Kamla Sawhney who died on 17th December 2005, aged 75, was the inspiration behind Sangam School in Indri village near Sohna 50 kilometres to the South West of New Delhi. Kamla was a mathematics education pioneer who returned from London to teach in her native India. Throughout her life she was dedicated to providing education for the most disadvantaged children.
Kamla was born 18th February 1930, the third child of a civil servant in a highly respected Hindu Punjabi family in what is now Pakistan. Her grandfather, Diwan Fateh Chand Sawhney OBE, had been Resident Governor of Jammu Kashmir state. The Sawhneys’ (and Sahnis’) ancestral home was an elegant three-storey mansion in Bhera, the town near which, some say, Alexander defeated the Indian king, Porus, in 326 BCE.
Kamla attended schools in Rawalpindi and Gujrat and a college in Lahore. She spoke little of her childhood although memories of her pet deer sometimes surfaced. She would refer too to the enlightened outlook of her elders, imbued as they were with the zeal of the Arya Samaj (late nineteenth century Hindu reform movement) to move away from religious ritualism and caste-based divisions.
Partition of India in 1947 resulted in the family relocating east to the new India. Here, in Jalandhar, Punjab, Kamla was an outstanding student of both mathematics and Hindi literature at Punjab University. She graduated with a first class degree in 1949, her main field being advanced mathematics. She next obtained her Bachelor of Teaching in mathematics and English.
Rather than pursue her studies overseas – the then very rare opportunity that she had - she chose to work with Hill Tribes children in the Sarvodaya Bal Ashram in Simla. She worked here for two years as headmistress, together with Srimati Gauran Devi Dutt (who received the Jamna Lal Bajaj Award for Social Work). Disillusioned with the un-Gandhian way in which the school was run, Kamla proceeded to take up teaching posts in Haryana and Punjab. In 1961 she moved to London to pursue post graduate research in educational psychology, specialising in mathematical problem solving. In the University of London she was a member of William Goodenough House (now Goodenough College) a hostel for international students.
Kamla’s life in London was complicated by anxieties about an undiagnosed illness. Her period of study was protracted as she awaited diagnosis and treatment, and she worked as a teacher in secondary schools for nine years. These included a convent school and a very orthodox Jewish boys’ secondary school and also, in the mid sixties, Camden School for Girls, the Frances Mary Buss Foundation in Camden town. One colleague from that period remembers Kamla talking about her commitment to opening a school in India. Another recalls the racist attitudes that she encountered.
She responded with loyalty and affection to gestures of friendship and particularly delighted in the challenges of travel both in Europe and, subsequently India and the United States.
Kamla was awarded the degree of Master of Philosophy in educational psychology, as, before being able to complete her doctorate, she returned to India on receiving news of her father’s last illness.
After her father’s death Kamla took a teaching post for two and a half years in All Saints’ School, Naini Tal (a formerly British hill-station now in Uttranchal state). During this time she participated, as a resource person, in the New Delhi-based National Council for Educational Research and Training’s workshops for writing mathematics text books up to class 12. In 1983 Macmillan India published the set of mathematics books for primary classes which she co-authored.
The advantages of life in a pleasant environment in a beautiful location did not dim her determination to serve underprivileged families. Her vision was of making ‘equality of education a reality in a society riddled with inherent and obvious divisions and disparities’, and in particular of establishing a school that would bring together pupils from different social backgrounds for an education that drew on the best insights of western pedagogy in combination with values from India’s ancient tradition of gurukuls. With foresight that amazes those of us who have seen the transformation of a backward area of one of India’s less developed states (Haryana) into the multinational metropolis that Gurgaon (between New Delhi and Sohna) now is, Kamla’s mission was to provide excellent education for village children in an area which she expected to be profoundly affected by Delhi’s rapid expansion.
As a first step in this direction Kamla moved with her mother to New Delhi in 1977. Here she taught for six years in the British School, Chanakyapuri (the diplomatic enclave) while seeking out the site for setting up her own school in Delhi’s rural hinterland. This project took enormous perseverance for an unmarried woman without financial resources or family connections in the area. Her energies were expended in searching for suitable sites, negotiating with initially suspicious village elders and undertaking the arduous travel that all this entailed.
She set up Sangam Foundation in 1982: the Hindi word sangam, i.e. confluence, encapsulated her aims for the school, and retired from the British School – and financial security - in order to establish the school. In 1985 the panchayat (village council) of Indri village granted Sangam Foundation a 10 acre site on the outskirts of the village for the school. Kamla moved into accommodation in Sohna, a small town best known for its healing sulphur springs, 6 kilometres from the village along a hazardous stretch of road.
The school opened in 1987. Until the first classroom block was ready the teachers and pupils gathered each day in the village community centre, while mothers, fully veiled as custom required, would walk past carrying their water pots. The new horseshoe-shaped building was constructed from local materials with funding from donations. Visitors to the website www.sangamschool.org.uk can glimpse something of its charm.
Late in 1987 disaster struck as the auto rickshaw in which Kamla and her colleagues were travelling between Sohna and Indri overturned. After several weeks in a coma she regained consciousness but her memory took longer to return. She went back to the school in 1988 and headed its relocation in its purpose built premises. The British Council in India financially supported the construction of another building and the school grew to 150 pupils, from kindergarten to class eight. However Kamla never fully recovered from the accident and, with the death of her mother, her most stalwart supporter, in 1996 and her own increasing frailty and eventual kidney failure, leadership of Sangam became more and more difficult for her.
Kamla died in the Escort Medical Centre, Faridabad. She donated her eyes to the eye bank there and, also in accordance with her wishes, she was cremated at the village cremation ground and her possessions were shared among the local people. Villagers flocked to her funeral and added their offerings of ghee and shawls to the pyre.
The teachers and members of Sangam Foundation are now carrying on Kamla’s mission, working to improve the educational provision, and to further increase the proportion of girls.
Kamla leaves her brother, sister, a niece and three nephews, and her enduring presence in Sangam School.
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