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Let’s read, she says

Katha, led by Geeta Dharmarajan, is playing a stellar role in spreading the joy of reading not only in schools but to women in rural areas

I visited Geeta Dharmarajan for the first time during a bitingly cold winter. The first thing that caught my attention was the basic yet organic architecture of the building that served as home and office for ‘Katha’, a non-profit founded in 1988 that strives to create reader leaders.

Till date, the milestones achieved numerically are impressive: 1,142 slum communities have been served; 1,157 school partnerships, across 17 states of India, have been secured; 3,99,500 women have been impacted; 9,64,9567 children and youth have been introduced to the joy of reading! However, it was not the facts and figures alone that are impressive but the goodwill the organisation enjoys — which I what brought me to it in the first place.

Meeting Geeta that day cemented that impression. A couple of years later, an assignment brought us in touch again, and this time around, I had the chance to explore the journeys of both Geeta and Katha at length.

Of course, I had done my homework on the organisation, but I wanted to hear about the impact of Katha from the founder herself: “Change happens within an individual; Katha believes in serving as a platform for inspiration and motivation for the self, and for others. I recall how a 12-year-old, who had begun his journey from being a ‘non-reader’, decided that his calling in life would be to become a doctor as a book on the human body and its complicated functioning had inspired him no end.

Or, yet another journey of Sonia, who had almost suffered sexual assault and struggled to face the world, became the class monitor, expressing her abilities to the fullest. The change, however minuscule it may seem, is for each one of us to see and feel; that is so fulfilling for everyone involved, including me,” recounts Geeta.

It was good to hear those words; words that depicted the importance of qualitative impact, besides quantitative evaluation.

Geeta’s childhood and youth revolved around creativity, irrespective of the medium of expression. Discipline in creativity is something, she says, she imbibed from her mother, while ethics in creativity is something she imbibed from her father, a doctor. Practicing the dance form of bharatnatyam since an early age inculcated the values of creativity, dedication, and discipline deeply – something that helped her during her journey with Katha, her brainchild.

“At Katha, the child is the crux. We want to encourage children to decipher their own thought process, and arrive at their own conclusion rather than the resource person dictating the same. Hence, all our initiatives, be it StoryPedagogy, the Katha Lab Schools, Child Poverty Action Research Lab, 300m challenge, or others, germinated from the needs and requirements of the child.”

What does she think about the concept of education, and all that it entails? We delve into a number of perceptions and concepts, the gist of which is that education is meant for all: It should be holistic while nurturing the self, and also others. The role of the child in the nurturing of another is paramount, as Geeta reiterates the importance of ‘each child teaching another child’. Her emphasis also remains on the amalgamation of different pedagogic tools and techniques, across arts and crafts, including story-telling, with the latter serving as a powerful medium for inclusive learning.

Continuing on the lines of the motto of the organisation: creating reader leaders, I inquire more about the 300 Million Challenge. India has 300 million children enrolled in school. About 150 million 5-10 year-olds are in primary education; of which nearly 50% cannot read well.

Geeta explains how the Challenge objective is to not only encourage the joy of reading and, thereby, learning, but also to act as a facilitator for others to do the same. It uses a number of channels: Reading for Inclusive Public Learning — a social, inclusive process that brings all sections of society into helping all children, ages 5-10 at first, to read well. This is supported by technology-friendly learning.

Like every path-breaking journey in life, Geeta’s own journey with Katha has been fraught with challenges – and still is so. Elaborating, she says: “Funds are, of course, a challenge. Times are changing: foundations have lesser budgets to allocate.” Fortunately, CSR is emerging strongly and fund-raising approaches have to be aligned accordingly.

“Besides,” she says, “salaries being drawn are escalating. Of course, we are fortunate to have a strong volunteer support base, but full-time professionals cannot be completely substituted. Another challenge is the emerging use of technology that requires training, which may, sometimes, be a deterrent for some staff members, who although passionate and adept, are tech challenged and, hence, remain, fearful of emerging tech trends. We strive to nurture our existing partnerships, cultivating new ones side-by-side, and changing our fund-raising strategy to make it more current and effective. Constant, yet step-by-step, trainings of individuals are another essential for us.”

Her message for the reader remains clear: Be willing to change; be willing to learn; the ‘I’ is not important; the ‘We’ is. “As a founder, I wish to carry forward the good work by developing sustainable solutions to challenges being faced and envisaged. For me, books have always served as the pivot and anchor, and I wish for this to continue, as my thirst for knowledge always remains. This is something that I learnt from my journey with Katha: Shed the ego; one always needs to learn; learning and change are constant,” adds the gritty lady with a laugh.