The Peoples' Institute for Re-thinking Education and Development

Interning with Shikshantar During Covid

My time interning at Shikshantar was very interesting. Not only due to the nature of the place, but also to the circumstances in Udaipur at the time - the initial Lockdown during COVID-19. Although the going-ons at Shikshantar were impacted due to the pandemic, I had a deep feeling that the core values, and general activities, that took part during the lockdown remained the same. 

The core values and themes that came up most strongly for me during my time at Shikshantar, included: 

- we are all learners 

- we are all unique

- everyone is at different stages of their journey, thus needs different support

- power is essential in any living system, but it has to be legitimized

- there is a need for elders and orientation for young people

- there must be an ongoing balance between structure and chaos 

- there is a need for developing hands-on skills 

- developing hands on skills builds self-efficacy and confidence 

- there needs to be a shift from individual to communal ways of being



There was a relatively diverse mix of 8 people locked down in Shikshantar, ranging from 18 years old - 30 years old. Each of us were coming from different places and perspectives. However, each of us had a lot of skills that we could learn and develop. Shikshantar gave us the space to reflect on and acknowledge what areas each of us wanted to improve, develop and/or learn. At the same time, each of us were exposed to new skills that were not on our mind.  It was a really interesting process to be a part of and to observe the others that were a part of it as well. Personally, I further developed a lot of skills that I had already begun learning, and also, I tried new skills as well that I previously had not done. It was the latter that was the most eye-opening for me. 

During the previous year, there had been instances where I wanted to learn some kind of drumming and drawing. I even bought a small drum and signed up for a drawing class. Both of these never took off. While at Shikshantar I was locked down with someone learning drawing, as well as a professional Djembe player. For the first two weeks, I had not engaged either of them for peer-peer learning, although I intrinsically felt that I wanted to learn these skills. During these initial weeks, I was being pulled into books, and reading a ton. One day, deep in my gut I felt a sense of disconnection and dissatisfaction from the books and computer work I was doing. I intuitively remembered my desire, from a few months back,  to focus more on hands-on skills, and less on books and computer related work. This dissonance struck me into action. And I went and asked Sakib for an intro drumming lesson, which he kindly shared. 

I sat and drummed for close to an hour, and felt a deep sense of opening, relaxation and satisfaction. This learning of djembe continued for close to two weeks, and progress was made. The jump from not doing to doing, seemed huge and intimidating, while it was actually not. After the first time of trying, the next times became easy, natural, and welcomed. Actually trying and practicing made me appreciate the instrument and piqued my interest in drum circles. I did some reading about them, and was very excited. I hope to continue a personal practice (I even asked Sakib where I could buy a djembe!) and share/spread it with communities that I am a part of now and in the future. It has been added on my list of skills to develop! 

It seemed that everyone went on similar journeys of learning. It was interesting, because people were forced to pick a certain amount of skills they wanted to try. This came after the complete chaos that built up during the initial weeks, where some of the kids would play PUBG and/or mindlessly use social media for 10+ hours a day. As a whole, the group was playing and goofing around more than learning (which, was also a good learning) and staying awake all hours of the night. Manish learned about this chaos, and gently invited us to start having daily zoom check-in calls with him in order to recap what went well the previous day, set our intentions for the day/week, and bring up any areas of concern. During these meetings we each had to pick a certain amount of skills that we wanted to develop. This seemed to be a hard task for some people, and resulted in people picking things they did not really want to try. But, trying these things led the people to realize this for themselves.

An interesting example is Ajay and Idu both chose guitar as something they wanted to try. Priyank offered them lessons, and became frustrated because they were not diligently practicing. Ajay stopped practicing. Idu continued, on his own for the most part, watching YouTube videos, and by the end of lockdown he was able to play pretty well. The same happened with photography and editing. Idu, Ajay and Sharukh all tried and took sessions with Pratik, and in the end Sharukh chose to focus very closely on it, and as a result has developed his skills in it. The others were not as interested, thus did not continue with equal vigor. Same with juggling: Idu and Ajay saw me juggling and were interested, and both approached me to learn. Each of them practiced on their own, and by the end of lock down had learned various tricks. These are just a few examples, but there were many other examples of experimenting and trying new things, learning from them, and continuing with what made sense. 

Peer-Peer learning was another core element. Whatever skills were in the house during lock down were shared and circulated within the group. I recall an instance when I was learning Djembe and, at the same time, Sakib was juggling and improving his skills with the Flower Sticks. Both of us were focused on what we were doing. This gave me deep satisfaction and respect, that we both were able to share our skills with each other, enabling us to learn new skills. There was a lot of sharing during the time, and everyone’s different skills were valued and given a space to be used. 

This happened largely due to the support and leadership from Manish. During the first couple of weeks there was little sharing, everyone was in their own bubbles, doing what they felt like (for better or worse). After the daily meetings started, people really began focusing and trying new things. In a sense, the check in calls with Manish gave us a sense of accountability and reinforced the efforts that we were making. 

The tone and methods that he used guiding these calls interested me. It was always firm, but playful. And there were instances where the firmness was emphasized, and other instances where playfulness was. At all times it was respectful, and the language was non-violent. Everything Manish said was genuine, and all of us felt that, and thus responded to his power and leadership. This learning was especially different from the leadership that was taking place inside the house, which for the most part was very hierarchical and not as thoughtful. For example, people were yelled at or ordered to do things, with violent communication means. In many of the cases there were tasks that they could have done themselves that they ordered other people to do (like, go get me water etc.). When the people that “were not leaders” asked the “leaders” to do this (which was rare) they did not reciprocate. There were nasty jokes said about people that clearly made them uncomfortable and even periods of physical and verbal bullying from the leaders. As a result, leadership broke down, and people stopped listening or responding to them. Some cases there were relationships that were temporarily damaged. 

I felt a sense of uncomfort from this, but as someone from a different culture, chose not speak out. Eventually I did, and that was the response, that this is cultural, which led to an interesting discussion. I also feel that the leaders in the house had good intentions, but this seemed to be their understanding of leadership.

With Manish, he acted as he spoke, and spoke with care, even when being firm. This created a deep sense of trust and legitimated his power, which led people to take what he said seriously and do it. Since what Manish was encouraging was positive, this led to very positive things happening. Some examples, Ajay learning Zumba, Idu learning guitar, Sharukh developing his art and photography. 

Manish served as a sort of elder for all of us, and helped us to find orientation in times of need. His suggestions, and use of power, actively gave us a chance to embody and become the solution. There was a deep trust and respect for Manish’s power. Whenever a personal challenge arose for any of us, Manish & Vidhi were there to help us sort it out. This built a deep sense of care, trust and gave each of us a sense of direction. 

Personally, I needed this orientation. Other outlets did not provide this: family, community, my previous work organization, etc. People in these places were, as far as I was concerned, not doing anything differently, but rather (for the most part) perpetuating more of the ‘shit’ that creating the broader problems (which, is also ok and necessary). 

Manish served as a guide for me to see alternatives, because he was actively doing/enabling them. I imagine most people do not have leaders/elders that are doing things differently, and are thus stuck to figure it out on their own, which creates tension, especially because the people that provide guidance usually are not living and/or creating, restorative lives. Prior to lockdown, Manish gave me the orientation needed to start carving out another pathway (juggling and clowning), that is now what I am following (or at least trying to do amidst all the other noise and uncertainty). I felt that same sort of orientation and guidance happening during lock down with all the learners. Each person was given different suggestions based on their situations. Through talking with each of the people, everyone seemed to have a relatively clear vision of a restorative lifestyle that they could lead, which in some way or another, was guided by the thoughtful suggestions and support that was given from Manish. 

In the end, at least when I left, people seemed confident. For me, I have noticed how having skills and capabilities made me more confident. Being able to juggle, people appreciate me and want to learn from me. This in turn has led me to appreciate myself and want to learn more. I feel the value in what I am doing, and it is reinforced by others. I felt the same with the Djembe. I also realized many of my shortcomings. These used to make me uncomfortable and jealous. Now, I am able to work with these realizations. With the understanding that I cannot do everything, now when I am confronted with something that I cannot do, instead of jealousy I appreciate the person that is doing that thing. And instead of feeling guilty and shying away, I enable curiosity to guide me to inquire about the thing the person is doing. Sometimes this leads to trying. Sometimes this leads to appreciating, and understanding that this is not a skill that interests me or seems practical. This opening, and acknowledging, has enabled me to gently embrace my shortcomings, and enable others to share and support me. With juggling, and other skills that I have to offer, I try to do the same for other people.

This is what I think real community enables. The diversity of different skills and abilities that can be shared and offered for people to develop. Not everyone has to do everything (as in school) rather people can do what makes sense to them, when it makes sense. Although, given the community there must be contribution, and at times sacrifice, for the betterment of others. This sacrifice, or selfless action, is lacking in our society. I even felt myself being challenged, as I got carried away in my focus areas and, at times, neglected the community. I was always self-conscious of this, even when I was contributing. This was an interesting reflection and experience, and led me to embrace serving and helping more. For me I found my role in dishwashing, as it was something that others did not want to do, and that I enjoyed doing. This, somewhat surprisingly, became a skill to share with others. Community living, self-sustenance and a deep will to serve are areas that are necessary for communities to thrive, and are needed in the world. Being a part of a community, and given a chance to reflect on this, while locked down in Shikshantar reminded me of the importance of it, and immediate need for it. 

It seems so many people lack so many skills. With hired house cleaners, cooks, and clothes washers, people do not know how to do this. This I noticed especially in India, and especially living with young people that were accustomed to these kind of things. Similarly, I am lacking many basic skills that I have failed to learn and society (schooling) has failed to provide me with. Some of these skills include growing vegetables, doing art, basic carpentry, fixing electronics, concocting DIY solutions etc., sewing etc. Being at Shikshantar enabled me to confront my felt sense of inadequacy, and provided me with tools, books and inspiration to deal with it. There are still many areas to improve upon, but the acknowledgement, realization and reminders have been very important for me.

At the same time, I realized that a lot of the ‘modern’ skills I have developed are practical and useful. Examples include, using Canva, doing Zoom conferences, collaborating through Google Drive, using excel, having good written skills, being able to document things etc. These skills were also utilized and improved during lockdown, while working with Manish. I was able to apply these skills to support in promoting and marketing regenerative initiatives that are happening through Shikshantar. Also, I was able to write, and organize my experiences and personal reflections into articles that can be shared to provide sustenance to the network(s).. Similarly, I was able to share some of these ‘modern skills’ with the other people at Shikshantar: introducing Ajay to e-mail, supporting Sakib with Zoom, etc. (also a shoutout to Pratik teaching/supporting with website development!). 

Personally, I feel that the technological skills often pull me away from the hands-on. A good Chinese quote goes something like this - the tree that has the most profitable wood will be cut down first. With me, as a tree, my profit comes from these more technical skills, which I am actively trying to get away from, but keep getting pulled back to. Something like a combination of the Law of Attraction and working out of my Karma. Nevertheless, I see the usefulness of technical skills, but also feel the need for supreme balance. For me that might mean, and what I hoped to happen through the circus, is an extended period of hard-skill development and minimal technical development to balance out the unbalance that I have developed during the past few years, focusing mostly on technical work. 

At some point I hope to use my skills to create a place like Shikshantar in Utica as a means to provide all of the things mentioned above: orientation, connection, peer-peer learning, pathfinding etc. In the meantime I am seeking and exploring different routes, connecting to people and networks, and exploring how to consciously earn a living. The dance with livelihood is an interesting one, as it is inherently dependent, in most cases, on an inherently flawed system, which I feel it is important to be a part of in order to be a part of guiding a more harmonious evolution. Equally, I feel the importance of working outside the system, to create alternative paths for people to traverse. Currently, I am exploring both of these different, but interdependent, paths. 

Also it is very encouraging that I keep coming across people that are doing similar explorations. And a lot of what I see, hear and feel at Shikshantar is happening in different contexts by different people (most striking was being a part of Dougald Hine’s - Homeward Bound Course while being in Shikshantar -- which I hope to reflect on after his course ends). I see great potential in connecting these networks of people doing meaningful work, so they can synergistically expand. How to do that I am not sure, but I am confident that it will happen as it should.