The Cuckoo Movement for Children is scripting a silent change in some remote villages of Tamil Nadu. Akila Kannadasan reports
It’s not yet 10 a.m. and 13-year-old Pavithra is already into her second book. She reads sitting on the floor along with her friends Susheela and Mythili. Outside, Hari Narayanan, Akash and Srikalyan dig holes in the ground using iron rods. Later, they will fill them with a mixture of dry leaves, plant a sapling in it and cover it with fresh earth, where it will grow into a healthy tree. Inside a nursery nearby, little Subashini carefully waters a line of saplings. There is laughter and loud chatter in and around Cuckoo children’s library in Uthukuli, the 12th of its kind in Tamil Nadu.
In a wrinkled white shirt and unkempt hair, a man smiles indulgently at the playing children. He is Siva Raj, who, along with a few friends, started it all. The 33-year-old has always wanted to work with less-privileged children. And when he had a chance to meet a few of them, he was floored by their creativity. “They make up such wonderful stories. I enjoy just listening to them talk,” he says. He decided then that he would do something for them. For starters, along with a few friends, he set up a small library for children in Keeranur, a village near Dharapuram. There they organised storytelling and art and craft workshops for them. They also screened and discussed movies. The children blossomed. They did well in school and were fired up.
Siva Raj and his team decided to take the library idea to other parts of Tamil Nadu. Their circle of friends became bigger and their movement gathered strength — they called it the ‘Cuckoo Movement for Children’. Their next stop was Nellivasal, a mountain village near Tiruvannamalai. Initially the shy children would not even speak to them. But, with some persuasion, they drew the kids out and introduced them to the world of books and movies.
Siva Raj’s aim is to foster group activities. He says, “Children don’t play together anymore. They sit alone in front of a video game or a computer, immune to everything else around them. They don’t admire the moonlight; they don’t fall in love with a newborn leaf. Our education system is largely responsible for this. See how children are killing their teachers and committing suicides at a tender age. Isn’t there something wrong with the system?” he asks. His own teachers were a role model. He speaks of ‘Akka’ teacher who brought sundal for the poorer kids in the class every day, his physics master who took it upon himself to clean the school toilet for his students. It is teachers like these that our children need today, says Siva Raj. “I freely cried on their shoulder when a love affair failed,” he smiles. Where are the teachers who are approachable and who trigger that extra spark in their students, he asks.
Siva Raj hopes their movement will bring about that kind of change. At the library, kids get to unwind and think out of the box. Occasionally, famous personalities have also pitched in. Agricultural scientist and organic farming expert Nammazhwar works regularly with the children — he teaches them alternative farming methods which they practise in their nursery (Cuckoo has six nurseries attached to its various libraries). The children plant the saplings they produce in their villages and schools, and also give them away free of cost. The children of Tiruvannamalai spent five nights in the forests of Javvadhu Hills with Nammazhwar, who regaled them with wonderful stories under the moonlight.
Film director Kuzhanthai Velappan and theatre artists Murugaboopathy and Velu Saravanan are some of the other regulars at Cuckoo events. The libraries do more than just offer books to the kids. Local volunteers who look after the centres organise various activities. Alageswari, a volunteer in Uthukuli, says, “We teach children silambattam, karagattam and oyilaattam, arts and crafts as well as photography.”
Documentary photographer Vinodh Baluchamy and V.K.Jayapal held a one-week workshop in pin-hole photography for children from Tirupur Hr.Sec. School for the Deaf. They also organised an exhibition of the photographs taken by the children. Trained at the Goa Centre for Alternative Photography, Vinodh plans to take the children on a visit to the centre. “The children are extremely good at visuals. I know at least four of them who have the skill to become internationally renowned photographers,” says Vinodh.
This is just the beginning. Cuckoo’s dream is to establish a school that teaches children agriculture and art. The libraries are a smaller version of a bigger picture, says Siva Raj. The team is planning to go outside Tamil Nadu as well. Their next stop is Chhattisgarh. Siva Raj is vehement when he says Cuckoo is not a social service organisation. “We are just a bunch of friends who enjoy spending time with children. Our model is open to all. Anybody can replicate it.”
B. Ram Kumar, Chengam, Tiruvannamalai
Inspired by the interesting people he met through Cuckoo, B. Ram Kumar is now studying Anthropology in Madras University. When he was in standard 12, Ram Kumar, along with four friends, did a project on the harmful effects of eucalyptus trees on the environment which was selected at the national level at the Children’s Science Congress. The project was done with the guidance of Nammazhwar. Ram and his friends vigourously campaigned against the planting of eucalyptus trees by the government in Mel Chengam. They went door-to-door, showed educational charts and spoke to people. They travelled in buses to nearby villages, educating passengers and people who sold eucalyptus oil in buses along the way. Thanks to them, people in and around Chengam gave up the idea of planting eucalyptus.
T. Ramesh, Tiruvannamalai
Ramesh has been involved with Cuckoo from a very young age. It was Cuckoo volunteer Peter Jeyaraj and his wife Rachel, who nurtured him. He was introduced to theatre through theatre artist Murugaboopathy. He is now pursuing fine arts in Chennai and is part of a theatre group ‘Manal Magudi’. The team will perform in France this year.
Volunteer V.K.Jayapal has initiated the Thunipai Iyakkam (Cloth-bag Movement). The movement encourages the usage of cloth-bags instead of plastic ones. “We plan to involve children in campaigns against plastic bags so that they can spread the message to their elders,” says Jayapal.
First published by The Hindu