The article remains in present tense as the interview was taken before the sad demise of Dr. YGP in August 2019.
The interview was conducted by noted quizmaster and mentor of TheTeacher.in Giri Pickbrain, accompanied by Chandrashekar of Greycaps. Pickbrain has presented over 2000 shows across nine countries of the world and has authored several GK books. He is a popular speaker, educator and a youth mentor. An alumnus of the prestigious Harvard Business School, he is the driving force behind several educational and knowledge initiatives of Greycaps. He is also a TEDx speaker.
Imagine being in front of someone twice your age, but for some reason, the feeling you get is that the person seems way younger than you. It summarises exactly how I felt, sitting in awe, in front of Padma Shri Dr. YGP, as she opened up in a freewheeling chat with me. For a quizmaster by profession, you would credit me to being used to meeting people with good memory. At 93, Dr. YGP stumps me with her extraordinary memory and recollection of anecdotes from her life, including her previous meeting with me nearly a decade ago.
On multiple occasions during the chat, I get a feeling I may not have come prepared with enough questions. Thankfully, the interview is two way as her inquiring mind throws several questions at me, from time to time. Barely minutes into the chat one feels overwhelmed and touched by her simplicity as she urges us to eat or drink something. As we politely decline, “buttermilk” she insists. For one of India’s nest institution builders and educational visionaries, she is a teacher and a mother to everyone she meets. While our nation knows her better, as the creator and builder of the PSBB Group of Institutions, not many know she was an accomplished journalist. She was the first woman to join the editorial team at The Hindu, someone who had interviewed Yuri Gagarin (you read it right!) and wrote fashion columns in the 40’s & 50’s. She quizzes me about my pseudonym Pickbrain, and with childlike enthusiasm says, “I have many such names. For Sport and Pastime (a weekly of the Hindu) I wrote as Rashmi, for Kumudam (a reputed Tamil magazine) I was Jalak,” she says with a radiant smile. At a recent interaction on the new education policy, I met G. Balasubramanian, former Director Academics, CBSE and I tell him about my interview with Dr. YGP. In the context of our meeting, he aptly quips, “Mrs. YGP had an education policy of her own in her mind”. It was a perfect analogy to how she shaped education by thinking out of the box and bringing in changes that were way ahead of her times.
While we speak of experiential learning today, decades ago, she introduced a concept called ‘Creative drama’ that covered even subjects such as Math and Chemistry.
The school has also recently introduced a platform, with her patronage, called PADHAM – PSBB academy of dance heritage and music. The school has a large, alumni who are performing artists in Carnatic music. The idea is to bring the alumni back to school, to perform and inspire the younger generation. Here are some of her answers in her own words as I feared distorting the essence of what she said in attempting to scribe it.
What is your advice to the teachers of today?
“You must look after the students like mothers and treat them with love and affection. Always be laughing and smiling and bring the best out of the children”.
You are an inspiration yourself, who did you look up to?
Pat comes her reply “Mahatmaji. To me, Gandhi was the best! He lived a non-violent life in a violent world and that required a lot of courage. He did it throughout his life. That is his biggest teaching, to imbibe non-violent thinking.”
Who did you learn from most?
She credits her mother for being a visionary and ensuring she became the first female graduate in the family, in an era when women did not pursue education beyond a point. She also learnt her values from her, an important one being ‘inclusion’.
She dwells into an incident to drive the point – a rikshaw puller who would take them to school was diagnosed of tuberculosis and her mother would cook eggs separately for the rikshawala to ensure he recovered.
Is it true you spoke to Indira Gandhi regarding women being restricted from being principals of boys’ schools?
“Yes, schools for boys in those days had only men as principals, and I did not like that rule. When I told Mrs. Indira Gandhi she readily agreed with me and immediately asked for the rule to be changed.” Ever since in India, women are allowed to become Principals of boys’ schools as well.
Can you tell us something about your friendship with Dr. Kalam?
“He would speak so freely and easily. He always had a child-like enthusiasm. He always left you with some thoughts. Though he would treat me like his daughter, he was younger to me in age, so I blessed him. When I invited him for my 80th birthday to the school, he asked me, Why, should I not come home? I said sure. He lived up to his promise and came home despite being an incumbent President of the nation”. The incident reflects Dr. Kalam’s humility on the one hand and his admiration for Dr. YGP on the other.
You have always supported the cause of women and pushed them to achieve more, what is your message to all young girls and women?
“There is nothing a man can do that I can’t do better. If they develop that belief nothing can stop them. They can do anything if they set their mind to it.”
Is it true you asked Gandhiji to learn Tamil?
She clarifies and says, “Gandhiji asked me if I know Hindi, so I asked Gandhiji if he knows Tamil, he smiled and said, ‘I know as much Tamil as you know Hindi’.”
As we are about to part, I gently ask her how she recalls so many things effortlessly. She unassumingly spells a gem, “Read First. Absorb in silently. Say it loud. Write it out. That’s all I teach my children to do”. True to the title of her biography, she is indeed, a class apart. As I step out of the conversation into the bustling streets of Chennai, just one line engulfs me as I recount the visionary I just met. The lady who saw tomorrow.
This article was originally published in TheTeacher.in magazine in the month of September, 2019.