Pongal/ Shankranti Time!!

Pongal is the most important festival in rural Tamilnadu and Sittilingi is no exception. The anticipation starts a week ago when houses get renovated and fresh coat of lime wash applied on all the houses. Thulir children too were eagerly looking forward and we were all a little depressed at the thought of us not being there during Pongal, for we had fixed a visit to the Pune area to visit a couple of interesting projects during the Pongal time. So we had a special session on making “kolam” in thulir and it was a lot of fun, with the whole place tranformed by a lot of laughter, fun, visitors and beautiful patterns and colours. The Thulir kitchen is functioning since the December holiday camps, and so we had hot, tasty “sundal” to eat.

Visit to Vigyan Ashram , Pabal [near Pune]

The Vigyan Ashram at Pabal was started 25 years ago by Dr Kalbag. It aims to provide multi-skill training in technologies among school children.The philosophy is that doing things with ones hands helps improve ones capacity to learn, thus the intellectual and physical pursuits are brought together. It also gives confidence to learn new skills as well as to face real life situations.

The course at the Ashram is a year long one with introduction to varied skills in the following areas: Engineering [plumbing/ welding, masonry etc.], animal husbandry and agriculture, food preservation, health, energy and environment [maintenance of various gadgets, motor winding and repair, fabrication of bio-gas plants / solar water heater etc.]

The emphasis is on doing real life projects, with proper costing done and the students labour charged for. It is a requirement of the project that each student earns at least Rs 1000 by the end of the course! This means that work is done with a lot of seriousness and every class session is challenging and intensely engaging for the student.

The programme has been running successfully for the past 25 years. That it still continues with a lively spirit and enthuses so many students to come and learn is a testament to the sound base on which the whole idea rests and the the way the course is conducted. The Maharashtra Govt is now trying to replicate the course for school students in rural areas. Interestingly, the pilot project Dr Kalbag ran in three Govt schools showed improved academic performance of the students who undertook this course compared to those who didn’t.

It is really interesting to see Vigyan Ashram very successfully adapting Nai talim ideas to contemporary rural society. It has managed to retain an “Ashram” culture of frugality [nothing is wasted…while the meals provided are wholesome, no waste is allowed to come out of the dining hall], while providing the students with all the latest tools to improve ones skills [computers, a design and fabrication lab, etc.].

The seriousness of the pursuit has not robbed the place of fun. There is much laughter and joking around, and work does-not seem to be a drudgery. This is a significant achievement. The fact that the course is a multi skill one, provides for variety [as against repetitive boredom of modern factory skills [say machining/ welding etc.]. Here variety ranges from knitting and pickle making to assembling computers!! It also importantly helps the student to get a feel for the variety of skills that are required in the real world and to be able to experiment for oneself to find which particular skill/s interest him/her the most. The student thus is in a good position to choose his/her vocation. It has also been reported that students have done well in the industry as they are able to do multi tasking and are not limited to their specialised skill. In the villages too, it is helpful that they are able to provide a variety of services and thus improve their earning capacity, as there is often not enough demand for one particular skill.

For more details of the project and Dr Kalbag’s recounting of interesting stories from the project, you may like to visit the following link:

We are really glad we made this trip to Pabal as it has clarified so many doubts we have been having regarding training the dropout children in life skills:

What skills do we give them?

How will our giving skills help them to make a living in real life?

Work in the school situation has always been a problem… how does one ensure that children’s natural enthusiasm and liveliness is preserved? Can work be more learning and fun and less of drudgery?

Will our children get stuck to one or two skills they pick up? Will they have the ability to learn newer skills and adapt themselves to changing technologies?

Is it possible for rural children to interface with and learn from newer technologies [computers, cell phones etc] without getting overwhelmed?

Visit to Phaltan

It was nice to visit Maxine Bernsten, who has been running an alternative school in Phaltan. Her warmth and humility were inspiring and we were really fortunate to be able to have many discussions on various topics from language teaching methods, to skills training of children, to impact of technology, to work of Martin Buber!!

In Phaltan we also visited ARTI, an NGO working on appropriate rural technologies. We saw very interesting technologies and found their solar dryer and charcoal briquette stoves particularly useful for our area.

Visit to Children’s Science Centre at IUCCA, Pune University

Arvind Gupta, works at this centre and has written many books on science teaching. He also teaches making of interesting science toys from ordinary, low-cost [often waste] materials. In fact in 1993, meeting with him in one of his workshops at Gandhigram, was what is responsible for our getting inspired to work with children. As always, meeting him recharged us and his child like enthusiasm rubbed off to us. When we got into the train to head back home after meeting him, one of the first things we did was to make paper caps with the children travelling with us!!

His website http://www.arvindguptatoys.com has illustrations on how to make some of the toys and an exhaustive list of books on children’s education as well as good children’s literature.


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