How will Children Learn History, Music or Art?

In a freewheeling discussion, she spoke to us about her two interests – sanitation and heritage restoration.

Building and maintaining toilets is a major endeavor for Infosys Foundation. Sudha Murty shares her experiences with rural sanitation.

My first exposure to sanitation issues occurred when I got admission into an engineering college. They probably didn’t want to admit me and informed me that there was no ladies toilet in the college. I was adamant and pursued my studies in engineering in that very college. I would walk to my house which was 2 kilometers away from the college to use the toilet. While it definitely was a difficult situation, and somehow, I managed it, it was early eye opener to the sanitation situation in India.

We, at Infosys Foundation, started working on sanitation about 20 years back. I was driving through a village in north Karnataka, where I saw women defecating behind bushes in the night. It was an unseemly sight. This is when I thought about women needing toilets. I was aware of the problems that women would face during pregnancy and during their periods. I was young and inexperienced then, and thought that building of toilets in rural areas would be the solution to the problem. It was only after two years, when we checked on the progress that I realized that our efforts have not borne fruit. The toilets were being used as a store house and even as god’s room. We realized that building toilets was not enough. We needed to do more.

I believe that the following ingredients go into a successful sanitation effort:

(a) Water Supply: Availability of water is critical for sanitation projects. Without water, toilets can’t be kept clean. Places where there is no drinking water, water for toilets becomes complicated. Toilets also need to be away from rivers and other water sources, in order to avoid water borne diseases.

(b) Awareness: Awareness is critical. People need to be educated about diseases that can occur due to open air defecation.

(c) Maintenance: There is a general lack of understanding of the cost factor of maintaining public toilets. Our experience with toilet construction hasn’t been very pleasant.

Disposal of waste is also important. The best solution would be to connect it through an underground system, however, it is expensive and currently, we do not have the required resources to do it. We leave it to municipal authorities to take this forward. There could be other uses of the waste, such as gobar gas or manure.

(d) Keeping the toilets clean: It is important to keep the toilets clean. People often leave it in a terrible shape. We also see this happen in trains and airplanes. For me, the test of a good office is how clean its toilets are.

(e) Ownership: Ownership is important to ensure that the toilets are maintained, water supply is in place, and for the general upkeep of the facility.

Heritage restoration: The Infosys foundation works in diverse areas of cultural revival, restoration of heritage sites, revival of crafts and museums as an education tool

Cultural Revival

Reviving the past art forms is important. I felt that we have lost our connection with the past and wanted to help people connect with the past. This is what we do through cultural festivals. We organize them at district levels. We organize it once, and then hand it over to the panchayat or the local administration. We believe in conducting cultural festivals in forgotten areas. This year, we are organizing festivals in Bidar and Bijapur.

Reviving the Art Forms

There are many dying art forms that need revival. We have revived one the oldest dying forms of Gamaka of Karnataka about 10 years back. We have also documented dying art forms of Mir musicians of Rajasthan, touring talkies of Assam, Pattachitra of Orissa, brass work of Karnataka, Kantha work from Bengal. All the documentation needs to be published so that it becomes available to the public. There is a lot of art in places like Bengal and Orissa. My ad-hoc empirical formula is that wherever you grow a lot of rice, there is a lot of art developing as well. My theory goes on to say that after having a nice meal of rice, one feels lethargic and don’t think of work. When you don’t think of work, you think of art. In a drought area – where will you think of art, you are worried only about your next meal.

Revival of Crafts

We also work on revival of crafts. We’ve worked on revival of Pochampally for quite a few years. There is a stitch craft in Sriperumbudur, where we are helping them keep the craft alive. Calcutta has so many of these weaving crafts. I met someone wearing a weave dating back to 1650s. We need to preserve it. There are many things that go into creating a weave. I was told by a weaver in Dhaka that if you sit in knee length of water at four am the weave comes out best. All these needs to be documented for future generations. There is so much to do. All of this is only the tip of the iceberg. One life is not enough.

Documenting Arts and Culture: Sahapedia

There is so much to Indian culture. If you look at it, India is not a country it’s a continent. The culture changes every 150 kilometers. We need to document all of this. Sahapedia is an effort in this direction. Sahapedia is an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. It is still at a nascent stage but is shaping up very well.

Heritage Restoration

As for heritage restoration, our effort is to connect the past to the present, like we did with the Anupu Festival which was a dancing stage 1700 years back. We organize one cultural festival and make people aware that there is a connection between the past and the present. We have done it in Lakshmeshwara for the last three years. This has been done through an MoU with Archeological Survey of India with the help of an archeologist that we hire. We were faced with several questions when we undertook the exercise. People assumed that we wanted to get something out of it. We simply wanted to bring this ancient heritage to the people. The first temple was built about 1600 years back and more buildings were added to it. Even the villagers had no idea about the importance of the temple. People were using it as a place to loaf around, play card games or even use it as a toilet. I did not do this because it was a temple but mainly because people needed to reconnect with the past. It was a very hard task. We removed almost 80 trucks of waste and garbage. It took us a good four to five years to complete that. Now, it has become a popular tourist place. It has become a neat and clean place. The government has provided a chowkidar for security. The gram panchayat organizes the Shivratri festival and a lot of visitors come to attend it. I am very happy with the way things have turned out. But, in India, there are thousands of such places and a lot of effort is required.

Museums as a Learning Mechanism

The Foundation has also been investing in improving museums. We are working with Kelkar museum in Pune. I have two granddaughters in London and they visit a museum, every month. For a six-year-old, it may not mean much but they do pick up something from each visit. This way, visiting a museum becomes a habit much like brushing your teeth. From a child to teenager to an adult the habit continues. The habit of going to museums needs to be inculcated in India too. Our museums need to be improved. We need to also focus on training people to run museums.

Linking History to Education

We also need to link education to history. We teach history by focusing on events like in 1680 Shivaji died or in 1707 Aurangzeb died or in 1630 Shivaji was born. We never tell them what they created or built, what temples or mosques or other architecture were built. For instance, we only teach when Adil Shah was born or died but talk very little about his contribution to Persian South-Indian architecture, his contribution by building 1183 monuments or his contribution to Gol Gumbaz. Yet, we never talk about it. When you look at Goa, we talk only about the beaches and one church. Goa has so many beautiful unspoilt churches. It has many fantastic wooden temples too, no one talks of them either. If you look at Mohanjadaro, it is a confluence of three cultures. Yet it is unknown to most. How will children learn history, music or art? Unfortunately, we can’t do much about it even in the schools that we support as the syllabus is not in our hands.

Looking Ahead

Going forward, I see a lot of work to be done. For instance, we have a tie up with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. If we find good talent, we provide them with a platform to perform. And, if they do well, we also look at sending them to London to provide them with an international stage and audience. We have given a platform to more than 700 people in different states. We work in 11 states and our cultural festivals are held in every state. We also help kids who have talent and don’t have opportunities.

In conversation with Ms. Sudha Murty, Chairperson Infosys Foundation in India. (Original Post)

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