Home is the first school for us all, a school with no fixed curriculum, no quality control, no examinations, no teacher training.
- Charles Handy
An Air India plane had just landed at the airport in Calcutta, on 4th January 2011, and the atmosphere was suddenly abuzz with anticipatory excitement. Four students from Brockwood Park School in Hampshire, UK, together with a Mature Student and their teacher, emerged from the immigration area to a warm welcome by their hosts. Thus commenced the second innings of the Calcutta Academy, an appellation denoting both the venue and the root word Akademikos: a place where inquiring minds, led by Plato, assembled many aeons ago as philosophers, i.e. lovers of wisdom. Alas, the fairly capacious ten-seater Tata Sumo proved to be a bit cramped after everybody’s luggage was heaped onto the back row of seats, barely leaving four spaces in the middle row for the group of six. As one would imagine, the ride to the neighbourhood of Salt Lake, which the Brockwood guests would call home for the entire month, was nothing short of a roller coaster ride. Upon their arrival, the four students—all girls this year, in contrast to the all-boys troupe of the previous year—emerged from their curled-up, foetal postures, dragged their luggage to a common room and began to unpack the upper layers of their suitcases, shyly concealing their slight apprehension about how the next few weeks would unfold in a country they were visiting for the first time. It was indeed such a long journey, all for like-minded seekers to gather and understand, study and get to the essence of each subject that they chose to explore together, purely for its own sake, without any diploma or paper acknowledgement of their efforts or, for that matter, any particular external incentive.
Before any of us could embark on our lofty endeavours, the visitors had to first overcome jetlag, make their acquaintance with mosquitoes, learn to sleep through the mad cacophony of yelping dogs that decided to play their symphony orchestra only past midnight, tolerate the endless thud-thud of an adjacent construction site, and ignore the ceaseless drumming practice for the annual Sports Day at the opposite park! After all, the students had arrived at a city in extremis, ever evolving, ever decadent, and yet all-encompassing.
The group brought with it its own energy, flavour, and particular chemistry, both between the individuals and as a collective. The expertise of the three teachers, including the two hosts, both former teachers at Brockwood Park School, and the Mature Student, who was attending his second Calcutta Academy, covered a wide range of subjects. Their competence ranged from mathematics, physics, and philosophy to literature, history, art and music inter alia. Our day seamlessly moved from sessions of mathematics and philosophy in the mornings—ranging from syllabus-related directed examination study to questioning the nature of trigonometry or of numbers themselves—straying into history or art, and music theory in the latter half of the day. A simple home-cooked vegetarian lunch served as a break.
The entire group was interested in learning together, with a serious effort at unearthing our individual likes, dislikes, prejudices and predilections towards various subjects or topics. Why had mathematics been so alienating in the past? Was it the result of a bad classroom experience? What are the big fundamental questions that underlie all learning? Are subjects connected, or do we end up superspecializing the topics until there is nothing left? Quite like the elusive quest for the perfectly sharpened pencil tip ... the pencil ultimately disappears.
We spent several weeks immersed in various subjects, exploring the core of each problem that we encountered— ruminating over ideas, theories, and philosophical bases of fundamental questions about nature and our purpose on this planet. In addition to examining specific topics, we also made an attempt to link seemingly disparate areas like mathematics and art, and were pleasantly surprised to uncover the mathematical art of M C Escher, whose paintings had inspired many a mathematician. All pattern has, after all, a mathematical basis. While the journey into mathematics began with trigonometry and calculus, it broke free of convention with a tie-up class with art. We explored Escher’s paintings and patterns and created our own, inspired by images and lectures. This gave an impetus to our understanding of mathematics, and the students became that much more eager to explore the scope of the subject beyond the classroom, even venturing on to atypical areas like Vedic mathematics.
The philosophy class was held in the nearby park, a short, pleasant walk from the house and a welcome change of scene —a perfect setting to allow the mind to soar up to the sky. The main idea circling in our minds was to dwell upon the nature of mathematics. An essay by Heidegger, Modern Science, Metaphysics and Mathematics, formed the template for our discussions, which were both animated and fruitful. The history class was wide in scope, but covered mainly European history. The demarcation between subjects became naturally blurred, in a way that seeks to clarify rather than befuddle. The music theory class dealt with the arrival of tempered tuning in modern music and the special way that alters the natural mathematical musical ratios.
Our typical day began with a yoga session on the rooftop among the twittering avian visitors from near and far: crows, canaries, budgerigars, orioles and sparrows, who left their commentary with us. A few students preferred a run around the park grounds opposite the house, sometimes indulging in a mock game of football with local amateur players. Before our lessons began, a couple of students would slip into the neighbourhood market, with its makeshift stalls dotting the entrance, to start the morning off with a drink from a medium-sized green coconut. Happy debating with the vegetable vendors lining the park would ensue, and produce from the nearby villages would be brought in soon after. A few students befriended a roadside tailor hawking his stitching and mending skills. When the academy was over, the students left with all their torn clothes darned, many of their oversized skirts or blouses altered to fit perfectly, and a promise to the tailor that they would somehow stay in touch.
The warmth arising out of thus living and learning together; eating south Indian idlis and dosas for breakfast; playing with an eleven-month-old toddler; intensely engaging in bargaining for an insanely underpriced deal at the handloom emporium markets; sipping tea together at the Oxford Bookstore; and remarking on what postcards to select and send home was a catalyst for learning without effort. Most evenings were laced with creative joy, and on any day one could spot the students and teachers alike scattered about the house, pencils and drawing books in hand, attentively painting their subject, or immersed in a book, or perhaps scribbling notes. From the sheer volume of drawings: sketches, portraits, patterned tiles (some akin to Escher’s patterns), watercolours, charcoal drawings and ink paintings, one could surmise how everyone’s creative instincts had been whetted.
Many evenings ended with a movie session, and each film selected became, quite by accident, a visual continuation of the day’s lessons. For instance, Chihwaseon, madness and artistic genius are both essential for his craft, became an instant favourite with everyone, resonating with their own vision and artistic pursuits. Watercolour murals drawn during a predinner session found their reflection in Hayao Miyazaki’s hand-drawn watercolour animation. Bookish discussions on Mughal history from the afternoon’s class were seen through the lens of Bollywood that same evening—in the biopic Jodhaa Akbar, the story of the great Mughal Emperor Akbar and his Rajput Hindu princess bride, Jodhabai. Books became our best friends, and the students appeared to quietly devour reams of writing, whether novels by Dostoevsky or an encyclopaedic treatise on how the brain works.
Attempts like the Calcutta Academy raise questions as to their apparent measure of success. Clearly, learning becomes effortless once the pressure to perform or be tested is lifted; more importantly, learning itself, for its own sake, provides the only incentive, one that suggests a deeper inquiry into the essence of every subject that we touch upon. One ingredient we found that was essential to learning without fear or effort, learning with delight, was leisure. The bustle of a school term, a long to-do list, and the general insanity of modern life rob us of this very basic quality. Suitably, the etymological root of the word school is leisure or spare time. Did we then, through our simple living and unfettered thinking, discover what it takes to be truly able to learn: a state of leisure, in the truest sense?
A wider question that underpins this attempt to bring teachers and learners together in one place, without any sense of competition or external motive besides the impetus of learning itself, is: Why do we not experience this sense of togetherness in our typical classroom setting? Is learning and therefore any kind of exploration of mind related to friendship first? Without an atmosphere of love, can the love of learning happen? Can we become excellent at a subject without the sense of competition that is often an automatic accompaniment to most academic environments? Are we saying that comparison and a sense of mutual mistrust of fellow learners obstruct true understanding? These questions are open-ended and meant as an exploration of the possibilities of study and of the art of learning.
What the academy showed me personally, at many levels, was the magical effect of a natural camaraderie arising out of friendship. Perhaps the main motif for the effectiveness or success of our endeavours—if at all one can make such an assessment—were the drawings that emerged as a marriage between art, mathematics and philosophy, tying various themes into a collective whole. An image that comes to mind, itself a subject for the painter’s palette, was of the students.