David Horsburgh came to India in 1943 as a part of the Royal Air Force. He spent some of his leave, in what must have been an unusual pastime for an RAF person, in a small island village near Chittagong. Amid the waterways and paddy fields, he could see the village school. And he thought that was what he would like to do in life: to teach in a village school.

In 1950, armed with a college degree from England, Horsburgh returned to India. He lived here till his death in 1984.

In 1983, he gave an interview to Rosalind Wilson, editor of the children’s magazine Target. Wilson asked him: “The general scenario of the education system in India … if it’s so grim, where do you have breakthrough?"

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Horsburgh replied: “I do not know what the answer is to this. I can only say, I am going to sit in my little village and try and produce what I think is very good education. Some children, perhaps educated in freedom—no fear, you know, not being competitive, being much aware, etc.—perhaps they will find solutions, which I cannot find with my background and my conditioning."

In 1972, along with his wife Doreen, Horsburgh had started Neel Bagh. A hundred km from Bangalore, just off the road to Madanapalle, the school was not in the midst of waterways and paddy fields. But it was what he had set out to do.

The school had about 30 students, aged 3-20, all from the villages nearby. Some were mad about Shakespeare. They would learn philosophy, aesthetics, music appreciation, carpentry and pottery. This was in addition to the usual mathematics, geography, physics and so on. There was a lot of emphasis on learning languages: English, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi and Sanskrit.

This eclectic, seemingly eccentric curriculum was just one facet of the deliberate design of Neel Bagh. The methodology, the culture, the physical environment and the community were all integrated to build a place where education happened as it should.

The students would learn together in groups, but at their individual pace. The teacher would only facilitate the setting up of suitable learning situations. The focus would be on problem solving and concept formation. The students would engage in real-world activities, in reading, in discussion and in critical thinking. Almost all students were first generation school goers.

In short, Neel Bagh was the kind of school that we can only imagine.

Three years after Horsburgh’s death, faced with numerous financial and regulatory hurdles, his son Nicholas (who also worked at the school) handed it over to the Krishnamurti Foundation. The premises have subsequently passed to another organization that runs a school there with great care. But Horsburgh’s Neel Bagh ended in 1987.

His bar would open at 8.45pm. In the long history of the British raj, surely there were other Englishmen who would have spent their Indian nights at their bars set in incongruous rural settings. So did Horsburgh, but along with an intensely debating bunch of “student teachers", who interned with him. The bar would continue what had started in the morning “seminar".

These would-be teachers went through an intense education at Neel Bagh. Horsburgh would invite them from all over India, and later built a house for them with his own hands.

Some of these “student teachers" whom I know went through this truly remarkable teacher education programme. When you talk to them, the intellectual rigor of the experience and its absolute immersion shines through, as it does in their work. It changed them forever.

Horsburgh’s small school showed that what should be done in education can be done, both for teachers and students. He ran the wonder that was Neel Bagh, largely supported through the royalty from the hundred-odd books that he had written (some with his son Nicholas) and with debt.

I visited the premises of Neel Bagh earlier this year. It looks lovely and well kept. The houses that Horsburgh built are still in place. For one of those “student teachers" who accompanied me, every nook was infused with memory and meaning.

On that afternoon in Neel Bagh, I felt Horsburgh had proved himself wrong. He did have the answer to Wilson’s question. It lay in his producing the best education he could in that small village.

That has made Horsburgh a pole star for us—a star that guides and inspires breakthroughs—in this “grim" scenario. His legacy is alive in his books, his “student teachers", and many more that he has influenced.

He is also an answer to another eternal question that faces most of us one day or the other: “What can one man do?" The least we can do is to sit in our little village and produce the best education we can.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education. Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com