A photograph published in MetroPlus results in the coming together of nine surviving students of Italian educationist Maria Montessori for a unique reunion after seven decades.
Photo: N. Sridharan
It’s a hot, sunny afternoon, and a group of elderly gentlemen and women sits patiently under the trees at Kalakshetra Foundation, waiting for the event to begin.
It seems like any ordinary meeting, except it’s not — it’s a reunion of a most remarkable sort.
These nine men and women are the surviving students of the great Italian educationist Maria Montessori herself, and they’ve come together for a reunion — for the first time — nearly 70 years after they were classmates in her schoolroom.
When a group of adorable current-day Montessori students joins us the for the prayer song, the mood is truly set, and we rewind to the time when these septuagenarians were four or five years old themselves — memories of Maria and her adopted son Mario, of Easter eggs and biscuits, and all those things one tends to treasure as a child.
“I still remember the party Maria gave soon after the school was inaugurated — there were cakes, sweets, candles and gifts to be given to us kids,” says K.V.S. Krishna, who was instrumental in putting together the event after the idea was sparked off by a photograph that appeared in The Hindu (see box). “I was always hungry, and I grabbed as much as I could!”
The year was 1939, and Maria had fled to India with Mario, after being exiled by Mussolini during the Second World War. Invited to Madras by G.S. Arundale, she arrived that November, and set up her school at the beautiful old Olcott Garden bungalow on the Theosophical Society grounds.
“Our classes would be held in the ground floor of the bungalow, and we’d have a session of biscuits afterwards,” recalls A.Y. Nithiananda. “I remember, Madam Montessori would be wearing a kunguma pottu just like I am now.”
Some of the memories that surface at the reunion are poignant, such as P.K. Prabhakar’s recollection of the only time he ever saw Madam Maria cry — when she went to see Mario at Pallavaram, where he was interned as a prisoner of war.
When Maria wept
“By the good graces of Mr. Arundale, she could go visit him twice a year, and one of those times, Mario asked her to bring me along — he used to be very fond of me and would call me ‘Paiyya’,” says Prabhakar, the senior-most at the reunion. “When I saw Mario, I rushed to him, and extended my hand, and the sergeant in charge hit me with a baton. And, Maria started crying, saying: ‘No one should hit a child’.”
When they returned to the bungalow, Prabhakar says, she gave him chocolate and made him a promise — she would ensure no one hurt him like that again. “She taught me that one’s love for others is more important than all the education in the world,” he says.
Other anecdotes are in a lighter vein, such as R. Sivakami’s, at being asked to garland Maria on her birthday (“I was so proud to be chosen out of the 22!” she laughs), and a touching email from Sivakami’s brother S. Padmanabhan in Germany, whose aptitude for engineering Maria predicted back then (he ended up becoming one of the earliest staff members of the IIT Madras mechanical engineering department).
Plenty of chocolates
“She would always ruffle my hair and call me ‘bambino’,” writes Padmanabhan. “And, around Easter, there were always plenty of chocolate eggs!”
The picture that emerges is one of a remarkably warm woman who loved children and loved being with them. Sivakami remembers how Maria would often just sit and watch them at work: “Some days she would be on a dais, watching what we were doing, and some days, she would come and sit right by us and observe us.”
As the afternoon wears on, it also becomes obvious that there’s a strong sense of kinship amongst the people present. They’re more than just old classmates — they all seem to know each other’s relatives and friends, and they tease each other and squabble as if they’re family. Which is what they are, says Prabhakar. “Most of us come from a Theosophical Society background, so we, virtually, are all one family,” he laughs.
The sultry afternoon turns into a rain-splattered evening, and the remarkable reunion is at an end. The group disperses and slowly shuffles away, but Maria’s legacy remains, in the hearts and memories of her former students, the ones who could make it to the meet and the ones who couldn’t.
Box: How it all happened
It all began with a photograph. In the MetroPlus column Memories of Madras of September 9, 2009, titled ‘A Bridge with a View’ we carried a black-and-white picture of six students with Maria Montessori at Olcott bungalow.
When Gabriele Binder, executive director of the Montessori Society, Baden Württemberg, Germany, who has been studying Maria’s days in India for the last six years saw the picture, she immediately contacted K.V.S. Krishna, a former student of Maria’s whom she was told could help her.
“I was already in touch with 12 or 13 of the former students who were in Chennai,” says Krishna. “After Gabriele contacted me, we traced 16 of them, and then 19 all over India and abroad. Best of all, we’ve now identified four of the six children in the picture!”
Soon, plans were made for the grand reunion. Naturally, Binder was present, recording the interviews of the students. She had just one thing left to say at the end: “I’m glad you published that article!”