Talking to Dr. C.S Balachandran-Geography is home to me

Dr. C.S Balachandran runs the – The Institute of Geographical Studies in Bangalore. He has completed his Phd in Geography from US. He returned back to India in 1998. He initially tried to teach Geography in schools but for various reasons (see below!) he didn’t find teaching Geography in schools interesting. Instead today he devotes his efforts towards organising workshops for students and even parents!

He spoke with us recently about how his interest in Geography started, the teachers who taught him, his experiences with teaching Geography in the US, his disappointment with state of Geography education in India at the school and university level. Here are the excerpts from a fascinating conversation with a man who is so passionate about spreading awareness about Geography among students.  This is also about the disappointments highly motivated teachers feel when they encounter our Indian school education system which is obsessed with examinations.

The beginning of my interest in Geography

I was raised in Bangalore and hail from a typical South Bangalore based Iyer family. It is interesting how I came to love geography. To think of it, it bloomed in a war zone.

In my childhood, I shared the neighborhood with many of my teachers. My Social Studies teacher was my neighbor too. It was when I was in high school at the National High School, Basavangudi, in 1971, that the India and Pakistan went to war with each other – the Bangladesh war broke out.

The next day was our Saturday morning class. Our social studies teacher, Mr Narasanna, proposed that we discussed world news for 5 minutes. We were game for anything; as long as it is not taught out of text books. To our sheer delight, we soon found out that he hated the textbooks as much as we did. So, we really bonded. Coming back to our teacher’s proposal to discuss world news; he just erased the huge black board and drew the entire continental outline map of the world and put the chalk and walked across to form the perfect equator. This was simply amazing moment for us, even though it was not such a big deal for our teacher. To give you a little background, we didn’t have maps in our school back then.

With this map he began a discussion on the war and through that discussion; we went into the places involved, the people involved and the reasons for the entire scenario. So, what started off as a 5-minute discussion of world news ended up turning into a 1 hour discussion with the next teacher waiting outside, looking at his watch pointedly!

This became an everyday practice for the duration of the war. In that one period, he took us through the history, geography and personalities involved in the story of the war.

He was also a brilliant caricaturist. As he explained how Indira Gandhi and Richard Nixon, the then US president, interacted; he would draw their caricatures shouting at each other. He hated her. She did not like him either. I have read that what Richard Nixon had to say about Indira Gandhi is unprintable. We didn’t know this at that time. We only knew that they disagreed very strongly. And right up to the morning newspaper’s report of troop positions were shown on our class board map including these caricatures with full enactment of their fights – all of this was in Kannada in an English medium school. He had us all so engrossed in this discussion.

Whatever I teach about South Asia today, in my workshops, comes from those classroom sessions. It took me 30 – 35 years to realize what he had given me. The teacher was an amazing personality. Outside of the class, he would seem to be a lower division clerk minding his own business. But the moment he stepped into the classroom, he would transform into an amazing being.

Today, when I teach any topic on South Asia, I just follow channel him, that’s all. And, this is not an exaggeration that is exactly what I do. Ultimately, it is always the teacher who makes the difference. Of course, as you grow up there are lots of other people who give inputs etc. And, I ended up doing my Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry, Botany and Zoology from National College. Then, I got a Master’s in Environmental Studies from Baylor University, Waco, Texas.

 My Ph D guru, Dr. Surinder Bhardwaj

Subsequently, I got my Ph D from Kent State University, Ohio. My Ph D guru, Dr. Surinder Bhardwaj, now retired, is a guru in the truest sense of the word. I still keep in touch with him. These two gurus are my geography inspirations. Subsequently, I met a lot of colleagues who have been inspirational.

Once I went to Kent State and started studying under Dr. Bharadwaj – I officially did only one course with him; everything else that I learned from him was at the lunch table or over coffee breaks. These were brilliant conversations. After my degrees in Chemistry, Botany, Zoology and then Environmental Studies, it was once I started conversing with him that I realized that I had come home.

Returned to Bangalore

I taught in the US from about 1991 – 2000. I was in the US for about 20 years, out of which I spent about 15 years teaching in different capacities. In 1998 I came back to Bangalore for some research work. The economy was opening up back then and there were so many changes happening. The conversations that I overheard at that time amazed me. I used to sit around and listen to people talking. This inspired me to return after two years. In 2000, I returned to Bangalore.

All I knew was I wanted to do geography. Initially I worked with NGOs because they could use geography as an organizing principle for their projects. But, I soon found out that they were not interested in anything like as deep as that. That is okay – it is their way of doing things.

There was one NGO, which was run by one of my friends, who really got interested. So, I set up the framework for couple of their projects – very difficult ones – one was about girl children in sex work in Bangalore and the other was about boy children in sex work in Bangalore. It went very well.

Workshop for Geography teachers

Then, a lady in Hyderabad contacted me and asked if I could do a workshop for teachers. She had written geography text books and she wanted to understand if teachers would be interested in adopting her text book. Those text books were very nicely done. It is called Spark Geography and Spark Geography Junior. In Spark Geography Junior, let’s say you have weather and climate as a topic. The entire topic is crisped into one page and Spark Geography would have two pages. It was a beautiful piece of work. I do not know if it is still available. She wanted me to bring out the relevance of the text book. It was the first time I was doing a workshop in India. It went very well.

In retrospect, what was disturbing was lot of teachers coming and telling me that they had never thought about geography that way. Initially it seemed flattering but, it set me thinking as to how else they would think of geography. These were teachers talking. That was when I thought I should really start doing some educational work. I taught at a couple of schools in Bangalore. I was a total misfit in that environment. Then I quit doing that.

Disappointment with school teaching

Because, I want to teach Geography, I can’t do paper work. I understand that every school has its needs. But I didn’t want to do it. And, that can’t be facilitated for me alone.

Secondly, I don’t like text books. Ever since high school, I do not restrict myself to text books. It’s probably because of the way I learned the subject, I prefer to walk into a classroom and discuss what the students got interested in the news and take my classes from there. And, I get to do that without a school body hanging over my head.

So, because of these two factors – the paperwork and text book restrictions – I don’t fit in.

The third problem is teaching for an exam. People teach and learn for exams, which is a philosophy I don’t understand. I can’t teach for an exam. So, I gave up schools.

Geography teaching in India versus the US

In school, Mr. Narasanna, my Social Studies teacher whom I talked about earlier, was different but otherwise, I had to put up with the text books. We all had to. I don’t really remember anything I learnt from the text books. My geography education is absolutely atypical, for which I am extremely grateful. But, for most children, even now, this still would be atypical, which is sad. It should have been the way of the schools by now. Sadly, things are stuck as it was. After my US education, when I looked up universities and colleges in India and the way they teach Geography, to put it kindly, it is underwhelming. They are stuck in a kind of pedagogy that is no longer useful. I meet young geographers doing Ph D and ask them what they are working on. They tell me whatever they are working on.

When I ask them why they are working on that topic, I hope to get answers such as I am just interested in it, etc. They all start their answer with Sir told. Universities would have got a UGC grant for some project and in that they would want certain things done. So, you go and do that. That’s it.  There is no process of inviting graduates and getting them excited about subjects, it is just a work course.  When I ask them what their method is, they tell me the method. If I ask them why they are using that method, they again say Sir told.

Critical thinking is not being fostered enough. When I went to Ken State, Dr. Surinder Bhardwaj was also the graduate coordinator of that department. He would have all incoming students, I think, within 6 weeks on school commencing. Within two weeks we would have a memo in our mailbox, to make an appointment with him by a certain date mentioned in the memo and we had to take along at least 2-3 thesis topics to discuss it. Likewise, I went there and said what I would like to do. He said fine and we discussed the list of people who can help me, the courses that would help me and it was done. He would always tell us that if they couldn’t help us, there is no point in sticking around and trying to do something. It was better to help us find some other place to do it, instead. Perhaps, another department! So, that is the difference.

I had a co-advisor – a British geographer, Dr Peter Fisher, who would submit an academic paper practically every fortnight upto to that morning for publication. Before too long, it would be published. He encouraged me to write too. As a graduate student, I was able to publish works. That got me the outstanding graduate student award. This was a very rigorous process because Dr. Surinder Bhardwaj does everything by the book. So, if Dr. Surinder Bhardwaj writes a recommendation letter it is serious with no fluff in it. If he says something is good; it means it is good. You don’t have to second guess it.

So, the entire journey of studying geography out there focused on developing critical thinking skills. I had to take classes – one full section of (usually) World Geography every semester – of which I was the boss. I had to decide the syllabus, what I would share with the children, etc. It went well. And, from the 2nd semester, I was able to recruit undergraduate students to the department.

Dr. Surinder wanted such students to join our department who could be their brand ambassadors. The critical thinking skills and questioning authority mattered a lot. Dr. Surinder Bhardwaj always encouraged in questioning authority. In that one course I took with him, he used to say that I am here because of you. His attitude was such that he was teaching the course not just for our benefit but for his own as well. He used to say that we are all potential future colleagues and that he would never want to work with incompetent colleagues. He used to say that some of us may even be his Chairperson, who was to foresee? An incompetent Chairperson wouldn’t be great guiding him. That was his attitude and commitment towards his work. And, every time he got the opportunity he would keep reinforcing it. Today, when I meet teachers, Dr. Bhardwaj truly stands out because of this attitude.

That intellectual rigor is wanting in India because of the hierarchical structure we have – placing professors on the top, expecting you to do only those things which are asked of you with no questions asked. That leaves no room for discussion.

I will tell you how contrasting an atmosphere I was part of. I would go to the Association of American Geographers conference, where usually 10000 people attend from different parts of the world. It is a huge deal. Some point in time some big-time geographer would walk up to me, look at my tag and ask me if I were Dr. Surinder’s student. Upon affirmation, he would invite me to have a discussion over coffee with them. They would ask me what I was doing, etc. We would network and have effective conversations about each other’s works etc. This is the kind of PR my guru did for his students. I come from that kind of environment. This hierarchical approach is alien to me.

Would geography always remain only a school subject?

As long as there are enough number of people who feel and share my views on geography we can perhaps make a dent in that reputation. But not many people share my approach. People tell me that I am not practical. But, when I talk to children, I reflect their excitement in everything. They look at a gadget they get excited. I ask them to look at the geography in it. One child was interested in drums – with that we had geography conversations-where the wood would have come from, where the leather may come from, etc.

One child did a presentation on the geography of jazz music. Thanks to him, though I may still not understand the intricacies of jazz music, I have understood the geographies of jazz in exquisite detail.

Do schools in other countries also have the same attitude towards geography?

In Western Europe they do a good job. US not so much – geography is suffering in the US schools.

What is interesting is that as a professional geography community must be more engaged in trying to help school-level geography improve; or else won’t get qualified students at the university level. TIGS is doing what it can to help address this issue.

Who is a geographer?

Somebody who looks at the world in terms of location, place and makes sense of the world using that approach. When I teach children about research in geography – there 4 questions we look at:

Where is something?

Why is it there?

So what if it is there?

What if it is changed from there?

These 4 questions define our discipline. I think the biggest problem we have, arises owing to the fact that most school teachers don’t read much outside the textbook. If they are not excited about the subject, how can they excite and inspire children?

Uninspired teaching drives students away from studying geography. So, the entire teaching community has to become passionate about the way they talk to children.

Will this ever happen?

Probably not! I hope it does, but probably not. If you go to government schools, they are drowning in bureaucracy and routine.

Teachers have to make weekly, monthly, and annual plans, and enter them into a computer. At the end of the year this is all locked up and they do it over again next year. Apart from these, teachers are given a lot of non-teaching work to do. Finally, teachers are not encouraged and empowered to bring good practices to their work from the professional development activities (e.g.: TIGS geography workshops). If these things change, there will be a better chance of inspiring geography education in schools.

Started workshops to teach Geography

I began designing workshops. This 23rd December, I completed a workshop for Montessori teachers in Chennai, called developing the geographer’s eye. I had a similar one, running parallel, in Bangalore. Then I got parents suggesting for workshops for parents. I have also been teaching 4-5 kids over Skype. It is called Geography over a Distance (GOD). I teach them twice a week – an hour each day. These are home-schooled children. So, they don’t go by textbooks and I get to have conversations and teach them. For example, I ask what interesting thing they stumbled on – and they say dispute between China and America. With that, we talk about boundaries, why trade matters, why China is interested in developing ports all over the world, why is China interested in investing in Africa. These conversations help in developing contextual geography rather than textbook driven geography. So, I get to have conversations, which I can’t do in a school set up because the structure is different – complete portions and run behind exams.

But, for these children there are, no text books, no tests, no exams. This year I am going to start them working on portfolios. This way, at any time, I start telling you something, you should be able to recall information related to that situation. That is one route through which I teach children geography.

Once at home, these children spread awareness about my session so much so that some parents got interested and suggested I do something for parents. So, second week of February this year, we are starting a course called Geography for Life in Chennai. In Chennai, there is an organization called the Relief Foundation. They have a Montessori school called Cascade and my connections for this course came through that school.The youngest is 13 and the oldest is 17.

We have around 18 people signing up for the parents’ programme. I will also be starting this in Bangalore from the 4th Saturday of February. In Chennai, people keep getting engaged in these things, so we are little ahead. In Bangalore, it is a little slow. In one of my trips to Chennai in November, I took two 13-year old kids – Neeraj and Mythili. They are very bright children. I don’t teach them geography formally. In some conversation with them I happened to tell them about a dream project. A project based on a paper that my guru and I published in 2001 but, worked on since 1981. My 25 year old dream project is to make a documentary based on a paper called Geography as a Melody – cultural geographic themes on the music of Muthuswami Dikshitar. Music always resonated with me. Now, if I would do anything outside of Geography, it would be music- Carnatic music. Now, one of the children, Neeraj is learning to play the Mridangam and the other child Mythili is learning Bharatanatyam.

When these children heard about my dream, they got interested and motivated me to start working on it. Pretty soon I had a team – my 4 students from Geography over Distance and these two children. We started working on this project. This project has gotten the kids to understand the feeling associated with the compositions of Dikshitar and these places. Each of these children are working on different aspects of the project.

For example, Neeraj loves history. He is working on the history aspect. There is another kid in the group who had no particular interest in music as such but loves computers. He has taken up making a Google Earth KML that will work with the project. He is totally engrossed in that. Pranav, another child, is looking up where we will film various aspects of the documentary etc. By June 2020 or Deepavali 2020, we should be able to get this out.

Parents are getting involved

Now, parents are also getting involved. One day I was in a short conversation with Mythili’s parents to let them know what we were up and to understand if they have any objections with Mythili’s participation, etc. During this conversation, I mentioned that I needed to figure out two things – one is to find a filming crew and to do some research in Kashi to understand where Muthuswamy Dikshitar had stayed. There must be a record somewhere and my guru has been pushing me to go to Kashi for decades now and I still haven’t done it because I do not like travelling to such crowded places.

That is when Mythili’s father revealed that he lived in Kashi for many years and he has many friends there. I just had to tell him when I was ready and the Kashi visit suddenly turned from hurdle to milestone.

Another child, Jyothi, talked around about this project and reverted saying that her friend, Ramesh also was very interested in our project. Ramesh is extremely interested in Carnatic music and is a good camera person as well. Both of them took up the camera work for the project.

So, we are making good progress. I guess when the time is right, things will happen. You just have to be patient because the cosmos doesn’t dance to your tune. But, if you yearn for it, it will happen. So, hopefully, in June of 2020 you will be able to attend the launch of our documentary.

We are also going to make learning materials with it. Whether one is interested in Dikshitar or not is completely irrelevant. But the hope is that, through this, some children will get an entry to look to connect the dots between mythology, place legends, the important sacred places in our lives – they exist, they are important to people – with musical compositions as the medium.

I have met a lot of parents who say that they are atheists. They say they don’t believe that a church or a temple comes with a filter in it. The truth is you don’t have to believe. But, it is good to understand what others see in it and what makes them stick to these places. Therein lies the power of geography. The power of faith and geography does connect. This is the kind of geography I revel in. This is what I meant when I said, I felt, I came home to geography.
And now that I am in Bangalore, I have literally come home physically as well.

Geography Youth Conference

It started out, initially, with 50-60 people. There were lot of teachers and a few students. We had, at the time, planned on doing it biannually. So we didn’t have it in 2015. We conducted it again in 2016. That year we had a larger group of students. They gave us a feedback that we need to do this every year. Hence, since 2016, we have had it every year.

For the 2017 conference, we had about 70-80 students. 2018 saw more than a 100 students participating and most of them were in teams presenting research papers. From 2016 onwards students have been doing library research or Wikipedia copy-paste stuff about topics that got them interested. But, as long as it aligns to the theme of the conference, it is okay.

We do not reject abstracts as much as possible. We work with the children and try to help them understand what is required to meet standards and we help them meet them. I go to schools and talk to them about what geography is and teach them about the fundamental questions of geography – how to conduct a geographical research, how to look at geography in their neighbourhood, how to tie up projects to the theme of the conference. I give them examples of research questions around that. Subsequently they do the research projects. The whole conference presentation structure is modelled as per the American Association of Geographers conference, which means we have sessions of 100 minutes each – there will be 4 papers of 20 mins each.

The 5th slot is for Questions and Answers (Q ‘n’ A). During the 5th slot, anybody can ask any questions to any of teams. There is only one ground rule. The only ground rule is that they have to tell about one specific thing they liked about the presentation before they ask their question. If they can’t say that, they can’t ask a question. It is amazing how children take it so seriously.

Once a Kannada teacher came for this session because he had to chaperone the students from his school for the conference. He said that after he attended the conference, his style of teaching Kannada has changed because he witnessed children asking questions that he never imagined them asking. He said the most important and interesting thing, per him, is that they tell him one thing they liked about his class. It amazed me that these children were practising what we convey, in other classes as well. These children, in turn, mentor other children who didn’t attend these sessions how to communicate in this manner. The wonder is that nobody asked them to run this extra mile. They just do it.

So, the impact may not be visible but it is powerful.

These conferences help us raise money. Then, there are private individuals, who donate money. I write a blog as well. Every Wednesday, the Deccan Herald student edition, publishes this in their geography column. They publish it as a blog so that I have the freedom to give away external links etc. One of my senior colleagues, who has now retired, is an expert in Hindu cosmogony in geography – brilliant man! He advised that I publish this as a book. This book is in its first round of editing. Hopefully by this year’s IGYS, we will have it published.

Anybody can come. But, usually local schools participate because coming from long distances may be difficult. Schools out of the state do suggest. But, nobody is there to do the work because it is a very tasking effort. Furthermore, I have to go to those schools and tell them what to do. Basically, challenge them to do something that is outside the framework of their schools.

Parents are very difficult to convince. They are bothered about the time they spend on this activity, which may steal their academic time. Children are our best ambassadors.

Let me give you an example, there is this school in Chandapura on Hosur Road. The kids went to their principal and said that they want to go for the IGYS – they were ready but there were CBSE assessments going on. The principal there is an amazing man. He said, there are so many assessments coming. This is just one assessment, I would advise that you go for the conference. Parents would of course differ to this idea. The children smartly went and told their parents that the principal Sir has asked us to go. That is not exactly what was told. But, they paved their way.

There was a time, when these students were scared of the idea. They couldn’t imagine talking in English, leave alone presenting. There is an NGO that took care of this – how to talk in English, write in English, make power point presentations, etc. We gave them guidelines – like it should not be more than 8-10 slides, not to have animations on slides, etc. If you look at the website, there is a link for IGYS – look for accepted abstracts – it is amazing what these children do.

This year we have decided against student presentations, we have decided to give workshops because there are a plethora of interesting topics. I have a colleague here in Bangalore who is brilliant at reading landscapes – How landscape tells a story and how geographers are interested in that. I love current events. In one of the workshops I did follow the man with the Rubik’s cube. It was about Edward Snowden and his saga – phenomenally interested in geography. I had a 9 and half year old child in that workshop who got so engrossed in it. We had that workshop on Saturday. Monday morning he comes to me and he was wowed!

From the workshop, in the way, it was conveyed and the whole scheme of things, they just didn’t learn geography, they learnt politics and so many other things because conversations, assignments and questions go a long way. So, through this year’s workshop we are going to teach children how to learn geography and how to do research in it. The hope is that with this, they get to a better position next year to churn out better presentations.

How is music, religion etc. connected with Geography?

Now if you look at Muthuswami Dikshitar, he went on pilgrimages and his pilgrimages had a lot to do with his compositions. Wherever he went, invariably he has composed songs to the deity. He mentions the place, it may be a river, a mountain or whatever. When he does that he is looking at the place where the deity is. Because the deity is there, the place is sacred. The deity also brings with it place legends, mythology and history.

For example, in one song in Tanjore he talks about Rajaraja Chola. In Meenakashi of Madurai, he refers to her as Pandyaraja thalaivi. That way, when I look at his musicology, I can look at his music, I look at his lyrics and his geography. So, his works are extremely fascinating to me as a geographer. That may not have been his intention but he is an accidental cultural geographer because he looks at the place in a special way.

In Carnatic music this is a very interesting phenomenon. I look at it as a geographer, a historian can look at it as history. So, it is a culmination. My interest lies in how he has used it in his composition, not just how he looked at it but how he expresses it as well.

One of the things we are doing in the documentary is considering the compilation on Meenakshi – a famous one, popularly sung in concerts. Meenakshi is essentially a local deity- a Tamil deity. Others have sung about her in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit. The moment it is sung in Sanskrit they say local deity has now become Pan India because Sanskrit is a Pan India language. Deekshitar does that. But, all the composers refer to her as Shiva’s consort – Pan India again. Deekshitar also says three words – Naana (measurement) Nathru (measurer) Meye (one who is measured) – the action, the actor and the one who is acted upon. When all three are said there is nothing left, which expresses her as one with Bhrama, which makes Madurai a universal city not just a Tamil city.

Ultimately, the geographer is interested in the place – why does place matter? Similarly, I do workshops on geography of diseases. Look at Zika, Ebola, Malaria, Influenza, anything – if you don’t understand geography, you don’t understand its epidemiology. You cannot stop it if you don’t understand its epidemiology.

I do this workshop for children in Class X and above, on the geography of HIV. By the end of that workshop, they are so freaked out. It is quite a task to take it out to students and is even tasking to pack it back after all those affirmations. Once children go through that, they will never forget that lesson.

So, if you don’t understand the place, you don’t really understand anything. Take any story, for instance, if you take the geography and the history away from it, then there is no story. Even if it is as simple as telling about yourself. If I ask you to erase the history and geography and retell it, there is nothing in it. Truth is you can’t do it.

A son or a daughter have their parents. You cannot escape their roots, what they did and where they were before your existence matters. This inevitability of geography is what we don’t teach children.

My primary concern about textbooks is that it doesn’t connect things. They teach you about latitudes and longitudes in one chapter and it is stuck there in silos forever. The purpose doesn’t come out elsewhere. Then, where is the connect? If there is no connect, there will be no memory retention because it doesn’t invoke interest.

I remember a Principal of the Army Public School calling me and saying that his X Std. students were having a tough time. I looked at the books – no connection at all between chapters. I went to the class – 50 kids. I divided them in groups of 10. I talked to them about basic resources, kinds of resources, fundamentals of geography, etc. In 45 mins I completed that part. Then each group was given an industry from different sectors – primary to tertiary and they were asked to find the best location, for their industry, on the map and they had to explain why that location is the best.

I was zapped with the results. I certainly had not expected the work they did. They had to start presenting, manage their time, pick one person from their group to present, pick a person with good handwriting skills to do the charts, etc. I offered no inputs at all.

After this, two kids met their principal under some other context and said that they now understood their entire textbook. They didn’t need their textbook anymore.

If you are able to make connections, every subject becomes simple. In fact, when you understand how each subject connects with the other, things become even more simple. Once you crack this thought with children, they can churn out amazingly brilliant views.

Are children interested in Geography?

One of my first students, 17 year old Pranav, had decided that he wants to become a professional geographer.
Children usually don’t have choices, when their parents are gate keepers. So the convincing has to be done with parents as well. And to think of it, it is a legitimate concern. All parents want their children to have a good life. When we come to define what makes a good life, it is about career. And, that is the signal that children get too.

But, if you get children and parents to have conversations to understand what the child is interested in; nobody ever asks what the child is interested in.

For our last conference, we had a discussion with children on what we need as theme in our next conference. Among lot of students, we have 2-3 students telling us that we have to have stories. So, we decided that whatever workshop we do, we will bring it back with the theme of how geography tells stories – how to tell a story using geography.

Chandra Shekhar Balachandran, PhD
Founder & Director
The Institute of Geographical Studies, Bengaluru, India.
(In partnership with Dharani USA Inc., Chicago)
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