When Gandhi stepped out of the textbook

Feb 23, 2014, 13:55 IST | Phorum Dalal

Swaroop Sampat uses drama in education to teach students life skills. In her camps, she also teaches topics such as the Civil Disobedience movement, emocracy and Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy. The actor-cum-educator speaks to Phorum Dalal about the process

It is a hot and dry in the campus of LP Savani School in Surat, Gujarat. The entire school is near-empty, owing to the long holidays. However, in the common hall, 40 children are shouting at the top of their lungs, with their teacher, Swaroop Sampat, instigating them to let their voices out.

Students take part in a drama workshop
Students take part in a drama workshop

No, she is not taking a class in acting. In fact, the actor and educator is conducting a 10-day workshop to “teach” the children, aged nine to 14, democracy, social evils, environment, life skills and the civil disobedience movement using Drama in Education.

Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi

Sampat distributes a lemon to each of the students, asking them to observe it properly so that they can identify it later. In the class, 13-year-old Kenny Desai marks her lemon with a pen.

Swaroop Sampat says the teaching method, Drama in Education, is popular in the West but not in India. Pic/AmitJadhav
Swaroop Sampat says the teaching method, Drama in Education, is popular in the West but not in India. Pic/Amit Jadhav

Sampat and the other teachers then collect all the lemons into a bowl. The students are then asked to find their lemon. “All of us marked our lemons so that we could identify them easily,” smiles Kenny, who is surprised when the teacher peels the lemons and asks the group, once again, to spot their lemon. “Of course, we can’t differentiate,” says Kenny.

This is how the students learnt about racial discrimination. “We may be different on the outside, but aren’t we all the same inside? Black or white, it doesn’t matter,” explains Sampat.

It all started in 2008, when Sampat, who did her PhD in The Role of Drama in Enhancing Life Skills in Children with Specific Learning Disabilities, was invited to take a teacher’s training workshop on how to impart life skills to students in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. “A principal of a village school requested me to conduct a residential drama in education workshop. I chose the topic of Mahatma Gandhi and the civil disobedience movement from the history textbook. “Drama in Education means using drama to bring about a change in understanding. The idea was to bring Gandhi out of the textbook and understand the great leader better. I was scared the younger generation would forget Gandhiji or completely miss his greatness, as all they learn about him is through rote learning,” says Sampat, who has since then conducted similar workshops all across Gujarat.

While Drama in Education is popular in the West, the method is not very popular in India. “Theatre in education is used in north India, but that heavily relies on repertoire and plays. Drama in Education is about the teacher and her students. The process through which all the learning happens. The play performed in the end is not as important as the journey towards completion,” explains Sampat.

Understanding rights
In one of the exercises, she “took away” a part of the body from each student. “It could be the use of a hand, a foot, the mouth or the eyes. The children joked about it until it was time to eat their meal. When they couldn’t pick up their spoon, or open their mouths to eat, they realised what it feels when your rights are taken away. I used this to teach them the importance of rights,” explains Sampat.

All about Gandhi
The actor-cum-educator turned to drama to teach the textbook chapter on Dandi March, Gandhi and Satyagraha. “Teaching history through drama doesn’t mean throwing away your books, but helping children gain historical knowledge which is constructed through enquiry, reflection and internalisation,” says Sampat. For this, she first took up the Greek tragedy Antigone followed by Martin Luther King Jr and his fight for the rights of the black in Montgomery, Alabama. “The latter was inspired by one great Indian man. Squeals of surprise and pride left the children when I told them that man was Mahatma Gandhi,” smiles the actor. “To make them understand it better, I reminded them about how it felt like when I took away the use of one of the parts of their body. You have to talk to them about their own world to make them see a clearer picture,” says Sampat, who even read out Gandhi’s speech before starting the Dandi March, on March 12, 1930. The students were also guided to create a play and improvisations on the evening before the Dandi March, passing of secret messages during the march, various moments of the Salt Satyagraha and also about the violent experience of Dharasana Satyagraha.

To make the young minds question, Sampat also did a role play with children playing Gandhi, his secretary (Mahadev Desai), his followers and journalists who came to interview him from all parts of the world. “This method is called hot-seating, where a character is questioned by the group. Here, even the teacher has a role to play; steering them towards clarity,” explains Sampat. In one of the mock interviews, it was heartening to see, that when the boy playing Gandhi didn’t know the answer, the child playing his secretary whispers the correct answer into his ears. Drama in Education helps developing critical and creative thinking in kids.

Visit to dandi
The children also took a trip to Dandi where they interacted with a 92-year-old freedom fighter. “We met an old man, who at the time of the Dandi March, left the opportunity to study abroad to support Gandhi’s movement. One of the students asked him whether his friends, who went abroad leaving him behind, came to meet him? To this he replied, ‘Yes they do. They are happy in life, but I am content."

“The group even went to Karadi, where Gandhi was put into a train and taken to jail,” says Sampat. “Here, students undergo the process the characters probably went through, which gives rise to great moments of empathy,” she smiles.

The result, according to Sanjay Mehta, principal of LP Savani School, was for all to see. “The method of teaching was a spontaneous one. The concept was easily embedded into the students’ minds. They will never forget the lesson,” he concludes.

Film on the workshop

Swaroop Sampat’s son, Aditya, has filmed a documentary titled Taking Gandhi Out of the Textbook. The film follows the entire progress the children made during the 10-day residential workshop at
LP Savani School.

To view the film, log on to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJ0vHaO4Rwc.

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