It’s been almost a week since I followed the coastal toll road south from Chennai, through Chengalpattu, into a flat and richly coloured corner of Tamil Nadu. As I write, I’m looking out a screened window at the rice fields, and in the distance, the domed buildings of Pathashaala. These 55 acres were purchased by the Krishnamurti Foundation India in 2006, with the intention of building a small residential school. This dream has since become reality for around a hundred students (called Learner-Educators, or L.E.s for short), several handfuls of the reciprocal ‘Educator-Learners’, a variety of staff from the area, and two volunteers, my roommate Camille, and myself.
Almost as soon as I had stepped out of the car, revelling in the wealth of sound that was not urban, I was sent looking for Gautama, the ever-energetic head of school, in the dining area. Instead, I found myself immediately recruited to the Chapati crew, rolling out the flat bread among the brightly dressed Akkas (Tamil for older sister; Akka and Anna, the male counterpart, are used here instead of titles) who keep the kitchen running. So, my first impressions of the place since my initial visit in 2015 were of action, and especially for a person used to Brockwood Park School’s comparatively slow mornings, Pathashaala is the epitome of an active place.
My time here was shaped by a lively conversation held with several teachers on my first evening here. I was uncertain of what exactly they wanted from me as a volunteer. The answer was a question: What do you want to share? I started sharing the hopes I had had for my time here; helping out in English classes, contributing to the school’s musical life, theatre… Thus, my first week here hast been spent getting a feel for the way education here works, helping out in the kitchen and grounds with Camille, and making my own plans come alive.
On my way back from the Morning Assembly today, for instance, I was waylaid by a number of Class XIII students demanding to know what we’ll be doing in drama (a collaboration by myself and Eeshan, a social studies teacher) this afternoon. I kept up the suspense for them, but since the students don’t have personal internet access here, I feel safe revealing our plans here: first of all, we’ll be exploring clear enunciation and timing through the ‘Geographical Fugue’ by Ernst Toch. Then, after some warm-up games, we’ll start preparing a few shorts sketches for performance later this term. My personal favorite is the ‘Phobia Therapy Group‘.
In spite of the constant activity permeating Pathashaala, there’s a lively thread of self-reflection, especially among the teachers, or ‘Educator-Learners’: How do we keep a group focused and creative within the subjects we teach? Can being ‘nice and friendly’ with the students go hand in hand with a disciplined classroom? Aside from the weekly teacher training sessions, these conversations happen on the fly, or over lunch with the students themselves. I feel this in itself creates an awareness amongst everyone here of the sort of atmosphere they all contribute to. Pathashaala opened seven years ago with just fourteen students and three staff members, yet even with the added size (or ‘strength’, as Indian linguistic quirks would call it), one fifth grader still described the school to me as a family.
In the coming weeks, I’m sure I’ll have much more anecdotal evidence to share with you of the energetic and spontaneous environment I’ve found here. For the time being, simply know that it’s quite warm enough, the food is excellent, and the disappointingly small population of geckos is very much made up for by the gorgeous metallic salamander (as yet sadly unphotographed) I saw in the bathroom yesterday.