THE KEENE STATE COLLEGE MAGAZINE SPRING 2009
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Living and Learning at Bapagrama
Last summer, Dr. Baker, professor of psychology, visited a school in India that was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and is kept alive by the dedication of Dr. Janaki Natarajan Tschannerl. At Bapagrama, no one is an outcast, and everyone learns – especially the teachers.

Janaki with Kat Harris
Janaki with Keene State student Kat Harris

For years I have known about Bapagrama, the school that Dr. Janaki Natarajan Tschannerl (Keene State faculty member in education and sociology) runs in Bangalore, India. I know KSC students and faculty members who have been there, and I have fantasized about going myself.

Last summer I finally went.

On June 21, my colleague Steve Clark and I landed in Bangalore and were greeted by Raja, a member of the Bapagrama community, who drove us to the school grounds. We shared the road with cars, trucks, motor scooters, auto-rickshaws, pedestrians, and cows. The traffic was so dense and fast moving that I couldn't detect any lanes. As I gazed out the car windows, I couldn't take my eyes off the women's colorful saris. It took us almost an hour to arrive at Bapagrama, where we were greeted by Janaki's welcoming arms.

Janaki describes the Bapagrama Educational Center as an anti-caste school for Dalit children, run on Gandhian principles. Her mother, Saraswathi Natarajan, started the school in 1949 at the suggestion of Mahatma Gandhi to educate the Dalit people in the surrounding areas. Dalit is an illegal term, banned since independence in 1949 when the Indian constitution outlawed the caste system. Dalit (meaning oppressed) people are the traditional outcasts, previously known as the "untouchables" in India. Making up a significant part of India's population, they are Dalit because their parents are Dalit, and, although some have made it up the political/economic ladder, most have not had access to education, health care, and opportunities available to others in the population.

Keene State student Jesse Miller, high in a banyan tree.
Bapagrama provides a place where people can learn, work, and live under equality they do not experience elsewhere. Although most of the school's children are Dalit (and Hindu), many come from other castes, and some are Muslim or Christian. The faculty and administration of the school are a mixed caste group, and they collaborate in the education of the 300 middle school, high school, and early college students who attend.

Janaki is known at Bapagrama as amam (mother) and throughout the region as 'the professor.' People come to tell their stories, ask for help, and get advice with personal and professional problems.
Every summer Janaki returns to Bapagrama, bringing students and faculty from Keene State and other schools in the United States who contribute what they can, but are primarily learners. I was among those who had this privilege. For me, the most enduring lessons happened in Janaki's presence and in the Bapagrama community. It is the first time I have been this close to someone who works so passionately and persistently, with such clear vision and determination, to change lives and the circumstances that shape them. From early in the morning to whenever she can end her day, Janaki creates experiences and opportunities for those around her. She consults with staff and faculty at the school, constantly evaluating the experiences of the children, and finds ways to improve their lives and their education. She maintains contact with students who have graduated, and they turn up regularly for support and encouragement.

The brilliant colors of India.
Employees at the center who do not work as educators drive, farm, clean, cook, build, repair, and solve daily problems with the plumbing, electricity, transportation, legal issues, and anything else that needs attention. Janaki consults with them constantly. She also keeps tabs on their families. For some, she provides housing, health care, and schooling for them and their children, in addition to their salaries, and she assists them with their family problems – negotiation of marriage contracts, finding decent work, coping with alcoholism or abandonment, and other issues. As a result, they are devoted to her and to Bapagrama; she describes these relationships as mutually dependent, for she counts on them to keep the place going while she is away for part of each year.

Cultural center for economically oppressed children.

Janaki supervises the Keene State College students who come to work on projects for credit, or just for the experience, and she helps them (and us) acclimate to living in India. She structures activities, plans educational trips, and helps us understand what we see. We ate three meals a day (the cooking is outstanding) with Janaki, any other visitors, and employees who happened to join us. The conversations ranged from discussion of the news in the Indian newspapers to globalization, economics, and our individual experiences. Janaki makes sure that meals are another time to confront the caste system: even when they are uncomfortable, those from all castes are encouraged (sometime gently pressured) to sit down together for a meal and join the conversation. Janaki, who speaks three different Indian languages, translates to assure everyone's participation.

The guest house at Bapagrama.
On any morning, people may show up from the local villages to see her. Janaki is known at Bapagrama as amam (mother) and throughout the region as "the professor." People come to tell their stories, ask for help, and get advice with personal and professional problems. Mothers who've been abandoned by their husbands and can't feed their children, students who can't pay for daily transportation to college, and people looking for work are some of those who drop in. Janaki welcomes and listens to them all, often finds ways to help, and at the very least, offers a meal. She also seeks out potential benefactors and contributors, for she must take time to raise money: the school operates on a shoestring budget (classrooms do not yet have electricity). The money Janaki donates monthly from her salary in the States is not enough to keep Bapagrama going. It is a constant struggle to keep the place afloat.

Janaki and Bapagrama now appear in my dreams. The experience of living for three weeks in this warm and welcoming community is changing me and my teaching in ways that are still unfolding.

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