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‘She was as close to the perfect educationist as is humanly possible’

Updated on: 21 April,2024 07:42 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Meher Marfatia |

Celebrating the contribution of educationist extraordinaire, Dolat Doongaji, in the month of her birth and death anniversaries

‘She was as close to the perfect educationist as is humanly possible’

Mrs Doongaji with her twin daughters, Hira Bhesania and Hutoxi Boman

Meher MarfatiaDolat Doongaji, the founder principal of New Activity School, Activity High School and Activity Infant School, devised systems of teaching and learning far ahead of her time. Her deep love for lingual and cultural diversity—which she strongly imprinted on grateful generations—may well have stemmed from influences enjoyed early in life.


Born on April 10, 1918, in Kobe, where her father Rustom Vasunia set up a commercial firm, she went to a nursery run by French nuns, prattled in Japanese with the house staff and spoke Gujarati at home.


Pursuing further education in Bombay, she fell in love with the Bhulabhai Desai Institute and garden on Warden Road while at a theatre performance. As she had completed the BT exam (BEd today), securing “first class first with distinction” rank in Bombay State, she requested opening a nursery school here. Permission granted, the school started within a fortnight on September 2, 1953, with five children—Dolat and Hoshang Doongaji’s son Darayas, Munira Padamsee and three underprivileged children taught free. From five to 30 children, the school went on to include the Doongajis’ twin daughters, Hira and Hutoxi, who were in the batch of 18 pupils for the first ICSE exam from Activity High School.


As a little girl on her piano in Kobe, JapanAs a little girl on her piano in Kobe, Japan

The visionary educator’s Montessori method diplomas from London (1955-56) were followed by her receiving the Fulbright Scholarship of USA for the Teacher Development Programme (1962-63). Championing integrated education, Activity School accommodated a trio of blind boys refused by 20 schools in 1958.

Known for imparting the most interesting cultural history through beautiful charts, artefacts, curios and costumes, she maintained two popular museums. Appreciating the play-way teaching techniques their children benefitted from, parents urged her to open higher classes. The hunt for higher school premises halted on Navroji Gamadia Road, the current location of Activity High School.  

Dolat Doongaji
Dolat Doongaji

Dolat Doongaji passed away on April 26, 2012. At her condolence meeting, a parent narrated how, one year, after admissions were locked, a lady whose child had not been admitted met Doongaji to request reconsidering a seat. A couple of other hopefuls hanging around assured they were willing to pay large donations. The first mother said, “I’m not from a business family but want my son admitted to a good school, which is so difficult.” Turning to the other fathers, Mrs Doongaji said, “I’m sure you will find a school accepting you. If I pick one extra child, I will take the one whose parents can’t donate.”

Over to voices from Dolat Doongaji’s legion of admirers, living by the motto their beloved principal bequeathed them: “We learn while we play.”

Hutoxi Boman, Daughter of Dolat Doongaji & Principal, New Activity School

Ten years after we lost our amazing mother, my loving sister Hira expired three years ago. She had stuck to me through thick and thin for 65 incredible years. We were born on June 19, 1958 (I arrived unexpectedly, ten minutes after her), the day our mother acquired the New Activity School premises, helped by the merchant philanthropist Laxmichand Tejpal. Ever the perfectionist, our mother was busily shifting furniture that morning. Trying to move the piano triggered contractions and she rushed to the hospital to deliver us. The next morning, the head nurse noticed Dolat wasn’t in her room. The entire hospital staff searched futilely. Just as a missing person’s report was to be filed with the police, she returned, rain-soaked with parcels in her hand. She had gone to buy a crib and clothes for the second baby, me.

Apart from being the creative educator she was, our mother displayed compassion everywhere she went. She paid fees for poor children, gave generously to their families to buy books and milk, and sponsored several other necessities they lacked. When we visited Matheran, Panchgani or Nainital, she would first run downhill to the market for warm clothing and blankets to give the locals. Having transformed countless lives, she died with a glow and peaceful smile on her face.

MF Husain judging an inter-school art event hosted by Doongaji; also seen is former headmistress Gool GhadialiMF Husain judging an inter-school art event hosted by Doongaji; also seen is former headmistress Gool Ghadiali

Niloufer Daruvala, Spiritual mentor and energy intuit

I have derived so much fulfillment from this school, right from the day Mrs Doongaji embraced me—extending a handwritten letter of invitation, to share what I knew of elocution and drama with senior school students. This was based on her recollecting my presence at an inter-university debate. The lovely experience continued as I was called upon later to teach Classes 9 and 10 economics for the Boards. Instead of bothering about 90 per cent marks, she was fully determined that every child became the best version of herself or himself. A true educationist, she added drama, yoga, art and music to achieve this, such important talents to counter life stresses.

Delna Golvala, Ex-student

Mrs Doongaji was happiest engaging with her students, both in school and accompanying us on trips across the country, exchanging anecdotes, singing and horse riding. She instilled confidence, putting every child on stage in the early years. As we grew, she added characters to existing scripts, enabling more kids to participate. She coined the term 0 Period, personally coming in before school hours to impart General Knowledge to senior students, ensuring we were well-rounded citizens walking out into the world. A close-knit family, we looked forward to every day together. Spontaneous, original, the brilliant force behind the
institution she dedicated her life to. That was her. Thank you, Mrs D, for being unabashedly you, inspiring us all to do the same.

New Activity School Principal Hutoxi Boman with school partners Piroja Boman and Sharuk Bhesania. Pic/Shadab KhanNew Activity School Principal Hutoxi Boman with school partners Piroja Boman and Sharuk Bhesania. Pic/Shadab Khan

Meher Jehangir, Speech and drama teacher

When Dolat Doongaji asked me to direct Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap, it was daunting. I’d never attempted a full-length production. Working with restricted funds at other schools, I was struck by her liberal budget, affording the best set and lighting designers. She kept teachers available to help backstage, actually adjusting school hours to suit rehearsals. We graduated to Sheridan’s Rivals, Shaw’s Arms and the Man, Oscar Wilde’s Ideal Husband, Dina Mehta’s BBC award-winning Brides Are Not For Burning and Kamala Ramchandani’s The Witness, productions which stunned the theatre world with the children’s mature professionalism. There were extra shows at Tejpal and Patkar halls for other schools. Mrs Doongaji also wrote a great play on the life of Zarathustra. Devoted to Activity School for decades, she nurtured it with tremendous drive, placing it on the map as one of the best institutions in Bombay.

Sheroo Desai, Former headmistress, Infant School

Over 48 years of being in the school, from trainee teacher to AMI (Association Montessori Internationale)-trained directress to the Infant section headmistress, I was motivated by Mrs Doongaji’s faith in me to guide children through the wonderful Montessori philosophy. She had an innate love for books, yoga and art, inculcating these passions in everyone. Encouraging out-of-the-box thinking and experimentation, Activity School was among the few then believing in the inclusion of differently abled and neurodivergent children, who were welcomed and supported. A frail-looking and soft-voiced lady, Mrs Doongaji was strong-willed to realise her dream of bringing the city a unique educational philosophy.

Doongaji riding Gareeb Pariwar, beside Delna Golvala on Jeet with other students in MatheranDoongaji riding Gareeb Pariwar, beside Delna Golvala on Jeet with other students in Matheran

Biren Sampat, Ex-student

Mrs Doongaji was firm, fair, warm-hearted. Her love for general knowledge spilled over into our short break. We learnt about everything, from amoeba and trilobites to Homo Sapiens, civilisations and wars to the French and Industrial revolutions, Indian and British history to the artistry of the Renaissance. One Teacher’s Day, when teachers put up acts for us, Mrs Doongaji watched in the audience. When everyone coaxed her to join, she stood before the assembly unprepared. Tucking her saree around the waist, she recited Jacques’ “All the world’s a stage” monologue from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Her expressions while enacting the seven stages of man are firmly etched in my mind. In real life or performance, Mrs Doongaji acted her part to perfection.

Zenobia Wadia, Elocution and drama teacher

Mrs Doongaji wisely chose promising people for teaching jobs. She thought nothing of taking away regular curriculum periods from us for cultural history, the subject she introduced for senior schoolers. She awarded cash prizes to toppers of other schools—something no other principal did. We felt free to approach her about any issue. She stayed broadminded, contemporary, relevant. Her lively sense of humour accepted pranks coolly. At a Matheran camp around election time, naughty kids approached her, saying, “Mrs Gandhi, your autograph please.” Salt and pepper-haired, she bore a resemblance. Gamely, she wrote: “DD for IG”!    

Rashna Karai, Ex-student

Ours was the kind of school that schools today, charging fees in lakhs, aspire to be. Mrs Doongaji was as close to the perfect educationist as is humanly possible. Her GK classes were a delight. She threw quotes at us, demonstrated dance steps, challenged us to impromptu competitions on topics taught. Whenever she attended a good presentation, she got it repeated for us. We’ve had illustrious names like Harindranath Chattopadhay to wandering street magicians come, all fascinating. What Mrs Doongaji believed in most was us. Deciding between the unsubstantiated word of a teacher or a student, she’d go with the student. At nine years old, to know you are trusted even if an adult is on the opposing side, is something which never leaves you. I cannot recall a single time when anyone was shamed, felt small. With Mrs Doongaji you always got a just response. That is why we were overwhelmingly a happy school.

Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at meher.marfatia@mid-day.com/www.meher marfatia.com

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