100 years of Modern School, Delhi and how the school combined innovation with tradition  

Delhi’s Modern School, founded in1920, has been an integral part of India’s capital and its history is a fascinating chronicle of the evolution of a ‘modern’ school

100 years of Modern School, Delhi and how the school combined innovation with tradition  

Rakesh Batabyal

In the big, new school building on Barakhamba Road, each teacher was assigned a room so they did not have to hop from class to class. This was a good practice and helped teachers develop an identity in the minds of pupils. Many Modernites will recall, either with dread or delight, the exact room in which a particular teacher taught a particular subject.

One of the critical areas in which the school experimented since the 1930s was the amount of leave granted to teachers. In the school’s earliest days, teachers wore many hats and to grant them leave meant to significantly impair the functioning of the school. With the many foreign teachers at the school because of the Montessori system it followed, the consequences of leaves were even more stark.

Modern School soon understood it was vital, and cheaper, to have permanent local teachers and to accommodate their ambitions. The school began to grant increasingly long leaves to teachers to take up fellowships and posts abroad, giving teachers up to a year, or even two, to return to the school. And most did. The school has maintained its accommodating approach to teachers who request sabbaticals and leaves to take up training opportunities, when other schools have largely prevented their teachers from expanding their skill sets.

One of the earliest decisions taken regarding the Modern School was to appoint Kamala Bose as the school’s first principal, and it was an excellent one. Over the next twenty-seven years, Ms Bose would serve the school with distinction. Indeed, Ms Bose was so devoted to the school that her salary remained unchanged for years, until the board of trustees thrust a raise upon her.

Kamala Bose came to Delhi in 1920 to lead the newly founded Modern School; Kamala Sengupta led Lady Irwin School; J.D. Tytler was the first principal of Delhi Public School. In later years, Din Dayal, the principal of Delhi Public School, Mathura Road, was another such visionary, while Rajni Kumar singlehandedly created Springdales School and led it as principal. This phenomenon has been peculiar to Delhi.

In Calcutta, for instance, it is individual teachers, rather than principals, who have become prominent and even famous. The upright principal with totalitarian instincts, who rules his school with an iron fist, was portrayed by Amitabh Bachchan in Mohabbatein.

If Ms Bose was the first and most important jigsaw in the puzzle, Raghubir Singh was equally circumspect when it came to the composition of the school’s board of trustees and the management committee. They comprised an eclectic mix of people: the principal of St Stephen’s College, S.K. Rudra; prominent builders of the empire’s new capital in Delhi, such as Sobha Singh and Basakha Singh; eminent academics, such as N.K. Sen and D.S. Kothari, of Delhi University’s philosophy and physics departments respectively; two of the city’s leading doctors, Rai Bahadur N. Sen and Dr S.K. Sen; and even British civil servants, despite Raghubir Singh’s obvious attachment to the nationalist cause.

The school, he knew, would be essential to an independent India because its mission was to enable its students to confront and perhaps even answer for themselves the question of identity for the modern Indian. How must the modern Indian be educated; what must he know and understand?

100 years of Modern School, Delhi and how the school combined innovation with tradition  

Gandhiji was to the point when he commented in the school guest book about the school’s quest for modernity and his own concerns about it: “I have only one fear. If in the flush of the modern, the ancient is lost it would greatly harm the young girls and boys. I take the liberty of saying this because I see the purity of the motive of the inception of the school and I want this institution to progress.”

The cultural life of Delhi was moulded by patrons and institution-builders such as the great Hindustani classical vocalist Vinay Chandra Maudgalya, artist Bhabesh Sanyal, the writer Shankar, arts patron Sumitra Charat Ram, and artist and actor Sarada Ukil. Their efforts were part of a larger nation-building quest, the product of a national mood of hope, optimism and duty after Partition. India was independent and at its helm was a sophisticated Prime Minister who understood that culture emerged from the freedom to experiment.

It was at this critical moment, when India was making its institutions and setting out its values, that Modern School had M.N. Kapur as its principal. And it is because of MNK’s leadership that Modern School took its place among the foremost institutions of independent India. It became a place, as his daughter Anuradha has written, for those who ‘desire alternate visions’ and lead ‘idealistic lives’.

Looking through old issues of the school magazines, Adarsh and Sandesh, it is striking how often MNK is photographed with his wife, his family, or in convivial spirits with staff and board members. The impression conveyed is genuinely familial, of everyone pulling in the same direction. The idea of the school as a happy modern family was anchored around the Kapur household. This was an ethos that bound students to the institution even when it had been decades since they were there; it’s an ethos that, till date, makes the Modern School Old Students Association one of the closest-knit and most effective alumni organisations in India.

100 years of Modern School, Delhi and how the school combined innovation with tradition  

100 years of Modern School, Delhi and how the school combined innovation with tradition  

MNK ran the school like a family, often couching student successes and failures in how they reflected upon the family rather than the individual. This quite often ran counter to the telos of a liberal education, the foundation of the school’s pedagogical promise that it would allow for the evolution of the student as an individual and provide him autonomy

The school’s philosophy did not have room for family as an organising principle; instead the building blocks were modernity and nationalism. This apparent contradiction of rejecting family and at the same time structuring the school as a large family created a dynamic tension among students, prompting them to embrace the institution while building the self-confidence to leave it behind.

It is worth noting that, in many ways, MNK brought back the centrality of family to the school’s zeitgeist, a notion that the school’s founder, Raghubir Singh, wanted to marginalise. He succeeded in tempering the school’s mission of creating a ‘free individual’ by reminding students, in Donne’s words, that no man is an island, that humanism must be qualified with an understanding of one’s obligations to society.

(This is an extract from ‘The Modern School (1920-2020)’ written by Rakesh Batabyal and published by Westland Publications)

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