Tracing the History of Girl’s Education in small rural town through the eyes of its first woman teacher

Abstract: The proposed research attempts to capture the life of a 90 year old school teacher, who taught in the first school for girls in a small rural town in the malwa region of madhya pradesh. The attempt is to use a personal biography to capture the history of the town in the context of girls education. The study will be bilingual and will use pictures,sketches and written narratives.

Bio: Rinchin currently lives in Bhopal and works in and around the state of Madhya Pradesh with local peoples groups and organizations. She completed her graduation in Philosophy and then her MA in Social work. Since then, she has been working primarily with women on issues of health, violence, gender, sexuality through community based informal adult learning and training programmes. Writes sometimes on related issues.
She has had a continuing association autonomous  peoples, womens and queer groups and has felt at most st home there.

Email: rinchin @

Hi, my name is rinchin. I live in bhopal. This my first posting.

My reasearch project for the fellowship deals with tracing the history of girls education through the eyes of a 90 year teacher who taught and then ran the first school for girls in Haat pippaliya. a small town in the malwa region of madhya pradesh.

Haat Pipaliya is a small town in the Dewas (Malwa region) district of Madhya Pradesh. The verbal history of Dewas accords the town a special status as being the home of the oldest girls school and names its oldest surviving teacher – Mrs HD James, more commonly known as “Bua to towns people or James Madam to outsiders”, as a legend in herself. She continues to live in the town at the age of 90 years. A small chance meeting with her, where she narrated small anecdotes about her school, her own interaction with others in the town, small glimpses of her own life told us, that an account of her life in this town and in her school, is not simply a story of herself but reveals the history of the town, of girls education, and that of education of Dalit children.

It becomes difficult to distinguish if she speaks about herself, or events that shaped the history of a little known town, its growing form a small hamlet to a flourishing commercial hub, of the challenges of bringing dalit and other girls into the school. She leans over and conspiratorially discusses all the strategies she employed to “lure” the communities to send their children to the baithak under the tree and later to the little kuchcha one room school. How she dealt with being treated as an ” untouchable” herself by the other upper caste communities. Where she could teach the children, but not eat in their homes. She frowns as she sinks into the memories of social distances, untouchability, the value of education and gender imbalances, and slowly recounts the history of these in the small town, a space which comprised the entire world to its residents, over almost a century. It was a biography that had to be written. Her life history would reflect her context, the journey of her school and the town that she has lived in for almost 70 years.

The project therefore is :
Tracing the history of Girl’s Education (since 1921) in a Small Town through the life of its first Woman Teacher
This study attempts to look at three lives – the life of the teacher and through it the life of the school, and the life of the town. All these lives and their biographies are closely intertwined, each covering a journey through time from 1921 to 2006 – a time that saw the country’s independence, urbanization, popularization and the commercialization of education and changing gender and caste relations among many other macro and micro processes.

James Madam
The journey of her life from 20 year old, when she came into the town as a young semi educated tribal Christian teacher , latter married a tailor , the town pastors son. her experience of teaching, educating herself, settling into a new family, a new town and region, her interaction with the town and its people town. Her experience of the caste and gender taboos. The narrative will capture her life till the present times, where she lives the age of 90 behind her school.

The life history method will be used to capture James madam’s biography. This will be supplemented by interviews with her family, old students and residents of the town, of different generations. These will be recorded as their oral narrative on tapes, with photographs and illustrations of all our interactions with her as well of old photographs or pictures that can be found with her or others.

The School
Exploring the founding visions of the school, recording the growth and change which occurred in it over time. The many generations of students that have passed through its rooms, what accounts can we find of them, through their teacher and of their teacher through them. At that time it was the only school now there are at least ten other primary and middle schools, some government, some schools with specific community affiliations and some private schools. How have all these other changes impacted the outlook towards education and particularly girls education

In such a context, where does the school stand in relation to its counterparts. What is the profile of the students and teachers today and how does it compare with the profiles of the more than 10 other schools, many of which are community affiliated. In what way do the present attitudes of people about caste and gender, reflect its heritage ( of being home to the districts oldest girls, mixed caste school) and how does the town perceive it today. A mix of open ended interviews and narratives will be documented and transcribed.

The Town
Located in the Malwa region, in the tribal Baghli bock, the town evolved from a small ” kasba” into one of the most flourishing towns of Baghli tehsil.

The history of the town will be built to reflect the changes demographic, geographic, economic and social. It will look at the the process of commercialization, urbanization, other settlers, expansion of the town, changing occupations and livelihood patterns. This will be based on secondary data and old census and town records of the town and oral accounts.

The output would be a written and visual (pictures and sketches) bilingual life history of James Madam, her school and the Haat pipalliya.

Materials that would be generated through the research project include the main research document which would be a bilingual biography of James Madam containing transcripts of interviews with her and that of students and residents of the town, photographs and sketches. Audio tapes of her recorded interviews.

All material will be such that it is relevant to the schools and people of the the area, (in terms of language and presentation) as well as to others outside of the regional context.

· To trace the history of girls education since 1921, when the first girls school was opened in the town, through the eyes of the a 90 year old school teacher.
· To trace the history of a town through the history of its first school since 1921,through the narrative of the oldest school teacher who worked in the school since 1926.
· To examine how the town reflects it’s heritage of being the home to one of the oldest girls school in the district. To examine the attitude of towns people regarding the school and what it stood for, in the context of the changing space.
· To chart the changes in economy, commercialization and changing profile of the town, its growing into the commercial hub of the small tribal block , as backdrop and context of the study.

While speaking of education problems/issues related to gender and caste still exist – what does not is an account of how they were dealt with. To understand these and document them through the examples that are still available would be a simple yet powerful way of understanding and capturing the development and dynamics of smaller units and spaces which seldom find a space in history. To use personal capture a personal life history of a significant person in order to give it place within local written history as well as seeing it as a documentation reflective of the time and space that the life encompasses. This is the aim of the proposed study..

The interest of the study also revolves around how the changing times affect the towns attitude towards the school and its teachers and the fact that the school primarily admitted dalit children, and only girls. And though the Communities practised strict taboos, still allowed for their children to study in this school, that had children of all caste.

In 1921 the first school began under a tree. It was a school only for girls The study attempts to capture the interaction and response of the communities (Jains , Patidars, Dalits and traders) through their interactions with and within the school and its non upper class staff. For the first time the school spoke about educating girls, of children all castes sitting and learning together with its Indian woman missionary teacher who was considered to be untouchable.

Mode of Public Presentation
The document and its derivatives which include illustrations, photographs and pictures will be published through children’s magazines and wall papers in schools. The study itself will be shared with the students and teachers of that area in meetings and baithaks.

Prints of the the document, published/unpublished as reading material for children and teachers along with pictures, illustrations and sketches through children’s magazines/ wall papers and stand alone documents.

To share it with groups working in the area and issues of education, through circulating the written and visual text. Do send in your comments and suggestions on the same. Rinchin


I probably need to start by apologising for missing my second posting and being late on the third .

While my study is progressing well, I feel a certain sense of diffidence in putting up a posting when my own understanding of the study and what will come out of it is slowly evolving and things seem too “in parts” to put up. I keep wondering what will anyone make out of one odd transcribed interview. Since narratives don’t always flow from beginning to end, ‘Somewhere in the middle’ seems to be a strange point to introduce an issue.

My study involves looking at girl’s education in Haat Pipaliya town though a biographic narrative of Soni Bua or James madam as she is known. This to be placed in the context of the town and the changes that it has gone through.
This process of interaction has taught me many things. One, that the past is not always easy to get out neutrally. Its always coloured by the present and the present always overwhelms. One has to keep nudging oneself and the people one is talking to, to look back. There is always so much in the present to talk about. While I transcribe my interviews this becomes very apparent. The only persons who are comfortable with the past are Soni bua, (the 90 year old protagonist of the study), and her husband.

Second, how difficult it is to reach women. With Soni James and her family its been easy. Her family has a strong army of women who work. One of her daughters is the principal of the govt. girls school and the other is the principal of the mission school and its easy to trace their educational and work lives. But even through them the next sources of information about the town and its educational institutions are always men. (through them we try to trace girls education!). My tape recording of conversations with people around town are full of male voices… gate keepers!

Another question that keeps coming up – when one is trying to trace something that is common to a whole town, one is never quite sure when the information is completely verified. Different groups have different versions. There are things about the school that I had learnt in my earlier interactions in the town that had attracted me, made me take up the study. But apart from my earlier sources I find very little public memory to bring out those facts. That is a finding but it also breaks my easy preconceived charting of a narrative. I guess thats the difference between documentation and research. To understand, what the school and its values, meant to the town in the past; the kind of impact it had and what it means to the town now, is a very non linear and multifaceted narrative.
This post attempts a sketchy bit about the schools in the town, and their inter-linkage with community and caste politics. In the next post that will follow, I am putting an extract of an interview with a dalit family. Besides touching on caste inter-linkages themselves, the discussion also reflects the change in the way people perceive education and how issues of access have changed.
The town now has over 25 schools – five government and the rest private. Three schools are exclusively for girls and the others are co-educational. Many of the earlier schools were based on community affiliations like the Jain school, the Patidaar school etc. A new one called Sraswati Sishu Mandir, run by the local RSS branch has recently been added to the list. The mission school, which is the oldest private school and had a special focus on girls and dalit children is called the “massih logon ka school”. But over the years the profile of students in all the schools has changed and become a heterogonous mix of communities primarily guided by ‘quality’ (read economics). The names of the institutions come from the trusts that run them rather than the student profile.

“They are like all other private schools. If they are good and people can afford the fees then they will send their children there. When Saraswati sishu mandir started, we were told that they took only hindu students, no dalits, muslim or christians. But now they can’t even afford to have an all hindu staff. 80% of their teachers are dalit. With the kind of remuneration that private schools give, they cannot afford to be choosy in staff, so now its open for all children.” Schools are about education and about economics of running it. Ideology doesn’t have much of a role to play in it. You have to get good results, so that parents are willing to pay the high fees that the school charges and one also has to pay teachers so that they stay. Where is the role of politics here? It doesn’t work” (as said by two government school teachers who also run their own private schools.)
There are two junior colleges in the town, which have allowed for more girls to be able to enroll. Even though the present ratio of girls in college is just about 1/4th, Hemalata James, the principal of the girls middle school tells us, “From all the girls that pass out from my school only 50% go to high school, and from them only about 25% will go to college. Amongst them too, if they get a job after 12th, they drop out. But still its an improvement. In ’69 when I went to this college we were only four girls.”

“A lot has changed”, she says. “But many things have remained the same. Even today the most common job option for girls is teaching. Or may be some may try for nursing. Its so because the courses are not so expensive and one can do them after 12th.”

“The change”, she says “has come about in the number of girls getting into such work and the boys are aspiring for higher levels. While the girls are going to college here, families try to send their boys to Indore.”

It is apparent that ideology, social position, access and financial considerations have a role to play in the process of acquiring education though the priority given to each is different in different capsules of time and are determined by the common social aspirations for boys and girls.


in continuation with the second posting

Here is one extract of an interview with a family . The discussion reflects on issues over generations and seems like a small complete narrative on its own.
this is an interview of a family, in which the grand father was the first dalit man in the town to get an education . We were sent to him by Soni bua who had taught him and his sons in the mission school. The interview gives a context of the change in peoples access and perception of education in the town. from the times of the father to the time where options are bieng dicussed for the oldest and youngest grandaughter. You can read the complete interview at: , the newly created blog for the project!.
Some of the issues this converstaion brought out were, that the forms of discrimination in education may have changed in relation to gender and caste, but they continue to exist in forms more subtle. There is a certain blindness to the marginalisation of these groups that seems to have developed over time. Since discrimination was defined in more severe and visible forms (as untouchability or restricted access to spaces) in memory, its subtler but equally restrictive forms are missed. The reality, which encompassed these forms of discrimination, is seen as a historical occurrence, which may have carried over as muted anger, which needs to be dealt with in political expression rather than in everyday living.

The sons, who have not faced extreme discrimination, still feel strongly about the oppression of the father and look to more vocal and radical ideas and expression against it, while the father himself talks of softer methods of fighting discrimination. Separate organizing also points towards the growth of dalit mobilising in haat pippaliya.

There has also been a co-option of ideology – political and social in the stands that are taken by the institutions we have begun to explore in these discussion. Saraswati Shishu Mandir, provides a good example. Looking at he profile of their students and teachers, one finds that they include Dalits and people of different religions, though they may have started out with a more exclusive agenda. However, though these seem contradictory to its ideology, they exist as parallels imparting to it a complex character that allows them to blend into their environments and gain from it but also retaining the potential to revert back to its original form when required. As Rajendra rightly pointed out, they (the RSS) would actively call for the banning of schools with other religious affiliation when the need arose. The school infrastructure is used for RSS meetings and activities. But if it is done with out interfering with the school timings and teaching, the parents have no complaints.

For the parents, education and the institution to which they send the children is largely governed by two factors- affordibilty and the quality of education ( “results” was often used interchangeably). This is brought out well by Rajendra ” i will do what is best for my children, our aim is to see that they get a base from which to reach as far as they can.” I don’t agree with the RSS ideology but if their school gives good education, then i will send my children there. As long as the school doesn’t discriminate against them actively.” This kind of compromise or split in ideology brings out clearly how education is mainly looked as a profession with clear parameters for quality and purpose, namely results and the opportunities that it gives to children. This works both ways for parents as well as institutions. But institutions will always as mentioned above, will always have the choice of reverting back to a stand when the choose, or soften their stand.

None of the private schools, focused specifically on education for dalit or girl children, not even the mission school. Though it had started out with that vision six decades ago. While it was mentioned in the above interview as well as several times in other conversations that we had with various people, that a special focus is not needed in these times, the fact that Malti is the first girl of the neighborhood to have studied till 11th, hints otherwise. It is only in government schools, that there are schemes that encourage girls and dalit children to come to school. Where teachers have a target in getting children to school. And it is here that one has to see their importance of policy. The only two exclusively girls schools are government schools. All the private schools are co-educational, and for them the need would be to have more children enrolled in their school, dalit or girls. As long as they bring in their fees.