The Toshali Sands of time

Devika Nadig

The journey of a thousand miles began with the launch of Shikshangan in 2008 and continued much beyond this distance by covering the length, breadth and depth of our country. In the course of these journeys and the many interactions they brought, Vijay and I learned from individuals, communities and multiple stakeholders in the education landscape. I reckoned it would make sense to share these experiences with a wider audience, with the aim of documentation and a hope that these will both entertain and educate. Each tour was unique and I hope my storytelling skills will amuse and not lose – readers.

Some of our travels took us to ancient temple towns, creating the opportunity for encounters that made me confront my own ambiguous relationship with religion, but in the process, led me to interesting discoveries – about myself and my teaching practice.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lie our growth and our freedomVictor Frankl

Ninth Stop – Chilka Lake – Jagannath Puri – Odisha – 2018
A decade old bond with Harish Chaudhry, Professor, Department of Management Studies at IIT Delhi led to myriad explorations in education through the school excellence conferences hosted by Edu Excellence – largely in the IIT Delhi campus and sparingly in exotic locations around the country. Serious coaching sessions during the day were laced with bonhomie over good food and beverages at dusk fall, usually bracing the December chill of the capital. We became a close knit group in the think tank of the conferences, partners worthy of mention being Madhav Rao of Hyderabad and what never failed to warm the atmosphere was the sparkling wit and humour of Harish …Prof Chaudhry.

One such sojourn of this admirably experienced, erudite, yet “wear- it-lightly” group was to Puri and Vijay and I were excited to step foot into Orissa, a state heretofore evasive to us for work. The conference was to be held at Toshali Sands, a beach resort that had been all but washed away in the floods that had engulfed the Orissa coast in 2018. A sweet welcome with beach garlands and fresh coconut water and we went right into the schedule of deliberations. Day one, and the participants were kept enthralled by Prof Harish Chaudhry who can have you holding your sides together to save them from splitting with his effervescent yet wry humour. That set the tone of learning peppered with mirth and broke all ice between us on the beach, much of it finding its way to the tinkling glasses under the twinkling skies.

Day two had Shikshangan on the schedule and when we had asked Harish earlier what was expected from us, he said most disarmingly – how does it matter? Whatever the conference theme you will end up saying the same thing you always do! With that being settled, we still chose a theme of presenting a framework for building high performing schools. This research is aimed at school leaders and the gathering at Toshali Sands had the right audience for it. Based on years of meta research from the western world and laced with our own experiences with schools across the country, Shikshangan has put together an interesting module that can help struggling schools become effective schools, good schools become better, with the journey all around being good to great. The module has been presented at varied forums but the response we received at Puri was special as is bound to happen in residential learning immersions. Friendships forged over the evenings with school leaders took Shikshangan to almost all the schools that were present at the conference over the next few years.

If you are in Puri, how can you not have your itinerary littered with natural, religious and historic marvels to soak in? We were spoilt for choice and fell into natural leaning groups, each going their own way. I decided to go (head bowed in reverence) to the famous deity of Jagannath at Puri first. Lord Jagannath is believed to be the symbol of universal peace. Every year, the hugely popular ritual of rath yatra concludes at the premises, during which thousands of devotees throng the temple.

The solemnness of this urban pilgrimage was augmented by all visitors walking in silence for at least two kilometers on well-cured cement roads which had manicured lawns flanking their shoulders. The temple itself is the most impressive structure in Orissa with the structure being curvilinear and crowning the top is the ‘Neelachakra’ (an eight spoked wheel) of Lord Vishnu. Magnificence aside, when you step in and come face to face with the Lord, a sense of unfiltered love envelopes you. Most Indians would have seen the trio of Jagannath, Subhadra and Balabhadra – if not in religious spaces perhaps in Dastkari Bazaars and craft fairs? Keen to take a whiff of the trip back, I opted for a wooden hand-painted memorabilia featuring the trio, for it somehow seems non-threatening and does not have an aura of “worship me!” around it. This feeling in me is perhaps due to the exposure to the image on various crafts including sari pallus and so it just gets hung up innocuously somewhere in your home and seems to be happy looking at you and possibly looking out for you. The oil paint wears off quickly but the presence does not.

Speaking of saris, you cannot miss the gorgeous Bomkai silks of Orissa with their stylized floral and geometrical patterns. I was educated on the weave amply by Madhav Rao, who coaxed me into draping a few vibrant hues…only to pick one for his wife! When I turned around to see if I could catch Vijay – more precisely his wallet, he had made himself scarce.

The group assembled again for the second day’s excursion to Asia’s biggest inland salt-water lagoon, Chilika Lake, which extends across the three districts in Orissa, and is separated from the waters of the Bay of Bengal by a narrow neck of land. It flows into the Bay of Bengal and being the largest coastal lagoon in India and the largest brackish water lagoon in the world, it is now listed as a tentative UNESCO world heritage site.

The long stretch of hot sand was crossed languidly sipping the ubiquitous tepid coconut water, which was unable to take away the drowsy heat of the scorching summer and left us yearning to get our feet into cold waters. Once in, the attractive boats presented a new question of “Who wins the ferry with the resource persons?” sort of contest and in the interest of equity, our happy think tank was separated into various boats with all school leaders duly apportioned. It seemed an unending ride with lady luck frowning on us with not a bird in view on the hot afternoon, but the chirping of our participants with the usual stories and jokes about the conference sessions and some serious questions thrown in now and then, built an atmosphere of all-defenses-down ease. Chilika Lake is a major attraction during the winter when flocks of migratory birds fly in. Like us, if you miss the birds…don’t miss the sunset and sunrise here. Waters were worth the ride although it does not look as glamorous as the gigantic posters on all airports from Kolkata to Bhubaneshwar, spinning the lake tourism dream.

Tired from the afternoon jaunt we tucked ourselves back into the air-conditioned conference hall and went through failed attempts to keep the group engaged in educational discourse. Relentlessly we pushed a few willing leaders to engage with us as some dropped out, some dropped off and some others dropped in and out for chai – coffee – charcha. It took some effort to get a few people to submit most assignments and these very men and women complain of students not submitting assignments! Spirits were back by dusk and we sauntered to the quaint Artisans Village nearby. This was one conference which seemed like an Orissa vacation with coaching sessions thrown in, rather than the other way around, but who is complaining?

Raghurajpur is an Indian village with a twist. About 100 households are involved in one or the other form of handicrafts, many have been awarded national awards for their work, and a stroll through the lanes was an absolute delight. The Pattachitra paintings are a speciality here, aside from which there is a wide variety of items including palm leaf engravings, stone carvings, wood carvings, and wooden toys. I am certain all schools participating in the conference would now have the gorgeous Saraswati adorning their entrance as that was the painting being rolled into wrapping paper the most.

The last day on these immersive retreats shoots arrows of impending separation right from when you greet each other at breakfast. Unfailingly, each residential study retreat prompts the creation of a whatsapp group with fervent promises of staying in touch and emotional farewells. Bonds have been forged through post dinner strolls on the beaches or forests or hills, wherever your retreats are and you think you’ve finally found someone who understands your thoughts just the way you’d like them to. As a trainer you feel on top of the world because you have fans around you no less than that of a Bollywood star and you feel indestructible because it’s your intellect that has gained you adulation – wishfully with a longer shelf life than the outward masquerade.

The best things in life are worth waiting for, the last outing being to the marvelous Konark Sun Temple. Built in A.D.1250, it is a shining example of Orissa’s architectural heritage and one of the most magnificent structures of religious architecture in the world. A major draw for tourists from around the country, it is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site and is dedicated to the Sun God, Surya. Built to resemble a giant chariot, it is replete with exquisite stone carvings along its entire structure. I was awestruck with the lifetime of delicate attention the sculptors might have given to create this – as it was exuding details of life in stone, which helps us understand beauty. A laser light and sound show here is my top recommendation for anticipative tourists.

Winding up with emotional weight, we decided to invest in a large stone idol as our garden centerpiece back home. For once, Vijay and I agreed, but predictably there was no agreement on which idol…. If I was charmed by a curvaceous apsara, he felt the countenance was not pretty, and if he liked a standing Buddha, I felt the expression was not representative of the supreme consciousness! After scouring the bylanes and talking to a lot of artisans we had a joint and measured response to the entire stimulus around us. Found a beauty and it sits pretty as our much loved 5ft gorgeous Ganesha, ageing and weathering gracefully in my garden – a desire which is mine too.

The author has been engaged in the domain of school education for the past three decades. She is the co-founder of Shikshangan Education Initiatives, Pune, along with Vijay Gupta. The scope of their work includes teacher development by sharpening pedagogical skills and working with school leaders on their instructional and organizational leadership skills. She can be reached at [email protected].

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