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
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