Leadership through Initiative and Innovation

A Case Study on Sanawar

Prabhsharan Singh Kang, Nilagiri 1961

(A Sanawar student and part-time teacher, elder brother, cousin, parent and uncle to Sanawarians, ex-President: OS Society and ex-President: Parents Association)


Everyone familiar with Sanawar during the last half century knows of the very unusual case of one house in the Boys School (Nilagiri) becoming and then staying dominant in performance and results. This continued over decades, generations of students and many changes in administration and administrative systems.

Back in 1968, when I went up with my brother on the day that he joined the school, I was part of a discussion in the Headmaster’s office when the Headmaster, Senior Master (Deputy Headmaster) and Nilagiri Housemaster were worried about parents of new admissions insisting on their sons being admitted to Nilagiri house. Over the years, everyone has acknowledged the phenomenon, whether directly or as good-humoured teasing or as plain envy, but no-one has made any formal attempt to analyse it.

Now, on the 50th anniversary of my final year in school, I decided to use my 7 years of participating in the origin-cum-evolution of this occurrence and subsequent 50 years as observer, to throw light on what could possibly be a lesson for others and is certainly an important feature in the history of Sanawar.

Indian Sanawar’s early days

Boarding schools, especially if co-educational, necessitate discipline and regulation. Sanawar has its share, leading to much debate and some experimentation. However, discipline and values linked to Sanawar’s proud military heritage have remained unquestioned and are traditionally a source of immense pride to all its students and alumni.

Sanawar’s impressive and pioneering history over one and a half centuries is well established (even though the last third is not fully documented). From an educational sanctuary for children in an undeveloped environment, to a famous military institute, then to a British-style public school and lastly to a leading Indian school. All of these steps were carefully planned and implemented except the last which was necessitated by India emerging as an independent nation.

In 1947 the school was a century old. Independence caused major changes including a mass withdrawal of students and staff followed by fresh admissions and an almost new start. Fortunately, Sanawar has always created unusually strong loyalties therefore some staff members and parents made sure the otherwise dramatic changes were not drastic by retaining themselves and their children, respectively, in the school.

Staff members who stayed on included the Headmaster, Senior Master, some others plus the total complement of junior administrative staff that a residential school requires. The team did a yeoman job of sustaining the school and then gradually amending its outlook to suit the new circumstances, without losing any of its traditional values. This entailed re-staffing and induction of staff – teaching, boarding and administration, large-scale admissions from highly diverse backgrounds – both linguistic and educational, changes in parental profiles and in governmental controls. All without missing out on any activity needed for building healthy minds, bodies and sheer pride in being from “the best school of all”.

My first days in school

I joined the school at age 9, in March 1955, when Indian Sanawar was even younger. The student body and staff were by then almost wholly Indian. My class, Lower III, and the immediately senior, Upper III, had seen a large intake of children. Both had 3 sections each for studies, while the next three senior had 2 each and the top two had 1 section each. The total student strength including Prep School was about 400 in 11 classes. (This strength was raised to an optimum of 550 in two more years).

Classroom lessons were the only regular co-ed activity. Other mixed activities were limited to Morning Assembly and official functions in Barne Hall, 2-3 Socials (Dances) per year for the seniors, annual Foundation Day picnic, School Concert at Founders, Prep School Concert, Mass PT at Founders (with Figure Marching in alternate years), start/end of term School Party travel and, possibly, the Sixth Form farewell party organised by Upper V. Everything was segregated – Hobbies, Games, Meals, Prep/Study time, House plays (till 1959), year-end House parties, hikes/camps, etc.

Girls School and Prep School girls had just been moved from the 2 dormitories next to the chapel, to Honoria Court. Prep School boarded only boys, with their Dining Hall below the upstairs Boys’ dorm. They had 4 classrooms for Boys and Girls - Lower KG, Upper KG, Forms I and II.

In Boys School, the senior 4 classes plus most of the 5th (Lower IV) boarded by their formed-in-1952 house dormitories (Himalaya, Nilagiri, Siwalik, Vindhya) in Wavell Court. The junior boys (rest of Lower IV plus the relatively larger numbers in Upper and Lower III), boarded in the old dorm buildings below the gymnasium and the upper floor of the building on Boys School pavement. The ground floor of the latter was the Boys’ dining hall. (Girls School dined at Parker Hall).

Interestingly, our Senior Master, Sam C. Cowell, was a complete Sanawar man – admitted in the Infants Department (now closed), then successively in Preparatory Department, Boys Department, Teacher, Housemaster, Senior Master and acting Headmaster (Headmaster E. G. Carter was ailing and house bound).

The smaller boys in Boys School were not collectively known by their houses but were called Sparrow Hawks, classified by their dorms: A (above dining hall), B (upstairs, next to the gymnasium) and C (below B). Each Sparrow Hawks dorm had a dedicated Housemaster, 2 prefects, matron, dining section and food bearers. The Sparrow Hawks were also allotted houses, same as the seniors, but these were only for PT and for getting points in studies and games.

I was in Sparrow Hawks B, Nilagiri house and Lower III C. My earliest friends were from my dorm and class, but different houses. There were no admission tests then so new students were initially assessed in class for suitability and rearranged as needed. Lower III C had only 11 students so, after the April Mark Reading (assessment), we were all merged with section B while others from section B were sent up to A, to balance the numbers. After the year-end tests, the best ones from B were promoted to Upper III A, weaker ones from L III A were promoted to U III B (inexplicably, a couple of the better ones from A were also sent to B) and the weakest stayed on in Lower III. New admissions somewhat balanced out the sectional inequalities.

Another dramatic event after the first 1955 assessment was that the Sparrow Hawks were disbanded and merged with their respective houses. The existing house-wise boarders were termed seniors and the erstwhile Sparrows termed juniors, each with their own dorms. Vindhya got the 2 Wavell Court upper dorms, Siwalik the 2 lower dorms, Himalaya the double-dorms below the gym and Nilagiri went up the Tuck Shop slope to the vacant dorms beyond the School Chapel, halfway between the Girls and Boys dorm areas. The overcrowded dining areas (ground floor plus the side rooms adjoining the gym) were rearranged in the building to seat 2 houses per floor/dorm. The Dining Hall as well as Nilagiri (possibly also Himalaya) buildings interchanged occupants between their respective 2 floors every term thereafter. These dorm allotments remained for over 40 years, even when the Boys dining hall moved to the Central Dining Hall and the old Dining Hall became the Sixth Form dorms, with increased numerical strength per house and class. Interestingly, in the Dining Hall, all except Staff and Prefects moved their seats by 2 places to the left every morning, with those seated at the end of each table receiving and clearing empty dishes at the end of meals. This way we also sat across all others in our house by turn.

Nilagiri in 1955

Till the unprecedented shift of Nilagiri to an isolated location it had had a very forgettable track record, in spite of having the formidable but likable Trevor C Kemp as Housemaster. In the overall annual performance competition, called the Cock House, Nilagiri was usually in the bottom half (2nd in 1953 was the exception). Siwalik was at the other end, with a competitive, macho image and many team plus individual awards – most of the school Head Boys in my 7 years in Sanawar were from Siwalik.

I believe that Sanawar’s strong loyalty-creating and alumni-bonding qualities arise from its distance from any city and its isolation from the outside world. This worked in a similar though micro manner for Nilagiri.

The house was physically distant from everyone and everything else including the rest of Boys School. Thus, its perspective was different. So was its resultant attitude. A major catalyst was Saleem Khan, Nilagiri’s tall, handsome and princely Housemaster with exceptional sporting abilities (sixes over the bowler’s head at will, unbeaten Tennis Singles champion at the annual Kasauli Club tournament, staff chess champion), looked up to by other Housemasters, admired by female staff and students, respected by the then and later Headmaster.

Nilagiri boys were in total awe of this man. Not because he maintained a rack each for canes and smoking pipes. He did not have to impose discipline – it was automatic. He did wield his canes (and once a Cricket stump while batting during a Festival match), but only if there was gross misbehaviour or lack of attention to studies. His attitude was fair and applied to all Nilagirians, irrespective of seniority or rank.

Saleem Khan left the running of the house to its prefects, stepping in only if correction was needed. He was complemented by the extraordinary Mohini Sehgal, Nilagiri house matron. Efficient, “matronly” and motherly to her wards, an outstanding effort would earn a hug and she once fainted when one of her boys got hurt in Boxing. The house was also left alone by the acting Headmaster and the acting Senior Master, Trevor Kemp. (Headmaster Carter left the school that year and went to England for treatment. His replacement, Major Ravi Somdutt, joined in mid-1956.)

Nilagiri’s Senior School Prefect (house captain) was the laid-back Kanwal K. Soi. My memories include his getting out of bed the last, slipping on his PT kit and following the others down to Boys School pavement just in time for the PT whistle, with his shoelaces still untied (we never understood why the admirable and firm instructor Jagdish Ram never pulled him up). Also, he was lying amongst the last in the Open’s Long Jump when he saw the girls arrive for practice and promptly made a huge jump to finish first.

Nilagiri finished the year as usual in the lower half for the Cock House. There was no pressure on anyone as long as we just tried. I distinctly remember our wining the PT Cup, since I had barely perfected the sequence of exercises for Founders and was proud to have contributed to winning the cup.

The transformation begins

As the years passed, Nilagirians sensed cohesiveness in sharing of time, space and activities amongst themselves. Inter-House Teams were only one per house, per sport. Successes, failures and individual efforts generated wide empathy. Even as juniors we never faced bullying or vindictiveness. We actually teased some of our seniors (including KK for his Long Jump) and they laughed it off. If anyone behaved petty, his peers took it up with him. Other houses had odd internal incidents that generated rumours, but we did not. Although Sanawarians traditionally did not tattle (snitch), Saleem Khan encouraged owning up to acts of mischief and would punish the whole house otherwise, but he was even stricter about tattling.

The special closeness had started getting results and in the 4th year, 1958, Nilagiri won its first Cock House. This was the year when Siwalik was probably at its strongest, lead by Head boy Richard Montford, who was achieving national timings in Athletics, and the next Head boy Sangram Gaekwad, who was already at national level in Cricket. Both were also good at boxing and other sports. Siwalikans even in my age group routinely broke school records. Yet, we had won! With exemplary orchestration by house captain Harjit Kochhar.

Our collective euphoria was dampened by the news that Saleem was leaving Sanawar. A Nilagiri house tutor, Uma Prasad Mukherji, was announced as our next House Master. He was head of Physics and school Soccer coach, but was mild and different.

Gathering momentum at the top

The increasing togetherness that had built over 4 years, crowned with the first Cock House win, was never foreseen. New Housemaster U. P. Mukherji was settling in. Matron, Mohini Sehgal, took over the Boys School kitchen with her usual dedication and the Boys’ food standards improved. Fairly-new-to-Sanawar Mrs. Mukherji was the new matron. None of these changes could shake Nilagiri’s continuing growth in confidence and steam-roller passage to success. Everyone chipped in, without coercion or rancour. Life was good.

Swimming had very early become our own sport – Nilagiri couldn’t be beaten from 1956 till 1970. Gymnastics was almost similar, with mainly Nilagiri boys innovating walking-on-hands exercises as well as newer chair tricks for Founders. We then started beating others at their specialities - Siwalik in running sports, Himalaya in boxing and Vindhya in instrumental music (martial, classical and light). Narrowly losing the first place for the Cock House in 1959, Nilagiri regained it in 1960. That year Senior Master Trevor Kemp charged up Sanawar’s pride by the sporting exploits of India’s Ramanathan Krishnan, Milkha Singh and Sanawar’s own Ranjit Bhatia (Rome Olympics). House Captain, Surjit Bhasin, imaginatively leveraged this to increase our enthusiasm and Nilagiri won the most sports cups. Surjit also introduced a hand-written wall newspaper for the house common-room.

Nilagiri boys were asked to play against the girls Netball team to toughen them before inter-school matches (Auckland House School later protested that the Sanawar girls were rough and the only real competition came from the all Old Sanawarian St. Bede’s college team). Nilagiri boys even excelled in non-Sanawar sports like Kabaddi and Volleyball. At year end, a Nilagirian achieved the school record in the (Cambridge) School Certificate examination.

Venturing into the unexplored

  1. Utopian ideals. At the end of 1960, my class was promoted to Sixth Form. Nilagiri Sixth Formers though privileged to have participated in the great evolution of our house, had not yet comprehended the enormity of it. We had, however, matured into innovative thinking and behaviour. Sensing the unusual, we did some utopian introspection to further build Nilagiri’s happiness: be gentle with our juniors; not let others be harsh with them; becoming prefects was not an end and if one did accept the position, the others would ensure one’s fair behaviour.

    The housemaster possibly never understood this, but we were unfazed and carried on regardless. Two of our juniors were appointed as House Captain and House Prefect respectively, while only one out of the 10 of us was appointed a (School) Prefect. Another one us, an obvious candidate, repeatedly refused and was outraged when his name was printed in the school orders as a prefect. He broke bounds that night to walk to Kasauli and see a movie. The Housemaster knew but couldn’t do anything. A third one was appointed prefect half-way during that year.

    We were like a close club. Every night after the school went to bed, we made coffee, chatted and plotted pranks, usually on each other or on understanding others, including staff members (the school news boards on April 1 morning carried reports of strange happenings at midnight at several locations on the school campus). We lived on the edge, even for school rules, but always with harmless intent and usually with one or more staff members in the know. The House Captain though not in the club, went along with our suggestions. We enjoyed ourselves. And so did our house.

  2. A new hiking tradition. Right at the start of the year, we planned Sanawar’s first marathon hike, but only for our house classmates. Working with a house Tutor, we asked for permissions from Housemaster, Headmaster and parents. Only 6 of us got them all and the funds in time. When school closed for the week-long April camps, we trekked with the house Tutor over 100 kilometres from Shimla to Mussourie, navigating with a map, sometimes along a footpath and sometimes along a river, once by torchlight, carrying all our rations, bedding, clothing and one shotgun (against bears). Return was by bus and train via Dehra Dun and Kalka. Our hike report was carried over 3 issues of the Sanawar Newsletter. This hike was emulated annually by subsequent Nilagiri Sixth Formers till it became a regular part of the school calendar and a tradition.
  3. Then a musical tradition. One night, while finalising our hike route over coffee with some interested staff at Holiday Home (Peacestead), Blossom Lyall (Nilagiri Girls Housemistress) and Yvonne Abel (Music Teacher and piano accompanist to the school western orchestra at socials and Kasauli Club dances) suggested some singing. Only one of us was a known singer, so we just sang the School Song. The ladies wanted more so we sang the Assembly hymn “All things bright and beautiful”. They were impressed, discussed it and convinced us that Nilagiri House should later that term perform Sanawar’s first musical. After the April camps and our hike, Nilagiri girls and boys gathered at Barne Hall on a Sunday morning for voice trials, after which we separated into 4-voice categories and then identified prospective soloists. Thereafter, the whole house (girls and boys) would meet every night after supper, around a piano in a room near Parker Hall and sing scales, popular numbers and choruses from a 3-act operetta. It was unprecedented for girls and boys to be meeting at night and daily, over many weeks. The whole school was curious and Nilagiri came together as one great whole, girls and boys, juniors and seniors. From knowing only others’ names, we got to know aptitudes and personalities. One junior was small but had great diction, another sang well but his adolescent voice was breaking, a Lower III girl fell asleep during a song and so on.

    Nilagiri performed “Princess Ju-Ju” that June to a highly curious audience and a resounding response. The Headmaster decided that Sanawar would do the Gilbert & Sullivan opera Mikado for Founders. That too was a great success, with the majority of the cast being Nilagirians. On parental demand for Sanawar to take the opera to the metro cities, Major Somdutt conceded to just 2 shows in Chandigarh over the following weekend. With so many Nilagiri boys being in the cast, the Housemaster allowed the whole house to go along and stay at fellow-Nilagirians’ homes.

    Musicals at Founders thereafter became a tradition, in addition to the School Concert, Prep School Concert and Staff (ADS) Play. They were usually in English but once even in Punjabi (Heer Ranjha). Many were taken to other cities. Years later an exclusive musical based on Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim” was written for and performed by Sanawar.

  4. Setting records alongside. Meanwhile, Hodson Runs (long-distance) had come up in May. Nilagiri in its happy and music-intoxicated state hadn’t done enough practice. At the end of the qualifying heats, we were lying 4th by total points. Moods were depressed. On the day of the finals, where 10 places would win points in each of 4 age groups, a Nilagirian came first in the under 11s with several other placements (Nilagiri was now 3rd above Vindhya in total points). Under 13s also had a Nilagirian first plus several other placements (2nd above Himalaya in points). Under 15s, Siwalikan first (breaking the oldest Hodson’s record), Nilagirian second and several placements (Nilagiri 1st in points). Opens, Siwalikan first, Nilagirians 2nd and 3rd with 5 out of 10 placements! Nilagiri was so far ahead we broke the school total points record - after starting with the lowest number of qualifiers. (Something similar had happened in Soccer, where we started the first and easiest match with a 0-3 deficit.)

  5. First mixed House party. After the Hodson’s sensation, Blossom Lyall was so impressed with the boys whom she had recently got to know, that she got permission from the Headmaster for the Nilagiri girls to throw a celebratory dinner party for the boys - the first ever mixed house party in Sanawar - on the boys’ own dormitory pavement. We devoured the special dinner, played party games, enacted skits and sang with our newly discovered voices.

  6. Jealousy, amongst the staff. Staff from other houses, especially those in charge of games, had been worrying about our ever-growing strength. In the previous year, Nilagiri’s 4x200 Relay Open’s winning team had been disqualified on a ridiculous complaint and had got all its points deducted. We realised this was only going to increase and it did, two 1961 vivid examples being:

    • After Hodson’s and Swimming (which we won as usual) was Boxing. We were good and were advised by the School coach to enter only one or two boxers per weight. On the last day, he announced that more boys were now allowed to be entered. Entries were then closed and Major Somdutt was requested to announce that every boxer would be given an extra point besides the point he would get if he lost in the first bout itself. Himalaya had entered large numbers and even though they won 2 weights against Nilagiri’s 8, they won the competition even before it had begun.

    • In Athletics, Opens run the showcase 800 metres during Founders. Every year before and since, all who achieved qualifying standard ran in the final. In the qualifying heats, the three other houses had one or two qualifiers each. Nilagiri had 6. It was then announced that a maximum of 2 qualifiers per house would run in the final, eliminating only 4 Nilagirians. Fortunately, both our runners won podium places.

    Even with staff opposition, Nilagiri remained far ahead of the pack for the Cock House.

  7. After House Show Dance Party tradition. The Nilagiri girls won their Hockey cup, so we boys hosted a dinner for them, this time in the boys’ common room adjoining the dormitory. At the end of term, on the evening when our house musical had amazed the school, our success was celebrated with Sanawar’s first-ever combined house dinner and dance. And, in the gymnasium, in the heart of Boys School. This post-show party too was in later years allowed for other houses and became a tradition.

    Nilagiri cruised on to wins or close seconds in most competitions – Soccer, Athletics, PT, Shooting, etc. - finishing the year with a flourish, by beating the school record in Studies.


At the end of the school year, Nilagiri Boys Sixth Formers got the opportunity to work with their classmates to ensure healthier relations in future between students and their House Masters, Senior Master and Headmaster. Though beyond the scope of this note, this resulted in several positive actions in the next and later years, including shuffling of housemasters and their appointment for a dormitory, instead of for a house.

Nilagiri never looked back after 1961. Its innovations became Sanawar’s permanent traditions. Over the generations, winning the Cock House became almost a habit. Of the 7 class-batches of Nilagiri boys who shared that inventive and adventurous year, 5 won their Cock House and 4 boys amongst our juniors went on to become Head Boys in their time.