The Primal Campfire Experience
Fire is a primal element. ‘Agni’ (or fire) is the first word of Rik Veda; and contains the structure of the entire universe within it. Fire is also a dangerous element. It can burn and destroy. It can reduce beautiful and valuable things into ashes in no time. It can change direction easily with the blowing of the wind. Fire can leave scars that last a lifetime. However, it can also create impressions that last a lifetime.
Fires are used for religious and cultural purposes. Sanatan dharma believes in using sacred fire (as havan or homa) to purify the spirit. Fire is used as a witness to an oath. Fires are burned for cultural activities, e.g. Holika Dahan. On Dusshera (or Vijayadashmi Day), fire is used to burn the effigy of the bad guys. Fireworks are used as celebration, as for Independence Day celebrations on the Fourth of July.
In modern times, the fire element has been completely contained and tamed. Something catching fire is usually in a bad connotation, e.g. wild fires that burn whole swathes of dry forests. Only occasionally is ‘catching fire’ used to describe some runaway social success. Children rarely get to experience fire. Fire can be seen mostly as a small contained fire in the stove to provide heat for cooking purposes. The role of fire as a source of light has been completely emasculated and been taken over by electric light. Fire has many other roles too. (See http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campfire for a good exposition on what a campfire means). Fire even provides a psychological sense of security. Campfires create a strong sense of bonding.
There are very few university campuses that hold bonfires or campfires regularly. It is in this spirit that we created a new tradition of bonfires or campfires at MUM. Initially it started as a bonfire for Holi in March of this year. The response from the campus community was overwhelming. Almost 200 people came and stayed with the fire for hours. One could see the grimaces from snowy cold jacket-grabbing walk spontaneously melting into warm smiles of mysterious exhilaration as they walked from the parking lot towards the campsite and began to experience the warmth of the campfire. Even with snow flurries and an inch of snow accumulated, students wildly sang and danced in the light and warmth of fire for more than 2 hours, till past midnight. We provided some peanuts and sweets to eat. We also provided dry colors to play Holi with. It was a great success. Our head of security organized the fire for us, and he shared something very insightful. He said that we used to have these kinds of events earlier, and there was no student retention problem.
So we repeated the experience last August, partly to welcome a new batch of incoming students for the Fall semester. We held a bonfire after a beautiful dance-and-music celebration of Krishna Janamashtmi. The experience was similarly wildly exhilarating. It was not cold outside, and some people earlier wondered if campfire in the summer was a good idea. But the response from the students was overwhelming. They stayed on again till almost midnight.
We repeated the experience again this Diwali (celebrated just a few days ago). We had a nice colorful 90-minute song-and-dance celebration in our beautiful spacious auditorium. And then the bonfire was lit at 9:30 pm. Once again a couple of hundred people walked over to the fire. Many newcomers to the bonfire said they had planned to spend just about 5 minutes at the fire just to get a taste of it. But then they stayed on for a couple of hours. They stayed because others were staying on, and it was warm and cosy there to begin with. It was a dark nearly no-moon night but the sky was lit up for us with this fire.
As education and learning becomes increasingly online, universities will need to find something special to attract and retain the students. One can create strong bonds with the students in many ways. Holding regular large bonfires is one such way. I recommend it with all my heart!