9th August, 2018

Dreams. They have a remarkable way of cutting through caste, creed and colour, across gentle hills, mountains and vast oceans, over generations and centuries. More than a year ago, seated in my freezer box-like office cubicle, I came across such a dream. A dream so universal and infectious, that it travelled around the world and stood the most arduous tests of time.

In late 1970s, Gopalakrishnan and Vijayalekshmi met during a Teachers’ Training Course in Kerala. They found themselves in complete agreement in their disapproval of existing teaching methods, outdated textbooks and study material. Fresh out of college, they were posted in government schools. They believed in an education that engaged all senses; one that nurtured creativity, individuality and humanity in children. They took children out of rickety-old classrooms and introduced them to the best teacher of all, Nature. They held classes in the tenderness and wilderness of nature – beneath trees and by river banks – methodologies that were thitherto unheard of, those that shocked and shook their colleagues.

Photo Credits: The Hindu

Determined to not fall prey to the existing system, in 1982, they quit their government jobs and in a hilltop in Agali, bought a 12-acre plot of barren forest. There, they laid the foundation for SARANG, an alternative school that displays and practises unrelenting faith in a holistic, creative and participative learning process.

Once woke, ain’t it difficult to act asleep?

Joined by friends, family and wellwishers, and by then, Gautham, their son, the Sarang family evolved. 
“Sarang was conceived and developed around Gautham. The Sarang couple learned and unlearned many things observing him growing up. As a young child, Gautham had the opportunity to interact with people from different walks of life. He learnt by observing, imitating and analyzing all that came across his path.”

Work had also begun on the barren soil that was ‘Sarang Hills’. They planted trees, revived watershed by building check-dams. They dug out percolation-pits and mulched heavily to protect the land from soil erosion and to conserve water. The students learnt to build their house with their own hands, using mud, thatching grass, and bamboo. Gradually, the once-barren hill turned into a lush green forest with many birds, animals such as barking deer, mouse deer, rabbits, squirrels, hedgehogs, civets, snails and some rare species of frogs making it their home. The students were also surrounded by a multitude of books they could read from whenever they chose to, and debates on topics of politics, international relations, health, sex education and the environment were commonplace.

Photo Credits: thebetterindia.com

As time passed, internal conflicts amongst staff, and a mounting debt forced them to shut down the school. However, their quest for a fulfilling education continued in the form of an extended family and a travelling school outside the campus. Having paid back all their debts, Gautham Sarang, along with his wife, Anuradha Sarang and family, moved back to Sarang Hills in 2013 and are currently, rebuilding their campus, with a dream of developing a Rural University. They also run Sarang Cultural Ventures, an initiative towards conservation and celebration of artforms, established with a vision of sharing sustainable cultures among different people from around the world.

Photo Credits: saranghills.in

You can only imagine how dumb-founded the cubicle-living me would have felt when I learnt about Sarang. I only knew that I wanted to witness and if in any way possible, play a part in their dream. A number of mails and conversations followed, and more than a year later, I visited the Sarang Family last weekend to know and experience everything I’d read about and more.

From Chennai, after a night’s journey, I reached Goolikadavu, the closest town to Sarang. It was a long, uphill auto ride which seemed like an excursion to heaven. I had made up my mind right then that I would walk back to town, and I couldn’t stop grinning, thinking about it.

Just out of the auto, I was greeted by a small group of people. They were building a house out of bamboo. A window changed multiple hands. They were checking to see if the window fit well within its border. Like in a dream, Gopalakrishnan sir called out to me, “Bonnie alle?” I felt like I had known the man for aeons (was it the constant online stalking?). He introduced me to the members of the Sarang Family, and walked me to where Vijayalekshmi teacher was.

Photo Credits: thebetterindia.com

While much conversation was pending, I had other priorities – Gautham and Anuradha’s three adorable kids: Hiranya, Parthan and Chinmayi. They took me around their forest garden, climbing trees, hanging upside down from branches, conversing with monkeys nearby. I had multiple urges to draw out my camera and photograph these kids in their natural state, but I was also worried if they’d become conscious and that I’d spoil the moment. It was around this time that I realized that I hadn’t yet brushed my teeth. When I was about to smother my brush with toothpaste, Hiranya asked me if I’d like to try something new. She took me to the forest, broke off a branch from a tree. Tiny droplets of residue from the branch fell onto the brush. The residue gathered foam as I brushed my teeth away to squeaky clean glory (exaggerating, of course). Once hygiene concerns were taken care of, I was back to playing with the children. We spent a couple of hours playing hide-and-seek and Kallan-Police. When we (read, I) was a little tired from all the playing, we retired to the thinai (verandah) and Hiranya shifted her attention to drawing, Parthan (who still had much energy) was cycling around and Chinmayi was reading from the multiple books that adorned the house.

Photo Credits: foodsensetour-india.com

Once Gautham and Anuradha were back home, we spent time in discussion and Gautham took me around the forest through various trails, stopping to see check dams, footmarks and elephant dung, remains of visits from their four-legged neighbours.  

It was getting dark and it was time to leave. By then, I was completely overwhelmed by the Sarang Family, their humaneness, love and their resolve in their cause. It truly is infectious.

Photo Credits: foodsensetour-india.com

This may be a good time to announce that The Soul Window and Sarang Cultural Ventures (http://culture.saranghills.in/) in partnership, will be hosting a series of events in the coming months. If you’re looking forward to them as much as we are, do register here. We will keep you updated on them.

I understand this was a pretty long read. Congratulations, you have reached the other side and thanks for reading.

More importantly, tell me, what is your dream? They say, “you got a dream, you gotta protect it.” Right?

P.S. I did take that long walk back to town. It was necessary by then, I had lots of feelings to process from the day. I had visited heaven, after all.

Leave a Reply

15 − ten =