In 2006, Geetanjali Kulkarni was attending a seminar on education where she was to share her views and findings about the ways in which mathematics can be taught to children. The actor had been exploring the field of academics with the hope of contributing to children’s lives. She realised that seminars can be monotonous and decided to present the research a tad differently. “I used a talk show format, with the academician I was partnering. I became the clown, who did not understand mathematics, and we presented our study in a way that it looked like a performance. The audience, dull after lunch and bored, instantly came alive,” she says.
The event made her realise that the best way to work in the field of education was to combine it with her theatrical skills. In 2007, Kulkarni launched QUEST (Quality Education Support Trust), a research-action organisation concentrating on enhancing the quality of education. As part of QUEST, Kulkarni, her husband Atul Kulkarni, a bunch of academicians and theatre practitioners, have been working with children from schools in adivasi villages of Maharashtra’s Palghar district. “Atul and I were happy working as actors, but we realised that acting had become our profession. We wanted to do more and this became a path to take,” says actor, 44.
“The idea is to inculcate in children, many of who are first generation school-goers, the practice or habit of reading books,” says Kulkarni, who studied at the National School of Drama before working with directors such as Paresh Mokashi, Mohit Takalkar and Sunil Shanbag. “There is no electricity in many villages where we work. The only books children read are school texts. With traditional forms of storytelling, such as gondhal or kirtan, becoming obscure, the children turn to TV as an alternative. However, even television or cinema does not tap their local culture and language and the kids do not find stories they can connect with. This is where QUEST tries to fill the gap,” says Kulkarni.
The actor, known for her performances in Atul Kumar’s play Piya Behrupiya and Chaitanya Tamhane’s award-winning film Court, has spent most of the last 11 years setting up programmes for QUEST, which run in conjunction with the government education system. As part of one such programme, QUEST practitioners train school teachers or “bal mitras”. There is also a mobile library for children.
In 2016, the organisation launched a programme, called Goshtarang. As part of the residential fellowship, the selected students of theatre engage with the children from Class 1-7. They perform stories as plays or performances, directed by a theatreperson brought on board by QUEST. “The result has been phenomenal,” says Kulkarni, who demonstrated the programme at a recent event in Mumbai.
At the event, attended by Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah, the five fellows performed dramatised stories for children. One such story was about scarecrows who come alive when no one is watching.
Kulkarni is busy setting up the third year of the fellowship while also working on films. Her next is a Marathi movie on one of the first Indian female physicians, Anandi Gopal Joshi.