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Vol. XXXIV No. 5, June 16-30, 2024

Fragile Jasmine – With a Core of Steel

-- by Ranjitha Ashok

That was the image that flashed through your mind within minutes of meeting Jaya Krishnaswamy, special educator and founder of the Madhuram Narayanan Centre for Exceptional Children (MNC). This was over a decade ago, when MNC was set to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary. You were among those who had been given an opportunity to contribute to the event – a true honour.

Jaya Krishnaswamy was the spirit, the quintessential mother figure, at MNC’s core.

Over multiple meetingsand conversations while gathering material for a commemorative book, the soft-spoken, gentle Jaya Krishnaswamy spoke of the road that had led her to MNC.

Career-wise, she had been a schoolteacher in ‘a mainstream school’ as she put it. Always committed even then to a pursuit of knowledge, she decided to do an extra course to ‘further my qualifications’, and as Fate would have it, chose the field of Special Education, which ‘opened my eyes to this whole new world of challenges and disabilities.’

When her husband, Air Vice-Marshal (Retd) V. Krishnaswamy, popularly known as AVMVK, retired, they moved to Chennai, where he joined the Indchem Research and Development Laboratory, part of the Chennai-based Sanmar Group of Companies, as Advisor.

Mrs. Jaya Krishnaswamy received the Best Social Worker Award in the field of Disability in 2012 from the J. Jayalalithaa, the then Honble. Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

At first, N. Kumar of the Sanmar Group requested Jaya Krishnaswamy to help them with their Sankara School. But she wished to go beyond mainstream schools. That’s when the idea of MNC was born. The seed for this project was sown by Wing Commander Jain, a colleague of V. Krishnaswamy’s, who suggested the field of mental retardation during a discussion on the possibilities of using technology in the area of special needs, an idea that was welcomed enthusiastically by both AVMVK and Jaya, although they were, according to her, ‘completely clueless over how to take this forward’.

Undeterred, they, along with their friend Wing Commander Jain, decided to go ahead, and set about gathering information.

‘This was 1987… even computers were very primitive. The three of us – my husband, Commander Jain and I – had no training of any kind. All we had was our own imagination.’

There were endless visits to libraries, poring over books on developmental paediatrics, and Jaya welcomed every bit of information as ‘a profound learning experience’.

Prof P Jeyachandran, Clinical Research Psychologist, recognised country wide as being foremost in his field of Special Education, proved an invaluable source of learning and support.

Early intervention became the focus, leading to the creation of a home-based programme targeting the age-group 0-6, involving physiotherapists, occupational therapists, special educators and psychologists, focussing on motor skills, language, and social interaction, with complete emphasis on parental involvement. This was an ‘Indianised’ version of the Wisconsin-based ‘Portage Project’, keeping traditional Indian child-rearing practices in mind.

The process of creating the programme took nearly 19 revisions, as Jaya Krishnaswamy and her team went deeper and deeper into studying and understanding how children develop, through every stage and layer of the learning processes between parent and child. What most children do instinctively becomes a taught skill, a learnt one, in the case of special children.

‘I lived the experience’, was how she described this stage in the growth of MNC.

V Krishnaswamy, Jaya, and Prof. P Jeyachandran, along with this inter-disciplinary team of experts, developed ‘Upanayan’, meaning ‘leading along’, the indigenous early intervention training programme for special children.

Throughout, V Krishnaswamy was Jaya’s pillar of strength and support, a true friend, philosopher and guide, with a vision of MNC becoming a model centre in the area of early intervention, earning nation-wide recognition.

The Madhuram Narayanan Centre for Exceptional Children was established in 1989. 

‘It was Dr. P. Jeyachandran who used the term ‘Exceptional Children’, she recalled. ‘The children come to us… but it is the parents we train.’

For Jaya Krishnaswamy, observing the transformation over the years in parents was both fantastic, and humbling. Given India’s history of insensitivity in handling its challenged citizens, this change in attitude, in perception, facilitated by Jaya and her team, is seen as one of MNC’s greatest achievements.

For decades, lack of knowledge led to children with challenges being discarded, or regarded as karmic punishments – mothers-in-law blaming their daughters-in-law for the ‘sin’ of having a challenged child; husbands choosing to marry again; mothers spinning into acute depression, drowning in self-blame – finally, here was light at the end of a very long dark tunnel, and an entire body of people found life-changing solace and support in MNC.

Awareness and understanding grew, while the feeling of isolation lessened.

Another remarkable change over the years – the number of fathers who became part of the process, and soon whole families. Fathers learnt that their support of their wives is crucial and essential.

Jaya Krishnaswamy and her team helped create an entirely new approach and philosophy.

With characteristic humility, Jaya, throughout the conversations, always gave everyone involved all credit. Her most-used personal pronouns were ‘we’, and ‘us’, never the self-absorbed ‘I’. She gave unstinting praise to N Kumar’s contributions, his generosity in making as many avenues as possible available to them. ‘His people, at all times, were instructed to see to our needs, down to the minutest details.’

In the words of his brother, the late N Sankar, Chairman, The Sanmar Group, ‘Kumar took a technical initiative, and transformed it into a social cause.’

In turn, for Mr N Kumar, while Mr Krishnaswamy was the force behind this project, Jaya brought immense knowledge, and was, from the beginning, the fulcrum. Both, for him, symbolised the best of qualities like honesty and discipline.

India NGO Awards in Small Category for their demonstration of best practices of impact, scalability and replicability, innovation and sustainability in their programmes, and in creative and successful resource mobilisation in 2012-13.

MNC, and Jaya Krishnaswamy’s work as CEO, soon achieved international recognition. Jaya and her team placed MNC on the world map, with organisations like the UN and WHO inviting Jaya all over the world to speak at conferences.

Through Jaya’s gentle yet firm resolve and guidance, MNC has proved a unifying force in the lives of exceptional children. To MNC’s core team goes all the credit of changing mind-sets, of encouraging parents to tap into their own reserve of courage, of bringing them face to face with their own heroic abilities, enabling them to face every challenge with dignity.

Jaya Krishnaswamy dedicated her life to the cause of special needs, bringing her formidable intellect, her thirst for knowledge and constant improvement, and the full weight of her compassion and steely determination to her chosen field, all of it tempered with gentleness and empathy. There was something about her that brought out the best in everyone around her. The bar was set high, albeit in the least aggressive manner – yet no one was willing to run the risk of falling short.

While she will be missed intensely by everyone connected with her life, she has left behind an enduring legacy, and her work will live on.

Footnote: When the commemorative book on the Madhuram Narayanan Centre for Exceptional Children, titled A World of Difference, was published in 2014, there was clearly only one title that worked for the chapter on Jaya Krishnaswamy.

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