All Dolled Up: Golu Festival

When we were young, Navaratri was one of the most exciting festivals. Several reasons: first, it was the only festival which stretched for so many days; then, for the girls, it involved getting dressed up every evening and visiting neighbours, friends and relatives; it meant different interesting prasads every day; and importantly, there was an ‘official’ ban on studying on the day of Saraswathi Puja, when all books, musical instruments etc., had to be kept at the altar.

The highlight of Navaratri for South Indians is Golu, the display of dolls.  The first step involves the putting up of the ‘golu padi’ or steps on which the dolls would be arranged. Some houses had modest 3-step set-ups, while others had up to nine steps (always in odd numbers). Households brought their their engineering skills to full play—sometimes steps were made of trunks ingeniously stacked to form a stair case, and covered with a cloth. Some constructed temporary arrangements from year to year. Others had permanent dismantalable steps which were stored away in some attic and assembled every year.

Popular leaders in Golu. Dusshera Dolls Exhibition

Then the dolls would be unpacked. Wooden ones, clay ones, porcelain ones, you name it. Those whose dresses were worn-out would need new clothes. Others needed a lick of paint or minor repairs. There was a particular order to arranging these dolls, with gods on the top steps, saints and famous people below them, and regular ordinary everyday people and scenes below these. There used to be sets—e.g., village scenes, scenes from the Ramayana, occupations, musicians, etc. Every year, each family also bought a few new dolls.

Golu dolls
Kumbhakaran being woken up. Dusshera Dolls Exhibition.

Below the steps on the floor, would be garden scenes, or most coveted, a ‘thopakulam’ (pond). Again, family ingenuity would come into play here. What container would hold the water (usually a large shallow tub); how it would be concealed (that involved importing a lot of sand or mud into the house!); what would float in it—ducks and other birds, flowers (real or plastic), etc; and the scene around the pond, including benches, trees, people strolling around, and when there was a particularly enthusiastic family, twinkling street lights.

Hi-tech was very much part of the display. Not just the lighting, but setting up elaborate working train sets or car racing-tracks instead of a traditional pond, and running the trains was a favourite.

And then, every day, elaborate rangolies had to be made, as well as prasad including the mandatory sundal (legumes like chana, lobia etc. cooked with coconut etc.).

For the little girls, it was about pulling out all the pattu-pavadais (silk longskirts), reviewing which would be worn on which day, which had grown short and needed to be let out, begging mothers and aunts to buy them blingy ornaments, and deciding whose house to visit when. We also had to prepare songs—every Aunty would ask every visitor to sing, and after the mandatory coy no’s, we would all sing the songs we had prepared. It must have been torturous to the listeners because most of us couldn’t hold a tune to save our lives. But everyone would applaud most politely, and then we would be given our vatala-paaku, fruit and packets of sundal wrapped in newspaper, and depart to the next house. The highlight of course was to savour the sundals—all of them used to taste delicious, partly because there was a limited quantity in the packages we were given.  We would discuss the relative merits of the doll display for days, and neighbourhood reputations were made or unmade based on the displays and sundals.

Such were the excitements of our simple lives. And so are memories made and traditions continued.

–Meena

Both pictures were taken at the Exhibition of Dusshera Dolls, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, Bangalore.

A Thousand Flowers Bloom on my Table: Millefiori


When I was young, visits to my father’s office were looked-forward to treats. And one of the things that fascinated me were the beautiful, colourful glass paperweights that lay on the table, doing what they were supposed to do, i.e., keeping papers from flying in the wind created by the fan.

With bright colours and intricate designs, each one was different from the other. And of course, I always wondered how the fantastic shapes got into the glass dome.

It was only recently that poking around in a drawer, I re-discovered one of these. And I decided to read up on them.

Appropriately, the technique is called ‘millefiori’, Italian for ‘thousand flowers’ and is a kind of glass mosaic. The technique was probably invented in ancient Egypt and can be traced back to Ancient Roman Times. Samples have been found dating back to the 5th century. But the process got lost somewhere and was revived only in the 19th century by Murano glass artists. Vincenzo Moretti is credited with this, and is said to have put in years of painstaking trial and error to perfect the art. The term ‘millefiori’ itself first found its place in the Oxford dictionary in 1849. It was around this time that it became a rage in Europe, and factories came up in Italy, France and England, making paperweights, beads and marbles. France was at the center of the blossoming creativity. The Great Exhibition of London in 1851 and the Paris Expo of 1878 gave a fillip to the popularity of this craft. However, the trend petered out in a few decades but some artists still carry forward the tradition, creating works to suit modern sensibilities.

Millefiori paperweight
Millefiori paperweight

The first step in the technique is to create Millefiori canes by layering molten glass of different colours into a pattern in a cylindrical shape. Then the cylinder is pulled by two glassmakers walking away from each other, pulling it to create a long rod. When the rod is sliced, the pattern is seen. Each such slice is called a murine. Many murines are arranged in a pattern and cased in glass, resulting in the beautiful products, ranging from paperweights, vases, rings, pendants, decorative plates, ashtrays and even playing marbles. It is a craft requiring not just an aesthetic sense but also great skills of working with glass, and precision. While flowers are the most common patterns, there are paperweights with geometrical shapes, insects, etc. too.

Today, these weights are collectors’ items, auctioned by the likes of Christie’s.

Alas, the one I have dug out is chipped at the bottom, so unlikely to make me my fortune. But it sure gives me joy every day when I look at it on my table. As precious!

—Meena

Motto: A Call to Action

A motto is a sentence, phrase, or word inscribed on something as appropriate to or indicative of its character or use’. It is a ‘short expression of a guiding principle’. A motto is official, like a logo or a statement, and an entity can have only one motto at a time (though they can and do change this over time).

Any entity can have a motto: a person, a country, a corporate, an educational institution, a non-profit.

Satyameva jayate
Satyameva jayate

India’s motto is Satayameva Jayata: Truth alone shall triumph. Some organs of the government have their own mottos too: The motto of our Supreme Court is: Yato Dharmastato Jayah. (Where there is righteousness (dharma), there is victory). The Indian Army: The safety,  honour and welfare of your country; Indian Air Force: Nabha sparsham Deeptam (Touch the sky with glory ); Indian Navy: Shaṁ No Varunah(May the Lord of Water be auspicious unto us).

Some interesting mottos of other countries are:

Truth prevails: Somewhat similar to India’s, this is the motto of the Czech Republic.

Janani Janmabhumishcha Swargadapi Gariyasi: Like India, Nepal’s motto is in Sanskrit, and means ‘Mother and motherland are greater than heaven’.

Rain: This is the motto of Botswana, and only one-word motto for a country. It pithily communicates the importance of rain for an agricultural county.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité: The motto of the French Revolution became the motto of two countries—France and Haiti.

In God we trust: This was taken as the motto of USA in 1956. Till then, the motto was ‘E pluribus unum’, meaning ‘Out of many, one’.

Some countries like the UK, China, Denmark, Bangladesh etc. have no official motto.

Business houses of course have mottoes too. Some are philosophical and conceptual, other very practical.

Tatas: Leadership with Trust.

Wipro: Applying thought

TCS: Experience certainty.

Reliance Industries: Growth is Life.

Non-profits convey their mission through the mottos:

Pratham: Every child in school and learning well.

Indian Red Cross Society: I Serve

Blind People’s Association: Touching People, Changing Lives

Adyar Cancer Institute: With Humanity and In Wisdom

Our educational institutions have profound mottoes too:

UGC: Gyan Vigyan Vimuktaye, meaning ‘knowledge liberates.’

IIM-A: Vidya Vinaygodhvikasah, meaning ‘development through the distribution or application of knowledge’.

IIT-B: Gyanam Marmam dhyatam, meaning ‘knowledge is the supreme goal.’

Delhi University: Nishta Drithiha Satyam: Dedication, steadfastness and truth.

Anna University: Progress through knowledge.

BITS Pilani: Gyanam Paramam Balam: Knowledge is the supreme power.

TISS: Re-imaging Futures.

There is not a motto of a country, an organization or institution which is not uplifting, elevating, noble. But sadly, I doubt if members of the entity even know or recall what their motto is. Maybe each organization needs to consciously set aside time on a regular basis to reflect, discuss and internalize how their motto should and can guide their day-to-day operations.  A motto can be an inspiration, a guide to action, something that conveys a mission, something that unites. It is a powerful way of bringing people together and inspiring them. But if they are left on paper, they are simply unreal statements of aspirational intent, rather than guiding principles.

–Meena

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

Blender-Composting for the Lazy Gardener

Compost as we all know, is decomposed organic matter. Rich in nutrients, it is also known as ‘black gold’ for the vigour and fortification it brings to soil. Compost is the end-result of the natural degradation of biomaterials like garden waste and kitchen waste. Everything in nature will degrade in the natural course. But left to itself, it may take years or even decades. Composting is a way to nudge the process along. Win-win, because it reduces the amount of green and brown waste entering the garbage management system, and because the end-product enriches soil.

During composting, microorganisms—bacteria, fungi etc.–decompose the bio-materials. Among these, bacteria play a large part—they secrete a variety of enzymes which chemically break down organic materials. Worms, bugs, nematodes, and other critters in the soil contribute by physically breaking down those materials, which makes it easier for the bacteria, fungi and others to do their work.

The resultant compost provides the soil nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, along with a host of micronutrients and trace minerals.

Fundamentally, there are two types of composting processes which can go to work. The first is aerobic composting, in which the kind of bacteria at work use air to help speed up the breakdown of materials. The other is anaerobic composting, where the bacteria do not need oxygen to carry out the process.

There are several types of composting methods which can be used, basically classified as:

* Hot Composting: This quickly turns organic material into usable compost, but requires a lot of time and effort. Hot composting involves keeping the temperature at the center of the compost pile elevated, ideally to somewhere between 43-60o Celsius. The pile needs to be kept turned once a week or so to move colder material from the outside of the pile to the inside where it is heated and so breaks down into rich humus more quickly

* Cold Composting: Cold composting essentially means creating a compost pile and leaving nature to do its job. It requires less input from the gardener, but does mean that useable compost can take up to a year to be ready.

* Vermicomposting: Here worms are added to hasten the process of composting.

Popular domestic composting methods include open air composting, bin composting, tumbler composting and vermi-composting.

On and off, I have tried my hand at composting my kitchen waste. But being both lazy and inept, it was a mess each time!

Then I came across a method called trench-composting, which basically involves digging up the area around your plants in a shallow ditch, spreading the cut-up kitchen waste in the ditch, and covering it back with soil. I liked this method. Kind of no-fuss, no-muss; possible even for the ten-thumbed like me; and can be done on a daily basis. But then I ran into a problem. This was possible in the kitchen patch or even in the flower-beds. But what about the lawn? I could obviously not dig trenches there.

Then an idea struck. Why not blend up the kitchen waste and just pour it on the lawn? I reasoned that it would return nutrients to the soil, and would also results in a huge reduction of the kitchen waste going out into the waste management system. I started doing this.

And also decided to check if this idea had struck anyone else. Well, yes. Looks it has! The internet has accounts of what is called Blender-Composting. Several gardeners use it, though I could find no scientific papers on it. As some of the participants in the debates point out, this is not composting at all, since one is only physically crushing the pieces. But since that is the starting point of the composting process, I suppose it will help the bacteria and other micro-organisms do their work faster. Gardening experts say that addition of reasonable amount of bio-waste in this form can only have positive effects on the soil, even though it is not clear how much. However, they do caution against adding too much of this, as the early stages of the composting process could deplete nitrogen from the soil.

I can vouch that there is no smell and the goop, properly diluted and spread, attracts no flies or other insects. But depending on what goes into it, the goop can sometimes be yucky-looking, in fact referred to by some as ‘dragon-vomit’. I can vouch for this also—the day the goop is papaya-based, I definitely have to hide it in the soil in the hedges and bushes!

I am sold—it is either trench composting or blender composting for me!

–Meena

Telling Stories on Cloth: Patachitra

Patachitra, from ‘patta’ meaning cloth, and ‘chitra’ meaning picture, is an art form of East India, which tells stories on cloth. Believed to have originated in the 12th century in Odisha, Patachitra traditionally depicts stories of Krishna. So what better way to mark Janmashtami than to talk of Patachitra!

The art probably originated around the Puri Jagannath temple, serving both ritual uses and as souvenirs for devotees visiting the temple.  The pieces depict Lord Jagannath and the other deities of the Puri temple—Subhadra and Bhalabhadra, and temple activities. These are called Badhia paintings. Other themes include the exploits of Krishna as a child (Krishna Leela); Dashavatara (the ten incarnations of Krishna); and scenes from the Geeta Govinda. Some Patachitras are centred on Ganesha, usually depicting him with five heads (Panchamukhi). There are also Ramayana-themed ones, as well as those which are based on Lord Shiva and the stories about him. The art-form is also well-developed in West Bengal with several schools of Patachitra. Here, the Goddess Durga is a very popular theme, along with other mythological tales and folktales.

The Patachitra is not just a painting to be put up and worshipped or admired (or both!). Especially in Bengal, it is often a prop used by itinerant story-tellers called patuas. Some of these paintings are made up of several panels which are kept rolled up. The story teller unfolds the cloth to progress the story, accompanied by songs and verses which narrate the events depicted—the original moving pictures! Such paintings and story-telling are not confined to religious or mythological tales, but extends to contemporary news, juicy scandals, and even messaging for social change!

The paintings are made on strips of cotton cloth prepared by coating the clothing with a mixture of chalk and a special gum made from tamarind seeds. The coating is rubbed using two different kinds of stones to smoothen it. After this, it is dried before the artist starts work. The process results in a leathery surface.

There are specific rules that all Patachitra paintings follow. For instance, paintings are enclosed in borders decorated with flowers and other motifs. Krishna is always painted in blue, while light pink, purple or brown are used to paint Gopis. There are usually no landscapes, distant views or perspectives. Only natural colours—vegetable dyes or mineral colours–are used in Patachitra. The luminescent white comes from ground conch shells.

The master-craftsmen are so skilled that they do not draw outlines of the figures and motifs with pencil or charcoal. They directly paint it on the cloth using fine brushes. After this, the colours are filled in. A single panel may take 5-10 days, while a more elaborate work may take months.

Contemporary artists are now adapting the style to make new products, from saris to bags to decorative items, which can be commercially viable At the forefront of keeping the art form alive is the heritage village of  Raghurajpur in Odisha. About 160 families here practice this art, and even the younger generation, many professionally qualified, follow the tradition and continue to paint.

May their tribe increase!

–Meena

Beauty and the Bees

If last week was about boring bees, this week it is about beautiful bees—bees in art, bees and art.

Bees have been depicted in art through the ages, the oldest known been a Spanish cave painting dating back 15,000 years. These insects also have great symbolic value—variously standing for peaceful coexistence, teamwork, industriousness. In some cultures, they are symbols for fertility and healing. In Hindu mythology, Kamadev’s sugarcane bow is strung with a row of bees, thus symbolizing the sting of love.

One of the most popular works depicting bees has to be the Fontana delle Api, or Fountain of Bees in Rome. In a city replete with fountains, this one stands out for its elegance and creativity. Built in 1644, it prominently features bees because it was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII, who belonged to the Barberini family, whose symbol was the bee. The 3-bee symbol of the family was also immortalized with St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, in the Baldacchino sculpture.

Fountain of Bees
Fountain of Bees, Rome

Napoleon did his part for bees—they were one of his imperial symbols. His red coronation robes were embroidered with gold bees. It was not just the beauty of bees which captured Napoleon’s imagination. He consciously used this symbol as a rejection of the fleur-de-lis, which was the symbol of the previous regime of the Bourbons. His use of bees started a rage, and they were used as decorative symbols on everything, from porcelain to textiles.

Coming to contemporary arts, in something called bee sculpture, artist Tomas Libertiny collaborates with bees and bee keepers, to re-create famous sculptures in beeswax. He makes 3-D replicas of the originals—from the Nefertiti bust to Micaheangelo’s sculptures—and creates a wire frame of the same shape. He gives these frames to beekeepers, who encourage bees to build their hives on these. In a matter of months (or years if it is a large and complex structure), the bees build in the desired shape. Not a simple process though—Libertiny compares it to doing bonsai, with the constant need for adjusting, trimming and building the growth in the desired shape. The result is a beautiful and very durable piece of art made of beeswax.

The Hive is a huge immersive exhibit at the Kew Gardens. It is a huge structure made of metal. It reflects the activity of a real bee hive in the Kew. An accelerometer (a device which detects vibrations) is placed in the real hive. It picks up the vibrations of the bees and transmits them to the metal hive in real time. There are 1000 LED lights in the structure, which light up in tandem with these vibrations. There are also recorded sounds from hives to add an audio dimension. It is the closet a human can safely get to being in a beehive!

Then there are artists for bees. The Good of the Hive initiative of artist Mathew Willey has made it a mission to depict 50,000 bees in murals and installations across the world, towards raising awareness of the role of bees in our lives, and the threats they face. The number 50,000 is chosen because that that is the number of bees which can sustain a healthy colony. Louis Masai Michel is another artist with a similar mission.

On the one hand there are humans celebrating bees in art. On the other, there are bees exhibiting a developed sense of art recognition! There is a fascinating experiment concerning bees and art conducted by scientists in Australia. Bees were shown 8 paintings, four by the French artist Claude Monet, and four by Australian Indigenous artist Noŋgirrŋa Marawili. The scientists placed a small blue dot at the centre of each painting. The ones on the painting by Monet had a bitter quinine drop in it. The ones by Marawili had a drop of sugar solution. After letting the bees interact with these paintings for some time, the scientists replaced the paintings with two new paintings which the bees had not seen, one by Monet and one by Marawili. The bees made a beeline for the painting by Marawili! In other words, they were able to distinguish the styles of the two artists, and knew which painting would yield the sugar!

Long live bees!

–Meena

Portrait of a Potato

I am an unabashed and unapologetic potato-worshipper. I was therefore thrilled to learn about a competition called the Potato Photographer of the Year. The inaugural edition of the competition was held in 2020, and the results of the 2021 competition were just announced. And I could see the love and appreciation for the vegetable in the superbly imaginative prize-winning entries. Poems for the eyes!

The Potato Photographer of the Year competition has an eminent panel of judges including photography-great Martin Parr. The prizes will not make your fortune, and come to about £2000 worth of stuff, including a lens kit, camera case, backpack, coveted (by photographers) subscriptions, and a photography workshop. But the good part, apart from celebrating the potato, is that all entry fees (£5 per single entry) are donated to the Trussell Trust, a food bank charity that aims to end food poverty in the UK.

Potato Photo Competition
One of the winners of the Potato Photo Competition 2021!

Prosaically, the potato (Solanum tuberosum) is a tuber. It is an annual plant of the nightshade family. It is native to the Peruvian-Bolivian Andes and is one of the world’s main food crops. It is a great source of Vit C, protein, thiamin, and niacin.

Potatoes were domesticated and cultivated in South America by the Incas as early as 1,800 years ago. Spaniards who invaded South America transported them and introduced them into Europe during the second half of the 16th century. By the end of the 17th century the plant was a major crop in Ireland, and by the end of the 18th century it was being grown in significant quantities in continental Europe, particularly Germany, and in the west of England. The Irish economy became dependent on the potato, and the disastrous failures of the Irish crops in the mid-19th century because of late blight, and the resulting Irish Potato Famine had huge impacts in terms of human life, the economy and demographics.

The potato reached India in the late 16th-early 17th centuries, most likely aboard Portuguese and Dutch ships. Today, India ranks as the world’s third largest potato producing nation—with about 4.9 crore tonnes grown here in 2017. Potato is not only a staple, but a cash crop that provides significant income for farmers, through domestic sales and exports.

Though the potato reached India through the Portuguese and Dutch, it initially remained confined to the Malabar cost. It was the British who were responsible for its spread. The East India Company wanted to replace local vegetables which they thought were of low quality, with superior vegetables, viz, potato—basically because they wanted to have a reliable source for this food which had become part of their staple. So they aggressively evangelized and promoted it in every which way, including giving out the seeds and plants to farmers for free. Apart from a source to supply their own tables, the British also pushed the potato as a panacea for several ills in India. The 1838 records of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India states that through growing European-introduced crops such as the potato, “happiness till now unknown in India, will be diffused abroad.” Similarly, the East India Company records that growing potatoes would help “alleviate the Miseries” in India caused by frequent failures of rice crops. So the potato is indeed part of our troubled colonial past.

But to imagine a present without potatoes, I do not want to do!

While the Potato Photographer of the Year celebrates visual depictions of the tuber, the vegetable does not seem to have found much favour from wordsmiths. Poems eulogizing the potato are few and far between. One that I liked was Potatoes by Lucy Adkins.

But names of Indian potatoes are pretty poetic! Kufri Jawahar, Kufri Chandramukhi, Kufri Sutlej, Kufri Bahar, Kufri Anand, Kufri Ashoka, Kufri Pukhraj, Kufri Sindhuri, Kufri Jyoti, Kufri Megha, Kufri Lauvkar and Kufri Swarna are a few. (Kufri, I think must come from the place in Himachal which is a major potato growing area, and the location of Research Station of the Central Potato Research Institute).

Long live the potato, and may we find ways for all our senses to celebrate it!

–Meena

VASCSC: Dr. Vikram Sarabhai’s Vision for Science Education

As we approach Dr. Sarabhai’s birth anniversary (12 August), time to pay tribute to a great visionary, scientist and institution-builder.

His role in the nation’s space and atomic energy programmes, in creating institutions like ISRO, PRL, IIM-A, ATIRA is well known, as was his zeal for the planned use of science and technology in the development of a newly-independent India are known. His passion for science education however, needs to be more widely discussed.

Dr. Sarabhai was keenly aware that creating a scientific temper and promoting scientific thinking among the population was fundamental in our progress as a nation. He felt that science teaching needed to be innovative to achieve this, and also that the best scientists should engage with young minds, and inspire them towards science. His own background of being home-schooled in a very open learning environment, where exploring and innovating were the key, may have been the foundation of his conception of science education.  

Vikram Sarabhai as a boy, with his model train

It was in this background that in 1963, Vikrambhai got scientists of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) involved in a project called ‘Experiment for Improvement of Science Education’, to take science to citizens. These early efforts were institutionalized in 1966, with the creation of an institution called the Community Science Centre (CSC), whose foundation stone was laid by Dr. Sarabhai’s guru, the Nobel Laureate, Sir CV Raman.  The famous lecture ‘Why the Sky is Blue’ was delivered by Sir Raman at the Centre on this occasion.

CSC was the trailblazer in the country, and the country’s active Science Centre/ Science Museum movement owes a lot to the pioneering work of this institution. CSC was re-named Vikram A. Sarabhai Community Science Centre (VASCSC) after the passing away of Dr. Sarabhai.

To quote VASCSC’s website, ‘The core of the Centre’s philosophy is to take school and college students out of the rigid framework of textbooks and encourage them to think, explore and create. Over the years, the Centre has combined formal and non-formal techniques to formulate many innovative methods to give students a better understanding of Science and Mathematics, which not only make the process of learning enjoyable but also sustained and long-lasting.’  It aims to bring teachers, students, research workers, administrators and the community together for a better appreciation and understanding of science.

VASCSC has been the pioneer of several innovative science education programmes, including interactive science exhibitions, open laboratories, math-lab, science playgrounds. These are today the backbone of many a science education programme in the country.  The educational kits and materials developed by it are of a very high quality.

A landmark initiative of VASCSC was the Science Express, done for the Department of Science (DST), which ran for several years. This was an innovative science exhibition mounted on a 16-bogey train, specially designed by the Indian Railways. Launched in October 2007 by DST, Science Express covered over 1,22,000 km across the country, receiving more than 1.33 crore visitors at its 391 halts, over 1,404 days. It has thus become the largest, longest running and most visited mobile science exhibition, probably in the world and has created several records in its wake’ (DST). The exhibition has six entries in the Limca Book of Records.

Mrs. Mrinalini Sarabhai wrote of Dr. Sarabhai: ‘‘He often said that on retirement he would like to spend time with young children talking to them about science.’ Sadly Dr. Sarabhai died young, so he could not fulfill this dream. But the initiative he started at the CSC has indeed contributed to the vision of transforming science-education in India

–Meena

I am privileged to be a member of the Governing Council of VASCSC.

Vikram Sarabhai Centenary

A Life Too Short: A Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai

Vikram Sarabhai Centenary

A Life Too Short: A Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai

Vikram Sarabhai Centenary

A Life Too Short: A Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai

Snail Alert

As I was walking along in my colony the other day, on a patch of grass I saw a gory sight. Someone had stepped on a snail. It was crushed. And beside it, I saw a yellow outgrowth. I couldn’t figure out what that was: for a moment I thought that the snail had been dead for a few days maybe, and some kind of mushrooms or fungi had grown there, thanks to the nutrients available. That didn’t seem too plausible. So my next idea was that in fact the accident was very recent, and these were the snails innards. But a closer look revealed that small yellow balls made up the outgrowth.  So the final conclusion (borne out by web-searches) was that the crushed snail had been pregnant, and the eggs had come out and lay beside the dead father/mother.

Father/mother? What does that mean? Well, if you remember your high-school biology, most snails are hermaphrodites–which means that they have the reproductive organs of both males and females. In theory therefore, they have the ability to self-fertilize. However, they don’t usually do that. They mate in the “traditional way.” As a result, both of the partners lay eggs.  Each clutch has about 200 eggs on average, and each snail may lay 5-6 clutches per year.

And this high reproductive ability is a cause of great concern. Because the crushed specimen was a Giant African Land Snail, one of the most invasive species ever. A native of East Africa (mainly Kenya and Tanzania), today the snail has spread across almost the whole world, an active and aggressive pest. Given the rate of its reproduction the snail spreads like a wildfire. It is extremely adaptable, and eats about 500 species of plants, and hence poses a threat to both agricultural crops and native plants wherever it goes. Not only does it eat the plants but it is also a vector for plant pathogens, thus causing further damage to agricultural crops and native plants. It carries the rat lungworm parasite and can transfer it to humans, causing meningitis. And once entrenched, the snails are almost impossible to get rid of. Some states of the US have spent millions of dollars to eradicate the creatures, but with limited success.

But coming back to snails in general. Well, snails are gastropod mollusks, which means they are related to both octopuses and slugs.  There are some species adapted to living on land—the land snails, and there are aquatic snails, which live in either fresh water or the sea. All snails carry shells into which they retreat when threatened by predators, or in unfavorable weather. They hatch out of the eggs with small shells, which grow as they grow. The shells are made of calcium carbonate, and they keep adding more of it to the edges of the shells till they are adults. They don’t have legs, but move thanks to the muscular movement of their bodies, and aided along by the mucous they secrete which helps them to reduce friction and slide along. And moving along at snail’s pace means maintaining an average speed of about half-an-inch per second. They can’t hear, but their sight is good and sense of smell even better. They live for 3-7 years. While most species are hermaphrodite, there are some which are not and have distinct males and females.

Well, we do know that snails are a delicacy in some parts of the world. But lesser known is that in places in the UK, snail-racing is a sport! Snail shells are also sometimes incorporated in jewelry. Certain varieties of snails, especially the Muricidae family, produce a secretion that is a natural dye. In ancient times, purple and blue dyes were made from these snails, and were very expensive and prized. There was also belief that snails had medicinal properties, especially for bronchial problems, tuberculosis, etc., and some of these uses are still being investigated. And not to forget, snail slime may well be a part of that anti-aging cream or moisturizer you just bought!

Coming back to my crushed snail.

I know the person who stepped on him/her did so unknowingly.

And that if that clutch of eggs had hatched, we would have hundreds of more pests to ruin our gardens.

But still I cannot but feel a little sad, at the memory of the crushed body and the doomed eggs.

–Meena