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Tarabai Modak
India’s ‘Montessori’ and the country’s first pre-schooling expert

Born :19th April, 1892

Tarabai Modak’s life was rife with struggle. It was in fact so eventful that an interesting movie could be made out of it. There is an amazing similarity in both the careers as well as the lives of Tarabai Modak and Anutai Wagh. Both loved family life and aspired for a happy family. Both set up a family but their dreams were short lived. While Anutai lost her husband within a few days after marriage, Tarabai had to lead a lonely life even though her husband was alive. One can say that both women were meant not to manage a single family but were rather ordained to help set-up the households of many tribal families.

Tarabai was born in Indore and spent her childhood there. Both her parents were strict followers of Prarthana Samaj, a sect of Progressive Hindus. The atmosphere in the house was thus very modern. Her father, Sadashiv Kelkar, purposefully married a widow. Back then in the 19th century, it was considered taboo to marry a widow. Even today it is a matter of courage to marry a widow. In those days it really was a daring step but the Prarthana Samaj gave them their full support. Tarabai was nurtured in such a progressive atmosphere. Subsequently in the year 1903, the Kelkar family left Indore and settled in Mumbai. Tarabai and her sister were however sent to Pune and enrolled in the Hujurpaga School. They were ridiculed on many occasions by the society as daughters of a widow. They were refused admission into the school hostel. However Tarabai always remained staunchly proud of her family background.

Around the time the family shifted to Mumbai, Tarabai’s father died and she had to leave Pune and return to Mumbai. Here she enrolled in an English medium school where she was introduced to the western culture. This change in her environs marked the beginning of a new learning period in her life. She joined the Elphinston College after matriculation in 1909. Soon after, she lost her mother and had to leave the Elphinston College and join Wilson College. As a result of the loss of both parents, Tarabai and her siblings faced a financial crisis. It was their kith and kin who supported them in these trying times.

The Prarthana Samaj had a great influence on the lifestyle and thinking of Tarabai. Her sensitive and cultured lifestyle gave her strength to struggle against adverse conditions. While pursuing her academics with self discipline, she simultaneously pursued various hobbies. Not only was she an expert tennis and badminton player, she also participated in serious discussions with fervour.

While she was in college she became acquainted with K. V. Modak, the son of Prof. Vaman Modak, the retired principal of Elphinston College. The Modak family was also associated with the Prarthana Samaj. Soon the association transformed into mutual love and they got married as soon as she acquired her degree. At that time K. V. was a renowned practicing lawyer, settled in Amravati. Tarabai moved to Amravati after marriage in 1915. She acquired the distinction of being the first woman graduate in Amravati! The couple were modern, intellectual and talented and were a strong influence on the city’s social circle, spending their time in participating in intellectual debates and public gatherings, attending plays, musical concerts and entertaining guests.

It was in this period that Tarabai started a school. This school however was functional for a very short period of three years and had to be discontinued as Tarabai’s life took a totally different turn.

For some tragic reasons Tarabai’s marriage was unsuccessful. Unhappy with her husband’s behaviour, she decided to separate from her husband and leave Amravati for good. It was not an easy decision as the society looked down upon such women who were deserted by the husband. Her future appeared bleak. Tarabai also had to look after her one year old daughter Prabha.

However, in no time an opportunity to become independent presented itself. Tarabai was offered a post of the Principal of Barton Female Training College in Rajkot. It was indeed an excellent offer. The position she was offered was very respectable and carried a high salary and perks like a large bungalow, car and servants. But the job was a challenge for Tarabai. The medium of education being Gujarati, she had to first become fluent in Gujarati. She had no experience about education and matters associated with it. She also had to handle the administration of the college. Tarabai visited Baroda and Ahmadabad and learnt management techniques from the training college there. She stayed in Rajkot for two years. Tarabai might have continued thus, but for her daughter who found it difficult to adjust to life at Rajkot. And so, Tarabai decided to leave the lucrative job at Rajkot.

By this time Tarabai had developed an interest in the field of education. She had read about the experiments in education by Gijubhai Badheka at Bhavnagar in Saurashtra, and so, she arrived at Bhavnagar. Gijubhai was conducting experiments in children’s education based on the principles of Montessori at the Dakshinamurty Institute in Bhavnagar. He needed an assistant, and found one in Tarabai. Being highly educated, knowledgeable and keenly interested in the field of education and one who ensured that a job undertaken was executed to its completion, Tarabai proved to be an able assistant.

The meeting between Tarabai and Gijubhai proved to be of historical importance. It was the beginning of Montessori education (kindergarten or pre-schooling) in India. Together, they took on the arduous task of introducing the concept of pre-schooling to a society that gave secondary importance to education itself. Children were sent to primary school as late as six years, and it was difficult to convince people about the importance of pre-schooling that started at an even earlier age. Tarabai, well aware of this mindset of the general public, knew that a scientific base was needed if people had to be convinced.

Knowing this, Gijubhai and Tarabai studied the Montessori principles and applied them to Indian conditions. Even then, many viewed it as a mere fad. But Tarabai carried forward her objective resolutely and went ahead step by step. Today we see that the importance of the nursery or kindergarten education has been realized by most people. But the seeds of the same were sown by Gijubhai and Tarabai. Tarabai respected Gijubhai as her Guru as she learned the technique from him.

Her stay at Bhavnagar inspired her towards writing. In 1926 she founded the Nutan BalShikshan Sangh, an organisation devoted to the Montessori Education and started publishing a monthly magazine titled ShikshanPatrika, in both Hindi and Marathi. Tarabai was the sole strength behind the magazine. She also edited about hundred books during her stay in Bhavnagar and wrote several books. She convened many meetings to propagate pre-primary education. Montessori became her life’s work. She has this to say about Bhavnagar - “I found my Guru, my vocation and my work at Bhavnagar”.

Tarabai stayed in Bhavnagar for nine years. She did not merely study the principles of Montessori education but adapted it to suit Indian conditions. In India, education is treated as holy, so she named the kindergarten schools as temples of learning. She also introduced Indian classical dance, art forms, Indian classical and folk music into the syllabus. Montessori principles give prominence to the free creative instinct of the children along with their development. It was also the period of the Freedom Movement in India. Freedom of individuals and children had therefore acquired a special significance. Freedom of every individual signified the country’s freedom. Tarabai introduced all these new ideologies in her children’s education program.

Along with her experiments in the kindergarten education she also introduced training for teachers. She also spread awareness among the parents and the bureaucrats in order to get the Montessori system entrenched into the education system of the country. After having done all this she was still not contented; she shifted her focus to children’s education in the rural areas.

The tools and devices used in the Montessori system were expensive and therefore not affordable to the rural folks. When Gijubhai introduced the Montessori System in rural area around Bhavnagar he gave Tarabai the responsibility of getting them made locally in the villages at a low cost. This experience came in handy to Tarabai in Kosbad.

With the abundant experience gathered at Bhavnagar, Tarabai returned to Amravati in 1933. She regretted that she could not give a happy, safe and a beautiful childhood to her daughter Prabha. Setting aside her pride and forgetting all the slights suffered at the hands of her husband, she returned to him so that her daughter could benefit from her father’s love. But this lasted for a very short time and she returned to Mumbai with a firm decision to devote her full time to children’s education.

After she came to Mumbai she founded a school at Dadar based on her ideas. It was called ShishuVihar. It was again a fresh beginning for her. She had to start from scratch as Maharashtra was totally unaware of Tarabai and the kindergarten education. The school started in 1936. She realized that as more and more kindergarten schools would be started, the need for trained teachers would also grow. So she also established teachers training facility in the ShishuVihar school premises named Bal Adhyayan Mandir. She also laid out a meticulous plan for the next ten years for both the institutions.

However, eventually she was driven by her original goal of devoting her full time to children’s education in rural backward areas. She again renounced the smooth and happy life in the city and came to Bordi, a small village in Thane district. She was accompanied by her pupil Anutai Wagh. She was by now well past her fifties and well experienced in the field of children’s education, whereas it was only a beginning for Anutai Wagh.

After she came to Bordi in 1945, Tarabai fully devoted her time and energy to preschool education. Though her experiments in education were in reference to the Indian conditions, she now had to consider the rural conditions and re-standardize for that. In Kosbad, she had to adapt her methods to the tribal culture. Consequently because of her comprehensive efforts, a unique system for children’s education applicable all-over India came into existence. In her stay of twenty eight years at Kosbad and Bordi, a structure for the education of the tribal children evolved under her leadership.

Just as Gijubhai found an able co-worker and associate in Tarabai, similarly Anutai Wagh turned out to be an equally able and competent colleague for Tarabai. The journey of the two started from a hamlet of the Dalits and opened Kuranshala (schools in meadows where cattle grazed), Ghantashala (a school that started with a bell), Aanganwadi (a school that assembled in the backyard) which ultimately led to the spread of education and employment amongst the tribal. This extensive work was duly recognized by the Government of India and Tarabai was honoured with the PadmaBhushan, a prestigious award in 1962. Tarabai crossed the boundaries of Maharashtra and became a national hero.

She graced many important positions as an educationist and was awarded many honours. After the demise of Gijubhai in 1939, Tarabai headed the Nutan BalShikshan Sangh. She was a member of the then Bombay Presidency Legislative Assembly for five years from 1946 to 1951. She worked for many years as a member of the Text Book Committee for primary schools. She was chairperson of the All India Primary Education Department twice. She also graced many Primary Education committees of different State and central governments. Mahatma Gandhi had delegated Tarabai the duty of preparing the Draft Plan of his Basic Education Scheme (Buniyadi Shikshan Paddhati). She was invited to the International Conference on Montessori Education in Italy in 1949 to give a speech.

The life story of Tarabai is as astounding as it is awe inspiring. She had to face difficulties at every step but instead of being discouraged she converted them into opportunities. Not only did she overcome them, but she shaped out new ideas from each challenge that she faced. She never allowed personal adversities to affect her personality, nature or her work. The story of her life demonstrates that such persons are born to shape the society.

We should be proud of Tarabai, for her experiments of primary education in Thane became a national model for primary education for tribal people.

Death: 1973




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