If there’s one thing that both students and teachers vouch for at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), it is the institute’s ability to deliver on life-changing experiences. It is what made Dhanashki Wankhede, a 23-year-old computer science graduate from Wardha in Maharashtra, give up a career in engineering and sign up for TISS’s social work programme specialising in mental health. It’s also what makes some of the alumni return to their alma mater and give back as teachers. Shubhada Maitra, dean of School of Social Work, is one such person. Maitra credits TISS for bringing her out of her sheltered life by exposing her to the social realities of the world. “It changed the way I understood poverty, unemployment and looked at the man-woman relationship,” says Maitra who graduated in 1982.
The curriculum is also designed to give students a reality check. “The curriculum is socially relevant and responds to the emerging needs of society,” says Maitra, who teaches in the mental and public health programmes. “We seek student feedback on courses and try to work on our pedagogy.” It reflects in how the duration of courses has been modified or existing programmes, such as the one in Dalit and Tribal Studies and Action, have been updated after engagement with people from the communities.
At TISS, the emphasis is on social communication skills that come in handy for field work, a critical component of the curriculum. Students have to put in 950 hours on the field while pursuing their two-year degree. “We hold it sacrosanct and that’s where most of our learning takes place,” says Maitra, adding that 24 of the 81 credits are devoted to field work. “I always say that social workers can find any address on the face of the earth. It’s because of our ability to explore and engage with people.”
It’s her field work experience that Sumitra Bhave, a multiple National Award-winning Marathi filmmaker, fondly remembers while she pursued the social work course with specialisation in community organisation at TISS. In her first year in Mumbai, Bhave shuttled from the children’s clinic in Wadia Hospital to the B.D.D. chawl in Parel where she observed the daily lives of mill-workers and also taught them. She would travel to the Vidarbha region for her dissertation on leadership in Panchayati Raj to discover for herself the decentralisation of power in a democracy. Always hungry for a challenging experience, Bhave insisted on going “as far as possible from Bombay and Pune” for block field work. She even ended up working in a refugee camp in north Bihar on the Indo-Nepal border.
“I was not interested in bookish education anymore,” says Bhave, who graduated in 1965. “I wanted to work for social problems of the people. The exposure there gives you a perspective on how you shouldn’t be biased, how you should try to understand.” The 76-year-old writer-director singled out Dr M.S. Gore, former director of TISS and a Padma Bhushan recipient, as a mentor who encouraged her interest in the Gandhian approach of life through books.
TISS offers 10 degree courses in social work in subjects such as criminology and justice, women-centred practice, disability studies, mental health and livelihood and social entrepreneurship
TISS, she adds, shaped her sensibilities as a filmmaker too. “I know the mind of the society and also of the individual which I learned at TISS,” she says. “In my film Kaasav: Turtle (2017) I say we have ears and eyes but one needs to learn how to see and hear, that’s what I learned at TISS.” The Marathi film which focuses on depression and environmental conservation won the National Award for Best Feature Film. Bhave’s other work with co-director Sunil Sukthankar includes the TV show Bhains Barabar on women’s education and short films for non-governmental organisations.
The field action projects (FAPs) are significant tools to bring about change. These include a Special Cell for Women and Children, a programme that TISS first started in 1984 in Mumbai, to address issues such as domestic violence. Koshish is an initiative working on issues of destitution and homelessness, while Tarasha is a community-based recovery model for women recovering from mental disorders.
A lot has changed in the course of Maitra’s three-decade-long teaching stint. Earlier, students came to TISS with the objective to make a difference, she says, but now they come to also “find answers to the problems that they have inherited, or are surrounded by, and then apply it to the world”. A TISS student isn’t just concerned with issues affecting people. Their empathy is channelled towards animals too, which explains the popularity of the animal ethics and social justice course. “It’s in keeping with our core social work values and principles that we live in an environment that is harmonious and not detrimental to other beings,” says Maitra. Within the TISS campus, students take care of stray animals.
United Way Mumbai provides a cash prize of Rs 50,000 for the best all-round student
TISS’s interference-free admission process makes the journey to Deonar, a suburb in eastern Mumbai, all the more easier. A national-level entrance test which assesses applicants on general knowledge, social awareness, logical reasoning among other factors, followed by an essay and personal interview round, ensures that the most deserving students are selected in the two-year programme. Placements at TISS are aplenty with non-governmental organisations, developmental and research organisations and companies seeking members for their corporate social responsibility initiative and government programmes all scouting.
Members of the Parisar Bhagini Vikas Sangh, a collective of women waste-pickers, handle the canteen where the signature dish is karela fry with dry fruits. Two biogas plants ensure waste produced here is recycled
How is TISS different?
> Diversity: It enriches discussion and the teaching-learning process. We have students from across castes, classes, regions and genders.
> Field work: If there are students uncomfortable with English, we focus more on what they are able to do in the field. We are ultimately training professionals who are both doers and thinkers.
> Open door policy: The faculty is able to engage with students on one-on-one basis.
New initiatives in the past three years
> Women and Gender Development Cell: A UGC-mandated committee which looks at issues, such as prevent discrimination and sexual harassment against women and students from the LGBTQI communities and promote gender awareness among students and employees.
> Disabled friendly: Faculty rooms have their name plates written in Braille, so do the numbers on the lifts on campus. Buildings are accessible by ramp and the library has software packages that visually impaired students can access.
> Gender-neutral hostels: Rooms are allotted to those who identify as transgender or don’t conform to any gender.
One thing I want to improve in my institute
Infrastructure. Not just concrete structures, but more faculty in place and better services which are able to cater to a large variety of needs
What’s unique about campus life?
It’s a mini India in itself. There’s inclusivity on campus despite the diversity that it abodes. The sense of belonging, being accommodated and acceptance one gets here is phenomenal. I like how it assists to connect the dots of all the past experiences right since childhood and brings about a clear picture of life for oneself. It helps one understand oneself, one’s position in the larger societal context and hence prepares one for working from micro to macro level structures/ institutions for emancipatory change to aim for egalitarian societies. In short, it prepares one for life.
One change I want in my college
I would want every master student of the social science discipline to get a monthly stipend just like their counterparts in basic sciences/clinical sciences do.
The best facility in college
The library where I spend hours with the books.