A vibrant, visible philosophy of learning

Arun Elassery

KNB-1 It wasn’t a smart move to catch a transport bus from Pune and do the three-hour journey, through a hilly terrain and green fields, to Phaltan without getting in touch with someone at Kamala Nimbkar Balbhavan (KNB) and telling them I was coming over. The bus was going ahead and I dozed uneasily, afraid of missing what I thought would be a small wayside bus stop. Phaltan, formerly the capital of a princely state, however, turned out to be a large, difficult- to-miss place. It was 12:30 p.m. and the bus stand, full of children in school uniforms, made it seem like all schools had closed for the day, but when I made my way to the school three kms away through the crowded small-town streets in an auto, I was relieved to see that KNB was vibrantly open.

I passed through a playground full of busily playing children and waited 10 minutes as Dr. Manjiri Nimbkar, the head of the school, finished a meeting and then I walked into the most non-threatening principal’s room that I have ever been to. Dr. Nimbkar, wise-gentle-eyed, easy-smiling, sat behind a table in a warm, informal, book-filled room where the visitors side of the table had a low bed. The high sloping ceiling had temporary looking wooden beams but the overall feel was of a nice, cool, comfortable space. Dr. Nimbkar is Maharshi Karve’s great granddaughter and Irawate Karve’s granddaughter and carries her lineage lightly and gracefully. This is the story she told me:

KNB-2 Maxine Berntsen, an American scholar who came to Phaltan in 1966 to research dialects of Marathi and stayed on and took Indian citizenship, got interested in school education and started ‘Pragat Shikshan Sanstha’ in 1978 to give literacy classes for out-of-school children in an underprivileged area of Phaltan. Over time, the organization ran two balwadis and ‘apli shaala’, a centre that provided supplementary education to school going children. Dr. Berntsen, who speaks fluent Marathi and used to travel around Phaltan on a bicycle and later in a private auto that she drove herself, was resisting the calls from within her community to start a school when things came to a head. Sameera, Dr. Manjiri Nimbkar’s daughter refused to go to school after one day in a kindergarten. On being asked, she agreed that a school run by Maxine-maushi may not be too bad. Kamala Nimbkar Balvidyalaya was started in 1987 with a solid philosophical grounding. (The following list is from their website)

  • The school should have a free and happy atmosphere.
  • The school should have children from all walks of life.
  • Class size should be limited.
  • School should be secular.
  • Innovative, child-centered activity-based methods should be used.
  • Awareness of the environment and related issues must be taught.
  • The school should become a resource center for other schools especially nearby government schools.
  • The medium of instruction should be Marathi.

Dr. Berntsen works as a faculty member at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Hyderabad now, so I didn’t meet her at the school, but I came away impressed by the work she has done and which Dr. Nimbkar carries forward with such joy and wisdom. Dr. Nimbkar told me she spends most of her time in the school talking to people who walk into her room at all times. What a wonderful job description (and executed with a smile), I thought, and how refreshingly different from the picture of a school leader that we usually carry in our heads.

Quick facts

Been around for: 28 years
Number of teachers/staff: 35
Number of children: 450
Classes handled: 1 to 10
Approximate fees per child: Rs 10,000/year (but around 20% children pay no fees)
Uniqueness: Marathi medium school that tries to deliberately choose children from all social strata to get a representative section of its local community. Also, KNB is working with around 150 Zilla Parishad schools to improve their teaching-learning processes.
Location: Phaltan, Maharasthra. 110 km south-east of Pune.
Website: http://www.pragatshikshansanstha.org/kamlanimbkar.php
(‘A chance to dream’, a movie about the school is available on YouTube)

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.