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May 08, 2018 Tuesday 12:42:17 PM IST


Guest Column

If you go to Ujjain, the modern city in present-day Madhya Pradesh with perhaps one of the oldest citadels of the finest education system of India’s legendary past, you can find a kaleidoscopic picture of the evolution of our education system. Let us start with our puranas. The over 5000-year-old Sandipani Ashram, the first of our still existing forms of educational institutions, was a totally teacher controlled one, with Saint Sandipani accommodating Kshatriya princes and talented Brahmin boys and teaching them everything from science to statecraft to wrestling to music to philosophy to swimming. The wards were also taken through general studies and were given areas of specialisation depending on their talents and station in life. Making the wards efficient so that they performed their duties well in their pre-destined vocations in life was the motto of Sandipani Ashram. The legendary Pandavas and Kauravas were students there. Why even Lord Krishna and the pious and poor Brahmin Sudama (Kuchela) also trained at the Ashram. Everybody had to, however, help the teacher’s wife to run the household where they all stayed together. While being the ‘resident’ mother to these ‘hostelers’, she was also a strict warden and part-time teacher. The boys also had long excursions to various parts of central and western India from the hills down to the sea.


Even today, you can sit on the supposedly self-same reddish rock stone steps of the tank adjacent to the Ashram where Sri Krishna apparently used to sit and tell his cohorts stories of his fishy episodes in Vrindavan with Radha, his girlfriend, almost the same way as the present 12-year-olds pass on the titbits of their first love affair to their WhatsApp friends.


Fast forward to 2000 years ago. Kalidasa, that eternal literary giant, appears on the scene. He was illiterate, but highly  talented and was blessed by Saraswati Devi, the Goddess of Learning. He had the best of education from King Vikramaditya’s court where the  Navaratnas, the nine gems, the top intellectuals and experts of the day in various fields, held sway. And storytelling became the conduit of education.


In perhaps the best ever literary work or fiction created in any language, Sakuntalam, Kalidasa beautifully melded the political, economic, scientific, and social wisdom of the day by subtly changing part of the story of Sakuntala from the original version in the Mahabharata.


Panchathantra, Katha Sarith Sagaram and Jataka tales were all stories with wisdom and education passed on through generations almost orally by wandering bards and it was a parallel learning platform for the poor.


The British came and lo behold, they changed the entire structure. They wanted English knowing clerks and so set up an educational system with emphasis on the study of the English language first and foremost. As unavoidable hazards, British law and history and basics of science were brought in. Subsequently, Indian schools, colleges, and universities went on to become poor imitators of British institutions, albeit one that ushered in some form of egalitarianism.


Today, in Ujjain, Sandipani and Kalidasa are out and Vikram University rules the roost. About sixty years ago, I was in Ujjain searching for Sandipani and Kalidasa and found the picturesque green semi-forested area where Vikram University stands today. May I hasten to add that the university was named after King Vikramaditya. That was the scene then. Many mounts and small hills. Three rivulets flowing to Kshipra, the river with perennial waters and sacred memories, and the lush colourful surroundings. Six years ago, I travelled to Ujjain, to Vikram University. The landscape had completely changed. The get-up was beautiful with the buildings boasting a faux Indo- European architectural style. The air-conditioning was superb and the campus leafy. And the teacher student camaraderie was laudable. I felt rather proud.


The university had given affiliation to dozens of colleges of almost all disciplines then available — from history to physical education to science to architecture and medicine to literature.


The new Sandipani was there, the Vice-Chancellor, but he never communicated with his sishyas, but, in any case, the language they used for communication was foreign. Yet resonances from the past were occasionally felt in the atmosphere.


Of course, there couldn’t have been any comparison with Oxford or Berkeley, but we are not far behind. Our universities may not be in the top 10 in the world but that doesn’t matter!


But I am upset. Independence had brought clarity to India’s aspirations. Rapid economic progress with social justice. Literacy was the first priority. So, a huge flow of literate children commenced and we were forced to just duplicate the existing system to accommodate them.


With the capital input necessary for land, building, library, laboratory, and what not, the cost kept going up. The result was the cost of education spiralled unimaginably, making it beyond the dreams of the poor.


My friend, Dr. A.Ramachandran, Vice-chancellor of the Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies, the only one of its kind in India, told me of his experience. A Kochi man, his father spent only Rs. 5000 for his education from primary school to doctorate, but when it came to his child, he had to shell out Rs.50,000 as fee for admission for his child to an LKG class in a school in self-same Kochi.


But I am optimistic. A wave is slowly taking shape and is about to roll. I can see the formation. The bard culture — the best educational system ever — beyond written language, but based on sounds and pictures and colours, and available to everybody will be the new educational platform.


It will revolutionise even the concept of learning in unimaginable ways. The school, library, laboratory, and teacher will be part of you and it won’t be a distant cousin of distance education.


It will be a world where everyone, even the poorest, can get an education. The world will surely be a happier and better place.

K . L. Mohana Varma

Kochi-based novelist, short story writer and columnist.
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