Sunday, June 26, 2016

A Tiny Tool For World Peace?

As I watch, with dismay, the growing intolerance that surrounds us and manifests itself in varying ways through the world right now, I can't help but wonder if and how things could be changed for the better.  Yesterday my two year old son pointed to a picture of a gun and kept asking me what it was; I found it difficult to explain because so many words that I had to use were not a part of his vocabulary or understanding!

Therefore, today I choose to focus on little minds - on their latent desire for peace and joy and what we can learn from them.  Perhaps we can attempt to remember happy and uncritical thoughts and feelings that are buried deep within us, a sense of awe for nature and wonder for the gifts of the world, and see where it takes us.  I quote below from a Montessori book (Basic Montessori, Learning Activities for Under-Fives, by David Gettman, one of the best books on this subject that I have read so far) -

"Peace Through Self Fulfilment

Maria Montessori lived through the two most terrible wars in the history of mankind, and the causes of war were very much on her mind, especially in the years after the Second World War.  She came to believe that the widespread application of her method for education could help lead the world towards peace.
  Montessori believed that her method enables children to satisfy fully their instinctual and personal developmental needs, and so helps to create fulfilled and well balanced adults, whose innate goodness can shine forth unimpeded by neurotic ambitions and desires.  If her method would spread sufficiently throughout the world, she hoped, millions of adults raised by it would be free from such tendencies as  greed and aggression.  Then, with the passing of the old generations, threats to world peace would gradually subside and disappear.
  The Montessori methods may also help promote peace by its study and support of the absorbent mind.  If we consider the action of the absorbent mind - that children fully accept, without critique or prejudice, the behaviour and traits of those around them, that children transform themselves by incarnating these ways, and that children place complete faith in the goodness and benevolence of others - we see more than a mechanism for learning, but also children's saint-like charity or spiritual love for people..."

The Montessori system is quite 'spirit driven' (not in the religious sense) which makes it difficult to explain or advise an adult (teacher or guardian) on the exact approach to take for each child.  The child drives the process and the hope is that the adult is sufficiently perceptive to support and facilitate this process of discovery and to respect the child's reactions and opinions.  The techniques themselves are unusual - they have been developed by the children themselves (and refined as Maria Montessori watched the children choose and show her the way they wanted to learn).  To illustrate this system further and describe how its fundamental principles can help children and adults view life in a different way, I quote from another section of the same book.  This deals with Sensorial Activities (those that develop our sensing skills)-

"Finally, the Sensorial Activities can have a moral and spiritual importance for the child.  A very young child, like the baby discussed earlier, who has not yet organised sense experience, sees the world as consisting of lively, responsive 'things', which behave like fountains of impressions, spouting changing sensorial stimuli in response to playful proddings.  There is a moral danger at the point in the child's early psychic development when structure is first being applied to sense perceptions, that these thriving companions will  be turned into lifeless repositories of dull existence, attended by a determinate set of functions or characteristics, which can be negated and replaced at whim by the indifferent observer.  This 'objectification' of things, both living and inanimate, can result when they are identified and classed only in terms of their service to people (e.g. we grow plants for eating, keeping warm, and building homes) or are described as isolated pockets of existence with alterable attributes (e.g. 'this is a rock; it is rough, heavy, grey and hard to break').  The child learns from such lessons that the unsympathetic manipulation of things (as well as living creatures) is not only possible but expected, and the child is hardened to the wonderment of endless exploration which guides a baby's interactions with things.  As a result, the world is narrowed to a place full of 'objects' to be possessed for our vanity, altered for our pleasure, or destroyed for our convenience.
   Montessori's Sensorial Activities introduce the child to a structured comprehension of the world in a different way.  The child is not led by activities away from the baby's world of lively thing-friends, but is only given the skills to clarify and order the sensorial gifts that may be received form them.  The activities' enlargement of sensorial sensitivity increases the child's respect and awe for the things which are the source of those sense impressions.  Rather than leave a child feeling that a thing is easily defined and manipulated, the sensorial Activities make the child aware of the endless depth available for exploring the thing in its infinite depth and fullness.
  In this spiritual aspect of the Sensorial Activities, we can see one of the far-reaching differences between the Montessori approach and the conventional teaching methods.  Note that the Sensorial Activities isolate a single perceptual quality by making each object in a set identical in all respects except one.  Conventional teaching methods commonly introduce a quality in the opposite way; that is, the quality of interest is usually identified as the one most obvious quality which a group of otherwise unrelated objects have in common.  For instance, to introduce the colour 'blue', a conventional teacher will gather together a blue flower, a blue toy truck, a blue cloth, and a blue pencil, all of which vary in shape, material, size, texture and weight, but have nearly the same colour. Though it might seem that Montessori's approach is nothing more than a pedagogical mirror-image of the conventional method, it is actually conveying an entirely different message to the child.  The focus in the Sensorial Activities is not on objects, but on the phenomenon of colour as an experience. In Montessori's materials, the things themselves have no uses or functions outside the exercise; the quality is simply presented, explored and related to the child's actual experience of the environment.  In the conventional teaching method, the focus is instead on the objects, which do have uses or functions outside the exercise, and which are shown to 'possess' various qualities, including the one under study.  The point made by the conventional teaching is not that you can experience colour, but that a number of objects may all possess the same quality.  In brief, the conventional teaching method perpetuates the 'objectification' of the child's world by subordinating experience to objects, while Montessori's approach introduces the quality as a facet of the child's experience, leaving 'things' free of the limitations and manipulations of human definition, preserving for the child a sense of their mystical depth and liveliness..."

I think the Montessori system (or other similar methods that involve the body, mind and spirit of a child rather than an adult's perception of a child) enables the child not to be afraid of differences (in others as well as in himself or herself) and to accept these differences non-judgementally at an early age.  Judgement always creeps in as we grow older, but early lessons of respect of others' differences and of understanding one's own strengths and potential still remain and can be put to fear-free, peaceful and creative use in the years that follow.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Of Tribes And Tribal Carpets

I recently read a very well written article in the New York Times (sent by a friend, Danny, who wanders about, collecting tribal carpets that are woven in central Asia and neighbouring regions).  It was about how the original art of making Persian rugs may not survive much longer.

This is unfortunately true of many tribal products and, in fact, their very way of life.  While some tribes manage to adapt to a changing world successfully, many end up being exploited and some slowly die out for lack of options.

When we were in Delhi last winter, we visited Dilli Haat, a large area set up by the government to promote the sale of crafts directly by craftsmen.  Over the years, we have been seeing more and more stalls which obviously have no craftsmen, just middle men, and this year we saw a large outlet selling cheap carpets.  The carpets looked quite attractive (not masterpieces of any kind but very nice and good value for money) - they were so incredibly cheap that we wondered how they were made.  They were obviously not handmade, the salesperson said they came from a kind of factory.  He was very keen to sell us some and even said we could take them home, roll them out and return them if we did not like them.  He made it so simple and accessible for customers that I knew that tribal (or any handwoven) carpets wouldn't stand a chance against these.

Here is what Danny said, when I mentioned this to him:

"The fact of the matter is that there are really no mysterious bargains to be you rightly pointed out, the carpets you saw in Delhi were modern reproductions of old material....they do not "knot" them, they "tuft" them and back them up with glue...a process that takes a tiny fraction of time and very little manual effort (and no creativity).  

What is funny is that many of these modern things are actually being made in China...the bazaars in Turkey and Morocco are full of Chinese production of imitations made to copy Central Asian products.  They jokingly refer to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul as the Chinese Bazaar.  We are truly becoming a global culture!

But in a way one cannot blame the old artisans to look for more efficient means of livelihood and creature comforts that a nomadic life does not easily provide for. "

We have been witnessing the erosion of tribal lifestyles in many places during our travel, within India (Kutch, Nagaland, the Andamans) and outside the country as well (Burma, Borneo, America and many other countries) - the tales are too numerous to narrate.  What can we do about it?  Sadly, not much.  Tribal lives are governed by modern politics, economics and the exploitation of natural resources by urban dwellers.  I think all we can do is to be sensitive to the needs of tribals and respect their ways of living (Just to illustrate - I have seen people talk about and treat some tribals in the Andamans as if they were an inferior kind of animal.  Many years ago, the government decided to 'uplift' their living conditions by building concrete toilets in the thick of these beautiful islands, which the tribals had no idea what to do with).  To step gently into their areas, if at all.  And not to endorse products which involve exploitation of the tribals or their natural resources.  Specifically, in the case of carpets - if one has the resources, it would be good to buy one original handwoven carpet rather than lots of cheap ones.

We did buy a rug from Dilli Haat, as a mat for my little son to play on (as this can be easily washed and dried).  It's a very cheerful one - pale yellow with big flowers that are attractive in a nursery setting (and there were several identical ones, in different colours so we knew we were not buying anything unique!).  In the same room, beside this rug, I have kept a tribal rug, for my son to lie upon when he's sleepy.  The contrast between the two is enormous, when seen side by side.  The machine made rug is pleasant, extremely cheerful and functional.  It looks very much in place in an urban setting.  The tribal rug is wonderfully soft and comfortable.  Its colours reflect in some way the beauty of the natural world.  It is clearly an individual's creation - varying shades are used in an asymmetric manner that results in a rugged and timeless beauty.  My son looks at the colours, patterns and shapes of both rugs.  But when it comes to nose rubbing (a high accolade), it's the tribal one that he always chooses.
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