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THE CULTURAL DIMENSION OF EDUCATION

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Education for Value-Creation and Leadership

A Case Study of the Rangaprabhat Centre

N. Radhakrishnan

Experiments require courage, conviction and great application of mind on the part of those who undertake them, and if they are related to children’s education, they should be characterised by a child’s sensitivity and imagination. Adult society imposes its parameters on the child and thinks that in conformity with the fast-changing social milieu the child should be offered a variety of learning materials to help it reach the top. The tragedy in this is that we do not care for the child in the child. Wordsworth’s assertion that the child is the father of the man seems to have been forgotten by educational planners and experts.

The first ten years of schooling should enable the child to extend his frontiers of creativity, imagination, self-confidence and character formation, thereby helping him to face the problems of growing up. The aim should be the enrichment of the consciousness of the child, in no way clouded by the obsession of offering knowledge and skills to earn a livelihood. Mahatma Gandhi offered one of the most sound frameworks in this direction when he insisted that the kind of education we might think of for the future should be one which would help the child to hear the music and harmony of nature and would draw out the best in him.

A highly disturbing aspect of modern education, in sharp contrast to the ancient system, is the manner in which schools in far-flung rural areas are being organised. It appears that most of the innovative methods or experiments or the thrusts and facilities do not percolate down to the rural schools which, through sheer neglect on the part of all concerned, have made been unattractive and uninspiring. There is a lot of unlearning taking place in these so-called centres of learning.

This brief discussion leads us to an experiment undertaken by a group of artists and educators in Kerala under the banner ‘Rangaprabhat’ to offer a support system of value creation in children and prevent school drop-outs through drama and a host of other activities. Though this case study will describe the salient features of the general experiment, the emphasis of this discussion will be the nature, scope and impact of three specific programmes currently undertaken by this group: (1) the efforts made to weave indigenous cultural traditions, arts, music and crafts into the learning process; (2) intensive and self-generative programmes in forty select schools in the rural areas of Trivandrum District to create in each an atmosphere where both teaching and learning become relaxed and enjoyable; (3) a regular Saturday carnival for children from schools in the neighbourhood at which they get a series of opportunities to involve themselves in craft activities, dance, music, painting, creative dramatics, improvisations, make-up and oratory under the general supervision of highly qualified teachers and artists.

A group of artists and educators led by Professor G. Sankara Pillai, a great artist and visionary, and his disciple K. Kochunarayana Pillai, initiated about 25 years ago at a place called Venjarmood, about 20 km north of Trivandrum, what was at that time called an experiment in primary education by the integration of non-formal and formal education through the liberal and creative use of the vast opportunities offered by children’s drama and by offering opportunities to selected children to spend their leisure time in activities that would enhance in them a spirit of cooperative endeavour, involvement in craft activities, creative dramatics, story-telling, improvisations, creative dance and folk music. The aim was to offer facilities and opportunities to children to supplement and augment their classroom learning in an atmosphere of relaxed freedom which would promote a creative involvement in them. This led to the gradual development of an alternative ‘campus’ or ‘school’ centred around the house and the thatched shed that was put up near the house of Sri Kochunarayana Pillai, himself a distinguished teacher at a local school.

The experiment very soon turned out to be a quite useful one and went a few steps ahead of the popular Western concept and practice of theatre-in-education. The manner in which the programmes developed at this centre indicated that it succeeded in (1) creating community consciousness; (2) exploring the moral, spiritual and cultural dimensions of education; (3) creating awareness among the parents of the locality of the need for letting children get involved in what are euphemistically described as non-academic programmes; (4) developing leadership qualities in children; (5) confidence-building; (6) character formation; (7) value creation; (8) making learning more enjoyable; (9) creating awareness of indigenous cultural traditions; (10) involving children and teachers in developing love, respect and pride for the folk arts of the country and encouraging their preservation.

The experiment began with story sessions through which both Professor Sankara Pillai and Kochunarayana Pillai were able to attract the attention and sustain the interest of a group of over sixty children initially. Story-telling gradually led to creative dramatics, during which the children improvised situations and characters. An attractive feature of this experiment was the time the children spent in games and songs. They were encouraged to develop dramatic moments and situations from their games and songs. The atmosphere was participatory and never competitive, in sharp contrast to the situation that existed in schools. On holidays the small house and shed, which had by now assumed the name ‘Rangaprabhat’, would be swarming with children of the age group between five and sixteen, involving themselves in activities of their choice under the guidance of elders. The emphasis was to encourage relaxed and participatory learning and acquisition of skills and confidence.

What guided all those who involved themselves in the experiment was the emphasis which Professor G. Sankara Pillai placed on understanding children and on catching them young, as well as on leading them not under compulsion but to learning through a variety of activities which are not available in the schools in which they study. There were those who could offer help in regular academic learning also, so that the children did not lag behind. In short, very soon the house of Sri Kochunarayana Pillai became the centre of new and bold experiments in non-formal education essentially at primary school level.

A monitoring group attached to this work indicated in the first two years four important aspects related to learning, which encouraged the organisers to go ahead with confidence. They were: (1) there were no drop-outs from among those who were coming to Rangaprabhat; (2) the activities offered by Rangaprabhat helped the children sustain interest in their academic programme; (3) the children scored more marks in their annual examinations; and (4) they exhibited more confidence in their ability to express themselves and displayed better hygienic and personal habits.

Professor Sankara Pillai, the brain behind this experiment, was encouraged to streamline the activities of Rangaprabhat by introducing puppetry and children’s drama. He launched the revolutionary concept of children’s drama in Malayalam for education, for which in the next 22 years he wrote several plays — all for the children of Rangaprabhat to enact. His aim was not to create new actors or actresses but to help children involve themselves in activities that would enable them to imbibe values and attitudes which the formal education set-up does not offer them at the moment. The emphasis was on helping children learn through creativity. As Professor Pillai would always say, the child likes to learn but hates to be taught.

The third important stage in the development of Rangaprabhat came when efforts were made to involve the local population in its activities so that it would truly become a community centre of non-formal education for children and would gradually begin to influence parents in the rural area to understand their children.

In collaboration with the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, it launched a summer mobile awareness creation campaign through children’s plays all over Kerala over a period of 45 days last summer. The programme, a significant step insofar as its educational content was concerned, turned out to be a highly satisfying experience to both the organisers and the student participants. The programme, which covered a distance of over 2,000 km in fourteen districts of Kerala, had many tiers: play presentation, exhibitions and interaction with artists, seminars, visits to historically important places, and exposure of rural children to an exciting phase of group living.

Though the primary purpose of the programme was to demonstrate to educational experts the possibility of using children’s drama for the propagation of values and ideals and character formation, the exercise was to offer the children, numbering forty, an opportunity to spend their summer vacation profitably. The programme had an interesting schedule. In the morning the children would arrange the exhibition and in the afternoon there were seminar and discussion sessions at which two or three persons associated with education or children’s theatre or any other innovative activities would share their experiences. This would be followed by the play presentation. After the plays there were informal sessions of discussion with some senior and knowledgeable persons of the locality on the importance of the place, its literary connections, historical significance, eminent persons, folk arts and festivals, folk stories, games, and so on. Perhaps these sessions were the most important ones, since they offered the children a rare opportunity not only to learn of the rich heritage of the different places in their state but also to see leading artists, writers, educators, social activists, theatre personalities.

Another attractive aspect of the programme was the unmistakable stamp of the Rangaprabhat experiment in developing self-sufficiency and leadership qualities in children. The group did not have anybody other than the children and two or three senior functionaries during its 45-day tour, and the children had to arrange everything themselves wherever they went. From arranging the exhibitions to packing and loading, they had to do everything. There was no technician of any sort. The little make-up they had to do was also managed by them. Sri Kochunarayana Pillai and his wife accompanied them and watched them with amused delight and with a sense of satisfaction as they completed their journey. Twenty-five years of hard work had not gone waste.

The summer mobile awareness creation campaign turned out to be almost a passing-out parade or a graduation ceremony, and those of us who helped the children in this programme were gladdened by the success of the programme. The tremendous confidence and organisational skills they displayed was an eye-opener to the elders at the time of assessment of the programme.

Rangaprabhat has now become a community centre of extremely important educational experiments involving not only students and teachers but also parents. It has earned the distinction of acting like a bridge between the school and the community. This does not mean that the entire surrounding village community always appreciates what is going on in this centre. It has to weather the strident and orchestrated criticism of a community which entertains visions of all their children becoming doctors or engineers or professors and do not want their children to waste their time in drama activities which, according to the conventional opinion, are no good. The apathy of ordinary citizens towards creative involvement of their children is very strong and they feel that these are diversions and certainly will affect their children’s efforts to secure more marks. It is this which Rangaprabhat has been fighting. It should be mentioned here that Professor Sankara Pillai, who had a vision and firm conviction of the extremely important role this experiment could play, was not ready for any compromise, for he always reminded us that we had nothing to compromise about:

We are offering something new — a healthy alternative, however small it may be. The experiment aims at convincing those who are concerned with education that what we want is the realisation of the simple truth that the child is to be respected and understood, and all our educational experiments should not forget this single basic aspect.

The Centre is in its silver jubilee year now and this year witnessed another landmark in its resolve to involve over forty schools in the rural areas in Trivandrum District in creating community consciousness and stressing the importance of moral, spiritual and cultural dimensions of education. This three-tier programme involves in its first stage identification of one teacher, two students and one representative of the local youth or art clubs near the school and getting these four from each school to the Rangaprabhat Centre for a ten-day orientation course. After the orientation programme when the teacher, the students and the youth club member are back in their schools, they try to create a nucleus for a variety of activities on the basis of the guidelines offered to them but also taking into account local response. One trained and qualified member of the Rangaprabhat Centre offers help in sharpening of the programmes undertaken at the school level. Once a month the child artists of Rangaprabhat visit each of the forty schools in groups and present one or more plays. Though this particular experiment began only four months ago, it looks promising and it is hoped that as the programme gathers momentum, more inputs will be added to this modest initiative.

The experiment is not stereotyped or static with set norms and limited vision. Contemporary issues and concerns which do not have political or religious overtones are woven into the activities of the group. Tolerance is an important virtue which the group tries to inculcate in the children, and this year being the Year of Tolerance, the group has been presenting a children’s play The Three Wise Birds, written by the present author. The presentation of this play, besides helping both adults and children to cultivate this important virtue, has definitely added to the conviction of those children who have been part of this experiment.

 

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