A Teacher’s Reverie: Divaswapna

India marked Teacher’s Day on 5 September. It was once again a time to celebrate teachers, and also a time for articles and discussions on education. The dream of an ideal educational system has found expression in numerous forms—from fiction to inspiring real life stories; from policy documents, to pockets of practice. In all these the focus has been on the teacher as the key. In India this is once again reiterated in the New Education Policy 2020 which states that: The teacher must be at the centre of the fundamental reforms in the education system. The new education policy must help re-establish teachers, at all levels, as the most respected and essential members of our society, because they truly shape our next generation of citizens.  

The NEP 2020 also  adds that: A good education institution is one in which every student feels welcomed and cared for, where a safe and stimulating learning environment exists, where a wide range of learning experiences are offered, and where good physical infrastructure and appropriate resources conducive to learning are available to all students.

This vision is not new. Over years, and generations, educators have imagined such an educational system. It was the same vision that, a hundred years ago, drove a young teacher in Gujarat to become of the great educationists of our times.  This was Gijubhai Badheka.

As he experimented with new approaches and methods of eduaction, Gijubhai closely observed the responses of the children and noted these down. He also realised that his experiments with children would be effective only if teachers and parents were to understand and apply the same in their dealings with children.  All his experiments, observations, notings, and vision for a different kind of education culminated in the book titled Divaswapna (Daydream). First published in 1931, Divaswapna is a fictional story of a teacher Laxmishankar, which has close parallels with Gijubhai’s own experiments in education.

The story is set in a time when the British were ruling India. Education was bound by a prescribed curriculum, belief in corporal punishment, and supervised by white Education Officers.  But in every situation, there are a few outliers, and Laxmishankar was one of them. Divaswapna journals the young teacher’s experiences in his own words.

Laxmishankar a young and idealistic teacher with very different ideas about what good education can be, approaches the British Education Officer for an opportunity to teach in a school and put some of his theories into practise. 

The Education officer at first laughs at him, but then reluctantly gives him permission to teach class 4 for one year. But with the condition that at the end of the year the students would take the same examination as the rest, and show good results.

Laxmishankar takes up challenge. Armed with all his theories and academic reading he enters class 4. He is shocked to finds that it is like a fish market—with rowdy students screaming, running around and fighting. He realises that to make his daydream into a reality he would have to find different ways to reach the hearts of the students.

The next day he starts by telling them a story. The class becomes quiet and attentive. In fact they are reluctant to go home. The stories continue for the next ten days. When he is reprimanded for this, and for not following the curriculum he explains: I am teaching them orderly behaviour through story sessions. They are being motivated. I am exposing them to literature and linguistic skills.  

This initiation leads the students to want read, they begin to perform the stories, and share them with other students. Laxmishankar sets up a small class library. Students who have never read anything other than their textbook, are curious and interested.

Laxmishankar begins to use games as a way to instil the concept of rules, discipline and team work. 

His bigger challenge comes when he has to convince parents to send their children to school in clean clothes, with neat hair and clipped nails. Both educational authorities and parents deride him saying that personal hygiene was none of his business. But Laxmishankar felt that the first lesson to be learnt was neatness, cleanliness, and

Lakshmishankar is a teacher with passion, ideals and zeal to try something different. But he faces innumerable challenges from all quarters. All the while he has to face the derision and challenges from all quarters. Not just in handling the students and other teachers, but equally in meeting the expectations of the parents. “I had believed that giving a talk and a little explanation to parents would suffice. But the parents here know only one thing. “Teach the boys” they say. They don’t have time even to listen to anything else and they don’t understand either.”

His colleagues look upon him as a misguided individual. “My colleagues the teachers have no faith in me. They look down upon me as an out and out impractical person. Maybe I am rather. Besides I have no experience. But I have no faith in their beliefs and methods of teaching. They annoy me. …The other teachers say that I am spoiling the boys by overindulgence; they complain that I tell the boys stories only and don’t teach them, that I make them miss their classes by taking them out for games.

I am sure mine is the right approach. We shall see. These games and stories are, to my mind, half their education.I will have to bear in mind that my task is going to be difficult, and I should not lose sight of this.

The higher authorities want quick results. The Education Officer has now become rather impatient. He has his own problems. He has to contend with his superiors and opponents. He wants to share the glory and therefore want results but he wants them quickly.  He has his limitations in helping me.

Undaunted, Laxmishankar continues with these experiments for the first three months. In the third month, he starts looking at the prescribed syllabus. Knowing that the students would have to pass exams in all the subjects, Laxmishankar adopts innovative methods like dictation from storybooks to develop language skills; history through stories; spontaneous play-acting instead of rote learning and recitation; grammar through word games; language through riddles and puzzles; geography and nature study through field trips and outings.

As the year goes on, Laxmishankar continues to try new approaches to teaching different subjects. His students do well in the terminal exams. Some of the teachers too begin to see that changes are possible, but most of them are still sceptical. They feel that Laxmishankar can afford to do these experiments because he does not have to worry about money, and that he reads English books from where he gets his ideas, and that he has the time and leisure for such things. Laxmishankar refutes this. Experiments do not succeed merely because one knows English. That is a lame excuse one resorts to when one doesn’t want to work. The main thing is the intuition to innovate. And that comes from the yearning of ones soul for a cause.

At the end of the academic year the Education Officer sees the real change in the students of Class 4. Not just their academic performance but equally their appearance and behaviour. He recommended that the entire class be promoted. But Laxmishankar himself recommends otherwise in the case of a few students. He feels that these had not come up to the mark. It is not that they are unfit for the school. Rather this school is unfit for them. The school is unable to teach them what they have an aptitude for.

It was decided that instead the prize money of Rs 125 which every year was distributed among the students was instead to be used for starting a school library, and would be continued every year. 

At the Annual Day function the Education Officer concluded by saying: When this gentleman came to me last year with the request for permission to make an experiment in Class 4 of the primary school, I considered him to be an impractical fool. I had thought that he was just like many others of his kind and would run away at the first opportunity when put to the test.  So I gave him permission. I had no faith in him. But I must admit he has achieved success in his experiment. He has changed my ideas.

Divaswapna echoes the continuing quest for an educational system of our dreams, while it tells the story of a teacher who dared to do something to make the dream a reality.  Divaswapna the book is also considered to be one of the greatest contributions to pedagogy in the last century.  Originally published in 1931 in Gujarati, the book was later published by the National Book Trust in 11 Indian languages.

–Mamata

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

Beware the Kiboko: Hippo Alert!

My grandfather, Gijubhai Badheka went to East Africa as a young man in 1907. Recently I was reading some memoirs of his time in what was then truly an unknown continent. One of the pieces described how he and his friends were chased by a hippo. This led me back to my own stay in Kenya, almost 75 years later, and to remember some other hippo stories.

While in Kenya, we often went camping in the national Parks. In our early days there, whenever we were setting off on safari we were told “Beware of the kiboko!” In a big game park, one would assume that it was the simba or lion that we needed to keep a safe distance from. As it turned out, we were being warned about the hippopotamus!

Till then, the only time that I had seen a hippo was in a circus. I remembered, from years ago, a big ungainly creature lumbering into the ring and being made to open its mouth, revealing huge ugly teeth. Into this wide cavern, its keeper placed a cabbage, whereupon the hippo closed its mouth, turned around and lumbered out of the ring. End of hippo act!

To be told, that in the wild, the vegetarian hippo, if disturbed, could be more dangerous than the big carnivores was somewhat hard to believe. More interesting was to also discover many fascinating facts about this animal.

The word hippopotamus comes from Ancient Greek, and loosely translates as “river horse.” Indeed this creature spends most of its time in water in rivers or lakes, keeping its massive body cool under the hot African sun. Although a hippo can hold its breath for up to five minutes, it must also come up for air. Its eyes and nostrils are located high on the head allowing it to see and breathe as soon as its head rises above the water. Just as breathing and blinking are automatic actions for us humans, a hippo subconsciously, and regularly, surfaces for taking a breath even while staying fast asleep.

Although these mammals spend a considerable amount of time underwater, and even give birth underwater, hippos cannot really swim! Instead they simply walk or run along the riverbed, pushing up periodically through the water for air.

One of the main reasons hippos spend so much time submerged underwater is to prevent their skin from drying out and cracking under the hot sun. They also love wallow in the mud which provides a protective and cooling layer over their sensitive skin. They even secrete their own sun screen lotion, moisturizer and germicide—an acidic substance that turns red when exposed to the sun. This has given rise to the myth that hippos sweat blood.

Hippos are huge—among the largest land animals on the planet after the African elephant and rhino! Male hippos can weigh up to 3,200 kg and a baby hippo can weigh up to 50 kg at birth. And like the elephant and rhino hippos are vegetarian. Hippos feed mainly on grass; but considering their enormous size, a hippo’s food intake is relatively low—between 30 and 50 kg per night. For this, while they spend the day in water, they come on to land at sunset, walking up to 10 km a night as they graze on grass. 

Hippos and their habits play an important role in the ecosystem. On land, their grazing keeps the short grasses trimmed, and the swath cut by their huge bodies creates a trail that other animals also use. As they walk under water they stir up the mud, and as they defecate in water their dung provides microorganisms that are an important component of the aquatic food chain. 

Hippos are celebrated and revered in Africa, and feature prominently in African folklore. There are several folktales about why the hippo has its distinctive features. One of these is a delightful tale from South Africa that sums up all the characteristics of the Kiboko.

Long long ago in the dry and dusty plain Kiboko sat on the bank of the river under the blazing sun. Kiboko had never been in water before. Like the rest of his kind, he lived on land and ate grass. This was what the great mountain spirit Ngai had ordained. As he looked at the fish swimming in the cool water, he thought how wonderful it would be to like them. He thought, “Why don’t I ask the great spirit Ngai?” So Kiboko walked and waddled and lumbered and plodded all the way to meet the Great Spirit. At last he reached, and begged for a chance to live in rivers and streams.

The great Ngai was angry. “The river is no place for a huge fellow like you. You would eat all my little fishes!”

“No, no” promised Kiboko. I will continue to eat grass. And I will open my mouth wide whenever you ask, to show you that I have not eaten even a little fish. I will even stir up the water with my tail so that you can see that I have not hidden any fish bones.”

“Well” conceded Ngai, “you may live in the water, but…you must come out of the water every night so that you do not eat any fish at night, and you will eat only grass that grows on land”.

Kiboko agreed to all the conditions. He was so happy! He ran all the way back and jumped straight into the river with a mighty splash! But he forgot that he was not a fish; he could not swim! He sank straight to the bottom. He never learned to swim, but he learned to hold his breath, and to run along the bottom. This he does to this day. He also wags his little tail and stirs up the silt, to show that he has not hidden any fish bones. And every now and then he surfaces and opens his mouth wide as if to say “Look Ngai, no fishes!”

The seemingly benign hippo can be surprisingly aggressive, when its ‘safety zone’ is threatened. This may happen when humans visit rivers to collect water, wash clothes or bathe. With growing human encroachment into wilderness areas, this leads to human-hippo conflict which could lead to fatalities. But today hippos are under threat from Increasing human encroachment that is leading to their habitat loss; they are also hunted for their skin and teeth. The hippopotamus once ranged from the Nile Delta to the Cape, but now is mostly confined to protected areas. Currently, the species is listed as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN. As with all other species, the hippo too struggles for survival amidst the humans.

While Ogden Nash once captured the humour in the mutual perceptions, sadly today we look like the biggest threat to the hippo.

Behold the hippopotamus!
We laugh at how he looks to us.
And yet in moments dank and grim
I wonder how we look to him.

–Mamata

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

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

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

Boring Buzzers: Carpenter Bees

Every few months when we step out onto our little sit-out deck in the morning, we find pockets of sawdust strewn on the floor. Initially we thought that it was termites that had started eating away at the old wooden pergolas over the deck. But a general check could not reveal any other tell-tale signs of termites. So we continued to be baffled about what was responsible for this.

One morning as we sat there we saw a large black bumble bee flying about the pergolas, and then quite mysteriously disappearing somewhere into the wooden beam. A closer examination revealed a hole in the wood, and it seemed to be the one into which the bee had vanished. So now we had a possible suspect, but as yet no confirmation of the link between the sawdust and the bee. The next time there was sawdust, we checked the wood just above it and sure enough we found a neat hole. The next step was to find out if a bumble bee could also be a boring bee!

Some preliminary research confirmed one suspicion—that the drilling in the wood was indeed the work of a bee. But it also refuted the supposition that this was a bumble bee. What we discovered was that this was a bee called the Carpenter Bee, and also many interesting facts. 

To start with, of course, the name. Carpenter bees are aptly named for their habits of drilling into wooden surfaces such as logs and tree branches, or in urban areas, wood used for construction. They drill a neat hole in the wood and tunnel into the wood in order to make their nest and lay their eggs. In a couple of hours the carpenter bee can drill a hole a few inches deep, leaving beneath the debris of sawdust.

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa latipes) are one of the largest bees we have here in India. They are big and black with an intimidating appearance. Their wings shine in the sunlight with metallic blue, green and purple colours. The male and the female are more or less similar, but the male has hairier legs.   

Carpenter bees do indeed resemble bumblebees, but while bumblebees usually have a hairy abdomen with black and yellow stripes, carpenter bees typically have a shiny, hairless abdomen. The two bees also have different nesting habits–bumblebees nest in an existing cavity often underground (e.g., in abandoned rodent burrows), whereas carpenter bees tunnel into wood to lay their eggs.

Another distinguishing feature of Carpenter bees is that they are solitary bees, unlike most other honeybees and bumblebees that live in colonies and are known as social insects. The honeybees make hives, while carpenter bees excavate and make well structured tunnels in wood. They vibrate their bodies as they rasp their mandibles against the wood.

After boring a short distance, the bee makes a right angle turn and continues to make a tunnel extending about 30-45 centimetres, parallel to the wood surface. Inside the tunnel, five or six cells are constructed. Each cell houses a single egg, and each one is provided with a wad of pollen collected from flowers, which could serve as nourishment for the larva when the egg hatches. Each cell is then sealed with regurgitated wood pulp and saliva. The larvae feed on the high protein and calorie pollen beebread, and enter hibernation, before they turn into adult bees and emerge from the tunnel. Adult females can live up to three years and can produce two generations of offspring per year, though they never see their offspring!

What an amazing feat of insect architecture was going on, hidden from us, in the single beam of wood right over our head, as we sipped our morning tea!

Equally impressive is the contribution of these bees to the cycle of nature. Carpenter bees typically visit large open-faced flowers which have a lot of pollen as well as nectar. They use vibrations to release the pollen from the flower’s anthers, and are described as buzz pollinators. As they feed on nectar from many flowers, the pollen from the flowers sticks to the underside of the abdomen and the legs, which is transported from flower to flower as they flit and settle to feed, playing a vital role in pollination.

Curiously while I have seen the bee hovering around the wooden beams, I have yet to see one buzzing around the flowers. So the next step in my tracking the bee’s journey still remains incomplete. Even the drilling seems to happen after dusk, as the saw dust appears only in the morning, when the bee appears to be rather ominously hovering around, guarding the entrance to its nesting tunnel, and then flying off into the sunlight.

Interestingly, despite their intimidating appearance, it seems that the males are harmless and do not sting. Female carpenter bees can inflict a painful sting but will seldom do so — unless they are handled or bothered by people– another difference between these solitary bees and other bees and wasps that inflict dangerous stings.

While carpenter bees are have their own place in nature, when they start their drilling activities in wood in houses and gardens, they can become pests. As they hollow out the wood, this can lead to the deterioration or collapse of wooden structures. With our already old and weather-worn wooden beams starting to become favoured nesting sites for Carpenter bees, we had to look for ways to stop these boring buzzers. Research indicated that one option was to inject chemical insecticides or pesticides into the holes. We could not bring ourselves to do this.

We then read that these quiet-loving bees do not like vibration or noise around their nests, but seeing as they were happily drilling right next to our large and loud wind chime, this was obviously not bothering them.

Another thing that these bees are said to be very sensitive to is citrus scents near their nest, and spraying citrus oil into the holes was a recommended way to foist them off. We have arrived at our version of this by plugging the new holes with wedges of lemon. We think that this is playing some part in preventing their access, so one battle at a time is won. But this has certainly not deterred their efforts at drilling new holes; so if the hollowed-out beam collapses on our heads one fine morning, the bees would have won the war! 

–Mamata

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

‘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

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