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By Manjira Majumdar

Poverty and inaccessibility keep the adivasi children of six villages in Birbhum district, West Bengal, out of government schools. But they are getting an innovative and creative non-formal education at Suchana. A storybook written and illustrated by the children themselves has just been published

ongs from the Koel’s Flute

It’s a slim storybook for children, but what’s unique about it is that the stories in it are not written for children, but by children. Called Kokiler Banshir Sur in Bengali (roughly translated that would be Songs from the Koel’s Flute), the stories in this book are short and sweet. The illustrations too are done by the children.  

Kokiler Banshir Sur comes out of a literacy project by the Uttar Chandipur Community Society, called Suchana. 

“The storybook grew out of the school magazine idea,” says Kirsty Milward, one of the main pillars of Suchana. She and her husband Rahul Bose started Suchana in 2004 as a pre-school initiative for their own three pre-school children and for others who were interested. Gradually, this non-formal school in Uttar Chandipur, about 6 km from Shantiniketan, in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, took on a life of its own. It presently caters to the education and health needs of around 150 children, aged between four and 13, from six villages in the region. 

Somnath Dolui, who was one of the three main resourcepersons for the creative writing classes every Wednesday for about three months, guided the children through the entire writing process. He said: “In stories, everyone talks -- the sky, birds, rivers.” He told them to write about anything. To bank on their own impressions, members of their family, their experiences. And to try and come up with a funny ending. That’s all the instructions he gave. This freedom resulted in a riot of imaginative, original stories. 

To get the children to think independently and write their own stories, Somnath had to be a storyteller himself, first. He drew on his own repertoire of stories and books from the Suchana library. 

Bengal has a rich tradition of children’s folktales; the children had to first identify with the concept of a tale.

Sometimes the teachers gave them story-starters, and sometimes they started with a discussion on a recent event or a day they had enjoyed. They were then asked to write about it. Each had an exercise book in which to write their stories; some had five or six. From this pool the best stories were selected and finally voted to become part of the book. It took a year for the book to be printed, but the anticipation of a book in print kept the children enthused right from the start. 

Even as the book was being produced the children continued writing better and more varied stories; the illustrations did not start until after the stories were selected. 

There are 14 stories in the final collection, including a travel story and two poems. More have been banked for future use. 

Kokiler Banshir Sur

Children who attend the early learning group (ELG) classes at Suchana are mostly from adivasi or tribal communities. About 77% of them belong to the Kora and Santhal communities and are largely children of peasants and fishermen. Needless to add, most of the children’s parents have had little or no formal education. So even if the parents desire an education for their children -- something they never had due to lack of opportunities -- poor accessibility and poverty keep children out of government schools in the area. 

The ELG classes are held thrice a week; Wednesdays are reserved for creative exercises that encourage learning through creative means so that the children are motivated to attend regular schools. For those who do not or cannot attend school, these classes are an alternative. Creative writing is a one-year course for what are roughly 4, 5 and 6 grades, covering the ages between 7 and 13. The group, along with other children who may not have taken the special course, engages in other creative pursuits such as art, craft and music, which includes dancing and singing in four languages -- Bengali, Santhal, Kora (the first languages of these communities) and English. 

Says Kirsty: “Nearly all of the adivasi children have very little in terms of material resources -- no electricity, no sanitation, no shoes, one set of clothes; also little in the way of formal education resources to draw on from home. But they do have a beautiful village and environment and rich cultural resources which we try to engage with and draw on.” 

The stories in the book reflect this proximity with nature. The creative writing classes “were held outdoors, under trees and on the banks of the river,” says Jhuma Gonrai, a student of Burdwan University and a volunteer along with Gopal Saha, their very popular art teacher, once a student of Calcutta College of Art. All this is amply evident in the stories. Take, for example, Pooja Hazra’s delightful story about three ants which records the conversation between three ants on their colour -- black, brown and red. The red ant says it is red because it sucks human blood; the black says it is covered in soot; the white ant got its colour by dabbing on powder every day! 

Sumana Pandit’s story is on ‘Somnath sir’. She writes: “Somnath da you are our teacher. You are very good. You teach us well. I think your fat stomach holds a baby. If you have one along with your wife you will have one child each, which means two children!” 

Then of course there’s the title story about the babui bird weaving a nest for the kokil that cannot build a nest for its babies and is so unhappy that it stops singing. With a little bit of help from the weaver bird, the kokil starts singing again, or, as the story puts it, resumes “playing the flute melodiously”.  

Somnath confesses: “It was not easy to get the children to put their thoughts on paper initially. They were better narrators or painters of beautiful pictures, but when it came to writing it was difficult.” But patience and perseverance paid off. 

Kirsty adds: “Rural children have different influences, different reference points, different observations to draw on -- I think you can see that in their art work and in some ways their stories too. I don’t believe there are significant differences in the imaginative potential of rural and urban children, but there are differences in their experiences and opportunities.”  

Kokiler Banshir Sur is priced at a modest Rs 50. 

With an eye on future growth, Suchana is building a new education and resource centre and community clinic that is coming up on 1.5 acres in one of the six villages and will accommodate a bigger health clinic than the one already being run by the 19-member village-based committee. It will also house a bigger library and the education programme which already has an explicit focus on ‘creative’ work such as art, crafts, drama, etc, in the belief that creative abilities are an important factor in nurturing critical thinking. 

(Manjira Majumdar is an independent journalist based in Kolkata. She also writes children’s fiction) 

Infochange News & Features, October 2009