Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Nagmani Rao: The Sustained Inspiration

As an alumni of Karve Institute of Social Service, I shared this with fellow students. This is about one faculty of Karve Institute. This is written in the context of her retirement on 31st August 2016. 

Nagmani Rao: The Sustained Inspiration

Nagmani Rao! Those who have met her know her well, there is no need for any introduction! This is just a small attempt to recall her memories. This is a reflection regarding learning with her. This is based on what I saw of her, what I could understand and of course what I can recollect now. So this is just a random sampling and not complete in any way. In fact one should remember that sampling is always like a drop and the universe is like an ocean!

Days spent in Karve Institute- two years- are golden days for all of us. It was one of the initial days. The second interview during the admission! Mani madam was on the panel. I was under pressure and some questions were asked. Assertive questioning was there. But to my surprise, it was accompanied by attentive listening also. Mani Madam was not only asking many things, she was listening and basically she was recognizing what the student is saying. That must have helped many students like me to give that interview with confidence. 

Then the college started and the Director's address was given. Then in the rainy month of July 2006, lectures started. Already there were rumours that Mani madam is one of the most strict faculty… Her lecture in the orientation lectures stood out. The passion, the commitment and the simplified elaboration! In actual lectures, she was so different. She began with individual introduction. It was always one to one with her. She spent time to understand all of us and also helped us to understand her. She told us about her background, her experiences, her earlier movement around Sangli and what she likes to do in general. It was befitting that such a versatile personality was born in a town which was a railway junction, Manmad. When she had said, that she was too old, around fifty years old then, then we realized that she was going to be a different kind of teacher! She also shared her MSW days in TISS! One felt she was very close to the students and very informal also; despite this being a formal relation.

As the days passed, we had more interactions and slowly slowly she became one of my favourite teachers. And her concern for her students was visible. Despite of not being a natural Marathi speaker, she was speaking fluent Marathi and also Hindi. As a teacher, it must have been a lot of hard work for her not only to learn these languages, but also teach in them. But she was always committed to her students. Soon her lectures became very lively and interesting for the students. Because it was not just theory or just the subject matter, it was also her lively experience sharing and elaborations. She was teaching the subject of research. For most of the students it was a tough subject. But it was visible that she was taking every effort to make it simple for the students. Even in her research labs, she was taking every step to make the content available in the form which the students could understand. For this purpose, she ensured that every research lab group has someone who speaks Hindi and English and who can explain things to other group members. Being two extremities with a language barrier, she would care for the students from South India and also the students from the North East. This journey with Mani madam continued through the year, through the advanced orientation visits and many assignments! One thing is still clear before my eyes- the respect she has for the students, to their work and to their presentation! It is that respect which might have driven many students to do well in their study. Such respect and such acceptance for the students (who are mostly raw, undisciplined and careless)!

More interactions with her came in the second year when we were under CD specialization. Just before the year was to begin, she informed me with affection, 'I will be your field work supervisor.' What a joy it was! And it was going to be the most amazing experience. Her individual conference is something many of us would cherish for long time. Her interpretation of each small thing and her guidance! Slowly slowly we discovered that she was rather affectionate and friendly than being 'strict.' She would just say, call me Mani. But we never could call her and even now also for us she is 'Mani madam', the teacher! And if she was strict, then she was strict on herself too. As her field work student, it was necessary to submit the field work report by Wednesday morning. But that also meant that she had to check it soon after it is submitted. So she was also equally strict with herself and she was equally involved. It was always mutual communication with her. Some of us, the students, now may have realized this. Those who have worked as agency supervisors, they may have realized that it must be so difficult to find time and interest to read the reports of the students and give a page of feedback! But she was just effortless in this. It was so natural to her.

She was very systematic and methodological; she was just next to perfection. But this did not stop her from relating to those who were not perfect. She had an equal regard for all students- whether they were responding. I remember one point stressed by her during her field work supervision. She would say, when you are in the field, switch off from other things and just switch on there. And then do not switch off! When you are writing a report, switch off from other things! She had ability to deeply observe what the student is learning, what he or she can learn and how. So despite of not having any background, she appointed me on the Student Forum. In those meetings too, it was Mani madam who would have the concluding remarks. A lengthy meeting- many subjects being discussed, many issues being debated. It was not just the cup of coffee to refresh, Mani Madam's concluding remarks would also refresh us. She would present such a simplified outline for the further plan of action. It may sound ridiculous. But again, she was speaking in the terms the students could understand.

Then came the memorable study tour! She was the giant performer in all her roles. Right from planning of the tour, coordinating with the agencies, forming committees of the students and enabling them. She was a role model for us- how she greets people, how she meets them, how she listens in a meeting and how she manages everything. The late night discussions after the day's visits! And not only these aspects, but she was equally active and involved in singing movement- songs or doing 'Antakshari' with the students! One would just wonder, from where does she bring this much of energy! And also this much time. But for this her formula was to just write down for a month how you spend your time: 'Write down every small activity, describe every half an hour you spent. Then you too would realize that you are spending a lot of time unnecessarily.'

I never felt she was strict in the sense the students felt it. She was just a good teacher. As the Saint Gora Kumbhar has said, a good teacher is like a potter who holds the pot from inside and moulds it from outside. She was doing the same. Recognize the potential of the students and at the same time, mould the outer part, the raw part. So it was natural that sometimes the students felt that she was too demanding for them. But that was only for the development of the students. Despite being so called 'strict' or 'demanding' for the students, she had a warm heart for them and she would always understand the broad picture. Her ways of teaching were subtle. Not being vocal about it, she would just motivate the students by working till 9 pm in her cabin and by greeting the students sitting near the library by saying 'happy working!' Her standards were always very high, but she never failed to care for a student who was not responding. She would just confront such students with this and leave them up to them.

Despite being in a formal role of teacher, she was not confined to it. For her, the students were not the students, but the colleagues. She could share with them with ease that during her student days, her friends in TISS had told her not to use spectacle as they had liked her eyes and would wish to see them! Once she also told how Joy sir had helped her finish her MSW thesis at the last minute. Even being a teacher, she was so attached to the students that she could say that rather than being in the class, the rainy weather outside is really more exciting! During many crisis situations in field work, she was the responding helpline. Even one SMS from her would ease the mind and help to handle the situation better. Her commitment reflected time and again as she traveled long distances to attend activity in the field work and that too when she was not feeling well. I never saw her complain about anything.

In the second year, she was teaching the subject of social legislation. This subject was also tough for the students. But again, she was making every effort. Not presenting just the theory, but also including many famous cases and incidents with it. She also introduced a guest lecturer for this subject. While teaching this topic, her focus was not on memorization, but on internalizing the knack to read and interpret the law. She was frank in admitting that after some time, even she might not recall a certain sub section, such is the nature of the subject. She had also said that instead of this memory based examination, there can be an open book examination with more focus on understanding and internalizing.

During the experience of PRA (Participatory Rural Appraisal) activity during the field work, we, the students were divided in some groups. Mani madam was floating and guiding each group. I clearly recall, I was very anxious during that particular activity and I was wondering how so many things can be done at so many places and within such time. But the presence of Mani madam and her sharp inputs from time to time not only settled nerves, but also helped us conduct the activity satisfactorily. Her rapport with the village women was excellent and it just showed how she must have organized women during initial years of her work with the movement. With the village- women, she was just one among them and then she would just switch off her aspect of a professor. That was her skill!

During this journey, on many occasions, she recalled her experiences and her work. She also shared experiences with other earlier students. On one such occasion, she had shared that after joining Karve Institute around 1995, she was working on the admission process. Then she found that there were some concerns regarding marks given to the students. When she studied it, she found that some criterion were not in favour of Dalit students. So she documented it and suggested some corrections. Ultimately that led to more balanced criterion. This was rather her way of teaching empirical methods. This is just an example showcasing her intensive and extensive vision. Mani Madam is known to be pro- women. But that never meant she is anti- men. She is rather egalitarian. She always understands the broader picture and during her conferences and classes, one point she would constantly stress on was to understand the broader factors; to understand all things. If she would come to know that a student understands this much, she would push her or him a bit more. We had many heated discussions during individual or group conferences, during study tour meetings and everywhere. But never these discussions were emotionally driven. Rather, the tone of her stand was the need to understand the less seen aspects; to understand the undercurrents. And most important was that her loads of knowledge and wisdom never prevented her from actively listening what the other person is saying. Rather than arguments or defending something, her commitment was for free expression. As Voltaire had said, 'I may or may not agree with what you are saying. But I would fight till death to protect your right to say it.' In todays' environment of hatred and lack of understanding, this teaching becomes invaluable.

The two years spent in Karve Institute was a wonderful experience full of life- time memories. The rush of the submission of the reports, assignments and presentations, then the research thesis drafts and its submission, the examinations and all those things… Those two years are the most important years shaping the life of many of us. We met many friends, some of us had life time friendship there, some of us had also found life partner there. For me also, I found life partner in Karve Institute. Here too, Mani madam played a role. But it was indirect facilitation, just as a catalyst!!

Along with Mani madam, other faculties also equally contributed for moulding the students. And not just the faculties, even Mamas in Karve Institute too were friendly. But the thing is that whenever such an amazing journey takes place and when such amazing co- travelers meet, the journey becomes too short. With unforgettable memories, the two years ended. One of the last memories of her field work guidance is her explanation for field work marks. It was such a close relation that I could ask her its explanation, as I was surprised. And she also explained it without hesitation. This she could explain because she had a strong belief that we are not teacher- students any more, we rather belong to the same community and we are mutually answerable too.

Fortunately, company of Mani Madam was not over after passing out. Rather, during initial years in the field, her guidance was highly needed. Because till 2008, the nature of teaching in the MSW course was largely theory oriented. Despite of practical exposure and all the field based interactions, students still felt to have landed in an alien environment. Hence there was a lot of discussion with Mani madam after passing out in 2008. In place of the individual conferences, now there was telephonic and email conferences! The guidance continued. Here also she was doing the same- helping the student to see and understand what he or she cannot see and understand. Getting her guidance and sharing on email was very special. This too shows the respect and the space she gives to the students.

After a couple of years, opportunities came to meet her as I worked with her for a small project. It was like 'once up on a time again' with Mani madam! Although, Mani madam always gave equal treatment even during college days and even now- working in a project with her; she was always the teacher and I was and I am always the student. Regarding an ideal teacher, it is said that ideal teacher is one who is always and unconditionally respected. No one needs to consciously give 'respect' to him or her, the respect is automatically given, such is the charisma of a genuine teacher. Such kind of teacher or Guru she has been. So being her student is a privilege.

During this project, once I had the opportunity to tell her what I had always in my mind. I said to her, Madam, you are workaholic, aren't you! She just smiled and responded affirmatively and said that Manasi, her daughter, would surely agree with this. During this time, she shared her experiences with students coming later on. She had become softer now. Even she had told us that for our batch too, she had become much soft as compared to earlier batches. As the next generation students have changed, she also had to change. The process and environment of learning also has changed significantly. But for Mani madam, it is same in one way. If a student wants to learn, it is good, she feels. If the student does not want to learn, then too she or he is free to do so, she always feels.

Later on occasions of meeting Mani madam become infrequent. Also the momentum of life took us in different directions and mostly away from our college. Still, a few meetings are fresh in memory. It was a CD- Forum meeting and Mani madam was present. Her sheer presence elevates the standard of the meeting. That's a hallmark of a true teacher. Mere his or her presence elevates the process. As years passed on, interactions and meetings with her became scarce. But despite of this, the memories are fresh. The impressions are still fresh like dew drops.

Today, many of us may not be in direct touch with her. Many of us may not be even in the same field any more like the case with me. I am no more working in the MSW field in the true sense of the term. But still, the foundation that I was given in the institute by Mani madam and other faculties is very much valuable. Be it any field or any domain of work, for achieving certain level of professional work, one needs to internalize certain values, certain skills and competences and Mani madam with other faculties was a really enabler in this sense. Certainly, it was not only Mani madam, but other faculties also. Even the Mamas (the non teaching staff) in the Institute had a thing or two to teach us. I take this opportunity to express my gratitude towards all of them. Equal memories are there with each faculty with whom I had close contact.

This was an attempt to reflect on experiences with her. As I said, this was just a drop size sample from the ocean. Even less than an iceberg. But the impact she had on many of us is life- long and invaluable. As far as myself is concerned, I can state that Mani madam was someone who really recognized my skills and groomed them. Like a potter, she was the ideal teacher who recognized the potential, supported it with her soft touch and discarded the undesirable and polished it. She was always a role model, but never imposed herself. These kind of grooming has always done by all faculties in the college and I express my gratitude towards all of them. Always proud to be your student, Mani Madam and also student of all the faculties. I wish Mani madam and everyone good health and satisfaction in their further life.

 Your student


(URCD 2006- 2008)

Written on 20th August 2016

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