Letters from a Forest School
Chittaranjan Das was an extraordinarily gifted educationist. The school that he established in a forest in Orissa in the 1950s was a symbol of courage, love and commitment. His reflections—the narratives of his dreams and struggles—are bound to inspire every educator who sees beyond the prevalent culture of commodification of education
Today is a holy day for our school. Two years ago on this day our school was inaugurated at Angul. We had not been intimate with the forest then. We had not realized the beauteous worth of flowers, leaves and the sky of this place. Man can discover beauty from things with which he can establish a rapport, with which he can relate. Beauty does not lie in the thing, nor in the eyes of the beholder, but in the relationship, in the life’s effort at getting connected and to realize the relationship in the sincerity of one’s heart. We are still reminded of the day when we entered this jungle in our new dresses. Initially we were scared. But gradually we got connected with the place with a reverential love. This reverence filled everything with beauty…
After one year, the students decided to observe 26 August in a more elaborate fashion. I had been away for some time, but reached one day before the occasion. The school had changed colours. The colour of the faces of the students had also changed due to joy. The enthusiasm of the assembled youth filled us with joy. In the afternoon, a sudden rain destroyed all the arrangements for the meeting. After wiping the rain water off the floor of rooms we arranged the meeting. Students spoke about their experiences at the school. It is really a matter of pride for the teacher when the students accept the school to be their own. The school has a lot of shortcomings and several wants, but still the student has a sense of belongingness with the school which helps to compensate those wants and shortcomings. At least, their presentations claimed as much, as I heard them with rapt attention and a sense of wonder.
One student’s presentation runs something like this: Where there is no fear, nor tears, nor a quest for knowledge confined within the four walls of an artificial room, where the teacher knows the students merely because of their name in the register, I imagine there is some new energy… Another student writes, ‘We have not stopped despite various obstacles in life. Love, affection and reverence have smoothed and sweetened our rough lifestyle. The writings of poets and thinkers have inspired us, have filled us with a sense of quest.’…
We are not prepared to accept the usual societal perception that man is merely a hungry stomach. Beneath the naked body lurks the human soul with ample knowledge, love and creative desire. The Forest School refuses to accompany those who do not acknowledge this. Those who till the fields, lay the roads, or work in the smithies in our society today, have also a great desire and an inalienable right to get the respect due to a human being. The Forest School through its efforts wants to demonstrate this to the entire world… Despite our poverty we don’t keep our soul impoverished… We will not close the door on any kind of knowledge and scientific progress… We will discuss literature here and produce new literature invoking man to become nobler. We will pursue the knowledge of philosophy and history and forge arguments for a new historiography and philosophy, which will provide us a fresh vision and noble inspirations. We will look for that pedagogy, science and economics which will help in the creation of a society more civilized and conducive for mankind… We have to have the education of valuing and respecting our own lives and the life of every human being. Our school will remain as a challenge for this country’s government and people. Even amidst abysmal poverty, it shall exhort in every ear the calling of mankind and its culture. The periphery of the Forest School shall not be confined within the forest. It will be allowed to expand to all walks of life. It shall eschew all kinds of narrowness and apprehension at all times.
Chittaranjan Das, Letters from a Forest School (tr: Diptiranjan Pattanaik) National Book Trust, New Delhi, 2007