Sunday, November 27, 2011

Down Memory Lane – Summer (Institutes) of 65 at RIEM

A throwback to the past

The Regional Institute of Education Mysore Alumni Association [RIEMAA] is making its presence felt in several ways through Facebook as well as its own website,, and has recently come out with its own charter.   As a former principal of this prestigious institution, I keep myself in touch with some of its active members through the enormously popular social networking portal.  Recently I came across a number of group photos posted in the portal, including the one reproduced below, which jolted my memory strongly.  On seeing it, I wrote by way of a comment; "This combined group photo was taken in the summer of 1965 when the Physics and Chemistry departments of both the University of Mysore and RIE Mysore held their first ever summer institutes for college teachers with active support from the USAID. It has opened up the flood gates of my memory and I intend to write about these events in some detail one of these days in my own blog."  As promised, I am travelling a long time down memory lane to narrate the story associated with this photo dating back to the summer of 1965.  While the associated events and people are deeply etched in my memory, it is astonishing that I couldn't even remember that such a photograph had ever been taken even though the RIE main building provides the backdrop for it.  So, one can imagine what a pleasant surprise I had in discovering it.  I don't know how this precious photo was unearthed, but am thankful to whoever did so, scanned it and posted it in the RIEMAA portal.  Three of us had been correctly tagged in the picture and I have identified as many others as I could recognize in the caption provided below the photo.

[Click to enlarge]

Seated from left: (5) Prof G Chaurasia, Principal, RCE; (6) Prof K L Shrimali, VC of Mysore University and former Union Minister for Education; (7) Prof Steve Cram of Kansas University, USA (Physics Consultant attached to RCE); (8) Prof Koelsche (Chemistry Consultant from USA attached to RCE); (9) Prof S Chandrasekhar FRS, HOD University Physics Dept; (11) Prof M Devadasan, Vice Principal and HoD Education of RCE.

Standing from left: (1) Mr N Ganesan (Administrative Officer, RCE); (3) Prof K N Srinivasa Rao (University Physics Dept); (6) Mr S Raghavendra Rao, RCE HoD in Chemistry; (7) Dr V Rajamadhav Rao, RCE HoD in Physics; (9) Self!; (11) Mr B N Singh, RCE Chemistry lecturer.

The Roots

The National Council of Educational Research & Training (NCERT) was founded as an apex body for school education in the country in 1961 and two years later its regional units, including the Regional College of Education (RCE) in Mysore, were set up.  Later upgraded as the Regional Institute of Education (RIE), I joined the RCE Mysore on my birthday in September 1964 and soon got busy with the developmental activities of the fledgling institution. Incidentally, the chairman of the committee at NCERT headquarters which selected me for the job of lecturer was, by a happy coincidence, Prof S Chandrasekhar, then Head of the Physics Department in the Mysore University who is seen prominently in the above photograph.  My association with this famous physicist was to continue in many ways as this narrative unfolds.
The main focus at the RCEs was on the four-year integrated in-service teacher education courses (BSc Ed, BA Ed and the short lived BTech Ed) which brought subject specialists like me and pedagogy experts like Prof P N Dave together for the first time in the country.  Dr V Rajamadhav Rao (seen in the photo) was my senior colleague in the Physics faculty and together we put in a lot of effort in designing the curriculum and course content for the BSc Ed programme.  We also had a modest role in the more traditional one year B Ed course.  Developing the Physics laboratories was a huge effort in which we were aided by a large consignment of excellent science teaching equipment and materials of Russian origin received through the Unesco.
The American Connection

Around the same time, the NCERT and the RCEs became beneficiaries under the academic assistance programme of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) which provided the real stimulus for the RCEs embarking on the four-year integrated programmes, much on the lines prevailing in American institutions.  The RCEs came to be associated with the Ohio State University College of Education which organized advanced training for some of their academic staff in the USA.  I was to be a beneficiary of this in 1966-67.  But, before that came the summer institutes in several science subjects for college teachers in the country, organized with active support from the USAID through a number of American universities and institutions.  RCE Mysore was selected to host a six-week summer programme each in Physics and Chemistry for in-service teachers from colleges of education in the southern region, as was the University of Mysore for teachers from degree colleges. This was a rare distinction for an institution so new, young and inexperienced.  We had to prove ourselves worthy of the trust.  We needed to put in some very hard work.

New Science and Mathematics Curricula in USA

Stung by the shock treatment meted out by the Russians in the space race, the American administration challenged the education system in the country to come up with grass roots level reforms in Science and Mathematics curricula, particularly at the school level, to regain its dominance.  A number of new curricular programmes were hurriedly developed and implemented all over the country.  Hosted by the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) came up with a radically new and innovative curriculum in Physics that came to be known as PSSC Physics.  It was designed to promote a sound understanding of the basic concepts of Physics through new text material supported by investigative laboratory activities centered on simple and inexpensive equipment, a very comprehensive teachers' guide, student manuals, a set of standardized achievement tests, supplementary reading materials and a large number of 16 mm films related to the curriculum content.  Similar curriculum projects were developed in Chemistry and Mathematics as well.  Some of the best known scientists and science educators in the country were associated with these projects, including a number of Nobel laureates in both Physics and Chemistry.  These projects erred on the side of over ambition and could not be sustained for long in the American system.  However, they were the forerunners of more pragmatic versions to come.  The PSSC made way later for a less demanding, more liberal and broad based Harvard Physics Project (HPP). 
The Indian Context

In those days India had come under the umbrella of the USA in many spheres, including secondary and tertiary education.  The Indian education system welcomed American initiatives in introducing the new science and mathematics curricular programmes for tryout in many institutions in the country, including the RCEs, through specially tailored summer training programmes for teachers and teacher educators.  All the curricular materials had been shipped to us in multiple sets sufficiently in advance.  We therefore had adequate time to study and familiarize ourselves with them.  For me and many others like me, it was a highly enriching experience doing this and thereby learning some really meaningful Physics for the first time in our lives.

For teaching Physics at collegiate level, USAID sources had identified a number of resources including laboratory equipment for advanced level experiments, some of which had been designed and prototyped in institutions like Caltech and MIT.  Apparently because of the four-year integrated science and technology programmes, the RCEs also received complete sets of these equipment and materials apart from selected institutions like the University of Mysore.  Though these were not intended for use specifically at the 1965 summer institutes, they were to be used extensively in the undergraduate and later postgraduate pre-service courses at RIEM.
USAID also realized the need for competent and experienced human resources for a successful conduct of the summer institutes.  To ensure this, a senior professor from reputed American educational institutions was attached to each of the summer programmes in India as an academic consultant and adviser.  At RCEM we had the services of Professor Steve Cram (seen in the photo) of Kansas University who had a rich experience of the formative processes involved in the development of the PSSC Physics curriculum.  A very kind and fatherly figure, he was a major source of inspiration for my own activities in the summer institute.  We also had the part time services of Prof Lane Branson, a physicist-cum-electronics engineer to help us with the laboratory equipment and materials.  He liked Mysore city and the college so much that he returned to RCEM for a long-term association with our USAID supported Physics Resource Materials project in the late sixties.

Some dramatis personae in the photo

The group photo was taken presumably at the time of the joint inauguration at the RCEM campus of the four summer institute programmes, two each by the University of Mysore and RCEM, by Dr K L Shrimali, the then Vice-chancellor of the university to which RCEM was and still is affiliated.  Dr Shrimali was an eminent educationist of the country, a former minister for education in the central cabinet under Jawaharlal Nehru, a Padma Vibhushana awardee later in life and a worthy successor to the legendary Sardar K M Panikkar as the university's vice-chancellor.  He was a great friend of the college and evidenced special interest in its development.

Dr Chaurasia was the founder-principal of the college and the architect of its sprawling 130- acre campus which is one of the most picturesque sights today in the city.  Dr Devadasan was the vice-principal of the college and nominated as the joint director of the two summer institutes held in its campus.  As he had no science background he looked after only the administrative aspects.  He was assisted by Mr N Ganesan, the Administrative Officer of the college. Dr Rajamadhav Rao and I represented Physics while Mr S R Rao and Mr B N Singh looked after Chemistry.  Dr Koelsche was attached to the Chemistry institute as the visiting consultant.

Apart from Dr Shrimali, the most important person seen in the photograph is Prof S Chandrasekhar, the then HoD of the University Physics department and a nephew of the great Indian physicist and Noble Laureate, Prof C V Raman.  He should not be mistaken with his namesake the Indian-born astrophysicist Prof S Chandrasekhar, of the University of Chicago, but the two Chandrasekhars happened to be cousins. The astrophysicist Chandrasekhar was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983 for his stellar work on stellar evolution done half a century earlier [see my blog post titled, "Chandrasekhar, Fermi-Dirac and White Dwarfs (Aug 11)"].  The Chandrasekhar seen in the photograph went on to become an outstanding Liquid Crystals physicist at the famous Raman Research Institute (RRI) in Bangalore, founded by his great uncle.  His achievements merited the fellowship of the Royal Society of England, an honor often regarded as only one rung below that of the Nobel Prize.  I had the great good fortune of working for my doctorate degree in Physics under him during 1977-81 as a UGC Fellow at RRI.  I had assisted him in several ways while he was at Mysore and he rewarded me for this by sponsoring me for a UGC fellowship when the scheme was first introduced in 1977.  Under this scheme I was attached to RRI on study leave even while remaining in the college service on full pay and other benefits.  The four year span I spent in the Liquid Crystals Labs of RRI was some of the most memorable in my life since it exposed me to frontline research in the field as well as bringing me in touch with some of the very eminent physicists of the day. A particularly memorable event of this period was an international seminar on Raman Spectroscopy organized in Bangalore by RRI to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of the famous Raman Effect in 1928. I was one of the active volunteers in its organizing committee.

Another person seen in the photograph that I remember very fondly is Prof K N Srinivasa Rao, an outstanding Mathematical Physicist who was earlier my teacher at the Central College, Bangalore during 1956-59.  With a wry sense of humor and wit, he was an exceptionally gifted and inspiring teacher who came to his classes with just a few pieces of chalk and could work out even the most complex derivations and problems of mathematical physics in a spontaneous and beautifully organized handwriting on the black boards, without reference to any written notes or books.  Curiously, he had only four fingers in his writing hand and I had seen him play some decent tennis as well using it.  The tennis I myself learnt and played later was a closer imitation of his prowess in the game than I was ever able to manage in measuring up to the mastery of Physics he displayed!

Finally, let me shift the glare of attention in the photo to myself.  People who have known me over the last two or three decades may find it impossible to believe that the funny looking skinny little figure in the ill fitting coat and very ill at ease as well, with part of the lower left side of the anatomy appearing to be missing, is really me as I was the year after I had joined the college!  Perhaps the saving grace in the photo is that I was obviously the youngest of the lot!  When I first saw the photo in the Facebook, I too couldn't believe the sight, but then I found to my chagrin an old photo of mine at home from the same period mocking at me in the face, dispelling any doubts whatever.  So, I have to own up to my identity.  Fortunately, the face doesn't betray my hard work and exertions during those days when day and night as well as home and work-place had merged into a continuum to make the enterprise a success.

A look back

Enough planning and organizational effort had gone in to make the Summer Institutes of 1965 a success and a landmark in the history of the institution.  The traditional lectures made way for interactive discussion sessions with liberal use of teaching aids, supported strongly by laboratory exercises built around the PSSC equipment and materials. The films also played a very useful role.  Some sessions were devoted exclusively to the role of teacher educators in promoting science education.  I was as much a participant in the programme as a resource person and, in purely academic terms, ended up receiving much more than I could give; such was the impact of the new PSSC curriculum materials at our disposal. The participant enthusiasm and feedback were both encouraging.  The institute laid the foundation for more such efforts in the future, on a regular annual basis, for well over a decade from then on.  They added significantly to RIEM's reputation and status as a premier institution for teacher education in the country, something that is sadly on the decline in the recent past.  RIEMAA should contemplate how it can contribute to arresting this trend and even reversing it if possible.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Nature's Bounty in God's own Country, Wayanad – Personal Photo Album Part 12


In my last travelogue on the sights of Kumarakom in Kerala I had made a passing reference to my recent visit to Wayanad, the hilly and scenic district in the northern part of Kerala, indicating my intention to blog about it someday.  I feel I should do so forthwith while the visit is still fresh in my memory.
It was early one morning a little over a month ago when my daughter in Bangalore rang me up to announce that she and her family were embarking on a three day visit to some scenic places in Wayanad and invited her mother and me to join them on their way through Mysore.  My immediate reaction was to decline the invitation on the rather unconvincing plea that I had no special interest in Wayanad that justified spending two nights away from home.  When I mentioned this to my young confidant Chiranjeevi later that day, he flew into a paroxysm of disbelief that I of all people should be thinking so.  He narrated his own experience of Wayanad, particularly the famed Edakkal Caves, and prevailed upon me to reconsider my decision.  I sheepishly conveyed this to my daughter who had just about started doubting the adventurous spirit that I had demonstrated on numerous occasions in the past, particularly during my visit all by myself to China two years ago.  My momentarily tarnished image was swiftly restored and our team of six, spanning three generations and nearly seven decades, was happily on its way two days later, with the prospect of great weather beckoning us everywhere.  As it turned out, it was a delightful and memorable experience for all of us.

The Journey

We started our journey on the Mysore-Calicut road rather late in the morning and, on the way, made a detour to visit the Gopalaswamy Temple and surroundings on a hill inside Karnataka.  It is a very quiet and peaceful place dominated by the temple and often known to be enveloped by low lying clouds and mist early in the morning; but we had reached there well past the time to experience any of it.  Yet, the place held out a peculiar charm and was well worth the detour.  Here is a picture of the temple seen behind a fascinating tree which held centre stage for me.  Discerning readers may have noticed this type of tree appearing in several of my earlier photo albums as well.
[As in my previous albums, all pictures are in high resolution and can be blown up to their full size by clicking on a picture and opening it in a separate window] 

As we drove through the fairly long stretch of Bandipur forest between Karnataka and Kerala (my son-in-law doing all the driving all the time), the two children were eagerly looking forward to spotting any wild life they had been taught to expect, but were very disappointed to see only the all too familiar monkeys on the way. This was the case on our return journey too.  How sad they had to be content with the wild life they had seen only outside their natural habitat, mostly in the Mysore Zoo!

Sultan Bathery

It was lunch time when we reached our destination, Sultan Bathery, the most prominent town in the district, where we checked into Hotel Mint Flower, a spacious and comfortable hotel right on the main road.  It was to act as the base for our visits to different places during the next two days.  The name Sultan Bathery is a localized version of the older English name, Sultan Battery, named after Tippu Sultan, the famous former ruler of Mysore who had used the abandoned local Jain Temple to house his armory.

We had a quick lunch and set out on our first visit, to Pookot Lake, about 50 km away, most of the distance on the highway leading to Calicut.

Pookot Lake

The Pookot Lake is a fairly large water body, surrounded by rich greenery adding to the scenic beauty.  Boating is very popular, with boats of a variety of types available for hire.  We hired a row boat large enough for the six of us and spent most of the evening on the lake, enjoying the soothing experience on the calm waters.  We also visited a rather poorly maintained small aquarium within the lake complex, with the fish definitely more interesting than their neighborhood which was indeed an insult to the natural beauty of the lake and its surroundings.  There was also a small park for the children to play before dusk set in and we had to leave the place.

Here are two pictures of the lake and its surroundings.  The first is a panoramic view of most of the lake, with the boarding area for the boats in the foreground. In the second picture I rather unintentionally captured a more serious fellow photographer at work on one of the banks of the lake.

Early next morning, anticipating a very long day with visits to as many places as possible in unfamiliar and difficult terrain, we decided to leave our car parked at the hotel and hired a wide bodied jeep with the driver doubling up as our guide as well.  My son-in-law got full reprieve for the day from his arduous driving duties. After a sumptuous breakfast, we started with visits to two nearby places, both very close to the town.

Jain Temple

Our first visit was to the remains of the once famous Jain Temple that Tippu Sultan is said to have used to house his armory. Located close to a main road down a short sloped approach, lined on both sides with beautiful flower beds and lush greenery, the stone edifice stood out in a sunken quadrangle. It was in obvious disuse, but otherwise well maintained by the archaeology department of the government of India. The bare and drab stone structure was in sharp contrast to the strikingly rich greenery surrounding it on all sides.  Here is a picture taken from inside the structure and overlooking the entrance, with the identities of the three people caught unawares quite easy to guess.

On our way back, I couldn't help being attracted to the flower beds as strongly as the two children.  Some of the flowers were in full fresh bloom and I took a number of pictures of these magnificent gifts of nature to humankind in their natural habitat.  I am presenting one of them here as a strikingly appropriate symbol of peace and tranquility, in stark contrast to the symbol of conflict and intolerance that the place itself once appears to have been.

Heritage Museum

Our next visit was to the Wayanad Heritage Museum located very close to the town.  This small museum is appropriately housed in an ancient building, surrounded by rich greenery and a children's park.  It was only natural to expect the two children to rush into the park and start playing on the swings so thoughtfully provided, leaving the museum for the elders to explore.  However, after some time they were persuaded to join us and look at the varied exhibits, mostly of stone implements, hand tools, sculptures, terra cotta objects and other artifacts belonging to the tribes that had populated the district many centuries ago.

Here are two pictures of the heritage museum building and the park:

Tea Gardens

Our next destination was the Kanthanpara waterfalls on the way to which we passed through some of the most beautiful tea gardens in the state.  We got down at one particularly attractive place, walked up a large sloped tea plantation, soaked in the serene atmosphere and spent a good bit of time wandering around aimlessly.  Here are two pictures of this lovely place:


The Kanthapara waterfalls are not as well known as two others (Meenmutty and Soochippara) in the district which we had to miss for want of time.  More difficult to reach and for this reason less frequented, the place and the winding road leading up to it are surrounded by some of the most spectacular and picturesque greenery in God's own country, including the tea plantations pictured above.  When we reached the falls, under the protection of the state forest department, there were no other visitors and the place was all ours to explore, guided thoughtfully by a departmental official in uniform.
The following picture shows the rather shallow first stage of the three-stage falls seen at the end of the lead up road.  Incidentally, it also captures the whole of my daughter's family.

When we first saw this we were rather disappointed by the very short depth of the water fall though the surrounding sight was very impressive.  But our guide quickly assured us there were two more, progressively deeper, stages to follow and led us downhill to the first of them. It is captured in the following picture from such a close vantage point that he became rather nervous and breathed a sigh of relief when I moved away after I had clicked my pictures.

We had to gingerly walk further downhill and a fair distance as well before we came face to face with the last and the deepest stage of the falls shown in the following picture.

The sight was quite breathtaking, particularly because of the large volume of water flowing down from a height of about 25 meters.  Our guide explained that the large flow was because of the copious river water following a good monsoon season that had just ended.  After a decent time spent immersed in the scene, we walked back to the starting point where the guide encouraged the children to take off their dress and give each other a wild bashing in the shallow and safe waters a short distance away.  Their unabashed merriment went on for so long that they had to be dragged out from the place with the promise that more was in store for them later in the afternoon.

Before our next visit we made a detour to nearby Kalpeta, another large town in the district, and had a barely tolerable lunch in a vegetarian hotel which our driver had rated as the best in the town.

Banasura  Reservoir

Not far from Kalpeta is the Banasusra Sagar, a large reservoir formed by the largest earthen dam in India.  With enchanting scenery all around and located far from the madding crowd, it is an excellent picnic spot.    At the protected entrance to the site we had to buy a group ticket for a jeep to drive us through a devious path to the picnic spot.  The reservoir was nearly full, the sky gloriously blue, the weather quite windy and the waters far from calm. They all seemed to add to the beauty of the place.
Speed boating on the lake is a major attraction.  But with only two boats plying at that time there was a considerable wait for our turn; we were in no hurry whatsoever. The children were a bit apprehensive while boarding their boat but returned from the fifteen minute trip with an excitement and thrill only they are capable of experiencing.  After this they had a long stint in the nearby park while I went around exploring the place with my camera.  Here are two pictures from my collection, both showing the lake in all its splendor.

Banasura Island Retreat

While we were at the Banasura dam site, we came to know about a well isolated small island resort located near the other end of the lake and wanted to visit it on our way back.  Our driver had a hard time finding it and an even harder time driving up to it over a narrow gravel road that could have been designed as a test for both the vehicle and the driver. He was not too pleased with our request to change our original plan and visit this place which even he had not heard about. 

When we finally ended up at this resort it was worth all the trouble we had taken.  As advertized, it was indeed a place where one could experience a 'life of silence... stung with the beauty of nature' [See].   Commanding a wonderful view of the lake and the lush greenery all around, it is the ideal sort of place for anyone seeking to move far away from the madding crowd.

We were greeted by the manager of the resort who took us round and showed us all its features and facilities, including two luxury cottages directly facing the lake and providing a spectacular view as can be made out from the following two pictures:

The next picture taken from the top of the resort's main building shows a particularly enchanting sit out under a thatched roof in the foreground and a building housing the restaurant and recreation facilities in the background, both blending nicely with the surroundings.  We learnt that the resort was a very popular weekend retreat for harassed senior executives from the corporate sector.

It was getting dark by the time we had some refreshments and tea in the resort's restaurant.  So we decided to call it a day and asked our driver to take us back to our hotel in Sultan Bathery for an early dinner and a well deserved night's rest.  We were well aware that the hardest part of our trip was due next morning.

Edakkal Caves

We had an early breakfast, checked out of our hotel and headed for the famous Edakkal Caves nearby about which we had heard a great deal in advance.  Everybody had warned us that reaching the prehistoric caves at the top of a steep hill after a considerable walk from the parking lot would be a herculean task and had strongly advised the two septuagenarians among us to keep off and let the younger ones indulge in the adventure.  I had absolutely no intention of heeding such advice, especially in the light of my experience of climbing up the Great Wall of China near Beijing on a summer day in 2009 and the less strenuous Rock Fort in Trichy just last year, both after I had acquired my age tag. 

Edakkal consists of two caves, the larger one straddling on top of the much smaller one, both formed out of very large boulders just below a steep hilltop. To reach the lower cave one has to walk along a man-made pathway, sloping up rather steeply most of the way, a distance of about one and a half kilometers from the parking lot.  It is relatively easy to reach, but the way to the upper cave, which can be reached only through the lower one, is very steep, rough and rocky and would have been even dangerous had it not been for the erection of staircases with iron railings and wooden steps in strategic locations leading up to each of the caves.  They have been identified as a habitat of the prehistoric Neolithic people (of the late Stone Age dating back six to eight thousand years) on the basis of the hieroglyphic like carvings on the cave walls that have survived to this day. This was a historic discovery made by an English archaeologist around 1890.

It was hot and sunny when we started on foot from the car park, went past the entry gate where a system of traffic control was being enforced to ensure no abnormal build up of the crowd uphill or downhill and reached the foot of the first cave after giving ourselves frequent rests on the way.  The children didn't need any such rest and it was more like a walk in the park for them.

While climbing up through the first cave with quite a crowd around me, I irretrievably lost one of my slippers which slipped away between two of the wooden steps.  I had been utterly careless about proper footwear for at least this part of my trip and had to put up with considerable discomfort thereafter until I was back in the car.  It was not without difficulty that I managed to reach the top, climb down a flight of steps and step inside the upper cave, with a feeling of accomplishment not unlike the one I had experienced on the Great Wall of China.  Here is proof that I had indeed made it to the enthralling Edakkal Caves.

After the five of us had spent a long time resting and relaxing, looking at the strange wall carvings and taking plenty of pictures from all vantage points, it was time to retrace our journey.  Strangely, we were pretty much alone and not a soul could be seen on the staircase leading down to the lower cave which had been bristling and bursting with people barely half an hour earlier.  My next picture has captured this rather extraordinary sight.  The only explanation I could think of was that the upward traffic had been blocked at the entry point for some unknown reason.  We didn't investigate this any further, but the picture of the entry gate I clicked on my return journey and presented below lends some support to my assumption.


After the excitement of the Edakkal Caves, we bade goodbye to Wayanad which we could not explore fully and hope to revisit someday to fill in the gaps. On reaching Mysore late that evening, I called up Chiranjeevi to thank him for his persistence with me and told him about my Edakkal experience in particular.  After quizzing me he said that we had not in fact seen all of it.  He distinctly remembered having been able to climb up the hill behind and above the upper cave.  Then I remembered reading a signboard at the top to the effect that entry beyond that point was forbidden; there were also two guards to enforce this diktat.  I have asked myself if I would have ventured further and higher if there had been no such restriction.  In all fairness I should say the answer is an emphatic yes.