Story link: http://www.goodnewsindia.com/index.php/Magazine/story/rvalley
Annie Besant of the Theosophical Society proclaimed in 1920, that Jiddu Krishnamurthy, a young man of Madanapalle in Andhra Pradesh was an emerging spiritual leader of the world— a Prophet, even. JK as he popularly came to be known, was far too wise to be trapped in the robes of a Messiah. He soon broke loose, and began a life that made him a world renowned teacher. But this story is not about his life. In 1925, JK had motored through villages beyond Madanapalle. He came upon a splendid banyan tree and stopped right there. Here he would found a centre of learning. He did that, and it is today the Rishi Valley School. This story is not about this school either.
Dominating Rishi Valley where the banyan stands even today, is the Rishi Konda or Hill of the Rishis. Legend has it that rishis had lived up its slopes in grand isolation. Folk memory even recalls that a line of flaming torches could be seen up there on some nights as rishis and their students made from one cave to another.
Somehow, that legend of rishis, and the metaphor that a banyan stands for, have a relevance to the story we are about to tell. Ours is the story of this valley's modern day rishis. Rishis of yore lived for the success of this planet. So too, do the people we will meet in this story. They are promoting conservation, restoration and adoration of nature. They are not rishis however, living in isolation, as did the ancients; they are spreading—banyan-like, close to the ground— and reaching out to simple folks, giving them education, health and hope. Their work—like the vines'— shows how committed people can bring about harmony in the extended communities around them.
Two starts in the seventies:
Although the Rishi Valley School dates itself back to 1932, it was not until the 1970s that it entered a mature phase and began to resemble what it is today. For the first forty years it was more a series of experiments under several teachers rather than a system of teaching with an identity all its own.
In many ways, those directionless years are akin to the years of drought that can occur in this valley. The 1910 Gazetteer noted that the Rayalaseema region in which Madanapalle and Rishi Valley belong, was "rich in natural springs". The nearby Horsely Hills were thickly wooded, where elephants and bears had roamed. Yet by the thirties, the valley was a barren, rocky moonscape, thanks largely to pressures of railway building, population growth and profits in timber. It therefore became routine for this man-ravaged land to have several years of drought followed by a year or two of rainfall.
JK's original bid to acquire a 1000 acres for his school had not quite succeeded. His loyal colleague C S Trilokekar had in the 1930s, gone from village to village in a bullock cart and assembled 300 acres, which were largely bereft of trees. Overlooking this near desert, were barren, rocky hills all around. The annual rainfall of 700 mm, while not immodest, meant nothing given the bald hills and the tree-less valley. It was in this landscape that early experiments in learning were made.
The School's experiments to evolve a way of imparting education yielded some form in the 1970s during the tenure of Dr S Balasundaram as its Principal. Balu as he came to be known had followed the genial Gordon Pearce. It was during Balu's tenure that Radhika Herzberger, the current Director, arrived as a teacher. N Subbiah Naidu joined as a Physical Director. Dr N K A Iyer was the Estate Manager. S Rangaswami, who was a lecturer in the Indian Air Force joined as a teacher and broadened the environmental consciousness of the School. JK himself, seemed to be devoting a lot of his time to Rishi Valley during the seventies. He seeded two significant initiatives. In 1976, he started a school for children in the surrounding villages. He also urged that the School take to greening the campus and the land beyond as an active part of its curriculum.
Iyer, the Estate Manager began an extensive planting programme on the campus, involving students. He was a naturalist and a hands-on man. Iyer began the tradition of the School declaring a holiday whenever it rained well enough for seeding, planting and bunding. Students would swarm out of classrooms and dig into the soil. [Iyer, after leaving the School, was to create his magnum opus in Kolar District of Karnataka. Read that story here.].
Rangaswami, in addition to being an experienced teacher, is a man who has truly imbibed the essence of JK's teachings. Which is this: the only worthwhile religion for mankind is, love for and identification with nature and all creatures upon this earth. He is today, into his eighties but retains a sparkling mind that is passionate about ecology. "When I first dug a small pond in 1975, I knew nothing of water conservation techniques," he says candidly. "I was looking to tempt birds to settle in the emerging woods." They dug another water body up the south hills and called it the Last Lake. Recurring years of drought earned it the rib that it was a 'Lost' Lake. Birds did begin to come, though. Rangaswami took to teaching ornithology both as a fun activity and as a technique to gauge the health of the environment. Students were co-opted into becoming observers and reporters of bird arrivals and behaviour. Rangaswami has remained the snake man of the School, and a fairly busy one as an abundance of small game has bred a variety of snakes. But we are getting ahead of our story to 1990. It is still the 1980s in our narration.
Up goes a wall and down comes another:
JK's dream of extending the greening programme beyond the campus inched a little further in 1980 when the Andhra Pradesh government ceded to the School's care, some 150 acres on the south hills. For years the School had been trying to regenerate these hills. But recurring droughts combined with penury of villagers had dashed all efforts. Deliberately set scrub fire was a routine myopic practice to encourage quick fodder soon as the first rains fell. Constant grazing gave no opportunity for the regeneration process.
The redoubtable Naidu proposed he would build a stone wall to fence off the 150 acres. It was an outrageously daunting project fraught with social tensions. Villagers resented it. But Naidu was upto the task. It took him over a year but he did it. He is a big made man who has just turned seventy. He is a YMCA-trained fitness coach and loves the outdoors. He rallied the students and they participated in great numbers. One can get an idea of what the hills looked like in the 1980s from the background in this picture.
The wall itself is made of locally found rocks stacked with care but without any mortar [Picture]. But it snakes over 2.5 kilometres of undulating ground, up hill and down slope![Picture] And it has made all the difference. Naidu and the students have also, over the years, intervened in about 6000 places digging tiny ponds, building bunds, plugging run-offs, creating recharge trenches and of course, planting ceaselessly. They planted over 20,000 saplings every year and continue to do so. In the summer they form bucket-brigades to water the stressed plants. Nature as always responded handsomely[ Picture 1 ] , [ Picture 2 ]
Social tensions that the wall had caused were resolved once and for all, ironically because of the drought itself. By the mid eighties, when the whole region was parched, the walled south hills produced abundant fodder. Simply because the wall had foiled grazing. The School generously allowed the villagers to harvest all the fodder they wanted. As heavily laden bullock carts creaked off the hills, they were beyond the turning point. Villagers learnt lessons in sustainability: if nature is left alone and given a chance, it makes do with whatever rains that come by and roars back with abundance.
Even as one wall was coming up hill, down in the plains, another was about to be brought down. The Rishi Valley School is an expensive place for most Indians. It does produce very sensitive, free spirits but an invisible cost wall does run around it. JK had started a school for rural children in a 14 acre campus nearby but it had remained a place without much energy. In the eighties, even as the hills were regenerating behind a wall, Radhika Herzberger had taken over as the Director of the School. She is a scholar in Sanskrit and Indian studies. More importantly, owing greatly to her mother Pupul Jayakar's devotion to JK, Radhika had a proximity to JK which enabled her to internalise his vision. Radhika realised the need for making quality education available at the primary level everywhere. And that is how the Raos arrived in the valley.
Y A Padmanabha Rao and Rama [-pronounced closer to Ramaa than Raama] are both in their early forties. They met while at university in Hyderabad and discovered they were both looking for something they couldn't define. They were certain though, that conventional careers were not for them. What drew them together was their search for a worthwhile mission. They got married and went away to a village to try their hands at farming.
"Sidhipet didn't turn us into great farmers," smiles Rama. "But we found out what we wanted to do with our lives. Local girls, poor tribals would come up to me and seek one invariable favour: "teach me"! It struck me how the poor valued education ahead of even money." They soon came upon an advertisement seeking teachers -- in the rural school at Rishi Valley. Their mission awaited them.
But before we trace that, let us take note of something that seemed astir in Rishi Valley in the mid and later 1980s. Was it the emergence of nature's ecosystem or was it the collective unconsciousness of kindred spirits? In Chennai, V Shantaram, a chartered accountant in his late twenties, walked out of a secure career path to enrol in the Salim Ali School in Pondicherry to study ecology. He became an ardent ornithologist, his study of woodpeckers earning him a doctorate in 1989. He arrived at Rishi Valley to teach. Dr Ajith Gite had came over to be the School doctor. His wife Nalini hailed from Pune, but had spent her youth among tribals in the Dang district of Gujarat. She was an Ayurvedic doctor qualified at the Aryangla Medical College, Satara but says she learnt her pharmacopoeia from an Awary tribal chief in the Dang jungle. Ajith was a workaholic and died at the School in 2002. Nalini is creating a comprehensive herbal conservatory now. M S Sailendran is another chartered accountant seduced by nature. He came to the School as an internal auditor and stayed on. He is the School Bursar and a keen conservationist. Jayant Tengshe graduated from the prestigious IIT, Powaii. Instead of riding the conveyor belt to Silicon Valley, he surrendered to the gravitational pull of Rishi Valley. He teaches mathematics and works with Nalini in increasing the diversity of her collection. More recently young medical doctors Dr Kartik Kalyanram and his wife Dr Vidya Kartik have settled here to build the Rural Health Centre. Let us meet them briefly for now and move on. Their individual lives and works, as we shall soon see, will synergise and lock together with precision.
Cards, games and self-learning:
In 1984 when the Raos began to teach at the rural school that JK had established in 1976, it had nothing to distinguish itself, though because of its association with the Rishi Valley School, the poor thought it provided 'quality' education. It was not uncommon for students to walk over an hour to come to the school. Soon, however an opportunity set the Raos on the road to a discovery that is now impacting primary education in over eleven states in India and is even heard of overseas.
In 1986, the Human Resources Development [HRD] Ministry of the Government of India in New Delhi, approached the School enquiring if it would help increase the density of village schools. The task was assigned to the Raos. As they began exploring ways, they for the first time realised what ailed Indian education. The remedy for the poor completion rate of students in the education system, lay not in increasing the school numbers as the HRDMin had believed, but in making education interesting and non-threatening. Given text-books, examinations and keywords like 'pass' or 'fail', it was no surprise children were voting for schools with swift pairs of heels. The one teacher per class, one class per year system was dysfunctional because of lack of teachers or high absenteeism. Schools had to be redesigned.
There had been in the 1960s a brilliant but erratic teaching genius called David Horsburgh who had spent some years at the School. He had developed notions of free-form teaching and passage without rules. He was personally a very gifted man, 'a polymath who could teach virtually anything'. Though he had spawned many original ideas, he was far too unconventional to create systems.
Raos began to explore if they could develop learning 'packages' that would be enjoyable, valuable and replicable in the context of primary education for millions of young Indians in remote, isolated villages. Rishi Valley Institute for Educational Resources [RIVER] came into being and has been constantly evolving and fine tuning teaching ideas. Although the lead has come from Padmanabha and Rama, with active encouragement from Radhika, the tools and methods that make up the kit have emerged out of prolonged discussions, in which teachers, parents and students have participated.
The set of innovations can be summarised as follows:
--The three major streams of learning are to be language, mathematics and environmental studies, materials for learning which are to be drawn from familar objects and experiences.
--Village schools shall be one large undivided room with children of all ages sitting, interacting and learning much as children do in large families.
--There shall be just one teacher per school, not so much for 'teaching' as it is familiarly understood, as for explaining, helping, suggesting and initiating when required.
--Art, crafts, music, dance, theatre are all to be fun tailored to convey information, resulting in learning. Fun alone as an activity gains nothing for the student.
--Text books are to be deconstructed and their usable content incorporated into sturdy, colourful cards. These cards are in turn arranged in units and coded with colours and or icons.
--Children are free to learn at their own speed and evaluate their own progress. Completion of each unit of cards takes them to a milestone and looking up a chart on the wall, they know the next unit they must tackle.
--Each school room is to have both order and licence. Learning materials, musical instruments, toys and theatre props are carefully stowed away but space is available for unrestricted display of all student creations. The school must also emerge as the village centre, model garden, showcase of environmental ideas, adult literacy centre and an expression of community pride.
--Finally, all the needs of a village school should be capable of being packed compactly, so that the "School in a Box" may be easily transported by a teacher. Thus given just any suitable room, a primary school can be started overnight, anywhere by a trained teacher.
That in brief is the RIVER method of education. But behind that short list, lies 15 years of labour and experimentation. In 1986, the first satellite school, named Valmikivanam started in Eguvaboyapalle, a village of woodsmen. Rama recalls preparing the cards and boxes for the school: "Padmanabha, myself and our small son camped in Chennai for months together, shuttling between printers and stationers." They thought up the idea of carving alphabets out of thick sheet rubber used to make slipper soles. "The serrations tell the children which side goes down. They interact with the shape, investigate it and internalise it and in quick time, learn its use. The tactile connection jogs their recall," she says. They took the idea further: they make mothers fret-saw the letters and be paid for the work. This provokes their own learning and involvement. Children also listen to adults' remembered tales which are converted into class materials. As part of environmental studies, students troop out and survey the land around them. They discuss reasons why things are so, what plants and their produce do. They observe animals, insects and birds. They make charts to display their understanding. They learn mathematics in Metric Melas, a fete in which the whole village participates. Noses, heights and arms are measured in centimetres. Villagers are weighed in kilos and sorted to declare the heaviest and the lightest. Children run snack stalls and keep written accounts which are analysed and summarised. How much more immediate can 'education' get?
It's no surprise that the RIVER method is a raging success, not just in delivering education but also in community building. Since Valmikivanam, 15 more satellite schools have come up in a 25 km radius of the RIVER campus. They form a network and teachers from these schools actively participate in developing new learning materials. Behind the seeming looseness on the school floor, is a deeply thought through training scheme for teachers. No room for amateurs among them. No one becomes a teacher until after interning in a running school. There is a spare teacher or two available to fill in for any going on leave. Each annual batch has about 30 to 40 students and in the oldest school, Valmikivanam all but 3 have gone on to high school in a nearby village. One is working for his BA degree. Whatever became of the drop-out problem, huh?
RIVER decided against starting more satellite schools, directly run by it. Instead, they are re-training teachers of government schools. The 16 schools and the RIVER campus have become non-stop training grounds. 25,000 teachers, directly —and another 50,000 indirectly— have learned the RIVER method. The School in a Box is now available in many Indian languages. About 20,000 schools in 11 Indian states have adopted variations of the RIVER method. UNICEF has endorsed the idea whole heartedly. Interest from abroad is also growing.You can read a more comprehensive narration of RIVER's work here. And, get a vivid image of a class in progress from the words of Robert D Kaplan, who wrote a chapter on Rishi Valley in his book, 'The Ends of the Earth' [see box]
Robert D Kaplan, writes:
"It was a simple, one-room schoolhouse of lime-washed mud brick with a corrugated-iron roof, surrounded by a garden of marigold and hibiscus. Inside the schoolhouse I saw four groups, of about five children each, sitting in circles on the floor and quietly working with instructional cards and small chalkboards. I heard no shouting and saw no bored or sleepy faces, just low steady whispering as children tutored each other with minimal help from the teacher, who appeared almost superfluous. Paper cutouts of flowers and birds dangled [Picture]from the ceiling a few feet above the children's heads. Shelves holding a neat arrangement of student's files and craft boxes were set against one wall [Picture]. Against another wall were colourful charts that listed the number of people, plants and animals in the village, each broken down into various categories. From the charts I learned that this particular village had 271 inhabitants, of whom 106 are women, 97 men and 68 children. An exhibition of children's paintings hung from the third wall. Though only a year old, this school was already a more than a hut—it was a 'home', with a deeply personal touch[Picture] both in the garden and in the classroom...I could not recall another classroom that seemed so calm and conducive to self-motivation. It was especially impressive when one considered the poverty of the students' background and the wide age-span within the class...
"I spent an hour in the classroom just watching the children. From time to time, for a minute or two they stared at me —an unfamiliar and foreign face that had sparked their curiosity. But then they returned to work. Not one child had an expression that seemed sullen or lost, the way many children appear in schools in poor neighbour hoods in the United States. I observed closely from outside the door. Not one child was pestering the other. By American standards, the class was an anomaly—a room full of underprivileged kids of varying ages who were all well behaved. Because discipline was not even an issue, everyone could concentrate on learning.
"A school need not be a lecture by one big person to thirty little people, whereby teacher and textbook perform as if they are magicians and everybody else sits in rows and listens. A school is not about rote learning or memorizing. Oral cultures, the Raos asserted, already do too much of that. Only when children are taught to categorize and analyze, rather than merely to memorize, can they achieve anything in the modern world. Intercommunal and tribal hatreds, the Raos explained, arise from too much faulty oral memory..."
There is no cause to imagine that the satellite schools are a life apart from the Rishi Valley School. To persist with the banyan metaphor, the original 300 acres in which the tree stands, having extended to 450, vines have struck root over a 25 km radius in which the satellite schools are located. Around each rural school active village communities have formed. Nalini and Jayant are propagating the value of cultivating herbs and medicinal plants, for health, nutrition, and also for income generation. Sailendran regularly leads teams of students from Rishi Valley to interact with the villages and help them plant their community gardens. Sailendran says, "We discovered how much more profitable is cultivation of Jamun and Custard Apple trees. Villagers get tempted by exotic cropping ideas and forget old native trees." New groups of enthusiasts have formed around Madanapalle inspired by the now green south hills. Sailendran counsels them and arranges for planting materials. Kartik and Vidya run a dispensary at Rishi Valley and also tour the villages. "Most of the ailments are due to poor nutrition. Tuberculosis is only a layer away," he says. He is creating a database to map the health profile of the villages. With Nalini's help he is prescribing diets that include leaves and grains, now fallen in people's esteem. You can discern a convergence of all these seemingly unrelated initiatives. The focus of Rishi Valley School's work with rural people is on restoring their pride in their own worth. The purpose of education ought not to be in preparing people to be cogs in the modern economic machine, but to teach them to live sustainably, profitably, proudly, creatively, supportively whatever their habitats.
Under the old banyan:
Personal commitments had taken Rangaswami away from the campus for 12 years. By the time he returned in 1990, Naidu's labours had wrought a magic. There was a distinct increase in species of birds. He and Shantaram paired up and did an ornithological survey. The score: 205 species, up from the historical maximum of 80. It was time therefore in 1991, to declare that Rishi Valley was officially a 'Private Bird Preserve'. There is a picture of Rangaswami standing under the banyan, reading the declaration. Radhika is looking on with contentment writ large on her face. She had been the unobtrusive, encouraging force behind the School's expansion in many directions.
The air about the School is one of understated passion. Every idea that is in furtherance of nature's success, is pursued. Shantaram takes his task of being the Associate Warden of the Preserve very seriously. He and Rangaswami run the Institute of Bird Studies and Natural History, they started in 1997. They offer a correspondence course in ornithology which is growing popular, with over 600 people across the country having completed it. Naidu though retired now, keeps returning to his beloved campus. The Raos together were elected Ashoka Fellows for their work in education. Nalini has laid a herbal garden for President A P J Kalam at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Clearly, the School's creative stream is in flow.
In a book—"Birds of Rishi Valley"— he has co-authored with photographer S Sridhar, Rangaswamy writes, "Four occurances suddenly brought the mysterious and independent power of nature home to us. One morning a wild cat wandered through a half open door in the old guest house... Shortly thereafter a turtle was found crossing the path between two hostels. Next, a family of dabchicks moved into the large percolation tank. Finally, the call of a Yellowthroated Bulbul was heard on the hills..." He was implying how nature was signalling through its emissaries that it was endorsing the School's habitat. Strange, he didn't mention that rishis were returning to it as well.
Rishi Valley Education Centre
Krishnamurthy Foundation of India, Rishi Valley 517352, Chittoor Dt., Andhra Pradesh
School Office  280622, 280037, 280044
S Rangaswami:  80233
Y A Padmanabha Rao:0 98483 67921
M S Sailendran [School Office]
Y A Padmanabha Rao [RIVER]
Dr V Shantaram [Institute of Bird Studies]