S is for Samir Majumdar


            The story of Samir alias Som Majumdar (1942-2003) is pertinent to any discussion of education. Like the most active reformers, Rabindranath Tagore, for example, he took his own childhood experiences seriously. As a child, he was streamed by his father, uncles, and grandfathers, to learning different instruments. We should say 'performing' rather than 'learning.' He had a natural gift and, regarded as a child prodigy, was put on stage to play this or that, by ear. Fortunately for him, he did love music and tired of his father's dilletante, Bengal Renaissance approach to the arts, ran away from home to study music. He learnt flute, violin, and vocals, but settled down with the sitar. One important aspect of this beautiful, resonant musical instrument is that it is huge, almost an adult's length, and bulky, with two pumpkin gourds, one at least 18" in diameter, on either end. 


            The formative experience for Samir Majumdar was not music but his father's dilettantism and amateurism. That you need leisure to dwell in a quasi-zamindari world of music means that you are also a male chauvinist who expects to be waited on by your wife and daughters. Samir became a feminist at an early age, siding with his mother and five sisters against his father. This bore important fruit in his work as an educator. 


            Then he fell in love with Science. His favourite subject was Mathematics. He could discourse on Hypotheses and Conjectures, Natural and Prime Numbers, and Theorems and Proofs, as well as famous mathematicians who had unknotted tangled problems. He could go for a walk and count trees with a specific look, or find a crazy pattern in house numbers. He loved his Statistics degree at the Indian Statistical Institute with a Ph.D. in Econometrics. 


            In 1990 many conversations took place between the late Maharaja Banaras and Som Majumdar and his wife (myself) about the drastic state of education in the country and the persistent ignorance of children and childhood. The Maharaja, Vibhuti Narain Singh, agreed to support the Majumdars' new educational venture by giving a space for running a school. The new school was inaugurated by His Majesty in June 1990. It was called Vidyashram—the Southpoint School. At that time it was the one and only Progressive School in Banaras.  


            What does starting a school in India entail? What does running it, now, for thirty three years mean?  


            Som was a Management expert, as well as a sportsman, a scientist, and a sitarist. Most of all, he was a true humanist for whom there was no higher value than a human being. His vision of good education was not derived from anywhere. He had no guru, no father figure that he bowed before, unless it be Socrates, as he said drily once. In his school the child was central, and teachers had to be totally and thoroughly honest and not shift the child from their centrality. 


            How can one guarantee this about teachers? In the 1990s it was especially difficult to dislodge the existing ideas and replace them with a set of new ones about teaching, learning, and children. Som's instincts were spot-on. His management skills were unmatched. Yet, in another resemblance to the experience of Rabindranath Tagore, teacher after teacher let him down.  


            You can of course run a school like a factory, or a machine: set a task and adhere to its procedure in an absolute way. The difficulty with Som's way of doing it was the respect he expected to show everyone. Rather than order someone, he would explain. Instead of scolding at wrong decisions he would educate. He gave out tasks democratically so that everyone could assume leadership roles. It would have been simpler if he had planned the work himself and treated everyone as his subaltern. But in this (what I'd call) postmodern approach, there was little hierarchy, everyone had a similar potential, and therefore had to be trusted equally to be able to learn and perform. 


            The school remained small and intense, cutting no corners on quality and democracy in its expectation of humanitarianism from everyone. What has it achieved? What has it proved? 


            That no change is worth celebrating unless it is change from the soul, from the inside. The teachers of Southpoint are expected to labour at changing themselves. The children are immersed in profound ways of learning that affects them inside out. The support staff need to be awakened to believe in what they are doing. Parents have to be equally sensitively aroused to a consciousness of their own power and potential. Then does learning make sense and the child can become a life-long learner, flourishing with the help of the scaffolding of non-domineering adults.


            Som's work lives on in his school, Southpoint. Such a school is a work in progress—always. The journey is the destination.  



Nita Kumar

Hon. Director, NIRMAN

N 1/70 Nagwa, Varanasi, India

Brown Family Professor Emerita of S Asian History

Claremont McKenna College, CA 91711

Read my blog! https://nitakumar.wordpress.com/


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