Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXIX No. 9, August 16-31, 2019
She was as mercurial as the monsoon winds and as life giving.
Mrs. Y.G.P. as she was known to the generations of her students and their parents has been remembered with affectionate tributes and heartfelt gratitude by celebrities and entrepreneurial professionals.
It might take a village to create a child as the well-known title of a book goes. But it takes a Mrs.YGP to create a new generation of well-rounded individuals growing up post-Independence India. That she did it in a small village-like school building in what was once known as the Lake Area of Madras, as Chennai was then known, is what makes her remarkable. She ruled with an iron hand but there was also laughter, love, and an inimitable exuberance for life.
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To continue on a more personal note, as a Sixties parent, I had been influenced by the ideas of A.S.Neill, the founder of a movement that believed in letting students discover themselves through a process of total freedom. It sounds foolishly idealistic now. Perhaps in the years after the Two World Wars in Europe the idea of boot-strapping young minds into a rigid curriculum appeared cruel. It was a movement against too much rigid control by parents, by educational systems, but more oppressively by the State. Long before 1984 and many years before the now completely normal presence of the electronic media in all our lives, some of us were genuinely apprehensive by the “Thought Police” and its methods of harvesting minds.
When it seemed inevitable that my son, Vikram had to join the PSBB after a short stint at Sishya, I stayed away from meeting the person I had been told would be the redoubtable Mrs. YGP. I had already been dismayed by the cramped corporation yellow painted building the tiny cemented courtyard at the centre of the U-shaped classrooms that served as both open air auditorium and sports arena, not to mention the regimented buzz of the electronic announcements being made military style. Instead, my husband went, charmed her with his professional chatter and Vikram was duly installed.
Whether because of the strange surname, or whether due to some dubious attempt to mislead the Staff at PSBB, for the first year, Vikram managed to pass off as a Parsi boy. This allowed him to bunk the daily prayers, the various seasonal pujas and any other efforts to inculcate what Mrs. YGP believed was the bedrock of her mission as an educationist. That is to inspire a way of life that would both be culturally and ethically Hindu. Being essentially what people call as ‘swot’ Vikram enjoyed both the challenge of competing with his peers who came with all the rigor of what for better terms I shall have to call a typical “TamBrahm” upbringing and some of the extra-curricular activities that the School encouraged in its later years. He loved his teachers and because he became known as the “Whizz of Quizz” quite enjoyed his role as the Mrs. YGP’s star Parsi student. Inevitably there was a denouement. My Mother met Mrs. YGP at a musical event at Bharat Kalachar and told her how much she appreciated what the school was doing for her grandson.
“Vikram Doctor? Your grandson? I thought he was a Parsi.” Thus was the truth out. From that moment onwards he had to join the Suryanamaskar devotees. In the process, he too joined the YGP devotees in a relationship that lasted long after he left the school. The friends he made there are still amongst those to whom he feels the closest bond.
Arjun Mukerjee another student from Sishya, was more rebellious than Vikram. Perhaps being a Bengali, he tried his best to break the unwritten the imposed at the PSBB and became a hero for the other boys as the unofficial rebel at PSBB.
As he writes:
“Sishya was terrible in its own elitist way, but PSBB was a rude shock with its Brahmanical Hindu culture and regressive atmosphere.”
“YGP hated me and liked me.” Her complete shock when my mother said “yes” when YGP asked her if she knew that I smoked was worth witnessing. YGP was expecting my mum to slap me and faint and pray to the gods to save my soul.
Her expression when I pointed out that there were no “No smoking” signs in school, so technically there was nothing to stop me from lighting up anywhere. The signs came up soon after.
I was the only one at that time who stood up to her, and placed arguments before her which were based on logic. I think she liked my spunk, and my rebellion was an amusing change for her. I did not like her too much because of her draconian attitude and her love of Hindu culture and rituals. I did bring a twinkle to her eye a few times with my insouciance. I think we would have actually gotten along well if we “hung out” after I finished college and started working.”
Arjun Mukerjee is now an award-winning film-maker in Mumbai. He went to meet Mrs. YGP at her home when he was in the City last time. Maybe, he did not actually smoke in her presence, but it was a very cordial meeting.
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It’s when I ask my daughter Meenakshi that I get a more balanced view of the Iron Lady as she was also known outside of the school and her extraordinarily ability to nurture students into being a better version of themselves.
“She had a commanding presence. She could light up any room the moment she walked in. It was not just the way she dressed which was always perfect with a dark coloured South Indian saree with interesting necklaces and bangles, not necessarily gold, the large tikka that she wore on her forehead, with flowers neatly tucked in her bun. It was her eyes that always seemed to be able to look at you with a smile, even if she was angry. To look at you and see you.”
Meenakshi also remembers an occasion when she was compering a program that gave awards to all the students in the upper classes who had done well academically. Though, she was the announcer, she knew with a small sigh that she was not on the list of awardees. Imagine then her surprise, when Mrs. YGP sitting behind her quietly took out Two Hundred rupees, had one of her assistants put in in an envelope and award it to Meenakshi for being “the Outstanding Student on the Duke of Edinburgh program” that had taken some of the PSBB students on an epic adventure trail to the Australian wilds.
“Before every public exam we would have to touch her feet and seek her blessing. I did not consider this as being Brahmanical or anything like that. On the contrary, she would always put a sacred thread around my neck before every major event, as though to seek the protection of a larger force than what I could imagine. Touching her feet made me realize that there is something in that gesture that makes you feel both humble and privileged. It was like being in the aura of someone far greater than anything that we as students could only learn from her.”
Icon, or iconoclast, there will be not another Mrs. YGP for a long time to come.
First known as Rajalakshmi, she was the grand-daughter of Dewan Bahadur T.Rangachari.
She had a series of first in her life. She was the first woman diploma holder in the State. She joined the Madras Mail, newspaper as a journalist.
After her marriage to Y.G. Parthasarathy, a civil servant and theatre personality a new dimension was added to her life. She was a part of the ferment taking place in the City with its emphasis on Tamil film, drama, music and journalism amongst writers and artists.
She joined The Hindu, writing under her name as ‘Rashmi’. She also contributed pieces on women’s issues for Kumudam.
She began to realize that the options for a proper school education for children in the City was dominated by a colonial Westernized mindset. It was to change this that she started with a small two-room school in a building that her students will recognize today as the original nucleus of what has become the Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan (PSBB). It was named after the wife of one of the early donors.
The school had 13 students, amongst whom two of them were Mrs. YGP’s own sons.
Prior to starting the school, Mrs. YGP had secured a B.Ed. from the Mysore University. A Master’s degree in history from the Madras University.
Her Doctoral thesis was on Sri Ramanuja, 11th Century sage and philosopher.
As noted in a biographical excerpt from the PSSB write-up; “In today’s world, where socio-economic disparities serve to deepen the chasms in society, it is particularly relevant that Mrs. Ygp has chosen to focus the high voltage beam on a sage and preacher who sought to unite the society on the basis of love and bhakti and lead it to the common goal of moksha. The universality of his message and humaneness of his method makes sri ramanuja as much a sage for the new millennium as he was of the old.”
Bharat Kalachar a venue for the performing arts was started under her tutelage.
Mrs. Y.G.P. received a Padma Shri in 2010 in recognition for her contribution as a pioneering educationist.