Heroes And Sheroes Of Plural India: Shanta Gandhi


Before writing anything about Shanta Gandhi, I want to honestly admit something. Up until about a couple of years back, I was completely unaware of the existence of anyone by this name. As luck would have it, I enrolled into an MA course in Education and as a part of my field research therein, I came across what is known as the ‘Sangati’ curriculum. This curriculum was so much like the idea of education I always had in my mind, in fact a lot more, that I immediately became curious to know about the person(s) who had conceived of this. That was when I first heard the name Shanta Gandhi. At the same time, I became deeply aware of my own ignorance in not having heard of Shanta Gandhi earlier, who has been awarded with a Padma Shree, way back in 1984. She was someone who has left her mark in such diverse fields that it was difficult to have not known about her.

Shanta Gandhi was born on 20 December, 1917, at Nashik in a wealthy merchant family of Saurashtra. At the age of 14, she was asked by her family elders to appear in front of a gathering for possible marriage suitor. She appeared there, chopping-off her beautiful long braid as a mark of defiance. The family relented and she was sent to England to study medicine, which she gave up in its final stages and instead joined Uday Shankar’s ballet troupe in Almora. Later she performed with Indian People’s Theatre Association’s (ITPA’s) Central Ballet Troupe to raise support for India’s freedom struggle and became one of the founding member of IPTA with others like Balraj Sahni, Ritwik Ghatak, Utpal Dutt, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Salil Chowdhury, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Dina Pathak and many gifted, socially oriented artists as its members. This is the Shanta Gandhi who is known for her contribution to Indian theatre. Teacher, playwright, director, her varied interests led to her holding diverse positions –one of the founding members of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), Editor of a Gujarati cultural monthly Sanskar, faculty and later Chairperson of the Board of NSD, Director of Bal Bhavan, New Delhi, among others.

But there is another Shanta – the one who has initiated a path-breaking curriculum in the field of education as well. Armed with a strong belief in education as a medium of social change and a deep love for children, coupled with her creative interests, in 1952, she started working with a group of children in the village Nikora, in a tribal belt in Gujarat that had no schools. She devised an informal curriculum using art, drama, theatre, dance, and local skills as learning resources, incorporating various hands-on activities in the process. Later, an experimental school in Ahmedabad adopted this format. In 1970s, Shanta Gandhi moved to Bal Bhavan in New Delhi and worked with children, using this curriculum. Confident that her methods could successfully cater to children belonging to any stratum of society, she came back to settle in Mumbai and laid the foundation of the AVEHI-ABACUS Sangati curriculum in 1990, at the age of 73.


Chandita Mukherjee, documentary film-maker and founding member of AVEHI, describes Shantaji as ‘an institution in herself’, “In the late 80s and 90s she put together her lifetime’s work to create the Abacus curriculum, and was able to inspire a very fine group of young women to put it into practice.” Rightly so, the Sangati curriculum can be said to be a fitting culmination of an adventurous, intellectual and creative journey that was Shantaji’s life. Yet, if the seeds for this curriculum were sown in Shantaji’s mind, it was infused with life by this collective group of young women, which formed the core team of the AVEHI-ABACUS Project. The core team consisted of Deepa Balsavar (illustrator), Deepa Hari (civil servant and publisher’s editor), Navina Venkat (trained in anthropology), Ratna Pathak Shah (actor), Sandhya Gandhi Vakil (Masters in Sociology and Development Administration), Simantini Dhuru (documentary film maker) and Vasudha Ambiye (Writer). They were joined later by Nandini Purandhare (Economist) and Noella D’souza (Researcher). Shantaji, along with this group of fiercely independent-minded and passionate young women, with diverse interests and expertise, worked together for more than a decade to create, what is known today as the ‘Sangati’ curriculum. From a single sheet of paper, consisting of nine broad themes, Sangati curriculum, as it stands today, is a set of six Kits and is transacted in about 900 Mumbai municipal corporation schools, as an additional curriculum in classes V to VII. As the name suggests, the curriculum signifies togetherness and the need to live together in harmony. It is based around the principles of equality of all human beings and respect for all and has at its core a deep concern for environment. It aims at nurturing in children independent rational thought, values of empathy, sensitivity towards beliefs, cultures of others and a deep sense of responsibility towards the choices one makes in life.

I studied this curriculum in some detail as a part of my field research, and instantly realized that it was completely unlike any other curriculum I had ever come across. The curriculum that was in front of me was so awe-inspiring that I was compelled to know better the vision behind this curriculum. And that was Shanta Gandhi. Unfortunately, for me, she was no longer between us. So I thought the best way to try and know her better would be through the memories of some of the above-mentioned team members of Avehi-Abacus. These were the people who had worked intensely and closely with her for more than a decade. And so I decided to undertake this journey of reconstructing Shanta Gandhi through the memories of this group of women.

Every member of the team cherishes the memories and experiences of those years as the most precious of their lives, for the freedom to disagree that it provided them, at the same time facilitating learning from each other’s thoughts and ideas. They credit it to the ability of Shantaji to work with others as her equals that allowed this eclectic group of young women to work and gel together as a team.

The goal was to provide a formal structure to a set of ideas written down as nine themes on a single sheet of paper. It could have been anything but simple and smooth. The enormity of the task in front of them was further complicated with the rapidly changing dynamics of the world around. One of the most significant change was the rapid transformation our society was going through. When Shantaji started her work, India had just gained its freedom. Having been one to actively usher it Shantaji was both confident and optimistic that the vision they fought with will be realized in the Independent state. The era politically was marked by the principals of socialism with citizens as the priority of the State. But the team-members came from a generation – where dissatisfaction with the affairs of the State was the dominant mood. When Shantaji and the team began their worked together the country had just began going through another massive change. The start of the 90s marked the beginning of India ‘opening’ its economy. The priority of its government was not the citizens but the global market. The core-curriculum Shantaji had developed and experimented with in earlier spaces now needed to address these dynamics. There were intense debates and discussions around each topic, with everyone fiercely guarding their positions. At the same time, there were no inhibitions in terms of free and open expression of thoughts and as a result, this process of churning always led to emergence of better ideas.

Having different ideologies and strong beliefs systems, it was also not always easy for everyone to reconcile with each-others’ viewpoints, yet the broad similarity in terms of their core world-views, a common vision that inspired this curriculum and the intellectually rich environment, allowed them to stay invested in the process for all these years.

Shantaji is remembered for her child-like curiosity and a truly generous spirit. She is remembered as a visionary who always inspired the team to help build a ‘Golden Age’ in the future rather than searching for it in the past. It was Shantaji’s dynamism, immense love for life and a deep commitment towards her role in society that allowed her to plunge herself into this intense exercise of providing a structure to her thoughts at the age that she did. She had a refreshingly optimistic and positive attitude towards life, making light of any difficulties that came across her way.

Yet, she was only human, having her own sets of prejudices and biases. For example, being a staunch vegetarian, she was not very comfortable with people having non-vegetarian food. This however, did-not come in the way of food being a strong binding force among the group. Or, for example, having always occupied positions of high authority in government structures, she could not visualize the kinds of difficulties that could entail in the process of gathering or convincing teachers to do a session, or the kinds of responses that one could come across during fund-raising work. Yet she was convinced that they had to work within the system and through the regular teachers for this curriculum to have any kind of a long-lasting impact, and this is what Avehi Abacus has been doing for close to 30 years now.

How deeply she and the entire Avehi- Abacus team has been able to touch the lives of children can be gauged from an incident that occurred at a function to formally unveil the initial Kits of the curriculum. The team only thought it proper to invite some of the students with whom these kits had been first transacted, during the pilot project at a school in Mahalakshmi, which was carried out by some of the team members themselves. Envisaged as a five-year curriculum at the time, they engaged with a single class right from Classes III to VII.

For the function, the team was able to trace around fifteen of these children who had now all grown up. Among them, was a family of three kids, all of whom had been studying in the same class at the time of the pilot testing. Gulshan had come to attend the function along with his brother and sister. What he narrated to the audience that day made Shantaji proud of the work the entire team had done, and filled her with a feeling of utmost contentment. Gulshan shared that he had decided to marry a girl of his own choice. When he was getting to know her, he chose to show her wife-to-be, two albums, that he thought were enough to introduce himself to her. One was his family photo album and the second one was the complete collection of his Sangati worksheets for all those five years. He had safely kept this file for all these years as these were very precious to him. (Gulshan is not an exception. For children exposed to Sanagti, these affiliations are common. Many children having faced the brutality of demolitions in Bombay have often reported how while gathering their meager possessions, they have always made sure they take their Sangati folder with them.) He further narrated that he and his brother chose not to complete their college education for want of money but made sure that their sister completed the same, because they thought getting educated was more important for her. He credited this thought process to the belief system inculcated by those five years of engaging with the Sangati curriculum.

Shortly after the formal unveiling of the first two Kits of Sangati, Shantaji passed away on 6 May, 2002, albeit with a contentment of a life well lived. Yet, ironically, in the very same year, in the state where her family’s roots lay, a volley of changes was set in motion that are an anti-thesis of the dreams of young Shanta and others who participated in the freedom struggle. With a combination of a Marxist grounding (seeing change as a cycle of dialectics) and an eternally optimistic spirit, she would have seen this only as a passing phase. She would have chosen to believe in the strength of the ideas of empathy, equality, justice and harmony, which she stood for in her life. Commemorating her spirit on her 100th birth anniversary, I choose to believe the same.

Nivedita Dwivedi has done MA in Elementary Education from Tata Institute of Social Science. Blog at http://fromwordstovoid.blogspot.in

(Written with inputs from Deepa Balsavar, Deepa Hari, Navina Venkat, Ratna Pathak Shah and Simanitini Dhuru).

Visit www.avehiabacus.org for more information.

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