“My svadharma was to teach”: A brief biography of Dr. Anandalakshmy

In the year 2013, I was approached to write Dr. Anandalakshmy’s biography for a publication on ‘Eminent Indian Psychologists’. I was both delighted and daunted by the responsibility, but greatly enjoyed writing this essay with inputs from Dr. A. herself, Neerja Sharma and Dipali Taneja (thank you). This draft version is in fact, the final submitted to the editors with Dr. Anandalakshmy’s approval. Unfortunately, the editors of the volume believed that its rather unique format didn’t fit in with the rest of the volume and required ‘correction’. They proceeded to make dramatic (read disastrous) changes while retaining the ‘facts’. We were given the “choice” to approve or quit! With a great deal of reluctance, both of us accepted the changed version, and it is now available in print. I believe that the final version lacks soul, and for some years now, I have been sitting with this essay wondering when and where to place it for others to read. Here it is for you. I thank her niece Yeshi (Yeshwanti Balagopal) for sending me the pictures.

“My svadharma was to teach”: A brief bi8ography of Dr. S. Anandalakshmy

Approaching Dr. Anandalakshmy

After studying Economics at Madras University, Dr. Anandalakshmy  received a master’s degree in Child Development and Education from Bryn Mawr College, U.S.A. and a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, U.S.A. Her career began at an innovative school in Chennai. She then moved to Lady Irwin College,  University of Delhi, where she developed and established a master’s degree course in Child Development. During this period, she served in an advisory capacity to the UNICEF, Ministry of HRD, and several academic institutions in India. She visited Universities in the US at the invitation of the Asia Society and spent two summers at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Edinburgh and a three-month period at the Maison des Science de l’homme in Paris. For over seven years, she served as Director of the Lady Irwin College.

Sometimes, careers find us!

Her research has been in the area of the Girl Child, Cognitive Development in Early Childhood and Socialization. She edited a book for SAGE, along with two colleagues, on the theme of qualitative research methods. She serves on the Executive Committee of the Barefoot College, Tilonia; Volontariat in Pondicherry, and Bala Mandir in Chennai. She worked with the Bernard van Leer Foundation, helping assess and monitor child care work in SEWA, Ahmedabad. In the course of assisting the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in Tamil Nadu, she made two short documentaries on the innovative methods (ABL and ALM) in Tamil Nadu schools.

Having been a student of Dr. Anandalakshmy, this task of writing her academic biography is a privilege. As first impressions went, Dr. Anandalakshmy appeared to be an imposing, larger than life influence in our young and impressionable lives. The young teacher freshly returned from her travels abroad seemed to us as if she knew everything there was to know. To add to the detail, depth and diversity of her knowledge, she was an arresting figure. Her choice of unmatched blouses, untamed hair and brisk walk was incredibly attractive for us, an experience that we all began to emulate quite unconsciously. Our lessons with her always began with a bang, she shocked us by her style of addressing anything from anywhere, and not sparing anyone for ignorance or lassitude. We learnt as much inside the classroom as outside, frequently being quizzed about phases of the moon, plant species or bird behaviour. Nothing was considered outside of the curriculum for a student of ‘Child Development’. A person who had chosen to live an unconventional lifestyle, she led in our journey inwards into the minds of children and beyond into the universe; where a child-like wonder was the main guiding approach in our study. Standard theories were taught and trashed, standardized procedures were replaced or discarded for their lack of ecological validity. We were  coerced to work on ideas that were our own, whether for a thesis or a class project. Faculty guided projects were largely kept at bay because it was believed that they stifled student autonomy and exploration. We conformed quickly to the lack of conformity. Theatre, the arts, music and literature were seamlessly introduced into our lectures from diverse traditions and we learned to take criticism as well as extend it. In the words of one of my colleagues, we sat through her class on the edge of our seats. Another distinctive quality she had was being unpredictable about timings. She made us wait for hours and then gave the most amazing lecture 5 minutes before it was time to leave.

Dr. Anandalakshmy has had a long and distinguished career in the field of Child Development and linked areas of cultural studies, family dynamics, social welfare and gender studies. The story of how she got there is interesting to say the least. She taught at a school, then college, then went to study abroad, founded a University Department and led a premier college for women’s education at the University of Delhi. Choosing to take an early departure from her administrative post, before it was time for formal retirement, she continues active work in the field through her articles and activities. Her career path has been unconventional and deeply inspiring for younger colleagues and students at a time in the country when job opportunities were limited. Although we may believe the opposite, sometimes, careers choose people as well.

Bonding with books

Since early childhood, Dr. Anandalakshmy was an avid reader. The abundance of books in her parents’ library at home provided insightful exposure to a wide range of subjects, from astronomy to theology and ethics. These readings had a deep impact on her life. As a teenager, she remembers reading a book by a Russian author about her experiences of teaching children with diverse abilities and talents. The book steered her interest in teaching. University education in those days gave very little choice regarding courses and joining Economics and History at Queen Mary’s college, Madras, seemed to be a good option at the time. Taking a keen interest in debating and drama, she also participated actively in social work and political activity. In the last year of college, she was voted President of the students’ union. After the first degree, there was no clear plan, except to continue education. As a friend of hers remarked, it seemed as though she walked along the Marina in Madras in a northerly direction and breezed into the nearest institution: Lady Willingdon College (for a B.Ed. programme) and Presidency College (for an M.A.) in that order. Taking exams were never a problem and the university ranks she got came in handy when she applied for jobs and also for a Fulbright scholarship. The principal of the B. Ed. College, Miss Varughese came to know about a new school that was being started by the Mylapore Ladies’ Club. This school, she informed the young Anandalakshmy, was searching for a Head. Recently engaged in a couple of attempts at what she called “doing Economics”, the educated but unemployed Anandalakshmy was approached to take up the new primary school. This is how Vidya Mandir came into existence. This opportunity became foundational for her travels into teaching. She explains it thus:

“I think my career chose me. Let me explain. In looking back at my life experiences, I feel it is not so much that we plan our lives, but things seem to happen to us. I use the term “svadharma” which can be defined as a combination of inborn talent, deep interest and situation or circumstance, which combine to propel one in a certain direction. My svadharma was to teach children and to speak on their behalf. It also involved my helping with the life chances of children from disadvantaged and poor families. These two strands have been intertwined in all the major paths I have walked over the years. But this was not for me a pledge to be only dutiful and earnest. Rather I treated life as a joyous and culturally diverse adventure, filled with friends and family and good times! Whatever I have undertaken to do in my academic career and in other activities like travelling in India, taking photographs, or being a rasika of classical music, I have done with zest” (Anandalakshmy).

Vidya Mandir had started as a preschool centre and a primary school. Although they had a Correspondent, there didn’t seem to be any official authority that the staff had to report to. The Correspondent was a motherly person who dropped in every day and there must have been an Executive Committee, but they functioned as a group of young teachers accountable first to the children they taught and then to their parents, in that order!  There were dreams that became a reality, an opportunity that very few receive in their early years. There was no ranking of children, and comparisons were avoided. Competition, common in other schools, was abjured  and each child was encouraged to improve his or her own performance. The objective was mastery of the subject and not being faster or better than another child. Knowledge-seeking was believed to be exciting and not a drudgery. Enthusiasm was evoked, encouraged and supported for all children. During a Geography class, poring over the Atlas in the library was not unusual, when the teacher would easily confess her ignorance of details and they would together look it up and make notes. The total number of children in a class was 20, a number that facilitated dialogue and discussion. Speaking about her experiences at Vidya Mandir, Anandalakshmy says in one interview:

“I recall an experience from an English class I was taking for 6 year olds. The theme of the English class was the poem, “If I were King of Tartary”. I read it out to them first. Everyone in the class then read the poem and some tried to commit it to memory. Half way through the class, I asked the children what they would wish for in their “Tartaries”   their dream kingdoms. After a general discussion, each of them wrote a poem or a paragraph about what they would do as king of a fantasy land. I remember the creative surge in that that class, when the children got busy, biting their pencils, smiling to themselves at the effect their views would create and writing away.

 I noticed one little boy who sat quietly, looking unhappy. When asked, he said, “I can’t write”! I realized that he may have a problem forming sentences or in writing them out. “Would you like to draw instead”? I asked him. It was just an intuitive suggestion. He brightened up and produced a superb drawing. Others in the class came over to his desk to see his work and asked if he would illustrate their poems and stories. Soon he was surrounded by his classmates, all admiring of his skill. He became a hero.”

It was recognized that if a teacher permits spontaneity and gives a sense of personal freedom to the children, learning and confidence happen with ease. Although the recognition of these strategies, and the acceptance of multiple intelligences has now been accepted in Psychology, those classes were conducted intuitively, with a basic belief in the dignity and right of the child to learn in his or her own way. Two years after Vidya Mandir, Anandalakshmy qualified for the Fulbright scholarship to the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Lady Irwin College

After completing the doctoral programme, Anandalakshmy returned to India and took on a teaching job at Lady Irwin College, University of Delhi, teaching a course on Child Development. Among her other duties was the supervision of the Nursery School attached to the Department. Here, she introduced, with some effort, a programme to include 3 to 5 year old children with disability. Later, with initiative from the faculty of Child Development, under her leadership, the College set up ‘The Enabling Centre’ which provided services for children with disability for primary education, catering to the non-school going disadvantaged children.  Inclusive education was not even a recognized expression at that time, when Lady Irwin College promoted and practiced inclusion for children both on the ability and income parameters.

Among her other interests, Anandalakshmy was also actively involved with the NGO sector. After meeting Meera Mahadevan, the founder of Mobile Creches in 1969, she involved herself in a unique programme for children of migrant labour that continues to run in the capital city and other cities. She also became actively engaged in the work of Bunker and Aruna Roy who had set up SWRC (Social Work and Research Centre) now referred to as “The Barefoot College” in Tilonia, Ajmer District, Rajasthan. In later years, Aruna Roy set up MKSS, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan in Dev Doongri, Rajasthan. Her team became a powerful nucleus for initiating the Right to Information, the Right to Food, Rural Employment Guarantee and Pension Parishad, with which Dr. Anandalakshmy continues to be associated even today.

 While Dr. Anandalakshmy was still at Lady Irwin College, she became a good friend of Ela Bhatt of SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) in Gujarat. Over forty years, SEWA has more than nine lakh women members from the grass roots in Gujarat, who have been genuinely empowered through this movement.

In the first ten years of the setting up of the M.Sc. course in Child Development at Lady Irwin College, Anandalakshmy began an informal Homework Help Centre for the children of the karamcharis in the College campus. The masters’ students would teach and administer this centre. The children were helped mostly with understanding the English language and doing their English homework. This practical activity for the post-graduate students was tremendously successful in three ways. It gave the students a first-hand experience of organizing a useful programme for children; it succeeded in providing   academic assistance and home-work help to the school going children, free of cost, and  the children of various ages became a part of the life of the Department. Many of them who now work in permanent positions in college as adults still treasure those experiences of a very different time.

Years later when Anandalakshmy  took over as Director of the College and had to deal with a variety of staff problems, the memories of those early years frequently helped ease tensions, on account of the sense of trust and mutual respect between the college karamcharis and the Director.

Around college

One added dimension in the term at Lady Irwin College was highlighted by the life on campus. The College is located in an area with a lively cultural life. On any weekend, one could walk into a Mohan Rakesh play in the Little Theatre, or see Ibsen staged in Urdu by Alkazi at the National School of Drama or a superb Koodiyattam from Kerala at the Sangeet Natak Academi  all within a five-minute walk from the College. These were cherished experiences. Often, if students were lucky to be ‘hanging around’, we would be taken along for a performance. These were experiences to cherish.  Krishna Sobti’s Mitro Marjani at the Shriram Centre, Kishori Amonkar singing Bhoopali in a late evening concert at the Modern School grounds, the paintings of Jatin Das at the Lalit Kala Akademi and Devi Prasad’s elegant ceramics at Triveni Kala Sangam — what an abundance of delight, during her time at College.

People remembered

Dr. Anandalakshmy had met quite a lot of well-known people during her career, and was intimidated by none, although the reverse may have happened. Once sitting down to recount the many people who she had met or been in the company of. Some of them became well-known much after the time she had met them. Here is her narration of the memorable meeting with Margaret Mead:

“I heard Margaret Mead in Philadelphia in the year 1960 and again in Delhi in 1980, when she spoke at the Lady Irwin College Hostel common room. It was organized by the Dean of Colleges, and located at the College. In the 1960 lecture, I remember Mead defending her statement that she preferred a sex divide in the last 4 to 6 years of school and that co-education was not the best thing, in her view, for the high school age. In single gender schools, she felt there was more focus on academic work and less distraction from boy-girl relationships than in a co-educational school. In the Delhi talk, she was pleading for the protection of the Onge, the last of the tribal groups in the Andamans. My meeting with her was merely formal, but her presence left an impression.”

            While at Bryn Mawr, Anandalakshmy was invited along with her friends to the home of art historian Anne Ashwood, to meet Jacob Bronowski, the author of The Ascent of Man. In her words:

“It was an elegant evening with only the host family, the chief guest and the three of us. We felt truly privileged and Bronowski seemed pleased to have an attentive (and traditionally clad) global audience!”

While living in Philadelphia, the three house-mates entertained a lot. As one of them had expertise in French and Chinese cooking, their home was popular for their parties. Pupal Jaykar was a regular visitor since her daughter was a friend and flat-mate. They were also introduced to Stella Kramrisch, Curator at the National Gallery in Washington and Professor in Art History. Later that year, Stella Kramrisch also invited the three friends to the National Gallery for a visit with the promise that she would take them round to see three of her favourite pieces in the art collection. In Washington, they received a personal introduction to the Gallery by the Curator herself, a privilege extended only to a few students, perhaps.

Bryn Mawr had a ‘blue stocking’ reputation, implying that it was responsible for producing women intellectuals. Dr. Anandalakshmy was placed there for her Fulbright programme. The president of the College (equivalent to the Vice Chancellor) was Kathrine McBride, a woman well-versed in the classics who also taught at the Education Department. Anandalakshmy recalls her once telling the students that Bryn Mawr had opted out of the Phi Beta Cappa because all of her students were of that standard and she would not be able to pick a few for the honour. About her experiences at the University, Anandalakshmy recalled:

“One Christmas eve, she saw my Indian friend, Radhika Jayakar and me walking around in the rather empty campus. She realized we had no home to go to and invited the two of us to her place for lunch the next day. Asked about our food taboos, we told her we were vegetarians, but eggs were OK. We arrived at her home the next day and she had cooked a delicious meal, with devilled egg salad and soup. We finished the lunch with the traditional Christmas cake and coffee. It is one of the meals I can savour on my tongue after more than five decades, nostalgic for its elegance and for the lovely thoughtfulness it reflected. It is difficult to imagine a VC in India taking the trouble to entertain two foreign students at home, on a holiday, when household help was not available.”

Among other people whom Anandalakshmy remembers meeting is Rachel Cox, the head of the Department of Child Education who was a clinical psychologist. She was a warm person and made students realize the importance of gentleness in dealing with children in addition to acquiring clinical expertise. Bryn Mawr students were encouraged to take courses in Philadelphia, a short train ride away, and that was the opportunity where Dr. Anandalakshmy studied Linguistics and Physical Anthropology, the latter with the renowned Carleton Coon, someone whom she describes as a brilliant and engaging teacher. He asked her to write a term paper on Races of India. The paper was prepared by assembling information from different sources on account of lack of a definitive book on the theme. Receiving a compliment about the handling of the difficult theme from him was a valuable comment for the young student. Later, she took the courage to invite him over to their now somewhat famous dinner gatherings which had begun to include academic “stars” for multidisciplinary conversations and multi-cultural cuisines.

Another illustrious academic of the University of Pennsylvania was Loren Eiseley, author of “Darwin’s Century” and other wide-ranging volumes. His writing style was enchanting for the students. Although he was not her teacher, Dr. Anandalakshmy remembered having a conversation with him when she asked for his autograph on her copy of Darwin’s Century.  

The second trip to the US happened when Dr. Anandalakshmy applied for and received the East-West Centre fellowship. Margaret McCormack, then at the USEFI, was very supportive of her selection. Under this arrangement, Dr. Anandalakshmy got accepted for a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and took courses in Sociology, Psychology and Anthropology as well as Childhood and Educational Psychology, the main subject. She remembers one important event during that period:

“During my doctoral study, a paper I wrote on theories in the discipline of CD, jointly with the head of my Department, Robert Grinder, was accepted by the foremost journal in our field, Child Development, for publication. I was thrilled. I attended the SRCD annual conference at Santa Monica and may have got seven minutes of fame when I presented my paper!”

During her time in Madison, she also wrote a brief critique on Arthur Jensen’s controversial paper on race and intelligence, where he propounded the theory that Afro-Americans lacked the capacity for abstract thinking. This note was published in the Harvard Educational Review. With a co-student, Jane Adams, she also presented a seminar for the Department on the Jensen thesis, in which they argued the case on the basis of statistics and rational thinking, making it clear that they were attacking it on its methodological grounds, as well as on its grossly racist approach.

         Later, Anandalakshmy attended an American Psychology Conference in Chicago, where she remembers a densely crowded auditorium from the back of the hall. Bruno Bettelheim made an impressive presentation and she found herself wishing she could have been his student. In her words, “I could not meet him then and wish I had tried harder. His ideas on the positive function of fantasy for young children were discussed and debated. His books became required reading for my students, when I started the master’s degree programme.”

While in Madison, she used to attend the Thursday evening seminars chaired by Harry Harlow at the Primate Laboratory. There she met Dr. S.D. Singh of Meerut University. He was a visiting psychologist at the Lab. Later, she took her post graduate students to the University of Meerut and to the forests adjoining the University, where Dr. Singh’s path- breaking research on primates was in process. I was part of that team of students, and the experience was formative for my understanding of laboratory work and primatology. As young students, the privilege of visiting the Lab and watching the tasks in progress was etched in our minds for life. Dr. Singh had made several variations in his work with monkeys. He tried out Harlow’s ideas of isolating the baby monkeys in cages, but in a natural setting and a familiar ecology, to find that their development was close to normal and very different from that of Harlow’s animals. Dr. Singh passed away suddenly when he was only 45 years of age. He was on to original research and would have been a much celebrated scholar, but for his sudden end.

Dr. Anandalakshmy returned to Lady Irwin College for the academic year in August, 1969. The master’s course in Child Development had already been planned by her in 1966 after reviewing several courses being offered in American Universities, and with the advice and help of an expert, Dr. Helen Ashby, who was sponsored by the Ford Foundation to help in the task. On the basis of that framework, a whole year was spent in developing the specific curriculum for the two-year master’s degree course in Child Development, with further inputs from many experts at Delhi University. In the first two years of the course, 1970 and 1971 some of the departments at Delhi University sent teachers to serve as guest faculty. An inter-disciplinary course had already been envisaged; it therefore included a course each in Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work. Since it was functioning under the Faculty of Science, the degree to be given for the course in Child Development was M.Sc. (Master of Science). According to the rules for a Science course, substantial time had to be allocated in the schedule for practical work. The Nursery School attached to the Department was to serve as laboratory for simple experiments and observation studies. Institutions for children with disability and other special needs, as well as other schools in the city had to be located as potential fields for the students’ practical assignments.

Three years after Dr. Anandalakshmy returned from Wisconsin, she attended the first conference of the International Association of Cross Cultural Psychology (IACCP) at Hong Kong in 1972. To prepare her paper, she spent a month at Shimla, at the Institute of Advanced Studies. At that time, the Institute was headed by Prof S.C. Dube who graciously permitted her to work there. Visiting scholars for a seminar included M.N. Srinivas, C. P. Bhambri, T.N. Madan, Satish Saberwal and others.

Her paper was titled “How independent is the independent variable”? It was basically a critique of research on Indian themes, based on social and cultural stereotypes, citing illustrations from actual studies. At the first IACCP, there were many eminent scholars from different corners of the world and she recalls how exciting it was to meet them and exchange ideas.  Jerome Bruner himself came up to her and congratulated her on her presentation. The paper is now available in published form as well, and is still considered relevant as a critique on positivism in research, particularly from the standpoint of culture.

 In 1973-74, there was an Indo-US meeting in New Delhi of scholars and teachers from both countries in the field of Child Development. Bettye Caldwell from the University of Arkansas was there and she and Dr. Anandalakshmy became friends for life. It was at this meeting that she also met with Berry Brazelton, the eminent Harvard pediatrician who had brought assessment of neonates to the centre stage of research. Brazelton’s comment to her (Dr. Anandalakshmy) was that by starting at preschool, we were initiating interventions too late, and that infancy would be the best period to begin working with children. Some of that advice was later put into practice by initiating research and intervention at with infancy.

From the mid-seventies, she was offered the honorary part time post of screening the applications for grants in Psychology at the Indian Council for Social Science Research. During this period, for six to seven years, she had the good fortune to work with J.P. Naik,. The ICSSR was also a location to meet eminent psychologists such as Durganand Sinha and Amar Kumar Singh. Vina Mazumdar, who was writing the manuscript of the book “Towards Equality” occupied the office next door and in conversations with her, Dr. Anandalakshmy became more clued in to the issues of gender equality around the country. She stayed in touch with Vina, becoming a member of the Executive Committee of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, which was set up a couple of years later.

Child language was always an area of special interest for Dr. Anandalakshmy, and after piloting a couple of ideas on bilingualism and children’s language learning in joint families, she was introduced to Prof. Pandit from the Linguistics Department of Delhi University, and a new collaboration was initiated. Sadly, after the initial research attempts, Prof. Pandit passed away suddenly due to a cerebral hemorrhage. Somehow the research in this area was also sadly abandoned with his passing.

For about ten years from 1975, she remained on the UNICEF list as an expert in Childhood Education during which she attended workshops and seminars at Kabul, Kathmandu, Jakarta, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. In a meeting held at Kathmandu, she met Kathy Sylva of the Education department of Oxford University with whom she became friends. Collaborations with Kathy Sylva continued and Dr. Anandalakshmy was invited to speak at the Educational Psychology Department in Oxford a few years later, sharing her research with their faculty and students.  

Dr. Anandalakshmy was also invited by Prof. Robert LeVine of the Harvard School of Education to talk to a group of his students and others in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts. The hall was full and everyone listened, and this was considered, by Dr. Anandalakshmy, as one of the high points in her career. Robert and Sarah LeVine later became good friends, although after their move to Berlin, she lost touch with them.

Two major South Asia Seminars in Chicago and Harvard in 1981 and 1982 respectively provided her an opportunity to meet up with specialists (anthropologists, psychiatrists, sociologists) on India. McKim Marriott of Chicago, a wonderfully learned and modest scholar, was the initiator. He had given a talk at the CSDS in Delhi and they met after that to talk of the kind of ideas that she was involved with. The  Chicago seminar materialized and Dr. Anandalakshmy arrived at O’Hare airport to be met personally by Prof. Marriott. It was an eminent inter-disciplinary group: Indian Studies experts, psychiatrists, psychologists, and other social scientists. In her own words:

“I can recall A. K. Ramanujan, whom I called on at his home, where I had a lively exchange of ideas, with Mollie and Kritika also participating. Others in the seminar group were Howard Gardner, B. K. Ramanujam, Sudhir Kakar, and Prakash Desai. I maintained contact with the insightful A. K. Ramanujan and felt honoured when he came over to the College on his India visit. Diana Eck of the Harvard School of Theology was another contact from the Harvard meeting which I treasured.”

Another eminent psychologist she met with during a public talk by him at the India International Centre in Delhi, was Erik Erikson. He had just published “Gandhi’s Truth”. At this point, she managed to take a portrait of him on her camera, unobtrusively, as she had been warned by Mrs. Erikson that he disliked being photographed. The students remember being shown the picture in class, and they were all in awe of his Rembrandt-like profile. The picture has stayed with her as a classic.

In the year 1987, the Ministry of Human Resource Development was developing the National Policy on Education (1987) for which she was invited to several meetings under the leadership of then Secretary of Education, Anil Bordia. He had a broad vision and did the widest consultation across educational institutions and NGOs engaged in education. She recalls this as a period of collaboration, ferment and hope.

Ideas that propelled her research

Upon her return from Wisconsin, Dr. Anandalakshmy was determined to do research with ideas that emerged from India and not simply replicate and reproduce efforts of research studies in the West. Looking critically at Freudian theory, for instance,

there was no doubt that it had a strong link to the culture and the time period of 19th century Vienna. Freud’s emphasis on infantile sexuality and on the stages of feeding, weaning and toilet training seemed highly exaggerated. These points were repeatedly emphasized in our classes, and alongside being taught theories, we learnt to criticize them and look for meaningfulness before accepting any ideas. These principles were also the guidelines for Dr. Anandalakshmy’s research agenda. When she started observing Indian families again, a reference from the Human Relations Area Files (at Yale University) and a comment by a student had stayed in her mind: “In cultures without carpets, we find that toilet training is not an emotionally laden stage, nor much of an issue.” This comment resonated far and wide in the classroom and field work that Dr. Anandalakshmy guided at the Department. We began to search for local ways of doing things that were culturally appropriate and we fiercely resisted the dominance of the industry of psychological tests and their adaptations. They were taught to us, but never with an uncritical approach. For theoretical explanations and research strategies, we had to walk the difficult path of discovering who we were, before embarking on a study of the other. This remains as a strong ideological thread in the Department teaching, research and extension even after more than two decades of Dr. Anandalakshmy’s leaving the Lady Irwin College. Her distinctive stance, not to succumb to the seduction of mainstream psychology and doing culturally meaningful work, was a guiding principle for us.

In her words:

“I planned to do a study on the socialization of children, by taking cues from families in the field. Talking to any parent, it seemed as if their main concern was what the child would take up as a job or career in adulthood. The stages of childhood were hardly mentioned by them. I had always had a passion for the exquisite and diverse artifacts made by Indians; their artisanship and craftsmanship have been handed down for centuries. I decided to combine my two strands of interest and study the children in traditional crafts families. I began the study in the twin cities of New Delhi and Old Delhi. Families engaged in bangle-making, pottery, mat-weaving and clay toy making constituted the first four groups. Four of the master’s degree students willingly picked up the themes for their dissertations. We selected self-reliance, task completion and a sense of responsibility as aspects of competence. A questionnaire was formulated, but it was not used in a conventional way. The researcher was to remember all the questions and weave them into her conversation over a friendly visit. She would take down notes unobtrusively and be more engaged in the conversation than in writing it down. These studies served as pilot to the main study.”

These ideas then became realized further as an ICSSR sponsored study on the “Socialization for Competence” conducted by fresh alumni as researchers on traditional crafts families. Detailed observations of the block printers of textiles (Chippa Rajvamshis) of Sanganeer near Jaipur and the Banaras silk weavers of Varanasi (Ansari Muslims) as well as farming communities in the villages near Pantnagar, UP, were done. This is one of the landmark studies on socialization from an Indian perspective at that time.

The research found place as one chapter in the IACCP proceedings printed in the Netherlands, a summary booklet for the ICSSR and an article in the journal ‘Seminar’. This constituted the entire material that reached the reading public. There was a hurdle in getting a publication grant for the comprehensive project report. In the original manuscript, a chapter called “Dialogue with the unknown reader” was included, in which comments and observations which did not strictly fall under the chapter of findings were inserted. At that time, she defended a position that seemed radical: the right of children to pursue their own family vocation, even if it meant ignoring formal schooling. It was found that the schools, which children had access to, were usually dull and un-stimulating and commended the wisdom of the families for continuing the family craft. This comment caught the eye of an NCERT critic of the study, who was contacted by J. P Naik for a review. The comment was considered politically incorrect and Dr. Anandalakshmy received what she called a “drubbing” for apparently diminishing the value of school attendance. That shelved the study for some years and she avoided the critics. In retrospect, she feels that:

“I should have insisted on my right to express my views even if they were critical of the educational system. But those were days that were filled with exciting hours of teaching the master’s students, thinking up new ideas and creating an intellectual ferment; there was no time to worry about minor frustrations.”

Perhaps it was more important to take the criticism towards improving and adapting the schools that children attended rather than silencing a researcher. However, the study and its comments had a strong impact on a whole generation of students and we all carry a strong voice against any attempt to silence our ideas when they are opposed. This strength and confidence is clearly derived from experiencing Dr. Anandalakshmy always standing up to being dictated to write something she didn’t agree with. Had she agreed to change her comments about schooling, it is certain the book would have been swiftly published, but it was considered important by Dr. Anandalakshmy to stand up for her views and abandon the idea, rather than succumb to pressure. We learnt from her actions, that loyalty to participants in research cannot be compromised, even when it is uncomfortable for funding agencies. These choices undoubtedly have consequences for a scholar, but holding one’s ground had a long-standing impact on her students. Her integrity gave us the confidence that we have hopefully passed on; the confidence to resist specious or spurious research conclusions just to please donors or others.

The second major area in which many students and colleagues collaborated with Dr. Anandalakshmy was on the relationship between cognitive functioning and nutritional status of infants and young children. Children from toddlerhood on to 6 years were taken from three different socio-economic levels. The rationale was to check out a statement by US scientists that protein malnutrition resulted in mental retardation of children. The reason it roused a doubt was that the propagation of the idea coincided with a large import of soya bean products into India from the US. The results of the study found that there was no perceptible relationship between cognition and nutrition per se, but when the child was very low on nutrition, all other functions were low. That was a very definite relationship. However, other levels of nutrition had no traceable link to the child’s mental level. She presented this paper, once or twice, but people generally ‘heard” what they expected or wished to hear. They assumed a link between the two variables, but paid no heed to our micro-analysis. Again, the people who heard the messages loud and clear were us students. We listened very closely to the assumed links and the international agenda. This further fuelled the determination to be different, and to stand up to commercial and other agendas. As I have questioned in one of my own publications, it is dreadfully sad that we still need to prove that children are hungry in order to be fed, and they need to be measured for their intelligence in order to justify expenses towards play materials. The genesis of these assertions came from the unheeded findings of our Nutrition and Cognition study, of which I was a part.

At the Department of Child Development, under Dr. Anandalakshmy’s leadership, a great number of the master’s degree dissertation themes were in the field of disability. The Nursery School, attached to the Department, had several children, with mild to moderate disabilities. One condition that was made for the students and faculty regarding studies on children with disability was that merely descriptive work would not pass muster: every piece of research had to include the development of a method or tool to make learning and living easier for the child with special needs. So the instructions were to be inventive, even creative! This focus finally led to our starting of “The Enabling Centre” a mixed-age multiple-level primary education programme for children. A survey in a 5 km. radius of the College was undertaken to identify children who had not attended school at all or dropped out of school due to a physical or mental disability. This centre, which had about 25 students at a time, was funded by the Ministry of HRD under its ‘Innovative and Experimental Programmes in Elementary Education’, thanks to the breadth of vision of Anil Bordia, the Education Secretary. The school soon became an inclusive programme with a lively atmosphere created by puppetry, dance, music and art as part of education. It provided a happy learning environment for the children and was intended to be a model for other institutions to follow. While The Enabling Centre was widely admired, no one attempted to try out a similar programme. Unfortunately, it had to close down after approximately 16 years of successful education, when funding was no longer available from the government. The college had no funds to sustain it.

One other theme on which student collaborations were encouraged was that of adolescence. Early and late adolescence for both boys and girls from different income levels was studied. Each student in the master’s course picked a specific gender, and age range in a specific socio-economic class. There were many interesting findings from these studies.  In a sense, the early eighties can be described as pre-modern, since there was no formal dating or any active hetero-sexual interaction. The sturm und drang (the classic German phrase for stress in adolescence) of the period of growing up was not evident. One finding that seemed significant was that across social class levels, the growing boy did not seem to develop any intimacy with the father, who was largely a distant figure of authority, not a person with whom the son could discuss personal concerns. The mother was the chosen confidante for both boys and girls. Things have surely changed a lot since then.

Her constant companion

            Anandalakshmy’s camera was a constant companion. It went everywhere with her, recording children, their activities, interactions with each other and adults, rural communities, and the interiors of modest homes. She says, “When I went to supervise my students’ research, I would take a number of pictures, some of which went into their dissertations. It was not considered ‘unethical’ then to include photographic documentation to support the written text in a research report. This improved the accessibility and attractiveness of the research. In a couple of years, we found that our colleagues in Child Development in Baroda, Bombay and Chandigarh had caught up with using photographs for their theses”. The visual aspect in the modest student work did enhance its appeal.

Regular seminars had been instituted for students to present their thesis updates from proposals to findings. Although students were often reluctant to participate, this exercise of making presentations went a long way in grooming us for the future, both in terms of presenting academic content, as well as gaining the confidence to face an audience. If Dr. Anandalakshmy approved of a presentation, we would have no fear of anyone else, perhaps even in the whole world. Her standards were among the highest we had or would ever have known. Later, once Dr. Anandalakshmy moved to the Director’s chair (1983), her presence during these seminars was dearly missed.  

For the research projects at the Department, while the insistence on statistical rigour for quantitative studies was always there, the value for qualitative research also received full support and recognition. Students were taught to follow the APA format strictly, but the meaningless fascination for a high number of references, large sample size or even the use of standard tests were not in themselves given importance if they were not relevant to the context. Ecological validity, therefore, was a crucial factor in research methods.

Originality of thought and clarity in its formulation were of the essence in the research work that was planned at the Department. Here are some examples that will serve to illustrate the point. Students usually identified an area of interest and an issue to work with and then, in discussion with the supervisor and advice from other faculty, the thesis would be guided. For instance, one student took up a study of the semantics of “blood” (blood ties, relationships, sacrifice), finding interesting variations, depending on whether she used Hindi or English with her bilingual subjects. Another had done intensive field work on girls with auditory problems and continued her interest into the dissertation. She did a study of sibling and family relationships of ten girls with auditory handicaps. One of findings was that if parents are particularly caring about a child with disability, it may even produce some envy among siblings! The child with disability was sometimes seen by the other children in the family as privileged or as the favourite!

Regarding the Department faculty, Dr. Anandalakshmy said: “Whatever I achieved was possible because of the excellent team I had. Most of my colleagues were drawn from the alumni of our own Department. We did hear snide comments from an occasional critic that it was “incestuous” to have one’s own students come back to teach. Our selection procedures for teachers were always fair, with the committee properly constituted. I had no regrets. My young colleagues were willing to try innovations and to bring in their own talents to bear upon their teaching, research and extension work. We had a congenial sense of fellowship among ourselves. The first ten or twelve years of the Department had a special feel. Observers would say that it was closest to a “gurukul” in a modern setting.”

Moving on

From the office of the Director, Dr. Anandalakshmy took premature retirement  and moved back to her home, in Madras. Over the last two decades there, she has been most productive. She travelled to Bellagio (the Rockefeller Centre in Italy) for a month, attended an international conference in Beijing, contributed a chapter in a publication called “Making a Difference” in which several eminent authors were featured. As a member of the Knowledge Network set up by the WHO she attended two meetings in Ottawa and Vancouver in Canada. As a consultant on Doctors@NDTV, she also provided email counseling sessions that were later compiled in the form of a book (Roli publications). She edited a set of papers on qualitative research along with Nandita Chaudhary and Neerja Sharma, published by Sage. Another publication by Routledge “Cultural Realities of Being” that Dr. Anandalakshmy published with Jaan Valsiner and Nandita Chaudhary was released in the early months of 2014.

Among the other activities that Dr. Anandalakshmy has been occupied with is  the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in the State of Tamil Nadu. It proved to be an interesting experience, and one which was made fulfilling because of the positive support given by M.P. Vijaya Kumar, Special Project Director. At his request, a document on the innovative methods and materials and two short documentary films (concept, script and voice, by Anandalakshmy) on Activity-based Learning (ABL) and Active Learning Methodology (ALM) were prepared. These films have brought visibility to the innovative pedagogy steered by Vijaya Kumar.

As an adjunct to the newspaper, The Hindu, when the Folio magazine was released, the editor of the Hindu magazine invited Dr. Anandalakshmy to write for the paper.  Half a dozen short articles on education, childhood, and disability and an occasional book review were published by her in the Folio, the Magazine or in the main paper, The Hindu. Dr. Anandalakshmy has continued her work with the following organizations, actively involved in planning and development. Among these are: Bala Mandir in Chennai, Voluntariat in Pondicherry, The Barefoot College in Tilonia, SEWA in Ahmedabad and the Mobile Crèches, Delhi. She has continued to guide the Department of (the re-christened) Human Development and Childhood Studies, at Lady Irwin College and approved of changes in courses and directions for the future, as one can gather from this letter to a former student and colleague:

“June, 2000

Dear X,

Thanks for sending me the proposed curriculum for B. Sc. Hons. H. Sc. (Home Science) I think liberalizing the entry requirements is a very good step – we were constantly having to explain out earlier criteria…….I am generally happy with the direction of change and the deepening of the Human Development areas. The ‘Know Yourself’ course could be crucial for the commitment of the students. Ideally, it should be taken by a senior teacher who can bring a wealth of experience to it. I will write again on some of the issues, including ‘gender justice’.

I stayed with Y at Bombay en route to Chennai, the last leg of my journey. She was warm and lively and involved with a couple of projects. She mentioned clearly how a cut above other institutions, Lady Irwin College is…….

A tribute

I want to end this piece with a tribute from a former student that provides us with an essence of the person that Dr. Anandalakshmy was, to us who were her students[2].

“It has been 37 years since I left college. I’m one of the lucky few who has had a teacher who has been more than a friend, philosopher and guide, a teacher who has truly made a difference to my life. On the day of our fresher’s orientation programme, when other teachers were telling us how great an institution we now belonged to and how fortunate we were to be part of it, Dr. Anandalakshmy had a unique point of view. She merely emphasised the fact that our college had a wonderful location, with art galleries and theatres within an easy walking radius, and told us how enriching it would be for us to visit these marvelous places. Although she taught post-graduate courses, she would always find the time to guide a fledgling, first-year debater as well as encourage the cast of the College theatrical productions.

 Her classes were always challenging, requiring each student’s entire, unwavering attention. If, for some reason, like a heavy downpour, attendance was thin, she would always take class for the benefit of those who had come. In my mind’s eye, I still see her with a colourful parasol, making her way through the puddles, a veritable peacock romancing the rain.

I cannot think of anything that Dr. Anandalakshmy is not interested in. Be it cricket, photography, fiction, poetry, trees, crossword puzzles, classical music, jazz, handicrafts, clothes, birds, politics, travel, art, and so much more, she will always have some fascinating nugget to share with you, if not actual expertise. Her intellectual stature and achievements are formidable. Her greatest gift to her students is, however, far beyond erudition. It is the gift of responding to the world around one with enthusiasm. Her matter-of-fact responses to tough personal problems also becomes a source of great strength. She has the much needed ability to reach the core of a problem, to eliminate irrelevant factors and get to the heart of the matter. This is one single quality which makes her advice and guidance invaluable. She has been a tower of strength to me in times of crisis. Many years ago I called to tell her about a very complicated cardiac surgery my husband was to undergo, and how I was being inundated with advice by our well-meaning family members, and how difficult it was to decide where to have the surgery, and by which surgeon. Her succinct answer stays with me to this day, sixteen years after a successful operation: “You don’t need a famous surgeon. You need a good one.”

And goodbye, till we meet again


When I wrote this piece, I had no idea that it wouldn’t be accepted (as is) for publication, we both (Ana and I) thought that it had come out quite well. She was happy with every word. Some years later, when the prose was beaten into an unrecognisable form, I sometimes revisited this original piece and wondered when and where it would find its audience. I realise now, as we make attempts to put together our memories of Ma’am, the brief biography is a good fit in her honour. Rest in peace, dear Dr. A., you were a great teacher (and also famous in the best possible sense of the word).

Further, let me also copy a message from my friend Anne-Nelly Perret-Clermont at Neuchâtel who remembers her association with Dr. Anandalakshmy:

“Dear Nandita, I read on Facebook and in your blog that Dr. Anandalakshmy left this world…She has had a long life. But it is sad to read that she has gone..I remember very well her visit to Neuchâtel when I had invited her to give a talk. It was on November 11th, 1980. Long ago…I was new in my job as a professor and she was among my first guests (thanks to an initiative of the Embassy of India, I remember well… not sure). Title of her lecture: “Cross-cultural perspectives of child rearing”. I still have my notes: among other important things she invited the audience to study competence as an ability to cope with real life (self reliance, achievement, responsibility) instead of focusing always on the matters of “standard” socialisation studies of those days (i.e., feeding, weaning, toilet training, conscience development). She also pointed to the importance of “subjective relevance”. And she told us how important occupational socialisation was for Indian children whereas in Europe occupational socialisation was delayed to the post-adolescent period. I remember that she had pictures but I have no trace of those, of course, in my archives.Best greetings,Anne-Nelly”

You may also want to visit a post that I had written for a close friend of Dr. Anandalakshmy AND THE cOLLEGE: Prof. H. Y. Mohan Ram. https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=mohan%20ram&epa=FILTERS&filters=eyJycF9hdXRob3IiOiJ7XCJuYW1lXCI6XCJhdXRob3JfbWVcIixcImFyZ3NcIjpcIlwifSJ9

[1] My sincere thanks to Dr. Neerja Sharma for her inputs

[2] Thanks to Dipali Taneja for her generosity in sharing this

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