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The 'English' Legacy of Indian Public Schools

September 2008
The 'English' Legacy of Indian Public Schools

Isn’t English an Indian language? Not too long ago, this question would have provoked a heated response in India. It seems less likely now, although English is ‘Indian’ only in an adoptive sense. Seen increasingly as a global language of opportunity, its appeal is no longer restricted to the privileged classes. Between 2003 and 2006, enrollment in the upper primary section of English-medium schools in India rose by 4.04 million, according to a recent study. That may not appear impressive by Indian standards, but it represented a 74 percent growth. The following states, in descending order, saw the biggest rise during that period: Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. Over 60 percent of the enrollment in English-medium schools occurred in the southern states. And in northeastern India, more than 90 percent of students enroll in such schools.

One way English made inroads among the upper classes was through the ironically named ‘public’ schools, many of which were established in the colonial era. These privately owned boarding schools, often located in hill stations, have been called elitist, not without reason, but their wide impact is undeniable. Several movers and shakers attended such schools, as did some of India’s best-known writers. Though the British influence dominated (Lawrence School, for instance, was started after the Uprising of 1857), America’s reach was not absent. It was American missionaries, in fact, who established two of India’s finest boarding schools: Woodstock and Kodaikanal.

Founded in 1854, Woodstock School occupies 260 acres near Mussorie in the lower range of the Himalayas. It is “India’s oldest international school and the first U.S.-accredited school in Asia,” as per the World Wide Schools Directory. The Alter brothers (Tom is a Bollywood actor and Stephen an author) attended Woodstock when their father was the principal. Despite its emphasis on ‘Christian values,’ non-Christians have also been drawn to Woodstock, one example being Nehru’s niece, Nayantara Sahgal, who’s a novelist. The same could be said about Kodaikanal International School, located in the Palani Hills of Tamil Nadu. Established in 1901, it has the distinction of being India’s oldest co-educational school. Actors Zayed Khan and Firdous Bamji are among Kodi’s alumni.

The exclusive Doon School in Dehradun, on the other hand, has no religious affiliation. Notable Doscos, who would make a long list, include an Olympic gold medalist (Abhinav Bindra), a prime minister (the late Rajiv Gandhi), and at least one billionaire (Vijay Mallya). Writer Amitav Ghosh and sculptor Anish Kapoor are among the Doscos who live outside India. Now there are also a number of non-preppy international schools in India’s metros, catering mainly to the children of expats, NRIs, diplomats and well-off Indians.

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