SAIIER Annual Report 2014-2015: Life Education Centre

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Life Education Centre


The aim of the Life Education Centre (LEC) is to provide access to value-oriented education and vocational training for young village women, and to improve their socio-economic conditions through capacity building and personal empowerment. LEC offers empowerment sessions, discussions and counselling, assisting students to gain skills and qualities that help for their future.

Activities and outcomes of the year

Life Education Centre offers a 2-year programme that gives students training in functional skills like English and computers, vocational skills like tailoring, typing, and cooking, and social awareness and human interactive skills. Methods of the programme include group discussions, personal counselling, study tours, and culture-related open sessions.

Participation in Life Education Centre 2014-2015:
Number who attended less than 3 months 8
Number who attended for 3- 6 months 8
Number who attended for 6 -12 months 5
Number who attended more than 12 months 3
Total number of students attending LEC 24

This year LEC gave many workshops and trainings of importance for the physical, emotional and social well being of the local young village women. These included an 8-month art therapy programme, a 6-month programme on principles of Montessori for raising children, full day health related workshops, and monthly legal awareness programs. We added cooking sessions for 6 months on a bi-monthly basis, where we taught and learned the use of local vegetables cooked in the traditional south Indian manner. A project started earlier, documentating the life journeys of women at LEC, was completed. We also undertook 3 study tours, as part of the students’ cultural and social awareness program.

Below are detailed descriptions and outcomes of the various programmes of the year:

1. Tailoring
2. Art therapy
3. Education for Life
4. Cooking with local vegetables
5. Health and Healing: music
6. Computer workshops on the use of internet
7. Legal awareness sessions
8. Documentation of the lives of young women
9. Study tours
10. Aviva and Yoga Nidra

1. Tailoring: a 12 month program led by Indirani

New students begin the program by learning handwork . This includes learning embroidery, sewing hooks and buttons, and making loops for hooks. After a three-month period, the students are assessed for their embroidery skills by asking them to make twenty-five embroidery stitches and ten creative designs on their own. When the students are able to use their hands with skill and have learned to do basic needle work, they are given additional training for handwork. This includes threadwork for shawls, and doing minor correction work for bags, tanks, shorts, and yoga mat bags by cleaning the left-over thread. When the students are ready, they are given a two to three day preparatory and introductory session on the tailoring machines. During this time, they learn to pedal the tailoring machine, change bobbin case and insert thread. They also learn preparatory stitches before actually beginning to sew. They gain a general idea about the parts of the tailoring machine and its maintenance and to distinguish between different types of fabric materials, especially cotton and polyester. The students are now ready to explore sewing on the tailoring machine. The students, most of them from the local villages wait for this stage and are excited to sew their own churidhars and blouses. As the first stage on the machine, the students bring samples of interest and get the material cut by the supervisor. They are then instructed on the placement of different pieces and given step-by-step instructions to stitch each part and finally put them together. When the students have gained some understanding, they go to the next stage, still needing help with cutting, but can do the stitching mostly themselves. As a next step, they learn to cut using samples.

By March 2015, 6 students out of 24 who have attended LEC, have gained employment in various units within Auroville (5 of them in Tailoring).

2. Art therapy: an 8 month program led by Krupa

Within these sessions, the young women attending LEC were offered opportunities for growth and insight through the visual arts. Given the complex and layered psychological histories of many of these women, the arts offer a nonverbal safe space for expressing and exploring a variety of emotions, including the common issue of low self-esteem. The group sessions were helpful in reflection and role modeling between the older and younger women, for meaningful social interaction and bonding through creativity.

One project included the creation of recycled dolls representing an inner divinity series. Each woman was guided through meditation into drawing a self-portrait, a portrait of their favorite god or goddess, and then a combined image of the two. Linking the local culture and personal beliefs of each individual, this allowed each woman to connect the admired characteristics in these externalized figures to their own strengths. These drawings were translated into three-dimensional recycled dolls with altar boxes, resulting in a very detailed range of unique and original creations.

Students who started attending the program: 7; those who completed the program: 10

3. Education for Life, Discovering our human potential: a 6 month program led by Grace

As part of the empowerment building tools and methodologies, we gave educational training to help students become aware of their innate qualities that can help them to teach and raise children more consciously. This course offered insights into early childhood education, how young children learn, and Montessori/Integral education principles. The programme made the women better equipped to be teaching assistants and teachers, and/or to raise their own children with more awareness.

This program started as thrice weekly sessions, which finally became bi-weekly, spread across 6 months. Upon completion of the program participants made presentations to share their learning and knowledge. During their sharing, each expressed the joy and thrill of going through these 6 intensive months, of understanding core principles of human growth at childhood, of using geometry for shapes, phonetics, geography, the identification of flowers for the 12 qualities as represented by flowers of the Mother’s symbol, besides creating their own portfolios.

For all of them, the experience was an awakening of their awareness; to assimilate ideas and concepts which were new to them, and also in another language, was indeed a big challenge. While a few of them felt that they had ‘missed the bus’ when raising their own children in the period of 0-6 years, others felt that nothing was lost, and even now that their children are older, some basic principles are still relevant.

Course attended by 7 students, completed successfully by 5

4. Cooking with local vegetables: a 6 month program led by Buvanasundari

Our series titled ‘Locally grown vegetables’ was an immediate success as far as the women were concerned. The idea was to motivate people to use local vegetables, which are close to our environment – both for health reasons and as well as home budgets. These sessions attempted to do away with the bias and prejudices concerning cheap and local vegetables for village women; and for foreigners and guests, it allowed them the opportunity to taste, learn how to cook these vegetables which were completely alien to their cuisine. Most of the recipes that were demonstrated and taught over 6 months were new to all the participants, and every session was full of anecdotes and health tips based on the topic of the day. At the end of 6 months, 10 participants (all students of LEC), displayed their learning and understanding by preparing a full meal on 2 occasions – their repertoire spanned about 6-7 recipes per occasion and a total of 20 people each time could enjoy these meals. Going by the enthusiasm of the students and visiting guests and Aurovilians, there is enough interest to continue these sessions even over the summer period. From the experience gathered, the instructor is planning to bring out a cookbook – with recipes, anecdotes, health tips and other information, as a bilingual publication that is interesting for Tamil readers as well as English readers. A draft writing of this publication has started.

Regular participants over 6 months: 8-10 LEC Students, plus 3-6 visitors (Aurovilians, Guests, interns) for every session

5. Health and Healing: full day workshops led by Devi

As part of a series on Health and Healing we held workshops exploring music and sound. The students of LEC, mostly from surrounding villages of Auroville, have little exposure to any music other than Tamil movie songs. Their perception of music is limited to what they watch on television and movie theaters. A series of sound and music workshops were conducted for the students to widen their perception of sounds around them. The intention was to expose sound as a modality for the students to experience deeper parts of themselves, and experience the joy of doing this in a group. The series began with learning to be attentive to sounds around us that would help to become more sensitive. Exercises to be quiet to be able to listen and mimic sounds they hear were part of the beginning classes. The workshop then introduced the students to Tamil songs written by Tamil poet Bharathiar and the meaning of the poems discussed. The workshop also exposed the students to the harmonium used in traditional Indian music, and to music from other cultures. The students were receptive and appreciated the new things they learned, and were surprised that they did not know such music exists in their culture.

Number of students: 10

6. Computer workshops on the use of internet: led by Devi

The aim of this series of workshops was to introduce the students to the basics of computers and internet through theoretical and experiential learning. The students were very enthusiastic in attending this series. They were eager to learn to send and receive emails and to browse the internet. The basics started with explanations about what is the internet, how to open a browser, websites and Google. The students practiced Googling about tailoring instructions, universities, courses, and of course secretly about movie stars and cinema. As a next step, email IDs were created for all the participants. They learned about working with Gmail in particular and practiced sending and receiving emails. They were also taught how to send attachments and other important features of the mail program.

Number of students: 10

7. Legal awareness sessions: 2 sessions led by Mrs Ritha Vincent, anchored by Devi

LEC held a series of legal educative sessions to help bring awareness of women’s rights and laws related to women in India. This educative series offered women legal knowledge as a step towards their empowerment.

We started these sessions in response to the inability of many women who are running around from pillar to pole asking for help and not able to find anything useful. Many employers are aware of these situations with their women employees. A couple of employers printed the information about these sessions for their employees and asked them to attend the first session. A big thank you for these people for their concern about their workers! while the first session had a poor attendance (15 only), we directly approached a few units and talked to their women staff and the second seesion was attended by about 30 women. All the women who attended benefited immensely by asking questions related to their problems and getting knowledge about legal solutions.

A lot of efforts go into bringing a resource person like Mrs. Ritha who is a retired judge and currently a member of the Consumer Redressal Commission. She graciously offered these sessions as a service free of cost, for the welfare of the women around. She proved to be an empowering role model in her way of speaking and efforts to help uneducated women understand, and by giving anecdotes from her own life that the women could relate to.

We will continue to hold these sessions once a month.

Number of attendees: 10 LEC Students and 10-20 women of the bioregion

8. Documentation of the lives of young women: a project by Devi

Journeys is an attempt to share 12 life journeys from difficulties and challenges to dreams and aspirations, and in many cases, to successful actualization of those dreams after joining LEC. The recordings began in 2012 and were fully in Tamil, the mother tongue of the young women and the only language they are fluent in. Recordings continued in subsequent years, and this year the decision was made to publish the work. Lack of clarity and illiteracy even in their own mother tongue limited the verbal abilities of the young women. The unique meaning that was waiting to be expressed behind blanket terms to express reasons for happiness or cheerfulness, without talking about additional details, had to be uncovered through more talk and guidance. In addition to interpreting spoken words, there was much to be grasped from facial expressions and body language. Each recording was then brought out as a story in English, by assimilating the essence that formed the basis for a meaningful sequence in a written format, a process that involved almost re-living each student’s life, while empathizing with and understanding each journey more closely.

Students who participated: 16, Students whose lives were part of the final document: 12

9. Study-tours: Half day trips and full day trips led by Harini

An integral part of LEC’s awareness education is to expose students to different places and to allow them to experience different lifestyles, ambiences. Trips also allow them to assimilate new experiences. These tours are tied with chanting classes that the students have every morning as part of their daily prayer and meditation schedules. We try to include many former students of LEC during these tours.

The women enjoy visiting temples, and to make this meaningful they are prepared over the preceding 4-6 months by learning the important hymns and significance of a particular temple. They practice the hymns and verses – sometimes in Tamil or other times in Sanskrit. They become familiar with the mythology and stories, and then they are given the experience of visiting that particular temple.

The first half-day tour of this year was spent near Cuddalore, at Lord Siva’s very old temple Tirupadripuliyur and at Lord Vishnu’s temple Tiruvendipuram. The girls recited Sivapuranam (a hymn by Saivite saint Manickavasagar) in the first temple and Alwars pasurams (verses by Vaishnavite saints) in the second place. At both of these temples, we were fortunate to have expert guidance (one who grew up near the premises of the Siva temple, the other who dedicates his life to serving Lord Vishnu after his retirement as a school headmaster).

The second half-day trip was made to Mailam (abode of Lord Kartikeya), where the girls sang the Kanda Sashti kavacham (verses for protection), and to Tiruvakkarai (abode of Vakrakalaiaman and Chandramouliswarar). During this trip, they stopped on the way back at the home of the parents-in-law of one the students, and enjoyed a brief hour in this village.

We took a full day trip to Tiruvanamalai to visit the Annamalai Siva temple and sing hymns to Siva. Later we visited the Sri Ramana Ashram and sang the Aksharamanamalai composed by Sri Ramana, taking a detour to visit a very ancient Vishnu shrine in Aaditiruvarangam where we listened to the enlightening talk of the priest and chanted Alwar Andal’s (a Vaishnavite woman saint) hymns. Finally we returned via the famous Vishnu temple town of Tirukoliyur, where the Lord (called Trivikrama) – stands in a pose where His one foot covers the earth fully, one foot covers the skies fully; He asks the king (who has gifted him three paces/feet of land), from where would he get his third foot of land? This is the depiction of the story of the thrid avatar of Vishnu, Vamana avatar.

For these trips, we were joined by most of our staff and a few of our old students; this time we also included the women staff of another Auroville unit.

Total number of participants: 20-25 persons for each of the 3 trips
Total number students who learned chanting: all the students attending LEC

10. Aviva and Yoga Nidra: weekly sessions led by Devi and Indirani

At LEC one full morning per week is dedicated to bodywork. The students do Aviva, a series of pelvic exercises. This is of particular interest as the movements are focused on the endocrine and reproductive systems in women. The students exercise to recorded music while following instructions from Indirani. At the end of the exercises, the students are given instructions for Yoga Nidra by Devi. This is a relaxation technique that allows the body and mind to go into deeper states of rest while giving opportunities for the subconscious thoughts and emotions to surface. Sometimes the Aviva sessions are replaced by Pranayama sessions (sessions for aligning body and mind with breath), also followed by Yoga Nidra.

Future direction

LEC has an overall problem of a shrinking student body (i.e. regular teenage girls), since school dropouts practically do not exist anymore, and even if one or two fail their exams, they tend to retake them in the following 3-6 months and then join mainstream education. Who are still potential learners at LEC are young married women (settled with children/babies) – these wish to learn a skill with focus, and are good participants in other classes, but their turnover is also quick. Money pressures often force them to take up jobs, thus leaving LEC after a few months.

One of the main goals of all the various activities at LEC is to have a regular constant student body. This is a strong feeling from all the staff. The number of students is not as important at their continuity and regularity of commitment, especially in process-related longer programs like Art Therapy and educational training. Right now the model of LEC is such that it allows students to join at any time of the year. This disrupts the flow of classes for the rest of the regular attendees. From this year 2015 onwards, we would like students to commit for a 6-month program, during which each member of the teaching staff can complete their own module. The first 6-month period started in June 2015.

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