Toy Maker

When Arvind Gupta first came to Pune in the late seventies, his first fascination was gliding. He would work third shifts at Telco, so that he could go for training in the mornings to the gliding club at Hadapsar. In fact he would take the bus from the company directly for Hadapsar. In 2 months he had already completed 33 flights. His instructor, Mr Tambe, was impressed by the diligence of this student, and gave him the opportunity to go solo on his 34th flight. Arvind went on to do another 40 more! Having started his career with an automobile company, one would expect that Arvind would have worked on his car driving skills before he took to air. But our left-leaning friend had decided to be be-kaar, preferring walking and public transport. At the age of 62, he decided that he needed to pick up one more skill – so he started learning car driving.

Arvind has been influenced by Anil Sadgopal and Professor Yashpal to take the jump into education. Most people did not fall in love with science because it was more theory and little practice. Any experiments that got done in school, were done mostly as demonstrations by teachers. When he went to rural India to work, he started looking around in village markets to find out low cost stuff for his science toys. The real inspiration was putting together the cycle valve tube and matchstick, which was the genesis of .In the beginning, Arvind got a contract from Doordarshan where he was paid a royal sum of Rupees 49 per day to make films based on these toys. The program was called Tarang. Even today he meets people in their 40s. who remember him because of Tarang.

Arvind ji believes that the best toy raw material is what comes from waste. He has a tie-up with the Amul parlor in Model Colony. He collects used tetrapaks from them, washes them and uses them for his projects. A decade ago, he had written a scathing article on tetrapaks – and how they were one of the causes in the Mumbai floods. One of the managers at Tetrapak read his article and came down to meet with him. He discussed the recycling projects that Tetrapak was involved in. There are times when the ink registrations on the packing don’t come on well – and hundreds of kilo of waste is generated as a result. This waste goes to a guy in Panvel, who makes partition board out of it. Tetrapak also donated 150 kg of this waste to Arvind ji. During our meet, Arvind ji demonstrated how one can cut upon a tetrapak and use it as a folding drinking glass. It can also be used as a measuring jar. Get our students to measure the length, breadth and height – and confirm that lbh is 200 ml. Cutting this tetrapak in half will give you another measuring jar – this time of volume 100 ml! Another favorite discard for him nowadays is the plastic mineral water bottle. Here again he has found a benefactor in the form of a hotel which hosts conferences. Most guests are given 100 ml bottles – and the empty bottles are delivered to Arvind ji’s place!

Yet sometimes you have to buy material for toy building. On such occasions he prefers that the material be cheap. One such material is magnets. He sells magnets to kids at 2 Rs. Having bought a few hundred of them for Rs. 5 each, I was curious as to how he sells at such rates. Gupta ji confessed that his Baniya genes help. He has found a wholesaler in Delhi – who imports it in bulk from China. He remembers the shop being so small – that there is no space for a customer to enter the shop even. Yet the guy does a turnover of 20 lakhs a day! Arvind ji has been buying magnets from this guy – and even at 2 Rs., he is not indulging in charity. He has a booty of 5000 magnets lying in IUCAA. I have offered to purchase them at his charity rate!

I shared with Arvind ji our Lucknow experiment, where instead of using matchsticks for the 3d models, we used the Kharata (broom) sticks. Arvind ji is an old hand at these things – and he immediately agreed on the material superiority. The other advantage being that you can have many lengths available. I had assumed that these brooms are made from bamboo. But was informed that they are actually made from fronds of the coconut tree! Idea – we usually throw such things into waste – we can get students to make these sticks ourselves.

Was happy to note that Arvind ji is as much a Darya Ganj fan as I am. It is just his volume of purchases that puts me to shame. His daughter, Dulari, who is now doing her DM from Madras Medical College, had 3000 books in her collection – and would read at an awesome rate of 250 pages a day. Arvind ji himself has more than 10,000 books. I have a long way to catch up! His recommendation for my watching – is a TED talk by Psi Sahlberg. Psi is the brains behind the Finland education experiments. He has written an interesting book on those experiments – which is not so easily available in India. Arvind ji has promised to share this book sometime with me. He has also promised to share 80+ books on education through Google Drive.

I asked him the history of his website, which is loaded with an awesome number of books. He shifted to Pune in 2003 at the invitation of IUCAA. He was featured in a 23 page article that year in the Diwali issue of Sakal – which has a readership of more than 500,000. 2 people came to meet him the next day – Ashok and Vidula – who said simply that they wanted to work with him. After chatting with them, he realized that they were as passionate about children and toys as he was, so he wanted to hire them for his team. (Salaries were an abysmal 7,000 per month – and Vidula was a Ph.D. Incidentally, she is now director of Garware Bal Bhawan at Saras Baug.) IUCAA, being a sarkaari organization would have nothing of it. They insisted that these two be interviewed by their ‘expert’ panel. They did – and found both of them the best candidates for the jobs – and fortunately for Arvind ji – they were hired. IUCAA was also the place where he found people who could help him develop his uploading skills. He still remembers one benefactor in 2003 – who helped create an account for him with – and get 100 MB of free storage space. Using IUCAA’s super high speed internet connection – the uploads started at a book a day. And they have continued at that pace ever since!

The thumb rules that he uses while making these films. His face or anyone’s face, for that matter is never shown. He believes ideas are more important than people. The films are always short, because short films make for more views. And at the end of the film, there will always be the face of a different child enjoying the toy. The policy is to ensure that everything is free. Today on his website, apart from the thousands of films, there are also 10,000 books which are available for free downloads. Nowadays Arvind spends a lot of his energy in translating books. He himself does English to Hindi translation. And he has volunteers from across the world to help translate books from English to local languages. He is always on the lookout for volunteers, and will be more than happy to accept volunteers from the readers of this post.

Arvind ji is a big fan of paid one-week internships before finalizing hiring. Arvind ji believes that the ratio of interns to offers should be about 8 : 1. Asking the person to work for a week tells you a lot about the person. He remembers an occasion where there was a dalit girl who did not do too well in an interview for a position at IUCAA. There were a total of 15 applicants. All were called the next day. They were shown a video about making a flexagon – and then were asked to make one. This girl was a head and shoulder above everybody else – when it came to working with her hands. If it were an interview alone, she would have been rejected – but she was selected because the additional time gave her opportunities to show her talents.

As a corollary, it would also give the candidates opportunities to reveal their true colors. For example, are they really team-players? How good are they at learning new things? How honest are they in their dealings with others? I remember asking my colleague this question when we were debating about a prospective business partner: ‘When we are visiting Lucknow next year for our partner’s meet, would it be Ok, if this guy was your room-partner?’ His answer was in the negative – and we decided not to work with this guy!

Another perspective of interviewing teachers comes from Krishna Kumar, the chairman of NCERT. He believes that teachers have to have interests. The task of the interviewer is to probe to find out if the interest is a genuine one. He believes that this interest would get transferred to her students – and it is important that it should happen. A teacher without any interests is not worth recruiting! My daughter asked Arvind ji that what is your interest – apart from toys. He mentioned trees. He would take his daughter around Pune university for hours and tell her what is interesting about trees. There are two baobab trees at Pune university – one is an ancient one opposite the main building. The second has been planted in the IUCAA campus by Arvind ji!

We ended with a discussion on how to enthuse teachers to switch to activity based learning. Arvind ji believes in the law of averages. In the barrenness of the fields of education, he thinks it his job is to spread fist fulls of mulch – through his books, toys and videos. There will always be some teachers who will lap it up – they could be in Botswana, Vietnam or Khed Shivapur. His recommendation for Peepal Tree was that we should get our teachers to first make toys themselves. Only then could we expect them to make their students work on the same. One insight into creativity that I got from him. Always start the day with good music. That’s what they used to do it during the IUCAA days. He believes he is not a good scientist, but a great documentor. Here’s wishing him a good long life, which can serve as an exemplary documentary for the rest of us.

You can access Arvind Gupta’s treasure trove of books and videos on


Arvind Gupta Visit, Sep 2018

Arvind ji was quite satisfied with the design of the building and the ventilation. He felt that we should have some play area equipment. His suggestion was to make things using old tyres. Arvind ji has authored a book on this – called very aptly  En-Tire-ly.

Another suggestion was that we use labels on objects in order for students to recognize the objects as sight words. He picked up this idea from Kabir Bajpayee’s BALA – the Building as a Learning Aid. Other ideas from BALA were to weigh objects and attach notes with the weights on them.

Door Protractor

Tyre Toy

Writing Window Grill

He was quite disappointed with our library. He felt that it is difficult to access books in the current arrangement. He asked us to come up with some frugal ways of arranging books so that they can be easily accessed. He suggested a hanging design. We also looked at a design which is akin to the light holders in our rooms. Finally, we are looking at a design where we have books all around the room perimeter. With Bulls Eye book cartons as the shelf. Another interesting idea he had to share was to have a raddi library, where we can have boxes where students can get in old discarded cartons, tetrapaks, caps, bottles etc – which can be used for toy making projects. These toys / craft projects can be hung on ropes inside the class. We are missing Arvind ji’s gift of magnets – which could have served as good hangers!

We started with a session for kids. We combined Sr KG, and 1-5 in a single class. He did 2/3 basic origami tricks with the kids. He had also got along square cut magazine papers for the kids to try their stuff on. We asked students to ask questions at the end. Most of the questions were related to his own background.

After that we moved on to a session with teachers. We had invited a few parents to also attend. There was a quorum of 20 parents and teachers. He started with a story – of Gijubhai Badheka. The point he drove home was that stories are very important in a class. His advice was that schools should not buy text books in class, but story books. Gijubhai’s kids would come the next day and enact the story that they had heard on the previous day. The classes were quite noisy and chaotic. In order to reduce the discomfort of other classes, the venue of the class was changed to the riverside. The outdoors is actually a museum of natural history! He ended with advice to teachers and parents to read Tottochan. He insisited that parents should read out one good story to kids every day. What they listen to today, they will want to read tomorrow. In preparation of that, parents should have a library of 50 books in their houses. The books can be cheap ones from National Book Press, or Darya Ganj! The idea of a school should be such that students should actually look forward to coming to school!

An interesting question a parent asked Arvind was what inspired you? His parents were uneducated. But on his mother’s side of the family he had uncles who were very well educated and did well in life. So she would push Arvind to aspire for higher. The family was not too well-off. So most of the toys used by the siblings were self-made.

Why did you leave Telco? There were a few people who were experimenting with science labs in Mumbai Municipal schools. One of them decided to take this experiment to rural schools – and started an experiment in Hoshangabad, MP. Arvind had heard about this – and took one year of leave from Telco to join as a teacher in this program. He never returned back.

Using patterns in math. He took a calendar and made grids of 2 × 2, 3 × 3 and 4 × 7. He pointed out that in a 3 by 3 grid the central number was the mean. You could find the sum of all numbers, just by multiplying the central number by 9. Gauss was once given the problem of adding up all the numbers from 1 to 100. He saw a pattern in the first and last, second and second last. They all added up to 101. Since there were 50 pairs, the answer is 5050!

When Arvind’s daughter was born, he decided that the only gift he wanted to give her was a happy childhood. He moved from Pune to Delhi for his daughter’s education. She went to Mirambika school in Delhi, where there were no exams, no HW. She enjoyed her stay there from grades 1-5, after which she shifted to Sardar Patel school. By the time she was in grade 3, she had a personal library of 3,000 books. She decided she wanted to major in English literature in her graduation. But CBSE ensured that it did not happen. In her grade 12 English she scored only 62, whereas in all other subjects her scores were in the nineties. She went on to do her medicine from CMC, Vellore.

On the return journey we dropped in at the Science Center at Pune University. We got a red carpet welcome as most of the team there knew Arvind ji. We were taken around – and I found two very interesting exhibits. One was a bicycle rim attached to a rope. The fun part was if you tilted the axis of the rim to make it horizontal and started rotating it, the axis remained in the horizontal plane even after you suspended it directly. Gyroscopic motion at work. Another very interesting magic was keeping a thick rubber sheet on a glass. There was a hook at the center made of wires. No matter how hard you tried you could not lift it using the central hook. However you could peel it off the side. I was told that this was because of the air pressure on the rubber sheet!

Arvind ji talked about Abhay Bang. Here are some experiements from an article he has translated from Dr Bang’s writings.

Every monsoon our school hosted a festival of saints. We would write essays, draw pictures, build murals and enact short plays depicting the inspiring events of the lives of saints.

There were a lot of gardens and fields near our school which boasted a vast variety of plant life. The best part was that our teachers regularly took us for field visits and excursions. On these outing we would closely observe plants. Our first introduction to any plant was by its common name so that we become “friends” with it. Later we observed their leaves, flowers and fruits more closely. In the end we would pluck fruits and berries and eat them.

For the seventh class exam our teacher asked us to prepare a scientific album (herbarium) of various leaves and flowers.

A new cowshed was then under construction. My teacher gave me the job of solving a specific practical problem. “Find the amount of water which a cow drinks in a day. How much water will be needed for all the cows in the cowshed? Then construct a water tank with the capacity to satiate the thirst of all the cows. Find out how many bricks will be required to construct such a tank? Then go and buy that number of bricks.” For over a week I grappled with this mathematical problem. There were numerous tanks with varying sizes. How to measure their volume? What was the relationship between the volume and the outer surface area of a tank? I actually constructed a water tank and in the process learnt a great deal of real life mathematics.

Our teachers taught us political science and general knowledge in a unique way. Every evening they would read us out important news items and interesting events from the newspapers. Later they would explain us the history and politics behind those events.

Chatted up with Arvind ji about the philosophy sessions that our students had attended. Have mailed him the Activity PDF that has got the P4C sessions in it. Introduced him to Padmanabh Kelkar the next day. Arvind talked of two philosophers that he finds interesting. The first is Alain De Botton, a young PhD philosophy from Cambridge. Through his books, Alain is trying to bring philosophy to the common man. An interesting quote from Alain: No University has a course for becoming a good human being. Here is a collection of his videos:

I watched his Ted Talk on religion for the atheist, he makes some very good points. Arvind recommends his Philosophy: A guide to Happiness lecture series. They are all available on the above mentioned site.

Arvind also talked about David horsburgh Neel Bagh School. Here is his note on Neelbag

David also had an interesting practice: Only philosophy sessions every Saturday in school.

Akshay is a disciple of Vivekananda. He feels that learning philosophy helps improve concentration. Interestingly, self awareness can help develop attitude. Philosophy sessions are done for grade 5 to 7. Students become self motivated and don’t need to go to tuition after that. Close ended questions can insult; but open ended don’t.

Another person Arvind mentioned was Anthony De Mello, an ex Jesuit priest who set up the Sadhana Ashram in Lonavala. Here are two books that he has written which  Anthony De Mello stories collected from various religious books and Kabir Doha’s. Arvind recommends:

Another interesting insight that Arvind shared about story telling was about Jeff Bezos. In Amazon PPTs are banned only stories to be told. Every executive has to prepare a 6 page document. It is assumed that people who come to the meeting have not read the document – so for the first 30 minutes all they do is just read. More on that over here”

We asked Arvind what the P4C movement can be in order to get more converts. He felt that the website is important for spreading the message. Arvind is a totally non-commercial person. He feels that in today’s world it is difficult for someone to starve. His website story begins in 2003, when he joined IUCAA. IUCAA invited groups of students to visit every week. This was their live lab. Arvind documentated all the experiments that these students were doing. You need to spend a lot of time documenting processes and putting them on the site. This was the time of dial-up internet, and he was thrilled to see that every room in IUCAA had broadband. Arvind was technogically an illiterate at that time. He asked one of his friends, a PhD from IIT Bombay, who was working with kids for science education, about how he could make his website. The friend helped him create one. And this helped Arvind start scanning and uploading books. A few years later the IUCAA science center had an intern from NID. He put up 4000 photographs of toys that Arvind ji had created – in the process of being formed. All this was then documented into short films that were uploaded on YouTube. His thumb rule is that no film more than 3 minutes. And none should show Arvind’s face.