"There are a lot of good things happening in the world – if you try to see it, it’s amazing."

- Pankaj, age 22, New Delhi

 

Walking Out and Walking On in Kerala:

Learning Journey April 2004

 

Kerala – a small state at the southernmost western border of India, part mountains, part beaches, part inland waterways, part jungles, part cities. Home to many different religions, communism, matrilineal social structures, a long history of trade, most recently, Kerala has been touted as the most educated and literate state in India. Yet, all that glitters is not gold. Unemployed, frustrated youth, high suicide rates, growing urbanization and consumerism, a large ex-patriot population living in Dubai and other parts of the world, increasing destruction of nature and indigenous populations, all also mark Kerala’s current experiences.

 

A group of 16 swapathgamis (self-path-makers) traveled together in Kerala in the first two weeks of April. They came from different parts of India: Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Uttaranchal, Tamil Nadu, and ranged in age from 14 to 40. All of them were ‘walk-outs’, people who had taken decisions to free themselves from institutionalized education, or dehumanizing jobs, or violent lifestyles, or narrow attitudes, and ‘walk on’ to explore other ways of living and learning, that were more in tune with their values, convictions, and souls/hearts.

 

Although this growing network of walkouts had already met twice – first in Bhandardara, Maharashtra in September 2003, then during the World Social Forum in Mumbai in January 2004 – the journey to Kerala was the first attempt to extend the network’s learning by visiting other groups who were ‘walking on’ in their own innovative ways. The 16 swapathgamis spent approximately three to four days with three different groups in northern Kerala.

 

The first visit was to Kanavu, based in the beautiful hills of Wayanad, about 3 hours north of Calicut. Kanavu (meaning ‘place of dreams’) is a unique learning community, founded by KJ Baby and his wife, Shirley. Baby is a novelist and playwright, who decided to leave the city and mainstream literary world, and instead live among the tribal populations in Wayanad. Over the course of the last 12 years, Baby, Shirley and the local children have set up a wonderful space, in which living is learning and learning is living. The community consists of about 45 people, ranging in age from two to over 60. Together, they farm, cook, clean, play, laugh, gather wood from the forest, swim, make pottery, drum, sing, and dance in spontaneous and self-organizing ways. As Sandeep (age 24) from Nasik, Maharashtra, reflected later, "Around us, there are so many things to learn from. Why should we depend on texts, TV, or readymade programs to learn?"

 

All of us felt extremely inspired living with the Kanavu community – most of whom are walkouts from the mainstream education system themselves. We danced, sang, drummed, ate and cleaned together, and also shared our different interests and talents with each other. On our third day, while some swapathgamis did origami and dance workshops with the children, others went with the older youth to understand their mobile library project in local villages (which has the long-term plan to generate a tribal peoples’ movement to ensure their access to and control over local resources and land, as well as to maintain their diverse ways of life). We learned a lot about indigenous struggles in Kerala, and the experience of tribal families. And realized that different ways of living and learning — closer to nature, closer to art and music, closer to the spirit — are indeed possible.

In the coming months, some of the older Kanavu youth plan to come to Abhivyakti to strengthen their skills in filmmaking and community media-making, and others hope to come to Shikshantar and experience more about creating learning communities. They also are ready to join us on the next learning journey! Many from the walkouts group also hope to return to Kanavu to contribute and learn more with them.

 

Our second visit was to the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, an amazing regenerated rainforest in northern Wayanad. We were all struck by the natural beauty and wonder of the place, and then learned that it took about 20 years to be created as such. Wolfgang, the Sanctuary’s founder, walked out of his native Germany about 30 years ago and decided to come and live in this area, in which forests were being destroyed and big monoculture (one-crop) plantations were taking over. He and some friends decided to purchase some land as a trust, and create a space where all varieties of rainforest flora could exist – from tiny mosses, to delicate orchid flowers, to huge trees. They had no degrees, no certificates in biology – only loving hearts and a strong will to preserve nature and ‘garden back the biosphere’. That is, to restore the lungs of planet Earth – the rainforests – and help them flourish.

 

Over the years, with the help of a strong team of local people and dedicated friends, the Sanctuary has now become home to over 2000 species of plants. Thousands of visitors come yearly to learn about rainforests, their destruction vis--vis deforestation for tea plantations (a major problem in the hills surrounding the Sanctuary) or large dams or other projects of Development. Visitors also learn how they can help to protect and preserve nature, by changing their lifestyles, being aware of what is happening in their localities, and raising questions when nature is under attack.

 

Many of the swapathgamis were farmers and/or nature-lovers, and so we thoroughly enjoyed our time in the Sanctuary – walking in the nearby forest, climbing trees, exploring the wide range of plants, and seeing the intimate balance among them all. We also had a wonderful time interacting with the diverse people who are living and visiting there, cooking and eating together, creating art and music, and sharing in each other’s thoughts about walking out and walking on.

 

Our third visit was to Kumbham Murals, an artisan community established through the efforts of KB Jinan. Based in Aruvacode, Nilambur, southeast of Calicut, Kumbham is a collective of potters who have taken their traditional occupation into new territories, producing beautiful works of clay art for urban populations. Jinan had recognized the natural talent in this local community when he visited 12 years as part of a project to shift the community’s occupation from prostitution to pottery. He saw then that minds unpolluted by text and education were able to create unique works of art; intuition was a powerful means of learning (as opposed to intellect).

 

Jinan himself is a walkout from the training he received — first as an engineering student and then from the National Institutes of Design in Ahmedabad. He realized that Western art, design and technology as reference points were ill-suited for Indian diversities and contexts. And that text and intellect were barriers to natural and intuitive learning. So Jinan has been walking on ever since, trying to recover his own senses and natural aesthetics. He has also been working with local children to see how they connect organically to their surroundings, its materials and relationships.

 

We too participated in the sensing nature workshop, and also took time to experiment with clay and natural materials. It was a joy to be around so many children again, singing and laughing and playing with them as well. And the clay work was quite beautiful. Kishan (age 19 from Udaipur, Rajasthan) in particular, felt excited to reconnect to his own roots as a kumhar (the potters’ caste community) and search for more new and innovative creations. Some provocative questions which emerged here among us: What is the inherent creativity in me? How can I express it? How can I create space for the senses, nature and aesthetics? How to live a life of beauty?

 

Our journey concluded in Calicut, where Elements, an organic store, hosted us and helped to organize a public interaction on walking out, walking on. The approximately 75 people who gathered consisted of youth, parents, academics, activists, journalists and business folks. Over the three hours together, we shared our personal stories, discussed the challenges and opportunities that come with walking out, played a few games to articulate our connections to one another, and hosted mini-workshops on organic farming, martial arts, origami, TV Turnoff Week and community media, and traveling learners.

 

Tremendous positive energy was generated during the session, as people were eager to listen, to speak candidly about the situation of youth and adults in Kerala, and to seek out new roles and possibilities for their lives. The chance to network in such ‘cut-off’ places like the big city also proved to be valuable, as often city youth feel the least confident about exploring other options for their futures (when compared with rural youth, who still may be connected to the land, their traditional occupations, local languages, arts, etc).

 

Many people linked with us during the session, and we hope to see them again in upcoming events for walkouts. Also, the Calicut press covered the event extensively; the following day stories about walkouts appeared in six Malayalam dailies, two English dailies, and were featured in two special weekend editions. We hope this will have ripple effects, and more people from Kerala will join the network.

 

All in all, the learning journey was an experience to remember. For many swapathgamis, coming to Kerala was like coming to a new country, and they reveled in the new food, environment, and other tastes of the South. Language posed a challenge at times, but we discovered ways to communicate without words: by eating, singing, dancing, working, smiling… with our new friends. As with the past walkouts gatherings, ample opportunities were created to share and learn from one another’s ideas and experiences, as well as for self-reflection. This feeling of freedom and openness enabled new discoveries and deep learning. For example, many people from the group are working on creating learning centers/communities (or already part of them), and so each of the places visited offered a lot of new ideas for experiments and practices.

 

Above all, the chance to interact with so many people who had themselves ‘walked out’ of a certain life of (so-called) privilege, and had committed themselves to living differently, was tremendously inspiring to us all. "It makes me feel I am on the right track," laughed Jenny, our youngest swapathgami at age 14, from Tamil Nadu. And the other core connection among the sites – of individuals working hard to manifest dream into reality – reaffirmed for us the importance of pursuing our dreams, with passion, convictions, and whole hearts. As Bhupendra (age 27 from Indore, Madhya Pradesh) remarked on the train journey home, "To see the power in oneself, to recognize and stand in that power, that is the work of walking out and walking on."

 

 

I want to extend a special thanks to KJ Baby, Shirley and Shanti of Kanavu, Wolfgang, Suprabha, Anna and Sandy of Gurukula, Jinan of Kumbham Murals, and Tomy, Seepja and Civic Chandran of Elements for taking such good care of us during our time in Kerala. Without you all, this journey would not only not have been possible, but it wouldn’t have had the tremendous beauty, inspiration and joy it did. Thank you, thank you, thank you!