‘I feel free here’: how a miracle girls’ school was built in India’s ‘golden city’
We end this week’s edition with an inspiring story about how an artist and anthropologist from New York built a school for 400 girls in rural Rajasthan.
“Rajasthan is one of the most conservative states in India, where ancient customs circumscribe a woman’s freedom and in turn any chance of economic independence.
…[Michael] Daube, an artist and founder of nonprofit Citta, which works to develop marginalised communities around the world, is opening a school for 400 girls from poor backgrounds. The school is a product of Daube’s dismay at the state’s lack of progress in women’s education. The latest figures from the National Statistical Office show that Rajasthan has India’s lowest female literacy rate – 57.6%.
Almost half of all girls and women aged over five have never had any formal education, despite several governments trying – through new policies and incentives – to get girls into school.
“I realised that through an economic avenue, I could entice these communities to send their girls to school. I decided to build a girls’ school and a women’s economic development centre focused on educating girls and preserving the dying handicrafts,” says Daube by email from New York.
If families are prepared to send their girls there, known as the Gyaan (knowledge in Sanskrit) Centre, it is because Daube has understood that it has to be more than a school.
The school will also have craftspeople imparting skills of weaving and printing to pupils’ mothers, elder sisters and aunts, who wish to earn a livelihood. The school will have a “marketplace” where crafts will be displayed for sale to tourists who, before the pandemic, would come to see the sun set on the surrounding sand dunes.
…The movers and shakers of Jaisalmer society were roped in for the project: the royal family, politicians, hoteliers and business people.
Designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee has used the local “ajrakh”, a form of woodblock printing on textiles, to design the school uniform, with the goal of encouraging the girls to feel pride in their region.
The dream, after much hard work, is assuming material form. Of all his decisions, perhaps Daube’s finest was to ask New York-based architect Diana Kellogg to do a pro bono design for the Gyaan Centre.
Using the striking local sandstone and recreating the curved walls of Rajasthan’s famous forts, Kellogg has created an original and contemporary design, the also reflects tradition and the landscape. The scale is sweeping, from the massive curved terrace to the great winding corridors and walls, topped with lattice work.
For the girls, who are from poor one-room homes where often the only piece of furniture is a charpai or string bed, and for whom schools are usually dilapidated concrete boxes, it brings an immense sense of pride.
Programme manager Chahat Jain says girls visiting the centre walk around in wide-eyed disbelief that they are going to be studying amid so much beauty. “I feel free here,” one little girl told him.
“Parents also feel a sense of security from knowing that mothers or aunts will be in the same complex learning from artisans while the girls’ study,” says Jain.””