Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Dharmaloka: A school, and a lesson

“What have they planned for us?” the boy next to me asked, bewildered, as the van we all were in drove up past the gates. He got the answer immediately: a procession of students lined up before a budu madura, boys on one side, girls on the other. It was charming, but perhaps a little too much to take in, since nothing I, or we, had done had warranted a retinue which had obviously been arranged for us. We got down clumsily, some so confused that they’d forgotten to put on their school ties, and stared. Then the bell rang, the principal and the teachers came, and there was a call to worship. Hastily putting our hands together, we obliged and prayed with them.

In most rural Sinhala villages, particularly in far-flung outposts, Buddhism is firmly linked with the education of children. There’s one school in Colombo that’s gained a reputation for its budu madura, but elsewhere it’s a norm: a school must have a shrine, and students pray before it every morning. For schoolboys from multicultural – and in my case, secular – establishments, it’s hard to come to terms with this reality, because we’re taught a very different gospel in our classrooms. The boys beside me knew their gathas and sutras, certainly more than me, but this kind of communal worship was, I could see, outside their experience: for them faith is personal, never to be invoked out loud. Here, however, one cannot whisper. One has to raise one’s voice.

Through Ratnapura, Rakwana connects Colombo to Embilipitiya, which is where the Sambaragamuwa meets the Dakuna. Pelmadulla lies between the two, and we were at present in a school there. To keep a long story short, I had written an article on a set of boys who had organised a Book Fair at their school in Colombo; their leader, who had attended the school we were at until Fifth Grade, had been asked to come with them, and me, to an otherwise innocuous ceremony: the opening of a new library.

It’s a little difficult to explain the sociological undercurrents of this phenomenon: the telescoping of mundane ceremonies to the status of profoundly significant events. But it’s a reality that’s only too pervasive outside Colombo. And in any case, it wasn’t just the library we were occupied with: the boy was being “celebrated” because he’d made it to the news years after he had aced that ultimate symbol of educational mobility, the pahe shishyathwaya. We were being celebrated with him, and also thanked for having contributed, in some small way at least, to his ascent.

The school we were at, Dharmaloka Vidyalaya, is not small, but then I realised that this was precisely the point: it’s the kind of intermediate institution which churns out most of the scholarship wallahs who end up at Royal and Ananda and Dharmaraja and Richmond. In this boy and his colleagues, who had also gone to Colombo through the shishyathwaya, the staff and the principal had thus vindicated themselves.

And in vindicating themselves, they were bending over backwards vindicating us. A procession of dancers – a Sabaragamuwa procession, the first I’d seen in years since I hardly come across the tradition outside these regions, in the classroom or elsewhere – led us to a stage from which the Assembly for the day was to be conducted. We were taken through all the preliminaries: the lamp, the incense sticks, the anthem, and the opening addresses. They read their missives to us, we read ours to them, and we were presented with the only trinkets they would have seen fit to give us: some nawarathna gems. Then there was breakfast, of course – kiribath, kavum, walithalapa – followed, finally, by the ceremony we were to grace: that library opening.

The ceremony, which included various customary exchanges between the two groups, took 40 minutes. In any case, I didn’t take part. I was busy examining the books, and more importantly, the paintings. It was then that I noticed they were everywhere, and not just them, but clay figures, mannequins, even devil masks. After we finished, and when we were taken around the school, I didn’t come across a single classroom which didn’t have mosthara or kurutu. The climax came at the Principal’s office: there, on the wall, with a poem extolling the virtues of hard work engraved lavishly on it, was the cover of the magazine which had my article on these boys. Sometimes gratitude can overreach itself. I smiled.

Dharmaloka is special, and stands out, for a reason: for the last few years and decades, the school has clinched nearly every category at national art competitions. At last year’s Interschool Art Competition, for instance, 15 of the 16 participants won awards and certificates, coming first in three categories, second in three, and third in one, with two consolation prizes. Unlike most State-sponsored cultural shows that end up being censured (like this year’s Drama Festival), the Interschool Art Competition recognises merit on a neutral criterion. Now we know “chitra kalawa” is taught inadequately in our schools. What can “explain” Dharmaloka and these victories, then?

Sri Lanka faces a peculiar problem. Despite its size, there is at present a huge gulf embedded and entrenched in its education system, and this comes out particularly strongly in the divide between science and maths on the one hand and the arts on the other. There are regional differences that can only be deplored: in poorer districts like Moneragala, the number of students engaged in science and engineering degrees are much, much less than those from the more privileged regions.

As a result you get the worst of both worlds: science subjects are concentrated in the usual privileged education zones, while because of a dearth of good science facilities the poorer zones churn out Arts graduates who swell the ranks of the unemployed. It is an uncontested fact that we have far too many graduates in the arts streams: more than 6,500 in 2016, as opposed to 1,700 for engineering. Moreover, nothing substantive has come out of these 6,500: most of them end up being lecturers themselves, at campus if not schools, and very few end up being the artists they aspire to be.

When it comes to ART or chitra kalawa another problem persists. With each passing generation, fewer and fewer children tend to paint. It’s not just that they don’t want to draw; the truth is that they CAN’T draw. Dharmaloka is in that sense an indictment on this dilemma: whereas the big schools have 10 or 15 students studying the subject for their A Levels, here there are more than 40. Yet EVEN among the 40 there is an issue: most of them prefer graphic design (mosthara) to expressive art (prakashana); digital commercial art has, sadly, gained over the hand-drawn variety.

Gamini Muhandiram, Art teacher at Dharmaloka, cogently highlighted a related problem: “There is an urban-rural gap when it comes to students who settle for this subject. Many of those who select it from these parts of the country do so because they can genuinely draw. Unfortunately, they don’t have financial strength. We have to provide for them and we have to make up for their shortfalls.” In that sense he feels that State-sponsored art festivals are to be welcomed: “The National Art Competition achieves what it aims at. Among other things, the prize money the students win goes a long way in meeting certain urgent needs.” Not that this solves the problem: the truth remains that the more talented you are, the more indigent you tend to be.

Dharmaloka has gone a long way in addressing these issues. If the students have anyone to thank for that, it’s their teacher. And he hasn’t gone unnoticed: last year, for instance, “Gamini sir” won the Teacher of the Year Award at the International Forum for Teachers organised by Gateway Graduate School. There were four other finalists, from Dehiaththakandiya, Galgamuwa, Puttalam, and Nuwara Eliya.

I suspect these teachers have the answers to the problems, and I suspect Gamini sir, given his record, can do what most others haven’t been able to. Being modest to a fault, he said nothing, but that’s not because there’s nothing to say; he himself put it best: “I’ve taught about 106 students who’ve become teachers. I am glad, but I hope that other students take up this mantle and become painters themselves.”

There was more he wanted to say. Owing to time constraints, we had to stop.

On the way back, I talked with the boy who’d wondered as to what the students had got ready for us. I looked casually at the drawings on the wall, and the poems and the (didactic) messages underlying them. I tried to think of where we came across such designs back home: certainly not the school I had been. Then it hit me: in Colombo, the poorer the pasala, the more likely its walls will have these siththam; the more enriched, conversely, the less likely. “You are too privileged,” I was tempted to say to the boys. I held back my tongue, but as we left Ratnapura behind and I watched them doze off and snore, I wondered whether it was wise to keep shut.

Photos by Manusha Lakshan

Written for: Daily Mirror, May 7 2019

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