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  COUNSELING
 
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  By Shaheen Chander  
  ENJOYING a relaxed weekend, I was checking updates on the Facebook page. I came across a b  
     
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  TRAVEL  
     
 
   
 
  Summer behind the Taj
  By Lisa A. Swenarski de Herrera  
  LIKE many Americans, John Lines and Taylor Triplett visited the Taj Mahal this summer. But unlike the others, they didn't fly 12,000 kilometers to have their picture taken on the same bench as Princess Diana. They headed to the back of the Taj, across the Yamuna River to the community of Kachpura, to talk to residents and understand their lives.

"It's one thing to sit in a classroom and learn about economics and disparities where all you can do is to reiterate what's been said," says Triplett. And yet it's another to spend your summer with the families represented by statistics in textbooks.

Triplett, 21, and Lines, 22, are from Sewanee: The University of the South, in Tennessee, one of many U.S. universities that encourage or even require students to spend time overseas as part of their undergraduate education.

The two worked with the Cross Cutting Agra Program, which is supported by the United States Agency for International Development in partnership with the Agra Municipal Corporation, the Archaeological Survey of India and the Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence. The program's goal is to work with low income communities to generate livelihood options linked with Agra's tourism economy and to improve living conditions. For example, unemployed youths have been trained to guide tourists through the monuments behind the Taj. These monuments form the Agra Heritage Trail, home to Humayun's mosque, a Mughal garden and several low-income communities. The project also started vocation centers where women and girls sew shoe-cleaning mitts, dish covers and other items that are sold to hotels.

Nearly 250,000 Americans studied overseas in 2007, up 150 per cent from the previous decade. And while Europe continues to be the most popular destination, that trend is slowing. India hosted 24 per cent more Americans in 2007 than the year before.

Students who experience a foreign country come back with better skills and a better vision. Triplett and Lines were able to practice their interviewing skills, apply statistical analysis and learn the importance of questioning their assumptions. For example, Triplett says that many people who have not had an overseas experience have the impression that poor families are in their situation because of their own doing. Yet, his experience taught him otherwise.

"I've never seen a greater sense of hope and perseverance," he says, after spending four weeks in Kachpura. Triplett and Lines also represent a trend in shorter stays overseas. More than 55 per cent of Americans who study abroad do so for eight weeks or less. Only 4.5 per cent spend a full academic year overseas.

Lines, who studied the history of U.S. development aid, says that he learned in the classroom that the top-down approach to development is no longer considered useful. And he saw for himself in Kachpura how a more community-centered approach really works.

"Development is becoming more democratic," he says. "The people are the ones who know their problems the most."

When Triplett and Lines showed up for work, they thought they would focus on finding jobs for local residents, but they were in for a shock. The director of the Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence gave them their assignment: Analyze the effects of toilets and septic tanks installed with the help of the Cross Cutting Agra Program.

For four weeks, the two went door to door with Rajesh Kumar, a team member who helped them interview dozens of families. The results were surprising. Earlier, women had to practice open defecation, which subjected them to harassment by men and even rape.

Now, finances have also improved. Women reported that earlier, they spent about Rs 700 on health care expenses during the monsoon season to cure their children's diarrhea, vomiting and typhoid. Also, the women lost money because they had to care for the children when they would normally be working.

"They've gone from women having to scurry through the shadows to do something completely natural to being completely empowered," says Triplett.

Triplett says that while in India, he reflected on his college back home.

"The biggest thing I've learned from interning abroad is we're lucky to have wonderful professors from all over the world," he says. He has two professors with roots in India.

"Dr. Yasmeen Mohiuddin and Dr. Krishna Ayyangar tried to shape my way of thinking so that it wasn't so Eurocentric, to look at things through the eyes of the people."

So what will these two young Americans do with their education?

Lines is from Florida and is finishing up his degree in political science. His next step is either law school or working for a think tank.

Triplett is from Mississippi and just graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in international development. He is looking for a job with the U.S. Senate. Will he remember the people of Kachpura when preparing briefings for a U.S. Senator?
"This is one of the best life experiences I'll ever have," says Triplett. "These are people I may not ever see again, but people I will always remember and care about." (Courtesy: SPAN)
 
   
   
 
  Abode of peace
  By A.J. Philip  
  EVERY time I visit Santiniketan, a small town near Bolpur in Birbhum district in West Bengal, I make it a point to visit the statue of Mahatma Gandhi and stand there in reverence for a few minutes. It reminds me of a mono act in which I acted as the Mahatma while I was at school.

The Gandhiji I imitated was old, toothless and clutching at a staff. Somehow that image of the Father of the Nation remained stuck in my mind. It was the statue done by Ramkinker Baij, which I saw first in 2002, that changed my perception of Gandhiji.

In Ramkinker's rendering, Gandhiji is athletic and has strong muscles, particularly in the legs. The sculptor who was born at Bankura in 1910 and died in 1980 surely would have met Gandhiji and studied him well.

Those familiar with the life of the Mahatma know that he was a great walker. In fact, when he led the Dandi march, many of his followers, younger than him, found difficulty in keeping pace with him.

Gandhiji was physically very fit. That is why he could go on long fasts and, yet, recover fast. Ramkinker knew this when he sculpted him as an athletic person, though he held a staff. Of course, artists need to know their subjects better than 'mono-acting' children.

This was brought home when I received a framed copy of M.F. Husain's painting of Mother Teresa in which the Mother holds a sick adult on her lap. Only a strong person could have done that. I knew how strong she was when I interviewed the Mother at Bhopal in the early eighties. Despite her wrinkles and old age, her hands were indeed very strong.

Many statues done by Ramkinker, who headed the prestigious Kala Bhavan, dot Santiniketan. My colleague Kumar Rana accompanied me this time. He was keen to show me a statue that depicted a Santhali tribal family.

The Santhali couple, as depicted in the statue, was carrying all their possessions and moving out of their ancestral land. They were accompanied by their children and their pet dog. Kumar had a special reason to show me this sculpture.

Once when Kumar visited the statue, a friend who was a Santhali accompanied him. He was so moved by the statue that he began to cry. "The condition of the Santhali tribals has not changed a wee bit since Ramkinker did this sculpture," he lamented. Recently when I published a brilliant article on the concept of family by my friend Santosh Singh, I used a picture of this sculpture to illustrate the piece.

I realised that a visit to Santiniketan is not complete till one visits the museum there. Since I had some spare time, I headed straight to the museum. Old paintings and photographs show that Santiniketan (abode of peace) was a sparsely-populated village when a school was first started there and it eventually became a world-famous university town.

Today much of the fame of the university is a matter of memory. Compared to most other Central universities, Vishva Bharati is in bad shape. The buildings are in a state of disrepair and the roads pot-holed.

Until recently the university had the copyright on Rabindranath Tagore's works but the quality of production was such that it put off the book lover. Now that his works can be published by anyone, beautifully printed works of Tagore are available in the market and that too at a low price.

Not many people know that Santiniketan was spotted, not by Rabindranath Tagore but by his father Maharshi Devendranath Tagore. As the story goes, Santiniketan was earlier called Bhubandanga (named after Bhuban Dakat, a local dacoit), and was owned by the Tagore family.

In 1862, Devendranath Tagore, while on a boat journey to Raipur, came across a landscape with red soil and meadows of lush green paddy fields. Rows of chhatim trees and date palms charmed him.

He stopped to look, decided to plant more saplings and built a small house. He called his home Santiniketan (abode of peace). Santiniketan became a spiritual centre where people from all religions were invited to join for meditation and prayers. He founded an 'Ashram' here in 1863 and became one of the initiators of the Brahmo Samaj.

The spot where he meditated has been converted into a beautiful garden known as Chatimtola. At a short distance from the garden is the Upashana Mandir (Brahmo prayer hall). My attempt to visit the temple was thwarted by the security guard who refused to let me in. "You can come tomorrow when it is opened for worship" said the guard who tried in vain to prevent me from taking a picture.

Santiniketan became a centre of education when on December 22, 1901, Rabindranath Tagore started a school named Brahmachary Asrama modelled on the ancient gurukul system. After he received the Nobel Prize, it was expanded into a university and renamed Visva Bharati "where the world makes a home in a nest". It was aimed at blending the methods of learning of the East and the West.

Altough the main attraction of this place is its association with Tagore (1861-1941), the natural charm of Santiniketan is a major draw in itself. It was here that India's first Nobel-laureate wrote most of his works and did most of his paintings. The little town also produced another Nobel-laureate in Dr Amartya Sen.

This is what Prof Sen has to say about his alma mater in his much-acclaimed book 'The Argumentative Indian': "I am partial to seeing Tagore as an educator, having myself been educated at Shantiniketan. The school was unusual in many different ways, such as the oddity that classes, excepting those requiring a laboratory, were held outdoors (whenever the weather permitted). No matter what we thought of Rabindranath's belief that one gains from being in a natural setting while learning (some of us argued about this theory), we typically found the experience of outdoor schooling extremely attractive and pleasant.

"Academically, our school was not particularly exacting (often we did not have any examinations at all), and it could not, by the usual academic standards, compete with some of the better schools in Calcutta. But there was something remarkable about the ease with which class discussions could move from Indian traditional literature to contemporary as well as classical Western thought, and then to the culture of China or Japan or elsewhere. The school's celebration of variety was also in sharp contrast with the cultural conservatism and separatism that has tended to grip India from time to time."

In his book Sen quotes another illustrious product of Santiniketan, Satyajit Ray: "I consider the three years I spent in Shantiniketan as the most fruitful of my life... Shantiniketan opened my eyes for the first time to the splendors of Indian and Far Eastern art. Until then I was completely under the sway of Western art, music and literature. Shantiniketan made me the combined product of East and West that I am."

Classes are still held in the open under the shade of trees. It is the only university where the annual convocation is also held in the open. Leaves of the Saptaparni trees are given to graduating students at the annual convocation and they preserve the leaves along with their degrees.

I met Vishwajit and his friend Rachna having a little chat in one of the class areas. They are in the 12th class and have no complaint that classes are not held in rooms. "We enjoy sitting here except when bird droppings fall on us".

There is a whole complex of houses built by Tagore, collectively known as Uttarayana. Within the complex, there are five abodes -- Udayana, Konarka, Shamali, Punassha and Udichi -- which are preserved in their pristine form. The mud house where Mahatma Gandhi stayed as Tagore's guest and the red Pilot ink pen gifted to the poet by a king are all there to delight the visitor. Santiniketan is also known for festivals like Basant Utsav when the students dressed in their best take out a colourful procession, a veritable feast for the eyes.

Santiniketan is so inviting that Prof Amartya Sen feels the most comfortable when he is at Pratichi (westernmost), the beautiful little bungalow he grew up in. Small wonder that he named the Trust he set up with his Nobel Prize money 'Pratichi (India) Trust'.
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Photo caption: Classes are held in the open - Photo by AJ Philip
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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