John's Pick
The works listed here are a creative responses to our time by artists, writers and activists.

Making a difference

Nestling in the hills of Wayanad district, Kanavu teaches tribal children to confront their past, their own identity - and also how to pass exams.


This school doesn't just educate, it helps retrieve lost tribal pride

Kanavu means dreams. Years ago, writer and social activist K. J. Baby dreamt of setting up a school where tribal children could grow up in a habitat beyond the clutches of landlords and settlers who held them in bondage. Baby wished to reach into the recesses of the tribal psyche and tap the talent genius of the community. Most of all, he wanted the children of the forest to stand on an equal footing with the kids in the cities. Baby and his wife, Shirley, set to work on realizing their dream. They created a school out of a cluster of thatched structures standing on six acres of land donated by a trust. And they christened it Kanavu.
Kanavu nestles among the rolling hills of North Kerala's Wayanad district, which has a high concentration of tribals. With its innovative teaching methods and visible impact on a crop of students drawn from the social underclass, Kanavu is making waves and drawing the attention of authorities who see it as a role model. The school discards conventional practices, there is no classroom, no syllabus. "Our aim is to teach self-reliance to these children who've no access to the opportunities offered by society to a more privileged class of children. We want to prove tribal kids are capable of learning the same skills as 'mainstream' children. For that, we must first teach them to respect themselves", says Baby.
Overcoming the ugly legacy of a history of bondage is the first step on that road. The children are taught to confront their past not through textbooks but by invoking living examples drawn from the life of the community. The next step is to initiate them into the process of skills development. They learn music, painting, dance, theatre and martial arts. Tribal folk songs and rituals form the core of the effort to reinforce their sense of identity. Farming is integral to the process of picking up a traditional, gainful occupation.

Baby says his school equips the children to sit for any of the competitive exams 'mainstream' kids are trained for: "We don't follow a question-answer format, but our children are grounded in the basics". Still, the objective is not to produce a generation of students obsessed with passing exams. The priority is to build the children's self-confidence and provide avenues of self-expression. Coming from disparate tribal groups with a history of mutual hostility, the children are taught to bond with each other and rise above divisive tendencies. Essentially, Kanavu teaches children to integrate the best elements of the community and enhance the quality of life and awareness levels of the tribals.
These objectives are woven into the daily regimen. The school's 52 children are divided into seven groups and are allotted chores like sweeping the premises, cleaning toilets, tending the cows and preparing food for the other kids. The day starts with lessons in Kalaripayattu, the traditional martial art of Kerala, which is intended to erase the fear and sense of insecurity that accompanies generations of brutal oppression. Training in music and classical dance take up the post lunch phase, followed by academic instruction in specific subjects (often provided by visiting teachers). Scientific awareness is inculcated by stimulating interest in the local environment, supplemented later by books, slides and pictures. "This method is better than memorizing equations and theorems," Baby points out.

The school follows the "gurukul" system where teachers live with students and receive no remuneration. And its song and dance that literally sustains Kanavu. The students, with a formidable reputation as performers of traditional tribal dances and folk songs, are much in demand in neighbouring schools and even in elite social clubs as far away as Thiruvananthapuram. The proceeds from the performance are just enough for the school to balance its budget, but it's impact on the audience that's more important. "Its an important form of cultural transaction," observes Alexander, physics teacher at the A.R. Nagar High School in Malappuram. "We learn a lot about Wayanad and its tribals". Immersed in song and dance on a bare stage, Kanavu's children are retrieving their community's lost pride.

Their address:
Kanavu, Nadavayal P.O, Wayanad - 670 721, Kerala, India; Phone: 00 91 493 681114

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