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Learning by beads

After being absent from the pathshalas of India for most of the last two millenniums, the ancient tool of calculation is staging a roaring comeback here, writes Amitava Sanyal.

india Updated: Jul 05, 2008 23:44 IST
Amitava Sanyal

It’s called suànpán in China, soroban in Japan, schoty on Russia and was known as nepohualtzintzin to the Aztecs. The Romans called it abakos. And after being absent from the pathshalas of India for most of the last two millenniums, the ancient tool of calculation is staging a roaring comeback here.

The number of abacus learning centres around the country today would range between 5,000 and 8,000, depending on who’s hazarding the guess. But ask the same person how many would have been there just over half a decade back, and the answer would range between 100 and 300. What explains the spurt around 2003?

Basheer Ahamed, managing director of UC MAS (Universal Concept Mental Arithmetic System) who set up some of the earliest centres in Chennai in 1999, says, “It’s a concept that becomes popular only by word of mouth. When we started staging demonstrations around 2002 to popularise the concept, it caught on. Today, we have around 500 centres in Mumbai alone and more than 2,000 across India.” One of every five such centres is located in rural India, claims Ahamed.

When parents saw the benefits — not only better numerical skills, but also sharper concentration and greater retentive memory — the demand surged. Other companies entered with their own trays of beads. Ashok Subramanian’s Brainobrain was one such outfit that set up its first centres in 2002. He says, “When you tell people about abacus they listen, but do not believe. So whenever we set up a new centre, we first stage demonstrations with students from other centres.” It seems to have worked: in five years, Brainobrain’s centre count has shot up to 350, with about 70 of them located in Delhi. It’s a similar story with Aloha, another Chennai-based company that set up in 2002 and now claims to have more than 850 franchisees.

Counting the positives

At almost all these centres, kids aged 4-14 years undergo two hours of training per week and move through 8-10 levels of mastery. But it’s not about the beads all the time. At the Brainobrain centre in south Delhi’s Saket, we find centre head Seema Jain taking her bunch of dozen-odd kids through a set of exercises at first.

“It’s the speed that gives the kids a lot of confidence in school. They feel they can do anything. In fact, sometimes we get complaints that the kid is becoming overconfident — in other subjects too.” Jain’s own class does not stop at numbers training — it goes on to spelling contests, watching a short video (from which they have to come up with a ‘learning’ at the end). It ends with the biggest attraction for the kids — a lively karaoke session.

It’s one reason for Brainobrain’s popularity. Sucheta Boobna, mother of the bright-as-a-button Atharv from the first standard of Amity International School, says, “This course does more than just abacus, and I feel it aids all-round development.” Rahul Gupta, father of the quiet-and-tattooed Vani from Mother’s International, says that’s the reason he shifted his daughter from another centre a few kilometres away.

There’s a moral for grown-ups here. As the class winds up, one realises that if one kid was the fastest in counting, another was better at spelling and yet another was better at summarising the learning. They are unlikely to all grow up to be brainy engineers crunching numbers. And you can thank the abacus class for all of it.