School in India

Khelghar, at Athavle Corner.

When I walked into the small, dirty and only room of Kelghar, at Athavle Corner, Pune I had one thought in my mind: “This is not a school”. I had to wait until the end of the visit to realize how wrong—or maybe right—I was.

Started by the Non Governmental Organization Palakneeti Pariwar, and triggered by the NGO’s project to foster Education For All, since 1996 Khelghar is imparting education to socially disadvantaged and unprivileged children from Laxminagar slum. Beside studying math, English, Marathi and Hindi languages, and life skills—which include health, self-awareness and emotional management—which are taught through activity-based learning and non formal education methods, students learn the significance of values like equality, respect, freedom, responsibility and collaboration, rather than competition. They do that in diverse, multi-gender—and sometimes multi-level—afternoon classes, sitting on the floor and learning not only from the teachers, but also from one another.

Khelghar. Pune, India 2018.

Together with the students, teachers are themselves learners. Through the so called “train-the-trainer” approach—known at policy level as “Cascade Education Model”—teachers are taught how to become counselors, mentors and educators. In a nutshell, they are trained to become trainers—of both the students and their parents. In particular, Kelghar serves as arena of encounter in which students and their parents are taught to express themselves and to voice their concerns. This, according to Aparna Vaze Kshirsagar, founder of the NGO, is at the same time enriching and difficult: if teaching is often fun and exciting, the challenges are numerous. “How do we change the mentality, how do we make a real social change?” Aparna often asks herself. “Impacting, changing society is not a piece of cake,  and stories of discrimination, abuse and hate are often a wet blanket”.  

If, when I crossed the threshold of Khelghar I thought “This is not a school”, it is because I did not know any other school but “Codussi”, the one I had gone to in Bergamo, Italy. Yellow walls and backyards outside, blackboard and tables ordered in a row inside, that is what I used to call school. In Khelghar, the reality is deeply different: no backyard outside, only filth and smog; no tables nor chars inside, only one, worn and unusable green board. However, what makes Khelghara school like any other is the enthusiasm and the insatiable curiosity of the students, who were jumping around us with their  countless questions “Didi what’s your name, how old are you where are you from—oh idli, you are from Idli?”, the exhausted but genuine smile of the teachers, the stories and experiences of the guests. School is not a building, it does not happen in a classroom; school is a agora of learning and exchanging, a created space of reality and imagination, history and fairy tale. At the end of the visit I realized that I was right: Khelghar is not a school. It is a space for teaching and learning, playing and understanding. Khelghar is not a school, it is much more: it is school, home and life at once.

Shootings in Khelghar. Pune, India 2018.

Some weeks later, I returned to Khelghar to shoot my short-documentary School-स्कूल.

A whole new world was about to open up to me.

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