Friday, 10 December 2021

Why kids should use their fingers in Math class

Evidence from brain science suggests that far from being “babyish,” the technique is essential for mathematical achievement.

A few weeks ago I (Jo Boaler) was working in my Stanford office when the silence of the room was interrupted by a phone call. A mother called me to report that her 5-year-old daughter had come home from school crying because her teacher had not allowed her to count on her fingers. This is not an isolated event—schools across the country regularly ban finger use in classrooms or communicate to students that they are babyish. This is despite a compelling and rather surprising branch of neuroscience that shows the importance of an area of our brain that “sees” fingers, well beyond the time and age that people use their fingers to count.


In a study published last year, the researchers Ilaria Berteletti and James R. Booth analyzed a specific region of our brain that is dedicated to the perception and representation of fingers known as the somatosensory finger area. 


Philippe Lissac / Godong / Corbis


Remarkably, brain researchers know that we “see” a representation of our fingers in our brains, even when we do not use fingers in a calculation. The researchers found that when 8-to-13-year-olds were given complex subtraction problems, the somatosensory finger area lit up, even though the students did not use their fingers. This finger-representation area was, according to their study, also engaged to a greater extent with more complex problems that involved higher numbers and more manipulation. Other researchers have found that the better students’ knowledge of their fingers was in the first grade, the higher they scored on number comparison and estimation in the second grade. Even university students’ finger perception predicted their calculation scores. (Researchers assess whether children have a good awareness of their fingers by touching the finger of a student—without the student seeing which finger is touched—and asking them to identify which finger it is.)


Evidence from both behavioral and neuroscience studies shows that when people receive training on ways to perceive and represent their own fingers, they get better at doing so, which leads to higher mathematics achievement. The tasks we have developed for use in schools and homes (see below) are based on the training programs researchers use to improve finger-perception quality. Researchers found that when 6-year-olds improved the quality of their finger representation, they improved in arithmetic knowledge, particularly skills such as counting and number ordering. In fact, the quality of the 6-year-old’s finger representation was a better predictor of future performance on math tests than their scores on tests of cognitive processing.


Many teachers have been led to believe that finger use is useless and something to be abandoned as quickly as possible.


Neuroscientists often debate why finger knowledge predicts math achievement, but they clearly agree on one thing: That knowledge is critical. As Brian Butterworth, a leading researcher in this area, has written, if students aren’t learning about numbers through thinking about their fingers, numbers “will never have a normal representation in the brain.”


One of the recommendations of the neuroscientists conducting these important studies is that schools focus on finger discrimination—not only on number counting via their fingers but also on helping students distinguish between those fingers. Still, schools typically pay little if any attention to finger discrimination, and to our knowledge, no published curriculum encourages this kind of mathematical work. Instead, thanks largely to school districts and the media, many teachers have been led to believe that finger use is useless and something to be abandoned as quickly as possible. Kumon, for example, an after-school tutoring program used by thousands of families in dozens of countries, tells parents that finger-counting is a “no no” and that those who see their children doing so should report them to the instructor.


Stopping students from using their fingers when they count could, according to the new brain research, be akin to halting their mathematical development. Fingers are probably one of our most useful visual aids, and the finger area of our brain is used well into adulthood. The need for and importance of finger perception could even be the reason that pianists, and other musicians, often display higher mathematical understanding than people who don’t learn a musical instrument.


Teachers should celebrate and encourage finger use among younger learners and enable learners of any age to strengthen this brain capacity through finger counting and use. They can do so by engaging students in a range of classroom and home activities, such as:


Give the students colored dots on their fingers and ask them to touch the corresponding piano keys:


youcubed.org


youcubed.org



Give the students colored dots on their fingers and ask them to follow the lines on increasingly difficult mazes:


(The full set of activities is given here.)


The finger research is part of a larger group of studies on cognition and the brain showing the importance of visual engagement with math. Our brains are made up of “distributed networks,” and when we handle knowledge, different areas of the brain communicate with each other. When we work on math, in particular, brain activity is distributed among many different networks, which include areas within the ventral and dorsal pathways, both of which are visual. Neuroimaging has shown that even when people work on a number calculation, such as 12 x 25, with symbolic digits (12 and 25) our mathematical thinking is grounded in visual processing.


A striking example of the importance of visual mathematics comes from a study showing that after four 15-minute sessions of playing a game with a number line, differences in knowledge between students from low-income backgrounds and those from middle-income backgrounds were eliminated.


Number-line representation of number quantity has been shown to be particularly important for the development of numerical knowledge, and students’ learning of number lines is believed to be a precursor of children’s academic success.


Visual math is powerful for all learners. A few years ago Howard Gardner proposed a theory of multiple intelligences, suggesting that people have different approaches to learning, such as those that are visual, kinesthetic, or logical. This idea helpfully expanded people’s thinking about intelligence and competence, but was often used in unfortunate ways in schools, leading to the labeling of students as particular type of learners who were then taught in different ways. But people who are not strong visual thinkers probably need visual thinking more than anyone. Everyone uses visual pathways when we work on math. The problem is it has been presented, for decades, as a subject of numbers and symbols, ignoring the potential of visual math for transforming students’ math experiences and developing important brain pathways.


It is hardly surprising that students so often feel that math is inaccessible and uninteresting when they are plunged into a world of abstraction and numbers in classrooms. Students are made to memorize math facts, and plough through worksheets of numbers, with few visual or creative representations of math, often because of policy directives and faulty curriculum guides. The Common Core standards for kindergarten through eighth grade pay more attention to visual work than many previous sets of learning benchmarks, but their high-school content commits teachers to numerical and abstract thinking. And where the Common Core does encourage visual work, it’s usually encouraged as a prelude to the development of abstract ideas rather than a tool for seeing and extending mathematical ideas and strengthening important brain networks.


To engage students in productive visual thinking, they should be asked, at regular intervals, how they see mathematical ideas, and to draw what they see. They can be given activities with visual questions and they can be asked to provide visual solutions to questions. When the youcubed team (a center at Stanford) created a free set of visual and open mathematics lessons for grades three through nine last summer, which invited students to appreciate the beauty in mathematics, they were downloaded 250,000 times by teachers and used in every state across the U.S. Ninety-eight percent of teachers said they would like more of the activities, and 89 percent of students reported that the visual activities enhanced their learning of mathematics. Meanwhile, 94 percent of students said they had learned to “keep going even when work is hard and I make mistakes.” Such activities not only offer deep engagement, new understandings, and visual-brain activity, but they show students that mathematics can be an open and beautiful subject, rather than a fixed, closed, and impenetrable subject.


Some scholars note that it will be those who have developed visual thinking who will be “at the top of the class” in the world’s new high-tech workplace that increasingly draws upon visualization technologies and techniques, in business, technology, art, and science. Work on mathematics draws from different areas of the brain and students need to be strong with visuals, numbers, symbols and words—but schools are not encouraging this broad development in mathematics now. This is not because of a lack of research knowledge on the best ways to teach and learn mathematics, it is because that knowledge has not been communicated in accessible forms to teachers. Research on the brain is often among the most impenetrable for a lay audience but the knowledge that is being produced by neuroscientists, if communicated well, may be the spark that finally ignites productive change in mathematics classrooms and homes across the country.


(Source: The Atlantic)

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Why child care is so ridiculously expensive

Three broad reasons obtaining care for kids now costs as much as buying a brand new Hyundai Elantra each year

One side effect of “the end of babies”—or, less dramatically, the steady decline in fertility rates around the world—is that today’s parents spend more time and money on the few kids they do have.


In the United States, per-child spending doubled from the 1970s to the 2000s, according to a 2013 paper by Sabino Kornich of the University of Sydney and Frank Furstenberg of the University of Pennsylvania. Parents spent more on education, toys, and games. But nothing grew faster than per-child spending on child care, which increased by a factor of 21—or approximately 2,000 percent—in those 40 years.


Although wrapping your head around 2,000 percent growth might be difficult, the underlying cause isn’t so mysterious. As more women entered the labor force in the late 20th century, the work of caring for infants moved from the unpaid world of stay-at-home parents to the world of salaried labor. The 1970s and ’80s—the two decades when the female labor participation rate grew the fastest—also saw the greatest acceleration in child-care spending, according to Kornich and Furstenberg. Raising young children is work—and it always has been work—but the rise of dual-earner households has forced more families to recognize this work with their wallets.


But child-care spending is unlike other spending. By some measures, it’s getting more expensive faster than almost every other consumer good or service that the government tracks. The Census Bureau has found that child-care expenditures rose more than 40 percent from 1990 to 2011, during a period when middle-class wages stagnated. Since the 1990s, child-care costs have grown twice as fast as overall inflation. In California, the cost of a typical day-care center is now equal to almost half of the median income of a single mother.


Paul Spella / The Atlantic


Pick whatever source and statistic you like, because they all point to the same conclusion: Child care in America has become ludicrously expensive. The average cost of a full-time child-care program in the U.S. is now $16,000 a year—and more, in some states, than tuition at a flagship university.


What the hell is going on? And what should we do about it?


There are three broad reasons American child care now costs the same as buying a brand new Hyundai Elantra every year.


First, although child-care workers aren’t expensive on an hourly basis—their median hourly wage is less than that of non-farm-animal caretakers and janitors—labor is the biggest line item for child-care facilities. Unlike, say, car companies, they can’t cut spending by moving labor to poorer countries or by replacing human workers with machines. Like health care and education, child care requires lots of domestic salaries, which means that its costs will continuously rise faster than overall inflation.


The industry is highly regulated, perhaps reasonably so, given the vulnerability of the clientele—which is the second key driver of child-care costs. As Jordan Weissmann has reported in The Atlantic, states with strict labor laws tend to have the most expensive facilities. In Massachusetts, which requires one caregiver for every three infants, the average annual cost is more than $16,000. In Mississippi, which allows a one-to-five ratio, the cost is less than $5,000. Thanks to high turnover rates—a result of those low wages—companies have to constantly train new workers to meet regulatory standards. Other costs include insurance to cover damage to the property and worker injuries, as well as legal fees to deal with inevitable parent lawsuits.


Finally, there’s the real estate. The most expensive child-care facilities tend to be situated near high-income neighborhoods or in commercial districts, where the rents are high. And they can’t downsize in a pinch, because most states require them to have ample square footage for each kid.


The state of American child care might be defensible if it were expensive and high-quality—or if it were crummy but cheap.


Instead, the U.S. has the worst of both worlds: Cadillac prices for an Edsel product. The typical family paying for any child care spends about 10 percent of their income on it, far more than in most similarly rich countries. But American day care is a shambles. “The overall quality is wildly uneven and barely monitored, and at the lower end, it’s Dickensian,” the health-care writer Jonathan Cohn wrote in 2013. A 2007 review by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that only one in 10 facilities offered “high-quality” care.


As the need for day-care options becomes more severe, some private employers, such as Patagonia, Apple, and Google, are stepping in to offer day-care centers for employees or to pay for “backup child care” if an employee’s first option falls through. New early-childhood startups such as Vivvi offer employer-sponsored child care. And Wonderschool, an Airbnb for daycare,” helps neighborhoods launch child-care centers in peoples’ homes.


While it’s admirable for companies to fill the day-care vacuum, the absence of a national solution is an indictment of American policy. Neuroscientists and psychologists have established that the first five years of a child’s life are crucial for the development of logic and language skills. Early education has profound effects on both these cognitive skills and “noncognitive” skills, such as grit, teamwork, and emotional health. But these academic findings haven’t translated to policy, at least not in the U.S. Several European nations, such as France and Denmark, spend three to five times more than America on their young children’s care and education.


There is a deep disconnect in the way the U.S. conceives of its obligation to children. Most Americans accept—even demand—the public subsidy of education from the moment kids turn 5 and enter kindergarten to the day they graduate from a state university or community college. But from birth to the fifth birthday, children are on their own—or, more precisely, their parents are. This arrangement is plainly weird: Parents must bear the highest burdens of child-rearing when they are younger, typically poorer, and less established in their career.


In the politics-and-policy world, some are starting to argue that the U.S. desperately needs a comprehensive, research-based approach to caring for young Americans before they turn 5—a First Five Years policy. For example, the People’s Policy Project, a left-wing think tank, has proposed a bundle of early-childhood policies that includes free health care, a child allowance of $300 a month, and a free spot in a public child-care center. (Parents could also receive a direct home-child-care benefit, if they preferred.) Several Democratic presidential candidates have also embraced elements of a First Five Years policy. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, has proposed to spend nearly $2 trillion on a national child-care system.


One simple reason Washington should play a bigger role in child care is that the benefits of early-childhood care and education are so large—and accrue over such a long period of time—that the only institution big enough to capture the upside is the federal government. In 2015, the Council of Economic Advisers wrote that every $1 spent on early-childhood education results in roughly $8.60 of societal benefits, “about half of which comes from increased earnings for children when they grow up.” Similarly, a 2019 Harvard study of dozens of U.S. policies concluded that “direct investments in low-income children’s health and education” have historically had the biggest bang per buck.


There are two broad criticisms of federally sponsored child care. The cultural critique is that by stepping in to play the role of mom and dad, the state would weaken bonds between parents and their children. The rejoinder here is easy: America’s infants are already suffering the effects of insufficient care. Most of the achievement gap between black and white American students is in place by kindergarten. Meanwhile, dozens of studies of preschool programs since the 1960s have shown that early-childhood education can slash the black-white kindergarten achievement gap in half.


The more policy-focused critique is that establishing a national system to carefully watch nearly 10 million tots under the age of 5 would be a logistical hellscape. How would federal, state, and local governments hire millions of caretakers in an economy with 3.5 percent unemployment? Where would they live? “Increased immigration,” you might answer, “and in new affordable housing.” But building a high-quality national caretaking workforce will take years, and shoddy national day care might be worse than the alternative.


An analysis of Quebec’s effort to expand access to cheap child care, for example, found mixed results. Its programs succeeded in raising the labor-force participation rate of mothers without breaking the bank for taxpayers. But young Canadians who were eligible for the program experienced, as teenagers, “a significant worsening in self-reported health and in life satisfaction” relative to Canadians from other provinces. So, did the Quebec child-care experiment “work”? Yes, for parents and public financing. Perhaps not for the kids.


Despite these challenges, the case for an expanded role in federal child care is strong. Spending on young children is more like infrastructure than Social Security. It’s not just a check or a transfer motivated by mere decency, but rather a savvy investment that returns its cost in the form of taxes and social benefits. The deep irony of the high cost of U.S. child care is that the very thing that is bankrupting parents today should represent, to the federal government, a grand-slam investment in the country’s future. Can U.S. families afford to adequately care for their own children? is a great question. But there’s an even better one: Can the U.S. afford not to? 


(Source: The Atlantic)

Monday, 6 December 2021

Young lovers separated by parents finally reunite after 35 years

The love story of Jayamma and Chikkanna is no longer confined inside the walls of the Devaramuddanahalli village in Karnataka’s Hassan district.

According to reports, when they were young in love, their parents did not agree to their union hence they were separated. From growing up together to falling in love, Chikkanna and Jayamma had too close to forget about each other. Even though both the families knew each other well, Jayamma’s parents did not let her marry Chikkanna as he worked as a labourer. She was married off to someone else in the same village.



Jayamma Chikkanna Love Story

Being heartbroken, Chikkanna left the village and moved to another village called Metagalli near Mysore and continued to earn a living as a labourer. He chose to never marry anyone else. Jayamma and Chikkanna did not see each other after Chikkanna left the village but he used to enquire about her whereabouts from mutual friends and relatives. As per reports, Jayamma too was unhappy in her marriage. She had given birth to a son and continued to stay with her husband. Her husband reportedly left her and the house. After that Jayamma went to Mysore to live with her son. That is when Chikkanna got in touch with her.


Speaking to the media, Chikkana said, “She was always in my thoughts. For whatever reasons we couldn’t unite then, we decided to start our lives together until the end. At least in our final years, we can be with each other just like how we used to dream once.” The news of their wedding has gone viral now.


As per the report, Jayamma’s 25-year-old son was unaware of the wedding at first as the couple wanted to keep their relationship hidden till Jayamma’s son got married but the news travelled and reached everyone.


(Source: She the People TV)

Sunday, 5 December 2021

I was adopted, I know the trauma it can inflict

On Wednesday, as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments from state attorneys seeking to uphold Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, Justice Amy Coney Barrett kept getting at one question: Why was abortion necessary, when women who do not want to be mothers can simply give their babies up for adoption?

As an adoptee myself, I was floored by Justice Barrett’s assumption that adoption is an accessible and desirable alternative for women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant. She may not realize it, but what she is suggesting is that women don’t need access to abortion because they can simply go do a thing that is infinitely more difficult, expensive, dangerous and potentially traumatic than terminating a pregnancy during its early stages.


As an adoptive mother herself, Justice Barrett should have some inkling of the complexities of adoption and the toll it can inflict on children, as well as birth mothers. But she speaks as if adoption is some kind of idyllic fairy tale. My own adoption actually was what many would consider idyllic. I was raised by two adoptive parents, Alice and Terry, from the time I was an infant, and grew up in a home where I knew every day that I was loved. A few years ago, I found my biological mother, Maria, and three siblings I didn’t know I had via a DNA test and Facebook.


The first time I spoke to Maria on the phone — she lives in Alabama, not too far from my parents, and I live in Brooklyn — she apologized repeatedly for giving me up and told me she loved me and that I would always be family. “You are blood,” she would say later. I told her, and continue to tell her, every time she brings it up, that the apology is unnecessary. I had a wonderful childhood and I believe she had made the right decision. But she remains heartbroken about the years we missed together.


Damon Winter/The New York Times


Both Maria and my mom, Alice, oppose abortion on religious grounds. My mom is white and Southern Baptist; Maria is Hispanic and Pentecostal. Both like to point to me to justify their beliefs, saying that had Maria gotten an abortion, I would not exist. It’s a familiar argument: The anti-abortion movement likes to invoke Nobel Prize winners who might never have materialized, or potential adoptees who might have cured cancer, if they hadn’t been aborted at eight weeks.


I’m no Nobel Prize winner, but I still resent being used as a political football by the right. I believe that abortion is a form of health care, and that every woman should have access to it if she needs it. But perhaps more than that, I resent the suggestion by people like Justice Barrett that adoption is a simple solution, and I resent it on behalf of Maria, who found the choice she made traumatizing and still feels that pain, 44 years later. Even when an adoption works out well, as it did in my case, it is still fraught.


When I echo Maria in saying that she “gave me up,” the language always rankles adoptive parents, because it introduces an unpleasant complexity — implying that my birth mother was not completely happy with her choice. Or worse, that it made her miserable. But that is sometimes the case, even when adoption is the best option for all involved. Adoption is not always an unalloyed good. It’s a complicated choice in a situation that has no right or wrong answer.


If the court overturns Roe v. Wade, many women will be forced to give birth to children they did not want or did not feel that they could afford to support. While pregnant, they will undergo the bonding with a child that happens by biological design as an embryo develops into a living, breathing, conscious human. And then that child will be taken away.


The right likes to suggest that abortion is a traumatic experience for women — a last resort, a painful memory. But adoption is often just as traumatic as the right thinks abortion is, if not more so, as a woman has to relinquish not a lump of cells but a fully formed baby she has lived with for nine months.


I’m a mother myself, to an adorable 6-year-old self-proclaimed Fortnite expert, and as is often the case, I did not know I was pregnant with him until the usual symptoms appeared a few weeks into the pregnancy. As anyone who has gestated a human will tell you, there is a vast difference between the fourth week of pregnancy and the 40th. By the 40th, you’re familiar with your baby’s regular rhythms of kicking and moving. When I awoke, my son would wake up shortly after and I’d feel him turning and stretching, or less pleasantly, jamming his precious little foot into what felt like my cervix. This is one of the paradoxes of pregnancy: Something alien is usurping your body and sapping you of nutrition and energy, but you’re programmed to gleefully enable it and you become desperately protective of it. It’s a kind of biological brainwashing. And this often happens whether you want to be a parent or not.


Justice Barrett is well aware of the kind of biological brainwashing that occurs during pregnancy; she gave birth to five children. And yet she blithely seems to assume that a mother can simply choose not to bond with the child she’s gestating solely on the basis that she is not ready to be a mother or believes that she is unable to provide for the child. She assumes that the mother will be supported financially and otherwise, throughout the pregnancy, even in a country where maternal mortality statistics are abysmal. And she assumes that children surrendered for adoption will find a home, and not a bed in the foster care system. She probably assumes these things because she cannot fathom being in this position herself. These are assumptions that stem from the privilege of being financially secure, having never needed an abortion, and perhaps the assumption that women who do have done something wrong and must face the consequences.


In my experience, some on the right believe that the trauma adoption inflicts is a consequence of irresponsibility. But unexpected pregnancy is not a de facto function of bad decision making. It can be a failure of contraception, the product of a rape, a mistaken belief that a woman is infertile. There is no justifiable reason to inflict harm on women and the babies they might produce in any of these situations, regardless of judgment.


The trauma doesn’t just affect mothers, either. Researchers have a term for what children who are adopted, even as infants, may suffer from later in life: relinquishment trauma. The premise is that babies bond with their mothers in utero and become familiar with their behaviors. When their first caretaker is not the biological mother, they register the difference and the stress of it has lasting effects.


I probably got off easy in that respect, in part because I did spend a few months with my biological mother before I was adopted, but that had the unintended effect of traumatizing my older siblings, who remember me as a baby who was there, and then suddenly was gone. This was driven home to me by my older sister Bobbi, whose first encounter with me was over Facebook. “All I can say is I remember you,” she wrote. “I have loved you and missed you my entire life.”


What Justice Barrett and others are suggesting women do in lieu of abortion is not a small thing. It is life changing, irrevocable, and not to be taken lightly. It often causes trauma, even when things work out, and it’s a disservice to adoptees and their families, biological and adopted, to pretend otherwise in service of a neat political narrative.


(Source: NYT)

Friday, 26 November 2021

The legend of the Indian prince who is the forefather of all Cambodians

 The love story of prince Preah Thong and Naga princess Neang Neak is intrinsic to Cambodian culture, passed on to every child at a young age.

One of the most beautiful theatrical spectacles that a person can witness in Asia is the Preah Thong Boung Soung, a rendition of the story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak that is performed by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. With elaborate costumes, gentle music and exquisite dance, the opera depicts the story that every single child in Cambodia is told at a very young age – the saga of an Indian prince and a serpent (Naga) woman who are the ancestors of all Khmer people.


Like the Indian epic Ramayana, there are several versions of the story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak. One of the most popular versions goes like this: Thousands of years ago, Cambodia was a small island called Kouk Thlouk, meaning the land of the Thlouk tree, a Cambodian species of Chrysobalanaceae. The island belonged to the Nagas (serpents) who lived in the ocean. One day, Naga princess Soma and her subjects transformed themselves into beautiful women and came to the island. The same night, an Indian prince named Kaundinya sailed with his followers to the island. The prince saw the Naga princess dancing in the moonlight and fell madly in love with her and asked her to marry him. She agreed under the condition that the Naga king, her father, approve of the marriage.


Representational image. The story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak is performed often by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. | David Van Der Veen/AFP



Since the Naga palace was in the depths of the ocean, Kaundinya had to ride there by carrying Soma’s tail. The king found the Indian prince to be a suitable match and agreed to let his daughter marry him. After their wedding, the Naga king expanded the island by reclaiming more land from the ocean. This territory was then ruled by the Kaundinya and Soma, who were given the Khmer names Preah Thong and Neang Neak respectively. The Cambodians, or Khmers, consider themselves the descendants of the pair.


“The description of the land as an ‘island’ is linked with the idea that all of the country was formerly underwater,” German scholar Rüdiger Gaudes wrote in a paper titled ‘Kaundinya, Preah Thong and the Nagi Soma: Some aspects of a Cambodian legend’. “Determining the geographical location of Koul Thlouk is impossible, particularly since it is said to be situated near the Dangrek Mountains, near the town of Siem Reap (where, indeed the classical metropolis of Angkor Thom was located), or far to the south of Angkor Borei – its supposed location evidently depending upon the place of origin of the respective narrator.”


Scholars widely agree that the notion that ancient Cambodia was an island was because of the widespread floods that the country has been witness to for thousands of years.


Another version of the story says Kaundinya waged a war with Soma, while another claims he killed the Naga king who refused to allow his daughter to marry a human. One thing that is common between these and almost all versions of the story is the part about the Indian prince carrying the tail of his future wife to the depths of the ocean. It is such a part of the Cambodian ethos that it has been incorporated into Cambodian wedding rituals: while entering the honeymoon room, a Cambodian groom is required to carry the end of the long train of the bride’s dress. This gesture and the story behind it indicate that the woman is the head of the family. Cambodians consider Neang Neak as their matriarch.


Elements Of Truth?

Like many epics and legends of Asia, the story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak may have an element of truth. Chinese historical texts mention the Kingdom of Funan, a loose network of Indianised states in the 3rd century CE. Funan is probably a Chinese variant of the Khmer word Vnum, which means mountain. The state’s ancient capital Vyadhapura did not survive the ravages of time.


In his book Account of Foreign Countries at the Time of Wu, 3rd century Chinese traveller Kai Tang documented the existence of Funan and Vyadhapura. He mentioned that the script of the kingdom was similar to what he called the Indian script. Kai Tang wrote about Kaundinya in his book, while talking about the origin of Funan. The Chinese name for the Indian prince was Hun Tian.


German historian and Indologist Hermann Kulke was the first to suggest that the Indian king was a Brahmin and that Kaundinya was actually the name of his gotra. In his book The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History, Sanjeev Sanyal added that Kaundinya probably was from northern Andhra Pradesh or southern Odisha.


Tenth century Chinese encyclopaedia Tai Ping Lu Yuan says Kaundinya (Hun Tian) was a devotee of a Hindu god and dreamt of his god giving him a divine bow and asking him to take to sea in a vessel. The Chinese text that was translated by historian and academician Ramesh Chandra Majumdar said Kaundinya went to a temple of his god and found a bow the morning after the dream. “Then he embarked on a trading vessel, and the god changed the course of the wind in such a manner that he came to Funan,” the Chinese encyclopaedia said. “Liu Ye (Soma) came in a boat to plunder the vessel. Hun Tian raised his bow and shot an arrow, which pierced through the queen’s boat from one side to the other. The queen was overtaken by fear and submitted to him. Thereupon Hun Tian ruled over the country.”



The marriage of Kaundinya and Soma is mentioned in several ancient Chinese texts as well.

“These accounts undoubtedly reflect historical events from the 1st Century AD (that is two hundred or more years before Kang Tai’s visit) relating to the process of Indianisation: the influx of Indian religion, folklore, political and legal theories and other cultural elements brought by Indians into Southeast Asia in connection with social changes and the formation of states there,” Gaudes wrote.


Cultural Linkages

After Cambodia broke free of colonial rule, Cambodian stateman Norodom Sihanouk, who was first king then prime minister of the country, made it a priority to popularise the story around the world. Under the patronage of Sihanouk’s wife Norodom Monineath, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia performed the opera in several countries.


The ballet has since become an international symbol of the country and the dance depicting the story has been inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list. It even survived the murderous and genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, which wanted to ban the story and ballet.


Sihanouk also developed a strong personal friendship with Jawaharlal Nehru, who he considered his mentor. During a 12-day visit to India in 1955, the Cambodian statesman spoke of both the influence of Sanskrit on the Khmer language as well as link the story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak created between the countries. “We [India and Cambodia] are cousins,” he said during the visit. “Khmer civilisation is the child of India’s civilisation, and we are proud of it.”


This story and dance, which are a powerful and important cultural link, can be the basis of strengthening India’s relationship with the most Indic of South East Asian countries. In a post-pandemic world, audiences in Indian cities would welcome the performance by Cambodian dancers of the story that shows the love between an ancient Indian prince and his Naga princess.


(Source: Scroll)

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Why are we still uncomfortable with the idea of widows finding joy and meaning in life?

I was around eight-nine years old, when my grandfather’s sister arrived from Mangalore. She towered over me, despite her stoop, her grey-blue eyes resting kindly on my face, her knobbly fingers stroking my cheeks. There was something different about this figure clad in a rough muddy red nine-yard sari and a white blouse, with elbow-length sleeves and buttons that reached her throat. I noticed her bare arms, neck and ears, which was unlike the other women in our house, whose ears flashed diamond earrings, whose necks were adorned with a mangalsutra and whose wrists made music as the gold bangles they wore clinked together. It was when the sari pallu covering her head slid down her neck that I noticed her shaven head. I remember gasping almost audibly, though she was quick to pull it back over her head.

Never having seen a woman with a shaved head before, my spontaneous reaction was to ask my mother why grandma wore her hair so short, only to be shushed into silence. Mother’s eyes conveyed that I was never to speak about it again. I must have appeared rude to the grandma, as I watched her from the corner of my eyes wondering why she wore the same muddy red sari and white blouse every day, till I saw one set spread out on the clothesline and another on her body, and realised that it was her ‘uniform’. It was when an older friend who had came home to play with me remarked, ‘Oh, your grandmother is a vikesha, just like my Sumati Ajji, who lives in our village,’ did I realise that there were other women like her. Varsha told me that vikeshas were women without hair; whose heads were shaved when their husbands died. ‘My Ajji too wears the same sari,’ she said. I remember snuggling up to grandma several times a day, wanting to hug her, an inexplicable sadness enveloping me.




My mother was widowed at 23, and I had heard how, when some relatives had approached her to remove her mangalsutra and wipe her forehead, a beloved, firebrand elderly relative, ‘Ba’ to the young and old, had stepped forward like a warrior, her hands on her hips, daring anyone to do that. She was a rebel, way ahead of the times, and sensitive enough to stop the cruel practice. When I was older, mother told me how Ba had commanded, ‘Go, take a bath and leave the rest to me.’ When mother had come out of the shower, Ba had dried her hair, braided it, and adorned it with a fragrant mogra gajra, applied a red kumkum tikka on her forehead and insisted that she wear a printed floral sari. Such was Ba’s vehemence that none dared to oppose her diktat. Mother had the support of her parents too, who encouraged her gently to complete her graduation, appear for qualifying exams and take up a job in a bank.


Not all women are so fortunate. I remember a widow shrinking back, as I applied haldi kumkum on her forehead, as I did, to the other women accompanying her, and then being admonished for my ‘blunder’. From that day onwards, I stopped following the custom that is followed in some homes, of applying haldi-kumkum (reserved only for a sumangali– a married woman whose husband is still living) while taking leave of women guests. I did not want to be party to this discrimination. I also stopped conducting the haldi-kumkum ceremony to which only sumangalis are invited. Blindly following prescribed customs that blatantly marginalised a few revolted me, and I realised that being vigilant, questioning and taking concrete steps, however small, were fairly effective forms of protest.


When I got married, mother refused to ‘give me away’. Despite the liberalism she was exposed to, her mind was so conditioned that as a widow she was unlucky, her fears made her resolute. My cajoling had no effect on her. The family opined that it was her comfort that mattered. One of my regrets is not knowing her mind before the ceremony, for had I the slightest inkling, I would have opted for a registered marriage. I have seen several other widows in the family shrinking away from performing religious rites. Nobody seems to mind, so deep-rooted is its acceptance.


A few things have certainly changed. Widow remarriage is no longer as taboo as it was. Education and financial independence have ensured that widows do not have to toe the line of regressive customs, at least in urban areas, though I say this more out of observation than any statistics at hand. We still hear stories of unwanted attention and ill-treatment at the hands of family members. Though we have come a long way from the horrendous practice of Sati, we need greater humanitarian strides if we are to speak of the true empowerment of widows. The plight of the widows of Vrindavan, driven out of their rightful homes, and living in penury and loneliness, comes to my mind, as also that of widows around the world who are ostracised or branded as witches.


It’s time we acknowledged that a bereaved woman going through the emotionally wrenching event of losing her life partner does not need a misogynist code of social conduct that disarms her. All she needs is a way forward to lead a highly meaningful and joyous new life.


(Source: She The People TV)

Tuesday, 23 November 2021

I looked closely at two famous portraits of Tipu Sultan – and found that one isn’t actually of him

 A history enthusiast goes beyond the captions at the museum at the 18th-century ruler’s summer palace in Srirangapatna.

Visitors to the museum run by the Archaeological Survey of India in Tipu Sultan’s summer palace in Srirangapatna, near Mysore, have the opportunity of inspecting two painted portraits of the 18th-century ruler himself.


The one by GF Cherry is the popular portrait of Tipu Sultan. Since the late 18th century, it has appeared in a variety of books, magazines, journals and newspapers articles about him.


Two portraits at Tipu Sultan's summer palace that are said to be of him. | Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons



The other is a full-length portrait and has been attributed by the museum to the German artist Johan Zoffany. Here, the direct gaze of the subject falls on the visualiser in contrast to the depiction of the subject’s profile in Cherry’s painting.


Especially since the advent of the internet and social media, this painting has increasingly been appropriated into Tipu Sultan’s life story: it has appeared both online and in print as a definitive portrait of Tipu Sultan in his younger days.

The noted Tipu Sultan historian Kate Brittlebank has even incorporated this painting on the cover page of her biography, Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan.


I had been long fascinated with this portrait of Tipu Sultan both on account of my interest in the ruler’s history as well as my hobby as an artist who experiments in paint as well as pencil. The striking contrast between the tawny and near-corpulent Tipu Sultan in the Cherry painting and the slim Tipu Sultan in the Zoffany painting intrigued me. But I brushed it off as Tipu Sultan gaining in weight with the passage of years.


GF Cherry, who painted the first portrait, was the Persian secretary to Governor General of India, Lord Cornwallis at Srirangapatna. Anne Buddle, a noted historian mentions that a similar portrait by the same artist was presented by Lord Cornwallis in 1792 to Tipu Sultan’s mother. This work, after being passed on to Tipu Sultan’s youngest son Prince Gholam Mohammad, was gifted by him to the East India Company and is now in the British Library, London.


This portrait can be considered an authentic representation of Tipu Sultan on account of it being painted in the lifetime of Tipu Sultan and once, having been in the possession of both his mother and his son.


This image of Tipu Sultan is also congruent with the description of Major Allan, who was present on the spot when Tipu Sultan’s lifeless body was discovered in an archway, and mentions the ruler as having a “…short thick neck, small arched eyebrows, tawny complexion, (with) moustache and clean-shaven chin. He was inclined to ‘corpulency’.”


Portrait of Tipu Sultan, attributed by Dariya Daulat Museum to Johan Zoffany, 1780.



The second painting also wandered a little before it came to the Dariya Daulat Bagh Museum. Writes the British historian and author Denys Forrest:


“…. a full-length which, according to the Descriptive List (above), was presented to the Government of India by Sir P. C. Tagore in 1934 and hung in the corridor to the State Dining Room at Viceroy’s House. This picture was then attributed to Zoffany, but I have been unable to obtain any further details of it.”


It’s clear that the painting was already attributed to Zoffany before its arrival at the museum in Srirangapatna.


However, when I delved deeper into art history, I realized that Zoffany’s style of painting was very different from this painting of Tipu Sultan attributed to him. Renowned art historian Mildred Archer had this to say about him: “Zoffany found it difficult to suppress his interest in bounding movement and love of histrionic gesture.”


That is evident from Zoffany’s “The Impey Family listening to strolling musicians” (1783-’84), “Warren Hastings with his wife” (1783-’87), “Col. Mordaunt’s Cock Match” (1784-’86). But the painting of Tipu Sultan has the subject standing idly looking ahead without any semblance of movement whatsoever, something quite different from the regular works of art attributed to the artist.


Portrait of Tipu Sultan, attributed to GF Cherry; British Museum, London, and Dariya Daulat Bagh, Srirangapatna. Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons



Besides this oddity, Zoffany is known to have visited Calcutta, Lucknow and Delhi but neither Mysore nor Srirangapatna during his travels in the subcontinent.


It was during this research on this painting and European art history in India that I also started to look at paintings by another artist Tilly Kettle (d.1786) who was in India between 1769 and 1776. While explaining Kettle’s paintings, Pauline Rohatgi and Graham Parlett write, “Kettle usually portrayed his sitters, their serious expressions largely devoid of emotion, against a plain or simple background.”


Kettle usually painted full-length portraits of his sitters having a direct gaze, with distinct elements like, the direction of the light source and shadows, stance of the foot and bearing of the sword.


This distinctive style is evident in paintings by Kettle such as “An Army Officer, Madras” (1770), “Mohammed Ali Khan, Nawab of Arcot” (1770), “Shuja-ud-Daula” (1772) and “An officer in the 2nd Bengal Infantry Brigade”, Calcutta (1772).


Emperor Shah Alam reviewing the 3rd brigade of the East India Company’s troops at Allahabad by Tilly Kettle (c. 1781).



This style is also noticeable in the Dariya Daulat painting. Besides, Kettle incorporated backdrops featuring part of a building or vegetation, often palm trees like the one observed in the background of the Dariya Daulat Bagh portrait.

This is in contrast with Zoffany’s style, with subjects showing marked expression, conversation pieces, and paintings often with varied complex backdrops and at times incorporating detailed paintings in display, while painting indoor scenes.


Tilly Kettle is also not documented as having visited Mysore or Srirangapatna during his time in India.

One evening as I was looking at art books, I had my breakthrough. I found the Dariya Daulat “Tipu Sultan” in a Kettle painting titled “Emperor Shah Alam reviewing the 3rd brigade of the East India Company’s troops at Allahabad.”


This subject in the Kettle painting not only looks exactly similar but wears similar coloured and decorated clothing as the subject in the Dariya Daulat museum painting. No doubt remains now that this was the same person depicted in both the paintings. It is obvious that Tipu Sultan could not have been present in Allahabad by the side of the then Mughal Emperor Shah Alam during his review of the English troops commanded by General Barker. This had to be somebody else.




My subsequent research, that I will leave for another article in the future, shows why I’m certain that the subject in the painting is actually Salar Jung, brother in law of Shuja-ud-Daula, the Nawab-vizier of Awadh both of whom were present in Allahabad at the review of the English troops by the Emperor Shah Alam. Apart from his brief stint in Madras (1769-1771), Kettle was also the court painter of Shuja-ud-Daula and painted several portraits of Shuja-ud-Daula and his family members.


This means that the Dariya Daulat painting is a clear case of misattribution of both the painter as well as subject of the portrait.


(Source: Scroll)

Thursday, 28 October 2021

I knew that was going to happen… The truth about premonitions

 Uncanny and creepy, premonitions that turn out to be authentic can feel profound. But is there science to explain them?

Around seven years ago, Garrett, was in a local Pizza Hut with his friends, having a day so ordinary that it is cumbersome to describe. He was 16 – or thereabouts – and had been told by teachers to go around nearby businesses and ask for gift vouchers that the school could use as prizes in a raffle. There were five other teenagers with Garrett, and they’d just finished speaking to the restaurant manager when suddenly, out of nowhere, Garrett’s his body was flooded with shock. He felt cold and clammy and had an “overwhelming sense that something had happened”. He desperately tried to stop himself crying in front of his peers.


“It was like I’d just been told something terrible,” the now 23-year-old from the southwest of England says (his name has been changed on his request). “I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was, but I just knew something had happened.” Garrett returned home and tried to distract himself from a feeling he describes as grief. The phone rang. His mum answered it. A few hours earlier – around the time Garrett was in the restaurant – his grandfather had died from a sudden heart attack while on a cruise.


Although there’s no way of knowing how many people worldwide feel that they “sensed” a loved one’s death before being told, it’s a phenomenon that’s been explored in everything from Star Wars to Downtown Abbey to Kung Fu Panda 2. Perhaps one of your own relatives has a story similar to Garrett’s – perhaps you dismissed it, perhaps you treat it as family lore. Is there any evidence to suggest this phenomenon is real – that humans can sense one another’s passing from a distance, that Garrett’s emotional afternoon was anything more than a coincidence? In a word, no. Meanwhile, it is well documented that the human mind is a bundle of bias: false memories, grief hallucinations and confirmation bias can easily explain these experiences. Besides which, for every person who feels a shiver when their loved one dies, there are hundreds more who were quietly eating pizza or happily riding a rollercoaster or bored doing maths homework completely unaware of their loss.


Ripple effects: ‘There are many accounts of crisis telepathy.’ Illustration: Eva Bee/The Observer

But are these dismissals too quick? Too easy? Some scientists claim that the complex world of quantum physics could be used to explain the paranormal (other scientists say they’re unbelievably wrong.) What can stories like Garrett’s tell us about what we do and don’t know? What we are and aren’t willing to believe? About the disconnect between what some claim to experience and others claim is impossible?


Brian Josephson is your prototypical professor. With tufts of white hair atop his head, a knitted vest and a glasses chain keeping his specs safe, he says via Zoom that, “The academic community is a kind of club. You’re supposed to believe certain things and you run into problems you disagree with.” In 1973, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on superconductivity. Later, during his time as a professor at the University of Cambridge, he began using quantum mechanics to explore consciousness and the paranormal.


Quantum entanglement – nicknamed “spooky action at a distance” by Albert Einstein – describes the (proven) phenomenon of two spatially separated particles influencing each other, even over large distances. While the phenomenon is subatomic, academics such as Josephson have theorised that quantum entanglement could explain phenomena like telepathy and psychokinesis.


“There are many accounts of crisis telepathy,” says Dean Radin, a parapsychologist and author of Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality. “Does entanglement explain these effects? No, in the sense that entanglement as observed today in the physics lab, between pairs of photons, is extremely fragile and typically lasts only minuscule fractions of a second. But also, yes, in that we are at the earliest stages of understanding entanglement.”


Radin says studies in quantum biology show that entanglement-type effects are present in living systems (academics from Oxford have successfully entangled bacteria) and he believes the human brain could in turn have quantum properties. “If that is subsequently demonstrated – I think it’s just a matter of time – then that would go a long way towards providing a physical mechanism for telepathy,” he says.


Put down your pen, scrunch up your letter to the editor. You only need an explanation for telepathy if you believe in telepathy in the first place, and experiments purporting its existence have been widely debunked. Josephson and Radin are regularly criticised by peers. In 2001, when Royal Mail released a set of stamps to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize, there was outrage when Josephson wrote in an accompanying booklet that quantum physics may lead to an explanation for telepathy. In this very newspaper, academics branded the claim “utter rubbish” and “complete nonsense”.


When reviewing Entangled Minds for The Skeptic’s Dictionary, philosophy professor and professional sceptic Robert Carroll wrote that Radin’s book was “aimed at non-scientists who are likely to be impressed by references to quantum physics”.


Garrett has no idea what happened to him on the day his grandad died, but he is certain that it happened. He believes in some kind of “interconnectedness” between people. “I think if it’s happened to you, then there’s an underlying accepting of it,” he says.


This is a sentiment shared by the self-described “naturally sceptical” Cassius Griesbach, a 24-year-old from Wisconsin who lost his grandfather in 2012. Griesbach says that he “shot awake” on the night his grandad passed and began to sob uncontrollably. “It felt like something just rocked me, physically,” he says. When his dad called moments later to say his grandad had died, a teenaged Griesbach replied: “I know.”


Griesbach doesn’t blame anyone for being sceptical of his story. “The further you get away from it, the more I would like to write it off as a coincidence,” he says, “But every time I sit down and think about it, it feels like it’s something else.” Griesbach is “not super religious” and doesn’t believe in ghosts. “ If it is something to do with actual science, I would think that would be science that we are nowhere near yet, you know?”


Many would disagree, arguing that the answer lies in the social sciences. In 2014, Michael Shermer married Jennifer, who had moved from Köln to California and brought with her a 1978 radio belonging to her late grandfather. Shermer tried in vain to fix it before tossing it in a drawer, where it lay silent until the couple said their wedding vows at home months later. Just as Jennifer was keenly feeling the absence of her grandfather, the radio began to play a romantic song. It continued all night before it stopped working for good the next day.


“It’s just one of those anomalous experiences,” says Shermer, a science historian, professional sceptic and author of The Believing Brain: from Spiritual Faiths to Political Convictions. How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. “Randomness and chance play a big role in life and in the world, and our brains are designed to see patterns not randomness.” Shermer argues that experiences like Garrett’s and Griesbach’s are statistically more likely than we think.


“You have billions of people worldwide having dozens of dreams [each] at night,” he says. “The odds are pretty good that on any given night, somebody’s going to have a dream about somebody dying who actually dies. That’s inevitable.” At the same time, he argues, we ignore all the times we suddenly sob or shudder and it turns out that no one’s died – or the times when someone does die and we don’t feel anything at all.


There are other prosaic explanations. While Garrett’s grandfather’s death was sudden and unexpected, Griesbach’s grandfather was hospitalised the week before he died, when he shot awake in the middle of the night, Griesbach’s first thought was, “It happened” – he knew his grandfather had passed. But is that surprising when he’d spent a week by his bedside?


John Bedard, a 36-year-old in Los Angeles, woke suddenly on the night his parents died. He was 10 and sleeping at a friend’s house when he awoke, “just knowing something was wrong”. He called his brother, sobbing. When his brother picked him up, he told Bedard their parents had died in a motorcycle accident.


And yet, there were clues that “something was wrong” much earlier. The sleepover wasn’t planned – Bedard had gone to friends to play when “it started getting later and later” and nobody came to pick him up. It was a Sunday night – an unusual night to have a sleepover. Bedard was uneasy when he went to bed.


Despite these answers, explanations continue to be toyed with. Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and parapsychologist who conceived of “morphic resonance”, the idea that interconnections exist between organisms. He believes the human mind has fields that stretch beyond the brain, much like electromagnetic fields. This, he says, explains why we can seemingly tell when someone behind us is staring at us, or why we sometimes think of someone right before they call. (Sheldrake’s work has been called “heresy” in the journal Nature.)


“I’m not talking about the supernatural; I think these things are totally natural. I think they’re normal, not paranormal,” he says. When it comes to experiences like Garrett’s, he says empirical studies are impossible. “You can’t ask somebody to die at a randomly selected time to see if their nearest and dearest respond… So unfortunately, the evidence for cases to do with death has to be circumstantial.”


Shermer is not a Sheldrake fan. “The idea that a biologist like Rupert Sheldrake is going to uncover some new force of nature that somehow Einstein and everybody else has missed… is just so unlikely to have happened, that almost any explanation like the ones I’ve been giving you are way more likely.” Josephson’s rebuke of such criticisms: “People say that [science is] always subject to revision and yet they’re secretly convinced that certain things can’t happen.”


What can and can’t happen doesn’t change what many feel has happened – Garrett, Griesbach and Bedard all believe something strange and unexplainable occurred when they lost their loved ones. At the very least, these stories undeniably offer comfort.


“As far as looking into it, I don’t even know what there is to look into,” Griesbach says – after all, the phenomenon doesn’t even have a name. “I think the best thing that we could do for people is validate how they feel and let them grieve. Because whenever people have that happen, they’re also grieving. That is one of the most important times to just be a kind human to somebody.”


(Source: The Guardian)