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Anutai Wagh

A great social activist, teacher and educational researcher, who laid the foundation for tribal education in India

Birth: 17 March, 1910

The greater part of Anutai’s life is that of an assiduous ascetic. Unflinching conviction in her work and life was her hallmark. She is an exemplary example of an ideal social activist. Today, one finds commercialization even in social activism. But Anutai’s life is an example of selfless service without expectations.

Anutai’s era was paradoxically orthodox as well as contemporary! Her Guru, Tarabai Modak, was from the old school. Since Anutai was moulded by Tarabai, her training was as per the old school. But while making Tarabai’s dreams a reality, Anutai infused modern ideologies and research into her work. While bringing about a revolution in tribal education, she went to the grassroots to learn their problems and understand the heart of the problem. Based on her personal experiences, she thought out of the box to find a solution to every problem. Her work helped in bringing about modernization in the education system. Sixty – sixty-five years ago, Anutai did something unconventional by sacrificing everything familiar and dear and accepting an unknown world to sow the seeds of education among the tribal. But her greatness is in her complete humility and lack of self-importance despite such a great sacrifice.

Anutai was born on 17th March of 1910, the eldest of five brethren, in a household of humble means. Her father moved house from village to village due to his employment, which adversely affected Anutai’s schooling. Later, as per the prevalent system then, she was married off at the young age of thirteen years. But Anutai was widowed just six months after the marriage. This event became the turning point of her life. At such an odd age, with incomplete education and no chance of remarriage (the prevalent systems disallowed widow remarriages), Anutai could have been stuck into a rut at this point. Instead she displayed rare courage in facing this situation. Durgabai Nene, her mother’s friend, came to her rescue and took Anutai with her to Akola, where she was registered in the national school there. After spending one year in this school, she went to Igatpuri where she appeared for her final examination. She ranked first in the district in this exam.

She then worked for four years in Nashik, after which she went to Pune and secured a teaching job in the Huzurpaga School. Even at a meagre salary of Rs. 50, she diligently managed the education of her younger brothers along with the household expenses with poise; her father was by now too old to manage the household. Mahatma Gandhi had initiated the Indian Freedom movement at this stage, and with social causes being a subject after her heart, she was highly tempted to join the movement. But with the family responsibility on her shoulders, she resisted the temptation, with the resolution that the moment she was free from her responsibilities, she would shy from any worldly ties and throw herself wholeheartedly into social service.

She worked for thirteen years in Huzurpaga. She spent most of her life here before moving to Kosbad. Even in this period, her life was quite unsettled. She wanted to complete her matriculation while still working, so she registered herself in the night school. She completed her matriculation in 1938 with a good score. Many years later, she appeared for her degree in Kosbad. By then, she was already 51 years old and was ailing from cataract. She studied with the aid of a reader and appeared for her exam. This too, she completed with good grades.

The moment her brothers became independent, her mind was attracted towards social service. In 1945, the opportunity to do social service came knocking at her door. She participated in the girl’s education convention that was held in Borivali, where she became associated with Tarabai Modak and the subject of child education. Tarabai encouraged all the women present in the convention to go to Bordi (near Thane, Maharashtra) for helping in tribal education. Anutai immediately responded positively towards the cause. Anutai’s family thought this decision to be suicidal, since by now she was well settled in Pune. It was crazy to unravel one’s life at this stage and flounder around to re-establish oneself. But this madness was in Anutai’s blood. She had courageously and successfully played the cards that destiny had dealt her. She was therefore quite accustomed to picking up the gauntlet.

In 1945 Anutai accompanied Tarabai to Bordi, and started a new chapter in her life. She started a Balwadi (preschool) for kids at Bordi along with Tarabai. At that time, with primary education being a novelty even in urban areas, trying to convince the villagers to send their young children for the same was a Herculean task, and the two faced multiple obstacles. There was a Harijan (low caste) settlement right next to their school. When they encouraged the Harijan children to attend the school, the children from higher castes protested and stopped coming. Visiting and trying to convince the parents of these children was a difficult task indeed, but this too they did with patience and persistence. They tried innovative means to attract children of different settlements to their school. They would play the Zanza to attract the kids, collect them together in play areas in their settlements and chat with them. By campaigning in this fashion and garnering the trust of the children and their parents, they managed to convince both, and the children started attending school. Children of all castes and religions joined their school. From this, Tarabai and Anutai’s Vikaswadi (school for progress) took shape.

While their Vikaswadi was taking form in Bordi, they were both disturbed by the social ostracism of the tribal. This tribe lived remotely in the hills and valleys, far from even village life. It was well nigh impossible to expect that their children would themselves start attending school, or that they could be convinced like the village communities had been. Their lifestyle and routine was too different. To resolve this problem, Tarabai and Anutai decided to go and live with the tribal people, hoping that it would make a difference. They packed up from Bordi and moved into a small hut about 4-5 miles away in Kosbad. They started a school in the courtyard of this house. This is how Anganwadis (preschools) came into being. These two women, who took the school to the children since the children wouldn’t come to school, were indeed extraordinary.

Anutai was a renowned teacher even before she came to Bordi. But she had to remould herself after she began her work among the tribal people. She had to switch from primary teaching into pre-primary teaching, from urban education into rural education, from teaching children of families with a culture of education to teaching children of illiterate parents. In fact, she had to turn herself from being a mere teacher into a researcher educationist who would encourage children to educate themselves.

The children’s education in the Anganwadi began with personal hygiene. Bathing them, washing their hair, cutting their nails, applying a poultice of Neem (Azadirachta indica) leaves on their skin to cure the infection; Anutai would do all these tasks herself. Then classes would start with songs, chatting, and play.

The close interaction with the tribal people through the Anganwadi helped Anutai understand their problems in depth. She realised why the children couldn’t school. Because of the family responsibilities that they shared like looking after younger sibling, grazing the family cattle, doing odd jobs to contribute towards the family income, they did not have time to attend school. To counter this problem, Tarabai and Anutai started a special school for such children. The school had a crèche attached for tiny tots, a Balwadi for small children, and a primary school for the older children, all at one place.

Anutai knew that the tribal people had many hidden talents. These children were swift, intelligent and strong. Their eyesight was sharp and they were accurate marksmen. They also had skills in dance and playacting. The unique thing they found was that a troubled tribal child was a rarity. These rough diamonds had to be cut well. For this the children had to be made to consistently attend school, and for this the education had to be made relevant to their life. Anutai first attempted to inculcate education among the girls of the Warli tribe. This is why today the Warli women are literate. At that time, the girls would be occupied all the time with work, most of them in looking after their younger siblings. Some of them would attend the Anganwadi along with their ward, but some had to remain home. Anutai would then call these girls after sunset, teaching songs, stories and to read and write. If it became too late, or the rain kept them from walking home, they would stay back with Anutai. Anutai would then lovingly cook them dinner, giving them a mother’s love.

Despite thirteen years of intense teaching experience, none of it was of any use to Anutai in the educating the tribal. At Kosbad, she had to learn through experience to find the best methods of teaching the tribal children. Her achievement is in this research. Through first hand experience and minute study of the children, Anutai developed her teaching methods from all this and made it available to others. With the dictum that education should be had and not given, she kept experimenting with innovative techniques of teaching. She went beyond mere bookish knowledge and thought of how the education could be made relevant to the tribal life. To achieve this, she studied their lifestyle, their inter-personal relationships and social attitude. She developed her teaching material from the resources available in the neighbourhood. Since she related more with pre-primary education, she taught herself under Tarabai and studied her methods. She then developed the teaching methods through self-experience and only after success did she show the methods to others. Her ideas were backed firmly through experience and action.

Tarabai’s Bordi experiment was extremely important from Anutai’s perspective. On one hand, it was the last experiment in Tarabai’s teaching career, and on the other it was the first unique experiment of taking pre-primary education to the villages. It wsa to be a turning point in the country’s educational system. The responsibility of turning Tarabai’s dream into reality fell on Anutai’s shoulders. To shoulder this responsibility, it was necessary for the teacher in her to turn into a researcher, and this was her greatest test. After studying the children at home as well as at school, she developed a unique method of teaching. She conducted the unique experiment of on one hand honing the technical skills of the children and on the other, nurturing the children’s creativity. Anutai’s experiments teach us what it means by a teacher being propitious towards students. She not only made them well educated, but well cultured as well. Anutai’s work was not restricted only to the field of education. To promote women’s education, she started crèches attached to the school. She personally strived to awaken the tribal on social issues such as banning liquor, encouraging widow remarriages etc. She arranged mass marriages of tribal couples. Not complacent with working only at Kosbad, she expanded her horizon by starting a school for the deaf at Dahanu, with facility of lodging and boarding, and included technical training in the syllabus to make the children independent. Anutai took great efforts to start a Teachers Training college, primary school, printing press and technical training schools at Kosbad.

She canvassed her methods of schooling through the magazines Shikshanpatrika and Savitri and books like Balwadi Kashi chalvavi (How to run a Balwadi), Vikaasaachyaa Margaavar (on the path of progress), Kuranshala (A school in the Meadow), Sahaj Shikshan (Easy education). Her autobiography Kosbadchyaa Tekdivarun (From the hill top of Kosbad) is famous.

She worked with the enthusiasm of a youth even at the prime age of seventy. Rather than rest on her laurels and take it easy at this age, she took on the responsibility of working in remote tribal areas and sowed the roots of GramMangal, a non-profit organization that in addition to bringing elementary education to the doorsteps of rural and tribal children, is committed to revolutionizing the childhood education system itself, in rural and urban India alike. It strives to impart sound early education to children which is enjoyable and at the same time beneficial. Shouldering the responsibility of educational and cultural progress in remote areas, she started a whole new experiment of easy education. She did a mountain load of work in her lifetime, because of her social consciousness and her attitude of completely immersing herself into her work.

Despite her humility and low profile, her fame spread far and wide. The Government acknowledged her efforts and honoured her with a Padmashri. Her reaction on getting the award displays her humility; she said that she felt great merely because the work of her institution would now move faster. She was not of the age to be overwhelmed by any other emotion, and an individual with a genuine attitude of selfless service is unassuming of monetary gain or fame. She was also bestowed many other awards like The Adarsha Shikshak (Ideal Teacher) Award by the Maharashtra Government, Dalit Mitra title, Savitribai Phule Award, International Child Development Award.

A single write-upis too ineffective to cover the extent of her work as an educational expert, researcher and social activist; it is more appropriate as a subject material for a book. In one era Mahatma Phule had done great feat for the downtrodden, and Maharshi Karve for women’s education. In the modern era, Tarabai and Anutai have done a feat of similar magnitude for tribal education.

Death: 27th September, 1992



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