A space to flow through

Arun Elassery

Our house in Kerala is constructed by Nirmithi Kendra, the organization that Laurie Baker founded to propagate his ideas about low-cost buildings. So I know his characteristic style of building – exposed brick walls, brick arches instead of concrete lintels, brick jali work to let in light and air, Mangalore tiles set inside roofs to reduce the usage of concrete and steel. And I am a big fan of both the utility and the simple beauty of these structures. I was nevertheless enchanted by my walk through the Pallikoodam school buildings in Kottayam. The story goes that Laurie Baker designed the school buildings on condition that his daughter Heidi Baker could study there. If we have to have structures to house schools, then this is exactly how they should be – understated elegance and beauty, different levels probably following the contours of the land, unexpected maze-like spaces, not a single wall appeared to be following a straight line. Alice-in-wonderland-like I was never quite sure if I could find my way back to the last space I came walking from.

I had an epiphany about the impact of the school building on nurturing creativity in children – how can you train your children to think out of the box if all your spaces are boxes? Ever since my visit to Pallikoodam, I have been looking critically at the buildings of every school I go to. I have seen older buildings, cheaper buildings, better decorated-by-children buildings, even a bus-shell building, but nothing quite comes close to the statement that Pallikoodam makes. That it is possible to work with nature, that the lush green outside and the simple inner spaces could merge effortlessly, that humility and simplicity are great virtues, that the school infrastructure could be a constant reminder of the beauty that human beings are capable of creating out of commonly available materials.

Pallikoodam was started in 1967 by Mary Roy, who is famous in her own right in Kerala for fighting for property rights for Christian women, and doesn’t need to bask in the reflected glory of being Arundhati Roy’s mother. The school started in a hall with seven students and later moved to the current location as it grew. And in the experimentation with education that they have been doing, in the almost 50 years that the school has existed, they have figured out a great many things that work for them. Like not having fixed textbooks, or their focus on making the extra-curricular an integral part of the curriculum, or getting their boys and girls to become comfortable in each other’s company in the rigid, patriarchal, small-town mentality of Kerala.

Dr Anuradha Rammohan, the teacher who showed me around the school, was warm, intelligent, articulate, enthusiastic, and curious – qualities that perhaps distinguish all good teachers. What I noticed was happy, busy children everywhere. The few children who spoke to her as we walked around did so on terms of easy familiarity as if to a favourite relative rather than to a ‘teacher’. And in Pallikoodam the children refer to their teachers as ‘chechi’ – elder sister or ‘kochamma’ – aunty. The children are introduced to English only in class three and ‘namaskaaram’ is the common form of greeting. Being the father of three children who speak to me in Malayalam but invariably speak to each other in English makes me see how valuable an early training in appreciating our mother tongue can be.

Pallikoodam stands as a shining example of the slow, steady transformation that a few wise teachers can bring about in children’s education. If you get a chance, do walk through its warm spaces and experience it for yourselves.

Quick facts

Been around for: 50 years
Number of teachers/staff: 46
Number of children: 470
Classes handled: Nursery, Standard 1 to 12
USP: Pallikoodam is Malayalam medium in the lower classes. (Nursery, Std I and II)
Location: Kottayam, Kerala
Website: http://pallikoodam.org/

The author got his degree from IIT Kharagpur in 1988 and is currently a Wipro Education Fellow. He can be reached at arunelassery@hotmail.com.