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The beauty of multi-cultural learning, India’s Eclectic Culture and the Role of Schools

Intrigued by India

My friends from the West are often intrigued by India – in an inspiring as well as resisting way. They find this land exotic, eclectic, even outlandish. I can see why. For, even though I'm an Indian myself, as I'm discovering more and more of my country by traveling far and wide and to the remote corners, a sense of wonder sweeps over me. The very same multi-cultural, multi-faith and multi-caste dimensions that have often caused this vast country to be shaken up internally, are also the reasons why India paints such a stimulating and exquisite picture of cultural diversity and versatility in art forms, music, languages, cuisine, architecture, handicraft, textiles and attire. Infact, the country is what it is because of the multiple cultures and faiths that have thrived and co-existed for centuries. Every single grain of this country is born of and nurtured by its cultural melting pot.

Talk about 'Conversation Starters'

In India, we have no dearth of conversation starters. On the contrary, you can breakthe ice with a rank stranger with a – "O, I like your Saree! Is this the Rajasthani Tie and Dye or the Gujarati" or, "Ah, I love your Kolhapuri chappals", and yet more – "O, your wedding rituals take place early in the morning? Ours are at mignight". Gosh! One can go on exchanging nuggets of cultural wisdom in an unconscious, almost breezy way!

My multi-cultural family

My family is as much a cultural medley! While, I am from Rajasthan(West) and speak Rajasthani and Hindi as my mother tongue; the hubby is from Karnataka; Kannada is his mother tongue! Pari is fluent with Hindi and English and understands Kannada and Rajasthani. I, too, have learnt a smattering of Kannada to feel at home when we visit my in-laws in Sagara (near Bangalore). I love the South Indian delicacies, which has inspired me to learn quite a few lip smacking South Indian recipes from my mother-in law besides the Rajasthani recipes from my mom – both are world-class cooks! And, I do believe that a well-fed hubby makes for a good lover, a caring father and a patient listener! Beyond us, my sis-in-law (my younger brother's wife) is a Punjabi and she brings with her the flavours of quintessential Punjabi Chhole (Chick Peas) and Rajma (black beans).

The Urban Indian Household

Many urban Indian families these days bear a similar multi-cultural, even multi-ethnic look with more and more youth marrying inter-caste and even inter-religion (a big taboo here, otherwise). Globally, the distance remains the same, but the proximity is increasing with the number of immigrant population on the rise and with the internet enabling us to peek into and learn more about each others' ways of life.

What are the Schools doing?

Considering how multi-cultural interaction can enrich, I, as a parent to a 5.5 year old, don't see our schools really doing much to encourage a multi-cultural learning environment. At least, not much here in India. Ha! What an irony. Really! Isn't that shocking and a huge set-back considering India is the flag bearer of a multi-faith society? In Pari's class, there are children from the North East of India, from the Southern states, from East, from families following the Islam and Sikh and Jain religioius faiths. But, besides just declaring a holiday on an Id-ul-Fitr or a Buddha Jayanti or a Guru Nanak Day and besides celebrating some popular festivals like Diwali, Christmas, Holi or Janmaasthami, the schools haven't taken any positive step further. Probably, they don't even realise that given the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic backgrounds their studens come from, there is a need or may be just an opportunity to make the students learn about the faith and culture of their fellow class mates. 

What do those holidays mean anyway?

I don't see any relevance of a holiday on Id-ul-fitr for a child who has not the slightest idea how his Muslim friend celebrates that day. And, it goes for any other holiday – be it Diwali, Holi or Easter. 

A multi-cultural learning environment is beneficial in every aspect that I can think of. 

  1. It is an opportunity to learn about people, culture, countries, festivals – which is a fascinating subject in itself
  2. The subject is such that it lends itself very well to interactive, project-based study rather than just textbook-centric. There can be story-telling through puppetry, dance and drama and folk music; children can exchange recipes and songs; learn to greet in each other's language etc.
  3. A cultural exchange and reinforcement such as this will help in preserving our myriad languages, art-forms, folk culture and traditions
  4. Last but very crucial – it will make our children more sensitive, tolerant and appreciative of culture and languages and faiths other than their own, helping in a more peace-loving society.

The Global Viewpoint

I recently read an article in which a US-based author expressed her views against those liberals who frown upon the concept of a multi-cultural education. She says that, in a country where there are multi-ethnic groups due to a vast immigrant population, segregating the schools on the basis of culture and religion is as bad as propagating a "liberal-only" public school education. It will erode our society of the richness, of culture, languages and traditions. She says – it's a pity to see the children of 2nd and 3rd generation immigrant parents not being able to interact with their grandparents because they cannot speak their language. They have lost touch with their parental culture.

In another article, another U.S.-based author writes with concern that the children of immigrant societies in the U.S. and elsewhere suffer from an identity crisis as they often don't even want to talk about the culture/ethnicity they belong to for fear of not fitting in. Often times, they carry an inherent complex about their native country and may even lie where they come from. This is the result of a lack of multi-cultural learning and sharing environment at schools. 

The partners in crime…

In India, television has done more damage that any other medium. Children's content on the small screen is replete only with animated movies on Hindu Gods and Goddesses like Ganesha and Hanuman and Krishna besides borrowed content like High School Musical that don't really portray a realistic picture. There's a shameless absence of any programme whatsoever pertaining to any other faith. Why? Because, the majority of population is Hindu and the TV producers will gain more eye balls and hence more revenue by such content as compared to, let's say, about the life and times of Jesus or the Prophet or Guru Nanak? What a disgrace. The popular Indian cinema, which has an astonishing reach, hasn't done much either. Apart from the handful of movies that have restored taste and sensibility back to Hindi cinema in the past few years, most continue to showcase the 'Bhangra' and the big fat Indian wedding jamboree as if this is what India is all about!

No, it's not just about 'Scriptures' and 'Granthas'…

Going back to what I was saying about the lack of multi-cultural sharing in Indian schools – when I  say introducing the child/class to the diversity of culture and faith, I do mean it's done in an age-appropriate way. I don't think introducing the scriptures from a Bible or the 'Granthas' from a Hindu epic to a 5-year old is a good idea. There are many age-appropriate ways to familiarize the child with the cultural diversity of her/his class of 20 or 30 or 40 with whom the child spends 6 hours (sometimes even more) with. 

Practical Ways for Multi-cultural Learning Environement

In my experience of introducing cultures of the world to in our home to Pari, these are some of the things that I have found very helpful and fun-filled for a 5-year old.Most are relevant for both parents and schools.

  1. Storytelling – reading from books, enacting the stories. Pari loves being read out to from books such as '101 Buddha stories'The Children's BibleGanesha, Sai Baba. 
  2. Visiting a place of worship: Now, some may have reservations about this. So, using one's own discretion is best. In our family, we love visiting church and Dargah and Gurudwara, Synagogue as much as a Hindu temple. 

    Recently we visited a 200-year old churh in Mysore; offered a prayer by lighting candles and saw pictures and read out from the many paintings displayed on the walls. 

    We even watched a Christian wedding ceremony being performed in the Church. 

    Last year, we visited the tomb (Dargah) of 'Chisti Baba' (Shaikh Salim Chisti) at Fatehpur Sikri (near Agra) where we offered prayer and wished a mannat (wish). I also shared some stories from the life of Chisti Baba. It was 6 years back that my hubby and I became ardent followers of this Sufi saint who is revered by people from world over.

    When in Coorg recently, we visted a monastery (a Buddhist temple), which was a mesmerizing and blissful experience for us all. 

  3. As part of our artful activities at home, we do crafts to celebrate not just our own festivals – like Holi or Diwali, but also festivals from around the world – like Christmas or Easter or Halloween.
  4. We visit museums and forts and palces and discuss about the related history – of India or other countries. When visiting the 'Rangmahal Art Museum' in Mysore, she couldn't help admiring the paintings from the British era in India; got a glimpse of how life was in medieval France or Egypt. 

    A visit to the Wax museum of Musicians in Mysore, gave us an idea about the musical instruments from different cultures.

Oh, the options and possibilities are boundless.

And they don't have to be heavy-weight information load on the child. They just need to be links and nuggets that help them connect with the world around them and help them admire and appreciate the diversity that they live in. For, it's the diversity that makes the world so interesting as well as challenging. 

Being open to absorbing…

If South Africa wasn't any different from India, I wouldn't have cared to save and shell out big time to make my dream of visiting this country true. A country so rich in art, nature, culture, languages and landscape and ever so fun and colourful due to the people who inhabit the land. And, when there, if I don't prefer mingling with the people, tasting their food, taking interest in their history, or attempting to learn a word or two in their language, I might as well stay put in my home and be content with my curry (sabzi)!

And, if the schools fail to realize their role as propagators of cultural exchange, among other things, the day isn't far away when more parents will prefer to home-school their children. I, for one, have been thinking hard about it..

Some stimulating and interesting reads on traditions, diversity and more from my favourite blogs:

Dear readers, I would LOVE to hear your thoughts and views on the importance of multi-cultural, multi-faith interaction for us all, including a learning environment for our children that propagates this view. Please share freely and enrich this article.


I normally, don't post the same article on both my blogs, but this seemed so relevant for the readers over here as well as here.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Farnoosh July 1, 2011, 6:53 pm

    Hi dearest Rashmie, you really intrigued me with this post. Ah the beloved cultures and traditions, even with their flaws, even with their quirkiness and imperfections and oddities, we love them anyway when they are our own culture and we want to talk about them and teach others about them – I know the feeling. Schools are never going to be enough to transfer this kind of richness into children. It’s sadly up to parents to do what they can to preserve the beauty of their own culture, no matter where they live. While I have lost a lot of my own culture, and most of which does not fit into my current lifestyle, there are many parts that I cherish, that I carry with me and that live in my heart. Thank you for an amazingly refreshing post and gosh I do hope to make it to India someday.

    • Rashmie Jaaju July 3, 2011, 10:26 am

      Farnoosh, my friend,
      Thank you for adding your thoughts on how culture and traditions, even with their “flaws, quirkiness and oddities” add richness to our learning.
      And, it’s not just about our own cultures and traditions that we’d like to know about, but its in knowing about others’ that we make our learning so rich and fulfilling.
      You’re right, sadly, most mainstream schools will never have the priority to impart an education that also borrows from cultural diversity.
      Actually, I’m not even suggesting that it be an exclusive subject for the schools or they must devote exclusive time to this. But, I do think that the unique position that schools are in – due to the fact that they will have students from diverse cultural backgrounds – that they must make a conscious attempt at a multi-cultural dialogue and interaction among students. No subject-matter expertise on any culture so to say, but very simply – an exchange of stories, music, dramatics and even simpler – dedicating a few minutes to discuss about a festival/tradition before or after the school has a holiday for a specific festival.
      Thank you, Farnoosh, for being here and sharing your views.

  • Leeanne A July 1, 2011, 7:06 pm

    Wonderful article – I am glad I saw it today! I aslo wrote about culture in the classroom today – great minds think alike! LOL

    • Rashmie Jaaju July 3, 2011, 10:29 am

      Dear Leeanne,
      Yes, what a pleasant coincidence that you too write about the same subject with similar ideas on the very same day!
      Your article has some amazing ideas for a cultural exchange in a class-room setting. Even if the schools were to take up a couple of those ideas, it will go a long way…

  • stacy July 9, 2011, 7:58 am

    Rashmie, this was such a fabulous well thought out post. You write much like a journalist. I enjoyed it so much, I read it it out loud to my husband. We are well travelled, yet there is so much of this great world we have left to see.
    A visit to India would be a dream come true to me, and oh how I would love to make some common chit chat with the people. You brought up so many important points, it is hard for me to focus on them all here but I believe you touched a very important subject for our children’s generation. The mixture of cultures and acceptance of all is the key to success, I believe for our entire planet. As borders fade away thanks to global communication, and allows people of all faiths and cultures to become friends (like us) it is so very important that we broaden our horizons and demand more from education about every culture. Learning about others – their values, their religions, their traditions teaches not only tolerance but also love.
    I made it a point as I travelled with the military to always by a school textbook from the country I was visiting. I was always alarmed by the one sided view that was being taught to the students and started to wonder what lessons I had been taught that were equally as naive. How will we ever overcome hurdles and learn to accept one another unless we are taught the truth. The whole truth, with all its faults and discrepancies and embrace ourselves as a planet and not just a race or single nation. We all have so much to share … and so much to learn.
    You inspire me!!! I am so very glad that we met.

    • Rashmie Jaaju July 13, 2011, 4:43 pm

      My dear Stacy,
      Thank you so…so much for this thoughtful and insightful comment. You are so right – “As borders fade away thanks to global communication, and allows people of all faiths and cultures to become friends (like us) it is so very important that we broaden our horizons and demand more from education about every culture. Learning about others – their values, their religions, their traditions teaches not only tolerance but also love.”

      Precisely! It’s not just in tolerance of other cultures that we will accept other cultures and traditions but it is as much by appreciating the differences and loving them that we will become true global citizens.

      What a brilliant and intentional thing to do to bring back school textbook from any country that you visited. I have never thought of doing something like this. But, you inspire me too :) And, you’re right – the school textbooks are often the ones that stereotype cultures and people and genders. They present a silo-ed view of the world and ofte hinder young minds to open up and accept outside their own community or nation or culture.

      We certainly have so much to share and discuss, dear Stacy. We’re not able to connect as much as we would like to because we are mommies and housewives and bloggers and photographers and students – you and I. But, let’s make time :) Thank you, again, for sharing your insight!

  • param July 21, 2011, 2:32 pm

    After reading this post the first line that comes to my my mind is “I love my country and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage”. Yes, there is sooooo much to explore and learn. I agree “A multi-cultural learning environment will make our children more sensitive, tolerant and appreciative of culture and languages and faiths other than their own, helping in a more peace-loving society”. The icing on the cake is Pari’s pic, she is looking so calm and sweet.

  • chetan.pawar July 24, 2011, 11:09 am

    Hi my friends India is the one of the great nation in culturisum.

  • amy March 26, 2014, 2:18 pm

    good…loved it