Magical India and India in the raw. Nanhi Dunya – a small world full of children

Valentin Sagvosdkin

Nanhi Dunya is a small world in which I learn something about the big world – a world full of children! And it is the smallest ones who draw me immediately into the kindergarten with their little hands and calls of: “Baja! - Brother!” Small colourful chairs, a little blackboard, a nicely arranged room for playing and singing – with only a thin cardboard wall between the classrooms every sound can be heard. Gong – gong! Everyone gathers outside in two rows from the biggest to the smallest. Everything is topsy-turvy. Deaf children chat with hearing ones. A disabled girl who steps out of line is taken by the hand by an attentive fellow pupil. Never before have I experienced an atmosphere which is so naturally social. Peace returns when perhaps forty to fifty children form a circle to start the day with prayer and songs. The sun, the trees, the mountains, the neighbour and oneself are greeted until we finally say: “Good morning everyone!” 

“Be the change you want to see in the world”

Living in India means changing. Eating other things, shaking your head when saying “yes”, going to the toilet without toilet paper but a water jug instead ... Unimaginable here, but easy when there. I meet an old man who is almost blind, almost deaf and mute and can hardly walk, an orphan, the school principals, teachers, fellow volunteers. As a white person I am often treated preferentially. I get curious glances when I build a wood workshop as it is unusual to see Europeans working with their hands. But the best thing is teaching the children.

Each day I learn new things about India – festivals, ways of behaviour, religious customs. It is not always easy to communicate with people. Many can hardly speak English, including the children, but with Hindi, gestures, hands and feet everything is possible. I learn to discard fears, question preconceptions. I get a taste of India, a magical country when one thinks of the many religions, the atmosphere at the Ganges, the smile of the Muslim family which invites me in, and the high mountains of the Himalayas. But I also get a taste of India in the raw when I see the piles of rubbish in the street, the poverty. The incongruous moment which made the greatest impression on me was when I was picked up by a posh Mercedes and dropped off at Nanhi Dunya. The car was probably worth as much as the whole school.

Education which changes things

What is it like educating children who know how to survive in the hard Indian day-to-day life without being swallowed by this human juggernaut? Nanhi Dunya wants to offer them the opportunity to learn reading, writing and arithmetic properly for almost no school fees. And perhaps even more importantly: the aim is to communicate Indian culture to them through singing, painting, dancing. Anyone who walks through Indian streets, looks into tea stands and shops or visits some of the Nanhi Dunya children who, in extreme cases, live under a tarpaulin on the street or alternatively squeezed with their families into crowded dwellings, knows why. But also when you experience how the neighbouring children, who share a single bed with their parents in a garage, come running into the street each day to welcome you – until the day when the television arrives.

It started on a fallen tree

Nanhi Dunya is not a Waldorf school – it is a small movement which comprises another twelve schools in northern India, some of them very poor. It has its own history which started when Lekh Raj Ulfat fetched a few children off the street in 1946 and told them stories sitting on a fallen tree. Since then a lot has happened – Nanhi Dunya has grown but never received the money from the upper and middle classes with which the Waldorf schools in southern India are financed. But who is there for the disabled children, the autistic ones, the deaf ones, the children who would otherwise have to work? For all of them Nanhi Dunya is a place in which they can learn and just be. The young teachers work with these children with everything that Indian cultures provides – textbooks, songs, poems – and with what is brought by guests and volunteers. Nanhi Dunya, inspired by Steiner, Krishnamurti and Gandhi, does not yet function in accordance with a fixed curriculum. That one day children from all classes of the population will attend this school is still a vision. But drama, singing, helping one another, standing in a circle to greet one another each morning: “Good morning everyone!” – that already exists.

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