Heat, humidity and virtuosity

 

An evening with some of India's finest musicians gives welcome respite from a busy schedule

An evening with some of India’s finest musicians gives welcome respite from a busy schedule

It felt like standing before an open over door. That is my recollection of first arrival in Chennai in the year 2000. Though we soon came to realise that it was probably the humidity more than the heat that quickly became oppressive. I have returned to the eastern coastal city several times since then, and still I find the sticky atmosphere to be at times uncomfortable. So with Bangalore in the grip of a heatwave, I had anticipated my brief visit to Chennai with mixed emotions. Excited by the opportunity to work with new colleagues and students, I was none the less, not looking forward to a climate that is challenging to those of us from northern climes.

In reality the day was well planned to avoid the worst of the oppressive heat and humidity. Picked up by the driver of an air conditioned car very early in the morning and deposited at the door of an equally comfortable airport, I boarded my flight for the short journey across the country. It was not until my arrival in the city that fronts the Bay of Bengal that I was in a position of having to confront the heat. A short walk across the airport car park confirmed what I had known all along and within a minute I was drenched in sweat.

Fortunately, much of the ensuing day was spent in doors in meetings with colleagues from Tamil Nadu Open University and the National Institute for Empowerment of Persons with Multiple Disabilities (NIEPMD), and later in the day teaching a group of undergraduate students. Apart from a brief period of planting a palm sapling in the coastal grounds of the NIEPMD, the day was largely spent under cover.

A feature of the day was the time spent with teachers and therapeutic professionals who were working with children with a range of complex needs and disabilities. Their enthusiasm and commitment to the children and their eagerness to discuss the work that they were doing, reinforced my long held belief that India has many consummate professionals dedicated to ensuring that children, often from the poorest communities, receive a good education. Sadly, there are still many young people here, and particularly those with disabilities, that continue to be denied access to such facilities. However, time spent with colleagues today was affirming in providing an opportunity to see their determination to change this situation.

Arriving towards midnight back in Bangalore, the air was still balmy, though nowhere near as steamy as that in the city left behind. Teaching here is always tiring because of the heat and noise that are an ever present feature, but even in a heatwave, the high thirtys of Bangalore are easier to manage than the furnace of Chennai.

After seven days of teaching and with only one remaining before we return to England, it was good last night to attend a concert which forms part of the 78th Ramanavami Music Festival that runs throughout April in Bangalore. Pravin Godkhindi who plays bansuri flute and Kumaresh Rajagopalan on violin are two of India’s most accomplished classical musicians, and were here accompanied by outstanding percussionists and a tanpura player. The virtuosity of the musicians and their skills of improvisation made for a memorable occasion. Equally impressive was the obvious joy that they gained from their interactions with each other and the audience. At the end of another hectic day, it was a great pleasure to be able to relax and absorb the atmosphere that pervaded an auditorium filled with enthusiastic music lovers of all ages.

Whilst the conditions here can often make teaching difficult, the fact that we work with such excellent students and colleagues and have the opportunity to engage with local culture is a privilege that we should never underestimate.

Bangalore beckons

 

Joining again with friends

Joining again with friends

I am sure that there are many people who when about to embark on a journey feel fully prepared and organised. As I pack my bags for India I am confident that I have everything needed for working when I get there, having spent many hours going back through presentations and materials that I will be using for teaching over the coming weeks. I am less confident that I will arrive with all the necessary items of clothing and other domestic requirements, which always appear to be packed in a hurry.

I prefer to travel with as little luggage as possible, and having made similar journeys to Bangalore over many years, I have learned to recognise those accoutrements that are surplus to requirements, and which on previous trips have stood idly by in a room until ready to be taken home. Even so, I usually find myself sitting on a plane wondering if I have all essential items packed.

I once flew to Mumbai seated next to a passenger who was visiting India as a tourist for a month and had everything he needed, or so he hoped, in a small holdall taken onto the flight as hand luggage. I remember being full of admiration for someone who could travel so light and with a sparse number of items. Though I also reflected that he could find himself most unpopular on a return flight had he been unable to change or wash his clothing after a month of wearing the same shirt in India’s dust and heat! – That is a somewhat disrespectful comment and I hope that the gentleman in question had a great time and returned to England with a suitcase full of good memories.

Over the past few days colleagues here at the university have asked me about what I am going to teach in India and about the challenges of preparing to deliver ideas about inclusive education, largely a western concept, within an Asian culture. They are quite right in seeing this as an important issue and one which needs to be approached with respect and an appreciation of local and national procedures and traditions. Fortunately, when working in Bangalore, I do so alongside long established Indian friends and colleagues whose experiences and perceptions have greatly influenced the ways in which I work.

I like to think  when working with colleagues in India that I have taken full consideration of the circumstances in which they teach, and have informed myself by spending time in local schools and working alongside colleagues in classrooms. However, I am always aware that when working alongside teachers I learn as much, or possibly more than I can convey through my teaching practices.

Keeping up to date with Indian research, legislation and literature is demanding, but affords many enjoyable learning experiences. Applying this learning with colleagues is something I look forward to as I prepare for this next expedition.

The coming days are sure to provide plenty of new learning opportunities and a chance to renew old acquaintances and make new friends. Above all, there will be times spent in debating the approaches we can develop and adopt to challenge exclusion and ensure that children who have been marginalised have new opportunities for learning and succeeding. The commitment of teachers in India is such that the education scene is changing quickly and dramatically. There is every reason to be confident that in the future schools will become far more inclusive than they have been in the recent past.

If I board the plane tomorrow minus an item or two of clothing, or without my toothpaste or a bar of soap I am sure I will overcome these omissions without too many difficulties. So long as I arrive with open eyes and a willingness to share in learning, I am convinced that all will be well. I look forward to reporting further after I settle once again into India’s Garden City. As Mark Twain informed us

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

But only if we travel with an intention to learn and respect those who we meet along the way.

Can dreams of a better future become reality?

 

How will children growing up here view the world in the future?

How will children growing up here view the world in the future?

“It has always been my dream to give my children a better education than me. I had to leave school at 16 because my mother was sick and needed me to look after her.” These are the words of Avine Hassan, but the sentiments expressed could be those of any parent with aspirations for their children to do well at school. Sadly, in Avine’s situation, the opportunity to provide such an education has been severely impaired and this is just one of many stressful factors in her life.

Avine’s words are taken from an article published in The Guardian newspaper (11th April 2015) under the headline “I Never Imagined I’d Bring Up My Children in a Refugee Camp,” in which she recounts the tragic tale of fleeing from Syria with her husband and four children, leaving behind her home, business and all their possessions. Fighting outside of her home and finding a bullet embedded in the window frame of her house, led Avine and her husband to make the heartbreaking decision to leave a home that they loved. Having paid £2,000 pounds to a man who is clearly making a lucrative profit by assisting families like this to cross the border into Iraq, Avine arrived barefoot in a refugee camp containing 50,000 people, though it was built with facilities for half this number.

Understandably, Avine’s children spent a long time tearfully asking when they would return home, and why they were now living in a tent. Their mother now knows that they can never return to the life they had before, as it is reported that their former home and all of its contents have been completely destroyed. It is now four years since they fled the conflict, and Avine’s children have ceased asking about a return to their former lives. They have clearly become reconciled to the fact that life will never be the same again.

In Syria, Avine had run a successful bridal make-up service, and her husband was a qualified accountant. They have gone from a comfortable middle class existence, to one of penury and fear. Their future remains unknown and precarious, but amidst all of this, they continue to see education as a critical factor in enabling their children to find a better path in life. After a period when it seemed unlikely that formal schooling would be possible, things began to improve. The charitable organisation Save the Children opened a support centre, and now there is schooling available for children for six half days a week. In addition there are now resilience workshops established to support children in learning to cope with having lost their homes, possessions and in some cases family members. I am sure that such a centre will provide an invaluable service, but I suspect that many of these children will carry a heavy burden for the rest of their lives.

I find it almost unbearable to read accounts of families such as Avine’s and of the appalling circumstances in which they find themselves. These are innocent people who have worked hard and have ambitions for their children, that have been destroyed through acts of violence and political ineptitude. As is typical of mothers everywhere, Avine’s concerns are not for herself, but primarily for the welfare and futures of her children. She continues to dream and has not given up hope that in the times to come her children may have better lives than they have now. She recognises that education can play a significant role in enabling these improvements to come about. However, it is evident that education alone will not lead to greater stability, and cannot tackle the appalling levels of poverty that have been created through this conflict and many others like it around the world.

Avine’s husband is currently seeking opportunities for the family to relocate to Germany, where his skills and those of Avine could be put to better use. Such a move would also increase the educational and social opportunities of their children and bring new economic opportunities. However, Avine is realistic and knows that if they are granted entry into Germany, which is by no means certain, this will involve a long and complicated process. She may be less aware of the levels of anti-immigrant sentiment that exists at present across Europe, perpetuated by those who cannot begin to imagine the trauma experienced by families such as this.

It is hard to believe that anyone reading The Guardian report could not be moved and indeed angered by the dreadful situation that exists in the lives of so many refugees from Syria. It is to be hoped that the rest of the world recognises the unfolding tragedy and accepts some responsibility to provide whatever support can be mustered. Their own government and those who perpetuate the tragic war in Syria have turned their backs on these long suffering families. There is a strong possibility that the rest of the world may do likewise. Let’s hope that Avine’s children receive the education that they deserve and that their experiences help them to shape a more caring future. The alternative hardly bears thinking about.

 

 

All contributions welcome (but often overlooked)

Please be assured that there are many here who find such headlines deplorable!

Please be assured that there are many here who find such headlines deplorable!

It is impossible to ignore the fact that we are in the midst of a general election campaign here in the UK. It seems that every news item, radio or television discussion programme or news website has lost touch with any item or event unconnected to the current political scene. Whilst momentous international events may be occurring around the world, anyone interested in ensuring that they are in touch with these will find it necessary to delve well beyond the opening pages of a national newspaper. As if they were in some way unfamiliar to the masses, our national press seem to believe that we need to be reminded of the appearances of Messrs Cameron and Miliband, variously posed with babies, farm animals or their endorsing celebrities at every possible occasion. Amidst all this brouhaha there are serious debates to be had, but at times they are completely lost in trivia and flummery.

One issue that has been central to this election campaign, which in all honesty appears to have been in full flow for many months, is that of immigration. Nothing can be guaranteed to raise the temperature of the arguments put forward by our politicians and the media, albeit generally shallow in nature, than a discussion of the various merits or challenges presented by those, who whilst now resident in the country, were born elsewhere. This of course, is not a novel issue in a country made up almost entirely of a population that can trace its roots back to invaders and settlers over many centuries. Romans, Vikings, Celts, Saxons, Normans, Huguenots, all have come to this country, settled and become well integrated as “British citizens,”  contributing greatly to our rich tapestry of culture. There is no doubt that at the time some of these arrivals were greeted with greater enthusiasm than others, but each brought with them a new set of skills, architecture, science, arts, music, cuisine and traditions that have enriched our lives.

As a nation once proud to boast that through the might of its empire it ruled over half the globe, it was to be expected that once that rule diminished, there would be many who came to seek a life in a “motherland” which had imposed its own values upon their homes. Arriving in the UK a new wave of immigration contributed greatly to our national economy, bringing with them yet more aspects of their own heritage that has not only become part of the national scene, but in some cases, particularly those of an artistic or culinary nature, have also won the hearts of the “indigenous” population.

I like to think that when visitors come to this country they are made welcome and find that British people are warm and caring, and interested in the experiences that incomers bring with them. When they choose to stay and make the UK their homes, the vast majority make a significant contribution to the economic and social wellbeing of the country, bringing a wide range of skills and knowledge and working hard to support their families. It is for this reason that I find myself frustrated with the low level contribution that many politicians and media personnel are making to current debates around immigration.

Listening to the radio this morning I had the misfortune to hear a prominent politician declaring that excessive immigration was the single greatest cause of strain upon our national health and education services. In the view of this political leader, significant numbers of individuals are coming from overseas, bringing with them their families and friends, simply to benefit from our wonderful welfare state. Their sole interest in becoming resident in the UK is to take from our services, whilst making little contribution to the economic or social welfare of the country. Sadly, the rhetoric of this politician is to be found in much of the reporting in the media and the discussions heard in the cafés public houses and behind the lace window curtains in houses up and down the country.

There is, of course, another side to this argument, which is more often voiced by those who have regular contact with people who have come to this country to provide a much needed service. As a simple example of this I would suggest that far from placing a strain upon our health and welfare services, immigrants to this country are making a huge contribution to its maintenance and efficiency. Having myself spent some time in hospital following an accident a couple of years ago, I was aware that the professionalism of doctors, nurses and cleaners, many of whom had been born outside of this country was contributing considerably to my recovery.  Visiting schools on a regular basis, I am conscious of the number of teachers and teaching assistants of a wide range of national origins, who are ensuring that our education system continues to provide a first class service to children and families.

This side of immigration is being sadly overlooked, or in some instances deliberately distorted in the current election climate, as the contribution made by new comers to this country is ignored in order to make political capital. Whilst seething over my muesli this morning listening to the radio, a further thought on this issue came to my mind, which I have no doubt many of our political masters would seldom pause to consider. There have been many instances of “foreigners” taking residence in a country and over the course of time educating the residents of that land to look in greater detail and to appreciate aspects of their own life and culture as never before. Two examples of such people came immediately to mind as I was completing my breakfast.

Nickolaus Pevsner, born in Leipzig, Germany in 1902, came to England in 1933. Shortly after the outbreak of the second World war, Pevsener was interned as an enemy alien of the state. After his release, he continued to make a contribution to the history of architecture both as a writer and teacher. Probably the greatest contribution that he made as an academic historian was the compilation of The Buildings of England, through which he documented in 46 accessible volumes every significant architectural feature of the country. These books, still seen as the definitive guide to English architecture opened the eyes of British people to the magnificent art and architecture that is great feature of the country.

A second example, refers not to an immigrant to the UK, but rather to an Englishman who became the first from this nation to take Indian citizenship following independence in 1947. Verrier Elwin went to India originally as a representative of the Church of England, but before long came to appreciate the rich cultural diversity and lifestyles of tribal peoples within the country. From that point he dedicated his life to recording the art, poetry, rituals and life styles of tribal people in various parts of India. He campaigned vigorously for their right to maintain their traditions and through his writings brought the immense contributions that they make to the ecology and culture of the country to the attention not only of the Indian people, but an international audience. His study changed the perceptions of tribal people, set an agenda for others who wish to defend such groups and influenced changes in national and international policy.

I am not suggesting that every immigrant will make so great a contribution to their adopted countries as did Pevsner and Elwin, but I do believe that many newcomers to a land enable us to see ourselves from a new perspective. They contribute greatly to the landscape and welfare of their newly adopted homes and it will be to our detriment if we do not provide them with an opportunity to express their own ideas in the current political climate.

 

Who decides what you should know?

 

Caution, the content of these books could expand your mind!

Caution, the content of these books could expand your mind!

The well respected Pakistan newspaper Dawn reports that yesterday the blogging platform WordPress was blocked (23rd March 2015), and those who wished to either publish their own words, or to read those of others posted on blogs, were thwarted in their efforts. The same newspaper has previously commented (February 8th 2015), on the fact that the media channel YouTube remains inaccessible within the country. A spokesman for the Pakistani government has suggested that there is content on the media channel that may be seen as either blasphemous or in other ways offensive, and that the people of Pakistan need protection from such material. I am aware from friends and students that similar restrictions exist in China and in several other parts of the world, and that this is a particular source of frustration to those who have spent time in the west, and have found such media to be a useful source of debate and information.

It is probably true to say that the use of media channels such as YouTube requires a certain amount of discrimination on the part of the user. There is (in my opinion) an awful lot of material available on these outlets that is insignificant, trivial and in some instances offensive, but should this necessarily be made unavailable. I suspect that my interpretation of triviality may be someone else’s notion of high culture, and why should my opinion be any more valid than theirs?

As is often the case with newspaper items, some of the comments posted in response to an article are almost as interesting as the original (no disrespect intended to the unnamed journalist who posted this particular piece in Dawn). In response to the article on WordPress censorship, one correspondent replied:-

By blocking WordPress and YouTube the govt. has deprived its citizens of knowledge, of education, of a basic right the constitution of Pakistan gives us.

This commentator makes a valid point. When used appropriately both WordPress (which is incidentally the platform upon which this blog is based) and YouTube can act as useful educational tools. I have on several occasions used film from YouTube for teaching purposes both here in the UK, and when teaching in other parts of the world. Similarly, I have posted items on this blog with the specific intent of enabling students to continue debating issues discussed in class, and know that others have used it for the same purpose. Does this therefore mean that there should be no censorship of materials posted on the internet?

This is far from a straightforward matter. Censorship when appropriately applied is designed to protect those who are potentially vulnerable or suggestible from potentially harmful influences. The British Board of Film Classification was established in 1912 as an independent body to classify films and give them a rating of suitability to a broad range of audiences. There is a general consensus that this organisation does a good job in ensuring that materials that are unsuitable for children, are classified in such a way that parents are aware, and cinemas restrict access to young viewers. Similarly, most computer systems have safety mechanisms whereby parents and schools can inhibit access to programmes and materials that may be deemed unstable for children. The notion of protecting the young and vulnerable is certainly one with which I have no problem.

The blanket censoring of WordPress and YouTube is a different matter. Those who have made decisions to restrict the availability of these media outlets have not been discriminating in terms of protecting the young and vulnerable, but have rather made a decision that nobody should have access. This surely conveys a message that the censors do not feel that the general populous has either the ability or the right to make up their own minds. Adults are being treated as children, and regarded as incapable of making informed decisions.

I have no difficulty with control that is designed to protect the individual. It is a good idea to enforce laws that mean for example, that in England everybody must drive on the left hand side of the road, or to ensure that alcohol is not sold to children. These are laws with good intent and a deal of common sense. However, I am unsure about who the censorship of media outlets is designed to protect. It seems to me that most adults are quite capable of policing the media for themselves. If an item comes on to the television that I dislike I can change channels or switch off the set. If I disagree with the sentiments or political association of a newspaper or magazine, I choose not to purchase them.

The students with whom I work are intelligent and discriminating individuals. In my experience they make good use of media such as WordPress and YouTube as yet another source of information to be used alongside the other, more traditional sources such as books and academic journals. But maybe here is the nub of the issue. Censorship is not about the platform upon which information is conveyed, but about the power of the messages that may be contained within. After all, throughout history that wonderful, though relatively low tech product the book, has been subjected to censorship or outright banning in many countries, including my own.

I do hope that my friends in Pakistan may have an opportunity to share these thoughts today.

 

Ulysses  by James Joyce, published in France in 1922, banned in UK and USA until 1930s

Doctor Zhivago  by Boris Pasternak, banned in Russia until 1988

The Diary of Anne Frank  by Anne Frank, remains banned in Lebanon

Lolita  by Vladimir Nabikov, published in 1955 then banned in UK until 1959

Wild Swans by Jung Chang, remains banned in China