RISHI VALLEY SCHOOL
THE FIRST FORTY YEARS
Based on Historical Work by Roshen Dalal
Edited by Hans and Radhika Herzberger
With an afterword by Alok Mathur
The account that follows is based on work undertaken by Roshen Dalal in 1992-94 as part of a History Project sponsored by Krtshnamurti Foundation India under the direction of the present editors. The main source is a collection of materials compiled by Dr. Dalal for use by Rishi Valley Education Centre and deposited in the archives when she left the project in 1994. These materials include interviews, notes on index cards and several hundred pages of narrative drafts towards a projected history of Rishi Valley from ancient times to the present, prepared by Dr. Dalal for the History Project Her narrative drafts, though incomplete, recounted the first forty years of Rishi Valley School in considerable detail. From these materials, the editors have distilled the following pages, after much abridgement and extensive editing. An effort was made to retain Dr. Dalal‟s
formulations on the whole, but several sections incorporate new material and take into account the results of subsequent research. We have also appended material from a talk prepared by Alok Mathur, to outline some developments at Rishi Valley during its second forty years (1960-2000) Details of our primary sources, including interviews, correspondence and miscellaneous documents, are listed in the “Note on Sources” at the end of this document.
RISHI VALLEY SCHOOL — THE FIRST FORTY YEARS
?1. A Valley and Its Rishis
“I remember,” said Narayanappa,” visiting a cave on Rishikonda, where I saw golden images lit by oil lamps, and footprints of a rishi who had lived in these hills from the time of the Mahabharata. There were other rishis too, but he was the oldest and the wisest. Now there are no rishis left here. Even Krishnamurti has gone” He became silent. A few months later Narayanappa, who had once been the local postmaster, died in Rishi Valley, at the age of eighty. There are other legends too of rishis living on the hills — old stones
of a sage named Manvya with a gurukulam nearby and later reports of lights that were said to be lamps carried by rishis on the slopes of Rishikonda. From those legends Rishi Valley derived its name.
The surrounding region has a tradition of sacredness. One writer on Vedic geography refers to the Thettu basin surrounded by granite hills, as forming a Srichakra, and he calls
it a place of parashakti. To this day, many ancient forms of worship are practised locally. Villagers place aniconic stones in certain locations and hold them to be sacred. They tie strings around certain neem trees and place offerings of flowers, kumkum, haldi, rice and
coconuts before them. Walking towards Thettu Village one finds numerous small shrines at the base of peepal trees. On the outskirts of the harijanvada there is a small Gangamma temple with a pillared portico and an inner shrine for the mother goddess. This is the site of ancient pastoral rituals that are still practised twice each year. Beyond the Gangamma temple is a small Shiva shrine with lingams placed outside. In Thettu Village there is a naga shrine, and nearby is a Venugopalaswamy temple. Ancient rituals are practised in these places.
?2. Dreams of A World University
In 1925 Annie Besant, President of the Theosophical Society, decided to build a „World University.‟ Three possible sites were identified near the birthplace of Krishnamurti and he was asked to look them over. At one of the sites, in Thettu Valley, a big banyan tree attracted his notice. He climbed up to Cheetah Rock, near the present main road, and surveyed the whole valley. The hills reminded him of another valley he knew, in America. In a letter he wrote that it was “like California around Ojai. We went
round various parts and at last came upon the best place . I have dreamt about it twice ... It has really a fine atmosphere.” He asked his colleague C.S. Trilokekar to acquire one thousand acres of land in the valley. Trilokekar moved from hamlet to hamlet by bullock-cart, slowly buying small parcels of land until a three hundred acre campus had been assembled. He arranged for maps to be drawn. On these maps he assigned names to several hills and other prominent features, and he named the whole basin „Rishi Valley.‟
This was a chronic drought area that throughout living memory had suffered from failed monsoons, poverty, famines, and epidemics. If Krishnamurti had not been born at Madanapalle, there may not have been much to recommend the Thettu region as a site for a World University. It had little historical significance and was economically backward. Thomas Munro, a young civil servant of the East India Company, called it “an area of robbers.” Yet according to legend, one of the rishis who lived there two hundred years
ago had predicted that this desolate area would one day be well known, and people from all over the world would travel there to see it.
Krishnamurti apparently shared this vision, and gave some thought to realising it. Soon after choosing the site he wrote: “What has absorbed most of my thoughts and time [recently] is a scheme for... an International University ... [That] has long been a dream of mine and ... is now going to be realised. A party of us motored down to Madanapalle on two different occasions.. We selected a semi-circular valley... far enough from town and near enough to a railway station to combine most pleasantly isolation with easy access. We are now negotiating purchase of the land. As soon as this is done .. we shall lay out the grounds, dig more wells and plant more trees.. We intend to move the Theosophical School at Guindy ... [there] to form a nucleus of students and faculty which, 1 have no doubt, will rapidly grow into an International centre ... I hope [people] all over the world will contribute ... to making it a stupendous success.” (Herald of the Star Apr 25)
Before the land at Rishi Valley was completely assembled, Mrs. Besant abandoned her project for a World University, announcing that for the time being it would exist “only on
the mental plane. Plans were changed and the land became available for some other purpose. Within a few years, circumstances transformed the dream of a World University into the reality of Rishi Valley School.
?3. Krishnamurti on the Aims of Education
In a more expansive history, the origins of Rishi Valley School could be narrated against the background of larger events and ideas of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, including the growing national consciousness in India, the freedom movement, and new ideas in education sweeping through Europe, America and India. This would include the educational programme of Annie Besant, whose followers built Rishi Valley and ran it during its early years. Viewed in that context, Krishnamurti‟s own
ideas on education would stand out in sharper relief. But the present account skips over much of that background to sample Krishnamurti‟s philosophy of education on its own terms.
Krishnamurti saw traditional education as a servant of national, civic or economic interests, designed to produce efficient workers and patriotic citizens. By contrast, the kind of education he favoured was designed “to help people understand the ways of society and not be caught in its net.” The primary instrument for this understanding was
an awakening of intelligence, which in his terms implied both human goodness and a strong sense of individual responsibility.
“The purpose, aim and drive of these schools,” he declared, “is to equip the child ... [to]function with clarity and efficiency in the modern world, and far more important to create the right climate so that the child may develop fully as a human being. This means giving him the opportunity to flower in goodness so that he is rightly related to people, things and ideas, to the whole of life.” Children educated in this way would not be self-
centred, they would not be “bourgeois,” working on1y for their own little concerns. “A
mind that is not” concerned with itself, that is free of ambition, not caught up in its own desires or driven by its own pursuit of success — such a mind flowers in goodness.”
Children educated in this way would have a long vision and a global outlook. “I would like my children to have a view of the world as a whole.” Children educated in this way might be better positioned to bring about “a different kind of society ... without violence, without the contradictions of various beliefs, dogmas, rituals, gods, without economic divisions.” And he insisted: “We must have a different kind of society”
?4. A Progressive School in Madras (1918-31)
By a curious twist of fate, a well-established school in Madras would be in search of a new location a few years after the World University Project in Rishi Valley was abandoned. This was the same Guindy School that had earlier been proposed to form the nucleus for the World University. Eventually the school in Madras and the land in Rishi Valley were b brought together, when the Guindy School moved its teachers, library, furniture and many of its students from Madras to re-establish itself as Rishi Valley School.
What later became known as the Guindy School began operations in temporary quarters at Sadhr Gardens in Madras. Mrs. Besant started this school in 1918, to put her educational theories into practice. G.V. Subba Rao, a young theosophist, was chosen to be the first Headmaster. GVS, as he was commonly called, came from a Brahmin family of Guntur, in what is now Andhra Pradesh. After earning a double MA in Economics and Mathematics, he had taught for several years at the Central Hindu College in Benares. There he joined a group that was brought together by Mrs. Besant to work with Krishnamurti. After some time he moved south and soon took up responsibility for the new school in Madras.
Subba Rao assembled a very able faculty and built up an excellent library with an open-shelf system and a very large collection of books. The teachers were loyal and highly dedicated. Several of his stalwarts came from one family in Coimbatore. They were so devoted to their work that, like Subba Rao himself, they never married. They gave their lives entirely to education. To supplement the academic staff, musicians, artists and other creative people were invited to live in the community and continue their work. This created a rich cultural atmosphere to enhance the students‟ lives.
At Sadhr Gardens, the medium of instruction was Tamil, with English as a second language. Students lived in a Village‟ of ten rustic cottages surrounded by shady trees. There was friendship and sympathy between teachers and students. Games, scouting, manual training, gardening, weaving and dyeing were part of the regular curriculum. Each day, time was set aside for nature study and gardening. Tamil songs were sung in morning sessions, and Gita classes were held under the trees. After school hours, senior students were expected to do some social service.
In 1919, the school was shifted to a twenty-one acre campus on the Guindy road in Adyar. From that time on it was known colloquially as The Guindy School, although it had other official designations before it finally became Rishi Valley School.
?4.2 Progressive Developments
In the days when most schools in India were teaching by rote, when corporal punishment was an accepted practice and when the caste system was an accepted structure, GVS created a non-sectarian school, awakening the intelligence of students and helping them develop their talents in a nurturing atmosphere.
A significant innovation was the admission of girl students. The Guindy School was one of the earliest co-educational schools in India. Girls were admitted, first as day-scholars and later as students in residence. In 1923 Mrs. Besant inaugurated the Girls‟ Section and spoke of the importance of girls‟ education for the regeneration of India.
In 1926 GVS was invited to visit progressive schools in Europe, with special attention to Montessori schools. He brought back to India a set of Montessori teaching materials. After having these materials reproduced in the school‟s carpentry shop, he set up a
Montessori Section in the Junior School. At all levels, GVS experimented with innovations in teaching methods. Classes were interspersed with self-study periods so that students could complete the assigned lessons during the day, keeping their evenings free from studies. A system of individual studies was introduced for higher classes, based on the „Dalton Plan.‟ This allowed individual students to find their level and proceed at
their own pace. Students worked independently on their assignments, under the guidance of a teacher who could provide help when needed. Teachers prepared all the assignment sheets by hand, making four carbon copies at a time. Students made their own work plans, scheduling their studies for a one week in advance. At the end of each week they reviewed their work to see how much of their own plan had been covered. To do this effectively each student kept a diary‟ My Book of Studies/ to record the plan of work for particular time-slots on each day of the week.
Students went from class to class without competing or doing exams. But they were closely monitored by teachers, and given constant feedback on the assignments completed. At the SSLC level, teachers prepared a glossary of unfamiliar words with English-Tamil translations. Students were made to account for poor, incomplete or carelessly done work. They were free to take the SSLC exam at the usual time, or postpone it for a year if they did not feel ready for it. There was no stigma of failure attached to this. When they felt ready, they prepared for the school-leaving exam. They developed confidence in working at their own pace.
?4.3 After Hours
At night everyone met for roll call, a time of the day ail old students remember with nostalgia. At this Subba Rao discussed various matters with them, gave a talk or read out of a book. One day he would talk about Buddha‟s Eight-fold Path. Another day he might
read from Light of Asia or entertain the children with passages from Three Men in a Boat.
He would carefully enunciate each word, and explain the difficult words. All the students were encouraged to read and became quite fluent in English. On Saturday nights there would be skits or dramas in Telugu, Tamil or English.
In a spirit of social service, senior students were encouraged to assist in evening classes under the guidance of a teacher. When the school became co-educational, girls were also prepared for public service, so that as women they would be ready to move beyond their household duties to participate in the „regeneration of India.‟
?5. Subba Rao at Rishi Valley (1931-42)
?5.1 The Guindy School Migrates
The purchase of land at Rishi Valley had begun in early 1926. By the end of that year, 135 acres of land had been purchased in 21 separate sale deeds, at an average price of Rs 41 per acre. Well boring was tried and a meagre supply of water was found at a depth of 30 feet. Bit by bit, more land was purchased, over the next five years. In 1929, when most of the Rishi Valley land had been acquired, a cottage was built so that visitors could stay overnight. This structure, named „Krishna Cottage,‟ was situated near the Banyan tree. It had two large bedrooms and a kitchen.
Meanwhile the space available at Guindy was limited and its neighbourhood was becoming urbanised, crowded and noisy. The thatched cottages were difficult to maintain and the Northeast monsoon caused damage to them every year. In late 1930, when a tremendous cyclone blew down many of the cottages, Krishnamurti met with Subba Rao
and they decided to move the whole school to Rishi Valley. Instead of being the nucleus for an International University, it was to retain its character as a school in spacious new surroundings.
Several engineers were brought in to supervise construction work at Rishi Valley. They were all theosophists who were attracted by Krishnamurti‟s teachings. One of them,
Rajagopal Iyengar, took premature retirement from his work as a civil engineer in the Madras Government Public Works Department. He stayed in Rishi Valley as a senior administrator for many years. In addition to his official work, he provided simple medical services and generous help to local villagers.
With the dedicated and self-sacrificing spirit characteristic of theosophical workers of those days, sufficient structures were ready to accommodate the school by September 1931. The engineers worked long hours under extremely trying conditions. They lived in Krishna cottage along with two cooks and one or two assistants. At night they had to stay inside the cottage with the doors shut and employ villagers to keep away wild animals which roamed the valley at night. None of the engineers accepted any payment. One of them gave his entire provident fund on loan to support the building work; another, who had worked for the railways, helped to provide steel girders and other materials for construction.
As the basic structures neared completion Subba Rao planned the logistics of moving the furniture, teaching and laboratory material, library books, kitchen equipment and cattle from Madras. This move was made without dislocating the day-to-day running of the school, until the last shift. Finally, in September 1931 approximately ninety students, along with their teachers, relocated to Rishi Valley. Two hundred of their fellow students stayed behind to join other institutions in Madras. Those who moved went with a pioneering spirit, to a campus that was still under construction.
?5.2. Pioneers in the Wilderness
The first few months were a great adventure. Food was cooked in the Krishna Cottage kitchen and everyone ate from leaves, in the shade of the Banyan tree. Sometimes a gust of wind would blow away the leaves. Ants took a share of the food, and snakes occasionally wandered by. The only source of water was one hand-pump. Later a larger kitchen was established in a temporary structure near the present library. The houses had no full walls, only parapets less than three feet high. Children slept on mattresses on the floor and covered themselves with blankets to keep out the wind and the cold. That year, 1931, the rainfall was unprecedented. Fifty inches of rain fell, most of it within a month of the school moving to Rishi Valley. Rivulets and streams overflowed, and wells filled with water. The dry-lands were soaked, and there was a bumper crop in the region. Villagers felt the coming of the school had blessed the area and brought prosperity. But the rain was a mixed blessing. Malaria was rampant, and many students came down with fever. They had to hunt for dry places to sleep in as the wind and rain swept through the open houses. But the pioneers persevered.
There was no electricity in the school. Lanterns and petromax lamps provided light for studying. In 1934, a small dynamo was fixed to provide electricity for some houses and for street lights. That same year, Surendranath Kar, a noted architect from Shantiniketan
was invited to Rishi Valley to suggest some changes. On his advice, a hall was added to each wing of the existing houses, and the present facades for the hostels were constructed, along with the ground floor of the present Principal‟s residence.
The Guindy School was ready to take on a new life now as The School, Rishi Valley.‟ Its subsequent history up to 1960 can be divided into two educationally strong decades —
one under Subba Rao (roughly the 1930s) and another under Gordon Pearce (roughly the 1950s) — with an unsteady decade between them (roughly the 1940s).
? 5.3 Building the Infrastructure
By 1934 the basic structures had been built. But construction work continued in the school. As enrolment grew, around thirty children lived in each house, in three rooms for ten students each. In the early years children slept on mattresses on the floor. Some houses also served as schoolrooms for junior children.
The first building was the present Senior School Building, an enclosed square structure with classrooms around a central courtyard. It was functionally designed for maximum flexibility, and to this day the room partitions have been endlessly modified to suit new conditions. Some students and early visitors report that initially there were no full walls — only pillars, a parapet wall and a roof. Others say this was the one building in the school that did have full walls and locking facilities, as it housed all the valuable equipment of the school. Several students remember that walls between classrooms were not full — classes were partitioned by books. But in the course of time, full walls were built. An assembly half was later added at one end of the School Building. The dining area consisted of three open verandahs surrounding the kitchen. Children sat on the floor and ate from brass plates set on wooden planks.
Oil lanterns and petromax lamps were used for lighting. There was no electricity at all until 1937, when two dynamos began to provide electricity for a few hours during the day. It was a period of austerity. The school was always short of money, in spite of the best efforts of those who ran and organised it.
?5.4 Renewing the Landscape
In the nineteenth century, the surrounding hills were said to have many trees and thick undergrowth. Wild animals were common; small mammals and reptiles were numerous. The low-lying land had bushes and a few large trees mostly along the banks of seasonal streams. The area was only sparsely cultivated. There were few inhabitants and little water.
Within a few years of acquiring land for the school, tree planting started in and around the campus. Students and staff helped in watering and looking after the saplings, which included neem and tamarind trees near the hostels. Some of the uncultivated land was cleared of undergrowth and brought under cultivation. One main stream, Thettuvanka, also known as „Bahuda River,‟ flowed through part of the cultivated area and supported a few wetland crops. In the late 1940‟s there were severe droughts and famine conditions prevailed in the area.
?5.5 GVS as Headmaster
GVS was committed to a life of service, which in his case meant austere living and total dedication to the work of education. He led a very strict and disciplined life, with the absolute minimum in food, clothing and possessions. He began his day at 4.30 a.m. After finishing his preparations for the morning he would go around the houses to watch the day beginning for his staff and students. No small detail would escape his eyes in the matter of cleanliness of surroundings, the orderly arrangement of the houses and the children‟s routine, dress, health or diet.
For GVS, the children were everything. He sat with them for lunch and dinner. Often, after the children had retired for the night, he would get the housemasters together for tea and a snack. They would chat for a while, or sit together in silent communion before retiring for the night. GVS expected his teachers to be as austere, as dedicated and selfless as he was. They had to rise early and see to every detail of the children‟s lives. In addition they had to prepare lessons and teach academic subjects. GVS rarely made allowances for lapses in any of these spheres. He would walk around the hostels in the middle of night to see that all was well. If some child was coughing he would bring it to the attention of the house-parent. If some child was shivering he would cover him with his own warm shawl.
As Headmaster, he was exacting and demanding, but at the same time caring and concerned. He always insisted that schoolwork should come before any personal concerns or advancement. But he could also go to great lengths to help teachers in need. He also helped to finance poor students. Even after children left the school he would continue to guide and counsel them, and in case of need, offer them financial support. His students loved and revered him to the extent that even today the survivors, well into their eighties, gather together each year in Madras to celebrate his birthday.
?5.6 A Master and His Apprentices
Subba Rao made his presence and his thoughts felt in every sphere if the life at school, including the type of clothing students could wear their diet and how much they should eat. Every item they should bring to school was listed, and nothing extra was allowed. Indian-made items, including soap and toothpowder, were mandatory.
The respect that Subba Rao commanded from students and teachers was partly due to his caring relationships and partly due to the historical context. It was a time of sacrifice, of nationalism and struggle for a cause. GVS never lost his devotion to Annie Besant and the ideals for which she stood, but at the same time he never ceased striving to understand and put into practice Krishnamurti‟s teachings. Where the two differed on
points of educational practice, he sometimes held with Mrs. Besant. For instance he remained a confirmed Indian nationalist, in spite of Krishnamurti‟s vigorous critique of nationalism. He discouraged students from joining the civil service or taking up any job under the British Government. Most students followed his advice. When the Second World War broke out, he refused to allow collections for the war effort to be made in the school. He maintained it was not India‟s war and had nothing to do with the aspirations of her people.
GVS encouraged freedom to think and read, and there was no particular ideology he advocated. Some of his students became members of the Congress, of the Justice party and of the Communist party. In fact his liberal views finally led to his departure from Rishi Valley, after the British police discovered communist literature on the campus. The Headmaster also created an atmosphere of liberal tolerance towards religion. The school had no religious instruction, but devotional songs were sung at assembly and a few religious holidays were celebrated. Students and teachers included Hindus, Muslims and Christians, and caste distinctions were disregarded. AH students and teachers ate together regardless of their different backgrounds. Partly to combat caste prejudice, GVS invited a young Harijan named Joshua to read his poems to students. Later, Joshua became a famous poet of South India. And this was in a time when caste and the idea of the superiority of the Brahmin were very prominent in South India.
GVS did his best to bring about academic excellence in the school, and a spirit of enquiry. For his own part, he kept in touch with educational experiments in other parts of the world, employing qualified teachers, supervising their work and providing them insights on how to improve, reading to the children and making a vast library accessible to them. He was an orderly and systematic person, who demanded that his teachers prepare their lessons well in advance
The library subscribed to some expensive journals that would be useful for teacher development as well as for students, including The British Journal of Educational
Psychology and also The Architectural Record, which were provided “in order to stir the
imagination” Although the school was always short of funds, library acquisitions were given high priority. Students from those days have commented on how much pleasure the library gave them, how it made them curious and kindled their interest in many things. Ample periods were provided for reading and homework. It was normal for children to spend a couple of hours each day in the library, reading serious books or browsing over
3pictorial volumes. Books were arranged in such .a way that alcoves for quiet study were
created between them. It was a large collection, estimated at some twenty thousand volumes.
Always alert to improvements might be affected in educational methodology; GVS would gather his teachers together and explain new ideas to them. Within a broad framework he sketched, teachers were encouraged to experiment to improve their techniques. GVS also encouraged “in-service training” for his teachers. One year some
teachers participated in a course on the measurement of intelligence, meeting every day after dinner to study texts and discuss their application. One or two would take notes and later type them out for distribution to all members of the group the next morning. Another group learned speed-reading. Outside the curriculum, teachers were also encouraged to participate in group activities, including sports and drama.
?5.7 The Learning Atmosphere
Lessons were often organised into ability groups rather than according to age or class. In accordance with the “Dalton Plan,” students worked out their own plans for self-study
and were expected to do a considerable amount of independent work, proceeding with carefully graded assignments at their own pace, with supervision and help from a teacher.
Tamil and Telugu were the languages of conversation in the school. .Children were encouraged to read magazines and books in English, and teachers kept a register of the number of words in their vocabulary and common mistakes in usage and spelling. The errors of each student were carefully analysed and corrected in remedial lessons. For each subject, records were kept to record students‟ achievements in memorising poetry, answering questions, and „dramatic expression.‟
Geography was made attractive by frequent excursions that were very systematically planned. A daily chart was posted to record the position of the sun, range of temperatures, wind direction, amount of rainfall, and so on. History was taught with a world perspective. While discussing Tipu Sultan, students would learn what was happening in the rest of the world, and might discuss Napoleon at the same time. They learned nutrition and hygiene by observing what they ate and how they lived.
Science teaching was particularly innovative. Everything was taught through practical work. The laboratory was very well equipped. Students learned how to mix hydrogen and oxygen in a bottle to get water through small explosions. They designed and made a working steam engine and a wireless radio from odds and ends. The radio could receive broadcasts from as far away as Colombo. They also made other models, clocks and electric motors. Botany and Zoology included local field trips to study various plants and trees around the campus, and to observe the behaviour of birds, bees and butterflies around the farm. Students learned Mathematics through worksheets that enabled them to move at their own speed and ability.
Frequent tests were held to enable students to consolidate the ground covered before proceeding to the next lesson. No marks were given, but by 1937 a comprehensive reporting plan had been developed, recording levels of achievements in all school activities including games, music, excursions, work experience, leadership, reading, in addition to academic achievements in subjects. This system of reporting was designed to develop confidence and reduce competition.
To help students comprehend different ways of living, GVS carefully planned a series of eight excursions, each one slightly longer and more challenging, so as to give children a sense of the diversity of life and customs in India and to free them from an insular or regional outlook. Each excursion lasted three to four weeks. Children visited Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Islamic sites; historical places associated with different periods and dynasties; ashrams and educational institutions of different types; plantations, factories, industries, dams, and much more. Each child was given a notebook and had to write an account of what they saw and experienced. They learnt new songs and folk dances, ate the food of each different region and brought back samples of rocks, stones, leaves, flowers, tea and manufactured goods. Within a week to ten days of returning, each group had to arrange an exhibition of the materials they had collected and give an account of their experiences. Then each group brought out magazines with their drawings, writings and charts. It was an educational experience that widened their minds and expanded their ways of thinking. It was a practical experiment to get them to drop prejudices and limited or narrow ideas.