This farm school redefines traditional ways of education

Published: May 20,2018 07:15 AM by Arpitha Rao

Started in Tiruvannamalai by a community of like-minded individuals, who were vexed by the ‘system’, Marudam Farm School is here to break all the stereotypes of how a child ought to be nurtured.

Children engage in craft session, farming, physical education and field trips

Children engage in craft session, farming, physical education and field trips


Discontent with their lives, unhappy with their workplaces and fed up with being part of a corrupt and negative system is how most of the creators of Marudam Farm School wandered and ended up in Tiruvannamalai like cows gone astray. They might have been clueless about what to do next, but they had an aim, a very clear one — to lead a simple, self-sufficient life with minimal material and needs. The elders soon found work that supported their ideals but the lack of a good school in the vicinity prompted them to start one themselves. 

Swimming against the tide to be where they are today certainly wasn’t easy for all — some got ostracised from their families for leaving well-paid jobs and “successful” careers. “But what really is success?” asks Arun Venkataramanan, one of the founders of the school. “It’s quite expected, yet funny, that most of us here are former engineers,” he scoffs, dismissing the current education system. 

What makes this school unique 

It all begins there for a child; his or her future is based on what the parents impart and what they learn in school. In the case of children studying at Marudam Farm School, they can put any formally educated, urban child to shame. “We have kids from villages and towns surrounding Tiruvannamalai, children of disillusioned city parents like us and those of foreign immigrants, who chose the spiritual life,” explains Arun, adding, “Our approach to education is through learning by doing, seeing, playing and feeling free.” Books only contribute to 20 per cent of learning. 

‘Intelligence is relative’ 

He illustrates with an example as to how intelligence is not only through bookish knowledge — “An 18-year-old girl at our school cannot read or learn from textbooks to save her life but she’s one of the most intelligent, street-smart youngsters I’ve seen. She can take a herd of 40-50 goats to graze, come back and cook for her entire family and run the household when her parents are away without facing any difficulty.” He adds, “I’ve never seen anyone interpret objects the way she does; she’s absolutely alive to the world and is a great observer.” 

Educating children through a variety of mediums such as art, craft and games exposes them to multiple experiences, which they’re then free to opt as a career. “We encourage them to do whatever they like — my son (who also studies at Marudam) plays the tabla and is interested in art, which I have no intentions of admonishing,” Arun shares. 

Teachers at the institution draw salaries determined by their familial conditions (the more the members the more the pay) and the school charges a minimal fee — students’ families pay whatever they can afford. The rest of the costs is covered by sponsors. 

Breaking barriers of the classroom 

What started off in a rented meditation hall with 20 students, Marudam Farm School today has added a hundred more to its roll call. The land where the current campus stands was donated by well-wishers and has come alive with beautifully architected buildings. “Left to the bunch of us founders, we wouldn’t have wanted buildings at all but due to government rules, we had to construct a school. An architect, who’s a dear friend, helped us design classrooms that were more than just boxes.” Corners became curves, walls became waves, amphitheatres were added and so was landscaping. He further elaborates, “We’ve experimented with different materials like mud, plaster and cow dung mixtures, mud blocks, jack arch roofs with terracotta and tiles and so on.” 

The community’s contribution to going green 

Every single step has been a team effort by the families that stay there as a happy, united community. “Like ants trickling towards sugar, so many of us from across the world came together leaving behind our pasts to build a productive, greener future,” says Arun. Speaking of greener, the school is also home to an organic farm where teachers, students and residents alike toil to see the fruits of their labour. He remarks, “We start the day by doing some physical activity on the farm. We’re also engaging in afforestation programs on the hills of Tiruvannamalai, we’ve already built a community park and are in the process of constructing one more.”

Tolerance begins at school for these kids in TN temple town

A diverse group of children create a deeply interconnected human and natural world at the Marudam Farm School in Tiruvannamalai

In 2008, a group of plucky educationists moved to the outskirts of the temple town of Tiruvannamalai in north-central Tamil Nadu and started a school that believes in honest, empowering and potentially disconcerting tolerance.

“Wouldn’t acceptance be a better word?” asks Leela Arnon Bowley, 43, kindergarten teacher at the Marudam Farm School, a day school for about 100 children of locals, villagers, urbanites and expats, including students with disabilities and special needs, across economic backgrounds and denominations. “Ideologically, this was a great decision, but how was it going to work out pedagogically? That was the question,” recalls founder-trustee Poornima Arun, 43.

Nature nearby

Visually, Marudam (Tamil for farmland) rises as a cluster of earthy, aesthetic structures set on eight agrarian acres. Artwork by the school community lies scattered about the almost entirely solar-powered campus, where jackfruit, pomegranate and mango trees grow by paddy fields in which, two years ago when the rains were copious, students cultivated several vegetables and madumuzhangi, a lesser-known indigenous variety of rice. “Learning is hands-on, children are physically and socially involved, and nature is never far from us,” says the soft-spoken Harish N.V., 26, teacher of social sciences. This year’s acute drought, however, is causing anxiety in the ecologically sensitive school, which recycles every drop of water.

Mutually beneficial

Tiruvannamalai has been a lodestone for diverse settlers since the early 1920s, when the philosopher-saint Ramana Maharshi’s ashram came up here. Marudam’s student body is thus a microcosm of society at large.

“The peer learning that happens is simply incredible,” says Karthik Narayanan, 28, teacher of maths and gardening. A discussion on ground water, for instance, had village children pitching in with practical information on how wells are dug, and why the soil and bedrock matters, while the more bookish learners talked about aquifers and water tables. It is the sure-footed first generation learner from a goat-herding family that leads her class on hiking trips, pointing to birdand animal life with a sharp eye, commanding the respect of peers older and younger than herself.

“At Marudam, equality is more than theoretical,” says K.Pachaiappan, 29, the much-loved teacher of Tamil. Sustained by donations, Marudam never turns children away because they lack the money to pay fees, though the school intends to remain small and diverse. If cliques form, or someone has difficulty with sharing, resolution is found over animated debates in ‘circle time’. “Learning is natural and even unavoidable for children once they have the space and time to explore,” says Arnon Bowley.Marudam now awaits accreditation from Tamil Nadu’s Directorate of Matriculation Schools. One mother says her daughter wants to go to school even when she is unwell, and her initially reluctant husband has come to appreciate the school’s impact on their child’s sense of anbu (love) and suyanambikkai (self-belief). The world could do with more of both.

This article by Lalitha Sridhar appeared on The Hindu dated May 13, 2017.

Schooling for curiosity

Shriya Mohan

An ear to the ground: Students visit a ration shop to learn how the public distribution system works

An ear to the ground: Students visit a ration shop to learn how the public distribution system works

Where art lives: Students dabble in pottery, thread work, paper craft, sculpture and various art forms within school
  • Where art lives: Students dabble in pottery, thread work, paper craft, sculpture and various art forms within school 
  • Melting pot: At Marudam Farm School, you can learn Maths through cooking, goat-rearing, or even pottery, depending on whatever tickles your fancy

Marudam Farm School Melting pot: At Marudam Farm School, you can learn Maths through cooking, goat-rearing, or even pottery, depending on whatever tickles your fancy 

Inside the Marudam Farm School at Tiruvannamalai, time is just a bystander, not allowed the privilege of calling the shots. On a Friday morning, a busload of chatty children — some well-clothed, some barefoot — come bumping along a dusty road to be deposited at the 9.5-acre expanse of fertile land that’s their school. A large terracotta horse stands at the entrance and other semi-finished sculptures and pottery experiments lie around. You spot cows grazing and hear birds chattering amid the rustle of the coconut trees. Leaving the bustle of the town outside the gates, the school’s 70-odd children step into a world of sublime difference. 

If the rains had been better they would have been thrashing harvested paddy, but today the students are digging pits to plant lemon, tapioca and papaya saplings. Some are preparing a large mulch bed by spreading dried leaves, readying it for a vegetable garden that will be sustained by diverting used kitchen water. At the nursery, a few others are mixing ‘jeevamrit’ in a giant blue tub by emptying into it buckets of jaggery, cow urine, cow dung, chickpea flour and termite soil. “The mixture aids bacterial growth and helps keep the organic farm soil fertile,” says Madhavan, a 16-year-old student. 

“We usually grow 85 per cent of the school’s food requirement in-house,” says Arun Venkataraman, 48, who founded the school together with his wife, Poornima, eight years ago. A qualified engineer who went on to pursue a BA and BEd to become a teacher, Venkataraman initially taught gardening at Chennai’s The School. Poornima used to be a teacher at the Theosophical Society’s Olcott Memorial School in the city. Before long, the couple moved 190 km south to Tiruvannamalai, to start Marudam. 

“Marudam (farmland in Tamil) was born out of a need to provide a space for ‘learning by doing’, academics, nature and ‘unstructured time’,” says Venkataraman. He believes that an education system that constantly tells children what to think, dampens their curiosity and love for learning. On Thursdays, they climb the Arunachala hill, mostly in silence. If a question is asked, together the answers are found. On returning they discuss what they discovered about the hill and within their own selves. Thursdays are also movie days. Majid Majidi’s lyrical Baran is what the kids watched last. 

Of the learner, by the learner 

The school follows a principle of democratic learning. The class size is small, only 4-10, to ensure the facilitators well understand the interests of the children. Once that is identified, they run with it, no matter how unrealistic it may appear. 

Mathematics is taught through baking, cooking, goat-rearing or even pottery, depending on whatever strikes a chord with the batch. “One batch studied oceans and nothing else for an entire academic year of geography class. The children simply couldn’t get enough,” Venkataraman recalls. Ocean currents, tides, oceanbeds, depth, pressure, underwater life… they trawled through it all. That included a walk on Chennai beach to rescue Olive Ridley turtles. It was followed by a year of deserts and then rainforests. They visited the Wayanad rainforests in Kerala, and the nearby Javadi hills, living and breathing the jungles with the forest tribes. 

Two-third of the school’s children live in Tiruvannamalai. Their parents are farmers, cattle rearers, domestic help, drivers or small shop owners. The rest include children from expat families that have made a home in this town — famous for several spiritual centres — in their quest for an alternative lifestyle. 

To remain inclusive, the school allows families to pay whatever fee they can afford and finds sponsors to pitch in with the rest. Panjali, 38, is a cook and a single parent in Tiruvannamalai. Her two boys were beaten and abused by the teachers at the private school they attended previously. Marudam welcomed them with an open heart. 

“My family warned that my boys would become rowdies with so much freedom, but now this freedom is all I want for them,” she says, beaming; her younger son is proving to be a math whiz, while the older one is obsessed about becoming a football player. Both speak perfect English. 

A donation of ₹35,000 takes care of the annual schooling cost of a child at Marudam — three-fourth of the school’s children are sponsored by individual donors. “Is the model sustainable? Of course not! But I believe there is enough goodwill in this country to sustain what we have been doing for the past eight years,” says Venkataraman. 

The continually evolving curriculum draws from several methodologies ranging from the philosophy of J Krishnamurti, Waldorf, Montessori, Sudbury Valley school, UK’s Summer Hill, and “just about any bright democratic idea” that the 70-odd students, 20 teachers or a handful of volunteers come up with. 

“As long as our schools produce unthinking robotic people who don’t question the established norms of hierarchy, human beings will become irrelevant,” says Govinda, 42, the in-house radical and consultant. Warning about an imminent environmental apocalypse — “200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal go extinct every day”, Marudam is a counter-current, he explains. 

Appeared on Business Line 4th March 2017