In early March this year, the first Bal Utsav or Childrens’ Fair was organized at the Adivasi Academy, Tejgadh. This multi-day event saw the participation of nearly 400 students and teachers from five nearby government schools and the Vasantshala at the Adivasi Academy. There were various sports matches, craft workshops, and a cultural performance by the students of the Adivasi Academy. The idea behind organizing this event was to get students from nearby schools, who are almost all from Adivasi communities, to get to know each other and create an interest in keeping alive their cultural identity. For the Adivasi Academy, creating a local network of schools would mean that whenever activities orientated towards children were being conducted in the future at the Adivasi Academy, it would be easier to include the other local school students too.
The first two days were sports events which saw a healthy rivalry created amongst various schools. For girls, it was kho kho on the grounds of the Adivasi Academy while for the boys, cricket matches had been organized. While Vasantshala’s students were mostly much younger than the students from other schools, they put up a good fight but were eventually knocked out in later matches. I did not get to see much of the kho kho matches since I was roped into umpire the cricket matches (being from Mumbai, the birthplace of cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar, it is inconceivable that I do not already know something about the sport!)
The cricket matches were played on a clearing just outside the Adivasi Academy and were a great crowd-puller. People from nearby villages piled on to vehicles to watch the matches and support their village’s schools. The teachers too took their jobs very seriously and had intensive discussions about strategy between innings and provided constant encouragement to their students from the sidelines. I umpired all the matches along with some other staff members from the Adivasi Academy. The final match was a close one and it came down to the very last ball! Overall, the kids seem to have had a great time and apart from certificates for participating, they each had stories to tell about their achievements on the field.
The next day, there were various activity workshops for children conducted by local artisans and craftspeople who the Adivasi Academy has been in touch with for various events. They came with some finished products but also plenty of raw materials which the children could use to make articles. Before the sun became too hot, all the school children were assembled in the main courtyard of the Adivasi Academy and divided into five groups. Each group would spend just over an hour at the five activity stations which were led by the craftspersons working with clay, bamboo, plant fibers, beads, and wood.
After each group’s time was up, they would move to the next station. This was enjoyed not only by the children but also the school teachers, who enthusiastically participated in learning how to make these articles. While many of these products such as earthenware utensils, brooms from local plants, bamboo baskets, and toys were sold or bartered at local markets or haats, they have increasingly been replaced by factory-made plastic or metal products.
While these traditional products relied on locally available materials and have been made for generations, the factory-made products result in money leaving the community and local knowledge being lost. Workshops such as these are vital in ensuring that the knowledge of generations is handed down to the younger generation.
On the sidelines of these workshops, there was a meeting of teachers from the five schools and Adivasi Academy staff members in the library. It was decided that the Bal Utsav would be a quarterly event and there would be more activities included in subsequent editions. This would result in a strong sense of community formation and the Adivasi Academy remaining abuzz with activity. It was also proposed that the Adivasi Academy library, which over the years has received many children’s books begin lending these to the local government schools. While some books are useful to the students of Vasantshala, several are far too advanced for children, many of whom are first-generation learners and leave the school by age 12. Many of these children’s books are meant for beginning readings and intermediate readers and contain a simple storyline with some illustrations. The simpler books contain several illustrations along with some text in Gujarati, Hindi or English. Several books are also bilingual which would enable children to read a sentence in a language that they are familiar with and also see how that translates into a corresponding language. The more advanced books would be better used by more mature readers at government schools, who otherwise have poorly stocked libraries. About a hundred books each would be sent to each of the five participating schools over a period of two months. Students from the schools would be tasked with maintaining a circulation register and at the end of two months, these books will be circulated to a different school.
The Bal Utsav concluded with the students of Vasantshala performing timli, which is a traditional dance form from this region, followed by a distribution of prizes and certificates for the participants in this event. All in all, the children seemed to have really enjoyed the proceedings and made many new friends.
It was not until recently that I was reminded of the Bal Utsav. As I was cycling to work one morning, I was overtaken by an autorickshaw whose many passengers included a little boy of around 8-10 years. Enthusiastically waving to me, he called out to me shouting…. “Umpire Kaka”!*
*Kaka is an honorific term for an older man in Gujarati.