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Saturday, October 24, 2020

Arunachal students beat Covid and connectivity odds to learn

They do not have a shruti box, the acoustics may not be ideal and the electricity goes off often. But these practice sessions, which began in earnest early October, are hard-earned.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati | Updated: October 16, 2020 11:46:56 am
A music session at Jackson Pul’s residence. (Express Photo)

It is around four that Ashapmai Dellang and Behelti Ama visit Jackson Pul every evening. In the musician’s tin-roofed one-roomed wooden home, a space between the bedroom and the kitchen is cleared, the harmonium is brought out, and the singing begins. And then, notes of a Carnatic song fill the room, and beyond into the quiet outskirts of Arunachal Pradesh’s Tezu town.

They do not have a shruti box, the acoustics may not be ideal and the electricity goes off often. But these practice sessions, which began in earnest in early October, are hard-earned. “When it comes to learning music, you need to be in a group, you need to discuss, you need to get feedback,” says Dellang, who hails from Medo village under Wakro circle in Lohit district.

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Till last month, the 18-year-old student of Chennai-based Kalakshetra Foundation was literally running around her village, 20 km from Tezu, in the hope of finding “more than one [network] stick” to attend her online music lesson. A Class 12 humanities student, classical music is Dellang’s main subject, something the daughter of a farmer says she wanted to “make a career” in.

In May, when the lockdown travel restrictions were lifted, Dellang, Ama and two other friends, Asuni Khamblai and Abimsi Manyu, all students of Kalakshetra Foundation, boarded a Shramik Special from Chennai to Tinsukia in Assam, and then a bus to Wakro in Arunachal Pradesh. But the initial relief of returning home amidst a pandemic was soon replaced by frustration. As classes moved online across the country, the girls struggled with the network. Or even electricity to charge their phones.

In Medo, if Dellang was lucky, she would sometimes catch a note sung by her teacher, but just when it was her turn to sing the note back, the internet would inevitably falter. Nearby in Pukhri village, Ama had worse luck. It was not just the network, but the electricity too. “It would go off for days,” says 18-year-old Ama, who spent most of her time then working in the field with her parents.

In Manthi village, Khamblai, a second-year Bharatanatyam student, did not take a chance. To the amazement of her parents, who are farmers, she packed her bags and moved to the nearest urban centre Tezu in order to access a stable internet connection for her online lessons.

“I thought classes would resume only when college reopened,” says the 19-year-old, “but when I heard it was going to be online, I was worried. As dance students, we have to be very interactive with the teacher. It works only if we can see each other — through a reliable internet connection.” And to ask that of Manthi, a village tucked away in the Mishmi foothills with 143 people and 28 households (2011 census), Khamblai knew was a bit much.

The importance of education is not lost on these girls, first-generation school-goers who are part of Kalakshetra’s initiative to provide hundred per cent free education to a handful of students from the Northeastern states through a central government grant. “Everyone in my family is a farmer, and I see how difficult it is for them to earn,” says Dellang, “Education is important because it has taught us that there is another way to earn.”

Following Khamblai, she has moved into her aunt’s house in Tezu, where the network is slightly better than Medo. “I still cannot access Zoom lessons, but my teacher told me to contact her the moment I get network, and that is how we have been progressing — exchanging WhatsApp videos.”

Dellang first discovered she could sing when she took part in a local talent hunt competition in her village in Class 9. “I lost the first time but when I participated the second time, I won,” she says, remembering how, in their first music lesson at Kalakshetra, she and Ama broke into giggling fits. “What kind of music is this, we thought. It sounded strange to us,” she says. Now the most serious question of her life is whether she will specialise in Carnatic or Hindustani music when she finishes Class 12.

From the talent hunt days, she knows Jackson Pul, a trained Hindustani classical singer at Itanagar’s Rajiv Gandhi University. “Now Jackson bhaiya has told us we can practise at his home every day, till we go back,” says Dellang, who lost her mother last November. “This has made all the difference. I was initially listening to voice recordings and practising on my own, now they are there to point out where I make a mistake.”

Accompanying them is Ama, who is staying with her cousin brother in Tezu. “It took me a lot to convince my mother that I had to move to Tezu,” she says, “I finally did but the next step is to convince her that I return to Chennai. She is worried — it takes four days to reach Chennai by train and we cannot afford the flight.”

Last year, referred by Lohit Youth Library Network for the scholarship, the girls moved to Chennai, stepping out of Arunachal Pradesh for the first time in their lives.

“The girls have been active, dedicated volunteers at our libraries,” said Arunachal Pradesh-based social activist and educational reformer Padma Shri, Sathyanarayan Mundayoor (popularly known as ‘Uncle Moosa’), who is the founder-coordinator and closely associated with the Lohit Youth Libraries, a network of volunteer-run libraries operational in the four districts of Lohit, Anjaw, Namsai and Lower Dibang Valley.

“A decade ago, Wakro circle, occupied primarily by the Mishmi tribe, was known to be particularly lagging when it came to girls’ education. Most are first in their families to attend high school,” says Mundayoor.

Adds Dr Tawsik Sopai, an Itanagar-based pathologist and a respected Mishmi community elder, “The rural poor here has little access to education. The government schools are in a shambles. For them, going to Chennai is an opportunity not just for learning in a classroom but overall development, a chance to be something or someone beyond the world they have grown up seeing.”

It is not surprising then that the students are doing anything they can to keep their classes going. Khamblai has already moved through two rented homes before she finally settled in one. “My parents are farmers — they do not yet understand why it is so important for me. But the rents are increasing and I had to find a place I could afford — it’s not just us but many students have moved to Tezu for internet access,” she says, “And now I have finally found a place for Rs 1,500 which is affordable but the internet is still weak — a slight drizzle and it goes off.”

Last week, she got in touch with the Kalakshetra director to ask if she could move back to the hostel in Chennai, even if the institution has not formally reopened yet. “Our director (Ma’am) is very supportive and trying to help us— let’s see when it happens,” she says.

Adds Dellang, “We are telling her to take us along too. Otherwise we will fall far behind.” But until it works out, there is Pul’s hut, and the evening riyaz — which often draws a bunch of giggling Mishmi kids who have seen nothing like it — to get them by.

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