Published: 25th October 2018
Why the Tent School is the place to be for kids of Karnataka's mahouts, every Dasara
Tents are often associated with circuses. Despite it's rather humble overhead cover, albeit inside the grand Mysore Palace, Tent School is actually a godsend for children of mahouts during Dasara
For many of us, the festival of Dasara means spending time with our families and eating special dishes that aren't made too often. But for these children of mahouts and kavadis in Karnataka, Dasara is a double delight. Not just because they get to wear new clothes and eat delicious food, but because they also get to learn dance, drama and study their regular school syllabus for a period of 45 days. Before you let your imagination travel to those forests of Bandipur, Nagarahole or Dubare in Coorg, here's a fun fact — these activities happen in the grand, royal campus of the Mysore Palace.
Popularly known as the Tent School, it was started in the year 2004 by the Karnataka State Government to work in the interest of educating the children of mahouts and kavadis. Since then, it has grown massively and every year, Mysuru Dasara is hosted with a lot of pomp and grandeur. It is during this time that the guardians of elephants, along with their families and the elephants come to Mysuru and stay for more than a month. 12 elephants are trained to walk in the procession and only one elephant, called 'Arjuna', carries the golden howdah which weighs around 750 kg. Before 2004, children who stayed in this camp at Mysore Palace either helped their mahout-fathers in feeding and bathing the elephants or just remained idle.
Read well: Tent Library has been functioning since five years which is put up only 45 days in Mysore Palace
This long vacation made the children forget the syllabus and chapters they had studied in their schools. Some even lost interest in going back to school and hence they would simply drop out. Thus, the state government decided that they should find a way to keep these children engaged in education while giving them an opportunity to enjoy their vacations. Without taking much time, the government decided to appoint a few government school teachers to teach children at the Tent School. They occupied a small area on the Palace grounds and set up a tent with tin sheets.
Noor Fathima, a government school teacher of Mysuru South Division has been working in the Tent School for 14 years. Every year, the Education department appoints 12 government teachers to train these children and Fathima is one of them — having trained more than 100 children over the years. She says, "Tent school has been a very successful programme. Education is every child's right and it should not be limited to rural or urban children. The real success is when education reaches these children who are living in forests. Although these children go to a government school in villages close to their forest camps, they tend to forget whatever they have learnt when they come on vacation. We keep them up to date in subjects like Social Science, Math, Science, English and Kannada."
Children have regular classes till 1.30 pm and post lunch, they are trained in drama and dance and are provided with a platform to show their talents. Mahouts and their children come from various elephant camps and tribal pockets in Karnataka including Balle, Nagarahole, Dubare and K Gudi elephant camps.
Relating this to the provisions of the Right to Education Act, she says, "Any child who does not attend school for more than seven days is considered as a school dropout. Similarly, when these children do not attend school for 45 days in their villages, they will be considered as school dropouts. Hence we conduct classes for these children and on the last day of the camp, we give them an attendance certificate to show that they have attended the school for 45 days."
When we asked Fathima whether they faced challenges in getting these children to attend the Tent School, she says, "Initially, when the government started this programme, it was a herculean task to gather mahouts' children in one place. Having lived in the forest all their life, they are not used to sitting in the same place for hours. They would go and hide in the nooks and corners of the palace and we had to search, find them and convince them to attend school. There were days when we would tire searching for them and come back to the tents, hoping that they would seek us out." She further adds, "We do not like to force children to attend this school. But their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers have been working as mahouts all their life. Why should these children miss out the opportunity of being equal to others when everything is provided for free?"
Puppet play: Tribal children paints human faces on their knees and dress them up to enact the puppet show
Over the years, the numbers have been consistent — reposing the faith that the government has shown in the initiative. Until 2018. "Every year, the Tent School has at least 50 children from ages 6-16 but this year, we have only 37 children. Class IX and X children had their mid-term exams and they were busy preparing for it to score well. We feel happy when we observe this change. If not everyone, at least we are able to change a few children."
There are many children who had been part of this camp who have gone on pursue a degree. Raisal Thimma is an 18-year-old girl who is pursuing a BA degree at the Government Women's College in Hunsur. Her father Thimma has been taking care of Balarama, a 64-year-old elephant and the pride of the Nagarahole Elephant Camp. She says, "During these 45 days of celebration in Mysore, I travel from Mysore to Hunsur and on other days, I travel from Kachenahalli. I have been a part of this Tent School from when I was as young as 8. There has been a lot of change and we developed an interest in learning. Many of us did not even imagine that we would complete Class X or pursue a degree. It was all possible because of the Tent School and our normal school when we go back home."
Telling stories: Teacher along with children at Tent School tell a story through pictures painted on an umbrella
There are many children like Raisal who want to study and break the barriers of not limiting themselves to the work that the previous generation are used to. They too want to be in the mainstream and become engineers, doctors, teachers and much more.
That's a dream that's out of the shadow of the tent and out in the open!