Soon after I completed my primary course in 1973, in Ahmedabad, with IMTC – Indian Montessori Training Courses – where A.M. Joosten was the director (this was the last course he managed full time. From the next year on, he spent time between Washington, U.S.A and India) with Mr S R Swamy as the associate director, I went as a volunteer teacher to Anaimalai, Tamil Nadu to work with C.N Vaidheswaran, Vaithanna, as he was called.

It was a small town at the foothills of the mountains with a wildlife sanctuary and tea estates nearby. Children came from the surrounding villages too, in a bullock cart to attend this unique Montessori school. Vaithanna, by then had retired from Rishi Valley School, was translating Montessori books into Tamil and running at times short courses for local people, as he was allowed by Mario Montessori to independently run training programmes. The school was started by a family for their children, in one of their homes – it was truly a House of Children, Kuzhandai Illam in Tamil.

The two teachers, who had undergone the one year course with IMTC had other family responsibilities and could not continue. I was the only trained teacher along with Vaithanna, who would do more observation and take classes for the older children. In the first week, as he was showing me around the House of Children, which was to be my life for the next nine months or so, he took out some materials and started to share what they were meant for. Some material on zoology, geography, language, tuning forks too that he had made with Carnatic music as a base. Each was fascinating. These were the elementary level Montessori material and I fell in love!

The possibilities for older children opened up…How much children could learn, I thought. We set to clean up the material, add in some of the missing pieces and with his guidance started to show them to the older children. I was fascinated, as were the children, with the geography charts too. For instance, the one indicating the size of the earth in relation to the sun, where the earth was just a tiny dot! Almost as soon as I had done the primary, the vista of the Montessori elementary curriculum opened up…

When Abacus Montessori School, which was started in 1987, grew year by year and came to have children at the elementary level quite soon, the quest for setting up Montessori environments, of finding elementary teachers and trainers loomed up.

Dr K.J Sharma, friend and colleague of Vaithanna, who was trained at Kodaikanal under Dr Maria Montessori and her son Mario Montessori, came to our aid. He helped us with material and guidance, with visits to his home and telephone conversations. He was in his mid-80s at that time and was ever so enthusiastic.

We, from Abacus, requested IMTC, based in Bangalore, to find someone and we too looked around the world. There were very few AMI – Association Montessori Internationale – trainers at the elementary level at that time (three – five only in early ‘90s) and when AMI was requested, they said unless there is a Montessori elementary school, with a qualified teacher they would not send a trainer; and we said how could a school come up, without any teacher training programme in India.

The eternal chicken and the egg conundrum!

Meanwhile, a young woman who had just completed her four-year training in the Netherlands walked into Abacus one day, not expecting to find even a Montessori school. I took her round the school and seeing her excitement and interest, asked if she could orient our teachers for the elementary and she immediately agreed!

Natasia de Lange, as was her name, came back for the next few years during her vacations to help the school. Mrs Meenakshi Sivaramakrishnan at IMTC also found a person in the US, at the request of Abacus, who was happy to come to India. This was Prof Rajendra Gupta who was a practicing elementary teacher, in an AMI Montessori school. He had also assisted Joosten in running one of the primary courses.

When Mr Gupta accepted to come to India, I felt that Bangalore had more Montessori preschools, whereas in Madras we were running the only one in the city.

For the Montessori movement to go beyond the preschools, I felt that it would be better if Rajendra Gupta could be based in Bangalore and Abacus could send one or two teachers. From here on, 1995-96 onwards, there was a strong elementary foot wedged into the Montessori movement in India, continuing the work initiated by Dr Montessori and Mario in Kodaikanal in the early ’40s. After 50 long years!

The Elementary programme’s recent history has been that when the AMI Congress was being planned for 2009, Jean Miller on a personal visit to India a year or so prior to it, asked me, if I could organise for her to run the elementary course in India as she was interested to live in India for a while.

She had heard that I was interested in Elementary and had done work in Abacus already for this level. We were not able to take this forward as a group in Chennai. However, with all the home-work done for it, the first AMI course in India, after Dr Montessori left, was started in 2008 with Jean Miller as the Director, at the AMI training centre in Chennai.

In 2010-2011, I felt that it was time for IMC (Indian Montessori Centre) to have a sustainable elementary training programme and suggested to them that we could organise the Elementary Courses. So, we started in 2011 & 2012 in Ooty, Bangalore and in Chennai. I had put together the curriculum for the elementary course, which was the common base for all the three courses.

Also brought together the faculty, which was the most difficult to do. Chennai and Ooty programmes worked closely together with common faculty.

From then on inch by inch, with discussions and a few difficulties the elementary ideas and principles became a part of the Montessori movement in India.

Even before I started the elementary training centre in Bangalore, I discussed and wrote a paper for creating a path for IMC for maintaining quality over the years and to develop a process for working with a body of trainers at the elementary level…This is perhaps in the process of becoming an actuality, sooner than later.

I am glad that learning from the living masters, like Joosten, Swamy, Vaithanna, K.J.Sharma, Rajendra Gupta has come to fruition.

Let us look ahead now… what is being done, what is to be, and what is becoming…

Amukta Mahapatra
December 2020

Pic: The Rose Cottage in Kodaikanal, where the elementary course took its roots in India.