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Arvind Gupta – Toy maker from trash

17 July 2011 4 Comments

“And somewhere there are engineers
Helping others fly faster than sound.
But, where are the engineers
Helping those who must live on the ground?”
– Young Oxfam Poster

Todays special guest is a true engineer, who helps people living on ground.. Please join me to welcome Mr. Arvind Gupta. Arvind Gupta is a toy inventor and popularizer of science for kids. He has been creating simple toys out of trash to illustrate various principles of science. His website is http://www.arvindguptatoys.com/

Me: Sundar Rajan G S
AG: Arvind Gupta – The toy maker

Me: When did you start making these toys.. Can you please recollect the moment when you felt.. this is going to be your passion and purpose of life..

AG: As a child I loved tinkering. I had an old trunk full of all kinds of things – a broken hammer, screwdriver, grease, oilcan, a spanner etc. My family was poor. I was fascinated by people who work and would sit for hours watching the carpenter make a cot or a cycle mechanic aligning a wheel. I also improvised many toys – made matchbox houses, paper clappers etc. The good thing was that no one in my house was bothered about grades etc. They did not interference. They just let me be.

In 1978 I worked with a village science teaching programme. We were trying to design low-cost learning aids using local materials. That’s when the importance of using and toys for understanding principles of science dawned on me.

Me: Who is your role model.. Did someone inspire you?

AG: At different stages of my life I was inspired by different people. So it is difficult to single out one individual. Gandhi’s influence is enormous. I was fortunate to be mentored by many wonderful individuals – Dr. Anil Sadgopal, Laurie Baker, Prof. Yashpal etc.

Me: Making toys would require two things.. One – the raw materials.. Two – The technique or method.. One, how did you start thinking of use trash.. what was your inspiration.. Two, Do you think everyone can do it? Or is there some special training required..

AG: Materials fascinate me and I often find myself picking up empty cups, ice-cream sticks, empty plastic and bottles crown caps from the roadside. Each material has its own specialty and character and needs to be manipulated in a certain way. For instance, wood can be smoothened and planed only along the grain and not across. You can cut long newspaper strips along the fiber but only very short ones across it. So, materials have their own personality and they teach you a lot. The process of assembling different materials teaches you many things.

All children are born tinkerers and they learn so much of the real world before they go to school. Watch children in their free moments and they are always hammering, shaping and making things. Unfortunately, schools put an end to this innate creativity in children by imposing an alien and sterile curriculum. It is arrogant for adults to say that they teach young ones. They forget that all children were born to learn. If adults just got out of the way of children it would be so much better.

Me: How do you think we can improve the “understanding” & “application” of science.. Let me share my own example with you.. When in school I “studied” science very well.. But today I have “forgotten” some of these principles and I am now relearning a lot of basics..

AG: The great scientist J. B. S. Haldane response to this is even apt even today. He said, “I consider it desirable that a man’s or woman’s major research work should be in a subject in which he or she has not taken a degree. To get a degree one has to learn a lot of facts and theories in a somewhat parrot like manner. It is rather hard to be highly original in a subject in which one has learned with a view of obtaining first class honors in an examination.”

In normal schools teachers try to “cover” the course forgetting that the true task of an inspirational teacher is to “uncover” things.

Like millions of others I too learnt little that was “worthwhile” in school and college. It was later that self-realization dawned and I charted my own course.

Me: I have seen that you have made a number of films.. When did you start using the internet and multimedia.. How has the response been for these videos..

AG: Two years back – to be precise on 17 June 2009 a young architect Sourav Phadke showed us how to make short films using an ordinary digital camera. Though used for “still” photographs these cameras have a provision for taking short “clips”. One can shoot several “clips” weave them in a “sequence” and then superimpose sound on a computer. The technique is pedestrian, low-cost and immensely powerful. In two years we have made 300 short films, dubbed them in 14-languages and uploaded 1350 films on Youtube.

The response has been overwhelming. 1.2-million people across the world have already viewed them. A young doctor in Afghanistan is translating and dubbing them into Dari and Pashto. A teacher in Brazil is dubbing them Portuguese.

Project Gutenberg really understood the true potential of the digital era. There slogan A MILLION BOOKS FOR A BILLION PEOPLE deeply stirred us. India with 1.2 billion people has no public libraries. So we have digitized some of the greatest books on Education, Environment, Peace, Science Activities in Hindi, Marathi, English and many other Indian languages for the benefit of our people.

All our work is COPYLEFT – in the free public domain. Other clever people will build upon it and enriching the Creative Commons.

Me: On one hand you work with a number of village children.. But I am not sure if this internet media is easily accessible to those people.. There is a divide if you get what I mean.. What are your thoughts..

AG: True, the internet is still not accessible in thousands of Indian village schools. But the Government is equipping even remote schools with computers. So, we collated a DVD titled the LEARNER’S LIBRARY. This single DVD contains 1000 inspiring E-Books, 7000 photos with instructions to make 700 simple science models and 150 short and inspiring films. This DVD is easy and cheap to copy and share. We have this DVD in 3 languages and have shared it freely with over 3000 schools. A NGO in Gujarat made 1000 copies of this DVD and distributed it to local schools.

Me: Can you share 3 or 4 of your favorite toy videos.. Why do you find them your best works?

AG: Bottle Turbine: This amazing model was designed by a girl Durga Jethe – who washes dishes in 3 houses before attending school. Last week she scored 93% marks in 10th class and stood 2nd in her school. This video symbolizes the extraordinary struggle and creativity of the poor.

Paper Flexagon: An old A-4 size Xerox sheet can be folded into this amazing model which can rotate. It is difficult to believe that paper could be made to rotate like this. It is also very useful in explaining cycles and sequences in nature.

Matchstick Models: Uses Matchsticks and bits of Cycle Rubber Valve Tube to make 2-D and 3-D Models. I designed this as a young engineer in 1978. All the stuff is readily available in the village. Millions of children have used it.

Simple DC Motor: We have made over 50,000 such motors in the last 20 years. It is the simplest motor on earth and the children just love it. The most expensive thing is the battery cell.

Me: What else do you work on sir.. Can you talk about your initiative on book translation..

AG: My mother tongue is Hindi. Over 400 million people speak Hindi. There is a dire poverty of good material in Hindi. I learnt to type in Hindi as a child and this pedestrian skill has stood me in good stead. Now I read in English and translate in Hindi. Over the years I have translated over 140 books on Education, Environment, Science, Peace and good children’s books in Hindi.

In the last 7 years we have got over 70 books translated in Marathi – including classics like Summerhill by A. S. Neill, Teacher by Sylvia Ashton Warner, School of Barbiana, Bahuroop Gandhi. India’s richness lies in its cultural diversity and languages. We have a very strong network of individuals translating in different languages.

Me: What initiatives are you taking to spread this initiative to school children of various cities & villages.. Who are your current audience.. and how do you plan to increase your outreach..

AG: Over the past 25 years I have presented over 140 films on Science Activities for Doordarshan – India’s National Television. This is one small way of documenting our work and reaching out to millions. I have written science columns for almost all the science magazines (and they are so few) in India. The internet has a very liberating. Six years back we started a website http://arvindguptatoys.com

We make all our books and films available for free downloads through our website. Everyday 6000 books are downloaded and 7000 children across the world view our films. It feels really nice to bring a shaft of hope and sunshine to the poorest children.

Me: What is the message you are trying to convey from making these toys?

AG: Gandhi said, “LIVE SIMPLY THAT OTHERS MAY SIMPLY LIVE.”
We can only echo his words: DO MORE WITH LESS. Always think of the poorest children.

Me: What are your upcoming initiatives?

AG: The Fukushima Nuclear meltdown deeply pained me. I wept. A country which experienced the ATOM BOMBS should now experience a PEACEFUL BOMB. India is particularly well suited for Solar rather than Nuclear Energy. Imagine every remote Indian hut powered by a solar panel. It will bring Gandhi’s dream of decentralized power: POWER IN THE HANDS OF A FEW vs. EMPOWERING THE MASSES. India needs to put its best brains to research on Solar. That’s the future.

I have been working hard on a book THE STORY OF SOLAR ENERGY. It will be a picture/cartoon which every child can understand. In the past we brought out three wonderful books THE STORY OF PHYSICS, THE STORY OF CHEMISTRY and THE STORY OF CHEMISTRY.

Me: What is your message for Indian youngsters..

AG: We have only one life. Either we can fritter it away on inanities or we can try and make sense of it and do something worthwhile which will help the poor.

Me: Thank you very much for your time sir. It was indeed a pleasure to host you!


Readers, hope you enjoyed this edition of Coffee With Experts. Previous interview with Mr. Narayanan Krishnan – CNN Hero of the year 2010 can be found here.

4 Comments »

  • Anu said:

    I really enjoyed reading this interview! I have been a fan of Arvind Gupta since I first heard of him a few years ago. Since then, I have downloaded many of his books and used them to teach my son and play with him! and needless to say, he loves the simple way in which we can have fun!

  • Anonymous said:

    Dear Ambi,

    I enjoyed the interview, in fact I was fortunate to meet him in person in a conference of TWAS at Hyderabad. The way he makes the toys from trash is unbeleivable and the science involved in it.Keep up the good work.

    K. Sriram.

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