The school year’s over now, but during the school year, as I approached Gramin Shiksha Kendra’s Jaganpura school, I was often welcomed by shouts of “Tali Madam! Khelo!” (Come play!)
Jaganpura Uday Pathshala was the first school I started my project at. It’s known locally as the tapriwala school, defined by its one room buildings that form a circle to create the school campus. In winter, the children have morning assembly in the circular ground between the buildings. In spring and summer, they have the assemblies under a nearby open shed, which allows for a cool breeze to waft through. Beyond the circular buildings there is sprawling land where the children play–and they play hard. It seems like no matter the weather, someone is playing football or kabbadi or cricket. The Jaganpura girl’s handball team is one of the best in Rajasthan state–they’ve won the under 14 state level tournament. I’ve seen them win, easily, against teams significantly older than them with scores like (and I’m not kidding here) 30 to 2.
The Jaganpura children first taught me how to conduct my research. I was shy in the beginning, unsure of how to build relationships in the community. Within the first few days of my visit to the school, they invited me to walk them home. “Didi, gao!” (Sing!) they said, while we were en route. I complied with a few phrases of various Bollywood songs I knew, and they giggled. “Abhi aap gao,” (Now you sing) I replied. We walked to the village, belting out songs.
It was the Jaganpura school children who introduced me to their parents. I began visiting the children at their homes, building relationships, letting the community know why I was here. Thanks to the Jaganpura school children I’ve gotten to know families that I’ve grown to care deeply about. I started spending time with the community as part of my research project, but it’s not just about that anymore–it’s also about personal relationships.
The kids of Jaganpura school are unabashed. Goli plops herself on my lap, or jumps into my arms if I’m standing. Rinku draws on his own face (and sometimes others) during the workshops I do with the children–sometimes I have to pull him off of the pole in the tin shed that he’s climbed up during the workshop. Abhishek stands stick-straight up during morning assembly and belts–really belts–out a poem at maybe 85 decibels. Suman holds my hand as she chats with me about her family.
The children of Jaganpura Uday Pathshala come from approximately six villages neighboring the schools–Jaganpura, Khawa, Khandoj, Ranwal, Charoda, and Maaliyan ki Daani. Whereas Girirajpura, the other school I’ve worked with and written about in the past, is composed of relocated villages that used to reside within the forest, the villages connected to Jaganpura school reside on the fringe of the forest–of the tiger reserve. Tigers are a common occurrence in these villages. Back in November, a tiger fell in a well in Khawa (the tiger was okay in the end–the forest department came and collected it and released it back in the forest). The children talked about it for weeks.
Relationships to the forest are strong here. Women go into the forest to collect wood for supplies–for cooking, for creating posts to tie animals to. People also go into the forest to visit shrines and worship–Mewa, one of the women from Maaliyan ki Daani who has become a good friend, has described to me how the women go into the forest to bathe in the river and to worship Shankar Bhagwan. Women also collect the materials from the forest for a local art form known as Mandana and some families graze their livestock there. In the workshops I conducted with the children, the forest featured heavily in the children’s imaginations. Stories of friendships between tigers, parrots, and monkeys abounded. The children spoke enthusiastically of trees, fruits, and both farm and forest animals.
But similarly to Girirajpura, this relationship to the forest is not without conflict. The forest is the home of the Ranthambore National Park–a tiger reserve. The relationship the communities have with the forest is technically banned. It is illegal for them to go into the forest, to collect wood, to graze their animals there. There’s a blossoming tourist industry due to the park, but industry rarely hires locals–and if they do, it is often for menial pay. The hotels also buy up valuable farming and grazing land. While these villages are not relocated, several people in interviews told me that they expect to be relocated within the coming years.
So this is a key point to the project we’re doing this year. The narratives surrounding conservation in Ranthambore typically revolve around the tigers and the other animals that reside in the forrest. There is significantly less conversation about the people who live on the fringe of the forest–who are human beings leading their lives. Gramin Shiksha Kendra is having a cultural exhibit this year–June 10th at Jaganpura–and June 5th in Girirajpura (and if you’re interested you are welcome to come! Just shoot me an email at ADatskovsky91@gmail.com). The stories, artwork, photography, film have been created and directed by the children so that the stories of the people living near the forest are told, as well.