Skylight: Unlocking a different world for underprivileged children
Bengaluru: It’s a Saturday morning, but the Annaswamy School in Frazer Town is buzzing with activity. It’s a school day and the grounds are filled with the laughter of children as Ashritha Anantharam Hattangadi, the great-granddaughter of Annaswamy Mudaliar, arrives to meet this reporter. “We’ve had a lot of offers to develop the land,” she said. “That’s never been an option. The green cover here is refreshing!”
The school has run under the umbrella of the Annaswamy Mudaliar Trust since 1907, when Mr Annaswamy decided to reach out to the children of the ‘night soil workers’. “Back in those days, when there were no indoor toilets, people used the company lanes that ran behind rows of houses,” she said. These night soil workers were the untouchables, who would have to leave the city limits before day break. “My great grandfather believed in equal opportunity, so he set up the school.” Today, about 500 children from nearby slums attend the government-aided, Tamil medium school, which itself a rarity these days.
Ashritha, who taught French at Mount Carmel College, became involved with the trust about a decade ago. “I’d eased off on teaching after I had my second child and my dad asked me for help,” she said. It wasn’t long before she developed a passion for it. Ashritha is behind Skylight, a recreation centre, which aims at imparting education through music, art and creativity.
“I thought the kids lacked exposure to the arts. The school, up to that point, had focussed only on academics. Holistic development was a definite necessity.” She called a friend who had just graduated from Shantiniketan, who agreed to give it a go. “He came to the school, gave each kid a box of colours and told them to do whatever they wanted. At the end of the class, one boy walked up to him and said ‘this is the best day of my life’. I still get teary eyed when I think of that.”
The Skylight rooms are quite a treat. The walls are covered with paintings, which Ashritha says were done by artists who came down from the UK especially for this. “We have a volunteer from Leeds conducting a music programme, the kids have even formed a little band,” she says with a smile.
Art and lifeskills training are also part of the Skylight programme, which takes place twice a week for each class. They have a counsellor coming in once a week. “The idea is to give the children freedom to think and express themselves creatively,” she said. And it seems to have worked wonders. “The other teachers have told me that the kids are more eager to learn after a Skylight session,” she said. The programme has grown over the years, they now have a group of about six dedicated volunteers who have been around for about two years.
Two years ago, Ashritha returned to another dream she had harboured – working with disabled children. “I had trained as a special educator, but never had the chance to use those skills,” she said. The trust partnered with the Association of People with Disabilities and brought three specially abled children into the school. The other kids were put through a lot of preparation first, though, she admits. “We had to teach them that specially abled children don’t want to be treated differently. Today, if one of the students spots someone with a disability, they won’t give them a second look.” Later, another eight were admitted. “We want to bring them into mainstream society and that has materialised,” she said.
Their most recent programme is to set up a community centre for severely disabled children who have never been to a school. This should be formalised in June, she said, although work is already underway. We walk into the room that is being done up for the purpose and a group of about ten mothers are midway through a training programme with their children. Ill health is a major worry for these kids – a couple of them are both physically and mentally disabled. “We’ve children with severe mental retardation,” she said. It’s the mothers who really get your attention, though, they are visibly tired and anxious. She plans to organise a recreational activity for them, it could even be a movie night once a week. “They need some time to themselves,” she said.
These kids are so ill that any health crisis can only be dealt with at a super specialty hospital like Nimhans. “Immediate care can be provided at our hospital, but we have no choice but to call an ambulance from Nimhans for more serious cases.” Epileptic fits are an everyday occurrence though, and their mothers are well-equipped to take care of it most of the time.
At the school, the kids are given the midday meal through the Akshaya Patra scheme. “The government takes care of the teachers’ salaries, and textbooks, but help has been dwindling since the RTE began. The trust provides the children with uniforms and shoes, but stationery and notebooks are usually obtained through sponsors.” The school is completely free up to the seventh grade, but high school students pay a nominal amount of Rs 2,000 per year. “It barely covers stationery costs,” she said.
Fundraisers take place once every couple of years – they have one planned for next Saturday.
There are plenty of challenges now, especially with the RTE in full force. “We run a Tamil medium school and unlike most institutions, we do actually instruct in Tamil,” said Ashritha. “We have applied for an English medium licence, but we don’t know what will become of this.” Admissions have fallen, she admits, because of this language issue. “Now that the RTE is in full swing, parents know they can send their children to private, English-medium schools. We don’t want to switch the medium of instruction without the proper permissions though. It’s tough, but we’re keeping things going the best we can.”