Colorful Journey: Students Explore India’s Epic History and Vibrant Culture

Along the banks of the Yamuna River, thousands of red sandstone bricks used to construct the Lal-Qila , or Red Fort of Delhi, gleam in the bright afternoon sun. This extensive compound, built between 1639 and 1648, is today a World Heritage Site and one of India’s architectural ‘jewels.’ It is also one of numerous places that Mount Madonna School elementary students have learned about in preparation for Mount Madonna School’s (MMS) annual Cultural Awareness event, planned for March 28 and 29. This popular assembly showcasing elementary students’ dramatic talents and creativity is the culmination of two months of focused study on a particular world culture: this year, the epic history and colorful diversity of India.

“While watching the delightful presentations of our students in their Cultural Awareness rehearsals, I again reflected on the learning that occurs during this process,” comments MMS Head of Lower School, Supriya McDonald. “Our Cultural Awareness tradition began more than two decades ago with the intent of introducing students to a variety of cultures and increasing their appreciation, knowledge and respect for others. Through performance our students develop confidence, public speaking skills and experience the benefits of collaboration.

“While MMS students are regularly exposed to India’s story of Ramayana , through our annual production, this is the first time our elementary program has explored the variety of cultures that comprise India. Given the many global connections between our countries and the rich access we have to resources both in India and locally, teachers have developed a wonderful, in-depth exploration of India. The stories they have chosen to perform represent ancient myths, wildlife, history and famous sites. The dances are each in an authentic style, introduced to students by alumni parent and retired MMS dance teacher Asha Pandya [Shruti, ’03 and BY, ’11] in collaboration with elementary dance teacher Lorraine Kinnamon.”

Cultural Awareness attendees will have the opportunity to purchase many of the student-created India-themed artworks on display. Proceeds from the sale will be donated in the form of an environmentally-targeted grant to the Sri Ram Ashram and the Sri Ram Vidya Mandir School in Haridwar, India. Mount Madonna chose this recipient of funds based on a longtime “sister school” relationship.  

“The elementary teachers discussed options for continuing with a service component that models philanthropy to our students as part of our Cultural Awareness study,” explains third grade teacher Hamsa Heinrich. “As we looked to India this year – a country with so much need – we selected the Sri Ram Ashram and its school to receive our donation. Our seniors are headed there soon and we strive to keep our vital connections strong. I so appreciate the steady stream of MMS alumni who continue to visit there, bringing their talents, skills, and love to ashram children, and in return their experience add great meaning to their own lives. We hope to empower and support our friends on the other side of the world to keep fighting to protect our global environment.” 

Mount Madonna will have two dates for Cultural Awareness for the first time this year, due to the growth of the elementary enrollment and to accommodate the audience comfortably. This year, parents, grandparents and special friends of PreK through second grade students are invited to attend on March 28; guests of 3rd through 5th grade students on March 29. Here are some highlights of what the show will include:

Using handmade peacock puppets, preschool and kindergarten students will do a countdown poem in Gujarati called “Five Little Peacocks”; as well as performing a Tamil song, “Silver Shining Moon,” with hand movements inspired by Bharatanatyam , the south Indian classical dance style.

First grade students will retell an enchanting tale from Indian folklore with their play, “The Elephant Dance.” They will also present an evocative interpretation of this beloved animal in their dance, “I Am an Elephant of India.” 

“I want to spark my students’ interest in other cultures and help them to realize how much there is to discover about the world around them, outside of what they experience directly,” shares first grade teacher Cassia Laffin. “In exposing students to other geographic regions, people, languages and cultures, I hope to inspire in them a deep-seated respect and appreciation for cultural diversity.”

Second graders’ original play, “Same, Same but Different,” is a dreamy skit about a boy from MMS who falls asleep wondering what the similarities and differences are between the U.S. and India. In his dream, he’s visited by Sarasvati (the Hindu Goddess of Knowledge, Music, Arts and Science), along with other ‘dream teachers’ to help him learn about India. The play was inspired by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw’s book of the same title. 

“We developed this concept by defining ‘Culture’ and ‘Awareness,’ shares second grade teacher Jenni Leach. “Students brainstormed cultural aspects they thought were most important, and then each student researched a topic to report on. Students designed the skit, wrote the words, and worked with me to choreograph their movements. Students employed technology, cooperation, and creativity as they shared in learning about India.” Second graders will also perform “Dandiya,” a traditional stick dance. 

Fifteenth century Birbal ‘wisdom tales’ from the Mughal court of emperor Akbar will be the focus of the third grade’s presentation. 

“Even though Akbar was one in a long string of invaders, he valued the local culture, arts and religions, and they all flourished under his rule,” notes Heinrich. “This was very different from other Persian invaders. Third graders will act out some ‘Birbal tales.’ Birbal was a poor Hindu who was very intelligent and clever. Akbar recognized his genius and appointed him as a minister of justice. Many jealous court members tried to trip Birbal up, but he always found fair solutions for impossible situations.” Third graders will also perform a Rajastani-inspired dance.

Fourth graders will take the audience on an “eco-tour of India,” sharing information they’ve learned about India’s endangered animals. In the classroom, a broad range of other cultural aspects as well, including population, climate, culture, religions, geography, industry, and food. 

For their study of India, fifth graders have had a two-fold focus: critically endangered animals and how this relates to their environmental project; and the roots of India through a study of ancient mythology. Each fifth grader is studying a different god or goddess, creating an oral presentation and an accompanying art piece. 

At the performance, students will present a dramatic adaptation from  Hindu mythology called “Savitri: A Tale of Ancient India.” The story is about tells how Savitri, through love and devotion, wins back her husband’s life from the god of death. The legend of Savitri forms a part of the epic Mahabharata, one of two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India – the other being the Ramayana. 

“Through integrating the disciplines of social studies, science, language arts, visual arts, dance and music for our Cultural Awareness assembly,” comments McDonald,  “we are creating a powerful vehicle of direct learning experience that is evident in our students’ performances.”


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, Media & Public Relations,

Nestled among the redwoods on 355 mountaintop acres, Mount Madonna is a safe and nurturing college-preparatory school that supports students in becoming caring, self-aware and articulate critical thinkers, who are prepared to meet challenges with perseverance, creativity and integrity. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville.