A School of One’s Own 

By Vasudha VaradarajanonDec. 25, 2023in Knowledge and Media

Specially Written For Vikalp Sangam

In this story, we look at the example of Manzil Learning Center to understand ways of reimagining education and accessibility through democratizing decision making spaces.

Manzil team at their annual Utsav Fest \ Photo Credits: Manzil Media Lab

The term school originates from the Greek term skholē which means leisure. Manzil is one of the few places that embodies learning as a space for leisure and philosophy, which is contrary to conventional education systems where the primary goals of achievement have been reduced to percentages, predetermined lessons, and rote learning. 

Ravi Gulati, his mother Indira Gulati and their friend Dr. Geeta Chopra (who has done her PhD in Child Development) have all been pillars in the genesis of this slow learning space. Ravi’s sister had suffered a head injury when she was very young and had to undergo brain surgery. As a result, her developmental milestones were late and she had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Indira had single-handedly taken care of her daughter. This journey had motivated Indira to volunteer and help other children. Soon, she and Dr. Geeta opened a center in Delhi at Kotla where they worked with children who had special needs. 

When Indira was busy building the center in Kotla, two eighth-grade kids approached her hoping to learn math as they did not have money for tuition. However, Indira was more attuned to arts and crafts. During this time, Ravi had been home to take care of his father, and Indira asked him to help out. A fervent disciple of math, he decided to help the kids out. 

Ravi, had himself walked the road less traveled. He shares how he never had any plan to work in such a space, but his journeys serendipitously brought him here. He spent a lot of his time traveling around India and learning different things like farming, and found that learning could be sought in many ways. 

When he started teaching, he realized these two boys were not aware of basic fundamentals they would require for eighth grade level math. Ravi told these kids that if they wanted to learn, then they would have to learn math from scratch. The kids agreed. As the classes went on, some friends of the kids would keep joining. Ravi realised that all kids needed to have a foundation in Maths. He got the children involved in peer teaching. those whom he taught would take on teaching the new kids who joined the classes. Through mutual conversation they started discussing ways to diversify learning. Ravi asked them if they wanted to learn spoken English seeing that it had become a need, the kids said yes. The kids told Ravi they wanted to learn music and him being a bathroom singer who knew how to play a guitar decided that they could all learn together. A small step that eventually led to the foundation of Manzil being co-owned, and blurring the boundaries between student and teacher.

Ravi did not have a plan on how to build Manzil. He had experiences from his travels that made him feel shortchanged by the education institutions he had attended, and did not want to replicate those spaces. The journey of Manzil was built mutually with the kids. He shared how all of them shared a deep connectedness and discipline about education. Although this space was started by Ravi and Indira, the space is co-owned by the multitude of people who are a part of it. 

Students learning how to make quilling art \ Photo Credits: Manzil Media Lab

‘Knowledge grows when you share it, then why do education systems build on competitive spirit?’ questions Ravi. 

When I entered Manzil, it was just like entering a home, there were warm faces that clearly felt comfort in the space. Initially, I was unable to make out who was a student or teacher but I think that is precisely what Manzil is trying to capture. A fluidity and companionship driven by the love of learning.  

Manzil started out as word of mouth, and continues to grow this way. You have to fill a form and submit it on the first Sunday of the month. The space is open and inclusive of all, regardless of their height, weight, class, creed, religion, caste. Anyone above the age of eight can apply to the classes, and even the teachers are encouraged to do so. 

Students learning music \ Photo Credits: Manzil Media Lab

Manzil has built an ecosystem that challenges the knowledge and information asymmetry, and provides accessibility to a myriad of topics to anyone who is interested to learn. Infact, the manzillions (as they call themselves) shared that they are bewildered on how to accommodate all the people who sign up for classes here.

Manzil is not simply a learning center, but a community that fosters co-learning. The prerequisite of this space is agency and sharing. Ravi shares, ‘Manzil is like a restaurant, you as the student can choose what you want to eat. The only criteria is that you finish what you have on your plate.’ People are not simply here because they need jobs, or they need degrees but because they are passionate about learning. As Ravi puts it, school has diluted the multiple intelligences to a single unreliable academic IQ based on regurgitation and repetition. Manzil is interested in fostering people’s multiple other intelligences that get overlooked and undermined.  

Today Manzil has over 350 students who come to learn a diverse set of skills. They can learn English, math, science, computer skills, kathak, arts and crafts, guitar, theater, music, filmmaking, graphic designing, animation, audio production along with many other courses. 

However, that is not all. They have a program called ‘Seekho, Sikhao’ (learn, teach). In this program any student or teacher can sign up to teach any skill. It does not matter what level their expertise is. They share whatever they know. Purnima, a member of their supporting team learnt Mandala from one of her students who funnily herself had learnt it in a previous session of Seekho Sikhao. 

In fact, Ravi recalls that a visitor who was interested to see what Manzil was about, was asked what her hobbies were by one of the students. She shared how she had been learning classical music. Some of the kids shared that they were interested in learning the same. She shared her skepticism about teaching it as she had not mastered it. The kids however assured her to teach whatever she knew. These sessions now have made space for people to not only share what they know but to build their skill with the Manzil community.

Manzil creates abundant space for people to celebrate and try new things. They have a festival called ‘Manzil’s Got Talent’ where first time students showcase the skills they have been learning. They have other events like Manzil Utsav, where people can share any talent like singing, song writing, poetry, art. Every year they plan different trips in summer and winter outside Delhi to explore, learn, and participate in different ways of living and being. 

Other than that, they also have an online notice board which is a space where different organisations share the opportunities for different internships, fellowships. The students can partake in this according to what appeals to them. The aim of these different spaces was to provide opportunities to kids of various backgrounds, who otherwise were unable to access them. 

Journeys of Manzillions 

When I visited Manzil, I was welcomed by young faces. I was joined by Rajan, Nakul, Sushma, Sagar, Purnima, Mamta, Rabhen. They were involved in different functions of Manzil and all shared their perspective about Manzil. They all shared how Manzil had given them a  family that was always encouraging and supportive. 

Manzil has several different teams. There is a core group that works full time, along with a support team that works both full and part time. There are program coordinators and teachers who are involved directly with classes and themes. There are also internships within Manzil. All of these teams have Manzil students as Ravi sees every opportunity as a way to learn, and to bring them more deeply into building the space.  

Sagar, who is a part of their support team, was once a student who used their online notice group for several opportunities. He loved computers so he joined Manzil to study photoshop and Computer Coding. He later went for internships with different organizations like Smile Foundation and Pravah. He shared how interacting in these spaces allowed him to gain more worldviews that he could not have understood in the confines of Delhi. 

Nakul who is a program coordinator in Manzil told me how this experience had taught him to change his perception of teaching. He used to take English tuition before he joined Manzil. His focus was simply to teach students how to pass the examination. ‘When I came here, I saw kids, some who were younger, some who were older. I wondered how I was going to establish myself as a teacher. And eventually, it was simple, building connections.’ He continues, ‘I was not just teaching them English but how to be comfortable in English, especially spoken English.’ Nakul, who himself is just finishing college, says he is so grateful for being able to come to Manzil as a space, because it not only provided him an opportunity to teach, but to learn again. He said that he’d seen Manzil as a space for holistic learning. 

Students at the Utsav Festival \ Photo Credits: Manzil Media Lab

Mamta who had heard of Manzil when she was in 10th grade had decided to stay connected with it, because for her it grew to become a safe space. She had been struggling with passing her Chartered Accountant exam and looked to Manzil for solace. She had registered for their online courses which they had ventured into during the Covid-19 lockdown. She joined a course called ‘Living Retreat’ where they collectively took a journey on how to live and thrive in their lives. She also went for a class called  ‘Zaban Sambhal Ke’ which is a course where they understand the impact of language. She shared how if you told a child they were forgetful, you would leave an imprint on the child that may impact the way they perceive themselves. Rather, if you gently guide the child and tell them – ‘I think you might have forgotten this’ the child will take the feedback more constructively. Mamta has now passed her CA and supports Manzil with accounting, and takes English classes. She desires to stay connected to this space. 

Chandni needed help with her classes in school.  It was difficult for her parents to pay tuition fees. Her teachers suggested that she consider going to Manzil. Although she came to learn math and english, she has stayed back for the last eight years to help out and learn more from the space. For her, she saw that the space gave her the freedom to get over her fear of talking. She shared, ‘I used to be quite shy, if you had met me earlier, I would not have even entered the room to talk. I was the same way in school, I was too shy to speak but coming here I started speaking up, asking questions, and conversing because I saw there was no right or wrong.’ 

Ravendra, who had come from Madhya Pradesh to New Delhi just a year back, attended film making, theater and English classes. For him, this space allowed him to step out of his comfort zone. He used Manzil’s online notice group to look for several different internships. He worked with Kriti Films to help organize their film screenings. He had heard horror stories about Delhi before moving, but with his fellow Manzillions around he has enjoyed his time in the city.

Manzil Entrepreneurs 

Ravi shares how several of the students he shared spaces with were employed in piecework or daily wage labour from a very young age to support their families. Wanting to escape a predetermined path of daily wage labour, many of the students started coming up with creative collaborations with their peers and opened their own enterprises from skills they had picked during their time in Manzil. Many of these enterprises are now growing into independent spaces. Manzil continues to support these enterprises in different ways. 

Image of Craftkari Studio quilled in a frame \ Photo Credits Vasudha Varadarajan

I met Malti and Mamta, two of the founders of their enterprise Craftkari Studio which is an art studio which emerged out of Manzil in 2008. Indira, who had learnt quilling in Calcutta taught many of them who felt confident in their skills to open the art studio. Now Craftkari produces intricate decorative crafts that range from keychains, magnets, bookmarks to trays, photo frames, art pieces. They put up stalls in several Delhi events and work with several corporations. They shared how they themselves are figuring out how to run an enterprise but enjoy having something of their own. 

Manzil supported them in building the enterprise, allocating space for a workshop, building connections and even avail their services for several of the events within Manzil. Along with that there are several other enterprises like Mantash which is a band that was formed from one of Manzils classes. The group is inspired by Kabir and the art of oral traditions. They have performed for The Dalai Lama and with Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Cafe. Another one of the enterprises, Learning by Locals is a registered NGO that guides students to educate and empower themselves. Pradeep who had been traveling through his earlier enterprise Delhi by Locals connected him to different parts of Delhi like  Sanjay Colony slum in Okhla. He felt the need of a Manzil akin space there, and  his confidence developed at Manzil made him take initiative to meet this need. Now, it runs 7 days a week and teaches approximately 300 students skills like English, computer science, theater, music, and photography.

Manzil exemplifies empowering kids by according them their rightful choice and agency. Ravi shares how good judgment can only come after you’ve made some bad ones. He shares his frustration on how kids are not allowed to make mistakes or even make choices for themselves. He believes that these mistakes are learning opportunities. He has seen the Manzil kids grow to become leaders by making these very mistakes and trying again. Manzil has a slow learning community that has grown from the bottom up and through decentralised decision making. The multiple branches of the ecosystem have grown from the collective imagination of the people who occupy this space, to include a variety of perspectives. Manzil’s success has been built through the efforts of the community coming together. Manzil through its years has made learning inclusive and enjoyable for the people who join this space, and reclaimed the word school to mean leisure. Most importantly, the space also shows how when we allow children to embrace a growth mindset, we break the deterministic point of view alot of us are stuck in. We start exercising our agency and embrace the adversity in our path to becoming better.

Contact the author.

Story Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply