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Think Change India

Stories as a means to cultural pluralism

Think Change India
26th Feb 2010
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I didn’t read books until I was 21 – no, seriously. I don’t remember reading anything other the Hindu Daily’s last page (sports) and textbooks to get through school. And I regret it wholeheartedly. I wish upon every child to pick up reading as a habit sooner than later.

Reading is liberating.

There is this small strip of forgotten land, almost like an index finger, in the eastern most part of Arunachal Pradesh, extending into Myanmar. A bunch of children from the Lisu tribe, dressed in all colors and sizes, line up along the entrance to a hut about the size of a large truck. Another day of learning begins at Katha-Lisu school for these 2-5 year

olds in the remote village of Gandhigram, where the next nearest school is about 150 km away. A Katha-trained local youth helps the children read an all-color children’s book illustrated in traditional Indian context.The Lisu school is one of the many operated by the Delhi-based organization Katha. Its journey started 22 years ago and over 42,000 under-privileged children have since passed through its “story” schools. Katha operates with a vision that if we empower under-privileged children with confidence and self-reliance – all via story-telling, they will do the right thing to bring their families and communities out of poverty.

A part of the problem when working with poor families is getting the children to school away from having to earn for their families. Katha had to venture into income-generating activities for women so they send and keep their children in Katha’s schools. Some of these schools even have a nursery not so much to benefit working parents, but to benefit older siblings who would otherwise be tending to them at home. In addition to teaching the fundamentals, Katha is inculcating good habits on sanitation, healthy living, reading for pleasure and art appreciation. Katha’s children grow to become agents of change within their communities, acting as a bridge between developmental organizations and insiders.

Over the years, Katha has anchored itself as a catalyst for social change using what they call “triple strength fulcrum” – language, culture and education. And by language, they mean regional literature. Short stories that unravel the complexities of Indian life. Stories for children to imagine a life beyond their surroundings. In a land rich in religious mythology and tribal traditions, there is no dearth of stories or talented writers which lead Katha to pioneer the “Translation for Equity” space. By translating best of India’s fiction, they cut across many regional languages and cultures, making “living a process of seeing and knowing beyond what we see”. Today, they are one of the leading

publishers of translations and literature for children, with editorial branches in all metros and 1.5 millions books published.Katha believes that “stories in translation help youngsters develop a greater awareness and understanding of other cultures and perspectives, which is vital for the pluralistic multilingual society like India.”

Katha is fostering an entire ecosystem of learning and development initiatives for literacy, literature and arts. It has a team of 200 staff managing everything from reading schools in slums, to hosting international Utsavs, to instituting awards for regional creative writing, translation and much more. It boasts a roster of 600 regional writers, translators and illustrators and an informal network of about 6000 volunteers within the Friends of Katha network supporting the dreams of children and women.

Notable among many of its programs is the annual Chitrakala Award. Chitrakala Award aims to find and encourage the best illustrators in India. The award, started in 1998, has since gone international with almost all the winners in 2005 hailing from Iran though the recent 2009 finalists has a strong dose of up and coming Indian illustrators. If you live in India, I am curious to hear from folks who have a chance to flip through Katha’s title Autorickshaw Blues, illustrated by 10-year old Ragini Siruguri!

The brain behind all of this is Geetha Dharmarajan, who had a humble start in 1988 with a magazine for children called

Tamasha, named after a cute baby elephant mascot. In its later reincarnation, Tamasha is now touring the towns as ‘School on Wheels,’ taking knowledge to where children are. The mobile schools provide learning opportunities through theatre, songs, dance, puppetry and even computers, similar to the “Hole on the Wall” initiative.Katha believes that poverty of creativity, compassion and culture are as just bad as economic poverty. In that sense, education is a means to groom every child to become a person of passion and maturity, and to gain the ability to appreciate a good life.

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