Stories: The Magic Wand

This week saw children making the headlines. November 14 is celebrated as Children’s Day in India, to mark the birthday of India’s first Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru. The day is marked by events that engage children in activities dear to them—of which playing and stories remain all-time favourites.

This year the Gujarat government has recognised the immense value of stories for children and has declared that 15 November will be celebrated as Children’s Stories Day or Balvarta Din.

15 November marks the birth anniversary of Gijubhai Badheka, one of Gujarat’s best known children’s storytellers and educationists, who had been called the Brahma of Children’s Literature. In Gujarat his name is synonymous with a rich treasure of stories for children. Generations of children have grown up with these tales, told and retold by parents and grandparents.

Born in 1885 Gijubhai started his professional life as a Pleader in a district court. In the early 1920s he got deeply involved in the upbringing of his own son. Under the influence of the thinking of Madam Montessori he started experiments in child-centred education, when he joined the Dakshinamurti educational institutions in Bhavnagar. His vision and passion for experimenting in his field led to the setting up of the Dakshinamurti Balmandir—a pre-primary school in 1920. It is in the early says of his interactions with the children here that he realised the importance of stories for children as a means of learning. He started collecting stories for children, writing them, and telling them. He believed that stories were the magic wand that transformed children in many ways.

There was, at that time, not much literature in Gujarati which was specifically written for children. It was Gijubhai who established the child as an individual, and created a special space, and resources for the child, in literature.

As he wrote in his seminal work in Gujarati, on the art and craft of stories titled Vaarta nu Shastra: By calling a story a children’s story does not make it one. Children’s stories are those that children get a special type of enjoyment from. Children like short and simple stories. Reflections of what happens around them, behaviour of birds and animals, small rhymes that can be easily remembered and repeated—these are the characteristics of children’s stories.

But at the time there were no stories available that would fit this bill. Gijubhai delved   into the treasure chest of folk literature. He asked all the teachers and teacher trainees of Dakshinamurti to start collecting folk stories that were still being told in homes, in villages, and in fields, and pick those that would be suitable for children.

As he wrote in Vaarta nu Shastra “If you seek folk literature you will have to leave the city and go to the villages, and from villages, move into the forests and fields. When the toothless grandmother finishes her chores, and rubbing tobacco on her gums, starts to tell stories to the gaggle of children, there springs the magic of folk tales. You will find folk literature in every village chaupal; children will be spreading it freely from galli to galli, and grandmothers will be distributing the prasad in their homes.

Gijubhai and his colleagues went out as seekers of stories and returned with a rich repertoire of tales, songs, rhymes, riddles and sayings. He then retold these for children with his characteristic short sentences, word play, rhyme and dialogues.

And so every morning he told the children a story. In the afternoon the children would enact the stories. Soon they became so adept that they did not need to memorise the words; the rhymes flowed naturally and if they forgot in between, they made up the words as they went along. As he wrote: If you collect a group of children and tell them a story, they will tell you ten more.

Gijubhai’s search for folk tales crossed the boundaries of language and country. He explored and discovered gems in the literature of different countries, and found incredible variety, as well as similarities. He localised and transformed these stories so that they were steeped in the sounds and colours of Gujarat, and over time they became not only Gujarati but uniquely ‘Gijubhai’s stories’.

Gijubhai’s stories are simply told tales with a mixture of prose and rhyme. There is a lot of dialogue and reiteration. The repetition of rhymes makes for lively storytelling in  which listeners can also join in. Many stories follow a sequence of cause and effect, leading to a chain reaction which is reinforced in verse. Children love the repetitive rhymes. Several stories have improbable characters and plots. Children love the absurd, fanciful and nonsensical.

Gijubhai told delightful tales of familiar animals and birds. In many, the animals talk and act in human ways while also reflecting each animals typical characteristics. The stories reflect a deep symbiotic relationship between animals and people with the two often trying to outwit each other. With equal panache Gijubhai told stories of common folk with common trades (tailor, potter, barber, shopkeeper), as well as kings, queens and princesses.  The characters reflect basic human traits—greed, envy, proving physical or mental prowess. Many stories follow the classic fairy tale style, opening with ‘once upon a time’ and ending with ‘happily ever after’. They capture the rustic flavour and pace of the days when travel meant walking from one village to another, and long-distance meant a bullock cart journey; and many encounters and adventures happened en route.

Several generations and a hundred years later, children today may not relate as closely to the settings and the pace of the narrative, and yet, the quirks and foibles of the characters; the silly and the absurd, the funny and the fantastic still touch a cord in the child, and indeed in the child in every one of us.

The initiative to celebrate Gijubhai and his stories by designating a Children’s Stories Day is a welcome one. In a time when children are so hooked into the digital world, perhaps even adults need to be reminded of the simple joys of storytelling. In the words of Gijubhai:

To My Fellow Storytellers

Here are the stories. Tell these to your children. They will listen with ardour and joy, over and over again. Remember, tell these stories beautifully; tell them as stories should be told—tell them with involvement. Read them out if you like. Choose a story that will suit your children’s age and interest.

Don’t tell the stories to bestow knowledge; don’t tell the stories as an objective narrator. Immerse yourself in the stories and take your children with you into the total experience.

You will discover that stories are a magic wand. If you want to build a bond with your children, start with stories.

–Mamata

Gandhi’s Women Warriors: M.S. Subbalakshmi

‘Warrior’ is a word far from the image of M.S., the doyen of Carnatic music, and the personification of spirituality, goodness and gentleness to people across the country and the world. The one who voiced the message of world peace at the UN on the occasion of its 50th anniversary through Kanchi Shankaracharya Shri Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi’s composition, which starts with ‘Maithreem Bhajatha Akila Hrith Jeththreem’—meaning,Serve with Friendship and Humility which will conquer the Hearts of Everyone; and ends with ‘Shreyo Bhooyaath Sakala Janaanaam’—meaning,  May All People of this World be Happy and Prosperous.

But she was indeed a warrior active in the Freedom Movement.  Along with her husband Sadasivam who participated in the first Satyagraha launched by Gandhiji in 1920, she was passionately committed to India’s Independence. She attended several Congress Sessions in the thirties and forties and sang at many of them. Her husband Sadasivam also used to sing at the start of local political meetings–usually songs by the fiery Tamil poet Bharatiyar–to enthuse the crowds and fill them with patriotic fervour. But after he got married to MS, he never sang publically!

MS Amma and Sadasivam were close to Gandhiji, Rajagopalachari, and many other freedom fighters, and were iconic in the South as symbols of the freedom movement.

Gandhiji recognized her ability to raise money for the freedom struggle through her music. She gave several concerts to do this. In 1944, she gave a series of five concerts to raise resources for the Kasturba Memorial Fund. Gandhiji wrote her a letter to thank her for this, signing it in Tamil.

Gandhi MS.Subbalakshmi
Gandhiji’s Letter to MS Subbalakshmi. Google Arts and Culture

In 1947, a few months prior to Independence, M.S Amma received a message from Gandhiji to record one of his favourite bhajans ‘Hari tum haro..’ and send it to him. In keeping with her characteristic humility, Amma did not feel she could do justice to the bhajan as she was unfamiliar with it, and suggested to Gandhiji that someone else should sing it. Gandhiji replied that he would rather have her recite it, than have anyone else sing it! So she did the recording and sent it on immediately. Not long afterwards, Gandhiji passed away. After the announcement of this news on All India Radio, they played her rendition of the bhajan. It is said that M.S. fainted at this point.

She was the first musician to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, and was the first Indian musician to get the Ramon Magsaysay award.

Her generosity and charity saw her support to many other causes through her lifetime.  The Tamil Isai movement—the movement to promote Tamil songs in Carnatic music–was one she was passionate about, and raised a lot of money for.  Her manifold awards included huge cash prizes, most of which she donated. She is said to have given over 200 concerts for charity, and raised over a crore of rupees  (in the sixties and seventies!). The royalties from her recording of Venkatesa Subrabhatam, which rings out every morning in every South India town and village, were written over to the Veda Patasala of the Tirupati Temple. Royalties from many other recordings were given to several other charities. In fact, so deep was her charitable instinct that it depleted her personal wealth considerably, necessitating considerable modification of her lifestyle.

But in the spirit of any of Gandhiji’s warriors, it was others before self for M.S. Amma!

–Meena

Gandhi’s Women Warriors: Poornima Pakvasa

The women of India should have as much share in winning swaraj as men.  …I hope that women all over India will take up the challenge and organize themselves.”

It was in words such as these that the Mahatma appealed to the women of India to join the struggle for freedom.

Among the thousands of women across the country who responded to Gandhi’s call, and who continued to live and practise his message of satyagraha, self-reliance and dedicated service to the people right through their life, was a young woman from Gujarat—Poornima Pakvasa.

Poornima was born in Ranpur near Limdi in Saurashtra in a family of strong nationalistic beliefs. She first met Gandhi when she was eight years old, and this proved to be the defining moment in her life. By the time she was 18 years old she was an active participant in the Satyagraha movement.

Gandhi’s Dandi March in 1930 had ignited a nationwide fervour. Initially Gandhi had included no women in the Dandi March. But women everywhere protested this decision and insisted that they wanted to be full participants in the protest marches, demonstrations, boycotts, and even imprisonment. Kasturba Gandhi herself was equally adamant on this point. These women went from village to village and town to town, urging other women to come out of their homes and join the movement by picketing liquor shops, advocating the boycott of foreign cloth, and encouraging the spinning and weaving of khadi. Young Poornima was an impassioned crusader in the swadeshi movement and demonstrations of defiance to the British rule. It was during this period that she was arrested and put in prison in Rajkot. As it happened, she was incarcerated in the same cell as Kasturba Gandhi, Maniben Patel and Mridula Sarabhai who became her real-life inspirations and role models. While she was in prison Poornima spent her time teaching English reading and writing to the women inmates, including Kasturba. The two became close, with Kasturba nurturing the young girl, who in turn found in Kasturba the mother that she had lost. It is said that Gandhi was so pleased with Poornima’s efforts that he gave his blessings that she should continue on the path of education. And indeed, this is what was to become Poornima’s life mission.

In the meanwhile Poornima became more deeply involved in the politics of the freedom struggle. She participated in the 51st session of the Indian National Congress at Haripura in 1938. There was a massive turn out, estimated at more than half a million people, and Poornima proved her mettle as a volunteer in managing the crowds.

It was in the same year that Poornima got married to Arvind Pakvasa, the son of Mangaldas Pakvasa who was a close confidante of Gandhi, and who had left a successful practise as a solicitor to devote himself to the freedom struggle. He later became one of the first five governors of independent India. Thus Poornima moved into an active nationalistic family. But she herself took a break from political activism to devote time to her family, and bring up her three children. One daughter went on to  achieve fame as the danseuse Sonal Mansingh. Poornima herself was an accomplished Manipuri dancer, and singer.

Having been a part of India’s struggle for Swaraj, Poornima could not but be drawn back into active engagement with the issues that the Independent India was challenged with. In 1954 she started Stree Shakti Dal an organisation for the cultural, physical and spiritual education of women in Bombay. She encouraged women to become physically and mentally strong; girls were trained in using laathis, rifle shooting, and self defence. She also headed the Bhonsala Military School in Nasik for 25 years.

Through the years, Poornima had been deeply concerned about the condition of tribal girls, and was strongly driven by a passion to do something concrete about this. Poornima remembered how, when she was just a teenager, Kasturba had nurtured her with love and compassion, and also Gandhiji’s belief that she could contribute to the field of education. She pledged that she would live up to the faith of Kasturba and Gandhiji, and strived to give generously of herself to better the lives of young tribal girls.

Her vision and mission fructified with the establishment of the Ritambhara Vishwa Vidyapeeth in the Saputara region of the Dangs district of Gujarat in 1974. The early days were challenging, in a place (a remote hilly area) and time when education for tribal girls was unheard of. Poornima herself went from door to door to convince parents to send their daughters to school. The school started with only 15 girls. Poornima mentored the young girls and inculcated in them a love for education, and classical arts, as well as empowerment through physical fitness and vocational skills. 

Directed by Poornima’s vision and passion the Ritambhara Vishwa Vidyapeeth extended its activities to become a residential school and college for tribal girls of the area, where hundreds of tribal girls are provided free lodging and boarding facilities and education from 6th up to 12th standards. Over the years, thousands of tribal girls have emerged from the Rithambhara Vidyapeeth as self-confident and capable young women.

The Gramin Vikas Trust was set up to complement Poornima Pakvasa’s work in the educational field with overall developmental activities. Her trailblazing work and contribution to the nation was recognised by conferring on her the Padma Bhushan in 2004. But for the people of the Dangs, she was simply “Didi”– the big sister who was a mentor, a steady supporter, and an inspiration.

Poornima Pakvasa continued to live and work in Saputara until she passed away at the age of 102 on 25 April 2016. Her legacy lives on through the thousands of lives that she touched.

–Mamata

RIP Dr. SM Nair: Father of Natural History Museums

There are the pioneers, and he was among them. Museology is not a widely-known or popular field of study even today. Way back in the 1950s, it was even less so. This is the time at which a young boy from Kerala, after finishing his B.Sc in Trivandrum, travelled all the way to Baroda to pursue his M.Sc in the subject, at the M.S. University. He went on to do research on the Bio-deterioration of Museum Materials, and was awarded the first Doctorate in Museology from M.S. University for this work.

Dr. Nair started his career as an academic, first teaching at his alma mater in Baroda, and then moving on to Department of Museum Studies, BITS Pilani.

Mrs. Indira Gandhi, then-PM, and a leader who took great interest in the environment, had been very impressed by the Natural History Museums she saw during her visits to Europe. She wanted to create similar ones in India. She conceived of a plan for one in New Delhi and one in Bhopal. She put together an eminent team of museum professionals and scientists to take this idea forward. One thing led to another, and Dr. SM Nair, only 37 years old at that time, was chosen as the Project Director for this initiative in 1974.

Dr. Nair and Mrs. Gandhi at NMNH
Dr. Nair and Mrs. Gandhi at NMNH

Four hectic years followed, when the conceptualization, planning and execution was done by a dedicated core team including Shri D.P.Singh, S.K. Saraswat, B. Venugopal and several others. Dr. Nair visited the best Natural History Museums around the world. He got several artists and model-makers trained at the best centres in the world. And the National Museum of Natural History opened its doors to the public on June 5, 1978 (Environment Day). Subsequently, Regional Museums of Natural History came up in Mysore, Bhopal and Bhubaneswar  under Dr. Nair’s guidance.

The stuffed rhino that greeted one on the ground floor of the FICCI building where NMNH was housed, will surely be in the memories of many a Delhi school child. The rhino had died a natural death at the Delhi Zoo, and was stuffed and kept here.

The effort in NMNH was always to make the experience interactive for children. For those times, when most museums were static displays, this focus was unusual. The Museum also had a major thrust on outreach and extension. It had an active teacher training and orientation programme, which reached out to thousands of educators in its time.

Dr. Nair had a personal connect with every exhibit and activity at NMNH, and continued to take an interest in it even after his retirement in the late ‘90s. What he must have gone through on 26th April 2016, when the news of a fire breaking out in the museum and destroying the entire collection, can only be imagined.

Dr. Nair continued to be active in his mission of Environmental Education long after his retirement, working at WWF-India and Centre for Environment Education.

Not just at a national level, he was extremely respected internationally, serving as Chairman of Natural History Museum Committee of ICOM (international Council of Museums) and as

a Member of the Joint Museum Committee of the lndo-US Subcommission on Education and Culture.

Among his books are ‘Endangered Animals of India and their Conservation’, brought out by the National Book Trust, and  ‘Bio-deterioration of Museum Materials’ by Agam Kala Prakashan.

We knew Dr. Nair since the mid-eighties, as one of the fathers of the Environmental Education movement an India.

He mentored us first as a member of the Governing Council of CEE, and then as a senior colleague. Even today, old-timers in CEE-VIKSAT recall his contribution to these institutions with great respect—when it was a struggling NGO, he spotted the potential of the team and gave them a project to develop labels and take-away materials for the NMNH exhibits. This not only paid salaries for a couple of months, but gave them their first project from a national-level, government institution. This project was a critical stepping-stone.

We have also known him as the father of a colleague, Meena, who was inspired by him to follow in his footsteps in a career in Environmental Education.

NMNH and other natural history museums excited the imagination and curiosity of generations of children. NMNH may no longer exist, but Dr. Nair’s legacy lives on.

Dr. Nair passed away last week. May his soul rest in peace.

Dr. SM Nair (1937-2021).

–Meena

Gandhi’s Women Warriors: Perin Captain

This month as we remember the Father of the Nation Gandhi, it is also a good time to remember some of the many women warriors who played significant parts in the march for Indian independence. Among these was Perin Naoroji Captain.

Perin was the granddaughter of the ‘Grand Old Man of India’ Dadabhai Naoroji. She was born on 12 October 1888 in Mandvi in the Kutch district of Gujarat. Her father Ardeshir, Dadabhai Naoroji’s elder son was a medical doctor and her mother Virbai Dadina a home maker. Perin’s father died when she was only 5 years old. She did her schooling in Bombay and moved to Paris for higher studies where she did a degree in French language.

It was while she was a student at the Sorbonne in Paris that Perin met Madam Bhikaji Cama who was living there in self-exile. Bhikaji had gone to Europe, and then to London in1902, to rest and recover from the bubonic plague of 1896 which she had caught while volunteering to work with the victims in Bombay. Though she recovered, the disease left her in poor health. While she was in London Bhikaji met Dadabhai Naoroji who was a strong critic of the British economic policy and she began working for the Indian National Congress. She also was a close associate of Veer Savarkar. It was while she was in London that Bhikaji was informed that she would not be allowed to return to India unless she signed a statement that she would not take part in nationalist activities. Bhikaji Cama refused to do so, and remained in exile in Europe from where she continued to support the revolutionaries in every possible way.

At the time when Perin met Madam Cama, the latter was deeply involved in trying for the release of Savarkar who was imprisoned in London for defying the British. During her Paris student days Perin was actively involved in a number of ‘revolutionary’ causes including the conspiracy to get Savarkar out of jail, and working with Polish émigré organisations who were opposing the Tsarist rule in Russia. During these interactions, Perin and her sister Gosi also learned how to use firearms and assemble bombs.  

Perin returned to India in 1911. An opportunity to meet Gandhi transformed her ‘revolutionary’ zeal into a lifelong belief in the power of non-violent protest as an effective weapon. By 1919 she was fully committed to the Swadeshi movement and started wearing khadi. In 1920 she helped to establish the Rashtriya Stree Sabha, a women’s’ movement based on Gandhian ideals. She married the eminent lawyer DS Captain in 1925. The couple did not have children. 

The countrywide civil disobedience movement that Gandhi launched with the Salt March in 1930 marked the first time that women, en masse, became active  participants in the country’s struggle for freedom. Thousands of women, in cities and villages, demonstrated their support by joining the protest marches, picketing of foreign goods, and manufacturing and selling salt. In the first ten months of 1930 as many as 17,000 women were convicted for these activities.

 Perin Captain, along with other women leaders like Kamaldevi Chattopadhyay was on the forefront of the protests in Bombay. Every day they led groups of satyagrahis, singing national songs, to the seaside to bring sea water which was dried in cement pans. The salt was packed in small packets and the ladies went to different places to sell the packets. Sometimes the salt packets were auctioned and sold to the highest bidder (at one place the highest bid was two rupees). Perin and Kamaladevi addressed a number of public meetings encouraging people to show their solidarity and join the peaceful protests. This was all under the watchful eyes of the British police. The name of Perin Captain features frequently in the Daily Reports of the Police Commissioner of Bombay submitted to the Secretary to Government of Bombay Presidency. The police intelligence was keeping a close watch on the unfurling movement of civil disobedience, as well as its leaders.

As an active member of the Congress party Perin was also trusted by Gandhi to ensure that the protests remained scrupulously non-violent and passive. On 4 July 1930 Perin was arrested as she was setting out for the Congress office. As a newspaper reported “she cheerfully submitted to the officers who came to her home”. Once the news of her arrest spread, the Municipal Corporation of Bombay adjourned, the Sugar Merchants’ Association passed a unanimous resolution to boycott British refined sugar.

Perin Captain’s leadership qualities saw her playing an active role in many other areas, but the Civil Disobedience Movement was a defining episode in her public life.

Perin was a trusted and active member of the Congress party in the state. In 1932 she became the first woman president of the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee. In 1937 the Congress Party came to power in eleven provinces in the provincial elections. In order to prepare for the future responsibilities that such developments would lead to, the Indian National Congress formed a National Planning Committee with Jawaharlal Nehru as Chairman. The Committee was clear that in such a future, women would be on an equal footing with men, and any planning should be based on this premise. Perin was a member of the sub-committee on Women’s Role in a Planned Economy. This committee debated and planned policy for issues such as women’s social, economic and political status, education, marriage, maternity and succession.

Over time smaller Gandhian bodies were merged into what became the Gandhi Seva Sena. Perin became its Honorary General Secretary, a post she held until her death. The Gandhi Seva Sena promoted khadi by selling rural and khadi products from their stores.

Even after independence Perin continued to work actively in the field of social work and welfare.  Perin was appointed Chief Commissioner of Bharat Guides. She was honoured with the Padma Sri in 1954, the first batch of civil awards presented in independent India. She died in Jahangir Nursing Home, Pune in 1958.

Perin Naoroji Captain was not only the granddaughter of the Grand Old Man of India, she was a true daughter of India’s swadeshi movement who boldly carried the message of the Mahatma to thousands of her fellow sisters.

–Mamata

Gandhi’s Women Warriors: Usha Mehta

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.

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Among the crowd that directly heard the words from Gandhi on that day was a 22 year-old woman who took on the onus of spreading his message far and wide through unconventional means—secret radio broadcasts. This was Usha Mehta.

Usha Mehta was truly a daughter of the freedom movement, growing up as Gandhi led India each step forward on the road to independence. She was born on 25 March 1920 in a village called Saras near Surat in Gujarat. She first saw Gandhiji when she visited his ashram as a five-year old. She was just eight years old when she took part in her first protest. This was against the Simon Commission, when the young girl joined in the shouts of “Simon Go Back”. She mobilised her young friends and organised prabhat feris (dawn marches with songs and slogans). As a teenager she responded to Gandhi’s call to defy the salt tax, and joined in the various acts of civil disobedience from picketing of British goods to spinning cotton. She also took the vow of wearing khadi, and continued to do so all through her life. 

Usha’s father was a judge in the British Raj and did not support his daughter’s nationalistic leanings and activities. In 1933 her father retired as a judge and moved to Bombay, where Usha continued her schooling. It was in 1942 when Usha was studying in Wilson College in Bombay that she heard Gandhiji speak at the historic meeting of the Congress party. Moved by Gandhi’s words, Mehta – with the help of a few other young independence activists – planned to set up an underground radio station which would share news about the real situation on the ground, and spread Gandhi’s message far and wide. In the face of many challenges, the group raised some resources, and for technical help they contacted a friend who was running classes in radio mechanics. The transmitter was ready by 13 August, and the first broadcast was on 14 August 1942 opening with the words: “This is the Congress Radio calling on 42.34 from somewhere in India.”

In a time when the press was supressed, and news censored, these radio broadcasts spread the message of Quit India to the remotest corners of the country, urging people to join the mass civil disobedience movement. The broadcasts carried all sorts of news, especially news that was censored or banned to be spread by the regular media, such as merchants refusing to export rice to arrests of leaders and civilians. The broadcasts reported on police atrocities, mass protests and strikes. Prominent leaders also gave radical speeches on the broadcasts. The team got news from messengers across India, as well as from the office of the All India Congress Committee.

In the beginning, the broadcasts were once a day, in Hindi and English; then they were increased to twice a day. Usha and her fellow broadcast conspirators (along with their transmitter) had to constantly evade the police who were on their trail. As Usha recalled in an interview many years later (Police) vans used to chase us regularly and very often it was merely a question of touch and go. It is believed that the team moved locations six to seven times in the three months that they broadcast.

The broadcasts on 42.34 became extremely popular with the people across the country. There were also specific programmes for different groups like students, women, workers and lawyers.  

On 12th November 1942, based on information leaked by one of the technicians, the police raided the hideout from where the radio station was operating in Bombay. Usha Mehta was in the building when the police came. She quickly took the broadcast material and rushed to the recording studio which was elsewhere, and with the help of some colleagues set up a new transmitter for a final broadcast. As Usha Mehta recalled that day: We played Hindustan Hamara, then we relayed some news bulletins and a speech. Just when we were at the end of the programme, playing ‘Vande Mataram’, we heard hard knocks on the door. The authorities broke down the door and entered. They ordered us to stop playing ‘Vande Mataram’. We did not oblige them.

The authorities seized all the equipment and photos and film footage of Congress party sessions. Usha along with four of her colleagues, was arrested, kept in solitary confinement, and intensely interrogated for almost six months, but she refused to betray her colleagues. Usha and three of her colleagues were sentenced to four years in jail. She was released in March 1946. As she said: I came back from jail a happy, and to an extent, a proud person because I had the satisfaction of carrying out Bapu’s message, ‘Do or die’, and of having contributed my humble might to the cause of freedom.

After India became independent the following year, Usha Mehta went back to her old Wilson College to pursue a doctorate in Gandhian thought; and spent the remaining years as an academic, teaching in her own college for the next 30 years, and continuing to spread the Gandhian ideals through her writing and talks. Like a true Gandhian, she led a spartan life, waking at 4 am every morning and working late into the evening. Her diet, dress and habits were simple and frugal.

Usha Mehta was honoured with Padma Vibhushan in 1998. She continued to spread the philosophy of Gandhi until she passed away in August 2000 at the age of 80.

Today, more than ever, we need to be reminded of such feisty women whose lives were driven by a passion for a cause, and who demonstrated their commitment with courage and conviction.

–Mamata

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The Naming of the Mahatma

Mohandas and Kasturba Gandhi on return to India in 1915
Source: mkgandhi.org

On January 9 1915, SS Arabia, a mail boat from England docked at Bombay port. Among those who disembarked were Mohandas Gandhi and Kasturba Gandhi, returning to settle in India after 21 years in South Africa. Gandhi was already well known in India for his 20 years of work for justice and satyagraha in South Africa. But the South African human rights activist had not yet become the leader of the Indian freedom struggle. However it was in the first few weeks back on his native soil that Mohandas would be bestowed with the title that became an integral part of his name for the rest of his life, and much beyond—Mahatma.

There are different stories about how this came to be, including that it was Rabindranath Tagore who gave him this honorific title in March 1915. In fact, it was three months earlier that the word Mahatma was first used to address him.

Upon return to India, following a week of a series receptions and meetings in Bombay, Mohandas left for Ahmedabad, and then travelled to Kathiawar. On 21 January 1915, Gandhi came to Jetpur where he visited the home of the town’s leading citizen nagarsheth Nautamlal Bhagvanji Kamdar.

The links between Gandhi and Nautamlal’s family had an older, slightly indirect history. Nautamlal’s daughter Manjula (Maya) was married to the son of Dr PJ Mehta, one of Gandhi’s oldest and closest friends.  Pranjivan Mehta, a medical doctor, was one of the first Indians that Gandhi contacted when he landed in England in October 1888, as a young and naïve law student. Dr Mehta eased the shy Mohandas into the life and customs of the new country. The two became close friends, and the bonds lasted through their life. It was Dr Mehta who encouraged Gandhi to return to India in 1915 and supported him in every way as he found his feet on the road that would lead to India’s freedom. By then Dr Mehta had moved to Rangoon where he had a profitable jewellery business. The two friends continued to correspond, sharing ideas, issues and problems, and even visited each other. It was Dr Mehta’s financial support that enabled Gandhi to devote all his time and attention to the freedom movement. Dr Mehta even procured a plot of land in Ahmedabad for Gandhi to recreate the Phoenix Ashram experiment. This became known as Sabarmati Ashram. He also contributed funds for the setting up of Gujarat Vidyapith. Dr Mehta remained Gandhi’s pillar of strength until he passed away in 1932.

Thus the family of Nautamlal Kamdar also became close to Gandhi, and were also generous donors to the Sabarmati Ashram and the Gujarat Vidyapith. But even before these were established, the Kamdar family were among the first to welcome and support Gandhi as he embarked on the long march to freedom, right from the first week of his return to Indian soil.

On January 21, 1915 the family organised a felicitation meeting for Gandhi and Kasturba to be held at Kamri Bai School in Jetpur.  Here both Gandhi and Kasturba were honoured with the presentation of manpatras (citations). It is in the citation to Gandhi that the title of honour of Mahatma was first recorded.

The original manpatra was in Gujarati, but here is an English translation of the same as sourced from https://nautamlalmehta.com.  

To Shriman Mahatma Mohandas Karmchand Gandhi. Barrister-at-law.

Gentleman, You have returned to your native land after leading a fight for many years for the right of Indians. We the residents of Jetpur, are honored and pleased to have you here. We have gathered here to commemorate this auspicious occasion and we heartily present this document of honor to you and to your wife.

You were born in an honorable family of Karmchand Gandhi in Kathiawad and acquired higher education and higher knowledge. You have set a direct example of duty to all the people by way of performing duties rightfully, and we are very proud of it. Your father had brought fame by enjoying an executive post in the states of Porbander, Wankaner, Rajkot, etc. In a similar manner as your father, you have enhanced your father’s fame by taking a leading part in the interest of the country and people as a top priority of your life.

For the people of Indian origin in South Africa, you fought, sacrificed and showed them a new light in their life, in order to fight for their rights, justice, and their dignity. The Indians all over the world know your dedication and your unbounded love for them in their hearts. You also stood against the mighty British Empire with the new weapon of Satyagraha. You have come out a winner in that. We feel very proud and happy about it. The way you handled the British government with skill, determination, will power, undergoing physical and family pains, and imprisonment are all the hardships that you underwent in order to fight for human rights, bring success and were able to change the laws. We Indians are very proud of you. No amount of words can express the deep gratitude we feel for the work you have done in South Africa and in India.

It would be a very long document if we enumerated all the achievements you accomplished in South Africa and in India. Even though you come from a noble family and earned a degree in law and have had biographies written about your achievements, we will not take up much of your time in enumerating them.

You discharged your duties without self-interest and sacrificed money matters. Your behavior is characterized by what is being told in Hindu religious scriptures about saints as to how they should behave and what religious practices they should follow. It is not an exaggeration to honor you with the title of “Mahan Yogi” (Mahatma), it is based upon your self-knowledge of the Mahan soul (atma).

We pray to the creator of world that you may continue the way in which you are trying for the well-being of Hind and that way obliging Hind, and you and your wife remain hail and healthy physically; and the almighty god may bestow upon you a long life; and that you may enjoy all happiness and peace, along with other members of your family.

Jetpur, 21-1-1915 (January 21.1915)                           

This week as we mark the birth anniversary of Gandhiji, it is interesting to discover how Mohandas became Mahatma Gandhi.

–Mamata

Poet with the Piercing Gaze: Subramania Bharathi

The image of Che Guevera, his hair flowing to the shoulders, eyes looking off-camera and a beret on his head, is the international image of revolution, of the oppressed fighting against the powerful, of idealism, of nobility.

No less iconic for Tamilians is the image of Subramania Bharathi, turban on the head with the end wound around his throat, a mustache, and eyes that seem to pierce into the soul. It stands for all of the above, and in addition, for sublime poetry and an idealistic vision for India.

Poet Subramania Bharathi
Mahakavi Bharathi

We mark a century of Mahakavi Subramania Bharathi’s passing this month. He died at the age of 39, tragically trampled to death by the elephant at the Parthasarathy Temple, Triplicane, Chennai. He used to feed the elephant regularly, and they were friends. But on that particular day, something went drastically wrong. His death, as his life, was completely out of the ordinary.

But he is very much alive today, a living tradition. The versatility of Bharathi’s composition is one reason—his songs of national pride, his songs of revolution and social change, of romance, of bhakti—there is something for every occasion.

There is no schoolchild in Tamilnadu who does not know his poems and writings. Not a musician—classical or light-classical or filmi or pop–who does not have a repertoire of Bharathi songs. Not a film-maker who has not used a song or at least a verse from one of his compositions at one time or the other. Not a Tamilian who has not been touched, moved, affected by his poems.

He was something of a child prodigy, being conferred the title of ‘Bharathi’—one who was blessed by the Goddess Saraswathi—at the age of 12, by the Raja of Ettayapuram, for his poetic genius.

He knew 14 languages, but chose to write in Tamil. He was a teacher, a journalist, a poet, a writer, a freedom fighter. He was deeply spiritual, delving deep into Hinduism. It is said that he adopted his trademark turban in admiration of the Sikhs.

The British Empire feared his pen so much that there was an arrest warrant out for him. He spent almost 10 years in exile in Pondicherry (a French territory), so escape imprisonment.

He was an ardent proponent of the emancipation of women, and advocated that they take their place shoulder to shoulder in the freedom struggle and in the development of the nation. In fact, traditional Madras of over a century ago was shocked and agog when he insisted on walking in public, holding hands with his wife!

Poetry in translation seldom works anywhere as well as the original. But even with that, a poet’s words speak louder than anyone else can, of his thoughts, ideas and ideals. So here is an excerpt from one of his most stirring songs:

‘With the name of Bharat Desh on our lips

Let us shake off our fears and poverty

And overcome our sorrows and enemies.

We shall stroll on the snow-clad silver heights of the Himalayas

Our ships shall sail across the high seas

We shall set up schools—scared temples for us.

We shall span the sea to reach Sri Lanka

And raise the level of the Sethu and pave a road on it

We shall water Central India with the bounteous rivers of Bengal.

We shall have such devices that sitting at Kanchi

We will listen to the discourses of scholars in Varanasi.

We shall make tools and weapons

We shall produce paper

We shall open factories and schools

We shall never be lazy or weary

We shall ever be generous

We shall always speak the truth.

Both scriptures and sciences we shall learn

The heavens and oceans we will explore

The mysteries of the moon we shall unravel

The art of street-sweeping too, we shall learn.’

Be inspired, be elevated. Listen to renditions of Bharathi even if you don’t understand the words. And do look out for translations of his work. This translation is from a 1984 publication brought out by NCERT, which also has a well put-together summary of his life. Proving once again that NCERT has done some wonderful work!

https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.231768/2015.231768.Poems-Subramania_djvu.txt)

–Meena

The Montessori Touch

Source: ageofmontessori.org

What do a young Jewish girl and her diary; and a young man and his online encyclopaedia have in common? What is the link between the Google Guys, one of the richest men in the world, and a Nobel Prize winning writer?

It is the name Maria Montessori!

All these renowned names, spanning different periods of time, began their education in a Montessori pre-school. And all of them attribute a large part of who they are, and what they achieved, to the strong roots of the philosophy and practice of the Montessori system of education.

Anne Frank is synonymous with her Diary. The young Jewish girl who penned her experiences and thoughts of two years of hiding from the Nazis in an attic in Amsterdam, died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. She was only 15 years old. Her diary remains one of the most poignant pieces of literature from World War II. It is in this diary that Anne recorded how her early education began. I started right away at the Montessori nursery school. I stayed there until I was six, at which time I started 1st grade (Montessori elementary). …My parents never worry about report cards, good or bad. As long as I am healthy and happy and don’t talk back too much they are satisfied. (But) I do not want to be a bad student. …I was supposed to stay in the seventh grade at the Montessori School, but Jewish children were required to go to Jewish schools…”

As a child Anne was always asking questions, and her father felt that the Montessori approach would give enough room for her curious mind to blossom.  She attended the 6th Montessori School of Amsterdam from age 3 to 11. She then attended a year at the Montessori Lyceum (high school) until German authorities prohibited Jewish children from attending school with Christian children. Anne spent the rest of her short life in hiding, where the diary with the red checked cover that her father gave her, became her special secret. Maria Montessori once said: A child without a secret becomes and adult without a personality. Sadly Anne never attained adulthood, but her diary with her attention to detail, her observations and her honesty bears proof of her Montessori education.

What is the first place to check when one is looking for information? Wikipedia! The brain behind the online encyclopaedia is Jimmy Wales. Another curious child, Jimmy used to spend hours perusing the physical tomes of the Britannicas and World Book Encyclopaedias. This passion bloomed into Wikipedia. Jimmy credits his ability to think outside the box to the Montessori method that his school followed. Jimmy was a  true example of an Absorbent Mind that Maria Montessori wrote about in her book of the same title.

Julia Child is known as the woman who popularised French cooking in America with her famous cookbook and her funny TV cookery shows. Julia Child worked at diverse occupations from being a copywriter, to being a research assistant for Secret Intelligence, until she discovered her passion for cooking. 

Julia’s life and work was strongly influenced by her Montessori education. She always claimed that Montessori learning taught her to love working with her hands. Equally important was Montessori’s approach to making mistakes.  “[Maria] Montessori wanted kids to develop ‘a friendly relationship to error,’ – to understand that mistakes are a normal part of learning, and that to learn, you must be willing to make mistakes, and then to move forward.” 

Julia Child’s early Montessori experiences led her to endorse that involving children in the process of cooking did much more than teach them to cook. “Influenced, perhaps, by my early experience at a Montessori school, and surely by living in a clan full of carvers, painters, carpenters, and cooks of all ages, I am all for encouraging children to work productively with their hands. They learn to handle and care for equipment with respect… The small rituals, like the clean hands and clean apron before setting to work; the precision of gesture, like levelling off a cupful of flour; the charm of improvisation and making something new; the pride of mastery; and the gratification of offering something one has made — these have such value to a child. And where are they so easily to be obtained as in cooking?

If using her hands and learning from mistakes was Montessori’s lifelong lesson for Julia Child, it was the spirit of exploration that marked Montessori’s influence on Will Wright. Wright, one of the most famous video game designers in history, is best known for SimCity. His games rarely conclude with The End, rather they let the player tinker towards perfection, with each player defining that perfection.

Wright always claimed that his schooling until sixth grade in a Montessori school “was the high point of my education”. As he wrote “Montessori taught me the joy of discovery. It showed you can become interested in pretty complex theories, like Pythagorean theory, say, by playing with blocks. It’s all about learning on your terms, rather than a teacher explaining stuff to you. SimCity comes right out of Montessori — if you give people this model for building cities, they will abstract from it principles of urban design.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, best known for his book One Hundred Years of Solitude won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982, “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts.”

As a child he struggled to read, but when he joined a Montessori school his language skills were transformed by the phonetic way of learning. Marquez credited many of his successes to the Montessori form of education. As he said “I do not believe there is a method better than Montessori for making children sensitive to the beauties of the world and awakening their curiosity regarding the secrets of life.”

Montessori acknowledged that the only valid impulse to learn is self-motivation itself. She believed that children possess a natural motivation to learn and absorb knowledge without effort if given the right kind of activities, at the right time of their development.

Perhaps the most famous examples of the success of this approach is the story of Larry Page and Sergei Brin the co-founders of Google. Both have attributed their Montessori education as the foundation of their future professional life. We both went to Montessori school, and I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, and doing things a little bit different that contributed to our success. They specifically credit the curriculum of self-directed learning where students follow their interests and decide for themselves what they want to learn that inspires students to become life-long learners with a love of education.

And last, but certainly not the least, one of the world’s richest men, Jeff Bezos could leap into space from a strong Montessori launch pad. He remembers: I went to Montessori school [for] about a year and a half, starting probably at age 2 1/2. … I have these very clear visual images of tracing out letters on sandpaper. I remember having a little special board that you can use to practice tying your shoes.

His mother remembers: He would get so engrossed in his activities as a Montessori pre-schooler that his teachers would literally have to pick him up out of his chair to go to the next task.

Bezos who started his amazing journey from a Montessori pre-school has come full circle by launching a $2 billion project called Day 1 Families that aims to bring quality early education to those who may not otherwise have access to it through supporting Montessori pre-schools in minority and low-income communities in America.

31 August marks the 151st birth anniversary of Maria Montessori. A century and a half later, her path-breaking philosophy and approach to education remain as relevant, if not more. The Montessori legacy lives on through the generations who have experienced the Montessori touch.

–Mamata

‘Flagman’ Pingali Venkaiah

A young boy, very far from home, was fighting an alien war, on foreign land as part of an imperialist army. His name was Pingali Venkaiah. He was a soldier in the British Indian Army fighting for the British in the Anglo Boer war in South Africa, at the end of the 19th century. Around the same time, another young man in South Africa was starting his experiments with what was to become a lifelong crusade for truth, justice and freedom. His name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

When the Boer War broke out in 1899, while Gandhi’s sympathies were with the indigenous Boers, but as a member of the British crown colony of Natal he felt that he needed to contribute to the British efforts. Gandhi set up an Ambulance Corps of 1100 volunteers, out of whom 300 were free Indians and the rest indentured labourers. Gandhi’s task was to instil in this motley group a spirit of service to those they regarded as their oppressors. Gandhi’s corps placed a significant role as stretcher bearers, carrying the wounded out from the battlefield.

At some time during this period, the 19-year-old Pingali met Gandhi, who had already become known for his mission for justice. He must have seen Gandhi as described by the Pretoria News: Gandhi was stoical in his bearing, cheerful and confident in his conversation and had a kindly eye. Pingali was deeply impressed and influenced, and a bond was formed between the two; a bond that would endure half a century.

Inspired by Gandhi, and the strong urge for freedom from colonial rule, Pingali, on his return from Africa, became a member of the secret revolutionary units fighting against the British Raj and spent time in Eluru. At the same time he began to seriously pursue his interest in agriculture, especially the farming of cotton. He spent a lot of time in experimenting with cotton cultivation. He imported Cambodian variety of cotton seeds from America and crossed them with Indian seeds to create an indigenous hybrid variety of cotton seeds. He acquired a piece of land in the nearby Chellapalli village and planted these seeds. The fine variety of cotton that grew from these, came to the notice of the local British officers during an agricultural exhibition in 1909. The Royal Agricultural Society of London offered him an honorary membership. He became locally famous as ‘Patti (cotton) Venkaiah’.

Along with agriculture Pingali continued to pursue his academic interests, especially in languages. This took him to Lahore to study Sanskrit, Urdu and Japanese in the Anglo Vedic School. He became fluent in all the languages, and in 1913, gave a full length speech in Japanese that earned him the moniker of ‘Japan Venkaiah’.

Pingali joined the railway services as a guard and was posted to Bangalore and Bellary. During those years, Madras was reeling under the plague epidemic. Seeing the plight of those suffering, he quit his job and went there to work for a short time as an inspector of the Plague Disease Eradication Organization.

Pingali continued his commitment to the freedom movement. He attended the sessions of the Indian National Congress. At the Calcutta session in 1906, Pingali’s patriotic sentiments were deeply hurt at seeing the English Union Jack being hoisted. He returned from the session with a new passion—a national flag for India. He started by researching the flags of different countries, even while pursuing his numerous other interests and occupations. In 1916 he published a book titled A National Flag for India which included thirty designs for the flag. From 1916 to 1921, at every session of the Indian National Congress, Pingali raised the issue of the need for a national flag. Gandhi liked the concept, but his vision was that of a flag that would “stir the nation to its depth”, a flag that “represents and reconciles all religions”.

It was in 1921, at the meeting of the Congress at Vijaywada that Pingali showed Gandhi his book with designs of the flags. Gandhi appreciated Pingali’s hard work and persistence. In an article in Young India titled Our National Flag he wrote: “We should be prepared to sacrifice our lives for the sake of our National Flag. Pingali Venkaiah who is working in Andhra National College Machilipatnam, has published a book, describing the flags of the countries and has designed many models for our own National Flag. I appreciate his hard struggle during the sessions of Indian National Congress for the approval of Indian National Flag. When I visited Vijaywada, I asked Mr Venkaiah to prepare a two coloured flag with red and green colours along with a Chakra symbol and obtained it within three hours from him. Later we had decided to include the white colour, also the colour that reminds of truth and non violence”.

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Pingali worked overnight to make a fresh design that would reflect Gandhiji’s vision. The flag, as Pingali Venkaiah designed it, became the blueprint for what would, eventually, become the national tricolour of India. And earned its creator another title: ‘Jhanda Venkaiah’ or Flag Venkaiah.

In 1931, the flag was officially adopted by the Indian National Congress with some changes in design. Pingali Venkaiah’s nationalist mission was fulfilled, but he continued to be a part of Gandhiji’s mission for Swaraj until India gained her Independence on 15 August 1947, when India’s own flag was proudly hoisted, as the Union Jack came down.

After 1947, Pingali Vekaiah withdrew from active politics and settled down in Nellore. He had always had a keen interest in geology, and a sound knowledge of the precious and semi-precious stones in that region. He now seriously embarked on yet another area of study—gemology. He soon became an expert in the field, writing research articles, advising the Government of India and conducting field trips. Thereby adding another title to his repertoire—‘Diamond Venkaiah’.

A humble unassuming man of amazing versatile talents, Pingali Venkaiah lived his life following his inspiration Gandhiji’s motto of simple living, high thinking. So much so that his last days were spent in utter penury. While the young Republic proudly raised its tricolour as the symbol of its growing stature and strength, the man who had dreamed and designed this very symbol was increasingly forgotten.

But for Pingali Venkaiah this flag signified the highest fulfilment of his life. As he wrote in his will, his final wish was that his body be covered with the tricolour before he was put on the pyre, and then be removed and hung on a tree branch. Pingali Venkaiah died on 4 July 1963, and his wish was fulfilled.

This month all Indians have cheered as our tricolour was raised high by our young Olympians. This week we will hold our heads high as we salute our Nation. A good time to also remember the generation of Indians that fought and sacrificed so much to give us these proud moments. And to recall Gandhiji’s words: The national flag is the symbol of non-violence and national unity to be brought about by means strictly truthful and non-violent.

–Mamata