Home > Kalākośa > Kalāsamālocana Series > List of Books > Culture and Development SeriesThe Cultural Dimension of Education

know about Janapada Sampada 


[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]


An Enquiry into the Invisible Order

Haku Shah

Learning through the Unconscious Mind

In Gujarat, particularly in Saurashtra and Kutch, a girl embroiders everything for her to be born after she marries and goes to her husband’s house. She embroiders a cap for her child. Here she thinks of the basil plant that she worships everyday. She dreams of horses, elephants, birds and figures — women with water pots or women with flowers — all the visuals that she lives with, she remembers and wants to remain with her child. Look at the physical process in which the woman is involved. It is like learning through the unconscious mind, imparting to oneself one’s own thinking through skill, creativity and, in that sense, love.

The process of dreaming of the child to come starts much before the child is actually conceived. Once conceived the process becomes more focused, clear. When a child is born it has already accumulated all the above through the mother and the world around it. Thus lessons for a child begin even before its birth. That is why it is essential for parents to take cognizance of it. We assume that the age of learning begins at five to six years, but if we really think of children’s education then we must take into consideration the time when the child is in the mother’s womb. A very tender seed takes shape and gracefully grows.

If parents would behave themselves whilst the child is growing before it is born and after, it is a well-known fact that the child would instinctively obey the law of truth and the law of love.1

Once the child is in this world all its senses become active and thus the great door of the universe opens. At this stage the second chapter of learning begins. Here two questions may arise:

1. How do we know that the child is learning?

2. What is it that the child is learning?

Do we remember the baby gazing at the mother or the mother gazing at the child while she feeds it? In a very short while the child gets to know of the mother: ‘this is mine’. It may have learnt many more things than just the fact that she is its mother. When the mother is feeding the child we notice the interaction in the silence, the talk and the ami drishti, or the fondness with which they look at each other. All these are lessons for each other — not only for the child but for the mother as well.

So school has already begun for the little one — from being fed by the mother, to her stories and jokes, the sounds, the ami drishti, the dreams, the conscious and the subconscious mind are very much at work. After a while, when the mother dotingly says ‘you cunning’, which actually means ‘you darling’, this abstraction is communicated and understood by both of them.

The Process of Inquiry

When the mother sings a lullaby she sings of plants, flowers, birds, and people in the family, and even sleep is called out to — ‘nindar rani (Queen of Sleep), come and put my child to sleep’. Here she also reproduces the sounds of different birds and animals and invites them to play with the child in its dream. Sometimes when the child becomes older, it asks for a particular song of which it has become very fond. This lullaby then remains with the child for a long time and plays a role in defining its character.

A teacher is a mother. She who cannot take the place of a mother can never become a teacher. A child should not feel that it is receiving education. The child whose mother’s eyes follow it everywhere is receiving education all the 24 hours.2

The self-learning process begins early. The child learns to say ‘ma’, mother, as the first word. Then follow words like ‘pa’ for father, ‘na’ for no, ‘ha’ for yes, and so on. Learning from sign language also begins here. For instance, you point a finger and say ‘jo’ or ‘see’. All these and many others build up the learning process of the child. Sign and word language become more and more interesting. When the child utters the first word it becomes a great source of pleasure for the parents. So much so that they even start imitating the child and the child in return enjoys repeating the same word often. When the child becomes a little older, the parents start talking to it in its own tone. Sometimes the mother speaks to the child as if it were a grown-up person.

The process of enquiry begins. The learning which takes place through the senses now begins with questioning. ‘If grandmother is dead, where has she gone?’ ‘Where have I come from?’ The child wants to inspect everything, break things and see how they are made, touch what they are asked not to touch. Two-year-old Jai was asked, ‘What is your name?’ He replied immediately, ‘My name is Jai but my mother calls me atankvadi (terrorist)’. Sometimes he takes out a cardboard box, empties it and beats it like a drum. His mother comes up to him and says ‘Jai, will you stop bothering me with all that noise and go to the neighbours and play with your friends?’ On another occasion he did the same thing again with the box, but as his mother entered the room he said ‘Don’t worry, mother, I will not bother you with the noise and will go next door and play with my friends.’ If one analyses the two instances the knowledge and the concept of faith that the child acquires from these informal situations at such a young age is an indication of the procedures in imparting education. To the same boy, then, we teach the entire gamut of do’s and don’ts:

Do not tear paper, or you will destroy it


Do not play in the dust or you will get dirty


Do not play in water, you will become wet


Do not play in the sun or you will get tanned


Do not climb the tree or you will fall

All don’ts will only hamper the positive process of creative enquiry in the child. The attitude of parents and teachers cultivates in children a sense of fear and cowardliness, of untruthfulness.

Where there is untruth or fear there is no love. Love is the key for learning. Without it learning or education is impossible. Having been blessed with children I discovered that the law of love could be best understood and learnt from little children. Were it not for us, their poor ignorant parents, our children would be perfectly innocent. I believe implicitly that the child is not born mischievous. Whilst the child is growing, before it is born and after, it is a well-known fact that the child would instinctively obey the law of truth and the law of love. We put aside the law of love and truth and in the name of education, behaviour, good habits, and manners we cultivate fear, hate untruthfulness, etc., in children. Where there is fear there can be no intelligence. So intelligence comes into being with the understanding of your own self and you can understand yourself only in relation to the world of people, things and ideas.3

All the time we order the child: you should sit and read . . . you should obey your elders . . . you should learn from your elders . . . do not argue with your elders . . . sit and study for your exams . . . . There is nothing unknown to the child and at the same time it would like to know about everything. Sometimes to get the mother’s attention to a question the child even holds the mother’s face while being asked to sit quiet ‘when elders are talking’.

Often we want to see our child reading and writing quickly. We are in a hurry to get that into the child even if it is a burden on him. Unless we remove the notion that the child will gain knowledge only through reading, the process would become difficult. It can easily be conceived that he who has no knowledge of the alphabet throughout his life may become learned.4

A child can draw a human figure — his mother or father — very early in life. But the great art teachers would think otherwise. ‘You should first learn to draw the leaf’, they would say. The child can express itself through available material marvellous things, whether it is the sand on sea beach or a desert or any such thing. Unfortunately many parents say that ‘he has no inborn talent to be an artist’. Dr Coomaraswamy once said that an artist is not a special kind of human being but man is a special kind of an artist, or else he is something less than a human being. So don’t we want our children to be human beings! Then we should give them a chance to paint, draw, sculpt, sing, dance or create whatever they want.

Once an illiterate singer, Ganesh, came to me. He was about thirty years of age. In a sense he was like a child. He had never held a pen or a pencil. I asked him to draw. ‘I don’t know how to hold a pencil’, he said. ‘Try: you will be able to do it’. ‘Why do you want me to do this?’ ‘For me! I would love to see how you draw’. He agreed and started drawing. ‘Make a tiger’. ‘I do not know how’. ‘If not a tiger then make an elephant’. He drew an elephant and a man riding on it. ‘Who is this man?’ ‘Myself’. He had actually made himself!

Then he started drawing more and more. Once when a friend of mine and I asked him to draw the story of his life, to our surprise, while depicting shops in Ahmedabad, in his drawing he started making letters and numbers which did not make any sense — like the name of shops. Along with that he drew a sample of what the shop was selling . . . a dress or a radio or some such thing. So we knew what the shops were selling.

Then I asked his wife to draw. And surprisingly, within a few months’ time she started drawing 70-feet paintings of goddesses! Both husband and wife loved to paint. Even their children started painting. To our great surprise, they made the most unusual themes like themselves; what they sang in their songs; sounds of birds, shahnai, etc.; dark nights, planets. Now here we may ask: Where is the real alphabet in this? Is it learning? Is this knowledge?

The Self

The question that arises in my mind is: Why can’t one, whether literate or illiterate, create one’s own lessons? Their own poems and their own plays? When we give children prescribed books to read, they would surely learn what the author has to say, but what happens to the child themselves? When we were children we were given textbooks to read as if they were the end of the world of knowledge and there was nothing beyond. And so the self is completely lost.

A teacher teaches as though he or she teaches were superhuman. They do not realise that there is so much that they have to learn from the students as well. The teacher cannot see himself and does not let the students see within — that is the greatest tragedy. The other being, of course, that no matter how little informed one may be of one’s subject, one can always pass examinations by hook or by crook and end up attaining a degree, losing out in the process the sheer joy of learning the truth, the freedom and the expression of the self. How can one learn like this?

When I tell students to be true to themselves when they create anything, to do what they think is best, they say, ‘What do you want, Sir? We’ll do what you want, Sir’. They are conditioned to obey and act accordingly.

One can say that somewhere in this process the self gets mortgaged. The identity of the self is lost. Although it remains somewhere, it is taken over by teachers, advisors, preachers, parents, and so on.

In some of the temple cloth paintings done by the Vaghari folk painters of Gujarat, their gods are placed in the centre and minor deities, musicians, stories, ancestors, environment and others occupy the space around. I showed my students slides of these paintings. They had to design anything on this concept based on someone they loved, with other things around. The students came out with marvellous works and it was great to see whom or what they loved. One created ‘mother’, others a child, a television, chewing gum, etc. They actually got to think of whom they loved.

If you could read all the books in the world it would not give you intelligence. Intelligence is something very subtle; it has no anchorage. It comes into being only when you understand the total processes of the mind — not the mind according to some philosopher or teacher but your own mind. Your mind is the result of all humanity and when you understand it you do not have to study a single book, because the mind contains the knowledge of the past.

You can learn from books but that does not take you very far. A book can give you only what the author has to tell. But the learning that comes through self- knowledge has no limit because to learn through self-knowledge is to know how to listen, how to observe, and therefore you learn from everything — from music, from what people say, from the way they say it, from anger, greed, ambition. The leaf that is blown by the wind, the murmur of the waters on the banks of a river, the flight of a bird high in the air, from the poor man as he walks by with a heavy load, the people who think they know everything about life, you are learning from them all. Therefore there is no teacher and you are not a follower.5

Self-knowledge comes through the process of self-inquiry.

The Invisible Order

Right from birth the human being brings with him an invisible order. This then gets expression through visuals, sounds, action and movements. This order exists in each one of us. We see this order when Ganesh and his wife, Teju, draw. When you ask a painter to draw sounds he might be taken aback. But when Ganesh and Teju drew, it was without any hesitation, through sheer intuition.

Once Ganesh decided to narrate the story of a potter in one of his drawings. He was inspired by a story often told in Gujarat. In this story a potter lives with his wife in a village. In their house they also have some cats. One day one of these cats gives birth to kittens and puts them in the potter’s half-baked pots for safety’s sake. The potter’s wife gets to know of this and is pleased about it. The next day the wife leaves for her village, a short distance away. After she has gone, oblivious to the kittens being inside them, the potter puts his half-baked pots into the kiln all ready for baking. The wife sees the smoke rising from the kiln and comes running back home in horror to save the kittens. The potter and his wife fear it might be too late already. They wait in great fear for the kiln to cool down. He pulls the pots out of the kiln. Much to their astonishment and relief, they find the kittens alive and cuddled up in the pots.

Now Ganesh in his drawing made the burning kiln and the pots and so on. Then he came running to me saying, ‘Oh! But I forgot to remove the kittens from the pots, what should I do now?’ I told him to make nearby a drawing where he could show that the kittens had been removed from the pots as in the story, and found to my amusement that he happily accepted my solution.

Sometimes one wonders that for someone who has never been to school or had any kind of formal education, one who did not ‘learn’ in our sense of the word how to draw an animal, an elephant, a camel, and so on, how can he draw? Which of his faculties helps him draw here? Is it that he sees well, is it that he perceives well, is it that he can observe well, or does it come from intuition?

In many ways he is like a child. When a child is little its senses are tender. It sees, touches, feels, hears, smells keenly — when truth and love intermingle with this fine sensitivity a miracle occurs.

Ganesh through his drawings really lives with the animate and the inanimate beings in the story. This reveals not just inquisitiveness but an invisible order of a human being: it has in it the root of simplicity, the roots of distilled human nature, the roots of austerity, and the roots of aesthetics. This shows a humane approach to life.

The Holistic Approach

When I see a child playing, she plays with the material around. She makes a house, a mountain, a temple, and so on. And along with it, she sings, enacts it.

A girl does Gauri-vrata at the age of four or six or eight years. What she actually does is become the goddess herself. That is her first act of dressing well, fasting, eating a feast, wearing the best jewellery that she can; she sings, she dances merrily and all that. For her it is the first important celebration in her life. She knows the story of Gauri; her mother has told her about it. She begins from here on her preparation for her marriage. She grows sprouts, symbolising fertility, and she and her friends go to the temple. They derive great pleasure in doing this ritual act — lessons for life, the samskaras.

These and many others are lessons. They build the character of the person. Every such event has great significance, provides for the knowledge that we have, everything coincides somewhere and becomes part of the entire event of life. Like in tribal or folk people, one sees visuals like music, dance, drama, feasts — everything coincides.

In schools there is compartmentalisation of subjects into what is important and what is not. Art, play, library, excursions, all are considered subsidiary. This only isolates experiences further. It reduces the ability to extrapolate or draw from various experiences. Once I did a workshop with National Institute of Design (NID) students. We decided that we would pick on one theme and understand it in its holistic perspective. We thought we would work on the topic of hands. This was so because we felt that oftentimes we do not understand the significance of our hands in its fullness.

  • First we did various exercises with the hand; this was like a warming up session.

  • We would have everyday a ‘resource person’ coming into tell us the significance of hands in their lives. We had an architect, a dancer, a gardener, a tabla player so on. Everyday we would spend the first ten minutes with one such person.

  • An interesting exercise that we did in the workshop was feeling hands. Here some people were wrapped in a blanket with only their hands showing. The students had to feel their hands and narrate their experiences. One of these was a man whose only job was to water the lawns of NID with a huge hose-pipe, another was a young girl school student, and there was one student from NID itself. Students had interesting experiences to tell here, particularly of the man who watered their lawns, whom they had seen day after day on their way to their classes but never spoken to. Suddenly they began to understand him.

  • We had a vertical mural where students could put up anything they liked on the theme of hands. In the centre of this mural was a big hand drawn by one of the students.

  • There was a horizontal panel on which students could come up with something on the chosen theme and pin it up. In fact registration to the workshop was the hand-print of the student on a sheet of paper pinned up on this panel.

  • Then there was a sculpture box. This was basically the wooden crate in which fruit is sold. Each one of the students was given one of these and asked to make something inside or around it. I must narrate one very interesting effort by a girl. She put up a screen in front of the box. One could not see what was beyond it. And she said one had to feel with the hands the objects inside. We could feel inside clay, water, some relief work that she had done and other materials that she had used, giving it an extra dimension that does not meet the eye.

  • Students were asked to create something on the theme through pottery, painting, collage, photography, and so on in their studio hours.

  • Finally, on the same theme of hands, the students also did plays. The plays took them two full days to make. They used mime, visuals, story, music, and so on.

The entire workshop was for seven days. We worked only on one element — the hands. Sometimes individually and sometimes together but everything grew from within them. In a sense I did not ‘teach’ them anything.

Learning Through Instinct

Probably one of the greatest sources of learning is play, and prakriti has great lessons to offer which can be unearthed, discovered with this play. A child simply has to play. Without playing he either cannot remain a child or cannot learn anything. In fact everything can be done through play. It gives stimulus to the body, mind and heart. But in our system of education we consider play something negative. Actually play not only adds by itself it can also become a great source of knowledge in any subject. Here the teacher has to be a great master — only then will it be possible. Generally one feels that knowledge can come only through books. Normally people say, ‘this child is playful and not serious’.

Once I was asked to do a programme on creativity for television. I had about twelve students between six and twelve years of age to join me. Some were school-going, some were not. I had asked them to get me any child they came across. We had a driver’s son, a farmer’s daughter, and a producer’s daughter in the group.

A team of television personnel came to fix the backdrop, the platform, etc. I told them that we needed very little and that we would call them later. I also told them that we did not need ten to twelve people to do it and that just two or three would be enough. They were a little angry, but they had to accept. About the materials to be used, I told them that we would make use of whatever was available and that they should not make any purchases. So we worked with some pastel colours and water colours, ink, and some very ordinary paper. First I talked to the children briefly about what we were going to do. I had total faith in the children. We selected five elements: an old mother; a fairy; an animal; a tree; and water.

I then asked them to make a story out of these elements. All of them made their own stories. Then they had to select the story they liked the most. We decided that with couplets the stories would be even more interesting. They agreed and the next day their story had couplets as well. In the meantime I had asked the carpenters to fix cardboard boards and brown paper on the backdrop. On the backdrop each one of the children was given space and they were asked to paint the whole story which we had selected. Lo and behold, there was a big and colourful mural created in the whole process.

Now I asked the children to make a play of their story. They were told that they should stand exactly where each element was painted. So with the painting behind them, the children enacted the story. The whole exercise took five days. I did not add a word of mine. We got stories, paintings, sculptures, couplets and a play with a background mural, everything done by them.

The Environment

The environment or prakriti has many lessons to offer. One cannot ignore one’s roots. They do have a definite role to play.

Once in Kerala we were conducting a workshop with children from the panchayat school. During lunch hour the children were eating their food on plantain leaves and when throwing them away, they made a mess in and around the waste-paper basket. I told the children to create something out of the leaves on which they were eating to express their skill and creativity. Then on another day I saw the children did not do it. I asked the children why this was so. One of the boys said, ‘the teacher said not to’. And then I realised what the problem was. It was considered dirty to work with the plantain leaves on which they had eaten. The next day I asked them if they could just make something and throw it into the basket and decided that I would sit near the basket where they threw the leaves. They agreed. I sat near the basket and picked out about ten of these works and took them with me to the session. The other ones were thrown away. I carried these to the session. On my way to the class the children requested me to let them carry what they had made out of the plantain leaves. The session then began. I told these ten children each to pick up their own pieces and give little talks with them. They did it and they were truly marvellous. The next day I asked them to pick leaves fallen on the ground. I forgot to tell them to make something out of it. I did not understand their language and they did not understand mine. They assumed I must have asked them to make something and ended up creating beautiful things like birds, animals, flowers and bowls with these leaves.

It is easy to learn and communicate through one’s own environment. While at Rishi Valley I asked the children to name the trees which they come across on their way to school. And up came as many as forty names on the board.

Learning by Doing

Let us talk of skill. Of specific skills, say weaving. When we talk of weaving, Gandhi comes to mind. In his programme of basic education Gandhi had introduced three hours of skill training such as agriculture, carpentry, weaving, and three hours of learning from theory. But even now the weaver in our country is treated as an untouchable. So we have not been able to carry forward this basic education.

Gandhi introduced weaving in the education system, not so that everyone should be called an untouchable. He in fact wanted us to understand the great skill of weavers like Kabir to know their minds. But disrespect for labour in our country has made our education lame. When there is so much work of skill all around us, why is it that our children don’t get to see it or learn it? How did the potter learn his skill? We cannot take him to a class to impart his skill if he does not have a 4-year degree. What about the 400-year certificate that he carries with him?

Millions of such skilled people lie in a sorry state today. They are not given due respect and that is how our educational system becomes disabled.


A Kutchi woman embroidering a textile for the child

A child doing tie-dye work

Drawing a lullby song. Artist: Ganesh


 Painting the mother goddess. Artist : JagdishA painting. Artist: Ganesh's wifeThe mother goddess

Mural painting. Artist: Ganesh

Playing a stringed instrument

‘Sound’ and ‘silence’ are two very important elements in life, but that does not get noted in any lessons or courses. We have a word for children, ‘Chup!’, meaning ‘Be quiet!’. Here the teacher becomes a military person. Another thing that one gets to hear is ‘Adab Palathi’ — meaning ‘fold your hands together and sit properly, cross-legged’. You ask the child to close his mind, in effect, by asking him to keep quiet and stand to attention. Silence is a beautiful thing. In my experience children understand it very well. Prakash, Ganesh’s son, can be silent for hours together just drawing mountains, rivers, snakes, birds and trees. Every child has the ability to make a song in the language he or she is most fluent in.

Real Learners or Mere Robots

All things that children acquire from books or good teachers — what we call knowledge — are only tools to become a learned person. If we assume these tools to be our ultimate goal in teaching or imparting knowledge, then it is but a dry exercise and we are reduced to being robots. The world of character-building, to be with oneself, to be true to oneself, all goes untouched.

It is only when you are constantly inquiring, constantly observing, constantly learning that you find truth, God or love; and you cannot inquire, you cannot observe, learn, you cannot be deeply aware if you are afraid. So the function of education surely is to eradicate, inwardly and outwardly, this fear that destroys human relationships and love.6


1. The Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vols. XLVII, L and XXXVII, Government of India.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Think of these things, J. Krishnamurti, edited by D. Rajagopalan, Harper Perennial, 1964.

6. Ibid.




[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]

HomeSearchContact usIndex

[ Home | Search  |  Contact UsIndex ]

 [ List of Books | Kalatattvakosa | Kalamulasastra | Kalasamalocana ]

© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi