By Varsha Ramachandran
“With a roar, rise and fight for your right to education.
Breaking the chains of tradition, go get education.”
- Savitribai Phule
India’s first school for girls was started in Pune, Maharashtra, by Savitribai Phule – the spearhead of the movement for female education in India. Almost two centuries later, the flame continues to burn bright in Maharashtra, as a new institution, the first of its kind, is set up. A school that Kantabai More, at the age of 74, can proudly say she attends twice a week. Where she gets scolded for not finishing her homework by her teacher, Sheetal More, who also happens to be her daughter-in-law. A school where all her peers are of her age. A school for the ajjis (grandmothers) of Fangane, a village in Maharashtra (19.3392˚N, 73.6566˚E).
On March 8th, 2016, International Women’s Day, the Ajjibaichi Shaala (Grandmothers’ School), was set up in Fangane at the demand of the ajjis. “The idea for Ajjibainchi Shaala came to me in Feb 2016, when we were celebrating Shivaji Jayanti,” says the founder Yogendra Bangar of the Motilal Dalal Charitable Trust, when asked about how the idea for a Grandmothers’ School came about.. He goes on to say, “The ladies in the village were reading out of a ‘paath’ (a holy passage), and I heard the senior women say that they wished they, too, could read the text. That’s where the idea of a school for them came from, and the whole village rallied behind it.” After having spent their entire lives dedicated to family, to helping push forward their family’s occupation by tending to the fields, the harvest and the business, the ajjis have, at long last, decided to turn to their own lifelong desire—to go to school and get education.
The crew of Virtual Bharat, a 1000 film journey of India initiated by filmmaker Bharatbala, attempts to capture the ajjis in action as they don their bright pink saree-uniforms and head to school together to learn their rhymes, math, alphabet and art—and like any other students, complain about homework and tests. In a four-day shoot in Fangane, living amidst the grandmothers, the team of 5 members saw that to tell the story of the Ajjibaichi Shaala, they needed to do more than simply film the classroom and the uniforms. They had to capture its incredible spirit. As Sitabai Deshmukh, an 85 year old ajji—the oldest in her class—tells the crew, school, for her, is about more than just the letters that they teach (which she forgets before the next class anyway); she cannot even really see the blackboard, or comprehend much of what is taught to her. For her, school is about living a life she never thought she would have access to. A life she has ensured that her children and grandchildren experience. A life that she too can now proudly say she has lived. The Ajjibaichi Shaala is a Maharashtrian grandmother’s lesson to all of India and is one of our proudest stories.
Virtual Bharat is a 1000 film journey of untold stories of India spanning people, landscapes, literature, folklore, dance, music, traditions, architecture, and more in a repository of culture. Vision of filmmaker Bharatbala, creator of Maa Tujhe Salaam, we are a tale of India told person-by-person, story-by-story, and experience-by-experience. The films are under 10 minutes in length, and are currently available on Virtual Bharat’s Youtube Channel.