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Bonfire Of Vanities

Doon gave us an exemplarily non-exclusive education. We carry it still.

Bonfire Of Vanities
Illustration by Sorit
Bonfire Of Vanities

As my alma mater, the Doon School, turned 75 this month, I found myself thinking about the school and what it had done for us, or rather, what it had done to us, to change us into unique individuals.

The Doon School is a very Indian school, unlike most of the older public schools, which were founded to keep the Indian ethos away from their students. At Doon, everything was done to help us subliminally imbibe the real ethos of India—the passages from Tagore read out at morning assembly, the Rabindra Sangeet, the statues dotting the landscape, the murals on the walls, the singing of Indian classical music in house choirs, the individual music excellence competitions, also based on classical ragas, the examples of Indian art on the walls of the art school....

When I visited Santiniketan for the first time, I realised that the Doon School was a microcosm of the great university founded by Tagore. The credit for recreating the atmosphere of Santiniketan at Doon goes to the school’s very first Indian teachers, including the first art master, Sudhir Khastgir, who created most of the statuary and murals on display.

The Doon School sought to bring out the best in its students. Every school does, but what sets Doon apart is that it excels in doing this while others merely try. In my time at the Doon (and I hope that continues today), every student had to perform a series of tasks at the start of school life and keep doing them till he met with success. You learnt to make pen and ink stands from a block of wood, using only chisels, files and sandpaper, mastered the dovetail joint in carpentry classes, engaged in lathework and welding in  machinery classes; made watercolours, drawings and statues in art class. Every boy had to participate.

In the realm of sports, too, a certain minimum proficiency was the goal. I had to keep attending swimming classes right until my last term because I just could not get it right and I was not allowed to opt out until I had achieved at least a minimum level of competence.

For the expansion of the mind, and catering to special interests, were societies devoted to debating, astronomy, mathematics, geography, Hindi, Punjabi, literature etc. Junior boys joined the societies for the wonderful coffee and fresh chips offered, but stayed on to learn and participate.

To understand the dignity of labour, each boy, once he became slightly older, had to perform such tasks as serving at the table or mowing the lawns with a sword-like scythe, which very quickly caused blisters on the palms. A local village was adopted, giving everyone the opportunity to learn from and engage with its residents.

The ultimate experience was the mid-term expeditions. At first, we were supervised by teachers, but later were allowed to go out in small groups on our own. We fished in rivers and traversed the Garhwal Himalayas on foot along paths that, alas, have now been converted into highways. The more daring joined various mountaineering expeditions in the summer holidays. Being on one’s own, cooking for oneself, interacting with villagers and, best of all, coming to terms with the majesty of the mountains along unending paths, with not a soul in sight, was an unforgettable experience.

So, what is so special about the Doon School student?

He understands the dignity of labour. When he sees a carpenter making a cupboard, he understands how much skill and labour is being deployed. When he sees a mechanic repairing his car, he knows exactly what is entailed. When he sees the gardener removing weeds from flowerbeds, he remembers the discomfort of bending over, and the drudgery of the task. When he visits a village, he doesn’t suffer from a false sense of superiority; he understands the reality of rural life.

When he is confronted with the dangers posed to rivers, forests, and mountains by the forces of so-called progress, he remembers the first flush of joy he felt as a child at their majesty, and gets involved in preserving them.

When he hears the strains of Rabindra Sangeet, he cannot help but sing along. When he hears a classical Indian raga, he sometimes remembers what he sang or heard in the house choir. The sounds of India are ingrained in him. When he sees a work of art, he can understand the labour and skill and the leap of imagination which went into its creation. This is what makes him different.

(The author is a former MP.)

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