“My svadharma was to teach”: A tribute to Dr. Anandalakshmy

Dr. Anandalakshmy left this world for her onward journey on 13th of March. Her passing has left a vacuum in the lives of so many of us who have had the privilege of being her students. As a tribute to her, we will be featuring upcoming posts with selected extracts from our association with her. In this series, the first essay is an interview with Dr. Anandalakshmy, invited by Prof. Girishwar Misra in the year 2007 on behalf of NAOP (National Association of Psychology, Journal title: Psychological Studies). This will be followed by a chapter about Dr. Anandalakshmy in the Sage publication, Eminent Indian Psychologists: 100 years of Psychology in India. As the author of both publications, I acknowledge NAOP and Sage publications, also providing links.

Psychological Studies article link: Chaudhary, N. Psychol Stud (2009) 54: 150. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12646-009-0021-6

A scholar insearch of an imaginary audience!

An interview with Dr. S. Anandalakshmy, by Nandita Chaudhary

About Dr. Anandalakshmy

Dr. Anandalakshmy received her post-graduate education in Human Development from institutions in the US: Master’s degree in Child Development at Bryn Mawr College, while on a Fulbright scholarship and a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, while on a fellowship from the East-West Center. She was responsible for establishing and heading Vidya Mandir, a school in Chennai, where she used a creative and non-competitive approach in teaching and management for a few years. The school continues to be a landmark institution in the city. Later she joined Lady Irwin College (Delhi University), where she planned, established and headed the post-graduate course in Child Development from 1970 to 1983. Subsequently, she served as the Director of the College from 1983 to 1991. Her research and publications have been largely in the areas of Socialization for Competence, Cognitive Development in Infancy and Status of the Girl Child. She has also written on education, childhood and families for the popular press. She has traveled widely in India and outside to fulfill several academic commitments, including advising UNICEF programmes in Maldives, Indonesia and Afghanistan. She has been a Visiting Scholar of the Maison des Sciences de l’ Homme in Paris and an invitee of the Asia Society in the USA, in the eighties and of the University of Edinburgh’s Summer Institute in 1989 and 1991. She has participated at Seminars and given talks at several Universities, among them, Chicago, Columbia, Harvard and Oxford. She participated actively as a member of the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s global team studying early childhood in countries round the world, from 1998 to 2001. In more recent years, her travel included a visit to Beijing for a Conference organized by UNICEF (2005) and meetings at Montreal and Vancouver in 2006 as a member of the Knowledge Network on Early Childhood, sponsored by the World Health Organization. At present, she works in an advisory capacity with a number of voluntary organizations in India: SEWA in Gujarat, SWRC in Tilonia, Volontariat in Pondicherry, and Bala Mandir in Chennai, helping with policy decisions and advising on programmes for young children. She also does counseling for parents and children at Bala Mandir Resource Centre in Chennai and on a website for Doctors@NDTV. In 2007, she was actively involved in documenting an educational innovation in the State-run schools of Tamil Nadu and made two short documentary films titled “The Silent Revolution” and “Active Learning”. She served as the Consulting Editor for the book “Child Development” published by Doctor NDTV and Byword Books in 2007. She is also the co-Editor (with Nandita Chaudhary and Neerja Sharma) of “Researching Families and Children” (Sage, 2008). Also in 2007, she was a member of Concerned Citizens’ Committee formed in Chennai to look into the practice of schools disallowing children who complete the 10th Class, from entering the 11th   in their own schools. A PIL filed by her was effective. Today, CBSE schools and Govt. schools in Tamil Nadu are bound by law, to let their students continue in the same school and not be treated as pawns in the race of the schools for the ‘best results’.

“Four questions in search of a speaker”, these were opening words of the most recent presentationmade by Dr. Anandalakshmy at MS University Vadodara[1]. Characteristically, the format was unusual, pre-empting the questions from an imaginary audience was clearly an inventive and illuminating experience for thereal one! Strategically, I have used this as a title for this journey through ideas with Dr. Anandalakshmy since this exemplifies the exploration that has characterized her journey as a scholar.

Dr. Anandalakshmy entered into the field of Developmental Psychology after studying Economics, and has never been limited by these or any other of the various fields of study she has engaged with. The defined limits of academic disciplines were never a consideration for her. As her students, we would hear as much about the botanical names of the resplendent trees in our campus, the history of Art and the constellations in the sky, as about theories of development. Her classes were magical, generously sprinkled with humour and history. With her, we experienced people and places that we had not even imagined; revered names from heavy text-books became real people with real ideas. I am honoured to be part of this experiment of visiting her ideas for the purpose of communicating with a much larger audience through this journal.


Nandita: Could you tell us about some of thepeople, the events and experiences that you would consider major influences inyour life?

Anandlakshmy: Having enlightened, liberal and thinking parents was a bonus. My father, an engineer by training, joined the railways, so we traveled a lot during his different postings andduring the holidays. My mother was married young and most of her knowledge of English and Sanskrit was acquired informally, in a highly supportive home environment. Our world was India, with its many languages, religions and cultures, and pluralism was the rule rather than the exception. From the very first salary, my father spent a small proportion every month on buying books. His collection (running into 5000 books by the time he retired) had everything: children’s books, theosophy and different religions, philosophy, science fiction, romance, detective and crime fiction, Sanskrit, Tamil and Hindi books, Shakespeare, dictionaries, encyclopedia, humour– a dream library to grow up with. When we were school children, during the long summer holidays, at least once a week we would have a Literary Round Table at home, where we would have to present an essay or poem we wrote or describe a book we liked. Elocution, poetry reciting and drama – everything featured within the close family circle. From these early experiences, three main threads were picked up:

1.) A value for both scientific and intuitive knowledge. 2.) An appreciation of diversity and plurality. 3.) Acceptance of the democratic right to debate and dissent. I carried these threads with me to the classroom, first as a student and later, as a teacher, where they were woven into the academic fabric.

My own approach to teaching was moulded by Maria Montessori (who lived in India for a while and influenced my mother and the teachers in Adyar who taught me), J. Krishnamurthy, the Indian sage (whose brilliant talks I have heard on many evenings) and David Horsburgh (a friend and a talented and charismatic teacher with a great sense of humour). But there have been many other teachers. Even a book one reads can be a ‘guru’. Of these, there are many, too many to list. There has been one other underlying thread in the weave of my entire life: concern and empathy for the poor and the deprived. There was always the inclination to share time and energy with such children and families, and an irrepressible optimism that one would, somehow, make a difference.

Nandita: As your student for many years, I always remember being on the edge of my seat in your classes. According to you, what are the critical elements of an innovative classroom?

Anandlakshmy:  There is no doubt that a classroom of bright students (which was my unfailing good fortune) is the theatre of the academic world. Being a teacher meant being a performer. Not as a person putting on a mask or playing a part with a written script, but as someone who would bring drama into the everyday transactions of the classroom. I enjoyed delivering my impromptu dialogues and encouraging students to come back with suitable ripostes. Teaching was, for me, a task of sharing exciting ideas with young people and valuing their responses to the new concepts and perspectives.

 “Covering the portions” (a duty of all teachers) was not my objective, rather it was to uncover the vast areas of knowledge in and around the discipline. I would challenge my students to stretch their minds, to question standard explanations of social phenomena, to rethink the clichés that pass for truths. It was a truly rewarding experience to see their minds grow and their horizons expand. After they completed the master’s degree course, most of them would take up careers in teaching, research or social development work, jobs that were interesting and prestigious. Even a casual reference from one of them to an anecdote from my classes, would infuse me with a warm glow. Over the years, I have met the alumnae at seminars and conferences, at airports and shopping centres, at friends’ homes and weddings. Times shared, times remembered – the chemistry of the teaching-learning encounter was at the core.

            In their practicum, I would get them to study the standardized tests to assess intelligence and personality and to get a little practice in administering and interpreting children’s performance on the items. Most of the tests were made for other cultures in other times. So I would make my students see the low utility of the tests and ensure that they would not ordinarily be used to assess children in Indian settings. On the other hand, I would encourage them to make close observations and to record them in detail. Clearly, in those days, the ‘methode clinique’ won over the Stanford-Binet and the Wechsler

            Sometimes, I would put up a reading list in the last class of the year, just before the final examinations of the master’s course. As the students exchanged looks of disbelief, I would clarify that this list of books was not required reading for the forthcoming exam, but for the period after that. I expected them to continue their reading in the discipline, long after it ceased to be necessary for the course. The list was a real one, of course, but its symbolic function was more important.

            I had often run over the allotted time for the class, while sharing much of my reading, some of it not central to the course, but peripheral. These were books in the history of science, brain research, philosophy, Indian culture and exceptional fiction. They would plead with me to lend the books I brought along and we had a special system of one-day lending on trust and no written record. Later, I found that the students would try and locate these books in the Annual Book Fair and carry them home as trophies. Sometimes, one of the books would be given as a wedding present to a fellow student! Nothing could have made me happier. The ‘method to my madness’ had worked!

Nandita: How has tradition and culture been a resource in your academic career?

Anandlakshmy: The post-colonial experience in India revealed many strengths: the English language for governance, education and everyday use; further enhancement of multi-cultural inputs in everyday life, and a confidence that mixing or borrowing of customs does not necessarily erode an Indian identity. There were caricatures in cartoons and popular theatre, of people who could be seen as corresponding to the ‘coconut syndrome’ (brown outside and white inside)! But for the large part, as Indians, we took from the mix of cultures what we wanted and rejected what we did not like. And for many in my generation, Indian culture was not something to be ashamed of (even though patriarchal values, upper caste arrogance, paying of dowry, ill-treatment of the girl child and suppression of the woman’s voice – all these we had firmly declared to be shameful and unacceptable). We held on firmly to classical languages, classical music and basic Indian philosophy, to traditional arts and artisanship, nature worship and sacred trees and groves. It was a delicate balancing act, perhaps, but one that was part of the daily acrobatics in the lecture hall and public forum.

            Even before the SPICMACAY movement (Kiran Seth’s brainwave to introduce the young tothe classical arts) came into existence, I would take students to listen to Mahalia Jackson (only once, alas) and to Kishori Amonkar, Hariprasad Chaurasia and Vilayat Khan and the like. I felt the need to share with my students, what I valued the most. In that sense, I should have advocated strongly, that the red-wattled lapwing that settled on the field outside the classroom window and brought back the fun of bird watching and the raga Hamsadhvani, played brilliantly by Lalgudi Jayaraman be part of the curriculum. I had no compunctions about including them in the informal discussions in and out of the classroom and instilling in my captive students, a taste for classical music!

Rejecting the reductionism of the conventional scientific method applied mindlessly to the complex and fascinating theme of growing children, we looked for connectedness. This helped students to take a holistic view of the life of Indian families and to review the sources of their own beliefs and customs. Every principle debated in the class could be tested out in the field, as working with the community was built into the practical work. Their selection of themes for research and the sites of study reflected the full acceptance of diversity and plurality. Ability and disability, rural and urban people, boys and girls – these were not opposites, but parts of the same inclusive paradigm for the ‘people sciences’.

Nandita: What are some of your views about the developing world and India in particular? Please also comment also on gender issues.

Anandlakshmy: First of all, I have a comment on the word ‘development’. In our field, we use it to mean the ontological movement of a living organism, through its life span. Human development, in our way of thinking, concerns the changes over the life span of our own, very special homo sapiens. For all the hundred good reasons, childhood continues to be the focus.

I have long had a problem about using the term ‘development’ for assigning different labels to the countries of the world. Presumably, economic levels determine which category any country is assigned. However, we are hardly ever told by economists, that it is very much a contemporary label, since many of the ‘developed countries’ got rid of their earlier poverty through the mechanisms of trade, war or colonization of countries in Africa and Asia. If one could take a trip to the world as it was three hundred years earlier, the picture would be totally different. I will not go into the history of colonization and empire at this point.

Even when India was described as part of the “third world,” I found it strange to divide the world’s countries on the basis of political ideology. And sure enough, ‘the second world’ eroded before our eyes and everything was in flux. And to add to the confusion, in the last decade, we see that the more India develops, in terms of the Stock Exchange, the FDI or ‘forex’ reserves, the lower our ranking on the HDI (Human Development Index). So for the rest of this section, I would like to ignore the term ‘developing’ countries and confine my comments to the situation in India.

I do not need to elaborate on the dismal statistics of the sex ratio in the Indian census figures from 1905 to the present. The graph of the declining female ratio in the population, over the 20th century, looks like a slide in a children’s playground. It is the clearest proof that progress is not uni-directional. Modernity and modernization do not always come as a boon to a society. Some things get better, some things get worse. At the turn of the 20thcentury, there was no killing of girl babies. A hundred years later, such murders are commonplace along several rungs of the social ladder. Female infanticide is indefensible, by any count. Clearly, it is a failure on the part of political leaders, teachers in school and college, religious leaders, social workers, lawmakers, doctors – all of us, whose initiatives have failed to stem the insane preference for the male child and the despicable treatment of the female child, as a burden. I am truly sad at this state of affairs. There is nothing more to say.

There have been some changes for the better, of course. The bias against girl children in the family is not so brazen perhaps, but the subtle manifestations still result in abysmal levels of malnutrition, especially when compounded with poverty. Many of the girls do get to school for a few years, but puberty makes them vulnerable for the reasons only too well known. Most of them have no choice in their marriage partner, but a few have the right of veto. Almost all women work, mostly in the informal sector. Sports, academic performance and careers do offer a chance to girls to excel and be recognized, but the numbers are very small. When one considers the status of the girl child, there is such a wide spectrum of variation across socio-economic factors and opportunities, that any empirical statement can be supported by data and countered by an opposite instance.

So what kind of ‘human development’ does one teach? One always has to select authentic samples from a vast and varied world. The sample selected would depend on one’s own preference or one’s experience. I have no formula solutions to the question of gender, but the last four decades have seen such a burgeoning of research in women’s studies, that the non-availability of material cannot be an excuse not to teach about gender. How to disseminate what we hold to be non-negotiable values of gender equality and human rights, to the people at large – that remains elusive.

Nandita: Regarding changes in life style, according to you, what are some of the opportunities and challenges for the discipline of Human Development in India?

Anandlakshmy: In the last thirty years, social change in India can only be described as quantum leaps of change, not gradual at all. For example, the very definition of information has changed. It is no longer just something useful, to get on in the world, but is an overwhelming hurricane that carries us all. Twenty years ago, personal computers and mobile phones were objects one admired at a Science exhibition. Today, in India, no roadside vegetable seller worth his beans can be found without a cell phone in his hand. Every pedestrian, every cyclist, every bystander on the city streets talks to the invisible ‘other’, oblivious of honking cars and speeding motor bikes. Cell phones can do anything and everything, except perhaps sign your child’s Report Card or bake a cake!

            Cyberspace is loaded with our news and views, with humour and holiday pictures, our personal anguish and our joys, criss-crossing the atmosphere, clashing with the debris and the detritus from spacecraft and shattered meteors. The globe has never felt more global before! At the same time, the fear of the unknown enemy, the stalking terrorist, is so palpable that we are cautious even about saying hullo to aco-passenger on a flight. Cordiality from a stranger at the airport is “x” the unknown factor and when people confront it, they close in like a ‘touch-me-not.’ This is a sea change in the tone and texture of conviviality and the probability of making friends on one’s travels round the world.

Let us take one more word out of a standard social anthropology curriculum, the word “family.” Try and relate it to “marriage”. The contemporary scene provides a dozen alternative definitions of the word ‘family’ and two dozen varieties of partnerships.  Whose definition should we take? Does empirical evidence count or should we stay with the normative? The textbooks of yesteryears in this area are woefully outmoded, because in real life, we rarely come upon ‘text-book cases’ of families.  How does one bridge the yawning gap between ideal parenting and the varieties of parenting practices in reality?

Today, it is a real challenge to bring up children, send them to schools which treat them and teach them reasonably well and where they find congenial classmates. The challenge is heightened by the information overload in the curricula and in what is available at the touch of a button. What is to be taught and what learnt? Has the face-to-face transaction of the school room become irrelevant? Does knowledge have any value other than for commercial exchange? When the social codes of respect for age and learning are rejected out of hand, where do we go for the ethics to replace them? Or to remember the question asked by the Dalai Lama (in a meeting called by him in November 1992) “How do you teach children the value of compassion?”

Many unanswered questions here, but they are sure to be negotiated and worked out by the teachers and students of today. Challenges are most often converted into opportunities. There is no room for despair or cynicism. I am very confident that the academic world of Human Development and Childhood Studies is in good hands.

Nandita: What specific changes did you attempt to bring to the discipline?

Anandlakshmy: It is difficult to say, because so much has evolved over the years. In summary, the introduction of the ‘ethnological method’ to the study of children was new, when we started it in the seventies. The qualitative methodology we have pursued systematically over the years is getting wider acceptance now. My camera is an extension of me and I have taken pictures for several of my students’ projects too. Inserting them in the theses and dissertations to enhance the text was a first in our field. Under my initiative, going to literary sources for a deeper understanding of children and families became a possibility. Finally, bringing zest to the discipline ensured ‘never a dull moment’!

Nandita: As your students, we always used to find your classes ‘electrifying’.  I wanted our readers to get a flavor of what we have experienced as lessons in life, not just in a particular course. If you were asked to deliver a single lecture to a virtual classroom, what would be some of the things you would definitely include?

Anandlakshmy: It is not an easy question to answer, because of your creating a virtual classroom. I have drawn my inspiration for any lecture, not only from my reading and observation in the field, but also from the avidity of the listeners. I was once asked, “How can you teach the same things every year?” and my reply was “I don’t teach things, I teach people and they are different every time”. I have often compared a lecture to a classical music concert, where the originality of the alaap (improvisation) and the fluency of its expansion must depend on the singer, of course, but can also be strongly influenced by the receptivity of the listeners. If they understand the music and give it their full attention, the singer can be truly on a high!  This interchange of energy, whether in concert or lecture hall, goes into the realm of theoretical physics!

Nandita: A question from the floor: What is human about human nature?

Anandlakshmy: Lovely question, one that allows me to roam, float in the sky and land on earth. I would go briefly into our millennia of evolution, how Darwin’s theory was a tremendous contribution to our understanding of human beings and how the supporters of the orthodoxy of the church opposed him. There were occasional distortions in European thinking which resulted, for example, when someone applied the theory of evolution to different human populations in the world, finding pygmies at the least evolved stage and Scandinavians at the most evolved peak! My own discovery of the racism of the nineteenth century men of science came when I took a course on Independent Reading, at Wisconsin. Reading Heinz Werner was a revelation. While he could theorize brilliantly on the processes of differentiation and integration in organic development, he could also be amazingly prejudiced to non-European races. Some themes seem to survive. Darwin had original ideas, based on meticulous research, but Darwinians in the twentieth century were not necessarily scientists. Some of them extended the argument about “survival of the fittest” to explain and support aggressive war mongering. Some of the names associated with this view were Desmond Morris, Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey, well known for their best selling books in the sixties and seventies.

I will tell you one of my favourite stories. Robert Ardrey, a playwright, wrote an anthropology book in the sixties, “The Territorial Imperative” justifying human aggression as the condition for survival. He seemed to be an apologist for war against the weak. At this time, Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist at Chicago thought up a brilliant critique of Ardrey’s work, and with tongue in cheek, presented it as a script for a play. He felt that if a playwright was going to venture into academic anthropology, it would only be fitting that the anthropologist should return the compliment by writing the critique in the form of a play! There were other academics who felt that an over-simplification of human nature could serve no good purpose. One of the best known critics of the neo- Darwinists was Ashley Montague from the West Coast, who argued for altruism being an intrinsic human trait and an important attribute for survival.

Homosapientum (wiseman) is the classification of our species. What enables us to have ‘sapientum’ (wisdom)? The first thing to do was to try and get students to mention the traits that distinguished mankind from our primate ancestors. The question would pass round, with everyone saying that biology was so long ago and finally we would have assembled a list of the following features: upright posture, which freed the hands for toolmaking, opposable thumb, stereoscopic vision, the ability to use speech, and a larger pelvic area in the female, allowing for infants to be born with bigger heads and better brains! “All of you know all of this. But its like pulling out an impacted wisdom tooth, it has taken me so much time and effort” I would say, and there would be relaxed laughter all round.

Nandita: We have barely crossed the biological bridge. What do psychologists say?

Anandlakshmy: To make my task easier, I will pick one or two quotes from myself (a subtle plagiarism across a time line)! “Every time I throw Freud out of the window, he walks in through the front door.”  This was in a class of “History and Theories”. In the previous class, I had done a critique of Freud, locating him in a Jewish family in 19th century Vienna and pointing out how embedded his theories were in his culture, history and geography. That same evening someone had come to my home to consult me about her young son. I realized that my judgment about the irrelevance of Freud had been off the mark. I told the class about it the next day. The students had a good laugh and saw the academic value of criticizing an icon with impunity, as well as admitting that one may have been wrong in an opinion stated earlier. This is one sample slice of the course of human development. It is a complex discipline. We have very few absolutes, perspectives change, the meaning of an action is context-specific and one needs humility to make any judgment about another person. So what is human about human nature?

In the paper I presented for McKim Marriott’s seminar in Chicago, I started with a brief quote from T.S. Eliot, those mystic sounding lines about the circularity of time. If I had to plan a class now, it would definitely include some poetry—something appropriate to the theme we were discussing. It could also be a paragraph of well written prose from Bertrand Russell or Sri Aurobindo. I love the nuances of the English language and the way philosophers state their views. I have always wanted to share these with my students.

I think Piaget would feature in the lecture, not that he propounded on the essential nature of people. He was most fascinated with how a child knows the world. Since the cerebral cortex is the special endowment of our species, knowing how we know what we know is vital. One loves Piaget not only for his grand sounding “genetic epistemology” and his charming questions to little children, but also for his love of wild flowers and his gentle irony about Americans wanting to increase, speed up or enhance the natural unfolding of children’s skills. We would then have a discussion of cultural stereotypes and I would mention Hall’s excellent observations of etiquette in different cultures. From this, the next logical step would be the definition of an anthropologist as ‘someone who would not be shocked at any custom or rite’ and perhaps we would all exchange anecdotes of  culture shocks and the cross-cultural gaffe!

The time for my class would have run out and the teacher who was to follow would pop in politely, as a reminder. I would wind up my class saying there is so much more to read and discuss and would they please continue to do so in the week that follows? I decide to finish with a personal anecdote. That morning I had given a talk at the “Freshers’ Orientation” where I was requested to fill a slot, which I accepted. My condition was that they took off the session on “Grooming” and I would give a substitute talk. I decided to talk on “A spring in your step and a sparkle in your eye”, which they liked. It is the same message for all of you!

Thank you, Nandita.

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