Ten-year-old Nazreen sits on the floor, immersed in an English-Hindi dictionary, her fingers furiously moving back and forth from 'artistic' to 'astonish' before triumphantly settling on the three-letter word that the teacher has scribbled on the blackboard: 'ask'. She turns the pages to find the other words they have been asked to look up in the dictionary — 'meet', 'daughter', 'pea' — and seems mildly surprised for some reason that 'pea' stands for the vegetable she knows as mutter. She asks someone for confirmation, but the other girls, their heads bent and their expressions studious, haven't been able to find the word yet. Nazreen, therefore, gets down to helping them instead.

A girl student at Bandhyali gets help from the teacher in finding words in the English-Hindi dictionary. Pic: Deepa A.

Nazreen and her friends are learning English at the voluntary organisation Digantar's Bandhyali school in Jaipur district, Rajasthan. Including Bandhyali, Digantar runs four schools with 650 students and 23 teachers altogether. It would be misleading, however, to apply such generic terms as school and classroom to this learning initiative. For, there is very little that's school-like about Bandhyali. It stands in an open ground, a simple structure with a thatched roof and a neem tree to its centre, in whose shade children sit, writing in their notebooks, reading and chatting. Around it, almost in a circle, are the rooms where the children learn, each study group identified by lilting names brimming with beauty and promise, which the children themselves have chosen: Sitara or Bulbul or Jyoti.

The atmosphere at Bandhyali is relaxed and the children seem comfortable and at peace with their surroundings. Unlike their counterparts at what are called mainstream schools, their behaviour does not change in the presence of a teacher, who is treated more as a friend than as an authority figure. They do not lower their decibel levels just because a teacher has walked in, they make themselves comfortable on the floor where they sit and learn and they clarify their doubts with each other and the teacher. Most noticeably — and refreshingly so — there is no sense of fear among the children, either of provoking a teacher's anger or of punishment. As Nazreen, clad in a faded blue T-shirt and jeans, manages to explain in between deciding whether to trade the big fat dictionary she's holding for a smaller pocket-sized one, "I like this school because the teachers don't scream or shout at us. If we don't understand something, then they help us understand."

At Bandhyali, there are no traditional or established norms for teaching. Rohit Dhankar, Digantar's secretary, says, "We use theatre and toys, but there is no single way for teaching or learning. Any specific methodology can become binding. Our real objective is to encourage children, to see that the curriculum is connected to the child's interests." While this doesn't imply that the curriculum is decided only by this factor, it means that their interests serve as the starting point, so that the children can "explore whatever they want to do", says Dhankar.

It is this sense of exploration, of being on a journey of discovery and rediscovery, that is often missing in the quest for better progress reports and grades that define academics in most mainstream schools. Alternatives to this competitive world exist, many of them created because of the initiatives of parents who refused to put their children through what they had to endure — an education system that they felt emphasised matter over mind, uniformity over uniqueness, the destination instead of the journey itself. These centres of learning stand like little islands of hope, encouraging the child to follow his or her dream over the din of the outside world, giving the word holistic an altogether new meaning.

But, do they work in the long-run, for every child has to ultimately face a society that puts a premium on competitiveness and commodification? Are alternatives an option that parents from only a certain class of society, specifically the well-off segments, can look at? Bandhyali, and the other schools that use innovative ways of learning and teaching, offer an answer to both the questions.

Why is an alternative necessary?

Dhankar lists several reasons why alternatives such as those offered by Digantar are essential today. He says, "My objection to the school system is that the engagement of the child with what they are learning is minimal. It is more in the nature of training — there is no freedom for the child to explore, to do anything, to take their own lead." Moreover, "Education is seen in terms of economical development, as a way to get better jobs. An unexplored facet is the relationship of education with a good life and a desirable society. Another facet is how children can get their own understanding. What are the ways of creating knowledge and exploring it? Both are possible with a deeper engagement of the child's mind but the space for this encouragement in the curriculum is limited." At the four schools that Digantar runs (including Bandhyali), the attempt is to make a child independent in thought and action.

At Digantar, while children appear for the government exams in standard five and standard seven, only about 60 percent of the time is spent on the curriculum, with the rest of the time being utilised for crafts.