense that it is perpetually changing…So even with regard to our social conditions, it is essential for us to move forward.’

Dr. Radhakrishnan occupied the George V Chair in Philosophy at Calcutta University; served as Vice Chancellor of Andhra University and Benaras Hindu University. Oxford University appointed him to the H.N. Spalding Chair of Eastern Religions and Ethics. He served on India’s Constituent Assembly and also as chairman of the University Education Commission. He was a chairman of the Board of UNESCO and leader of the Indian delegation to the same. He was Indian Ambassador to Moscow, then Vice President of the country, and its second president from 1962 to 1967.

He was a nationalist who believed in an India built and guided by those who were truly educated, by those who had a personal vision of and commitment to raising Indian self-consciousness.

His scholarly works include: Indian Philosophy, 2 vol; The Philosophy of the Upanishads;  An Idealist View of Life Eastern Religions and Western Thought;  East and West: Some Reflections; A Sourcebook of Indian Philosophy; and The Pursuit of Truth.

And of course, many of us have grown up reading his Ramayana and Mahabharata!

So as we mark the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Tricolour, and are almost upon our 75th Independence Day, it is time to re-dedicate ourselves to the real meaning of the flag, which Dr. Radhakrishnan’ sums up as: ‘The Flag tells us ‘Go ever alert, be ever on the move, go forward, work for a free, flexible, compassionate, decent, democratic society in which Christians, Sikhs, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, will all find a safe shelter.’

–Meena