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Suno bhai sadho: Teaching kids through Kabir's bhajans

By Devanik Saha
July 17, 2015 14:36 IST
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Originally started in 2003 with a vision to impart value-based education to local kids, the school was closed in 2004 due to financial difficulties. All photographs: Devanik Saha

Probably the only such school in India, the Satguru Kabir Shiksha Samstha in Luniyakhedi village, Madhya Pradesh, is based on Kabir’s philosophy and ideals. Devanik Saha travels to the village to meet the unusual family behind the unusual school.

Tamram ka Mandir, Tamram ka Mandir, Kayaram ka Mandir, Eenamandir ki Shobha Pyaari,
Tamram ka Mandir, Tamram ka Mandir, Kayaram ka Mandir, Eenamandir ki Shobha Pyaari'

As 40 students sing this melodious Kabir bhajan in Kabir Academy, their voice echoes across the whole school campus.

Truly unique and probably the only school (or the only one of its kind I know of) in India, Satguru Kabir Shiksha Samstha (Kabir Academy) in Luniyakhedi village, Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, is based on Kabir’s philosophy and ideals.

It was started by Prahlad Tipaniya, an eminent Dalit folk singer, who sings Kabir (a 15th century mystic poet) bhajans in Malwa style (Malwa includes districts in western MP and some parts of south-eastern Rajasthan) and received the Padma Shri in 2011 for his contribution.

Nestled amid lush green trees and agricultural fields, Luniyakhedi is a small village consisting of just 400 people, near Maksi town, in Shajapur district, Madhya Pradesh. The school is situated inside a huge campus called Kabir Nagar, which consists of the Tipaniya family’s house, a Kabir memorial, a bhajan performance stage, agricultural fields and the school itself.

The school is situated inside a huge campus called Kabir Nagar, which consists of the Tipaniya family’s house, a Kabir memorial, a bhajan performance stage, agricultural fields and the school itself.

Travelling to Luniyakhedi isn’t easy. I take a train from Delhi to Maksi. Upon reaching Maksi, Deepesh Malviya, Prahlad’s son, comes to pick me up on his motorcycle. The ride to Luniyakhedi from Maksi is a bumpy one, with no proper roads and public transport. However, it’s just a 15-minute ride, making it bearable.

Upon reaching the school, I am greeted by school teachers, kids and the Tipaniyas, who live near the school.

Originally started in 2003 with a vision to impart value-based education to local kids, the school was closed in 2004 due to financial difficulties.

But in 2010, during one of Prahlad’s bhajan performances in the United States, he met a Gujarati non-resident Indian, Lalenbhai, who agreed to commit Rs 2 lakh per year for running the school. His generosity led to re-launching the school in the same year.

Post Lalenbhai’s death in 2012, Prahlad’s earnings from performances has been funding the school operations. 

“Lalenbhai’s funding helped us immensely, as we could re-start our school. The reason we started this school is because the quality of education in the local government school is abysmal,” Deepesh says.

“We want to expand and open a full residential school from Class 1 to 12 in the future, if sufficient funding is there,” he adds.

A typical school day runs from 9 am-3 pm, with a one-and-a-half hour break for lunch and sports, when the kids play cricket.

Owing to Prahlad’s busy schedule, Deepesh manages the entire operations and also teaches the students.  Apart from Deepesh, the school has just two teachers -- Mamata and Ruby. While Ruby is a second-year college dropout, Mamata has cleared her final exams this year. But there have been many other volunteers who have spent time with the kids.

A typical school day runs from 9 am-3 pm, with a one-and-a-half hour break for lunch and sports, when the kids play cricket.

Thanks to the kids, I have a chance to pick up a cricket bat and swing my arms after almost six years.

“Our vision is to inculcate Kabir’s values and ideals and help these students get out of their current drudgery and become good citizens. They should become community leaders, help other people and contribute to the upliftment of society, all of which forms the basis of Kabir’s philosophy," Prahlad explains.

“My father authored a book on Kabir’s bhajans which we use to teach values and build their character, and which hopefully they will leverage to bring change and transformation within their communities. Not just students, we also focus on improving the parents who are important stakeholders,” adds Deepesh.

Most of the students belong to the Banjara tribe, a nomadic community which keeps travelling in search of work, and come from distant villages -- Kaytha, Sakri and Gujarkheda. The school is completely free of cost and even provides to and fro transportation for the kids. Their parents are daily wage labourers and do other occasional work such as selling chairs, blankets and household items to earn a living, and live in very modest huts with thatched roofs.

Most of the students belong to the Banjara tribe, a nomadic community which keeps travelling in search of work, and come from distant villages.

Deepesh tells me that initially, the parents were quite challenging and difficult to work with, but he and his father made efforts to transform them through Kabir’s bhajans.

Prahlad regularly organises bhajan shows near the school, which attracts hundreds of people from surrounding villages and to which the kids’ parents are also invited. He sings bhajans -- which have value-based messages and explains the meanings as well -- which motivates the parents to improve themselves and follow Kabir’s teachings.

Deepesh tells me that their behaviour has changed considerably which benefits kids, as well as improved parental behavior has a significant impact on their kids.

Currently, the school has permission to run till class VIII, but owing to lack of resources they only run it till class V. Deepesh wants these kids to join the Navodaya Vidyalayas, an elite group of government schools that admit talented and high performing students from across the country, albeit through a selection entrance test.

Which led me to the question: What if they don’t clear the entrance test?

“Then, we will continue their education till class VIII and prepare them to again appear for the exams,” says Deepesh.

Though his pedagogical and curriculum knowledge is limited, Deepesh has been quite proactive and has trained himself under Ravi Gulati, founder, Manzil, a youth empowerment and education non-governmental organisation in Delhi, which imparts education to poor children in an up-market area.

He tells me that his training has helped him immensely in building confidence among the kids, who earlier were quite shy and introverted.

However, despite limitations in academics, the focus on value-based education and building has never been compromised.

And after spending two fantastic days in the beautiful school, I leave for Delhi with a soulful Kabir bhajan echoing in my ears.

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Devanik Saha in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh
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