Rajni Kumar, who arrived in India at the age of 23 with a “big tin suitcase” and went on to pioneer several progressive features in Indian school education, passed away at the age of 99 on Thursday.
She was best known as the founder of Springdales schools and was awarded the Padma Shri in 2011, among other honours and awards.
Rajni Kumar was born in London in 1923 and was named Nancie Joyce Margaret Jones. During her time as a student at the London School of Economics, she met Yudister Kumar, a student from Punjab, and fell in love.
In her memoir, Against the Wind: A Life’s Journey, she wrote, “No doubt the greatest event in my life was leaving England, the country of my birth, to follow the stirrings of my heart and to make my home in this wondrous and fascinating country — India — with the man I loved.”
Yudister had returned to India and joined the left-wing movement of the Indian freedom struggle. In 1946, she decided to follow him and arrived in Bombay. She recalled the “precious possessions” she carried with her in her journey in her memoir. “It contained my collection of Western classical music records, my books, photographs and clothes, and a pile of Yudister’s letters written to me after his return to India explaining every possible detail of Punjabi life and culture. Little did I know that a year later I would lose them all with the communal riots arising from the partition of India and the looting that took place alongside,” she wrote.
“Little did she know that she was going to be a teacher or that she was going to be a tall figure in education. She was busy tending to my father, who was ill with tuberculosis at that time,” said Jyoti Bose, Kumar’s daughter and Director Springdales Schools.
Her first foray into the field of education was when, at the age of 25, she was invited to run a school for children of the Indian Army in Kasauli. After this, she was the principal of Salwan girls school in Delhi for a few years until she started Springdales school in her flat in East Patel Nagar in 1955 with 24 children and 3 teachers.
“She was a pioneer in post-independence education, when private schools were mushrooming and government had a clamour for good schools. A lot of her ideas are ones put into practice by CBSE many years later. For example, the EWS scheme was made a part of the Right to Education Act in 2008, while she was admitting students from economically weaker sections in the 1970s. She was a pioneer in establishing ties with other nations, in founding the National Progressive Schools Conference, in the question of introducing community service in school education — things that are today commonplace in public education,” said Bose.
The school she founded grew and expanded into four schools – in Pusa Road, Dhaula Kuan, Jaipur and Dubai.
“She was far beyond her time. She came into the education field just after Partition when we had some standardised schools caught up in the colonial structure — they were either missionary schools or ‘indigenous’ schools. She brought in a completely new wave of learning. The whole idea was having holistic education with no exams, international connections, community development and so on. Foreign languages were taught — German, Russian, Spanish — as well as Hindi and Sanskrit, along with performing arts, indigenous culture, etc,” said Ameeta Wattal, former principal of Springdales School, Pusa Road.
“In 1978, she started the model of bringing in poor children and giving them uniform and clothes. When the RTE Act came into being in 2008, we were constantly used as a model for other schools on how to implement it. Because of the robust progressive programme in place, children whose parents were activists, researchers and scientists were rubbing shoulders with first generation learners,” she added.