From the outside it appeared like any of the one-storey, tiled-roof government schools built by the British in India. But it evoked a sense of magic in the hearts of literary enthusiasts and local residents who knew the history of this 156-year-old school in Puttur town in coastal Karnataka.
The polymath Shivaram Karanth came to Puttur in 1932 and stayed in the town till 1974. Here, he moulded the school into a hub of art and learning. The classrooms in the school were expertly designed to double up as indoor amphitheaters like those in Rome and London. The building stood both as an example of clever architecture and an ambitious vision for education as Shivaram Karanth taught theatre at the school. He introduced cultural events in the town which would take place at the school and make it a thriving cultural hub.
This is why even though the school has been closed for 10 years now, residents in the town were aghast to find out that the building was demolished by the school management earlier this month, without permission from the state government.
There were ongoing efforts to redevelop the school as a heritage center, and a letter from the Deputy Director of the Public Instruction (DDPI) office in Mangaluru to the Public Instruction department in December 2020 had sought the release of funds for repairing the structure. Despite this, the building was demolished without notice on Sunday, December 12.
It wasnâ€™t initially planned to demolish the building on December 12. According to the School Development and Monitoring Committee (SDMC) President Panchakshari, a few of the tiles of the roof of the school building were being removed for maintenance work at the behest of the Puttur's BJP MLA Sanjeev Matandoor. When one of the tiles fell, and it was noticed that one of the mud walls of the building was unsound, thatâ€™s when the decision was taken. "We decided to demolish the whole building on the same day," says Panchakshari.
Classrooms inside the government school in Puttur, Dakshina Kannada
A hub of artistic and cultural education
But many in Puttur are questioning the school management's decision. For long-time residents of the town, the school building was a window into the town's history, and in particular, Shivaram Karanth, the eminent novelist, playwright and ecological conservationist from Karnataka. He was a rationalist concerned with the environment, literature, art and music. In his lifetime, he helped revive Yakshagana, promoted widow remarriage, and translated and published reports on the environment. He also launched a movement against the Kaiga nuclear power plant coming up in Uttara Kannada district. He was a critic of caste orthodoxy and preferred an intercaste marriage. He was awarded Indiaâ€™s oldest and the highest literary award - the Jnanpith Award - for Kannada in 1977.
During his time in Puttur, residents and associates of Shivaram Karanth say he taught theatre and other art forms at the school. "This was the only school in Puttur, and he used to always insist that art forms like theatre, singing and Yakshagana are as important to a child's education as teaching them mathematics and science," says Purandara Bhat, 81, a former lawyer and an associate of Shivaram Karanth.
Purandara Bhat, resident of Puttur
Purandara recalls that Shivaram Karanth used to write plays specifically for the students of the school and train them in acting. Yakshagana shows were also held in the school grounds as part of the Puttur Dasara festivities that used to take place between 1934 and 1944. Yakshagana shows, which typically run all night, are an intrinsic part of coastal Karnataka's history. They combine dance, music, dialogue, costume, make-up, and stage techniques, and involve stories from epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata.
"Even those who did not know how to read and write would bring a mat to sit on and watch Yakshagana shows all night. They were fascinated by the showmanship in it," says Purandara Bhat. "These shows were staged in the grounds of the school by its students who underwent training under the helm of Shivaram Karanth. He had a way of getting students to perform out of their skins in these shows," Purandara says.
A second home for Shivaram Karanth
The residence of Shivaram Karanth in Puttur, called Balavana, was restored by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) using materials similar to the ones used in the original building. It was his home for more than 40 years. However, the school served as his second home in Puttur, says Purandara. "When he was not at home, he would often be at school with his students," he says. He also recalls that Kannada personalities like Kuvempu held talks at the school due to Shivaram Karanth's influence.
But the school fell into increasing neglect. Through the years, the paint peeled off the walls and tiles began to fall off the roof. The leaks worsened and the stone and mud walls weakened. There was no restoration work taken up to preserve the school despite the intensive efforts of Amruth Malla, a local resident. He says he has written to the local education department, the public instruction department in Mangaluru, the state education department in Bengaluru and even to the Prime Ministers' Office. A copy of his letters and the acknowledgements he has received have been accessed by TNM.
"I cannot believe that the school has now been reduced to rubble. I have tried to reach out to as many people as I could about this for the last eight years but no one took up the restoration work," says Amruth. Though there have been two correspondence letters from the Deputy Director of Public Instruction (DDPI) in Mangaluru about the restoration work, Amruth says that it was never taken forward. It is the responsibility of the school management and the DDPI Department under the state government to initiate the paperwork for restoring the school building.
Residents want school rebuilt, restored
The school management is now open to building a stage named after Shivaram Karanth in the same spot if the funds are made available, Panchakshari says.
But others like Amruth and Purandara are pushing the state government to belatedly take up the full-scale rebuilding and restoration work of the school building.
"It was a cultural treasure that was left to crumble due to neglect. We want it to be rebuilt as close to the original structure as possible. We believe it is essential that it is for some form of public use as a museum or heritage center in honour of Shivaram Karanth," says Amruth.