The students protesting against the new management of the New Era School in Mumbai did so by holding placards, their parents handing out petitions. They turned to the courts, winning the argument as the Supreme Court told the new owners, the Aditya Birla Group, that the decision to move the school to a new location would rest with the state. The management wants to move the school to a new location, around 5km away, ostensibly to refurbish the old building.
Old times: After the court ruling, the school may reopen next week. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
The school needs better bricks and mortar, certainly; but it needs reaffirmation of the ideals which made it unique. When the Aditya Birla Group took over the school, the expectation among the school’s alumni was that the new owners would not only invest in the school, but also guard its traditions.
What made the school special was not its location, nor the number of laptops per student, nor indeed the gym facilities, but the quality of its teachers, and its ethos, and the values it imbibed in its students. It is not a cram school that produces top-rankers at competitive examinations; nor is it a finishing school for children whose eyes are firmly set on moving abroad, never to return.
This 79-year-old institution at Kemp’s Corner is special: It has witnessed the city’s political and cultural history and stood firm, like the moral conscience of a once-tranquil area now teeming with traffic, in what is now a real estate developer’s dream. The Vyas family that started the school built the school’s ethos on the soft power they drew from Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.
It is the ethos of nationalism with a small “n”, the kind Tagore emphasized, of pride in one’s culture without disrespecting others’ cultures; where several teachers and students chose to wear khadi (homespun) clothes; where the old uniform of khaki shorts and skirts and white shirts was not debased by the divisive propaganda of strident nationalism; where the school’s anthem, composed by Pinakin Trivedi, himself a student at Santiniketan at one time, resonated with Tagorean cadence; and a school whose face to the world was a gigantic mural—now sadly and inexplicable torn down by the new management—created by the art teacher, Dinesh Shah, commemorating Gandhi’s life.
That spirit of fearlessness is drawn from its past: During the Quit India Movement of 1942, Gandhians Usha Mehta and others ran a clandestine radio station from the school, mocking the authorities. “There is history here, which must be preserved,” says Paula Mariwala, an alumnus who later went to Stanford and now runs a venture fund in Mumbai. Indeed, during the Emergency of 1975-77, some of us, with the full knowledge of our teachers, made copies of pro-democracy material that was distributed quietly at homes in Napean Sea Road, Warden Road, Peddar Road, Laburnum Road and beyond, the catchment of the school, comprising middle- and upper-middle-class Gujarati families who wanted their children rooted in Indianness, but able to deal with the world with confidence. Chaula Bhimani, an engineer who lives in Mumbai, says: “Today when I see people streaking their hair and wearing tattoos, I feel proud of my firm identity, about my Indianness, which is all thanks to New Era.”
It was not uncommon to talk about Satyajit Ray and Ravi Shankar in our classes. Kartick Kumar and Zakir Hussain played at our assembly. Vijay Merchant and alumnus Anandji Dosa told us stories about cricket. Umashanker Joshi and Niranjan Bhagat read us poetry. Morarji Desai spoke about Gandhi, Father Wallace about spirituality.
It was a Gujarati medium school, but never disregarded English. You could study French or Sanskrit, until state regulations made it impossible. We could take optional classes on weekends for Bengali, which I did for two years.
Many of us felt drawn to the school even during vacations. Alumnus Darshana Shilpi Rouget, an art director now based in London, says: “I loved going to school so much that I used to pretend to be well when I would be sick so that I wouldn’t miss school.”
The school trusted its students in return. My classmate and chartered accountant Nandita Parekh reminds me how we did not have invigilators for the preliminary examinations in 1977, because we asked the school to trust us, and the school did. The teachers, as at other schools, left a deep imprint on our minds— from the hair-raising stories of Khandubhai at Montessori, to the music of Narayan Jogalekar, the precise teaching of Jer Gheyara, and the lively classes of Dinesh Buch and Ramesh Joshi.
Why tinker with it? Bert Lance, an official in the Jimmy Carter administration, once said: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Our school has been a bit like that. But then this is shining India, with investment not only in bricks and mortar, but also in overhauling the curriculum to International Baccalaureate and the General Certificate of Secondary Education. But if I reflect back on the school’s alumni, we didn’t do too badly without those frills: Alumni, I recall, include the scholar on erotic art, Devangana Desai; corporate lawyer Bijesh Thakker; banker Falguni Nayar; mountaineering pioneer Harish Kapadia; stockbroker Hemendra Kothari; figurative painter Ila Pal; musician Vanraj Bhatia; Bollywood and Gujarati stage actors Satish Shah, Deepak Gheewala, Siddharth Randeria and Shammi Kapoor; cricket commentator Anand Setalvad and broadcasters Amin Sayani and Hamid Sayani; and scores of diamond-trading Shahs, Mehtas and Bhansalis. There are many more.
Gandhi once said: “I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.” The New Era School taught us how to be proud as Indians, and yet be world citizens. Ami Kantawala, an alumnus who teaches art in New York, says: “Those principles and philosophies of Gandhi and Tagore need to be kept vibrant and reframed in the present context of education without losing the history of the institution.”
It is still not too late for the Aditya Birla Group to discover the roots of the magnificent institution they have acquired.
Salil Tripathi started Montessori at the New Era School in 1964, and obtained his Secondary School Certificate in 1977. He writes the fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint, and the travel column Detours for Lounge.
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