Excerpts from A Tribute to Packey—Fr. McFarland
(reprinted from One Beautiful Life, compiled by Samit Ghosh)
A student of mine, an established editor, who teaches film now at Syracuse University, came back to my institute to share her experiences of editing with my present batch of students. She brought along with her one of her own students. At the end of her lecture her student told me how much he admired her and then said how honoured he was to meet me who had in turn taught her and added, 'That's three generations!' 'No,' I said, it's four generations—there's Fr. McFarland whom you haven't met. He taught me and was from New Jersey. He said, 'New Jersey! That's where I am from!' So the cycle was complete.
The next day I got the news of Packey's passing away. It released in me a flood of emotions. Although I had intuitively felt that the end was near and suspected that he did too, it was difficult not to keep hoping that he would emerge strong again from the hospital. It took several days of talking to friends who had also studied under him as I had, and whom he had nurtured to come to terms with the fact that he was no longer with us. And yet I continually felt that that though he was gone he was with us. His legacy, his spirit, his words, his thoughts, his ideals and values live on among us. He was a visionary and a builder. It was not possible that anyone who came in close contact with him could remain unaffected by his kindness, his humanism.
As for those of us whom he taught we all know what an incredible spirit of enquiry, independence and freedom of thought he engendered in us. His dedication to work and his irrepressible optimism inspired all of us. We all knew that though he jokingly kept saying 'People are no damn good' that in fact it was people and the potential for good in people that he believed in.
I remember walking in through the half-swing-doors of the old office on the ground floor of St. Xavier's College anxious to join and worried about how to convince him that I had to be admitted to the course. He was seated behind the desk, large and portly. I sat in front nervous and worried. And all he said in his thickly accented voice was: 'Well yes, of course you can join.' It was as simple as that! Learning was open to all.
As a student one took a course like that for granted. Only later did we all realize what a visionary mind it took to set up an Institute like this years ahead of its time so that so many of us would ultimately benefit from it. It was called the Institute of Communication Arts, or ICA. Subsequently it was renamed the Xavier's Institute of Communications.
The course at that time covered all the aspects of the media and was segmented into semesters for each type of media—print, advertising, film, radio and television. The atmosphere was informal and learning was fun. We respected Packey as a teacher but he was always a friend as well. Always someone you could go to with a problem. He would listen with a patient ear, making an occasional comment now and then, or more often than not, cracking a joke to make you see the lighter side of things. His humour was devastating but always gentle. Suddenly serious problems would melt and one could see things in a lighter vein and a larger perspective. He never interfered, but let you decide your own course of action.
His kindness, generosity and concern for those in trouble are legendary. There was no one with a problem—academic, personal, financial, that Packey would not go out of his way to help. And it didn't matter who you were, from which social strata. Whether it was a peon or a clerk on the look out for a job, or someone wondering which university in the United States to apply to and how, or someone with a serious illness in the family, Packey helped everyone.
At the Institute, we began to learn all about video with small but effective black and white cameras, a simple vision mixer, a few monitors and a VTR. What a thrill! Apart from Doordarshan I doubt that there were video cameras anywhere else in Mumbai at that time. And we did pretty much what we liked. There was so much freedom to experiment and so the best kind of learning took place. Looking back I marvel at the complex and creative programmes we had all produced as students.
He started us off on film appreciation with a set of films that I remember explained to us what a cut, dissolve, pan, etc. were all about. Although they were simplistic they were very effective for students just beginning to study film. I realized their value only when I myself began to teach film appreciation. They were not available to me then but I still had the film booklet which accompanied them and that's what I began to use years later when I started to teach film.
He knew what kind of learning materials to bring in to train us. The library was stocked with all kinds of books on cinema which one devoured eagerly. Nowhere else could one find books like that. So even though we were not able to access the great films themselves we read up on many of the great masters. It made us hunger to see the films. Later when we did see the films that background reading helped us appreciate them better.
Among the books in the library was one on Mass Media and National Development by Schramm. He insisted we read it. Then began discussions on this topic. Over the years we drew from it, rejected it, argued about it and around it. But it was the starting point of all our debates. It was a critical phase in the life of the Institute—its commitment to training students regarding the ethics of media, and, more importantly, training us to think independently. It led us to debate on media imperialism, to question the one-way flow of information, or whether technology was value-free, and on Media Professionalism in the Third World. And so on. We graduated from merely being technically trained to seeing the larger picture—such a vital ingredient of education. And all thanks to Packey's openness in teaching methods.
After fiery rounds of discussion all of us decided we should 'do' something rather than merely talk about using media constructively. Packey backed us all the way—encouraging, sharing, helping. And so with the help of Fr. Gerry Rozario who was teaching us television then, we worked out ideas for a project that engaged us with the world outside. An enthusiastic young woman, Shernaz Taplin, just returned from California fired our enthusiasm further. Literacy was important we agreed, and so we decided to teach prisoners literacy. That didn't quite work out. We then explored other avenues and finally zeroed in on collaborating with the Bombay City Social Education Committee to use television to impart literacy to adults.
It was the first Media and Adult Education project of its kind in India. It preceded the SITE experiment. Of course it was on a much smaller scale but looking back I see how significant it was. Through numerous arguments debates, interactions with government officials, seminars, and practical experience we arrived at many of the principles of development which UNESCO has only recently decided to adopt—in essence that development needs to be people-based!
During the course of the project Packey would encourage us to speak out at seminars developing in us a sense of self-worth. I recollect how at one seminar someone thought I was a teacher and not a student and I had felt so elated! He also inculcated in us a respect for all opinions and all types of persons. In India where everyone is ready to always blame the government for everything, he taught us how to work with government bureaucrats and officials by winning them over with our commitment. He would engage everyone and pass no judgment on anyone. He taught us to work with commitment and sincerity not by preaching but by example.
The project required us to research the problems of the people we were trying to impart literacy to. To identify their needs and problems so that we could go beyond mere literacy to making them question why they were so disadvantaged. So we met wives of policemen in the B.D.D. chawls [low-income housing] at Worli, we met mill-workers, dockworkers, young boys working in chai shops, and so on.
We worked in collaboration with the Bombay City Social Education Committee (BCSEC), which already ran literacy classes across Mumbai. It was headed by the inimitable Mr. Gaonkar. Together we redesigned the BCSEC literacy syllabus, which had not been revised for over 20 years.
We worked on how to script this syllabus into appealing television programmes in Marathi that would make learning enjoyable. So we drew upon the services of talented Marathi writers such as Dilip Chitre, Ratnakar Matkari and Mr. Gode, borrowed folk forms, and experimented with various formats. We persuaded the BCSEC to organize TV sets and viewing centres where we pre-tested these programmes. We then persuaded Doordarshan to run a series on the national network program, Aisee Akhashare Melveen, the first attempt at using television for literacy in India.
During the course of our reading all kinds of material that Packey would share with us from the experiences of other developing countries, we understood that television programmes were most effective if there was interpersonal contact with the teacher as well. The teachers were not to feel threatened and so we conducted teacher-training workshops where teachers were taught to use the material on television as a take-off point for discussions and teaching in class. The teachers were also called upon to understand that the vertical method of teaching down and making the student feel inferior was to be replaced with dialogue and discussions that instilled in them a sense of self-confidence, an attitude of questioning and problem solving. As adults they also needed to talk about the problems that kept them underprivileged. We relied heavily on the methodology of Paulo Freire, which was introduced to us by Denis Von der Weid, a dynamic person who challenged the role of multinationals at a time when few were willing to do so. Freire's methodology involved the teaching of key words, which were meaningful for the adults - key words such as 'ration' or 'water' or 'tap.' These words could be learned easily by them as they referred to things, which were critical to their lives. The words would also trigger off discussions that would make them begin to question social inequalities.
So the television programmes for which we collaborated with Doordarshan ran side-by-side with scripting workshops, teacher-training workshops and research. Research was the backbone of our project. I can still hear Packey voice booming as he quoted Schramm: 'Communications without research is like juggling knives in the dark'! The research component was managed by Shanta Gidwani, yet another truly dedicated person. We did research prior to the actual telecast, during the telecast and an evaluation after. Researchers were trained and they monitored what was happening in the classrooms. The research was documented and several papers written as result. We arrived at some valuable insights. This experimental programme was the forerunner of what is Astha at XIC today. The series Aisee Aksharee Melveen on Doordarshan became Deepgyan and ran for some more years but in an altered form.
The series we had designed ran for a year. Of course the SITE experiment that followed soon after was on a much larger scale but what was unique about our small project was that it was entirely student run! Fr. McFarland gave us the freedom to begin it and supported us all the way through! Later, those of us who began to see the importance of this kind of work, joined up full-time to work on this project for almost no money. That was the kind of idealism that Packey inspired us with.
Later on we worked on a project for COMFORD—Communications for Development, where a few of us city-based students went to study how developmental projects had affected persons in the rural interiors of Bihar. It was the first true understanding for many of us of rural problems, because it was not just a visit but also an in-depth study. It had an indelible impact on all of us making all of us look beyond ourselves. Packey would always gently suggest or nudge us into things we had no idea about at the beginning, but would realize the value of only much later.
In the same manner he suggested I study Educational Media instead of Communications for my Master's Degree at Fairfield University, which he helped me to gain admission to. At that time I had never wanted to do Education but then perhaps Packey knew better. I have devoted 25 years to it now! He would always suggest never impose. He would always let you take your own decision and support you in whichever way it was possible for him to do so, usually reacting to anything you said with a delicious and incisive sense of humour.
The basis of all I teach today, I learned from that period of my life. As Head of the Department of Social Communications Media at Sophia Polytechnic I have consciously tried to live by those ideals. I have tried to shape the syllabus so that the responsibility of being media practitioners is taken seriously by my students.
I make them work on documentary, video and magazine projects which center around themes of social concern—either the environment as in Environmental Degradation, Noise Pollution, Air Pollution, Hospital Waste Management, Solid Waste Management, Beach Pollution, Preservation of Mangroves; or health issues, such as, Tuberculosis, Gutkha and Oral Cancer, Aids; or on women's issues, such as, The Female Child, Rape, Women and Health, 'Domestic Violence, Women Domestic Workers; or on topics concerning the disadvantaged, such as The Problems of the Mentally Challenged, Problems of Construction Workers, Children After The Riots and Communal Harmony.
Over the years I have observed that what has the most lasting impact on the students are their own first hand experiences with these projects. Outside the classroom, in the streets of the city they learn more. Much more. They see how those from the less privileged classes have to struggle, they meet government officials who either have no information or do not DIVulge it, they observe first hand how rife corruption is or how biased the law is. They also interact with persons who are committed to causes larger than themselves and derive inspiration from them.
Many of these students have done work Packey would be proud of. They have made documentaries on women's issues, or the environment, worked extensively in rural areas with NGOs, and on projects to do with health, and on serious research and documentation. As journalists they have written on sensitive issues. One of my student's article in the Times of India on the plight of under trial prisoners was admitted as a writ petition and as a result many under trial prisoners were released. Two of my students have won the prestigious People's Union for Civil Liberties' award for Excellence in Journalism, for writing on the poor conditions of the Arthur Road Jail, and for excellent reporting on the riots in Ahmedabad.
I write about what I teach and what my students do because what Packey did went beyond the self. He inspired so many of us. Packey really lives on in the works of these students. He was much larger than himself. He was his work and his work was a commitment to humanity.