Seeing in a different light

Seeing in a different light

Seeing in a different light

Educating minds Gender bias against girls has long deprived them of quality education. Lora Tomas finds out how Agastya Foundation is striving to make this go away by educating girls in an innovative manner

A high-pitched chatter and silvery tinkling of anklets fill the Agastya Foundation’s minibus as a group of girls from a government school in the village of Donimadagu near Kolar Gold Fields town of Karnataka eagerly climb on board. The bus will take them to a  school in Kyasamballi, an hour away, to participate in Agastya’s Science Fair. For some weeks now, they’ve been taught analogue photography as part of Agastya’s ongoing Abhivyakti Project, designed to empower painfully shy rural girls by engaging them in the Science and the art of making images. They’ve been also shown how to construct their own pinhole cameras. They are now exhibiting this at the Science Fair, and are expected to curate their work as well.

Twelve-year-old Uma in the seat in front of me, with two slick hoops of jasmine-scented braids, turns around and tells me about a pinhole image she has made – a floating rose flower. Just like the dark red one freshly pinned above her left plait.

The Abhivyakti Project – which started in mid-January and will continue till the end of March – was developed by Sandip Viswanathan and Subrahmanya Shastry, both project managers at the Bangalore-based non-profit educational trust, Agastya International Foundation. “We are trying to connect science and arts by teaching the girls about light travelling in straight lines, the ratios between parts of a pinhole camera, the chemistry of processing a film,” says Viswanathan, who has devised the syllabus for the programme.

Creating awareness
“It’s a seven-day course for each batch of girls, and altogether 300 girl students from several schools will be involved,” explains Rudra Rakshit, a photographer from Bengaluru, who is conducting the workshops. “For the first four days, we learn how to construct a pinhole camera, and all the science behind it. Then they will develop the sense of composition by shooting with a digital camera, and having their images reviewed in class. After that, each of them gets an analogue camera for three days to make seven to nine images, which they will print later. With analogue photography, there is, perhaps, a heightened awareness that comes with the limited number of frames and tries. They have to think well in advance about the images they want to make, or the photographic narrative.”

Science fervour
At the grounds of the GHPS in Kyasamballi, students of different schools are standing behind their models, displaying the stages of soil erosion, food chain, momentum preservation or resistance, and bending over see-your-own-pupil magic boxes, dynamos and light reflection charts. It’s a little before noon and already oppressively hot, but they don’t seem to mind. Sai Chandrashekar, the director of operations at Agastya, is also here. “Our aim is to offer integrated, hands-on learning,” he says. “Rather than segmenting knowledge into various subjects and disciplines that succeed each other in timetables but rarely overlap, we look to explore a concept through various sciences, angles and perspectives.”

The representatives of the project’s sponsors, the GE India, R Ramakrishna Rao and Prashant Kumar N, share similar views. “We wanted to fund a programme that would empower rural girls, and Agastya’s Abhivyakti was perfect in that sense,” says Rao. “Girls in India don’t get the same educational opportunities as boys. This deprives them of the chance to be self-sustainable, to master a skill or pursue a vocation that could be their livelihood one day. We want to instigate scientific thought in them, which will, in turn, incite social change at the grassroots level. But too often, their education stops at the tenth standard. That’s the reason we are investigating the possibilities of college and university scholarships for promising female students.”

Back in the exhibition room, the girls are all lined up behind their pinhole cameras, in their striped ties and blue school uniforms, waiting for visitors to gush out facts and laws of Physics at them. The beige walls are covered with their framed photographs, quite outstanding pieces of work for rural kids that have just learned how to take pictures. One girl says there has always been an old analogue camera at her house, but she’s never given it a second thought. Now she’s dusted it off – to the somewhat displeased grunts of her dad – and wants to use it. Another wanted to shoot crows roosting in a tree, but later came up with a different idea. She asked a friend to agitate them, so she could capture them in flight.

In his influential book Ways of Seeing, based on his BBC television series of the same title, John Berger discusses the practices and styles of viewing and reproducing paintings, photographs, or billboards and the messages they convey about the age-old gender bias – women as ‘sights’ and not the seeing subjects, since the latter role has always been reserved for men. “Seeing comes before words,” Berger begins. “The child looks and recognises before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing, which establishes our place in the surrounding world…”

Hopefully, this is exactly what these girls are doing.
Agastya Foundation can be contacted at


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