In Rishi Valley

In Rishi Valley

Sreekumar.K

Today again I woke up when I heard the matron waking up the students. That is usual. They all have to go for PT at 6 o’clock. I also go for a short walk then.

Rishi Valley is mostly plain with a few abrupt hills scattered around. Crossing the football ground you come to a mountain path just outside the school boundary. This path winds around a hill and goes up and ends on a flat spot between two hills, where you find a few boulders on which you can sit comfortably and watch the sunrise. From here you can also see a valley and the distant hills. The sunrise is beautiful here. No wonder it is called the sunrise spot. Solstice and equinox are both visible from here in different seasons. To your left is forest 150 acres wide, sprawling over a couple of hills. This has been nurtured by the school with the help of several generations of students.

Looking back from there, the school compound looks like another forest. It is hard to see any rooftops. None of the school buildings are taller than the trees. The priorities are obvious.

The eastern horizon has become bright. A little bit of the crimson sun can be seen now. It is like watching a huge screen. The moment you spot the first rays of the sun the sound track also comes on. All kinds of birds start hopping around chirping in a wide variety of pitches and notes. Rishi Valley has about 280 species of birds. There is an institute here that offers courses in ornithology. This is well attended by people from all over the world. From here I can see a group of students guided by a teacher silently moving down the path listening to some birds twittering.

The school assembly is in the auditorium at 9 o’clock. Three days a week some well-known hymns are sung by all together. Most of the students remember the songs and even the page numbers in the songbook. On other days either a teacher or a student gives a short speech. These speeches are typical of Rishi Valley. A wide range of opinions on a broad range of subjects could be heard. The only restriction is that it should not purposefully hurt other people’s feelings. Generally, sensitivity for life is at the core of these speeches. One can even say this is the best indicator of life at Rishi Valley – freedom of thought and expression, and a questioning mind.

Rishi Valley is not an official place-name. It was with the view of starting a university that Annie Besant and Jiddu Krishnamurti procured some land as early as the 1920’s. A rishi who had lived in a cave on nearby hill had passed away some time back. So the land which was later owned by the Krishnamurti Foundation of India came to be called Rishi Valley. A public road cuts right through this property.

In 1931, when a school which Krishnamurti had found in Madras encountered a storm, it was shifted to this place which was readily available. This is 15 kilometers away from Krishnamurti’s birthplace where his relatives still live. Krishnamurti used to visit this school and interact with the students and the teachers.

The workforce and the management at Rishi Valley are unique in many ways. The faculty is quite good. Some are professionals from different fields or experts in their subject areas. M.L Vasanthakumari and Palakkadu Mani Iyer used to teach music here. Visitors, parents and ex-teachers also lend a hand in teaching. The children do get a good exposure to different subjects and areas as a result of all this. They also get opportunities to enjoy music and dance concerts offered by well-known artistes.

Most of the management related issues are resolved through open discussions. Freedom of thought is the hallmark of this institution. Compared to the schools in the neighbouring cities the pay is not very good. The cost to company may come to a good amount since there are  lots of subsidies offered to teachers. But the actual carry home cash is only less than 10,000 per month. Thus a passion to teach properly in a good school is what has actually attracted most teachers. This is quite true since many teachers volunteer for much more work than is allotted to them. Several teachers have initiated different projects which take a lot of time and energy. These projects are well supported and acknowledged by the management. The expansive herbal garden, social forestry in the villages, water management and the rural health center are a few of them.

This level of dedication relieves the management of checking on the teachers about the work they put in. The only point of reference might be whether their work is actually in line with the principles of the school. Even this is a marginal worry since the teachers are expected to teach in their individual ways. The more the variety, the better the learning. If there is a guideline that has evolved from Krishnamurti’s visions it is the absence of the very guideline itself. This school is no place for dogmas. Ideologies are viewed critically. It is good to remember in this context that Aristotle’s school Academy had it written on the entrance: Man, thou know thyself. Krishnamurti himself says that Truth is a pathless wood and one has to find one’s own path.

As more and more religious and public figures clamour for more and more blind faith and schools also become increasingly dogmatic in blatant ways, Rishi Valley teaches one to be skeptical. This is the actual parting message that is generally given to students who graduate and leave the school. Persist in your skepticism. This is really the spirit of the management when dealing with core issues of curriculum and pedagogy. This trickles down to the students very easily. It is common in staff meetings, like the one I am in right now, to discuss various issues. But this is not with a view to reach a conclusion. Exploration is the name of the game. We think together, we explore together but answers might vary from person to person and we should allow for that. Majority’s decisions being imposed on the minority is quite unheard of here.

Such freedom of thought and its application go against many accepted tenets of education. The implication in setting up a system of education is that there is something to be taught, someone to be taught and someone to do the teaching. The teacher is supposed to be the custodian of knowledge. Even when the aims are ‘all round development’ or ‘self-realization’ the objectives are specified and spelled out for the learner. Translated into practice this at best succeeds in ‘filling them up’. Preservation and dissemination becomes the sole function of a school system. If knowledge has to be created it comes at the very end of one’s academic life, in the form of research in universities.

But Krishnamurti takes us to the world of knowledge creation at any stage in the life of a human being. We shouldn’t wait till we get old to learn new things. The eagerness to create knowledge on one’s own should develop in any child. A suppressed and biased mind filled with fear is the eternal slave of the past. An elephant used to chains when young, needs none when it is old. Realizing this, one has to be attentive to one’s own surroundings in a way to be aware of oneself. Observing nature, for example, as it is, and for what it is, will give us that experience and practice, Krishnamurti argues. All the schools he founded are blessed with beautiful landscapes.

` In today’s world free and unbiased thinking is all the more important. Governments are shirking their responsibility to educate the citizens properly. Moreover, what a student learns from the school today is very little compared to what he learns from other sources. Both formal education and non-formal education enhance his knowledge. But when it comes to developing his personality, both have given way to informal education. This has adversely affected issues ranging from exploitation of resources to exploitation of human beings. Today’s sermon on the mount is by multimedia dons who are also in control of trade monopolies. In this background, what happens in the classroom takes on a different colour.

Obedience has become synonymous with discipline which in turn has become a set of rules. These rules may be sacrosanct values or universally accepted norms. However, getting children learn these through ways in which they don’t get much chance to think freely about what they are learning has dire consequences. We are in fact teaching them, though in subtle ways, just to be docile. What makes this situation worse is that the factors which influence a student the most in today’s world are found outside the school walls. The nation itself seems to have no control of those factors. Some of these like the TV and the internet can teach them anything better than we do. Teaching good behaviour was great when done through example rather than precept. Now things have gone beyond that. Even if we teach by example, unless we make the students think about the examples being set, we are only making them vulnerable to hero-worship or anti-hero worship.

Thus teaching to learn is not as good a thing as teaching to think; more so when there are really bad things to learn in the world out there. Disciplining will eventually have irreparable bad effects. It may be a matter of pride or at least convenience for a school to have very obedient children. But tomorrow, obeying their bosses in multinational companies, they drain out drinking water right from our own settlements, we have no right to blame them. They are only being obedient. War poets have written at length about the price we pay for docility.

We exhort people to act or vote according to their conscience. We consider conscience as a bit of the divine in us. We don’t think it is something that can be developed in one. It is considered genetic. This is why we can’t talk about an imperfect conscience or a distorted conscience. But this cannot be true. Skinner was of opinion that we don’t bring any such thing with us. When we say conscience, even in the best sense we mean the application of logical fairness. If this is true conscience is something that can be developed through proper education. But not much is said about this in our pedagogy books or education manuals. History shows with ample evidence that in the absence of conscience even the best knowledge is used for the worst purposes.

Today’s staff meeting was rather short. Some of the ideas gleaned from the discussion are given above. The director had insisted that this discussion should not be dragged so long and as to be brought into a conclusion. Think together, and search individually.

It is almost lunchtime now. After two hours of rest there will be classes for an hour and a half. Everyone in the campus takes their food in the dining hall. It can also be sent home through helpers who work in the houses. It is vegetarian food, but egg also is available. The children make a lot of noise and commotion and suddenly go silent for a minute when a bell rings. Some children and teachers have volunteered for dishwashing.

Following the afternoon classes everyone go to their hostels for tea and snacks and then for different games. Interested teachers also take part. Most of the children are physically fit. Obesity is not seen at all. At 6:30 after a bath the children come back to school to finish their homework and prepare for the next day’s class.

Several teachers go for an evening walk. Three kilometers from the school gate takes you to the main road towards Kadappa. There is a tourist spot called ‘Horseley Hills’ twenty kilometers from here. Walking across the school campus and beyond, you come to a village called Thettu, six kilometers away. There is a three hundred year old temple here. The Mysore King used to visit this temple. History lies here like a stump of driftwood. The village is a set of houses lined along several encircling squares. Caste is still very important here. Some people are not allowed to live in the centre of the village.

Chronic drought has plagued this village forever. Percolation tanks which are several acres wide could be seen here and there and the school itself has eight of them. But good rains come only once in four or five years. You will find twenty or thirty mushroom-shaped huts around a bore well. When the well dries up, some of them leave their settlements for the cities, never to come back. Around these settlements, we see expansive fields of paddy, raggi, corn or pulses owned by a few farmers, a couple of them living in the cities afar away. Raggi used to be the staple food of the villagers till very recently. A few good rains brought in paddy cultivation and people took to eating rice. Since sunlight is aplenty throughout the year, the agricultural products like tomato and mango good taste really well. The number of cattle comes to 5500 and al villages smother choke you with gaseous methane. Life is really hard here and many men have just ran away from their wives and children leaving them to thrive or perish. Daily wages is below 30 rupees per day and that too for working from dawn to dusk. Some of the villages are too remote, three to four hours by walk. Fifteen kilometers towards the west we reach the border of Karnataka.

Walking down the dusty road towards the mouth of the valley (at the very end of this road, to your left, on a hilltop, there is a set of boulders arranged like a lion) you will come across a playground and some small buildings around it. This is an interesting part of Rishi Valley. Around 35 years after the main school was built, a rural educational center was also set up for the children from the nearby villages. In 1986, a satellite school system was developed as an extension of this. The students were mostly first generation learners who were not equipped or motivated enough to master the state syllabus lessons. Thus a new system was also developed to help them. Today there are 12 satellite schools in and around Rishi Valley. These are single teacher schools with children in 1st through 5th standard. If you get to teach in any of these you will feel like Ravi in ‘Khasakkinte Ithihasam’. It is hard to find teachers from these villages. It is harder to find teachers to come and work in these remote villages. This is where the school system has become very effective. The resources as well as teachers are from the community in which each school is situated. The course material is divided into several milestones which are similar to sets of factoids and skills akin to them. Work-cards are prepared to introduce, re-enforce, evaluate, remedy, and enrich. These activities are organized into a ladder system which can be used by the teacher or the students to see the progress of the lessons or of themselves respectively. Thus only one teacher (a facilitator) is enough for each school. However, the local people are also encouraged to involve themselves in various capacities as much as they can. For example, the textbook contains folk tales and folk songs contributed by the villagers and the contributors themselves come to the class to introduce them. Children who dropped out of the public schools since they couldn’t relate with the curriculum (which they felt was outlandish) do very well in these schools which are designed with the community’s need and the children’s interest in mind. Those who begin to come to school for the material facilities that it offers (food and dress) very soon become ardent learners. In thousands of schools in India this methodology is being adopted. Schemes are being worked out for adapting this for schools in Ethiopia, Germany, Nepal, Peru and Cambodia. RIVER (Rishi Valley Educational Research) has recently been awarded Global Development Network Award for the “Most Innovative Development Project” for its work towards developing a community-based educational model of self-sustainable school, as an instrument of lifting the community out of the continuously and increasingly degraded intellectual and environmental scenario. People from universities all over the world visit the center to learn about it.

Walking across the rural school you come to a dried up stream called ‘Thettu Vanga’. Close to this you we find a farm which has about 50 cows and some rare species of bulls, a vegetable garden which supplies sufficient vegetables and fruits for the school, and an expansive mango grove which is typical of the country side around here. Children volunteer and get trained in various activities in this composite farm where organic farming is followed.

Apart from a hospital for the school within the campus, the school has also set up a hospital for the villagers. A doctor who also teaches biology and history at the school runs this. The health of the villagers is deplorable due to malnutrition and some times because of stark starvation. Most couples have only one or two children and the population remains at a standstill of 5000. Though the villagers are generally élan and hungry looking, high blood pressure is a common ailment.

Walking back from the temple, down the dusty mud road, barren lands with a few wilted shrubs are seen on both sides. As the road dips a little and turns right, there is a sunflower field, a yellow sea stretching to the foot of the hills. They have turned their heads away from me in disapproval and are facing the last rays of the sun which is setting to my right. Walking across the field and turning back to the east I face thousands of their big bright flowers moving sideways in the breeze as if taking a desperate peep at the sun setting behind me. Two weeks later, withered and dry, they will be ground for oil.

At 6:30 in the evening, every week, a few adults gather at the Krishnamurti study center to listen to his audiotape and discuss their viewpoints. At 8:30, at the auditorium there will be film shows, some presentations by visitors or children’s performance. A few teachers go for a short walk after dinner.

Today is a full moon day. It is 10 o’ clock now. Most of the lights in the hostels have been switched off. Everyone has settled down for a cozy sleep and the temperature has fallen down to 15. The barren hills in the distance, spotted with huge boulders bathed in moonlight make it look like the close up of an alien planet. In Rishi Valley, the moonlight rains in through the trees blending itself with the blossoms of wild jasmine underneath. The moonlight itself smells of jasmine and night queen.

A huge bare gulmohar has its trunk branching out again and again until the numerous tiny tips get lost in a golden cloud above like numerous fingers reaching out for the Truth.

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