Geeta Dharmarajan, the Founder and President of KATHA, spoke to ScooNews about her organisation; the journey so far including the difficulties faced and reforms implemented. Read what we call one of the most profound conversations we had in a long time.
Started in 1988 with a magazine for children from the underserved communities, KATHA's work spans the literacy to literature continuum. By seamlessly connecting grassroots work in education and urban resurgence, today, KATHA brings children living in poverty into reading and quality education. They are well known for their excellent children’s books and outstanding work in education and a unique pedagogy based on stories.
KATHA, over the past three decades, through its many programmes, has helped over one million children achieve their dreams and help themselves out of poverty. Geeta Dharmarajan has been the main creative spirit, innovator and driving force of the organization, and in close touch with teachers, children and the community at the ground level. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2012 for her exceptional work in the field of Literature and Education.
To explore more about KATHA, Geeta Dharmarajan, and her thoughts and ideas, read our hearty conversation with her. Excerpts below:
1. Let’s rewind 32 years back. What was it like for you?
In 1988, I had just come back from the US (University of Pennsylvania) when I realized that some children in my country could not even read or write. That made me frustrated, angry and downright outraged. I believed that the best thing as a writer was to bring out a magazine for children and this gave birth to TAMASHA, our first magazine. I wanted to help children read and hence in 1990, I started the school in one of the largest slum clusters of Delhi at Govindpuri. In the beginning, we had only five children.
2. How did convincing the parents go, could you get more than a handful of students in your class? Did your first batch stay in touch, what are they doing now?
Parents wanted to send the children to school but the kids were also helping in supporting the family. They had to work, earn a little money, to help their parents (mostly single mothers) maintain the family and hence, could not attend any school. I saw that, unless these families have sufficient amount in hand to survive, they cannot send their children in spite of their wanting to do so. That is when we started the Women Entrepreneurship Program. We had to get some income into the hands of the mothers before we could ask them to bring their children to school.
Yes, a lot of our initial batch students have been in touch over the years, many of them have done wonders in their respective careers. From having their film studio to being the HoD in global schools, from serving as top chefs abroad to being national administrative officers, these children have accomplished a lot.
3. What is Story Pedagogy, how has it evolved since its inception?
Surveys told us that children thought schools and books were boring, which made me determined not to have boring schools and I decided to ditch the teaching methods normally adopted in schools. TAMASHA magazine became our source of teaching, wherein we used the story as a basis to educate kids. Ever since the beginning, we had no textbooks in the KATHA school and even today, all the teaching in every subject is done through storybooks.
Following that, in 1992, we had established KATHA Relevant Education for all-round development. Since I have been a student of Bharatanatyam and have been studying NatyaShatra, I decided to bring it into my classrooms as well.
The goal was to help children, as well as teachers, be excited about the subjects and come in sync with each other so much that even if there is any distraction out of the window, no child would want to look away. A lot of things that NatyaShatra says happens in the classrooms.
There is a lot that goes into Story Pedagogy®, the teachings of Bharatanatyam, the art and craft of the illustrators, my own experiences and learnings of all these years.
Gradually, by the 2000s, it all started making more sense and would come to us easily.
4. If we may ask, would you please share how you managed the finances (for books, infrastructure, teachers) when KATHA was born?
We had no outside help in the beginning. I started KATHA with a little of my savings I got from my writing and with the support from my husband and family members. My in-law family, especially, had been beside me at every step in all these 50 years of our marriage. KATHA started in our house, and in fact, even today, the office runs from my home!
Slowly, word started to get out of our good work in translation and publishing, and we began receiving financial help. This helped us get the best for these children.
We have 4 strong rules in KATHA:
5. KATHA’s first magazine was Tamasha, does it still get published? Did this magazine give rise to the Tamasha Roadshow?
Yes! TAMASHA was the big fat elephant and had become the best friend of so many children all over the country. TAMASHA used to be published and circulated in many languages back then and we would get many letters from children.
We wanted to do something for them on the street also and that is how the TAMASHA Roadshow got started. We had a van which was fitted with a computer given to us by Intel. We called it the IT School on Wheels. It had a printer and children would be excited about taking home the prints of work they had done or whatever they liked.
Then we went for TAMASHA series of books, and even today TAMASHA is still there with us just not in the original avatar though.
6. Please tell us about KATHA Holistic Early Learning?
Holistic Learning, in my opinion, should be NO TEACHING. These pre-primary kids don't need to be taught at this age, they need their creativity to be stimulated. They should be given space to build their imagination.
We should let the kids learn on their own, let them do things, pretend reading/writing and go along with it. Telling them ‘No, you are wrong,’ making red marks all over their copies and scolding them from an early age is not helping them at all. A child can learn when given the opportunity and the space to make mistakes and grow out of them naturally.
7. How does one go about building an organisation like KATHA after having studied at the University of Pennsylvania?
*smiles* I suppose it has a lot to do with my family. My father was a doctor and I used to go to schools and communities with him to teach poor children first-aid. We ourselves lived a very frugal life, and my grandmother’s teaching about giving to those who need has helped me become the person I am today. Pennsylvania only made me long more for my country and to find the one thing I would really want to do my entire life, no matter what.
8. Talk about the Educational Divide we’ve in India. How can we erase it and make things better for those on its depressed side?
It is present in our society, it is present in the psyche, it's embedded in the soul. The educational divide does not only come from the financial aspect but also various sorts of discriminations of caste, religion, race, language. We are THAT divided!
We should not let these toxic thoughts enter our lives. The youth, especially, should bring the changes they did not see while growing up. It is high time we are taught that there is no division amongst people, particularly none regarding the right to quality education for all. If someone can afford it, good for them. If not, it should not keep them from their basic right to the quality education they deserve.
9. KATHA started when the trend of online classes or any other educational technology didn’t really exist. Today, contrary to that, a majority of classrooms in the world are being conducted virtually in the wake of COVID -19. Do you think that technology is at all important, considering there are still millions of children who aren’t able to study because they cannot afford gadgets?
KATHA started with a computer in 1995 when we were donated our 1st computer. The KATHA School of Entrepreneurship was established and children started working on the computer. In 2001, KATHA started the KATHA Infotech and e-Comm School (KITES) with British Telecom as a partner. BT is still with us as a partner and we are doing some great work, creating IT Techpreneurs.
7 years ago, we started working on distance learning, it was called Bricks & Clicks because it was not just online-based but there was also a direct face to face. We would teach from the KATHA Lab School that is the hub for all the online teaching that goes on.
We have also developed a reading app that has won the mBillionth Award and has been sent to the UN as the first and the best storytelling app specifically made for children who come from underprivileged backgrounds.
This app is helping children continue studying during this outbreak and lockdown due to COVID -19. Every teacher with KATHA has a group of students with them, and they are sending out these study materials to them. We are reaching out to the communities in the urban slums we work in. Material is available on our website, and teachers have formed Whatsapp groups to share the material with the children and their communities.
I would say necessity makes us very creative, and the teachers with us at KATHA are just awesome. I am probably the last person who thinks technology does not play that important role, it sure does. But what content we deliver using that technology is even more important. Is this child-centric and relevant for these children and their communities?
10. How successful has been your initiative ‘ECTC’ so far? We think it’s a great move in the direction of Inclusive Education.
‘ECTC’ is generated as a part of our ongoing challenge called 300M (https://www.katha.org/300m/). There are 300 million children in Indian schools today but sadly, half of them do not know how to read. We thought what if the one half (150 million) that can read could help the other half (150 million) so the same? In this way, we can achieve our mission of 'Every child reading well for fun and meaning!'
The idea is, if a student or a teacher who has a different way of approaching an authentic problem, they could share it with the other teachers (of govt. schools), or less privileged children, and this could create a world ripple by ripple where no one is left behind. Doing this is easier as well since there will be no language problems as they all belong to nearby localities or distance problems, and material sharing could be easy too.
There is no need for a government-aided program that would require so much money spent, it only needs capable people to reach out and try making a difference.
India wishes to be the powerhouse in this 21st century but that needs an equitable opportunity for all, not just people who get to go to English medium schools and can converse in English. Let us not just bring in the colonial attitude but go beyond and get back to the level of sharing and caring we used to have. That is the way forward, the way to prosperity for all.
Delhi, as a reading capital, is what we are aiming towards, by reading as public learning and not classroom learning. About 1000 urban schools have joined in, we have many volunteers coming in; it's a citizen’s movement! I think it's a very sustainable way of learning for all of us. I truly believe that when children become good readers and read for fun and meaning, they can become Reader-Leaders. They can bring about changes in the communities and society for combatting climate change and building a sustainable equitable world.
11. Lastly, if not KATHA, what would you be doing instead?
I guess I would be writing children’s fantasy books; love doing that. But no! I do not want to do anything else, I am sure I would have found my way to KATHA somehow.
Apart from helping children continue learning, KATHA is also helping the people of slums during the COVID-19 outbreak and lockdown by supplying masks, soaps, and other provisions. According to the team, this pandemic has not only been a learning curve in virtual education but also an all-round opportunity to come out smarter, more cautious about hygiene, stronger and more humane.