Language, culture and old ways of life are taught through fun and innovative methods including traditional games and visits to fields.

A bunch of little children standing next to each other jump up in this photo below them are yellow flowers fallen from a tree above
Features Culture Friday, July 16, 2021 - 14:17

Dhanya Narayanan, now an IT professional living in California, once wrote about a chance encounter she had on a train journey in Kerala. She was a schoolgirl back then, reading books of her favourite author MT Vasudevan Nair, when who should board the train from Alappuzha and sit bang opposite Dhanya but the writer himself! But Dhanya didn’t know this then, there was no Google to show her an image of the writer. So, Dhanya ignored the man who stared at her reading his book while keeping a stack of his other books next to her.

Amused, he began a conversation with her, discussing this precious author of hers. Dhanya fought for her author tooth and nail, while the stranger flicked each of her arguments away, calling the author too common, clinging to nostalgia. It took the whole of the journey for them to find peace and the man to leave a parcel with her, a business card sticking out of it. It was MT Vasudevan Nair of course and Dhanya, ashamed of her behaviour, wrote a grand apology to the writer. In return, he sent her all his books, signed. They remained in touch for a long time.

Dhanya’s story, which she wrote in her school magazine 25 years ago, is relevant for the story we are telling now. How close are the children of present day Kerala to their mother tongue. In the magazine story, Dhanya wrote that she considered reading Malayalam books to be “below her dignity”, reading only English novels and short stories until then. With a charming honesty that can only come from schoolchildren, she wrote how reading MT’s books had changed her whole perspective and opened the world of Malayalam literature for her.


A child at Malayalam Pallikkoodam with a slate saying, Malayalam is my language

Twenty five years later, the situation has only become worse, even with a law that insists that the mother tongue should be taught at all schools. A few years ago, Archa, a plus 2 student, was at a bus stop in Thiruvananthapuram, and found that other children her age were asking the conductor of every passing bus where it was headed. She asked them curiously why they couldn’t just read the boards on the bus. That’s when they said that they didn’t know how to read Malayalam.

“That was one of the triggers of the Malayalam Pallikkoodam movement,” says Jessy Narayanan, Archa’s mother and freelance journalist. The movement, founded by poet Madhusoodhanan Nair, came up after a group of journalists approached him with this very pressing issue: schoolchildren were growing up without knowing how to read or write  Malayalam. It didn’t stop with schoolchildren. Further research by this group of journalists showed that a number of graduate students could not read their mother tongue.

“You cannot blame parents and ask them why the children were not sent to Malayalam medium schools. Many of these kids come from ordinary families and get admission at the Kendriya Vidyalaya schools where they need to pay little or no fees. It is also easier for them to transfer schools when the parents are in transferrable jobs. However, little Malayalam is taught at KV schools,” Jessy says.


Children are taught language and culture through games and songs

Malayalam Pallikkoodam began on Chingam 1 of the Malayalam calendar – the Onam month which falls in August – in the year 2014. Parents took their children on Sundays to the Shishuvihar School in Thiruvananthapuram, which was taken on rent by the Pallikkoodam founders. “It was not just about teaching Malayalam as a language but also to bring children closer to Kerala culture, to understand the way of life of the early generations. Trained primary school teachers taught them through songs, poems and games. If it is forced on them as lessons and exams, they do not learn it well. So there are no tests or certificates in Malayalam Pallikkoodam. Children learn while they have fun,” Jessy says.

At first there were 100 students between the ages of five and 14. But then, the number grew to several hundreds.

It is not age-based classes, but there are categories that the children will be put into depending on how much they know.

Three years later, then Education Minister C Raveendranath visited the Pallikkoodam and was thoroughly impressed by the methods followed. He was welcomed by children banging coconut shells. He offered help of the government and the Pallikkoodam organisers asked for a government school they could use so they don’t have to take so much fees (Rs 500 a month) for teaching kids their mother tongue. Duly, the Thycaud Government Model LP school was made available for Pallikkoodam and the fees got halved.

As years passed, more and more students joined, and the classes became more experimental. Children were taken on field trips to see paddy fields and other crops, to play in the mud. Madhusoodhanan Nair encouraged age-old habits such as having open classes, writing letters on the sand and so on.


A visit to a field - Madhusoodhanan Nair with children of Pallikkoodam

“Every ‘naadan’ (traditional) game you could think of was played. One reason I took my children there was, they could not play these games with other children in the neighbourhood in a city. Somehow there was no such practice. I didn’t want them to miss out on all the childhood games and fun they could have,” says Remya, who sent her seven and eight-year-old children to Pallikkoodam for a while.

Team work was also encouraged and the children helped each other, older kids coming to the aid of the younger ones. On special days, the kids would take curries cooked at home and have their meals together. “They are encouraged to give and take,” says Remya.

What really impressed her was how the teachers would ask the kids to be loud and clear, as opposed to grownups shushing kids to be quiet all the time. “This would increase their confidence so much, being encouraged to speak loudly. They wouldn’t develop inhibitions,” she adds.


Filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan initiates a child to Malayalam letters

For Lakshmi Priya, who works in the Kerala University, it was important that her son picked up his Malayalam at a young age. She took her younger child at the age of six, just months ahead of COVID-19 striking the country. “Children going to ICSE or CBSE schools do not learn the language properly. Curriculums mostly pay importance to Science and Math subjects. I can see it in the way my elder son, in class IX, is studying. The Pallikkoodam initiative not only teaches Malayalam but everything that reminds you of Kerala – plants and cereals of Kerala. Many children saw a field for the first time in their lives in the trips that Pallikkoodam took them on.”

Established writers and personalities visit to take classes – MT Vasudevan Nair, the late Sugathakumari Teacher, M Mukundan, Achuth Sankar, Kureepuzha Sreekumar were among them.


Writer MT Vasudevan Nair with children of Pallikkoodam

When COVID-19 struck, the classes continued online and for free. Teachers took no fees when on Sundays they taught the children Malayalam.

“Parents tell us that on school days, they had to wake the children up by force and send them off to school. But on Sundays, the kids would wake them up and ask to be taken to Pallikkoodam,” Jessy says.

The initiative grew in seven years, with about 350 students attending classes now. A branch had started in a hall in Technopark but it had to be closed down during the floods of 2018 when it was made a temporary shelter for relief material. There are students who joined in 2014 and still continue attending Pallikkoodam classes. Other districts have tried to emulate the initiative but none have prospered so far. Hopefully they will pick up too, and direct classes will also resume once COVID-19 is gone from our lives, Jessy hopes.

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