New Education, New Child

At the heart of Gandhi’s vision for the India of his dreams was a radical proposition centered on the learning child whom he was determined to wean away from the deadening hold of Western education delivered through a colonial school system that was deemed to have killed the spirit, destroyed the soul, and made Indians slaves to industrial capitalism and materialist consumption. Total self-rule (purna swaraj) and freedom from enslavement would only follow when the new Indian was created through an alternative system of education that came to be characterized by 1937 as nayee taleem, “new learning.”

The roots of nayee taleem reach back a few decades into Gandhi’s activism on behalf of the education of disenfranchised Indian children in South Africa, and to his experiments as schoolmaster in his communal residences (Phoenix Settlement and Tolstoy Farm) and ashrams. This facet of his life and career has been under-explored in the vast scholarship on Gandhi, despite the fact that the Mahatma executed his role as teacher seriously and conscientiously, meeting his obligations in this regard even when he was incarcerated, as we know, for instance, from the diary of his teenage niece Manu who was taught by him in prison in 1943–44. His sustained experiments as schoolmaster also led Gandhi by the mid-1920s, when he was writing his memoir, to an important insight about the mutually implicated role of teacher and learner. True education was “the exercise of the spirit, and the exercise of the spirit entirely depended on the life and character of the teacher.” The successful teacher is an exemplar who embodied the principles he was imparting. “I saw, therefore, that I must be an eternal object-lesson to the boys and girls living with me. They thus became my teachers, and I learnt I must be good and live straight, if only for their sakes. I may say that the increasing discipline and restraint I imposed on myself at Tolstoy Farm was mostly due to those wards of mine.”

Thus, the groundwork for his career as a disobedient activist (satyagrahi) was laid in the schoolroom and through his pedagogical work with children. This is important to underscore given the fact that he was an indifferent school child and an unremarkable student by his own reckoning. But it is also likely that his personal experiences as a child who “suffered” in the schoolrooms of colonial India spurred his lifelong pedagogical experiments culminating in the institutionalization of nayee taleem. Some inconsistencies and several incongruities notwithstanding, Gandhi privileged the moral development of character over literary training, emphasized manual work and skills-building that would ready the child to make a living, disqualified rote learning from textbooks that deadened the mind, and underscored the ethic of service to community and nation. Alongside these was an emphasis on teaching in the language of the home (“mother tongue”) rather than English, learning while playing and through playing, and spinning (a lot). Most essentially, a real education enabled the child to understand that “it can easily conquer hate by love, untruth by truth, violence by self-suffering,” and fostered fearlessness.

Gandhi’s evolving thoughts and ideas on educating the (new) child of India are scattered across the thousands of pages of his correspondence (including with the young residents of his ashrams whom he sought to teach), his speeches, and writings. A “Primer” in Gujarati that he completed in April 1922 while in prison (and that was only posthumously published in 1951 under the title Balpothi) is a good place to get a glimpse of some of the things he cared for in the formation of the new child: daily prayers, exercise, play, hygiene, sowing and cultivation, housework, and spinning (a great deal of it). It concludes with a lesson titled “The Glory of God” which invites the child to learn about divinity through understanding the natural wonder of the universe visible in the shining sun, the waxing moon, and the twinkling stars.

Gandhi’s vision for education sought to make the new child into a nation-builder dedicated to the cause of India, with an insistent emphasis on freedom from enslavement to the West. But there was also a countervailing thought famously enshrined in words that were written in 1921 in response to “Gurudev” Rabindranath Tagore, another contemporary who attempted to come up with an alternative model of schooling that left its mark on the Mahatma. “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.” Nearly 20 years later, and with some constancy, the Mahatma refused to “act like a frog in the well. There is nothing to prevent me from profiting by the light that may come from the West. Only I must take care that I am not overpowered by the glamour of the West. I must not mistake the glamour for true light. The latter gives life, the former brings death.”

Gandhi’s role as schoolmaster and indeed the nation’s teacher has not left much of a mark in India’s visual culture. This is what distinguishes the paintings by child artists of Mani Bhavan like Vriddhi in 2012 or Vedanti in 2009 who cast Gandhi in the role of a schoolmaster, even when they were not prompted to do so (digital album, 23, 276). Also unusual are the photographs taken by the Bangalore-based artist who goes by the name of Cop Shiva, some of which are reproduced on this page. From around 2010 for a number of years and armed with a camera, Shiva followed Byagadehalli Basavaraju, a schoolteacher from rural Karnataka who routinely dons the guise of Gandhi, a staff in one hand, the other holding a book. Among the scores of black-and-white photographs from Shiva’s Being Gandhi series, particularly revealing are those that show Basavaraju in the guise of Gandhi in schoolrooms and amongst school children who look upon the silver apparition with a mix of emotions: wonder, merriment, but also confusion, likely caused by seeing the frozen icon of countless statues and poster charts come to life in their midst as a flesh-and-blood man wandering about as a teacher for our troubled times.

Select References
Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi 20: 158–59; 71: 91.
M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography, or the Story of My Experiments with Truth, Translated from the Original in Gujarati by Mahadev Desai, Introduced with Notes by Tridip Suhrud, 1–35. Gurgaon: Penguin Random House India, 2018.