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  • A Labourer's Precocious Son Inspires Agastya, and a Royal

    On a sunlit afternoon in Jodhpur in February, 2017 on the road from the airport to my hotel, I asked the driver rather whimsically if there was a government school on the way that I might see. Ten minutes later he pulled over at a handsome building made of Jodhpur stone. Quite impressive, for a government school, I thought (I learned later that the building had been funded by a Dubai based NRI). I walked into the principal’s office and introduced myself. Taken aback by my uninvited presence, the principal warmed up to me after hearing about Agastya’s work and suggested that I should meet the children. Most of them, he said, were children of laborers, stonecutters and security guards. I was introduced to a boy, Himanshu, thirteen years old and the son of a laborer, who the principal proudly announced as “the smartest kid in the class.” Himanshu was writing notes on a page on English grammar. Never one to be impressed by a traditional school principal’s definition of “a smart kid” I asked Himanshu, “Where do you see science?” “Science is here,” he said pointing to a creaking ceiling fan, “and here,” he pointed to a small piece of chalk and “here” he said pointing to his body. He turned his head toward the trees and plants outside in the yard and beyond and said, “There is science there.” Startled by his insightful response, I asked him what he wanted to be. “Army officer,” he replied. “Great. I am sure you will become a general,” I said to spontaneous giggles and laughter. I told the children about a study in the US that had measured the performance of children who had learned to play a musical instrument. Neither innate talent, nor hours of practice seemed to explain the marked difference in performance between children in the A group who performed the best from those in the B and C groups. “What was the missing factor?” I asked the class. Silence. And then, Himanshu spoke. “It’s inner confidence.” "Aah!” I exclaimed, “Almost right. It was confidence that came from an ignited personal vision leading to a long-term commitment to be a musician.” The children in the A group aspired to be musicians. The children in the B group said they would play the instrument through secondary school, while those in the C group said they would play it through primary school. Quite a remarkable boy, Himanshu,I thought to myself; a perfect candidate for Agastya’s Young Instructor Leader program, where Agastya teaches children to teach children to grow their curiosity, confidence and leadership skills. If only Agastya had a program in Jodhpur, hundreds of kids like Himanshu might find expression for their precocity. Ten months later, on a refreshingly cool morning on December 5, 2017 His Highness the Maharaja of Jodhpur Gaj Singh ji inaugurated Agastya’s mobile science lab at the Government Girls School in BJS Colony, Jodhpur. The children and staff were visibly excited to have their esteemed “Baapji” visit their school. Under a white  pandal  in the schoolyard Baapji looked curiously at the dynamic and colorful hands-on models and experiments on display. Young girls freely asked him questions before they confidently explained the science behind the experiments. Baapji bent his head and peered down the infinity well. A girl in pigtails asked him, “How many images can you see?” “Quite a few,” Baapji replied to smiles and laughter. In my speech to the children, teachers and government officials who had gathered I recalled my inspirational meeting with Himanshu and Mr. Vyas, his principal. I said that Himanshu truly had fired up Agastya to come to Jodhpur. Sporting a tuft on a full head of coal black hair, Himanshu – a special guest and the only boy present at the BJS School - walked up to the dais and shyly acknowledged the cheers of the girls and teachers. I announced Agastya’s readiness to sponsor up to one hundred children from Jodhpur to visit Agastya’s campus creativity lab in Kuppam, AP. “Raise your hands if you would like to visit the Agastya campus,” I said. A sea of hands went up, followed by cheering. As he graciously welcomed Agastya to Jodhpur Baapji lauded Himanshu and remarked that there were many more Himanshus assuredly in Jodhpur. The deputy principal of the school said that she hoped more Himanshus and Himanshis would have an opportunity to express their precocity through their exposure to and engagement with the hands-on experiments of the Agastya mobile lab. A village leader in a striking turban requested that the mobile science lab visit his village. The newspapers mentioned Himanshu’s catalytic role in bringing the mobile science lab to Jodhpur. The mobile science lab will reach 3500 children every year. It was a magical day; a day, that I trust is only the beginning of something big and wonderful, as wonderful as Jodhpur one day becoming a hub for creative learning in India.

  • Celebrating A Genius: The Bust of Ramanujan

    An extended lull between one’s intent and action sometimes leads to an unexpected positive outcome. I first read about the self-taught mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India. Writing from a British jail, Nehru described Ramanujan’s brief life and death as ‘symbolic of conditions in India. Of our millions how few get any education at all.”  Nearly a decade elapsed before Ramanujan invaded my consciousness through an article in the New York Times titled “An isolated genius is given his due” (1987). As an Indian I felt proud; like many others, I was intrigued by Ramanujan’s tragic and compelling life story. In a pensive moment, I reflected on how his life and achievements, captured so splendidly later by Robert Kanigel in The man who knew infinity, might be memorialized. I was a banker living in New York then and had no idea about how I might pay tribute to a genius. Then PBS (NOVA) featured an absorbing and fascinating documentary entitled “The man who loved numbers”. Through interviews with Cambridge dons and Mrs. Janaki Ramanujan in India, the film explored Ramanujan’s short and remarkable life and extraordinary contributions to mathematics. It ended on a wistful note – while Ramanujan’s collaborator G.H. Hardy would be remembered through a plaque at Trinity College, there was no plaque or bust of Ramanujan at Trinity.   I mentioned the PBS film to my uncle on a visit to Madras in 1989/1990. To my surprise, he offered to arrange for me to meet Mrs. Ramanujan. The same evening I was led into Mrs. Ramanujan’s modest home in Triplicane. A frail woman in her nineties, hard of hearing with bright liquid eyes and a sweet smile welcomed me. The small, nondescript room where we sat and talked for less than an hour was made exceptional only by an arresting bust of Ramanujan, made by Paul Granlund, and gifted by a group of international mathematicians. Ramanujan’s presence shone through the bust and dominated the room. I was impressed with the sculptor’s skill in capturing Ramanujan’s deep and penetrating gaze into the beyond; almost suggesting he was privy to a secret knowledge not within the reach of mere mortals. Yearningly and, almost surreally, Mrs. Ramanujan in Tamil spoke about her husband as if he had just died. For him, she said with tears in her eyes, “the only thing that mattered was numbers, numbers and numbers.” Looking forlorn, she said that her husband was forgotten - a math teacher from England of Indian origin and I had been her only visitors in a long time. As our meeting drew to a close, I offered Mrs. Ramanujan a customary gift, a sari and some fruit. I leaned towards her, gently held her slender hand, and told her that she was exceptionally fortunate for having had the opportunity to love and care for her husband, who had found a lasting place among India’s greatest heroes. A smile lit up her face. As I walked out of her home I was led by her foster son  to a street where I was shown several fine-looking water color paintings of Ramanujan. I purchased a few of them - R as a boy in traditional dhoti, his mother braiding his pigtail, a picture of the goddess Namagiri in the background; a young R and an innocent, almost playful, Janaki facing the sacred fire, reciting vedic mantras at their wedding; R wearing a U shaped caste mark, reading a math book; R in a cap and gown receiving a certificate from an English university. In my mind’s eye that night I saw a young man dying, with pen and notebook in hand, working passionately on rarefied mathematical formulae.  My wish to memorialize Ramanujan became reality almost a decade later, when as the head of the Agastya International Foundation I felt it would be inspirational for village children and teachers to have a bust of Ramanujan in the Agastya campus in Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh. After a brief search, we appointed Mr. Jayaprakash Shirgaonkar, the well known Mumbai-based sculptor to make the bust. Among Mr. Shirgaonkar’s works using the lost wax process are the equestrian statue of Emperor Shivaji (Sahar International Airport, Mumbai) and busts of Mahatma Gandhi (Hull City, England), Sardar Patel (India House, London) and Julius Nyerere (Tanzanian parliament).   Working from two of four extant pictures, Mr. Shirgaonkar initially produced a clay model of Ramanujan. Agastya Managing Trustee, Mahavir and I compared the model with Ramanujan’s pictures, one of which appeared on the 1962 commemorative Indian stamp. We watched in fascination as Mr. Shirgaonkar honed and sculpted the bust to capture Ramanujan’s distinctive features and intense look. Fully satisfied with the progress, we left him to complete the job. A few months later a youthful looking bronze bust, thirty three inches high and weighing fifty kilos arrived on campus, where it was unveiled by 2006 Ramanujan Prize winner Ms. Sujatha Ramdorai and members of the Prime Minister’s National Knowledge Commission, in early 2008.   More than a year later my father K.V. Raghavan, a founder trustee of Agastya, suggested that Agastya should gift a bust of Ramanujan to Cambridge University, his alma mater. I thought this was an excellent idea and requested Sujatha to speak to John Coates, our common friend at Cambridge. Sujatha called back to say that John and his colleagues at the Centre for Mathematical Sciences would be delighted to display Ramanujan’s bust at the Centre. In keeping with Agastya’s mission to inspire and spark creativity among young Indians, Agastya decided to gift Ramanujan’s bust to two premier Indian educational institutions. At Sujatha’s suggestion, Agastya gifted a bust to the TIFR’s Centre for Applicable Mathematics, Bangalore, where it was unveiled in the library on December 22, 2009, Ramanujan’s one hundred and twenty third birth anniversary by Prof. K. Ramachandra, publisher of the Hardy-Ramanujan Journal. Speakers on the occasion included Prof. Srikanth, Centre Director and Dr. V.K. Aatre, former adviser to the Minister of Defence, Government of India.  Agastya gifted a second bust to the Indian Institute of Technology – Madras, where it was installed in the foyer of the main Humanities and Sciences Block, and unveiled by the world famous agricultural scientist Dr. M.S. Swaminathan in the presence of IIT-M Director, Dr. M.S. Ananth on March 31, 2010. A cash award was promised to students who produced the most innovative math and science models for dissemination in rural schools. The speakers at both events quoted Ramanujan’s inspiring example to communicate the uplifting message, to students, faculty and staff, that originality, intuition, passion, faith and profound commitment can rise over any obstacle and elevate one to the highest peaks of human achievement.  In May, 2010 my family and I had the pleasure of joining John Coates, Martin Hyland, Tadashi Tokieda and Sally Lowe for lunch at John’s office in Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Lunch was followed by a visit to the Centre for Mathematical Sciences, where we looked admiringly at Srinivasa Ramanujan’s magnificent bust. Ramanujan’s eyes, commented Martin, were gazing at some faraway realm. The bust as promised was installed at a prominent location, where, in John’s words, “literally hundreds of students will pass it each morning...and (the bust) will be a constant reminder to our large student body in mathematics, who comes from all over the world, of the greatness of Indian mathematical thought."  In 2017, Sujatha Ramdorai, now a professor of mathematics and Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia and her husband, Ram, very kindly offered to donate money to create the Ramanujan Math Park, or RMP as it has come to be known, on the Agastya campus. Designed by Sujatha and VSS Sastry, a math communicator supported by Mahavir and Thiagarajan from Agastya, the RMP, occupying 5000 square meters and supported by a grant from the State Bank of India Mutual Funds and the HT Parekh Foundation was inaugurated on December 22, 2017, Ramanujan’s 130th birth anniversary and India’s National Mathematics Day.  The RMP’s name began to spread across the globe. In 2018, Sujatha and Tadashi Tokieda of Stanford University showed a film on the RMP at the International Conference of Mathematicians in Rio de Janiero. In 2020, with support from Ravi Kailas, Chairman of Mytrah Energy a bust of Ramanujan was sent to MIT in Boston, where it is displayed in the Department of Mathematics. The same year the RMP’s platonic exhibits were ranked among the best mathematics exhibits from the top 15 math museums of the world, a small and perhaps fitting tribute to Ramanujan. PAUSE  Thousands of children and schoolteachers visit the RMP every year to experience the excitement and joy of learning mathematics hands-on. They get to see math in real life and in nature. Someday perhaps one of them might shine like a brilliant star, as Ramanujan once did, and continues to do so. When I do visit the RMP and stop to stare momentarily at Ramanujan’s bust, I can’t help but remember my meeting with Mrs. Ramanujan on that warm night so many years ago in Madras, now Chennai, and wonder what she might have said, had she known that a math museum named after her husband in a remote rural area in India would one day find a place among the great math museums of the world.

  • The unrealized promise of a heroic community

    Two US-based founders of Children’s Hope of India (CHI), Ms. Lavina Melwani and Ms. Dina Pahlajani, approached me a few weeks ago, asking me to explore the possibility of Agastya Foundation supporting the education of children who had fled religious persecution in Pakistan and resettled in Jodhpur, India. Messrs. Ravi Kanth of CHI and Hindu Singh of UJAS took me to a village school. The school had 300 children and two teachers, one of whom was a Sanskrit teacher and the other taught all other subjects. The children were from the tribal Bheel community, which had fought alongside Maharana Pratap centuries ago.  Four girls eagerly stood up and sang a beautiful shloka in Sanskrit. The children complained about the poor quality of education, particularly in science and math. They had no science lab. The little knowledge they got was purely from the textbook. I gave each child a sheet of paper and guided them as they performed the “hole in the hand” experiment. They seemed puzzled and surprised. A boy’s eyes widened in disbelief when he “saw” a hole in his hand. There was laughter. “Science does not exist only in expensive labs,” I said, but can be learned as well through simple materials and experiences that produce surprising results. “Learn to question and observe nature, perhaps the best lab, for which you don’t need money.” Impressed by the children’s keenness to learn, I offered to bring Agastya’s sole mobile science lab in Jodhpur to their school, to show them how science could be engaging and fun. The children were like sponges. Their hunger to learn was clear on their faces (how I wished we had money to run more mobile labs, and spark creative learning among all of Jodhpur’s underserved children!). Impulsively, I invited fifteen children to come and stay for a week at the Agastya campus creativity lab near Bengaluru. They were thrilled.  I asked a girl in another class what she would like to be when she grows up. “A doctor,” she replied. A usual reply, I thought to myself. I asked her why, expecting a shy smile in response. She explained with some emotion, “I have two siblings, one is mute and the other is paralyzed from the waist down. I want to cure people.” A boy stood up and said he wanted to be a policeman. “So, you can wield the stick!?” I suggested, to general laughter. Looking thoughtful, the boy said that he wanted to be a policeman so he could punish the corrupt. The teacher whispered to me that the boy’s father had been a victim of corruption.  In a dusty village that afternoon a girl mourned her bad luck in being called ‘a Pakistani’ in India. “I love India. I wish we were accepted as Indians like everyone else,” she said. We talked about the importance of self-belief, having an optimistic outlook on life and taking responsibility for one’s future. There’s no water, electricity or paved roads, they complained. I was at a loss to suggest a solution to age old problems. The girl, a member of the tribal Kolhi community [1]  and a sports buff, lightened the mood with a marvelous demonstration of martial art. The following day a few girls arrived to take part in an Agastya science fair at a government schooI led by a dynamic principal. The girls smiled as they cut a ribbon to start the fair to applause. They showed delight and enthusiasm, as they engaged in various experiments, experiencing the magic of Aah! (curiosity) Aha! (creative learning) and Ha-Ha! (joy and confidence). My colleagues and I look forward to hosting them at the Agastya campus. [1]  The Kolhis fought valiantly in Sindh in 1857, during India’s First War of Independence. Their heroic leader, Rooplo Kolhi, had been tortured, his hands bound in cotton, soaked in oil and burnt, and hanged.

  • The synergy of Agastya

    Agastya’s children, along with the art and science instructors, recently constructed a colourful and artistic mural depicting the various layers of the earth’s soil. It adorns the steps built into the small hillock that lies between the astronomy center, the art center and the discovery center that houses life-size science exhibits. The hillock itself is dotted with trees, plants, herbs and flowers. Today, when any child or teacher walks up the steps, they find that the mural has rendered the earth beneath the hillock almost transparent – they’re able to see the many layers of the soil. They see clearly, perhaps for the first time, the earth beneath our feet, around us, and an earth that is most certainly a part of us. At a time when these children are not even “in-class” and therefore not “forced-to-learn”, the experience catches them unawares. And that deeply felt, almost involuntary and unconscious learning borders on the magical.  That mural is quintessentially Agastya. So is the caricaturized depiction of the water cycle that the children will see when they walk between the Center for Creative Teaching and the Model-Making workshop. The 170 acre campus houses over a dozen science learning hubs in addition to open-air classrooms, a teacher training center and art and media labs where over 500 children and their teachers visit from surrounding government rural schools. These hubs serve as a place where human knowledge is deconstructed and taught to children in lively, interactive parcels. But the learning is special because of the fluidity with which learning continues between and across labs without boundaries. With the learning of knowledge and the unlearning of boundaries are born new and exciting modes of creative expression - like the small gazebos made of waste plastic bottles; or the mural in front of the kitchen – made of waste kitchen utensils.  In effecting a synergy between various labs, Agastya has taken inspiration from its own conservation efforts to restore the once-barren land to its natural, green state. The appreciation for the interrelatedness and dependence of all species that continues to drive its regeneration efforts in ecology is now feeding into Agastya’s innovative efforts in learning. Just as the birds, animals, trees and insects exist in harmony with each other, the learning labs and people exist as a balanced community of innovation centers. It is this sensibility that inspires the Center for Creative Teaching – where teachers learn and practice new methods not in isolation of their students but in the presence of their eager and hungry minds. And the harmony enables a spark of curiosity from anyone’s mind – a child, teacher or staff can instantly spread and ignite the entire system. For e.g. at the model-making-workshop where life can be breathed into anyone’s idea for a teaching aid by fabricating it in the shop on the bottom floor and testing it out with the class of children on the upper floor.   A healthy ecosystem, it is said must be capable of expanding and reproducing. With over 70 mobile labs spread across 10 states, Agastya’s innovations are part of a thriving knowledge ecosystem. And Agastya’s Young Instructor Leaders, a group of innately curious 12 – 15 year olds that being nurtured for leadership, confidence and creativity are already taking root like a banyan tree. Tucked away in rural hinterland, the campus is right in between the cultures of 3 southern states. In the center of the campus stands the statue of the great Sage Agastya who is said to have crossed the Vindhyas from North India to Southern India, unified the two lands, created the Siddha school of herbal medicine and authored a grammar for Tamil Language (an ancient language that flourishes till date). Perhaps as an ode to the Sage, Agastya is creating a new grammar for innovations in learning.

  • The Big Bull

    Rakesh Jhunjhunwala Was A Great Social Investor by Ramji Raghavan   I have known stock market billionaire and social investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala for two decades as a friend, adviser, supporter and trustee of the Agastya International Foundation in its mission to spark and spread curiosity and creativity among underserved and underprivileged children in India. Less well known than Rakesh’s widely recognized prowess in investing, was his desire to make a positive social difference to India. He saw this as essential to India’s economic success, and was willing to invest a great deal of time and money in her social and educational development. My first meeting with Rakesh happened in the early 2000s with investment banker Pankaj Talwar, in Rakesh’s office opposite the Bombay Stock Exchange. I described to Rakesh my motivation to quit my job as a banker in London, and return to India with a vision to spark curiosity and nurture creativity among India’s children and teachers. He listened patiently, gaining the measure of me, and quoting more than once from the book The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma, “a book about a lawyer forced to confront the spiritual crisis of his out-of-balance life, and the subsequent wisdom that he gains on a life-changing odyssey that enables him to create a life of passion, purpose and peace.” In our second meeting, Rakesh said he was intrigued with my idea of the Mobile Science Van for children and would sponsor one van. I was thrilled. Later, he said he would sponsor three mobile science vans and “that was that.” Reading my mind, he said that he could visualize hundreds of science vans crisscrossing India, a giant-sized project that only the government could fund. Not to be discouraged, I showed him a map for a dream creative campus in Andhra Pradesh in a village two hours by road from Bangalore. With an exasperated air he said, “Every time we meet, you come up with something new!” Then, one evening, Pankaj and I were walking out of the Hotel Marine Plaza in Mumbai’s Marine Drive, when we saw a silver Mercedes pull up, from which emerged Rakesh. Surprised to see me, he asked me what I was doing in Mumbai and why I had not called him. I said that if I called him, he would think I was after his money! With a laugh and a wave, he invited me to his Nariman Point office the following day. “What’s new?” he asked. I replied that I was returning from a visit to The Exploratorium in San Francisco and would like to create one for rural kids on the upcoming Agastya campus. He listened intently and nodded as I described the uniqueness and benefits of the project that would offer village kids and teachers an opportunity to engage with large interactive, hands-on learning models and exhibits to stoke their curiosity and creativity. Staring all the while at several whizzing stock market ticker screens on his desk, he turned around and asked me to come back to him with a plan. A few weeks later he agreed to fund the first stage of what was to become the Jhunjhunwala Discovery Centre, Agastya’s first significant creative learning investment on campus. A year or two passed until one day, as I was escorting London-based investment banker Alok Oberoi on a tour of the still nascent 172-acre Agastya campus, we stopped at a vista, facing a picturesque lake, to observe the construction of the Jhujhunwala Discovery Centre. Alok’s phone rang. It was Rakesh. Rakesh asked Alok where he was and seemed surprised when Alok replied he was standing outside the upcoming and rather magnificent looking Jhunjhunwala Discovery Centre. The same evening, Rakesh said to me on the phone that he didn’t believe Agastya could achieve its vision through piecemeal funding. “Why don’t you come up with a long-term plan, which I might be willing to fund?” These were indeed super glad tidings for a struggling social entrepreneur! Over several months, working with ex-BCG consultant Manish Gupta from Rakesh’s office my colleagues Mahavir, Bala and I came up with a ten-year plan to raise INR 90 crores to impact six million underprivileged children. I vividly recall what would become a watershed meeting with Rakesh. He mentioned that he could think of few, if any, individuals in India who would give INR 9 crores a year (roughly USD 2 million then) to a charitable education foundation that they did not own or control. Somewhat deflated, I offered to sell my house in Bangalore and give him the money I raised to manage, and suggested I would write a check every year to Agastya from the returns that he would generate. “Please don’t insult me” he said. “Why would I ask you to come to my office only to have you sell your house?” and added “It is not easy to make money” (“Paisa banana utna aasaan nahin hai”). As I continued making the case for the plan, he stopped me and, to my unbelieving delight, said he would give Agastya INR 50 crore (USD 12 million then) over ten years. He explained his reasoning. “I believe in your vision, which means I must go in whole hog to make sure you achieve it. Use my money as you see fit, leverage it to attract other funders to scale Agastya.” He asked me if I was happy. I said yes! and we shook hands. Six million underprivileged kids would benefit from his decision. It was as simple and profound as that. Shortly afterwards on a visit to the barren and imposing Agastya campus, we escorted Rakesh, Titan CEO Bhaskar Bhat, Manish Gupta of RARE Enterprises and others up a hill to see an Agastya hands-on science session in action. Rakesh spotted a small village lad with unkempt hair, in an untucked shirt with snot running down his nose and remarked "I can see in his eyes that you have lit his curiosity!"  Rakesh once told me that the reason for his success was that his father had encouraged him to be curious as a child, and that Agastya, being curiosity-driven, was one of the best social investments he had ever made. Indeed, we had honored his father's memory with a bust at the Jhunjhunwala Discovery Centre, which he had agreed to unveil. Alas. But more on the man's legacy. A measure of Rakesh's x-ray vision, and capacity to take big bets, was his willingness to invest in Agastya’s idealistic vision in the early 2000s when hardly anyone showed interest. Indeed, as a social entrepreneur with an ambitious, if quixotic, vision I felt that Rakesh had almost got into my brain and seen the future as I saw it. He had this vicarious ability to see what others saw (or didn’t see) and the smarts to decide if he wanted to be a part of their vision. As with his business investments, ‘the crusade and the crusader’ were two indispensable conditions that needed to meet his approval before he made his social investments. In October 2019, Rakesh, his wife Rekha and their sons, Aryavir and Aryaman, participated in the first Agastya Innovation Fair in Mumbai. Rakesh spent several hours in the oppressive heat, quizzing the Agastya instructors and watching his sons and other students from Mumbai’s municipal schools engage with the innovative models and projects on display. He looked at me through the throng of exuberant young visitors and with his fingers gave an “O” sign of approval. As a board member of Agastya, Rakesh always spoke about “our vision for Agastya.” He lived and breathed it as much as anyone else in Agastya did but never interfered in Agastya’s work. “I don’t want to tell you what to do, and I trust you and your team to deliver” he told me. Rakesh brought foresight, insights, focus and optimism and constantly encouraged us to strive to do better. “Be ambitious and be patient” he would tell me. At an interaction meeting with social investors and NGOs arranged by the Edelgive Foundation in Mumbai, I remarked that Rakesh’s early investment in Agastya “was unprecedented in scale for that time.” He replied “and what Agastya has achieved is unprecedented.” Desh Deshpande told me recently that of the few million NGOs in the US and India there were about thirty that were doing great work at scale and Agastya was among them. Rakesh’s investment in Agastya – and that of the other individuals and institutions that followed him - were key and instrumental in enabling Agastya to unlock the creative potential of 17 million children and 300,000 teachers nationwide, and inspire educators, scientists and innovators from across the globe. The once barren Agastya campus has become a biodiverse ecological preserve and world class center for creative experiential learning. That was the stupendous scale and intensity of the impact that Rakesh, and the many partners who joined forces with Agastya after him, had! I met Rakesh on July 28, 2022 and was impressed as usual by his clear thinking, vision, and remarkable ability to connect the dots. He quizzed me about my recent fundraising visit to the US. When I told him about the name Indians were making in the world in mathematics, he charmingly showed me a marvelously appropriate video song on his cellphone from the movie Purab Aur Paschim ("Jab Zero Diya Mere Bharat Ne..."). I thought, "This man is a patriot to the hilt!" Alas, his life was to end so prematurely. Emerging from Covid, we articulated an ambitious Agastya 2.0 vision to impact 100 million children and 1 million teachers. Inspired by Rakesh''s turbocharged life, his unwavering support, and the support of Agastya’s partners, the Agastya Team is determined to make our distinctive and creative dream for India’s children and teachers, come true. To quote an African proverb, "It is better to live one day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep." In his short and remarkably impactful life, Rakesh lived and roared like a lion. Agastya and I will greatly miss his presence, friendship and counsel.

  • Living And Acting Creatively

    41st Foundation Day Lecture at IIMB  In January, 1882 Van Gogh, the great Post-impressionist painter in a letter to his brother Theo, wrote “Drawing becomes more and more a passion with me, and it is a passion just like that of a sailor for the sea”. Van Gogh’s art represented painting as music. “They are not just flowers in a vase, they are something almost cosmic”, said a critic of The Sunflowers, one of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings. Unlocking the creative potential of children, adults and communities around the world - rich, poor and downtrodden - is one of the central challenges of the 21st century. By the end of my speech you will learn about the transformative power of curiosity and new ways to see, unlock and unleash your own creativity.  So, what makes you creative, innovative, or a great problem-solver? Is it something in your genes or a skill that you have learned? In 1884 when Einstein was 5 years old and ill in bed his father brought him a gift, a magnetic compass. The compass fascinated the young Einstein because whichever way he held it, it always pointed in the same direction. It was a momentous gift. Einstein remarked years later that it was the magnetic compass that made him wonder if there was an invisible force behind everything in the universe and as you know he dedicated his life to finding it. I know what you are thinking. Do I have to be an Einstein to be creative? So let’s fast forward more than a century later to 2008 on a hot summer’s day in rural India, when two village girls, Rani and Roja – one the daughter of a farmer with no more than 1 or 2 acres of land and the other the daughter of a carpenter – sat under a tree to escape the sun. Rani looked at Roja and said “Roja, do you ever wonder why you feel cool sitting in the shade of a tree?” Roja thought for a second and replied “maybe it has something to do with the fact that the leaves and branches of the tree shield us from the sun”. The girls continued talking until the Aha! Question popped out “Would different leaves have different cooling effects? That question led to a project not surprisingly titled the cooling effect of leaves, and working with teacher-igniters from the Agastya Foundation nine months later the girls won a prestigious Intel-IRIS Science Award competing with the best and brightest students from across India; most of them from urban schools. Is the story of Rani and Roja an uncommon one? Let me tell you about Sai and Pavithra two kids in N. Karanataka who used to…(story of Sai and Pavithra – making paper from groundnut shells). Since 2008, hundreds of poor children – children whom Agastya teaches to teach other children, children of parents with little to no money - have produced projects with creative and innovative findings and insights, and many of them have won prizes and awards in India and abroad.  What do these stories tell you? I think they tell you the value of curiosity, the spirit of enquiry, the magic of wonder, the power of passion. Einstein attributed his earth shattering insights to curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance - staying with a problem until you have cracked it. Newton’s peculiar gift wrote Keynes was his “continuous, concentrated introspection”, his ability to hold continuously a problem in his mind for weeks until he cracked it. Our Rishis had great mental energy, which enabled them to hold ideas in their mind continuously for years and decades. In 1988 when I was a banker in NYC I saw a film on PBS called The Man Who Loved Numbers, about the mathematical genius Ramanujan. As I watched fascinated, Janakiammal, Ramanujan’s wife’s comments on her husband moved me deeply. A few weeks later I was on a visit to Madras, and one evening I mentioned the PBS film to my uncle. To my delight and surprise, he asked me “Would you like to meet Mrs. Ramanujan?” I said, “Yes!” About an hour later I was led into a modest home in Triplicane and was immediately drawn to a magnificent bust of Ramanujan’s made by an American sculptor, and funded by a 100 mathematicians around the world. The bust dominated the room. As we chatted, Mrs. Ramanujan, who was 89 and hard of hearing, said in a high-pitched voice with tears in her eyes, “People have forgotten my husband”. Speaking about Ramanujan’s last days she said that pieces of paper with abstruse mathematical formula scribbled over them were strewn on his deathbed. “For him”, she said with wonder, “it was only numbers, numbers and numbers”. Ramanujan did not just love numbers. He lived them - an astounding, perhaps even an extreme, example of passion-based creativity.  So why should you be creative? Creativity is the most desired trait among knowledge workers today because creativity leads you to new ideas, which lead to invention and innovation, which lead to productivity and prosperity. And as future leaders you need to be creative, to build environments where creativity can flower and flourish. Equally, the creative spirit as the great sages, artists and poets tell us elevates your vision. It connects you to things beautiful and sacred beyond your narrow self and experience. It infuses spontaneity, and gives meaning and purpose to life. When someone asked J Krishnamurti why he spoke so much to public audiences he replied, “Why does a flower bloom?”  Twelve years ago when I returned to India to start Agastya Foundation I asked the question: What makes a country creative and innovative? Can you raise the level of the ocean, the speed limit of creativity of a country? Through discussions with Dr. PK Iyengar, KV Raghavan, teachers, educators, students and business people on what distinguishes a creative person we came up with a model. We said that you the creative person are a great observer; you see more than others; you hear more than others; you feel more deeply than others; you experience deep, unbiased awareness, which gestates and grows an idea or thought. You tinker and experiment; you have the capacity to connect, assimilate and associate different pieces of apparently unconnected knowledge and information, and the ability to apply your insight to produce something of value for yourself, your community or society. Skills, identical to the discovery skills of creative entrepreneurs that Christensen and others document in The Innovator’s DNA. So we asked the question “can you learn such skills?” and the answer was “Yes you can!” Iyengar told me that if he gave me, a non-scientist, a 100 low cost science experiments…To observe better, you must have the urge, the motivation and the passion to enquire and discover. When Chanakya was sitting downcast in a village questioning why he and his protégé Chandragupta were losing their battles against their hated enemy the Nanda king… (Narrate the story). So if you want to raise the speed limit of creativity in a society you have to create conditions to trigger and unleash curiosity. You might not produce a Ramanujan, but you can build systems that encourage and enable more Ranis and Rojas to express and give shape to their ideas fearlessly. How? We decided to focus on hands-on, experiential learning because cognitive scientists tell you that this is a proven way to increase learning and retention. The human brain on average retains 5% of a lecture in its long-term memory, 50% of what you see and hear, 70% of what you discuss with someone, 80% of what you personal experience and over 90% of what you teach to others. Also, hands-on experience results in higher levels of motivation and confidence. Over the years we realized that the answer to triggering curiosity and fostering creativity and innovation might well lie in a simple toy like the Tippe Top. The Tippe Top highlights the three most important elements in learning. When you spin it, it tips over unexpectedly and you go Aah! Rather like how you feel when you see something counterintuitive, arresting or beautiful, when your curiosity is stirred and your mind is awakened. And then you wonder why or how this happens. And the process of discovery leads you to the Aha! Moment or several Aha moments when things click, or when you have an insight. Finally, you must have fun doing what you are doing, which is the Ha-ha element. Fun and humor remove fear and anxiety, help retention and increase performance. If the 3Rs were the stepping-stone for education in the 20th century, I believe the 3 As – Aah, Aha and Ha-ha – are the stepping-stones to creativity in the 21st century. It’s easy! Infuse the 3 As into education, into the way you live and you will raise your creative output by triggering important behavioral shifts, from Yes to Why, from Looking to Observing, from being Passive to learning to Explore, from being Textbook-bound to Hands-on, and finally, the most important shift, from Fear to Confidence. Some years ago, I happened to visit a village school where I met the head teacher and asked her “what impact is Agastya having on your children?” and she pointed me to a tall girl, Uma who was standing under a tree. So I went up to Uma and asked her “Uma, you have been visiting Agastya for several months now, has there been any change?” and do you know what she said? She didn’t say that she was doing great in her studies – which apparently she was – she just looked at me and said, “I am not afraid to speak anymore”. This was an Aah, Aha and Ha-ha moment for me. I realized that the real value of our hands-on interventions was the precious opportunity they gave disadvantaged children to lift their confidence and self-belief, to shift from what psychologists call ‘learned helplessness’ to ‘learned optimism’. Uma became the first girl from her village to go to an engineering college and her example inspired many other girls from her village to join college. So curiosity is a wonderful thing. But as life shows you all too often curiosity alone does not guarantee action. And confidence alone sometimes can lead you to ill conceived and - when it spills into arrogance - disastrous action. Curiosity combined with confidence can lead you to strong action. And curiosity with confidence and humanity can lead you to right or creative action. I have talked about curiosity in terms of the external world, but this is only half the story. There is, equally, the power of curiosity into your inner world, the science of the interior, or Adhyatma Vidhya. Among Indian sculptors of old long periods of meditation produced godly and spectacular works of art, what Aurobindo termed as great examples of ‘spirit to form’. On the seventh of June, 1893 when 24 year-old Mohandas Gandhi was thrown out of the first class compartment of his train in Maritzburg, South Africa he sat humiliated and shivering in the dark waiting room pondering his plight. He thought, “I have three options. I can forget what happened to me and continue with my life. I can go back to India, or I can stay and fight”. He concluded that he would be a coward if he chose option 1 or 2. He decided to stay and fight. Gandhi’s introspection on that miserable wintry night, when he questioned, discovered, felt and explored his fears and motives in a moment of personal crisis was a defining experience, a deeply creative one for him and a pivotal moment for the world; a moment which led to action, whose results benefitted millions. The coming together of Gandhi’s inner questioning with purposeful action changed the world.  So when the two worlds of curiosity – the outer and the inner – meet you have a revolutionary mind, a mind that is infused with abiding curiosity, confidence and humanity, a mind that lives and acts creatively, a mind that acts with passion and purpose. That mind is yours if….IF you are aware and alive to the power and richness of being curious, to the fun and excitement of uncertain and unknown outcomes; if you enquire, tinker and experiment not only because you want a result be it money, fame, success, love or liberation but because you enjoy and love the process of discovery! Five thousand and one hundred years ago a blind kind asked his charioteer “………………..”. You are today at the crossroads of a similar ‘make or break’ decision. You have a great responsibility. Like never before in our history, what you chose to do in and for India will have a profound effect on the world. As Krishnamurti said, “You are the world”.  Do you want to build a creative India? An India, that invents and innovates, an India that creates and builds new ways and methods of learning, business, entrepreneurship, politics, social enterprise, sustainable living, and spiritual living. Or do you want to copy what someone else says or does? As you step out of IIMB into the world to produce great results and make a difference, be curious in the deepest sense. Practice the art of being curious. Take projects and assignments with uncertain and unknown outcomes that force you to enquire and discover. Watch yourself closely through your journey and write down and discuss your observations. Elevate your vision, go where no one’s gone before, challenge and inspire yourself and your colleagues through your unique mission. Sing and dance, or create environments where singers and dancers like Rani and Roja or a young Ramanujan can flourish. You will be creative either way. Find your Tippe Top and live the 3As – Aah! Aha! and Ha-ha!

  • Chinese Possibilities

    A shift in context often sparks a new idea or opportunity. My recent visit to resurgent China marked a significant personal shift in outlook towards China. Visitors to Beijing and Shanghai talk admiringly of their spectacular growth, frenetic shopping and the hyper fast Shanghai Mag Lev train. I would like to share my experience in discussing ‘the story of Agastya Foundation’ with students, current and prospective social entrepreneurs, business people, journalists and others at the invitation of Ashoka ( www.ashoka.org ) and the Jet Li One Foundation.  Without exception, the audiences at the eight venues where I spoke on Agastya’s scintillating ten-year voyage and the challenges of social entrepreneurship were inquisitive and hungry for information, insight, and perspective. We discussed Agastya’s growth and evolution, and how its hands-on teaching-learning methodology could be replicated in China. My audience was keen to learn how Agastya sparks curiosity and creativity among poor children and government schoolteachers. Can curiosity be measured? A spontaneous demo of the Tippe Top from Chennapatna provoked a few giggles, excitement and sighs of wonder followed by a brief discussion on learning science through toys. Does Agastya foster critical thinking skills? Is Agastya leveraging India’s formidable IT skills to educate rural children? The interactions grew lively, intense and personal. What about values? What does it mean truly to feel another person’s pain? How does one instill ‘humanistic’ skills? What’s Maya (illusion)? Could I narrate my personal story? Was there a defining moment that caused me to switch from banking to social work? How did I persuade my wife to move from London to Bangalore? A woman asked, somewhat tensely, if she should quit her job with an MNC to start her dream social venture. The discussion moved on to the challenges of social entrepreneurship. Are the risks and opportunities of social entrepreneurship different from those of business entrepreneurship? How does a social venture raise money? How can it scale up, sustain itself and transform the environment? How should a social entrepreneur approach and work with government? Will Agastya support social ventures in China?  The dialogue touched more sensitive ground as a powerful business leader quizzed me over dinner about Indians’ perception of China. Considering India’s historical spiritual influence on China - “our gods look like Indians” and “many Chinese business leaders have embraced Buddhism” - and our mostly conflict-free history, why do Indians fear China? We discussed Chinese history, the 1962 war and Pakistan and whether Chinese society lacks institutional memory. Which model - China’s top-down or India’s bottom-up one – will in time produce superior results? A guest revealed the interesting, if worrying, prospect that China’s one-child policy could create a nation of prima donnas. Another expressed horror at the stark inequities between India’s urban super rich and its slum-dwellers.  At a discussion with social entrepreneurs in Shanghai I depicted facets of creativity and leadership through inspiring stories, of the Buddha, Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Einstein, Feynman and J. Krishnamurti among others, and hastened to ascribe the lack of Chinese stories to my relative unfamiliarity with Chinese history. I described Chanakya’s 2500 year-old rice bowl stratagem as an example of creativity in warfare and drew an instantaneous response that Chairman Mao had conceived and prosecuted a similar strategy in his war of liberation. Several participants offered interesting ideas. Like the man in the Mao Cap (I had mistakenly called it a Guevara cap), who suggested that Agastya should launch a Lab in a Tricycle. I mentioned Agastya’s new Mobile Auto Rickshaw Science Lab, which drew a blank followed by animated discussion – what’s an auto rickshaw? Or the young woman at Peking University who wants to transplant the Agastya Mobile Art Lab in China and the student at Fudan University who wanted to know if Indians are smarter than Chinese.  Almost everyone I spoke to expressed readiness to engage with the poor and the minorities overlooked by China’s unbalanced, roller coaster growth. Beijing and Shanghai are not representative of China, they said. Several socially minded entrepreneurs expressed interest and enthusiasm in replicating Agastya’s grassroots education model in rural and Western China. A consultant at McKinsey was keen to connect me with Chinese students in California interested possibly in interning with Agastya. The head of a non-profit incubator offered to send a box of traditional Chinese toys to demonstrate to Indian children, promising a much-needed spur to Agastya’s overdue mobile toy lab. Was rare idealism impelling my young listeners to reach out to those less fortunate than them? A Westerner advised me privately that ‘only a Chinese can succeed in China’. This was swiftly countered by a Chinese, ‘Westerners do not understand China’. The lackluster environment of many Chinese schools – rote-based learning, lack of curiosity, inquiry and creativity – is not dissimilar to that of most Indian schools. The conditions in both countries are ripe for radical change; the possibilities for collaboration, and the potential benefits of this for India, China, and the world, are enormous.  I came back from my Chinese sojourn refreshed and recharged with respect for China’s youth and well-intentioned social entrepreneurs. More social and spiritual exchanges can help to build constructive relations and perceptions between Indians and Chinese. Perhaps Agastya should commence an initiative to spark curiosity in Chinese schools. To my delight, a few days after my visit I was informed that a box of traditional Chinese toys from Shanghai was on its way to Agastya.

  • A Chef Who Drives Princeton's Mission

    A Chef Who Drives Princeton's Mission A few days ago, Monica and I were given a tour of Princeton University by James Van Wyck, who manages graduate student professional development programs (Princeton and Agastya are in the process of signing an agreement offering Princeton graduate students internship opportunities at Agastya).  We walked into the dining area of Mathey College, where we bumped into Chef Michael Mattis (Princeton Univ. has many colleges, each with their own hall of residence and dining). Michael explained with visible pride, and in some detail, the range of cuisine that the dining staff produce every day for students (there's lots on offer for vegetarians too). He visibly owned his responsibilities and remarked, almost casually, that through the great food that his kitchen produces, "I am building the future leaders."  Monica responded by asking me to narrate the 'JFK and the NASA janitor' story, which I did (when JFK asked a NASA janitor who was carrying a broom what he was doing, the janitor responded, "Mr. President, I am helping to put a man on the moon."). Michael beamed and said, "you have made my day!" I told Michael that he was an inspiration.  The larger point of course is that when people engaged in seemingly less critical support positions in an organization believe that their work is central to the organization's success, you have a special institution whose success, and possibly greatness, is assured.   Indeed, this is the message that we have been communicating to Agastya staff and must continue relentlessly to do. Every member, no matter how high or low, must see and believe, in their own important way, how their work contributes to Agastya's mission. Then, magic happens.

  • Encounters Of A Special Kind

    “Be the change you want to see”, said Gandhi. The former President of India, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam inspired millions of children and teachers, including those served by the Agastya Foundation, through his thoughts and deeds. I vividly remember my first meeting with Dr. Kalam, arranged by K Ramchand, his former defense research colleague, in Rashtrapathi Bhavan in 2003. Dr. Kalam emphasized 'curiosity, skills, and confidence' as the keys to transforming India. Lamenting the propensity among educated Indians to seek security in a desk job, Dr. Kalam said, "You have left a thriving career in the West to educate young Indians. If you want to make a difference, do not get comfortable behind a desk, go and work in rural India.” Agastya staff and children fondly remember Dr. Kalam's visit to our Mobile Lab in Bangalore in 2006. As he got into his car to leave he turned to me and said, “If you bring your mobile lab to the backward areas of the North and North East I will help you.” True enough, a few years later as I was boarding a flight to Mumbai he called me to say that he had won the Rs.1 crore, SR Jindal Prize for Exemplary Service to mankind. Delighted, I interrupted him and said, “Congratulations Sir. The prize is well deserved.” He surprised me by saying that he had decided to give a fourth of his prize money to Agastya to buy two mobile science labs “to serve the poorest children in the most remote areas in Bihar.” The rest of the prize money was going to support the projects of three worthy NGOs. I was overwhelmed by Dr. Kalam’s generosity, which catalyzed a vibrant hands-on science education program reaching over 100,000 children, 700 schools, and 2100 teachers in Darbhanga district, Bihar.  Dr. Kalam’s inspiring speech at the Agastya Creativity Conclave at NIAS, Bangalore in 2010 and his visit to Agastya’s Kuppam campus in 2012 charged and motivated the staff and children of Agastya. I was asked to meet Dr. Kalam at the Raj Bhavan in Bangalore, at midnight, the night before he visited the Agastya campus. At 80, looking remarkably fresh at the late hour, he listened to my detailed update on the Bihar mobile lab program, enquired about the following day's schedule, and expressed his eagerness to help Agastya in any way he could. Dr. Kalam’s connection with children was indeed remarkable. His talk and electric presence at the Agastya campus left a lasting impact on many underprivileged children, motivating them to create prize-winning science projects and do remarkable work in their communities. On Diwali night I walked into his Rajaji Marg home office in Delhi with a young artist, a schoolgirl. Visibly energized by the young girl’s presence, Dr. Kalam asked her, “What is your passion?” “Painting” she replied. “How wonderful” he beamed and followed up with his next question, “What is the first thought that comes into your mind when you paint?” The girl thought for a moment and said, “Colour.” “Aha!” he said with delight as if she had solved a puzzle. The girl offered a calendar of Lord Ganesha, the overcomer of obstacles, that she had painted as a gift to Dr. Kalam. Accepting it with a smile Dr. Kalam recounted a story on Ganesha. As he walked us out, he asked an assistant to fetch a book, and softly read out a poem to the girl under the lamplight. He pointed to the dark silhouette of a large tree in his garden. “That tree is called Arjuna. It is five hundred years old.” As I reached my hotel, I thought about this remarkable man who, against challenging odds, rose to the highest office of the land. Dr. Kalam showed me why he is so deeply loved and admired by people all over the world. For a few precious minutes, this famous son of a boatman had made a young girl feel as if she was the most special person on earth. I couldn't help but admire Dr. Kalam’s passion and energy then, and again when he made his way through the mist on a cold winter's day in distant Darbhanga to inaugurate the Agastya mega science fair. I asked him to tell me the secret of his almost limitless energy. He replied, "When you give selflessly you gain energy." Dr. Kalam was a great son of India, an Indian hero. We shall miss him.

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