A child is a true scientist, just one big question mark. What? Why? How? We never cease to marvel at the recurring miracle of growth, to be fascinated by the mystery and wonder of this brave enthusiasm. This was discovered by Dr Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, who came in contact with children through an unexpected event and began to notice this enthusiasm in them. She was invited for the inauguration of crèche when she realized that children were highly capable of learning. Almost immediately, she had an urge to shape this energy in a very positive manner. However, unlike most others, she did not think of coaching children into something, rather she thought that the best thing to do was to let them free. Let their imagination run wild and explore the unknown in the way they wanted to. The observations and results of this were what are widely practised today throughout the globe.
India, where mythology and tradition give Education the status of God, was undoubtedly among the ones to benefit. Worshipping Goddess Saraswati has always been a practice in India. But, with changing times, the education system had to evolve and it did. One of the developments in early education was brought about by Dr Montessori and the venue for her first experiment was Madras, as it was then called, a city where the need for primary education was given great importance even during the turbulent times of struggle for independence. It is not a surprise then, that it served as the fertile ground in which one of the most significant modern spiritual-social-educational movements, The Theosophical Society, took root in India.
The arrival of Madame Helena Blavatsky and Col. Henry Olcott in the 1870s slowly started changing the educational landscape in Madras. They started the Theosophical Society in India in the year 1875 with an aim of spreading the message of Universal Brotherhood. It was established in Adyar, which was quite the southernmost part of Madras and the society was formed hugging the banks of the Adyar River and the seashore.
After Olcott’s death in 1907, Dr Annie Besant took over as the president of the Society. With her Irish roots, she saw many parallels between India’s fight for autonomy and the Irish struggle. She was already the president of the English lodge of the Theosophy before presiding over the Society in India. Twenty-three years younger than Besant, it was entirely possible that Maria was influenced by such a strong woman during her growing years. Maria hadn’t sprung from nothingness either. She was the heir to a long legacy of humanitarians, scientists, philosophers and educationists. All her life, she studied, lectured, wrote, read and ceaselessly pursued her goal.
For twenty years, between the First World War to the start of the Second World War, Maria Montessori worked incessantly, assisted by her son Mario, and the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), which she founded in 1929.
She came to India in 1939, because of a recommendation by Dr Besant. Dr Montessori was 69 then. People came from all over India to attend the course. People like Ms Gool Minwala, travelled for three and a half days, all the way from Karachi to take the course. The period of Maria’s stay in India proved to be one of the most important phases of her life, regenerating her philosophy, her method, allowing children in the 6-12 age groups to expand and give the Montessori movement a momentum. When she arrived in India, she was given a grand welcome and the fact that Dr JRD Tata flew her personally gives an idea of the impact of her arrival.
The first course for training teachers to teach children was inaugurated on the 11th of November, 1939 by the Rt. Rev. Dr GS Arundale, the President of the Theosophical Society and honorary member of the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI). The course was held in the compound of the Theosophical Society in Adyar. Palm leaf huts were built for taking classes. Dr Montessori lectured in Italian and the lectures were translated in English by Mario Sr., who was a companion, friend and guide to her.
After beginning a grass root movement in India, Dr Montessori left India in 1949. The period after that was challenging for India. This period was very significant for India as a nation. India had transformed itself from being a nation thirsting from home rule to a growing international power, on the verge of asserting itself on the world stage. Everything about the country had grown and so had it changed about Adyar, where the Montessori movement had started – its population, its economy, its political power and its self-image. The Montessori movement too, evolved from being a sapling planted and tended to by Dr Montessori herself, to a sturdy tree which had started to bear its own fruits. It hadn’t been a smooth ride and it was not without its share of hiccups, disappointments and setbacks. But all in all, the movement had in it the will to keep moving forward. It had started in Adyar as a drop of water. Over the years it became a trickle and then a steady stream and now it has morphed into a flowing river.
Ms Rukmini, a student of the AMI, has now started Navadisha, a Montessori Teachers’ Training Institute in Chennai. “The child is the eternal Messiah who is sent among fallen men to uplift themselves, their nation, the world and the heavens. I am just being a part of this entire process by trying to provide a little help in my own way,” she says.
- Vinaya Patil