I like Pondicherry, especially the area around what they call the French Quarter: the two square kilometers of parallel roads and quaint, old, gray buildings on the seafront that house the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and its attendant organizations. On my last visit, I walked on every possible combination of the parallel roads, discovered the best places to eat, communed with the sea in its many sequin-glittering and dark forms, slept to the lullaby of the waves crashing on the rocks and visited the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education or SAICE.
You see, they don’t call it a school because it is very difficult to slot it into what we think of as a school. Consider these:
- They take in children when they are three years old and keep them till they are 21 but award no degrees or diplomas
- Their buildings and playgrounds are spread out all over, with, for example, the tennis courts 1.5 kms from the football grounds
- The 400 students have access to 350 teachers and so can chart their own individual, distinct, learning paths
Siddhartha Majumdar, a senior administrator I met, told me a story about why it is impossible to replicate this school. The teachers are mostly people who studied in the school and later joined the Ashram. Since there is no retirement from the Ashram, it is possible to have seven generations teaching at any one time. The current Principal who is 82 years old has taught Mr Majumdar. Some of the Principal’s students have also taught Mr Majumdar. And Mr Majumdar’s students are now teachers and some of their students are also teaching. And so on… confusing? Yes, but inspiring too!
Gayathri di, also an administrator, and her five siblings are all products of SAICE. When they finish, the students are given a choice to take the monastic vows and Gayathri di, unlike her siblings, chose to stay back. All your needs are taken care of when you become an Ashramite but what you forsake is a family life. Gayathri di’s brother and sister are, however, keeping the tradition alive by sending their children here. Talking to her I got an impression of a complex interplay of relationships between students, parents and teachers, with the same person playing multiple roles, like in an ideal joint family.
If you have by now got the impression that this is a school that prepares only Ashramites, it is instructive to hear the story of Divya, who was my contact into the somewhat xenophobic inner world of SAICE. After school, Divya studied at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Delhi, worked as a designer in France and Italy before coming back and starting her own textile accessories unit and outlet in Pondicherry. She speaks Italian, French, English, Bengali, Tamil and is confident about her Sanskrit. Today Divya’s two children study here and she is happy about all the contacts that she has through her special education.
Sri Aurobindo wrote – The new aim of education is to help the child to develop his intellectual, aesthetic, emotional, moral, spiritual being and his communal life and impulses out of his own temperament and being.
And this aim is what SAICE has been fulfilling in its meticulous, competent, unique way for three quarters of a century now. SAICE and its large extended family of alumni, teachers, parents – Pranaam!
Name of school: Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education (SAICE)
Been around for: 71 years
Number of teachers/staff: 350
Number of children: 400
Classes handled: Preschool to Graduation level
Approximate fees per child: 150 day scholars pay no fees but the 200 children staying in the hostels pay Rs 750 per month towards board and lodging
USP: Situated in the picturesque French quarter of Puducherry/Pondicherry this school takes children on a certificateless, examless, holistic educational journey from kindergarten to college
Location: Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry)
The author got his degree from IIT Kharagpur in 1988. This article has been written under a Wipro education fellowship. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.