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These students from a UP village did yoga for the first time on Sunday

By Saudamini Chandra
June 23, 2015 11:12 IST
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On International Yoga Day, South Delhi-based yoga teacher Saudamini Chandra found herself shepherding the young girl students to their first taste of India’s heritage that was being celebrated across the world. This is her experience.

21 June, Anupshahr, Uttar Pradesh

I awake to the blue, pre-dawn quietness, where only a few birds let out their morning call and the darkness has not yet given way to the light of day. I am wide awake the moment my eyes open, yesterday’s culture shock of driving through rural UP a distant memory.

The sun and morning yoga beckon. In a few hours, 500 or so young girls from the Pardada Pardadi School, from the villages surrounding the town of Anupshahr, will line up for morning assembly and, along with the rest of the world, will join in bringing in the first International Yoga Day.

Anupshahr is a small town in western Uttar Pradesh, in the district of Bulandshahr. Here the female literacy rate is abysmal and gender discrimination is the norm, at least in regard to the opportunity to go to school and the prospects that it affords. The institution that I have been invited to, is a true pioneer in remedying this skewed vista and has in the 15 years of its existence gone from laurel to laurel and now has a pass rate of a 100 per cent in its Class 10th and 12th Board results -- which is a step ahead for education for women.

It was only a few weeks ago that Renuka Gupta sat with me in my living room in South Delhi to brief me on the gig. The upcoming International Yoga Day Celebrations were to be celebrated at their school and Renuka wanted me to speak to the girls at the special assembly that had been organised and give them a taste of the yoga that everyone was speaking of. 

An awe-inspiring lady, Renuka has been with the Pardada Pardadi School almost since its inception and has seen it grow in leaps and bounds. The school under the aegis of the Pardada Pardadi Educatioanl Society was founded by former Dupont South Asia head -- Virendar ‘Sam’ Singh. I’d been introduced to Singh quite some years ago, when I was just certifying as a yoga teacher and when my late father became involved as a patron of the fledgeling school. Somehow Renuka remembered my association with yoga and called me up out of the blue after many years.

As we drove with Renuka , through Uttar Pradesh from Delhi the morning prior, I was surprised to see how the villages seem caught in a time warp. Barring the electrical lines and the tarred roads I could’ve believed life was the same here as it was a 100 years ago. The utterly beauty mango baghs that boast the soft-skinned Dusshehri fruits, the huge wood-fired kilns rising like megaliths through green, freshly harvested sugarcane fields. My ride was shared with three charming students from the SPJ Management Institute in Mumbai. And en route, Renuka briefed us on the work the organisation did apart from education -- community development programmes, vocational training and so on. The boys quizzed her and I piped in with my comments as we watched rural UP fly by in a haze.

She explained to us that in the year 2000 “Sam-Sir” thought parents would be lining up to send their daughters to the school. Initially funded from his own money, he’d made the idea of school a logical and lucrative package and to encourage attendance, he’d even incentivised it: 10 rupees out of his pocket for every day that a girl attended his school! Despite that, the parents were reluctant. He then systematically targeted every conceivable excuse made to keep the girls at home, from providing free books, tuition, uniforms, to arranging  for the girls to be picked up. The villagers had to eventually acquiesce and the school was started in 2000 with 45 girls and two rooms.  Today the PPES proudly claims four educational institutions and an enrollment of 1384 students.

As I chatted with Renuka, I realised that in 15 years, the larger accomplishment wasn’t the number of students who graduated, but rather the change in the attitude of the surrounding community towards education for their girls.

To get an idea of the vision behind opening the school, Sam is quoted on their website: ‘…To break the cycle of poverty, he had to first focus on improving the quality of life for the weakest members of this society: rural female children. Female children here are considered an economic and social burden. Forgotten and uneducated, they are forever dependent upon their husbands or male family members for their livelihood. This leads to a cycle of repression, abuse, and neglect that can only be broken with the self-reliance and enlightenment that education brings. ‘

The school, when we arrived, seemed like an oasis. Across the road there is an old mango bagh with beautiful lush Dushhehri trees. There is a sign at the large gates that asks ‘Did you love your daughter today? We Did.’ Way to make a point!

The school takes its security seriously and we were given ID-Tags marking us as visitors. The driveway that leads up to the school is flanked on both sides by trees, mostly Ashokas, considered sacred in many parts of India. The trees here are planted by students when they join the school and by the time they graduate the tree is full grown. There are little plaques at the base of each tree bearing the name of the student who planted it.

Our tour of the school was no less inspiring. The facilities, though basic, are utilised to the fullest. They’ve tied up with the Kingdom Of Dreams in Delhi and run a call centre which employs their graduate students. The classes are packed and the students seem engaged and receptive and they are not shy to chat or ask questions, many questions in fact. The quadrangle that the school was built around has been covered in a later renovation and it houses their very basic food hall. The school has clearly been built piece by piece  I learn from Renuka -- as and when funds were available). The administration has made innovative use of corridors and space and they have cute posters made by the girls that line the walls. It’s summer and they have organised wall-painting classes as part of their personality development programme -- I could be at a school in Delhi!

As the MBA boys chatted with the principal I took a self-determined tour of the facilities. I was met with many questions and much curiosity as I was charmed by how loquacious the girls were. Sure, some of them were shy but they were definitely not meek. I got a tonne of questions, from ‘Ma’m, what is your name, how long will you be here, will you come back?’, all of it  in the sing-song tones of childhood and usually accompanied with a smile. I was surprised to find how conversant they were in English considering the school is a Hindi medium one.

I walk from class to class, introducing myself and being asked many questions in return. One of the teachers take pity on me wandering the corridors and summons the senior students to give me a tour. On speaking with the staff and following Renuka in some of her meetings, I am impressed with the absolute reach of the school’s community development programmes. They are involved in the surrounding villages in such a large way, with not only educating their daughters but with providing resources for yard management, helping to increase dairy yields.

This is a distant world from my Delhi yoga studio.

As the day of the function dawns and as I ready myself and think of what to say to this rag-tag bunch of girls, modern yet somehow not and children still. I am called to my window and a gaggle of girls shout at me to come down. It seems the bus that was to pick them up from their villages bus has arrived an hour earlier and they cannot wait to get started. Neither can I!

When I first heard of the International Yoga Day celebrations, I was diffident. As a practising yoga teacher, I dryly found myself saying -- for us everyday is yoga day. But that insouciance has deserted me this morning as I pick up on the enthusiasm in their eyes and the excitement in their voices, and I rush to make short time of my morning rituals.

As I wait at the sidelines, for the teachers and school leaders to line up the girls for this special assembly, my thoughts drift to the three MBA students from Mumbai who shared my ride yesterday. No doubt they are still in their beds, I heard them late at night prepping for their thesis project. 

As the wind ruffles my face and sun rises, I feel a pang that they can’t share this beautiful spectacle.  There is no word for it but stunning. As the sun continues its steep ascent, the girls line up, from the ages of 11-18 years of age. Bright-eyed and brimming; their hair is combed and parted and faces scrubbed. Education at this school has given them an air and a confidence that would be a match for any school child in Delhi.

I have largely taught yoga in an urban context and to adults with a few exceptions and I struggle with how to explain yoga to this crew. They have no need for anti-stress solutions, and youth and rural life endow them with flexibility and vigour. The girls come from both Muslim and Hindu families, and with the idea of not being misunderstood and offending anyone’s religious sentiment, I’d been asked to not go overboard with the Oms and the mantras, which though universal have decidedly Hindu connotations. 

So, I’d decided the night before that we would start with a secular prayer in Sanskrit. I thought it important and relevant to give thanks. My thanks for the opportunity to have a glimpse of their world and life and for them to give thanks for the opportunity to study yoga.

So we chanted:

Lokah Samastah Sukhinoh Bhavantu
Lokah Samastah Sukhinoh Bhavantu
Lokah Samastah Sukhinoh Bhavantu
Om Shanti Shanti Shantihi!

(May all beings everywhere be happy and free. Om, peace, peace peace).

We followed up the prayer with Tadasana, Trikonasana, Surya Namaskar, and balancing poses like Vrikshasana, Natvarasana, Tandavasana, and variations of Utthita padangushtasana, and other simple poses before winding up the session with the Upanishadic prayer:

Om Saha Nau-vavatu
Saha Nau Bhunaktu
Saha Viiryam Karavaavahai
Tejasvi Nau-vadhiitam-astu Maa Vidvisshavahai
Om Shaanti Shaanti Shaantihi!

(May God Protect us both (the teacher and the student),
May God nourish us both,
May we work together with energy and vigour,
May our study be enlightening and not give rise to hostility,
Om, Peace, Peace, Peace).

Yoga is a great equaliser and it is truly a human tradition. It is beyond gender, beyond culture, beyond language. If understood correctly, even beyond age and ability. To quote one of my yoga teachers: yoga is a world tradition. In India we have kept it alive but it belongs to the world.

And I felt it as we stood up to begin our yoga session that morning. As they opened their eyes, mine opened anew and all my thoughts about urban-rural, religious sentiments and age vanished. I stood among a sea of faces and all I saw was people who wanted to do yoga.

A slogan couched by a popular dance school comes to mind: have feet , will dance. In my head I switch it to ‘Have body , can yoga’.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see one of the MBA students from yesterday, sheepishly join the ranks.  It seems there is hope for us yet.  I smile and we begin.

Photographs: Shajan Jose and Ankur Nigam.

Saudamini Chandra teaches Yoga in Delhi and can be reached at yogastep@gmail.com

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Saudamini Chandra in Anupshahr, UP
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