The sound of pencils scratching away on ruled paper filled the room. The ninth grade at Bombay Welfare Society High School was tasked with writing an essay titled ‘My School’ during the English period.
“In my school, there will be no teachers, textbooks or school bell. It will have a lot of trees, a library where you can read whatever you please and a big playground.”
That was the opening of Meenakshi’s essay. For the first time in her life, her schoolwork inspired her enough to overshoot the word limit.
She stood up to submit her five pages of heartfelt writing only to receive a look of disappointment from her teacher. At that point, she realised that the task had little to do with her aspirations. “What have you written, Meenakshi!” said the horrified teacher as she ripped the essay apart and tasked her with rewriting it.
A confused Meenakshi went home wondering where she had gone wrong. “Rewrite the essay you wrote at school,” her father said patiently. With one look at the essay, he understood what was going on. “You have a dream and you can make it happen if you try hard enough,” he said with a chuckle, “But, for now, I’ll dictate and you write.”
That year, Meenakshi’s father gifted her ‘The Story of Philosophy’ by Will Durant. He opened a page and read out a chapter from Plato’s Utopia. “Your ideologies are similar. Don’t feel bad about how your school is treating you. They don’t understand you yet,” he said with reassurance.
At 18, Meenakshi had grown conscious of her urban surroundings. She wrote articles in the IDBI magazine about the education system. She grew up watching the pollution caused by the construction industries in Mumbai. Her dream was still alive—she wanted to build a better world. So, she pursued a degree at the renowned Sir J. J. College Of Architecture.
Circa 1988, She left for Auroville on an internship in search of good air, water and food. “I believe that if I don’t have control over my own food or medicine, I’m not a free citizen,” she declares.
During her time there, she crossed paths with Umesh, a former mechanical engineer and her future life partner, who also abandoned his urban life in Mumbai (much before Meenakshi, however) to dive deep into the world of organic farming at Auroville.
The way of life at Auroville nourished Meenakshi’s desire to pursue ecological building practices. Following her internship, she practiced at Development Alternatives in Delhi and Bangalore before moving to Kadaloor to work with an organisation that worked with tribals. “They convinced the collector that the ‘Indira Awas Yojana housing’ shouldn’t be built with concrete. My job as the architect was to ideate on how to use vernacular mud architecture.” Through the process, she realised that the tribals, with no former training in building design, could design well-thought-out, simple and intricately detailed 50 sq ft houses that solved their needs. “I’m not equipped to design for them. I’d rather help them put their designs on paper,” she decided.
The collector was transferred and the project fell through. However, the experience left Meenakshi with a revelation that would become the foundation of her future school.
In 1992, Meenakshi and Umesh invested a meagre amount on twelve acres of wasteland in Nagarkoodal near Dharmapuri. They moved to the village and began to work on reviving the land. “We made stone trenches and planted in the bunds to allow water to percolate into the land,” she recalls eight years of hard work mulching the land, watering the plants, and shooing away goats.
In 1995, they gave birth to their first daughter. They were beginning to settle well in the remote village. Nevertheless, the question of how she would educate her daughter lingered in Meenakshi’s mind.
She rummaged through her belongings and unearthed her essay from high school. Her utopian vision and father’s encouraging words came rushing back like a wave. As she commenced research on the various education systems, she found herself aligned with the Montessori approach—built on the foundation that a child is an able human being.
Circa 2000, her two daughters were five and three and a half, respectively. “It was a liberating experience. They were learning on their own. Any kind of teaching would have hindered their learning process.” She watched as her daughters’ natural curiosity nurtured their intelligence.
“I grew up in UP and Mumbai. So, I wasn’t familiar with Tamil even though it was my mother tongue.” As her daughters grew older, she wanted them to learn in Tamil rather than English. As a result, she brought in a local young man to teach the three through acting, singing, and storytelling. At sunrise, they would begin caring for the animals and the land as reverence for the world that provides resources. From early noon to around 3 pm they would have learning sessions inspired by a Panchatantra book that they translated into Tamil—because children learn better in their mother tongue.
As time passed, more children from the village lingered around the tree where classes would take place. Parents were amused. Their children—who had refused to go to school—suddenly wanted to attend the ‘class under the tree.’
“Will my child learn to speak English?” the concerned parents would ask. “Yes, they will,” Meenakshi would respond.
The classes organically grew into Puvidham School. “I was now responsible for other people’s children,” she says. “If you think about it, there is no science without Math and not Math without English,” she chuckles as she explains how Puvidham’s classes shifted from learning from Panchatantra. Learning sessions were centered around the five elements of nature instead.
Over the years, the school gained popularity. It received a fund from the Rotary Club and a government grant to build a learning center. Today, the school extends workshops and provides a residential program on sustainable living and entrepreneurship.
Built with reference from Meenakshi’s ninth-grade essay, Puvidham ensured there were no textbooks, exams or teachers—only facilitators. Children enjoyed discovering and learning. Parents were pleasantly surprised to see their children grow up with concern and compassion for people and the world around them.