Update: MurthyNAYAK Foundation in India, Part II14 Dec 2010
The MurthyNAYAK Foundation board was in India over the Thanksgiving holidays, visiting some of the projects and institutions we are privileged to support. A few days after our site visit at the Chennakeshava School in Bangalore (See Update: MurthyNAYAK Foundation in India, Part I, MurthyBlog, 13.Dec.2010.), we drove out to the campus of the Agastya International Foundation near Kuppam, in Andhra Pradesh, enjoying the stark natural beauty along the way: enormous outcroppings of reddish-tan rocks, with green fringes of scrub vegetation, coconut palms, and rice paddies.
The Agastya International Foundation is involved in a revolutionary campaign to transform education in India’s rural schools, sending 50+ brightly-painted mobile labs out to under-resourced schools to teach about science and the power of imagination, encouraging children to experiment, to use their own hands and eyes and ears – and all of their senses – to investigate the world. The program educates children and their families about science, math, art, and ecology, imparting substantive lessons in all of these areas, while also conveying a subtler, more profound message: that joy, wonder, and imagination should never be far removed from our quest for knowledge.
As we turned off the gravel road into Agastya’s driveway, we stopped to stare in wide-eyed wonder at a bright blue bird perched on a wire near the entrance. It was an Indian roller, we later learned – one species among the many that increasingly are finding their way to Agastya’s 172-acre campus, up in the hilly scrubland at the borders of the south Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. Until recently, we were told, most of the avian visitors were crows, and a handful of other common species. The Indian roller sighting somehow seemed emblematic of the good work being done by Agastya from its remote rural campus, a two-to-three hours’ drive from Bangalore, depending on traffic.
The most striking thing about Agastya is the way it is making the desert bloom – literally and figuratively. Over the past several years, Agastya has reclaimed acre upon acre of scrubland, creating an elaborate system of water tanks and drip irrigation, while also creating water traps – saucer-shaped “moats” around the trunks of trees and shrubs, to trap rainwater and funnel it down to the roots – as part of a program to bring biodiversity back to land that lay sere and fallow for many years before. The results are impressive, bringing a profusion of flora – wildflowers, native grasses, trees and shrubs – back to the campus, along with medicinal herbs and berries used in Ayurvedic medicine, some intentionally planted, many growing wild.
Two “eco-walks” with noted naturalist, Dr. Harish Bhat, of the Indian Institute of Sciences, yielded sightings of several species of snakes – along with skinks, lizards, and rabbits – and evidence of an Indian sloth bear having been on campus. Indeed, the re-emergent biodiversity of the Agastya campus is attracting attention from researchers from around the globe; during our visit, we met a team of evolutionary biologists, graduate students from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, who were researching the social behavior of spiders that are native to the campus. The researchers – from Italy, Denmark, and Croatia – said the Agastya campus was ideally suited to their research interests, and uniquely hospitable to their work, allowing them to place spider traps all around the campus, and providing a safe, comfortable home base in the midst of a great natural laboratory.
In figurative terms, Agastya is also making the desert bloom by providing the seeds, water and mental nourishment to fertile young imaginations that would dry and wither under the heat and pressure of traditional rote learning, where memorization is prized over the ability to creatively manipulate concepts, and over the capacity to associate related bodies of knowledge, across rigid disciplinary boundaries.
The MurthyNAYAK Foundation is heavily invested in Agastya’s success, and is working continually to publicize this important work through documentary films and web resources. The Foundation also has made significant financial contributions to Agastya, and has pledged to continue this well into the future: before we returned to Baltimore, at a luncheon with Agastya Founder and Chairman, Ramji Raghavan, Sheela Murthy and Vasant Nayak made a financial pledge to the Agastya International Foundation over the next five years. The social return on this investment is rather like one of those credit card commercials; the cost of unlocking the imaginations of thousands of underprivileged kids in rural India: priceless.