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Volunteering in India

Updated: May 6, 2020

Accepting an invitation to volunteer at a remote desert school without knowing exactly what would be expected of me was an act of faith, but India is like that - surrender yourself, and be surprised at where this selflessness can take you.

Starting a trend : a complete novelty was travelling to the C.11th Keradu temples for a drawing workshop with my class of spirited 14-year-olds

60 km from a nervous border with Pakistan, I have discovered such a deep feeling of satisfaction that I’m pretty sure this won’t be the last time that I return to Barmer, to volunteer at the remarkable Modern School.

One of several privately owned educational institutions in an important district centre, The Modern School had its genesis in its headmistress’ distress at hearing her own young child return from his classes 9 years ago, terrified by his teacher’s threat to hang him upside down before a beating. Discovering that this institutional violence wasn’t isolated it took Navneet and her husband Mukesh Pachauri almost no time to decide that they would offer an alternative - and to as many children as possible. Today 1300 boys and girls from pre-school to Year 12 benefit from their inexhaustible energy, vision and determination to make a difference.

Located on the outskirts of Barmer, nestled against the ancient Aravalli Hills, The Modern School greets more than 1200 children daily.

Invited by mutual friends, as their first-ever foreign teacher, this week-long experience was something of an experiment for us all. Sure, I’d taught English in Portugal and Nepal when travelling funds ran low, and more recently at the Mas School in Bali, but formal teaching qualifications I don’t have, so I began by presenting art workshops - specifically along the lines of a portraiture class I attended at the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka last month. Working with simple media, brown paper, black crayons and monochrome images, our 2-hour workshop passed so effortlessly that couldn’t wait to work with these 14-year-olds again.

Refiguring their heritage, Jashanpreet and Divya animatedly discuss the ancient symbols adorning this astonishingly beautiful and very rarely visited temple

Previous experience teaching children whose language I didn’t speak had pitiful consequences all those years ago in Kathmandu, when the headmaster walked into my class to see why it was so quiet - only to find almost all the children facing towards the wall as if in solitary confinement - a punishment for noisiness I well-remembered from personal experience (as well as being banished to sit under the teacher’s desk as a 12-year old for talking … can you imagine that happening these days ??).

Thankfully, these children are all being taught the ‘English Medium’and will eventually sit a higher level of exams than those demanded by the Government, hopefully ensuring them access to superior colleges, universities and the highly desirable Indian Civil Service jobs their parents crave for them.

So discipline wasn’t a problem at all. I couldn’t believe how quiet the entire school was, when, on any one day with 1200 students in some 40 class rooms, there wasn’t much more than the quiet hum of concentration emanating from tidy, bright rooms. For some families, the INR 500 per month (about AuD$10), will be a stretch, and one can imagine the sense of expectation that even this meagre investment demands. Here, education is the difference between a future and an existence, and it’s not uncommon for teachers to be offered serious money for special consideration.

Nanveet Pachauri, founder and headmistress of The Modern School, Barmer, Rajasthan

Navneet began her school with her inheritance, and continues to run it entirely though enrolments, with no government assistance whatsoever. She demands total commitment and teachers are supported and motivated. Interestingly, one of the most enjoyable sessions I presented was a 2-hour session with all the teachers (mainly women), discussing and practicing mindfulness meditation as a way of focussing attention - it was fascinating to them that this is being taught in Western schools as a general part of curricula, as well as my perspectives on learning through life and, and the enduring value of curiosity for a satisfying, interesting and meaningful life.

I found myself warming to my subject, and over the following two days, and some local media coverage, was booked to deliver variations on this theme to 18-year-olds at the prestigious Government Barmer Girls’ and Boys’ Colleges.

Before my lecture began at the Barmer District Boys' College it was my duty to light the candles, incense and present a marigold garland to honour Saraswati, Goddess of Wisdom and Learning.

Sharing with young people in packed halls, that I was not married and had "forgotten to have children” brought riotous applause from the girls (with a squirming shifting in seats from the male staff seated at the front), and a spate of cheeky questions from the boys, prompting their headmaster to warn that “only general questions” can be asked!

The Barmer Sun, at the Barmer District Girls' College

Once again I was reminded that what I take for granted is here, of such a rare quality as to be almost perverse. Travelling alone, man-less and without the support of my family in tow for months on end is simply a concept that is impossible here, and perhaps one reserved only for those pushed to the very edges of society : what would make me an out-caste in their own society made me an object of fascination here, and dare I say it, something of an inspiration - I can only judge that from the parents who arrived by the end of the week bringing gifts for Navneet and me.

who'd have guessed that going off to draw at the temples was an innovative idea ?

To Navneet I owe a great deal of gratitude for her preparedness to stretch beyond her boundaries, and entertain my suggestion for an art class trip to the gorgeously figurative C.11th temples of Keradu with “my’ 14-year-olds.

With the Aravali Hills in the distance, the temples known as the 'Khajuraho of Rajasthan' were our destination this week - an opportunity to look carefully into the symbolism and study the extraordinary artistic legacy of the Chandela dynasty. subjected to centuries of invasion and destruction, only 5 remain from more than 100 standing here a millennium ago.

What a spectacular success, and if I haven’t met the future prime minister of India in young Ganesh, then it only means he’s gone onto become a legendary poet or rapper.

Ganesh (he's the boy on the far right of the picture above), had shown me a poem he'd written in his art book the night before, so I made sure he had a moment to shine on the sacred louts platform of the main temple, performing for his peers.

Such personalities and talent I have witnessed and loved here.

More than 35 yeas after volunteering as a Australian Volunteer Abroad, and being offered Western Samoa as a destination (which I declined), this brief week has been one of the most emotionally rewarding experiences of my many years of travelling in India, and one which, should you find or make the opportunity to share, will reward you surely as much as any benefits you might leave behind.

Should you wish to be part of a group teaching/ interactive experience at The Modern School please contact me for further information.

Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed the story - do please share!

and now you can leave me a comment below - I'd love to hear from you - and I'll be sure to get back to you,

Cheerio for now,


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