Just two hours outside of Jaipur there is a rather unusual learning centre. Unusual in the sense that children can come and go as they please, learn, play or do absolutely nothing – the choice is theirs. There is no curriculum, exams and children aren’t given homework. Masti Ki Paathshala doesn’t replace state schooling; instead this initiative has blossomed to allow children of Agar village more freedom in their spare time. Freedom to develop their own learning style, friends of different ages and most recently; to meet foreigners from across the globe. This is where I came in. For one week I visited Agar village and lent a helping hand to this new, exciting centre.
Gautam, a former teacher from the city is the brains behind the project. It was his ambition to find a rural village that needed support in development and education. Instead of young generations continuing to move to the city to find work, he wanted to introduce methods that would keep them at home. Agar is another typical example of village life in India: zero to low income families living in mud houses, tending farmland whilst finding ways to cope with serious drought.
Kaluram, a born and bred local of Agar, has become a trusty business partner and helps to run the centre. In the evening, his mother, father and three sisters host volunteers in their home for delicious authentic food. Every night I’d sit on the floor chewing on my roti, smiling at the playful kids (baby goats in this instance) in the corner of the room. Outside buffalo were preparing for their rest and as the last of the sabzi was slurped, the father would settle down to tell a story.
Of course everywhere has its problems. Even in a small, rural village like this luxuries such as tobacco and alcohol are a concern. Masti Ki Paathshala has created a place for children to escape the negative effects of such things. Here they can integrate, learn new skills and fill their free time with positive activities. Gautam only recently signed up to workaway and feels that the volunteers have brought a whole new element to the project. Now these kids (human ones this time) are widening their perspective and the world is suddenly much bigger than the 400 people surrounding them. Some of the parents are worried that all the children do in the centre is play. In these first few months it has been important to ensure that first and foremost their school homework and studies are taken seriously, which is why centre opening hours have been strictly set. That and the fact the kids would never leave otherwise!
Arts and crafts, music, English lessons, book reading, mathematics, self-defence, sowing, jewellery making, IT, waste management and photography have all been introduced at the centre so far. Sometimes the young kids just want to relax with a cartoon, and in Gautam’s eyes that is perfectly OK. The entire purpose of this space is to allow children to feel comfortable, creative and safe. Not only that, but each week Maasti Ki Paathshala holds a film screening which all of the neighbours are invited to.
During my time there around 30 kids from 4 – 15yrs were frequently popping in – it was evident they loved to spend time at the centre. And more importantly, it was the same faces I saw coming back again and again.
The future for this project looks very promising. Gautam hopes to buy more land to provide a larger working/playing space. This will also enable more volunteers to dedicate their time and exchange skills. The hope is to inspire the young generation to develop skills and knowledge that will give them the means (and desire) to stay living in their beautiful village. So far the women have made beautiful bags, laptop cases and other crafts at the centre. Gautam has secured a stall in the city where he hopes to sell these creations and gain income for the village.
I felt incredibly privileged to spend time with warm people in a simple setting. Coming from a fast-paced, consumerist land I hope they will soon realise their lifestyle has a lot to offer if so many western people are purposefully seeking out to spend time in their village.