The creators of the artwork above are rural Indian children from Bishnupur, West Bengal, India. It was a result of a digital art project I conceived and conducted in 2004 with French pedagogue and artist Pascal Monteil and rural Indian children (supported by The French Embassy In India and NIIT Ltd.). The digital art project was exhibited at a world design exhibition, ‘D Day – le design aujoud’hui’, at the prestigious Centre Nationale D’Art Et De Culture Georges Pompidou, Paris, France. https://www.centrepompidou.fr/fr/programme/agenda/evenement/cTaraA
FROM SHIRGAO TO COLABA
It’s easy to start a blog but so hard to compose oneself. I was waiting for the right moment and something interesting to say. In 2009 I got an email from a young man that played back for me the captivating journey of a child from a small village in coastal Maharashtra.
We inaugurated NIIT’s (www.niit.com) first rural ‘Hole In The Wall’ kiosks for education, in Sindhudurg District, Maharashtra, India, at the hands of Dr. Abdul Kalam in 2002. The kiosks were funded by the Social Initiatives Group of ICICI Bank. Village children got computer access through kiosks placed in their school playground. It was their first experience of using computers. I led the research and managed operations.
One of the villages for my field research was Shirgao. This is a beautiful Konkani village close to the coast with one high school. My fieldwork consisted of observing children, collecting data, devising tests and of course, ensuring that things were working and people were paid! Back in the office I looked at content and methods that would add to the educational value of the environment.
The children were all over the kiosk. They were in control. There was Arun Chavan, a frail and quiet child in Std. VII (7th grade). His father was a doctor and lived very close to school. I interviewed Arun the first day he used the kiosk computers. He said, a bit tentatively, that he had heard computers were useful in banks, they did many calculations!
That year, I saw Arun at the playground kiosk each time I visited. He was always up to something. Most times he was surrounded by other kids who watched what he did, helped and instructed each other. Arun became a thought leader of sorts, exploring and helping other children. I heard that he had searched for recipes of ‘Panha’ (a drink made from raw mango in Maharashtra) from the Internet and taken them to his mother.
Occasionally I would get emails from the village children (how completely thrilling that was!) with inserted images of flowers and demands to return to the village immediately. They had discovered, from Google, that pictures needed to be digital to be included in emails and hence they wanted me to install scanners! Google was their teacher. All was ALIVE and well :-).
In 2003 Chandita Mukherjee organised the Sir Ratan Tata Trust Colloquium On Education, in Mumbai. She asked me for a lecture, instead I suggested a panel discussion between computer savvy kids on opposite sides – urban and rural. Urban children who had been taught computers in school, and rural children who had self-learned through playground computers. The kids could tell their own story. We brought Arun over to Mumbai, along with his classmate Swapnil and schoolteacher Shamshuddin Attar. I chaired the panel discussion.
It was Arun’s first exposure speaking at a conference. He was beside a group of students from the upper class Campion school Mumbai, and spoke in Hindi. The audience was captivated as he described their search for science information and that their teacher Attar had downloaded Google Earth. Attar was exploring the village topography for possible watershed development. Surely that event inspired not only the children, but also Chandita’s next documentary project.
In 2007 the documentary ‘ICT Harvest’ showed evocative interviews of Arun and Swapnil on how how technology enabled exploration contributed to their growth. The children had grown. They were college going youth now and had made the choice to move from a village of about 10,000 people with one high school, to the big city of Pune, India’s Mecca for higher education and an IT industry hub.
Yes, they struggled with English and with the newness of hostel living, with urban students from all over the country. But they had come here to do what they wanted – Arun studying Biotechnology and Swapnil studying Aeronautical Engineering.
Recently on a busy workday in Pune an email from Arun Chavan slid into my mailbox once more. It read – “Please note a change in my mobile number…”. I was about to close it, when I noticed the email signature line below. It took my breath away “Arun Chavan, Junior Research Fellow, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.” The historic TIFR. Located at the Southern tip of megacity Mumbai, TIFR is the premier institution for cutting edge scientific research in the country.
Arun’s journey as a child from a small coastal village, speaking only Marathi, to an internationally acclaimed scientific institution, is certainly catalysed by his explorations with technology. It was the road that led him from Shirgao to Colaba. The spaces crossed during that journey, in small bits and bytes, have changed Arun’s world. Maybe he will change ours one day.
‘Lalya’, that was his name. The “hole-in-the-wall kiosk” at Banda village (ok, ‘learning station’, that’s what they call it now!) was in the village center. Not in the school playground, but off a road between two schools, in the yard of the Gram Panchayat (local administration office).
I was on my usual trip to the villages, alone at the lovely Konkan Crown Hotel. It is in the lap of nature about 7 kms outside Sawantwadi city, no other habitation. Around, coconut and mango trees laden with fruit. The ‘Konkan Crown’ had very kind staff, although a bit forgetful. If you asked for a ‘ghavan’ you could be sure to get ‘upma’ for breakfast and if you asked for ‘poha’, you would get ‘ghavan’. So I changed my strategy and would ask for an omelette hoping I would get idli. That did not work either. At times when Ravi, Gaurav or Sugata were around we’d storm the kitchen and check out the fresh fish and watch over it while cooking.
I loved the place and its solitude. A perfect finish to endless days on small village roads, although for a woman, a night as the only guest in a small hotel in the middle of nowhere can be a bit worrisome.
So, Lalya… that was the name of every single file created and saved on the desktop of the Banda computer kiosk. Who was this child? I asked the group that had collected around me.
A sudden hush, then a rush, and within minutes Lalya was produced from nowhere. They told me he was a construction worker at a nearby building site.
So what school do you go to, Lalya? None.
How old are you? 11.
A power user at the kiosk, Lalya was illiterate!
Who saved all these documents on the desktop named ‘Lalya’? He did.
In the excited conversation that followed, the kids told me that they first taught Lalya how to select games and open them and then how to use the arrow keys to play them. Now, Lalya was the highest scorer. But how did he know which game to open if he could not read?!
Easy, they said. He knew where it was placed on the desktop and he could now recognise its spelling as a pattern. I had a gut feel that recognising patterns of pictures was one way the children used the GUI space irrespective of language. This was one of the clues that led to the Icon Association Inventory (IAI), a visual test I devised, for computer literacy.
How did Lalya get to learn to spell his name? Another child taught him which keys to press on the keyboard – L A L Y A. Simple. With this knowledge and his newfound proficiency with the games, Lalya, was the expert.
LETTERS FROM VILLAGES
Sometimes when I visited the kiosks I would feel a bit vexed. It was difficult to find the local resource person around when I needed him. He monitored operations, most importantly opened the kiosks and turned the machines on daily. We had no internet at the kiosks then, only offline software on the machines that captured and gave me usage data. What were the maintenance problems? Where were the reports? Had the remote monitoring system data been copied for analysis or not? Were the kiosks being opened daily?
Who would tell me other insightful stories of what happened on ground when I was away?
On one visit, a bit demoralised with operations, I walked to the kiosk. The usual sight greeted me, so many kids, the noise, the sudden silence, the cries of jubilation….Who could I depend on? A flash – the kids of course! That’s when I made friends with Pritesh.
I handed Pritesh a few self-addressed ‘inland letters’ (remember those things, they still exist. Try sending someone an ‘inland’, feels great). Over the following months we exchanged a few letters. What a feeling of excitement coming home from work, after a terrible drive through Saki Naka in Mumbai, to see an ‘inland’ waiting for me at the dinner table.
Reminded me of childhood, waiting for the postman to bring news from a pen pal in Romania!
Those letters in 2002/03 from Pritesh, Shashank and Naranyan gave me Zen-like insights into what the children were experiencing in their initial exposures to computing. No face to face chats, interviews or research came close to the textures in the letters. The reflection enabled in letter writing is self-revealing. Some excerpts translated from Marathi:
“For the small children the computer is turning out to be a fun thing. There is always a crowd here for playing with the computer. We have learned so many things unknowingly on the computer.”
–The power of incidental learning?
“For the children of Shirgao, the fact of the computer in Shirgao High School is a matter of pride/curiosity.”
–Ownership and community adoption – a crucial underpinning for survival?
“All kinds of people come. They do not know anything about the computer, press any buttons and lock (presumably hang) the computer and go. I know everything well now. But I have one request, by and large don’t take these adults.”
–The disdain with which they regard adult fumbling! Children are the same everywhere, in some ways, aren’t they?
“The reason for writing is that you came but we could not meet because I had gone to my maternal uncle’s village. It was a holiday and also on the same day it was the engagement of my uncle…. Now I am there (at the kiosk) almost all day. Because of the computer, some things that I did not understand before, I understand now. Now I play games in various ways. It is great fun while playing games, at the same time, unknown towns and some districts are now known to me. I also learnt some other games.”
So much is learned through games. Yet, repeatedly, when adults saw the children playing games at the computers they would complain they ‘do nothing’, they ‘only play games’.
Well, how else did you learn?!!
JEROME SUPPORTS AN IDEA
The meeting with Jerome happened rather fortuitously in 2003. On a Saturday evening in Mumbai, my friend Rahul Vohra insisted I come out and meet some interesting French folks over dinner. Frequent travels to the Sindhudurg district villages, work in Mumbai and a little girl to bring up at home had made me very happy to be in my nest, when I could. I simply was not looking out to meet “new” people and make inane social conversation. But when Rahul insists, I listen, because usually there is something there. And so it was that I met Jerome that Saturday night. Thank you, Rahul.
Quick introductions followed. He was the cultural attaché at the French embassy. The very first predictable social question – what do you do? I fumbled then, as I have only recently been able to find words to describe my work that others will understand (see ‘about’ link, if you care). I spoke to him about the present – the Sindhudurg project. As he got more interested, it spurred me on to speak.
I described how children thronged the kiosks and spent a lot of time drawing pictures with Microsoft Paint…however the pictures had become repetitive over the last year or so. Geometric shapes with colour fills made way to landscapes using the same geometric tools. Could we extend their capabilities with better tools and more exposure to art and artists, I thought, as I spoke to him. Could we stay within the same paradigm of peer learning and observation, while adding to it the scaffolding of watching an “older expert” at work.
As the idea took shape, surprising myself, I said quite unequivocally – “I want you to send me a French digital artist who will work with me in the villages and who the children can observe… and I also want Adobe Photoshop (digital art software). Language does not matter.” I did not know where that came from, I had not thought this through before.
For a few seconds I saw surprise, then a distant look. Equally suddenly, Jerome responded “I know exactly the person for you. Pascal Monteil. He is in Chandigarh now and going back to France”.
That was it. An intensely focussed, meaningful, unplanned, highly productive and rapid-fire exchange with someone I had just met.
For months after this we followed due processes of fleshing out proposals, costs and approvals. I wrote a proposal that envisioned 10-12 day digital art workshops in remote corners of rural India working with a French digital artist and groups of village children who had self-learned computers through hole-in-the-wall machines. We gave children better access – an art workbook made by Pascal, higher end digital art software, an opportunity to watch an international artist at work, and digital cameras.
However the most crucial challenge for me, was to devise a pedagogical approach to transacting those 12 days with children in each village, without any common spoken language, co-evolving artistic visual expression, through hi-technology, with progressive scaffolding. Thank you Jerome for supporting the vision!
(see project website at http://www.niitcrcs.com/art/index.htm )
MOUMITA & PASCAL
Hot, muggy and languid west Bengal in April, close to the Ganges delta. Village Bishnupur. I had just met the French digital artist Pascal Monteil at the quirky and old Fairlawn Hotel in Kolkata with Nicolas Blasquez, Director of the Alliance Francaise at the time. This was my first ‘recontre’ with Pascal and we were to start work the next day!
Our email interactions had already shown that we shared little language! But meeting Pascal confirmed to me that we had a greater communication that would find the words…and other means. We were about to initiate the first workshop in digital art that I had proposed to the French Embassy in New Delhi. Our location – Bishnupur village.
I have never felt a sense, or any great emotion of “helping” the children I have worked with in rural India. Quite the opposite, they taught me. Also, it isn’t possible to have a ‘do-gooder’ attitude when faced repeatedly with utter spunk and humour. So yes, I simply enjoy working with rural India. It is that simple.
Flashing eyes, shaved head, a puff sleeved frock, bare feet and a volley of questions fired at me in Bengali, knowing I could understand nothing, or maybe everything. That was Moumita. I have seen few girls her age (12 years or so, then) in urban India, with her self-confidence, assuredness and direct gaze in the face of the ‘outsider’, the ‘foreigner’ and all things new. Moumita was one of three girls in the workshop.
On the first day of work we handed children the fantastic art book Pascal Monteil had created. It contained pictures of artwork through time, including all forms, even calendar art and Hindi film posters. In the first few days, children simply looked at pictures curiously and asked questions. We had Suryakant, our overall support and translator, not knowing how things might evolve. The funny thing was that Surya would speak to me in his heavily Bengali accented English, which I tried to figure out and then explain to Pascal who barely understood English anyway!
In this merry verbal mess, children happily browsed their art books and Pascal worked on his laptop creating complex digital collages with multiple photographs and layers using Adobe Photoshop. The children went from their books to watching Pascal work. Back and forth, back and forth….
Soon the first question, and the flood gates opened – what is this, where is this, who made this…?
Moumita turned the pages to the print of a very large and complex digital collage made by Pascal called ‘Fudo’ with over 1200 photographs. “What is this?! Where is this?!” she asked looking up at him incredulously.
Now, the big challenge, how do you explain a digital collage? So we decided to tell the basics and that Pascal should act it out.
He did – Not 1 photo, but 1 + 1 +1 +1 +1 +1 +1 +many photos, 1000 photos = 1 picture… in computer.
Moumita’s eyes lit up with understanding…So I understand! This picture exists….not in the reality… but it does exist…in your mind and in the computer…correct?
In that moment, Moumita had taken a huge leap of imagination. She had understood Pascal. She had crossed many boundaries…of communication, of reality, of existence, of the abstraction in art itself.
(see project website at http://www.niitcrcs.com/art/index.htm )
Click here for an older blogpost by me, outside this website, about the OLPC project at Khairat village that I visited years ago