Saturday, February 2, 2008

Leela Prasad Initiates a DukeEngage Summer Program in India

The Loom & the Wheel: Literacy and Livelihood in Hyderabad, India

My work with “lived ethics” in the town of Sringeri has made me aware of the ways in which ethical thought is articulated and embodied in everyday routines, conversationally-shared stories, stylized performances, and in material and visual practices. I wrote about these explorations in Poetics of Conduct (2007), in which I mention how I was referred to two “Gandhians” in the town. While both individuals had met Gandhi briefly, perhaps unsurprisingly neither had explicitly identified himself as a “Gandhian.” This raised two simple questions, both not terribly original, but which, at least preliminarily, shape my interest in contemporary formulations of “Gandhian ethics”: What do people imagine Gandhi to be? What does it mean to live out Gandhian ideals or principles?

Gandhi's autobiography, among other things, is a profound lesson in understanding the concept and the practice of "service."

In December 2007, I visited Hyderabad supported by a site exploration grant from DukeEngage to see how Duke students and I could collaborate with two organizations that in different ways have "Gandhi" in their imaginary. Both organizations do inspiring work in child literacy. With a program grant awarded by DukeEngage, I will be setting up with my husband, Prasad, the first summer program in Hyderabad between June and August 2008. Our team, which consists of 8 highly-motivated Duke undergraduate students, will work with with Safrani Memorial School in the Darga locality and with the Hyderabad chapter of the Association for India’s Development (AID) in government city schools in Secunderabad. We will work with 5th-7th graders who come from severely underprivileged economic backgrounds. Our plan is to teach the children communicative English and basic reading skills, demonstrate basic science experiments in schools, work with school children on “free content” learning by collaboratively writing and directing skits and short plays, develop illustrative materials for subjects like geography and history, and work with a local education-supportive media studio to produce simple educational DVDs that will be used to broadcast to schools state-wide.

Why is the project called "The Loom & the Wheel"?

The hand-loom (magga) and the spinning wheel (charkha) are both considered central symbols of Gandhian political and social philosophy. Gandhi’s rejection of western machine-made cloth that came out of the exploitation of Indian land and labor accompanied his adoption of the spinning wheel to make yarn out of indigenous cotton, and the hand-loom to weave Khadi cloth of this yarn.

Safrani Memorial School is run by 78-year old Suraiya Hasan Bose whose family has close ties to Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose, both leading figures in the Indian Independence movement. The school connects to Mrs Hasan Bose’s other urgent project, whose central instrument is the loom: Centuries-old traditional handloom weaving is suffering a dramatic decline in Andhra Pradesh with mechanization, woeful State support, and emerging manual-labor markets created by rapid urban development. Acute unemployment has driven alarming numbers of debt-ridden weavers to suicide, or to migrate to Hyderabad, or give up weaving altogether in rural areas. Mrs. Hasan-Bose employs women weavers, many of them widowed or deserted, in her workshop (House of Kalamkari and Dhurries), which focuses on revitalizing older Persian and Andhra weaving traditions. Children of these weavers alongside neighborhood children from households of laborers, small business owners, or vegetable vendors, attend the adjacent Safrani Memorial School (K-10).

Association for India's Development (AID) is a US and India based volunteer organization that promotes Gandhian ideals of “sustainable, equitable and just development.” AID’s philosophy draws on the constructive, interconnected approach symbolized by the Gandhian “charkha” (spinning wheel). As faculty advisor of AID’s Duke chapter, I am familiar with the immersive process underlying AID projects. The AID-Hyderabad team, led by Dr. Vidya Jonnalagadda and Srihari Dukkipati, works with K-10 government English-, Telugu- and Urdu-medium schools in Hyderabad to provide an imaginative education in science and math, an acute need given the paucity of teachers and resources. The picture shows a AID volunteer offering supplementary lessons to an enthusiastic bunch of kids at the Govt school in in Adikmet.

We are looking forward to the exciting work ahead of us....