It all started with a small waffle party – and a big burst of enthusiasm. At least that’s how the story goes.
It was 1961, and a group of young mothers were sitting together at a waffle party, sipping coffee and discussing the strict and uninspiring schools in Mumbai. Many of the women were expatriates, some were Indian. But they all hated the idea of exposing their children to academic pressure, punishment and rote learning. But what was the option? It was at that point that one mother suggested getting together and setting up an informal little school in their own drawing rooms and back-gardens. The others thought it was an idea worth investigating. A group was formed and a letter was typed and circulated amongst acquaintances. “The mothers, whose names are below, are interested in organizing an elementary school incorporating the ideas in the following paragraphs,” it stated. “We would like to know if there are enough other parents equally interested and willing to join us in the work of establishing such a school.”
The idea of a gentle and happy school held enormous appeal, and both expats and Indians responded wholeheartedly. Within months, the Bombay International School Association was registered. It was decided that the school would start with a pre-primary and six standards—and an additional class would be added every year. The classes would be small, so that each one of the 25 or 30 children would receive individual attention. Excessive homework was to be avoided and the welfare of the child was always to come first. Anybody who agreed with these objectives could pay Rs 200 and become a member. Eventually 183 people signed up as founder members. The impressive list included artist Jehangir Sabavala and his wife Shirin. Also Page and Harsh Mehta, whose father Jivraj Mehta was the first Chief Minister of Gujarat and mother Hansa Mehta was Vice-Chancellor of Baroda University. Then there was M.H. Kania, who later became the Chief Justice of India and Dr. Suma Chitnis who later became the Vice-Chancellor of SNDT University. Not to forget H.M.Seervai, the then Advocate General of Maharashtra, and Kamla Bhoota who founded the Bal Vikas nursery.
Early parents of the school included artist M.F.Husain, physicist Dr Raja Ramanna, architect Charles Correa, actors Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor, Sujata Manohar, who was later a judge of the Bombay High Court and Supreme Court, and industrialist Keshub Mahindra.
The founders and parents brought with them expertise, contacts and commitment. The legal minds drew up a constitution; the culinary experts planned a school menu; the academic types sourced teaching materials. One founder member offered to teach modern dance, another to design the desks and chairs, still another to fashion the library shelves. And then finally, after months of uncertainly, the school managed to rent a cluster of rooms on the third floor of Bhawani Bhawan Palace Building on Darabshaw Road.
On June 11, 1962 about 90 children entered their new school—accommodated in six rooms and a terrace near Napean Sea Road.
From the very first day, Bombay International School was determined to follow its unique path. The teachers were encouraged to innovate, parents sourced interesting textbooks from abroad, and a distinctive curriculum was crafted. As early as 1962, the school toyed with the idea of adopting the IB curriculum—and although it finally chose ICSE, BIS has always followed the liberal, open-minded, learning-through-experience philosophy that is today associated with the IB.
Along with all the excitement and chaos—not to mention the new mother-run kitchen and bus-routes—came problems. The landlord at Bhavani Bhavan asked BIS to leave. But this time the school was lucky. It managed to buy Gilbert Building at Babulnath and moved into its very own home in 1964. (Only two flats in the building were vacant at that point, the rest were occupied by tenants. But over the years the school has managed to acquire more and more flats in the building—a process that continues even today.)
Once it settled down in Gilbert Building, BIS began to grow, flourish and experiment. And more than 50 years later, students continue to benefit from the brave blueprints and unusual ideas generated in those early years. Even today exams involve minimum panic and pressure. The class size is never allowed to exceed 34. The morning assemblies ensure that you will almost never meet a stage-shy or tongue-tied BISite. The library remains a welcoming haven, stocked with fabulous reference books, well-thumbed classics and the latest releases. The school lunch continues to bring students together—and gives them not just a healthy lunch, but also something to joke about!
Most importantly, perhaps, the discussions in the classrooms always flow in both directions. Children are always, always encouraged to ask questions and give their opinions. Moreover, parents still see themselves as stakeholders. They bring their interests and expertise into the school—exposing the children to everything from clay modelling to kathak to vermiculture. The constant stream of Library Mothers and Kitchen Mothers and Bus Mothers and Class Mothers–not to forget the occasional Kitchen Father and Class Father– give the school a unique energy. But this also comes with its very own brand of democracy. And for many years, BIS was as known for its contentious debates as its vocal, confident students. But this has not hampered the school being steered in a new and essential direction.
In 2007, BIS adopted an international curriculum. For some years, this tiny school offered three boards. While the school was always known for its ICSE curriculum, more and more senior school students have opted for IGCSE instead. The school’s first IGCSE batch graduated in 2012. The first IB Diploma Programme batch graduated in 2013 and the school is now an authorised PYP school. In many ways, these recent developments have helped BIS resolve that tricky, persistent question—about whether to remain an experimental institute at the fringes of the city’s educational life, or whether to become a part of the mainstream. “By choosing an international curriculum, we are now able to do both,” says former Principal Ms. Mona Seervai, who believes that the philosophies upheld by the IB and IGCSE are perfectly in sync with the school’s original vision.
Which is important. For it is this vision that has ensured that–through all its ups and downs–BIS has always resounded with the shouts and laughter of happy, opinionated and carefree children.