The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2018
Berkeley Prize 2018

[ID:2041] Cuckoo-The forest school


“The object of education is to give man the unity of truth … I believe in a spiritual world - not as anything separate from this world – but as its innermost truth. With the breath we draw we must always feel this truth, that we are living in God” - Rabindranath Tagore.

Sitting at the edge of my apartment window, 30 meters above the ground, embracing the line of dancing vehicles, the school in front, scattered playground but disturbed people, something occurred.... again... a thought that would change everything forever, destroy the worst, wash the poison and lift me above the skies!

Yes a thought! A thought to turn alive! A rhyme started to reverberate - “Life of joy, the joy of giving, giving to the needy, and the needy not only be human being, being full of life”.

This is where my strong-will suggested me to travel to… a place unscathed, real and far-flung from the metropolitan crowd.

And ‘Cuckoo’ was the closest thing I could connect to because of its serene description.

“The cuckoo movement-A group of friends who mostly work with little ones from rural Tamil Nadu, who lack the opportunities that children from urban environment take for granted, i.e. infrastructure. We introduce them to nature, good books and movies. We tell them stories, play with them, draw and paint with them, introduce them to the colorful world of photography, traditional folk arts, music, martial arts, theatre, and also engage them in exciting discussions on socio-political and environmental issues. We wish to bring out the inherent spark in every child. And more than anything, we want to learn from them, for their world is the most beautiful place on earth. “

‘How do you do this?’ I inquired.

“Through libraries “these libraries are not only a place but also where these kids meet regularly. At present, Cuckoo continues its journey with the environment, hand in hand with children and the community, with the possibility of building a cradle, a forest school for children from all sections of society and home for the elderly, a space of inspiration, learning and truth nestled within the red soil of the Jawadhu Hills. Initially the school will prioritize the indigenous tribal people of that area. Residing outside of mainstream society, in the forest we are able to observe the richness of nature and the wisdom that streams through the land. The classroom will be the forest and the hills, the animals, insects, reptiles, trees and plants and the seasons. In essence we will learn from the harmony and wisdom that underpins all of life and death, the greatest field, a united field”

Everything was set by next day apart a concern for adjustment about ‘comforts in a village than in a city’. Imagine you are traveling to a place untouched by humans! Yes no concrete/tar road, no electric poles following or tall buildings to disturb nature. Reaching to the site was inexplicable. It took us half hour to travel from main road to deep inside at the foothills of Jawadhu after crossing village of Puliyanur.

The village of Puliyanur is around 5 kms from the school. A caged larger than life sculpture of BR Ambedkar, live milking of cows, mangoes thrown from trees and peacocks sitting on trunks are but a few of its attractions. The people were very friendly to say the least. They welcomed us with such love and respect that would blow out the prejudices of the staunchest city slicker. A walk through this village felt like walking through the pages of Malgudi Days.

Between Puliyanur and Cuckoo Forest School a little distance off the dirt track there lay a hand pump under a Gulmohar tree. Not just any other gulmohar tree but one with flowers in different shades of red and pink behind which the sun set creating a spectacular halo. Around all the different greens of different sizes lay this magnificent sight with such audacity that any passer-by could just not pause and marvel at it. A direct specimen from the Elvis woods of Lothlorien.

As we move towards the school now, about a 100 meters away from our site lay a small hamlet. It had a few huts, chicken coops, and dwelling spaces made for livestock. Fowl, dogs and cows and goats all mingled together. Humans lived in a give and take relationship with the nature around and in a miniature land had achieved what the front running you and me couldn’t in our humongous concrete worlds-a complete life. They welcomed us into this life, fed us unadulterated milk and fruits and brought out their humble furniture for us. They were curious about our lives and asked us a lot (translated by a fellow Tamilian Cuckoo friend). With every answer their imagination grew.

Now it was time to bridge their trust with cuckoo movement through this library. The structure of library was very simple, an adobe construction of a hexagon with 6 openings, each having a vaulted arch blending with the dome resting atop which was to be constructed using the ‘free spanning technique’. We started with laying bricks over hexagonal random rubble masonry. Divided into 6 groups for 6 corners and ordered to build wall. No it wasn't that cruel. Within team we split ourselves to do different jobs. One to carry water, another for mortar, two to carry bricks from storage to our corner and remaining two for masonry.

These bricks were so eye-catching not because they emitted natural earth color but because the way it was made! You dug earth, mix cow dung and various other additives. Craft like mortar and then you pour onto stencil of specific size on ground. Well pouring was also a different fun! You place the stencil, take a handful of mortar, and mold it into ball, and finally splash hard into the stencil. Then you shake stencil a bit and gently lift it up. The art was elegant yet simple to be mastered in no time. The best part is they comprises of almost zero embodied energy comparing to factory made bricks which are worse as they not only exploit the resources to burn but also misuse topsoil which is very precious as it took millions of years for nature to go through pain to provide us healthy life!

You can only let someone throw so many stones at you before you pick them all up, put them together and build a wall to keep them from doing it again. The art of building a wall is merely simple and it doesn't require a rocket scientist to do that. Yes I too never used to believe in that but what I learnt is that bricks don’t fail generally, it’s the mortar which fails. Guess what? Mud mortar including cow dung is the best mortar because it binds all the ingredients without any hesitation and so the wall we were about to build could last for 800 years! Learning such simple facts pushed adrenaline rush in us to such an extent that defied hunger, emotions or any other matter! Amidst this passion filled aura even rooster used to get excited and Cock-A-Doodle-Dooed at 5:30 A.M!

Every morning was so pleasing, one side it was dream getting built other side nature showed more. We were placed perfectly. I could even relate to Chinese Feng shui architecture ‘leaning against mountains and facing waters.’

The liveliness of place was multiplying by googol times with every pair of hand that lifted earth to resonate in a naturally build structure. These hands were from varied professions: architects, engineers, IT professionals, farmers, psychologists, journalists, photographers, theatre artists, entrepreneurs, writers, and even aspiring cricketers. No two artists had the same story to tell or reason to come but all of them had one thing in common. They cared.

After a round of natural herbal tea, everyone used to get back to work, getting efficient day-by- day but usually changing roles to break the monotonous and learn all possible jobs on site! We cherished brick passing chains and as the days went by, we dropped fewer bricks on each other’s feet. Whoever wanted to have mud manicure/pedicure used to jump into Mortar pit-where we mixed soil, sand and water in a certain ratio by walking in circles and having life conversations. Who wanted to dwell completely into mother earth, used to apply mortar over face which insured that skin is protected from sun stroke and to imbibe its smell forever.

We worked till sun was smiling and rest while shining. A bell ring gave clear indication every day, when local ice cream vendor drove his bike in and we all would lose control and shout out for ice cream in chorus, inconspicuously it meant break time for us. During this time we played with dogs, or visited village and took blessings from elders while some of us comfortably laid beneath the big old tamarind tree.

At the dusk, we would climb back to the building site again, where we were joined by the village kids who never failed to shower love on us.

“Then came Kali, he gave me a hundred kisses on my cheek, I hugged him and did not let him go. He was excited. He was one of those to whom the school belonged. I don’t know why, but, from the moment he saw me, he started telling me stories. It’s an understatement to say that he’s adorable. “Oru kadhai solluren (let me tell you a story)” he would start, gently patting my hand. And he would start his story, looking me in the eye. His stories are mostly about animals – cows, ferocious tigers…he even told me a story about local hero! He comes up with the most amazing stories, this little guy. I wish I could retell them, but the charm of Rahul’s stories lies in the way he tells them – with his eyes wide, his tone serious, and his hands drawing vivid patterns in the air. The best part of his stories is the end. He would finish with the most disarming smile in the world." As narrated by my friends.

The kids from 2 years old to teens had happiness and enchantment in their eyes. They didn’t know we were the ugly scum of ignorance. They gave us themselves. The inhabitants, both kids and elders gave and asked nothing in return. With such innocence and purity they crushed our pseudo city sophistication and turned us into that carefree and hearty child once again. That child who was veiled by the false priorities and promises of the metropolitan life.

From that day everything changed ... the line turned dots and this dots were dim-witted! They didn’t have any religion or understood money/caste/color or you or me but just happiness! I still sense the hands of a girl far from knowing ball dance yet she looked into my eyes confidently while she was dancing with every beat of my boots hitting the gravels below. The kids taught us new playoffs; flabbergasted that we couldn’t play their ‘simple games’. With them they brought in such an energy and life that the “construction site” in no time changed to an amusement park. They played and laughed among us, jumped into the mortar pools and rode themselves on the wheelbarrows. Under the scorching sun, and the tenacious load of the work they brought us laughter and inspiration. They showed us what the structure we were making meant to them.

Change is inevitable and so were sporadic incidents which aimed to hold you back either mentally or physically and it happened with me. When I was with full excitement working on our vaulted arch, placing carefully each brick of specific size and Thud! I was on the ground... The arch failed... I fell along the gravitational axis taking few bricks with me and two on my head. Sitting there shocked luckily apart from few scratches nothing happened to me nor to the wall. I took a day off, drank milk with turmeric powder ‘an ancient medicine’. Next morning I was the first one to climb up. Yes too stubborn to hold back. Problems didn’t stop here but we marched as every day was a new day, every day we wanted to reach higher, faster and better!

The sun set when it had to. But not the work. By the end of the day above all the fatigue and tiredness, a certain high gets hold of you and until a satisfaction regarding the day’s work overwhelms it ,there would be people swarming over the arches and brick piles. We worked as late as 11 PM. The first thing after the hard day’s work was a bath followed by the most delicious and fulfilling dinner. It was as simple as it could get. Never monotonous. All around people would be sharing their stories and experiences, others would be busy with their guitars and flutes. The night had its own magnificence. We could sleep in tents, makeshift huts, rope-strung cots or simple stone slabs laid out in open although the later one meant temporary back pain in morning but the experience was all worth it. We even had a post-midnight shift to make sure the fresh course of bricks are not ravaged by rains. Millions of stars dotted the sky and the moon rose behind the hills majestically and when you plugged in your earphones with music to go with this aura, well you lived. As the night passed by, the wind blew stronger and colder and one has to clutch his blanket closer but we slept like logs until the hen called.

The final stage of building the Cuckoo School continued for a short while with professional masons. After completing our respective tasks it was time to return back with indelible learning. Before leaving to the bus station, everyone gave their warmest hug and sweetest smile. On the way Ramesh (small description about him would not do justice) stopped us to beckon goodbye! And whispered “you are not welcome here, this is your home!” I replied, “thank you!” and hugged him before my tears would roll down. To turn the environment little humorous, I murmured, “just don’t forget us”; but the subsequent words are the words that haunts my mind every day and drive me crazy to go back there and TRULY LIVE... Yes He punched into my soul 'I will never forget you!' substantiating once again: I will never!

Sitting at the edge of my apartment’s window, I realise how simple the world can be? How we don’t need watch to keep track of time, how we don’t need money to build shelter or religion to love. All we need is little care, little enthusiasm and little human touch to turn earth into school and nature into teacher. If these values and practices are imbibed, the harmony and happiness I crave for now; after the visit, won't be a talk of insular villages and schools like Cuckoo.

The dream in right hands

The Spirit of rising

Ramesh(Inhabitant and volunteer) playing Raag Durga

Language of happiness

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