Kanavu means dream. And a dream it was for writer-turned activist K.J. Baby when he first thought of a school exclusively for adivasi (tribal) children that would not only educate them, but also cultivate a sense of pride in themselves.
The dream turned into reality about 15 years back when Kanavu was started in a cluster of thatched structures on six acres of land donated by a trust in Wayanad district of north Kerala.
As many as 60 tribal children started their knowledge expedition there, a possibility that would have been unthinkable in the past, when landlords and settlers held their clan in bondage.
Kanavu nestles on the picturesque Cheengode hills of Wayanad, which has a high concentration of tribals. Along with his activist wife Shirley and their two children, Baby lived here with the tribal children, using the institution as a means to reach into the recesses of their psyche and tap the latent genius of the community.
But they soon faced difficulties when they lost the support of the trust that had provided the land and basic requirements. Funding became a problem, especially since Baby stubbornly refused offers from funding agencies with questionable credentials.
But over the years, Kanavu turned into a success, acquiring a reputation among researchers and academics even at an international level as a model for imparting knowledge to tribal communities.
Giving it back
Last month, Kanavu created history again, when Baby announced that he would be handing over administration of the institution to a body consisting of young people from the first batch that passed out of the institution.
Mangloo, a Paniya girl, and Santhosh, a Mullukuruma boy, are now the managing trustees of Kanavu, and personally supervise all of the school's activities including teaching.
Now in their mid-twenties, both had shown exemplary leadership qualities from the time they were his students, says Baby.
According to Santhosh, the school intentionally discards conventional practices; there is no classroom, no syllabus. "We want to prove that adivasi kids are capable of learning the same skills as children in mainstream society. For that, we must first teach them to respect themselves," says Santhosh. "Today Kanavu is the only institution of its kind in the country that has no non-tribal influence," says Mangloo.
Helping to overcome the legacy of bondage
Throughout its existence, Kanavu never lost sight of its original purpose. Its primary concern still is to help its hundred-odd students to overcome the ugly legacy of a history of bondage.
The children are encouraged to confront their past not through textbooks but by invoking examples drawn from the life of the community. Tribal folk songs and rituals form the core of the effort to reinforce their sense of identity.
The next step is to initiate them into the process of developing skills, whether in music, painting, dance, theatre or martial arts. Skills in farming are also given high priority as an example of a gainful traditional occupation.
Interestingly, the children are also trained to sit for competitive exams as well. "We don't follow a question-answer format, but our children are grounded in the basics," says Santosh.
Yet, the objective is not to produce a generation of students obsessed with passing exams but to build the children's self-confidence. Coming from disparate tribal groups with a history of mutual hostility, they are taught the need to rise above divisive tendencies.
These objectives are woven into the school's daily regimen. The students are divided into groups that are then allotted daily chores. The day starts with lessons in kalaripayattu, the traditional martial art of Kerala. Training in music and classical dance take up the post lunch phase, followed by academic instruction, often provided by visiting teachers.
Scientific awareness is inculcated by stimulating interest in the local environment, supplemented later by books, slides and pictures.
One fact that particularly strikes a visitor to the school is the ease with which even the younger students speak multiple languages. Several tribal children who completed their education in Kanavu now work with organizations in places as far as Ahmedabad and Bangalore.
These students have a formidable reputation as performers of traditional tribal dances and folk songs. And it's literally song and dance that sustains Kanavu, for the school follows the gurukul system where teachers live with students and receive no remuneration.
Proceeds from performances are just enough for the school to balance its budget.
Baby is busy dreaming new dreams these days, but despite his absence, Kanavu is still making waves. It continues to draw attention from experts and officials as a model institution that uses innovative teaching methods and has a visible impact on a group that has for long remained on the fringes of society.