ONE RAINY DAY IN JULY 1954, Bhima, the housemaid who worked at the home where Nandini lived with her mother and extended family, brought in two young girls. She had discovered them standing forlorn in the torrential rain beside an overflowing drain. Their mother had just died, and their father lay on a pavement nearby in a drunken stupor. The girls, Matu and Bhaja, aged two and four, were shivering, perplexed, and frightened. Nandini reached out to them. She dried their hair, she held them close, calmed their shivering bodies, and gave them a few biscuits to eat.

The next day they reappeared and stood helplessly at the gate. Nandini noticed them and gave them a snack, and this time, also a piece of paper and a crayon. The three of them sat together under the shade of a mango tree and talked and coloured.

Thus began Nandini’s journey of helping the poor and disadvantaged. It was this first, spontaneous step that led towards the creation of Bal Anand, her centre for underprivileged children, mostly those enrolled in the local municipal school. It was a meeting place and a small school, built not on the virtue of promoting academic excellence or book knowledge, but on humanity. Though the children were tutored in academic subjects, including English and mathematics, the main tenets of Bal Anand were caring, empathy, compassion, creativity, and providing the children some essential nutrition.

Nandini never considered herself an intellectual or an enlightened educator. She was educated mainly at convent schools in the United Provinces and by an Irish governess. Later, she attended two years of college in Srinagar. Though she had wanted to get involved in some charitable work for a long time, she had never actually planned for or intended to start a school. However, meeting the two girls moved her to do something more permanent and concrete.

Krishnamurti’s advice was always close to her heart, and she shared his words in letters to Devi:

“The riches of the heart are indestructible. They are the only things that remain with us through joy and pain. Without love all effort is in vain, all living is death. Without that perfume, life is an arid desert. So we have to love, to give of ourselves, laugh and work, and help others, and watch the self within us live on. Few can show concern for others. Concern has a great quality, a vital, dynamic quality of stillness and absence of the self. There can be a frantic quality in concern also, like worry or anxiety. But just to feel for another without any anxiety or worry is real concern.”

As word about the Bal Anand centre spread among the underprivileged of the neighbourhood, two students soon turned to four, to 20 and went up to 125. More and more youngsters came to the little centre for a few hours every day. Every morning Nandini would sit under the spreading branches of the mango tree and greet her students.

The philosophy of Bal Anand was rooted in the way in which Nandini understood and lived Krishnamurti’s teachings. Bal Anand became the meaningful expression of what Nandini wanted to do with her life. Krishnamurti had often written to her that it was very important to have some “activity”. He would say, do something “that is an expression of yourself, not an activity that fills your time, which is only an escape, but an action that is the very expression of your being.”

Krishnamurti’s advice guided her actions. She sometimes copied out an important paragraph from his letters when writing to Devi: “You must feel very strongly about everything you do. If you feel very strongly, then little things will not fill your life. If you feel strongly about love, not careers or jobs, if you feel vitally, you will live in a state of deep silence. Your mind will be very clear, simple, and strong.

One can feel hurt or be self-centred, one can think and feel only for oneself, but to feel affection, tenderness, care for another, to tend a plant, care for a dog, or another human being, is to have feeling that does not destroy. To look outward at beauty, to feel sympathy for poverty and suffering, to have affection and kindness, that is important. One has to find the difference between the two—between feeling for oneself and for others. If one feels hurt and withdraws, there is a hardening of the mind and heart. If your heart is full, you have everything, you are everything. Look at yourself joyfully, as a whole, and not only at the sad moments which fill your mind.”

Bal Anand soon became an important centre in the lives of the underprivileged living or working in the Nepean Sea Road area.

There were no highly paid teachers, nor any special curriculum. Volunteers came and taught the students drawing, painting, weaving, craft, and stitching. As paints were expensive they would mix powdered colour or use geru to paint on the whitewashed external walls of Motima’s house.

True to its name, Bal Anand was a place of great joy. Mornings started with talking with the gathered children, hearing about their fears, understanding details of their daily lives, their thoughts and aspirations. Together they would all listen to the birds calling, the sounds of nature often missed in the city. Nandini would draw the students’ attention to the sound of their own heartbeat, the sounds in their minds. The children were provided a nutritious snack every day, as healthy food was often a challenge for their families; dates, bananas, bread and butter were some of the items they ate at Bal Anand. Nandini spent quality time with them singing, painting, clay modelling, or just allowing them to run freely in the courtyard.

In this space, young minds were free to express their feelings and emotions. They felt cared for and experienced affection. There was absolutely no religious instruction, but Nandini did encourage them to meditate, to sit quietly, and to delve into their own minds and thoughts. Nandini would guide them, saying “Instead of saying you love your mother, think about how you would express this love you feel for her”.

Bal Anand’s philosophy was to cultivate sensitivity and emotional intelligence in the young students. Nandini thought it important to develop empathy. “Help a blind man, a wounded animal,” she encouraged. To the teachers she emphasized that adults must develop deep empathy and the capacity to listen to the young. “Don’t just give lectures,” she would say. “Don’t just fill the child with facts. Teach them the art of learning.”
The house where Nandini and her mother lived was built on a high plinth. Nandini’s centre grew under the mango tree right under her bedroom window. Under its shade she sat and painted with the children, but not until she had first focussed on talking to them. She knew every student’s name, what was going on in their lives, and she remembered and was mindful of their special fears or concerns. “How was your day?” “Is your mother home from the hospital?” “You must have been scared!” “Are you afraid of the dark?” Only after this exchange, this sharing and profoundly empathetic listening, would they go on to other activities. Nandini wanted the children to feel loved and know that somebody cared. She wanted them to be aware of their inner world and awaken their senses to the world outside. She wanted them to have fun, to laugh and climb trees, to pluck raw mangoes, but also to be quiet, to chant, to watch their thoughts as if from the outside. Above all, Bal Anand was a place where children romped around, played, sang, and where there was always someone who was responsive to them. There was no building, solid structures, or formal staff. Bal Anand ran on the power of love and the strength of Nandini’s compassion.

Support came from those who saw the good work she was doing. In fact, Bal Anand soon became a family responsibility with many friends pitching in as well. Vasumati, Kumi’s wife and Nandini’s sister-in-law, looked after the centre’s finances, meagre as they were. Motima looked after the daily snack that was given to the children. Her sisters Moon and Amru would drop by and chat with the children. The famous sculptor Pilloo Pochkhanawala sometimes taught them sculpture, actor Leela Naidu told them stories, while friends Siloo Billimoria and Dr. Padte taught English. They would sometimes weave dusters on a loom or embroider jute bags, which they sold to raise funds to run the place. Well-wishers sometimes donated funds, which took care of the school’s expenses.

In 1968, the owner of the rented house where Nandini and her mother lived decided to sell it to the municipality. Nandini ran from pillar to post to see how she could relocate Bal Anand, as her young students depended on her. At one point Charles Correa offered to design a centre on another plot elsewhere, but Nandini did not want to lose the local children she had nurtured. Where would they go?

When Nandini brought this problem to Krishnamurti’s attention, he merely said: “Do not worry, something will turn up.” It did very soon after. In Akash Deep building, in the neighbouring compound, two garages came up for sale, and Nandini decided that that was where she would run her centre. Leela Naidu contributed significantly by helping to raise the Rs.37,000 required to buy the garages. People scoffed at the idea of a centre in a garage, but Nandini was clear as day that it would be perfect for her purpose.

The old house Nandini lived in was soon demolished and though the municipality claimed in 1968 that they would soon be building a school for 3,000 students there, to this day 50 years later, that hasn’t happened. At some point a small vyayamshala (fitness gym) opened, though the rest of the plot still lies vacant, having become something of a public maidan. Nandini moved into Devi’s flat at Land’s End, just across the street from Bal Anand.

Although much of Bal Anand’s activity shifted into the new garage premises, Nandini continued to use the open compound of the old house, often sitting with her students under a tree. She loved nature and the outdoors, and as much as she could, she spent her time with the children outside. She thought it an essential part of cultivating love and respect for nature in them. It was in the outdoors that she talked to them about creating a sense of internal quietness and calm, while still maintaining expressiveness and joy externally.

Art was central to the activity Nandini fostered. The children’s paintings were always displayed on the walls of Bal Anand. They portrayed such sensitivity that they drew the attention of a member of the Rockefeller Foundation. She then arranged for a two-month scholarship for Nandini to exhibit the paintings in New York.

Bal Anand still runs out of the garages on Dongersi Road. Kashi Bane, 65, is a teacher at Bal Anand, but she first came here in 1960 when she was just seven years old. Her father worked as a domestic helper in the neighbourhood. She recalls her early days at Bal Anand and says, in Marathi, that the way Nandini taught was very different from the regular school she attended. She never taught through lecturing. For instance, “When boys threw stones at the birds or tried to catch butterflies, Nandinibai would not shout or get angry. She would calmly talk to all of us about violence, and what it does.”

Nanda, another teacher at Bal Anand, said: “Nandinibai used to inquire about our families and that really touched me as no one had ever bothered to ask about my daily life or my fears before.”

Bal Anand changed the course of countless lives. “Nandinibai helped us stand on our own two feet and become economically independent. She helped our families,” Nanda said. Kashi recalls her father saying: “Your mother gave birth to you, but Nandinibai held your hand, gave you courage, helped you find direction in life, made you what you are today.”

Throughout the voluminous correspondence between Nandini and Krishnamurti he always asked her about Bal Anand, calling it the “little school”. He knew how important it was to her. Krishnamurti and Nandini often discussed education and its meaning and purpose in various letters exchanged in the 1960s. Nandini communicated some of these conversations in letters to her daughter. Krishnamurti had told her that he could see that when she started the school she had a real love and feeling for the children, and that she did not have any theories to promote or personal agenda. She was not escaping anything either. He appreciated the fact that she “treated them as children, not as drivers’ or cooks’ children.” Krishnamurti encouraged her to read to them and to talk to them, and to reflect on the fact that the aim of education was to “cultivate self-awareness and fearlessness”. He assured her that if she continued to give of herself to the children it would have “an extraordinary effect”.

Indeed, Bal Anand did much good and made a difference to many young lives over the years. It was a cherished part of Nandini’s daily routine and a very significant part of her existence right until the end of her life.
Smt Vijayalakshmi Pandit, governor of Maharashtra, at an exhibition of handicrafts made by the children of Bal Anand around 1964. On her left are Nandini, Aditi, and Iravati
Even in their later years, Nandini and her siblings maintained a very close bond. Nandini with her sisters Amru and Pupul.
Even during her last years when she was quite frail, Nandini made it a point to be present at Bal Anand every day.
With her brother Kumi
Nandini and her sons Ghanshyam and Kaka with her first grandchild Aditi in 1960.
Nandini with Iravati and her grandchildren, Devi’s children, Aditi and Aditya, around 1963.
Nandini with her grandchild, Ghanshyam’s daughter Maithili, around 1975.
Nandini shared a close relationship with her niece Radhika, who often stayed with her when her mother Pupul was away. She is now the director of Rishi Valley Education Centre.