My first full week at NIRMAN was full of learning, as I continued attending teachers’ training workshops. From Monday to Thursday, we had a professor from an U.S. American college lead intensive workshops on theater design. Since NIRMAN schoolchildren produce at least one major performance each year, it is important for teachers to learn about costume, set, and light design. On Friday and Saturday, teachers presented their research projects on topics they chose, and we engaged in discussions afterwards. During my free time, I have been reading textbooks on modern Indian history (from British rule to independence), preparing to teach on this subject once school opens in a week. I’ve been kept busy.
All of these experiences have been stimulating my thoughts around what it means to be ‘modern’ and ‘post-colonial’. Here are some anecdotes.
1. During the theater design workshop, we designed costumes for a play called “Momo,” based on a fantasy novel by the same title by German writer Michael Ende. The story has been adapted to take place in Varanasi, and characters are given Indian personalities. Given the context of adaptation, I wanted to design costumes that were more or less Indian and traditional. When I mentioned that I was inspired by the teachers’ clothes (most of them wear kurti or sari) for my costumes, one mentioned that “actually, what everyone wears here (in this room) is modern. You won’t see clothes like this in traditional India.” It was at this moment that my assumption of modernity was challenged. If dresses and t-shirts are modern, why can’t these colorful and innovative kurti be?
2. The Indian history textbooks that I have been reading mention in detail about the Western influence on the concept of modernity. Indian history is usually taught in three large periods: ‘ancient,’ ‘medieval,’ and ‘modern.’ However, historians point out the problem with this division, since this is drawn from the Western tradition that associates modernity with science, reason, democracy, liberty, and freedom. India was far from free during British colonial rule, but do we still call this period ‘modern?’ In fact, some historians call this period ‘colonial’ or ‘post-colonial’. Why do we place so much value on modernity, when it is often associated with Western domination, bloody battles for nationalism, and decline and denial of local cultures?
3. On Friday and Saturday, I sat in lively discussions on various research topics that the teachers had presented, including girls’ education in rural areas, caste and politics, child labor, and defining women’s success. All of these indicated just how much these inequalities are on their minds — they were so passionate talking, and I’m sure they could have talked for hours if we had time. Some of the larger questions saw no conclusion — such as, how do we define women’s success? How do we get girls from rural areas to attend school, if their parents don’t encourages it and try to prevent it actively? How do we define rural versus urban? This is what modern India looks like.
4. One of the last topics we covered in the training was the definition of “post-colonial” education. It is a hybrid of classical and progressive education systems in India, combining Indian and Western ideals to make students aware of what they know, to a point where they can question their own teachers and bosses. Post-colonial education aims to give the students ‘social capital’ — power of knowledge that no one else can take, once it’s been given to the child. Education can really influence the world.
As a person with knowledge in Japanese and U.S. American culture (a.k.a. two colonizers), I have not given much thought to what I call modern, and especially, what impacts that modernity has caused the community. I’m still carefully learning the culture and weighing my participation here so that I will not become another colonizer with ‘modern’ Western thoughts to instill people here.
High-quality learning provides more questions than answers. The more I know, the more I want to question in life. I am disturbed in a productive way.