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Learning at Dawn

by Udaya Kumar
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Illustration by Amlan Barai

5:00 am! Beep… Beep… Beep…

The alarm startled me from my deep sleep. One more cold morning in February 2013 and I set out to my first outdoor class on the gymkhana grounds, refreshed and ready in my usual tracksuit. The 6:00 am class near the football and athletic fields was to tell the story on the Experimental Typography. About a dozen outgoing graduate students of Design were eager participants in my Typography class.

I was an early bird and slowly the rest of the flock started trickling in. In the Gurukul traditions of India, the age-old practice of guru-sishya learning begins at sunrise. This enriching experience continues even today. My students were just getting used to this new routine. My sending out the class schedule raised several eyebrows. This did not surprise me at all and I continued on my course.

I rise up early to my sports calling, and my faith in exploring natural surroundings reinforces the experimentations in my teachings, as the pristine sounds of dawn motivate uninterrupted learning surrounded by vast greenery. It is easier for me to take learning into the unconstrained outdoors than box it into a formal classroom. This way the course curriculum goes beyond the normative learnings into opportune discourses on design and life.

Learning out in nature has been known for its benefits through centuries. My inner calling to urge students into this pattern had very pleasant outcomes. Initially though reluctant and upset about such early wakeup alarms; things quickly turned after a week and these pupils got drawn into more. This was not just the routine  of waking up early, but more of my storytelling and games interwoven with the course.

All my design assignments provoke students to sharpen their understanding, assimilating and synthesising the ‘perfect’ design solution to the assigned context.

I prefer storytelling to convey any subject matter, especially on aspects of personal development. Fortunately, I happened to read, The Secret of Leadership by Prakash Iyer at that time, a recipe book of interesting short stories with leadership lessons. These narratives and other readings directed our discussions, clarified dilemmas and motivated listeners, thus corroborating my presumption that a good designer one day turns a good leader in the confidence of his or her creative thinking and empathy.

Leadership is about excellence, so is Design! As a point in case, all my design assignments provoke students to sharpen their understanding, assimilating and synthesising the ‘perfect’ design solution to the assigned context. Students have short attention spans, are distracted and procrastinate, not giving their best. Though much happens for marks or placements, very little goes towards perfection. The complete potential is rarely attained!

Narrating this amazing story from Prakash Iyer’s brought about much introspection.

“…There once lived a sculptor in a small town. He was working on a huge idol of a goddess for the local temple when a young woman walked into his workshop. As she marvelled at his work, she notices another idol, almost identical, lying on the ground. ‘Do you need two of the same idol?’ she asked. ‘No,’ came the reply. ‘We only need one. But the first one got damaged in the finishing stages. Hence I am doing it again.’

The young woman looked closely at the idol on the ground. It looked perfect. She could not see any signs of damage. ‘Where is the flaw?’ she asked. ‘Look carefully,’ said the sculptor, ‘and you will notice a scratch under the left eye.’ ‘Wait a minute!’ said the young woman. ‘Where will this idol be installed?’

The sculptor explained that it would be installed on a fifteen-foot-high platform inside the temple. The woman quickly retorted, ‘At that distance, who will know there is a scratch beneath the eye?’

The sculptor smiled, took a deep breath and said, ‘I will.’

Now that’s a good reminder of what excellence is all about. It comes from inside, not outside. And it’s an attitude. One which we would all do well to inculcate in ourselves. Commit to doing your best at all times. Don’t compromise ever. Whatever you do, give your 100 percent. Aim to the best. And do that not because someone else tells you to do it – but because you want to…”

Stories like these helped my students reexamine their priorities, their responses reverberate my endeavours, and leaving me content in the thought that my efforts have come to fruition in these young minds. Together, we waded through our dialogues, renderings and discoveries of knowns and unknowns until the sun was too hot and high. The initial inhibitions of the students had transformed into sustained quotidian trails and tribulations of design creativity. This went on till the semester culminated into the end of their program and their farewell from the campus.

Students still reminiscence of those early morning sunshines. I do.

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