News from Mitraniketan

Lifelong friend of Arthur Morgan, K. Viswanathan, better known as “Viswan,” died on April 28, 2014 at the age of 86.

His relationship with Arthur Morgan began in the early ’50’s when Viswan lived with Arthur and Lucy Morgan at their home in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Viswan identified three major influences in his life, Gandhi, Tagore, and Arthur Morgan. He and Morgan developed a close kinship during this time, which lasted until Morgan’s death in 1975.

Viswan is best known as the founder of Mitraniketan (1956), an educational and community development project in rural Kerala, South India. A follower of Gandhi, Viswan devoted his life to improving the quality of life through education and grass roots development in rural India.

In a period when educated Indians were generally leaving rural villages and migrating to the cities of India, Viswan chose to return to India and his rural home village of Vellanad. There he engaged in what became his lifelong work. Viswan’s family were farmers and his father was also a building contractor and his maternal grandfather an Ayurvedic physician. Viswan was intimately acquainted with the flora and fauna of the area.

Mitraniketan was a host to thousands of international visitors for whom it was a view into rural Indian life and an experience in a lifestyle with a very light environmental footprint. A number of Viswan’s ventures were supported by friends in Denmark, Japan, Holland, Germany and the U.S. attesting to his international outreach and connections.

As Louise Nielsen, a visitor from Denmark recounts, “while sipping a cup of black tea and eating a biscuit in his house, he said, “I have come to the end of my travels, but I am in touch with the world through all the people that visit us.” She writes:

“Sri Viswanathan is sitting comfortably in his usual chair in the small common area of his modest house. Here in 1956 in his native village Vellanad he founded the NGO Mitraniketan, which has been going strong ever since. It’s quiet. The monsoon rain stopped a while ago. Now only the music of crickets and the squeaking of squirrels occasionally fill the room. Next to his chair is the door to the rest of the house where he, his wife Sethu, their daughter and granddaughter live. Above the door frame hangs a wooden sign that says Peace with a dove on each side.

Community empowerment

After graduating from Viswabharati University in Calcutta in 1953, Viswan obtained scholarships to study Educational Development in the USA, UK and Denmark. As a member of the low-ranked Ezhava caste himself, his desire was to understand why people from lower castes would not attend school, even where they had the opportunity. This is no longer an issue today in Kerala as school attendance has become the norm, but the focus of Mitraniketan remains on the empowerment and development of poor rural communities. As well as running a successful elementary and high school and a vocational college, they carry out various adult education projects to improve living and working conditions and maintain strong communities. For example, seminars are held on the use of local products such as rubber, coconut fibre and tapioca (lovingly referred to as the common man’s food), so that locals are able to start up small businesses in Kerala, rather than seeking employment outside of the region.

Commitment to the local community is indeed a key aspect for the people working at Mitraniketan. Following complaints made by children about problems in their families, a project was launched a year ago to help fight alcoholism in tribal areas. In co-operation with a local Ashram in Vellanad, Viswan and his employees made home visits and conducted meetings in the tribal areas to begin rehabilitation for fathers fighting alcoholism. As a result, several have returned sober to their villages, ready to take up a life without alcohol. Without community there can be no life; man is not an isolated animal and he never should be. Small communities and teamwork are essential, in fact they are the only hope for humanity, is what Viswan believes.

Hand to mouth existence

Mitraniketan is a non-aided charity, meaning that they receive no financial support from the government as they wish to remain independent. “We are ready to associate with the government but not to let them interfere with our work or control us,” he explains to me. Thus Mitraniketan relies solely on permanent donations from private individuals and organisations. The largest financial support currently comes from organisations in the USA, Denmark and Germany. As with many other charities, lack of funds remains a constant challenge for Mitraniketan and Viswan is not fully satisfied with their current situation. As the charity cannot afford to maintain the teachers, they are often hired on a temporary basis which results in inconsistency in the pupils’ education.

The children who are admitted to the school mainly come from tribal settlements near Vellanad or from the area of Wayanad some 300 km away. Most of the children are from the tribal or scheduled caste, which is considered to be the lowest in India. They live at Mitraniketan from the age of 5 and onwards, meaning that they are only able to see their families for summer holidays and a few festivals, as the parents do not have the means to come and visit. A mere €190 (€15.80/month) covers food, accommodation, clothing, personal needs, study materials and healthcare for one child for one year. This is covered by sponsorship that Mitraniketan receives from external donors. 215 children currently attend the school and another 100 are on a waiting list to get in.

I wish I could do more

Since he founded Mitraniketan in 1956, Viswan has been blessed with support and help from his family and friends. Originally, many expected him to land a lucrative job in management and even thought him a “mad fellow” for choosing a humble life devoted to helping others. He never expected that his wife would get used to isolated rural life as she was born and raised in the urban surroundings of Trivandrum, but she quit her job as a government servant and joined his mission.

She became the school’s headmistress, and to this day Mitraniketan remains a family “business” with most of his children and in-laws being involved in the work here, and for that Viswanathan is eternally grateful.

As I sit with him and listen to his story, I am reminded again and again that I am in the presence of someone extraordinary. That Viswan’s belief in the power of community and in the importance of fellowship has led him to devote his entire life to helping other people. He speaks of all people, whether they are friends or strangers, with such fondness and gratitude that it becomes very clear to me what he sees as the most important aspect of life: friendship. My friends are my assets, I love friendships more than anything in my life, he tells me, and it is through my friendships that I have become what I am today. That is why he named this place Mitraniketan, “the abode of friends.” And as a volunteer here you definitely feel at home, thanks to the warm atmosphere that his kind and personable manner has created. There is one biscuit left and as I offer it to him, he gives me a mischievous smile as if to say that this is our secret, as we both know he shouldn’t take it because of his diabetes. This perfectly captures how although he has achieved so much selfless work in his life, he is also just an approachable man with a sweet tooth.”

Viswan’s roots were in rural India but his views transcended caste, class, religion, language, nationality, gender, and age. Viswan and Mitraniketan were awarded many forms of recognition and hosted many illustrious visitors from the Vice President of India to the Dali Lama.

Viswan is survived by his wife, Sethu, three daughters, and two sons-in-law. His daughters Asha and Beena and son-in-law Reghu Rama Das, have been critical to the current operation of Mitraniketan and carry on his vision today.

Memorial contributions may be sent to Community Solutions; please earmark them for Mitraniketan.