Skate­board­ing their way to school

Jan­wahr Cas­tle is ru­ral In­dia’s first skatepark — and the fo­cus is on mas­ter­ing the board as well as life skills

The Times of India (Mumbai edition) - - DEEP FOCUS - Ku­mar.Sau­rav2@ times­

Jan­wahr Cas­tle sounds like the digs of blue­bloods, but though the vil­lage in Mad­hya Pradesh’s Panna dis­trict does have a royal fam­ily, this cas­tle is the play­ground of lo­cal chil­dren who are mas­ter­ing the skate­board and a few other life lessons. Two lit­tle girls hold hands as they ten­ta­tively try to bal­ance on skate­boards and pro­pel them­selves along. At the other end of the skate park — an in­con­gru­ous mass of white con­crete in the midst of a largely brown vil­lage — a more ad­ven­tur­ous boy tries to launch him­self off the top of the ramp.

Set up by Ulrike Rein­hard, a Ger­man who has lived and worked in the US, Jan­wahr Cas­tle is prob­a­bly ru­ral In­dia’s first skate park where chil­dren also learn lan­guages, paint, cre­ate 3D mod­els, learn mu­sic and dance, and master life skills.

“The skate park is there to at­tract the chil­dren. They em­brace the op­por­tu­nity to play, while we get the chance to train them. We have a few rules, the most im­por­tant be­ing ‘No school, no skate­board­ing!’ and ‘Girls first!’,” Rein­hard ex­plains. “Life is a lot like skate­board­ing,” says Rein­hard, a 50-some­thing, who rides an En­field Bul­let through ru­ral MP, which she has been vis­it­ing for the last three years. “It teaches you to fall and rise, take risks and most im­por­tantly, main­tain bal­ance.”

She says the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem doesn’t give vil­lagers a chance to stay in their vil­lages. If chil­dren man­age to com­plete school, they have to mi­grate to ci­ties for op­por­tu­ni­ties, but more of­ten than not, life in the city is worse. In­stead, if they were able to cre­ate job op­por­tu­ni­ties in the vil­lage us­ing lo­cal resources and skills, their lives could change.

“At Jan­wahr Cas­tle, we trig­ger such a trans­for­ma­tion. And this, when I don’t un­der­stand Hindi and they don’t get a word of my English,” says Rein­hard, who re­cently men­tored the MIT Kumb­haThon and earns a liv­ing by con­sult­ing for com­pa­nies and or­ga­ni­za­tions like NATO on the im­pact of the in­ter­net on the way we live and run busi­nesses and gov­ern­ments.

Avadh Da­hayat, prin­ci­pal of the gov­ern­ment school in Jan­war, vouches for the change. “The chil­dren now fol­low a rou­tine, are con­scious about hy­giene and bet­ter be­haved,” he says.

The idea of com­bin­ing skate­board­ing and learn­ing isn’t new. Skateis­tan, started in 2007 in Kabul, has been a roar­ing suc­cess, and has been repli­cated in Mazar-e-Sharif (Afghanistan), Ph­nom Penh (Cam­bo­dia) and Jo­han­nes­burg (South Africa). Ulrike was a fre­quent vis­i­tor to Skateis­tan in its early years.

Jan­wahr Cas­tle does not have a trainer but in the six months that this park has been op­er­a­tional, quite a few chil­dren have mas­tered the board on their own. Goldi, 9, Shailen­dra, 13, Mohan, 16, and Brajendra, 13, who came up and in­tro­duced them­selves in English, said they were thrilled to be teach­ing them­selves to skate­board.

At first, vil­lagers had no idea what the team was do­ing. “Some thought I wanted to con­vert the vil­lage to Chris­tian­ity. The Ma­haraj of Panna, Lokendra Singh, is a friend, and when he vis­ited the site, the vil­lagers asked him about our in­ten­tions. He turned to me and said: ‘The vil­lagers think you are dis­turb­ing their com­mu­nity!’ I was shocked. He tried to trans­late to the vil­lagers what I had to say. When we left, he said: ‘You haven’t won their hearts and minds yet, but we’ve taken an im­por­tant step for­ward.’”

For now, Rein­hard is happy to take small and sim­ple steps to­wards her larger goal. “In­dia is a lot like the in­ter­net, you can do sim­ple things and see bril­liant re­sults,” she says.

FLY­ING FEET: The model of com­bin­ing skate­board­ing and learn­ing has been bor­rowed from Kabul’s Skateis­tan. It is now be­ing repli­cated in Panna

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