Agastya’s Initial Spark
Great groups spawn great ideas. The story of Agastya begins with the coming together of an unlikely group of individuals, united in their passion to make an enduring contribution to Indian education. On a cool evening in January 1994, on the verandah of his sprawling home in Bangalore, K.V. Raghavan, former chairman of India’s largest engineering consultancy firm, Engineers India, hosted the first of several discussions with his son, Ramji, an international banker based in London, and S. Balasundaram, former principal of Rishi Valley, the alternative boarding school founded by the philosopher J. Krishnamurti. The topic of their exchanges was the challenges of educating India’s children. Wide-ranging and informal, the conversations, whose participants soon included P.K. Iyengar, a nuclear scientist and former Chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, F. Mahavir Kumar, a stockbroker and former President of the Bangalore Stock Exchange, Pat Rao from New York and investment bankers Guru Ramakrishnan and Pankaj Talwar, centered on critical challenges in education that involved unlocking and nurturing creativity, improving the natural environment, and initiating positive change in the education system through teachers.
Ramji and Mahavir were former students of Balasundaram at Rishi Valley. In their late 60s at the time, K.V. Raghavan, Balasundaram, and Iyengar were keen to offer their knowledge, insights, and connections acquired over long and impressive careers to help Ramji and Mahavir build Agastya. Still in their 40s, and not more than a stone’s throw away from the crest of their careers, Ramji and Mahavir decided to quit their jobs in finance to build a dream school in India, to be founded on the principles of
The transformative question to emerge from these discussions was: “Is it possible to raise the level of creativity in a country weighed down by colonially imposed, rote-based learning through a more holistic, inquiry-based model of education that is anchored in Indian culture?” Recognizing the widening gulf between teacher training and programs and the school classroom, K.V. Raghavan used the analogy of a hospital and medical college to drive home the need to co-locate teacher training with Agastya’s future labs. He insisted on a large campus, which would become a factory of ideas and a visible, new model for creative learning. Balasundaram described Rishi Valley’s successful model of eco-regeneration, documented by Robert Kaplan in his book, The Ends of the Earth, which the group felt should be replicated on the future campus, to encourage live eco education. Iyengar described India’s success in building her space and atomic energy programs against great odds. He lamented, at the same time, her failure to disseminate the scientific temper among her masses, which led to a chasm between an educated elite and a large population of poorly educated Indians. The group presented to the government of Andhra Pradesh their vision of a creative India, fueled by an education model that would spark curiosity and nurture creativity through experiential learning. Gopi Warrier suggested the newly created organization be named after the Maharishi Agastya, a leading exponent of creativity, father of Siddha medicine, and author of Tamil grammar.
Agastya was registered as a public charitable trust in April 1999. A year later, the group’s dream of a campus appeared closer with the acquisition of 172 acres of barren wasteland in Gudivanka, a remote rural area in Andhra Pradesh. Sandeep Tungare and Ravi Reddy were two wealthy U.S.-based Indians who agreed to seed fund Agastya.
The Agastya group began to expand rapidly with the addition of retired scientists, government administrators, academics and a private investment banker as advisors. Among the new additions were creativity trainer Hari Parameswaran; V.G. Gambhir of the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education; former defense research and development scientists, R. Krishnan, K. Ramchand, K.G. Narayanan, and M.A. Ramaswamy; S.V. Subramanyam and H.L. Bhat, from the Indian Institute of Science; former environment secretary, Yellappa Reddy; retired entrepreneur and designer, M. Shivkumar; former ICI executive, H.N. Srihari, and Goldman Sachs partner, Alok Oberoi. The freewheeling exchange of ideas and perspectives within this diverse group produced valuable insights that would help Agastya to define and launch its unique mission to transform Indian education. Krishnan, Shivkumar, Ramaswamy, and Narayanan trained Agastya’s small group of teachers and designed interactive educational models and exhibits for the campus and mobile science labs. Yellappa Reddy and his friend, the Ayurvedic practitioner Dr. Venkatshamaiah, expanded Agastya’s ecological vision by designing herbal gardens for the campus and ecology programs for children from deprived communities suffering from eco degradation. Talwar and Oberoi helped to widen Agastya’s funding network globally. While Mahavir, Srihari, and Krishnan, assisted by D. Subramanyan, focused on managing the newly formed trust, Ramji continued to sharpen Agastya’s vision and mission by inviting V.K. Aatre, who had retired as the Scientific Adviser to India’s Minister of Defence to guide Agastya’s direction centered on sparking curiosity through hands-on science.
To achieve widespread and sustainable impact, the group began work on a scalable model that would reach millions of rural children, teachers, and communities across India. Seeking new insights in 2003, Ramji sought former defence scientist K. Ramchand’s help in getting an audience with India’s iconic President, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. The meeting was held in Dr. Kalam’s office at Rashtrapathi Bhavan, the presidential palace in Delhi, where Dr. Kalam advised Ramji to deploy Agastya in bridging the growing socioeconomic divide between urban and rural India, arming rural Indians with useful life skills and creating self-belief among Indians. The same year, with the help of Pankaj Talwar, Ramji presented Agastya’s vision to India’s well-known billionaire investor, Rakesh Jhunjhunwala. Impressed by Agastya’s ambition “to spark curiosity” on a nationwide scale, Jhunjhunwala agreed initially to fund a mobile science lab. Soon he became Agastya’s largest private donor. The following year the State Government of Andhra Pradesh supported the expansion of Agastya’s mobile labs into rural areas.
Since that time, Agastya’s story has been a continuous process of evolution, innovation, and scaling. Its presence has expanded further across India. Representatives from other countries have come to learn more about the Agastya method, which is easily replicable. Agastya has sent officers, teachers, and students abroad for exposure and as ambassadors of learning.