One of my most treasured experiences was visiting a school in Tamil Nadu, India, called Vidya Vanam in the village of Anaikatti. Vidya Vanam is located near Coimbatore on an elephant preserve. Vidya Vanam (which means Knowledge in the Wilderness), provides education, healthcare and food for the underprivileged children of the Irula families, a tribal community, who have lived in the forest and hills around Anaikatti for over 200 years. Many of the 300 students are first-generation learners, and the first class of tenth graders is scheduled to graduate in 2017. The school has a beautiful campus which not only encompasses classrooms but a computer room, science laboratory, art rooms and playgrounds.
My husband Eric and I visited the school in the summer of 2016, and were amazed that we were greeted with self-confident students who had the ability to speak English and an overflowing of creative arts everywhere. The children’s positivity showed in their imaginative drawings, poems, dancing and singing. Much of my small efforts have been to assist with graphics, elicit donations and sponsorship opportunities, and to increase exposure in social media outlets.
Student field trips around India, such as the Taj Mahal, New Delhi and Rajasthan, have also been made possible by generous donations and a successful GoFundMe effort in 2016 has resulted in providing resources for travel and for the cultural programs. The children are encouraged to write of their travel experiences, and document how being around other cultures makes them appreciate their own. The students put on dramatic play and musicals. The school also hosts visitors from all walks of life, accomplished Indians such as architects, poets, mathematicians, and playwrights.
When I was at the school, the children showed me their artwork, which were clay sculptures or large painted murals. They painted murals of their homes with orange and pink colors, which I found startling, until I later noticed that their abodes were often painted orange and pink. We observed the classes, interacted with the students and my husband performed a magic show which brought the house down. He performed magic tricks for the entire student population at a bandstand stage, and the children were giggling and shrieking in ecstasy at his slights of hand. Many in the alert crowd were quick to pick up the tricks and performed them for us after the show. I wished our stay could have been longer, but I left grateful to see a small slice of their lives. I spent a short time sitting with a few of them in silence, just watching the clouds.
Together with her son, Head Mistress Prema Rangachary does a magnificent job at managing the school. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting them both and chatting over a South Indian lunch. She runs a tight ship and handles the daily challenges of operations expertly. I was honored to meet her and I know the school is in good hands with Ms. Rangachary at the helm.
I don’t know what the future holds for them, if their rural world will be negatively impacted by the pressures of modernization and westernization. But my hope is that teaching them and supporting their efforts to achieve academically will help them escape the limitations of the social system which has limited their dreams and ambitions. As I marveled at how their cultural heritage was respected throughout their studies at this school, I hoped that their educational paths would someday bring to their villages the fruits of their hard work. That the manual labor of working in fields making clay bricks is not the only future open to them anymore; rather math, computers and the arts will give them broader options to determine their own paths and live more substantive lives. Yes, it was a magical day.
More info on the school can be obtained at www.vidyavanam.org.
Sharon Lobo is the president of Indus Architects PLLC, a forensic architectural firm in New York City. She is of Goan descent, was born in Mumbai and was educated in the United States. She currently lives in Long Island, New York.