Ansarwada, tehsil Nilanga, district Latur. As we, the samata.shiksha team, entered this tiny village, we could hear the drumbeats of both the modern and the traditional bands, as they played to welcome us. As we wound our way through the village, we saw dilapidated dwellings and some concrete structures, and a few children in grimy clothes at play. As soon as we reached the school, a group of local acrobats began entertaining us with their skills. Though at first we admired their nimbleness and agility, and their fearless acts with metal rods and glass bottles, after a point we could not bear to watch anymore and begged them to stop – it felt inhuman to let them carry on in this manner for our sakes.
These acrobats, known locally as ‘Dombari’, officially belong to ‘Gopal Khelkari’ community. We had no idea such a community existed. Narsingh Zarey, Headmaster of the ZP school here, had taken the initiative to have the community notified in the government gazette, and to help get them their ADHAAR (unique identity) and voter registration cards.
For over two decades, Zarey ‘Sir’ has been tirelessly working to improve the conditions of this community, using the school as a means. He says, “I started working here in Ansarwadi in 1995. I too belong to this community, and used to earn my living from acrobatic acts and begging. Bootlegging was another common occupation, with both young and old people, men as well as women, being addicted to alcohol as well as ganja (marijuana). My father, too, was an addict, because of which our family suffered greatly.”
He continues, “The situation was extremely depressing. Their living conditions were pathetic as they were unaware of simple hygiene. Diseases and infections were rampant. Women often bore as many as 20 children in their lifetimes. They were steeped in superstition, and I grew convinced that education was the only way out for the community.”
“So I started off by gathering the children together to play games, using the opportunity to teach them poems and songs and to tell them stories with a moral. We did these activities for almost a year before I embarked on teaching them the alphabet and numbers. Then in 2001, we started a community school.”
Zarey ‘Sir’ found that the path towards school-building was riddled with difficulties. “A school was a novel idea for these people. They would wonder why small children should be sent to school when they could earn money begging on the streets? The community disapproved of my efforts, because along with formal education, I was trying to bring about a change in their personal habits and their way of living. I was teaching the students about hygiene, I was explaining the relationship between lack of cleanliness and disease. I can still remember how often I had to bathe the children in school, cut their nails, even spend my own money on haircuts and decent clothes for them. But the community adults thought I was encouraging their children to rebel against their traditions. They would often quarrel with me, and I was even threatened a few times.”
Ignoring the disagreements and threats, Zarey ‘Sir’ continued to work with the children. He was convinced that sooner or later the community at large would come around. He says, “The children here are used to eating stale food. We tried giving them fresh and nutritious food through the midday meal scheme. We sought donations of rice and food grains from the more prosperous residents of Latur so that these children could have a freshly cooked meal in the evenings as well. This campaign was well received.”
As he continued his work, Zarey ‘Sir’ was constantly thinking of ways to improve the community’s living standards. He knew that acrobatic performances earned them very little, and he also wanted them to stop begging. So he worked tirelessly to gain their confidence and trust. He knew that many of them played musical instruments to accompany the acrobatic performances. This gave him the idea that they could probably make a living as musicians if they formed their own band. He tried to have a few young men from the community musically trained in nearby villages. But most villagers did not want to have anything to do with people they considered smelly and unkempt.
Finally ‘Sir’ sent some people to Hyderabad to train as musicians in a band.
These men returned from Hyderabad trained and confident. They taught about 180 other men, and soon the Gopal Khelkari community had discovered a new occupation. They started getting invitations to play from nearby villages, and today this is the main source of income for some 87 families in Ansarwada. Though initially their earnings were small, the picture soon changed for the better. Today the community have established themselves as accomplished band masters. As their income increased, Zarey ‘Sir’ got them to start saving some money. He started savings groups for men as well as women, and insisted they put aside at least a rupee each day. For the first time ever, these people who had survived through begging had money in hand.
Through this period, the issue of a school building remained unresolved. Classes were held in a tin shed, which was unbearably hot in the Latur summer. Zarey ‘Sir’ now concentrated on acquiring a recognition certificate from the district council. After several visits to the headquarters, his perseverance paid off and the district council approved the school proposal. But there was no land on which to build and no money to buy the land.
And now the community came through, with a joint contribution of Rs 37,000. Another Rs 50,000 was needed to buy the necessary quantum of land. Zarey ‘Sir’ appealed to the more prosperous residents of Latur, and was successful in raising the required funds. The school bought land in Ansarwadi village for Rs 87,000 and, with the help of government funds reserved for the structure, constructed a school building in 2008. This was how the ZP School at Ansarwadi came into existence.
Through the savings groups Zarey ‘Sir’ encouraged women to learn handloom weaving. One of them, Sakhubai Bandidhangar, was keen. So Zarey’s wife accompanied her to Pune, where she learned to weave. Today nearly 40 women from the community earn their living weaving quilts, napkins and small colourful swaddling cloths for infants. They also re-use old cloth to make floor mats, carpets and quilts. They now participate in exhibitions in Latur and other parts of Maharashtra, where their products fetch a good price.
Once the ZP School was constructed, Zarey ‘Sir’ focused on the education. He says, “There are 624 people in this community here, and every child from each family comes to school. Students who have studied here can read and write, those who have joined the band know how to keep accounts of moneys received, they issue receipts, and no-one can take them for a ride. All of this has helped convince the people of Ansarwadi of the importance of education.”
He adds, “ Marathi is not the mother tongue for this community. Their language is closer to the Banjara dialect. As I knew that language, I was able to gain their trust and confidence. But I have learned that it is not possible to teach students by rote. We have to make education relevant. For example, we have tried to change how we teach the alphabet so that they can relate to each word starting from a given letter and remember it easily. They cannot relate to ‘Ganpati’ (the deity Ganesha) so I cannot teach them the sound ‘Ga’ as ‘Ga’ for ‘Ganpati’. But they understand very well if I say ‘Ga’ is for ‘Gadhav’ (donkey). They can relate better to ‘bh’ for ‘bhakri’ (flat bread) than ‘bh’ for ‘bhatji’ (priest). So I try to keep these aspects in mind.
We have a long way to go as yet; we have to improve the overall quality of education, and draw upon their innate agility and acrobatic skills to teach gymnastics.”
Blog & photos: Snehal Bansode-Sheludkar
Translation & editing: samata.shiksha team