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Lakshmi Ashram: A unique school for girls in Kumaon

Sanat Mohanty
27 May 2006

A residential school for girls, in the shadow of the peak of Nanda Devi, has been graduating confident young women from the girls of Kumaon hills.

Run as per the ideas of Nai Taleem of Gandhiji, Lakshmi Ashram was set up by Sarlaben – a friend and follower of Gandhiji – in ~1964. About 70 girls from 6 to 16 live here with there teachers – didis – and learning by doing.

The children live with their didis – about 5 to 8 children with every didi. They learn by growing their own vegetables, tending to animals they keep in their campus, cooking, getting firewood, cleaning, recording their own temperatures, pressures and rainfall, and taking care of each other.

Set up as teams across age groups, they rotate through these tasks with the help of their didis. They also attend formal classes for about 4 hours of the day – learning languages, math, sciences, history, and geography.

There is a distinct difference in the environment. The openness to questioning is distinct – as aspect missing from most schools (including some of the very best) in India. The girls are quite confident and stand up to ask questions and make comments on aspects of the discussions that concern them. The didis are quite involved in the lives of these girls – and that makes it even more interactive.

However, it is not an easy life. They do not have running water and no heat (it can get quite cold in the shadow of the Himalayan peaks, as we experienced), and the regimen seemed quite strict. In addition, between doing these chores and their formal classes, there is little time for creativity, fun and games.

Some of the creativity is expressed through small skits, plays and local theater that the girls present in local villages. But, except for the younger girls, time to play and learn while playing is rare. The girls, though, seemed to love the environment, with giggling and singing quite common while doing chores as well as in the classroom.

There are also difficulties in running the school. The school had decided not to register itself so that it could maintain the flexibility of learning prescribed by Gandhiji without undue interference from the boards.

However, the girls do have to take the board exams –they do so with the local education board – which requires that all aspects necessary for these exams be covered. This can, however, be constraining.

Nai Taleem was based on learning by doing. By working with cotton, you were to understand different varieties of cotton, associated geographies, climates, soil, texture, spinning, processing, clothes, food security, land rights, among a host of other things. These have had to be dropped in favor of a more streamlined text-book based learning process.

Thus, the girls continue to learn some things by doing and others from text books and the connections have become tenuous since the ‘70s. In a few places, these connections remain strong – understanding weather from rain gauges, perhaps.

However, the value of such learning is not lost as they see the change in patterns of forestry, rainfall, water in their rivers, agriculture, trade, etc. Or the increased presence of alcoholism, questions of health, literacy, government programs. These girls, following Gandhiji’s traditions, go into local villages and organize awareness campaigns on girl child rights, forest conservation, biodiversity, among numerous other issues that they feel important.

Another younger teacher who had studied in a regular school in Garhwal said that it was a challenge to teach the girls. During their education, they had not been allowed to ask all sorts of questions – why and how were there alphabets in algebra, what was a molecule and why did it have a certain chemistry and so on.

Thus, as the content of the course became more abstract, teaching became more difficult. She would certainly appreciate any help, she said, in teaching concepts of physics, chemistry, biology or math to her older students.

Some of the children graduated to join NGOs while many went back to their villages to get married. Some also came back to join the school after further training as teachers. In any case, this school seems to have created confident young women who seem to have an important influence in the families and their communities.

And that is one sort of magic – being created in Kausani – that the world needs.

Source: The South Asian