Seminar on education and children's books in India

organised by Tulika in association with the Centre for South Asia, University of Wisconsin, USA, on 22-23 June 2003 at Chennai

Led by Rachel Weiss of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, a group of about 20 schoolteachers from Wisconsin came to Chennai to get a feel of education and children's publishing in India, to enable them to make their school curriculum back home more multicultural.


Reaching the unreached using Information Technology

Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala, Professor, Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai. His team recently incubated a company which aims to install and operate telephone and internet in every village in India.

Can we leapfrog the urban-rural education divide using communications? Prof. Jhunjhunwala and his team initiated the project 'n-logue', to explore this possibility. It finds small entrepreneurs in villages and provides them with a complete and comprehensive internet kiosk (including, importantly, a power back-up system). They are trained to use the PC and various application packages, which range from vocational training to technical problem-solving (e.g. how to repair a pump), citizen rights and education resource (such as English and Maths tutorials, classes in spoken English, etc). The key is to do this in every village in India, making internet use as accessible as the PCO today.

An overview of education in India

Prof. Ramanujam, theoretical-computer-scientist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. He is associated with the Tamilnadu Science Forum in child and adult education. 

To whom do we need to reach education? Most importantly, to the child who drops out of school. Prof. Ramanujam focused his talk on the profile of such a child and dropout dynamics. While the background of such children plays a role in children opting out of school at various stages, the approach to education is also responsible. Education is linked to aspirations, and the biggest failure of our curriculum is that it doesn't meet people's aspirations. It doesn't take into account the richness of knowledge, for example, of a Dalit, rural child, whose knowledge of life, nature and science around him/her has little to do with what he/she can find in books. This could result in 'double impoverishment' of the child, who loses folk skills while feeling alienated from what is taught. The school system also needs to be more positive – not certify anyone as 'unfit to be...', which often means that those who were unreached by education remain so.

Political interventions in curriculum and syllabus

Dr V. Geetha, Editor, Tara Publishing. She writes in Tamil and English on history, culture and gender.

Tracing the evolution of modern education in India, Dr Geetha pointed out the importance of history in education policy and practice. Under the caste system of early Hindu India, sacred knowledge was valorised over secular knowledge. The advent of Islam changed this, with art and artisans gaining more patronage. The British sought to educate Indians insofar as they could contribute to the growth of British trade in India. They favoured higher education over primary education because they were not so interested in mass literacy. From the early 20th century through to post-independent India and the modern day, there has been a realisation that we need to move away from the British system of education, but the situation has not yet been addressed adequately as yet. A 'point of dialogue' is missing.

Role of art in education and the use of traditional performing arts, and the Gandhian vision for education

V. R. Devika, dancer and dance theorist. She runs a trust for arts, education and media, among other things.

Devika impulsively decided that the topic of education had been discussed extensively enough through the morning and she preferred to set aside her prepared paper and share some experiences – of teaching, in her own unconventional way. Her background in bharatanatyam dance and a keen interest in folk performing art prompted her to experiment in the classroom. She demonstrated how she taught concepts of geography and science through simple dance steps and gestures, and soon had all participants, too, on their feet trying it for themselves. 

Presentation by Avehi-Abacus

Deepa Balsavar is a writer, illustrator, developer of educational materials that supplement and enrich the school curriculum. Sangati, the foundation course that they have developed, takes up issues related to the environment, communal harmony, gender and economic disparities and so on.
Deepa Hari, is a researcher, writer and teacher, now working mainly on educational projects.

Avehi-Abacus is a project working in Mumbai to create educational materials that supplement and enrich the school curriculum. Sangati, the very popular and successful foundation course that they have developed, takes up issues related to the environment, communal harmony, gender and economic disparities and so on. Participants were given a background on the project and its goals, and given a sampling of the kind of materials used – including a storytelling session using their large picture book, as would happen in a Sangati class.


Negotiating the Space for Children's Books as educationists, publishers, writers

Radhika Menon publisher and managing editor, Tulika Publishers, Chennai, and director, Goodbooks Bookstore, the only bookstore in India exclusively for children.

Negotiating the space for children's books works at two levels – in terms of an education system that has no space for it and a market that does not demand good writing and illustrating for children. Placing children's books in India today against an overview of childhood, education and the trend of literature for children from pre- to post-colonial India, the talk centred on the paucity of 'good' children's books available in the market. Even well-known publishers who have entered the children's book arena seem content with slick production and packaging, without much attention to content. There is an obsession with moralistic and didactic textbook-like writing, and the choice seems to be Amar Chitra Katha-like stereotypes on the one hand and colonial-hangover stories on the other, with Michaels, Marys and strawberry-flavoured jellybeans. The good news is that there are a handful of small, independent publishing houses that are trying to set new trends and create this space.  

Panel discussion: Creating children's books in a pluralistic world

C. P. Vishwanath, director, Sky Music and Karadi Tales, producers of audiobooks for children. (Could not attend.)
Gita Wolf, writer and publisher, director, Tara Publishing, Chennai.
Vidya Mani, editor and director, Wheitstone Productions (P) Ltd, Chennai, a publishing house committed to bringing out quality reading material for children.
Radhika Menon (moderator), Tulika Publishers 

Writing for children: readings and concerns

Zai Whitaker, writer, naturalist and Principal of Abacus Montessori School, Chennai.
Anushka Ravishankar, freelance writer of children's books and plays for adults and children.
Sirish Rao, writer and publisher; editor, Tara Publishing India and director, Tara Publishing Ltd, UK. 
Shobha Vishwanath, writer, song writer, educator and Creative Director of Karadi tales Company Pvt. Ltd. (Could not attend and was substituted by Gita Wolf, Tara Publishing.)
Priya Krishnan, editor, Tulika Publishers.
Deeya Nayar, editor, Tulika Publishers
Sandhya Rao (moderator), chief editor, Tulika Publishers; translator and one of the finest writers for children in India today; author of the bestselling book Ekki Dokki, published by Tulika.