Nai Talim: searching the past to find alternatives in the present

Krunal Desai and Varadarajan Narayanan

The Indian subcontinent has been home to several experiments in school education in the last 200 years. Unfortunately, most of these experiments have vanished without a trace, leaving behind scant details, even for a historian eager to reconstruct them in some measure.

Of these, perhaps, there is none comparable to Nai Talim when we consider the radicalness and comprehensiveness of vision and scope, and how quickly it gained a pan-Indian presence and stayed so for at least 30 years. This experiment has its roots in Mahatma Gandhi’s fledgling efforts at educating his own children and those of other Satyagrahis at the Tolstoy Farm in South Africa. Gandhi himself maintained meticulous notes about these efforts. This phase in his life was followed by one of less direct involvement in teaching and more of writing extensively on matters concerning education of young children. The discussion on colonial education and its inadequacies in Hind Swaraj (1909) is one such. In the 1930s, he resumed writing on education, expanding his ideas for a new scheme he thought would serve the needs of the hour, in Harijan. Then there is the voluminous correspondence between him and teachers, educationists at large and others that touch upon crucial educational aspects. These have been well-preserved, edited and published, almost without exception, by his editors.

The Hindustani Talimi Sangh (HTS now known as Nai Talim Samiti), formed to guide and implement Nai Talim on a national scale, was also energetic in publishing a wide variety of material. These included syllabus documents, reports of conferences on Nai Talim, manuals for teachers, and monographs interpreting and developing the scheme further. These are available in several of the major libraries in the country and digitized versions are available on the website of Nai Talim Samiti.

Even though a large body of works on different aspects of Nai Talim is available to us, we believe that the archive of this scheme is sorely incomplete. This incompleteness is significantly owed to the very nature of the scheme that it was envisaged to be. In the rest of this article we attempt to describe what is still missing, the significance of what’s unavailable to us at the moment, and why we need to keep searching.

Let us begin with the succession of events that led to the articulation of Nai Talim as the scheme for Basic National Education. In 1937, elected members had formed governments in several provinces. Two areas of governance that fell entirely into the hands of the provincial assemblies were health and education. From Gandhi’s point of view, this was an opportunity to determine the course of education in these provinces. However, the question remained: how his ideas for a new educational scheme should be developed further into a comprehensive program.

The same year, the silver jubilee celebrations of the Marwari Educational Society in Wardha, on Gandhiji’s suggestion, was turned into an occasion to convene an educational conference that was duly announced and select educationists from different institutions in the country were invited to attend. This announcement for the conference in Harijan consisted of a request to educationists to send in their suggestions in response to a set of questions. It was at this conference that the famous resolutions of a Basic National Education were passed, eventually leading to the development of the elaboration of the principles and practices of Nai Talim, along with a detailed syllabus for primary education, published as Basic National Education: Report of the Zakir Hussain Committee.

Dr Zakir Hussain’s letter to Mahatma Gandhi, with which the report begins, mentions the voluminous correspondence the committee received in response to the announcement in Harijan. However, we have no clue where this correspondence is currently housed.

Why should the disappearance of these letters be a concern? There are at least two reasons worth noting. One, though we do not know who sent in their suggestions, it is not difficult to guess what the contents of these letters could have been. Since the last decade of the 19th century and more pronouncedly since the first decade of the 20th, intellectuals, educationists and political leaders with varying opinions started envisaging what a national education system should be like and wrote copiously outlining their respective visions. Many of these writings contained detailed comparative studies of educational systems that had evolved across the world which were then sought to be contextualized for India. It is quite likely that the suggestions received would have contained these different visions. Two, without access to these letters we are unlikely to understand how the committee members responded to these suggestions; also whether the committee sought to incorporate elements from these suggestions.

Within a couple of years of the Educational Conference in Wardha, basic schools were established in several provinces, along with training institutions for teachers who would work in these schools. A few years later, Nai Talim, originally conceived only as a programme for seven years, became a comprehensive scheme with five distinct segments: pre-basic, basic, post-basic, higher education and adult education. Teacher training programmes were also developed separately for two of these segments. HTS published detailed syllabus documents (with periodic revisions) for each of these, which are available in many libraries.

However, there are a few important reasons why these documents can be said to provide only a partial picture of what the Nai Talim experiment was all about. First, though these syllabi are as detailed as any that are developed today, HTS insisted that they ought to be considered only as broad guidelines. They reasoned that communities in different parts of India may have distinct needs of their own and these should find a place among what is taught in schools. Second, craft is an important component in the Nai Talim syllabus. Yet, it is not just one among several subjects to be taught to students, but the medium through which other subjects should be taught. HTS called this correlated teaching. Three conditions were laid out for choosing the craft: that it should be relevant to the context of the child and the community; that it be ‘educationally rich’ to facilitate the teaching of different subjects; and that the craft chosen must offer natural points of correlation for contents in the syllabi.

This implies that details of the syllabi had to be worked out at each of the schools to meet the conditions mentioned above. Naturally, variations would have been considerable even within provinces and the languages in which these syllabi would have been written for different areas, numerous. Further if one considers the detailed lesson plans developed for correlated teaching using different crafts, the variance and variety in curricular documents become unimaginable. This richness would only increase if one also thinks of the different segments mentioned above and the associated teacher training programmes. What we have across most libraries and Gandhian institutions are only the centrally developed syllabi documents of HTS, with almost nothing of the regional variations. One may question the insistence on correlated teaching for all subjects across the segments. Clearly, this issue needs a separate discussion. What is important to note for now is that correlated teaching remained central to the vision of Nai Talim; how well this was executed and how challenges were overcome can be evaluated only after one studies the documentation that would have been produced.

The discussion so far refers only to three sets of documents that are integral to understanding the practice of Nai Talim but are currently unavailable to us. One can add several more to this list. Such a list would have to include documents about the role of teachers in Nai Talim schools in rural reconstruction, relationship between teacher training institutions in different provinces and the respective government departments of education, records of experiments that sought to integrate elements of Nai Talim with other schemes, including mainstream ones. These documents, if found, would allow for a more expansive and nuanced understanding of this experiment.

In October 2019, we found a substantial amount of material, many of which are handwritten documents and notebooks, in one of the ante-rooms of the Anand Niketan School at Sevagram. This fascinating set includes notebooks of students who were enrolled in the teacher training programmes, memoirs of teachers from different provinces who were on extended visits to the school, excursion reports of students, notes on experiments on soil and the geology of Wardha carried out by students, a few lesson plans, correspondence between HTS and government departments of education, to name a few. These had not been consulted for decades, and as one would expect, some of these notebooks and files are in rather poor state and beyond repair. While we are at work classifying them and hope to digitize them sometime, we couldn’t but notice something odd about this collection. All of these letters, notebooks, reports, lesson plans are from the period 1952 to 1970. This implies that we have very little of such documents available from what was perhaps the most active period of this experiment, 1938 to the early 1950s. Also, remember, we are talking about what is available at Sewagram, a place that has served as the headquarters of HTS since it was established in 1938. We have been writing to a host of institutions to find if such documents and more related to different aspects of Nai Talim are available. Luck has not favoured us so far, but we remain hopeful of a miracle sometime soon.

While this article has been about the fate of documents related to Nai Talim, it should not be taken to mean that we are concerned about recovering materials related only to this experiment. Many such experiments would require detailed records for us to understand what they were about and how they sought to educate children and even adults.

This need to create archives on historical experiments in education is not to serve the interests of historians alone. It is the practitioner working today in specific educational contexts who is likely to benefit most from such collections, for what these would offer her would be a large repertoire of practices, avenues for her to imagine alternatives and set her on a variety of paths for exploration. At a time when the call for standardization in educational practice is becoming increasingly louder and systemic features seek to engulf and erase contextual innovations, a practitioner might find much relief in the different possibilities explored in the past and chart a path of her own.

Krunal Desai supports Nai Talim Samiti’s efforts to collect and digitize documents related to Nai Talim. He welcomes information about such materials that may be available with different institutions. He can be reached at
Varadarajan Narayanan teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. He can be reached at

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