Conversation With Jane Sahi:The Story of Dedicated Commitment and Deep Passion

Jane Sahi

The Story of Dedicated Commitment and Deep Passion

Jane Sahi has been working in the field of education for the last 38 years. She was born in England but moved to India in 1968 in search of a deeper understanding of Gandhiji’s life and values. Gandhiji continues to be to a strong source of inspiration for her even today. In 1975, she started the Sita School, an alternative school that tries to help each child reach her true potential through holistic, child centric education. The school has an emphasis on learning through art. Involvement in the school has been the ground for Jane’s work. We are grateful to her sharing with us her life trajectory and source of inspiration. We hope that our readers would enjoy reading this interview as much as we enjoyed taking it.


Tell us something about your intellectual trajectory- the way history has shaped your biography?

I come from a liberal, pacifist background and grew up in the U.K.  I first came to India in 1968 with the intention of spending one year before going to University to study Indian Philosophy.
I was particularly interested in ideas of Basic Education and Gandhian communities and was keen to see at first-hand how these ideas were put into practice. I was extremely fortunate at that period to meet some very inspiring activists in the field of education such as Radhakrishna Menon and Marjorie Sykes and it was these encounters that helped me to re-look at my assumptions about education and its relation to work, the community and equity.
In 1970 my husband, Jyoti and I moved to a Muslim village near Channapatna (a small town between Bengaluru and Mysore) where lacquer work had been the main source of income. With the mechanization of the craft the majority of the community switched their occupation and worked on contracts to make beedies. Children of all ages were also engaged in this activity and it provided a kind of cottage industry within the family setting. Formal schooling was scarcely on the horizon for these children although the local madrasa offered the opportunity for the boys to learn to read and recite religious texts.

The following year we moved to a village on the outskirts of Bengaluru. Here, too, few children went to school and expectations were confined to meeting the immediate basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. This experience made me very much aware of the need to try and make a different kind of learning accessible for children who were largely excluded from formal schooling. Gandhi’s radical ideas of education seemed particularly relevant in trying to envisage a school that was not modeled on a Western or colonial pattern.
This period coincided with a time when formal, institutionalized schooling was being critiqued and alternatives were being explored. In India the Nationalist Schools such as Vidya Bhavan in Udaipur, Sri Aurobindo and J.K. Krishnamurti had already established alternative models.  In the West pioneers like A.S, Neil were an inspiration to figures like John Holt, Ivan Illich and Neil Postman. This “free-school movement “came out of a liberal, often a-political tradition, which focused largely on issues of freedom for the individual child.

A very different  influence were the ideas of Rudolph Steiner who had introduced an innovative approach to   education in  the 1930s in Germany in reaction to the dominant  mechanistic, competitive and disembodied model of schooling. Similar in some ways to Rabindranath Tagore, Steiner saw artistic activity and the imagination as integral to education and not peripheral to it.

The experience of working directly with children and teachers in a very specific but changing context made me wary of any rigidly structured ideology or methodology imported from another place, time or culture.  In the 1990s I read Martin Buber’s two essays on education. He talks about education not in terms of a definitive model or a fixed system but as a life-form of dialogue. This remains a significant ideal for me that schooling is not situated in a vacuum but within a constant search to respond relevantly to the needs and lives of the students in front of us who are part of a dynamic culture.

It was about this time that the Alternative School Network in South India evolved from a group who shared common concerns about education and society and the responsibility of the individual. This group continues to be a vibrant forum for dialogue and exchange and is a rare space for openly discussing where life and work meet. Vasant Palshikar, an environmentalist rooted in Gandhian thought and practice was involved from the beginning and continues to push us to see education as central and relevant to meeting the crises of the present time and not reducing teaching to a narrow professionalism or management proposition.
From 2000 I have been part-time involved with teaching adults in the MA Education programme in TISS in Mumbai and then later in APU in Bengaluru and have been teaching courses related to language and education. I have been particularly inspired by the life and writings of Paulo Freire who re-defined ‘rigour’ in academics as theory grounded in practice and practice informed by theory.

The Sita School project: what lessons did you learn? What according to you are the possibilities of this sort of an innovative project in our times?

 Sita School started in 1975 in response to a particular context. My husband and I had moved to a village on the outskirts of Bengaluru and at that time most children were out of school largely on account of socio-economic factors. I felt that mainstream schooling was very often an alienating experience for children and that there were values and practices that were part of the community’s life that that should be affirmed in school. For example, in an agricultural-based economy responsibility and work were a natural part of children’s lives; co-operation and inter-dependence were also a way of life in traditional communities and discipline itself was not arbitrary but built into the necessity of acquiring life-skills.  Ironically some of these aspects are what some of the most forward-looking educationalists are trying to recover at the present time.

The village that we moved to 40 years ago has changed beyond recognition whether it is the landscape, people’s expectations, levels of mobility or patterns of work in both positive and negative ways. Schooling is now taken as normal and choices, according to afford ability, are increasing as more and more private schools are opened. Certification is assured and there is a kind of optimism that progress and development are within reach despite the daily reality of water shortages, power cuts and uneasy dependence on external bodies for health care and law enforcement. This means that at the present time enrolment of students is high and children do go to school. The concern is now what happens to children in school and how far the kind of pedagogy used, the curriculum followed and the means of assessment implemented is inclusive and purposeful.

One of the most disturbing aspects of present schooling is the enormous waste of so many children’s time and energy. So much time seems to be spent on disconnected and disembodied learning. This is a kind of violence that fosters future aggression, frustration and anger.  What needs attention is to support multiple ways whereby all communities are empowered to make decisions with their children that are both good for themselves and good for all.

Sita School has endeavoured over a number of years to create a shared learning space that is open to all and where co-operation and meaningful engagement in learning of all kinds is made possible. However, in the present situation with the increase in monitoring of schools by the bureaucracy following RTE and the changing options and expectations of communities the possibility of continuing as a school becomes more problematic. There is an urgent need to think beyond the small school as the only possibility of being alternative. I think we need to identify what we mean by ‘alternative’ as distinct from the dominant trend towards the commercialization and privatization of education that is unjust, dehumanizing and divisive.

We tend to think that systemic change means large scale  structural change that is organized from the top – but significant  and far-reaching changes can take place in multiple ways  –  constructively critiquing inefficient and defective practices, sensitizing  teachers to respond creatively  to different children’s needs and  interests, ensuring that information technology is openly sourced for educational purposes, sharing responsibility for the school’s environment and  the providing of  basic amenities, accepting diversity of language and  culture, actively thinking of how children can work collaboratively and not competitively, creating  and providing resources that open children’s worlds such as  books, microscopes and pictures, fostering the appreciation and  care of the natural environment as stewards and not mere consumers.

The present plan is from the coming year to gradually change Sita School into a place where children, students, parents and teachers can come to experience more open and collaborative ways of learning through artistic activities, work and play.

Even though all sorts of schools are emerging that claim ‘child-centric’ learning, the dominant practice of rote learning, and associated competition and aggression continues to prevail . Why is it so?
It is disconcerting to be confronted by hoardings on every side that advertise and promise all-round development – intellectually, physically and emotionally – for the individual child when the reality may in fact be an enormous pressure to succeed in prescribed and limited ways for a privileged few.  The very language that was used by liberal educationalists has been co-opted by a dominant discourse so that, for example, every text book that is published, however inadequate will claim to be following the guidelines of NCERT which foster interactive learning and a spirit of enquiry.
The concept of child-centred education needs to be unravelled to discover what it might mean for us here and now and not be confused with slogans and empty words. One aspect of child centred education is to see the child as an active learner who is engaged in dialogue, practical activity and experimentation in order to build, extend and deepen an authentic sense of coherence.

This kind of open-ended learning is the very opposite of mechanical rote-learning  because it involves active meaning-making whereby knowledge is  accommodated and assimilated in order to be  recalled  and adapted for use in multiple ways and sometimes critiqued or even rejected. Such an approach to the teaching-learning process and the negotiation of meaning can be threatening to conservative forces that see education as an instrument of control and enforcement and a maintaining of the status quo.

The term child-centred seems to imply that learning is an individual process but the learning process demands inter-dependence and relationship.  Can schooling support the  imagining  of different futures  that  not only look at individual’s possibilities of advancement or social mobility  but to recognize  that our future is  inextricably linked to the wider community  – including, as Gandhi termed people who are least privileged and most marginalized – the antyodaya. This poses a serious alternative to the commercialization of education that is tied to competition and exclusion.

In the market driven world, we see the child as the new consumer: consumer of toys,gadgets,fast foods etc. How do you respond to it? What role can parents and educators play?

 Choices related to food, health care, entertainment, clothes, forms of communication , construction materials and education are packaged and marketed in enticing and deceptive ways. Play is also becoming commodified. Young children are certainly targeted by market forces and are vulnerable to advertising campaigns. There was recently a struggle in France to make it illegal to deliberately target children under three which is indicative of how powerful the effect of advertising is on even very young children. As children grow older  the market quite consciously cultivates an insatiable appetite for more and more consumption by promoting products that demand constant upgrading and expanding:  for example, drones that have more and more gadgets and accessories or Barbie dolls that have an ever expanding designer wardrobe.  In order to promote incessant buying kits for craft activities are sold that have only a single usage.

One significant way of countering the toy market is to deliberately select play materials that are open-ended and invite imaginative and creative play such as wooden blocks, clay, sand and water. Another way is to encourage children to create their own toys and to explore materials in the way that Arvind Gupta, for example, encourages children to experiment and construct everything from three dimensional geometrical shapes to masks. Another possibility to deter children from becoming passive consumers is to blur the difference between play and work so that children actively participate and share with adults activities such as cooking, gardening or craft work.

Your work and writing suggest that you have been inspired by Tagore and Gandhi. Kindly share with us their influence in your life, thought and educational practice?

Certainly the complementary ideas of Tagore and Gandhi have been inspirational. I will just mention a few salient points. I think Gandhi’s idea of correlation whereby the connections of learning and doing are explored and highlighted have a huge potential. Gandhi gave as an example of correlation how the manufacture of cloth could be the basis for learning math, geography, history, science and art. The local environment itself can be a wonderful resource for learning that moves beyond a single subject and can make connections of experience in multiple ways that might include a greater awareness of the fragility of the eco-system or the multi-layered cultures that have contributed to local architecture.
Tagore’s sense of joy and celebration is extraordinary and he saw this as the vital ingredient of education. It is a deep-rooted joy in the wonder of changing seasons, the rhythms of music and movement , the richness of colour and texture , the evocative power of language  and the surprises of  the creative process. A striking example of Tagore’s readiness to start afresh was his exploration in painting as an old man when he felt that words alone could no longer capture his experience.

One aspect of learning that both Gandhi and Tagore shared was a commitment to nurturing regional languages. This is something that is largely being lost with the onslaught of English that increasingly is taking on the role of “a killer language”.

Your life is the embodiment of cross-cultural dialogue. What role can education play in creating a world free from racial/ethnic/religious chauvinism?

Krishna Kumar in an essay on Devi Prasad discusses the significance of his life as an artist, a teacher and a pacifist.  He writes: “Education which allows us to stay indifferent to violence and war is no education at all”.  If art can become the basis of education then   the child may discover a sense of belonging not only to the local environment and immediate community but also reach out to the wonder and possibility of being part of a wider and more inclusive world.  In this context ‘art’ does not mean just the production of images but a creative relationship with nature, materials and the people around us. Violence is often rooted in fear and education has a critical role in building up a trust in what is ‘other’.  The more we can encourage children to feel connected with things and people the less fearful of the unknown children will feel.
‘Value Education’ has often been reduced to bolstering a prescribed and majoritarian position that defines itself in opposition to ‘the other’. Nationalism is now so often entangled with an exclusive and aggressive agenda that makes it difficult to discern what being rooted in a time, cultural tradition and place might mean. In a recent celebration of Independence Day we made a pattern of concentric circles that showed in Gandhi’s metaphor how each one is related to an ever-expanding series of inter-related circles that reaches out beyond the family and nation to the cosmos itself. This celebration of a shared, borderless, unfenced world can be brought alive in the telling of stories, the learning of history and the study of the intricate relationships of interdependence in the natural world. The basis of this outreach begins ‘at home’ with the acceptance of both uniqueness and oneness.


This article is published in The New Leam, AUGUST 2016 Issue( VOL. 2 NO. 14  ) and available in print version. To buy contact us or write at  thenewleam@gmail.com


The New Leam has no external source of funding. For retaining its uniqueness, its high quality, its distinctive philosophy we wish to reduce the degree of dependence on corporate funding.  We believe that if individuals like you come forward and SUPPORT THIS ENDEAVOR  can  make the magazine self-reliant in a very innovative way.

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. Jane Sahe is a great educationist. Her pedagogic experiments, her cross-cultural sensibilities and her deep engagement with the ideals put forward by Gandhi and Tagore, I am sure, continue to give him the strength to pursue her path, despite all difficulties and obstacles. For young researchers and educationists, there are many things to learn from this remarkably innovative lady. It is great that you have engaged in a conversation with her. It is a gift to your readers.

  2. Very glad to have read this conversation. I have been using some of her readings in my classroom, the conversation makes me know her better as a person.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here