On a lazy Sunday morning, Bineeta Rajput is busy telling stories to a packed classroom in the sprawling Govindpur tea estate in Assam’s Jorhat district. It’s a beautiful day outside, but the 30-odd children, drawn from the labour lines in the estate, listen intently to the old folk tale of Burha, Burhi aru Bagh Mama (Grandpa, Grandma and Uncle Tiger). “The idea is to help children from the tea tribes bridge the language gap,” says Bineeta. “Storytelling helps them communicate better.”
The tea tribes of Assam, originally Santhal Adivasis from Jharkhand and Odisha, are a 50-lakh-strong community. Despite being a dependable vote bank for the ruling Congress, their socio-economic condition remains feeble, and their lack of education is a primary drawback.
Their language, a mixture of Bangla, Hindi, Assamese and Santhali, is locally called Baganiya. “Many youth from the tea tribes are first-generation educated like me,” says Bineeta. “We faced a lot of trouble right from the primary level. We could only speak Baganiya, but the medium of instruction was Assamese.”
Bineeta is part of a unique project by the NGO Heritage Assam. It was launched in 2009, in partnership with Unicef, as a storytelling initiative to help primary students make a smooth transition from Baganiya to Assamese. The project covers over 5,000 children from 40 tea gardens in the Jorhat and Dibrugarh districts. Bineeta and her colleagues first narrate stories in Baganiya, then in a mixture of Baganiya and Assamese, and later in Assamese. The children then narrate the story in the same way. This, Bineeta explains, helps them relate words in the two languages.
“The formal education system has not been able to serve marginalised, linguistically diverse communities,” says PC Tamuly, an Assamese writer, who founded Heritage Assam. “We had to do something beyond the normal primary student paradigm.”
As an experiment, they first selected 40 youths from 20 tea gardens in Jorhat, who were literate and knew both languages. They were trained at a three-day residential workshop by writers, theatre personalities and elocutionists, with emphasis on demonstration and pronunciation. Today, 100 storytellers work under the project on stipends. The road ahead, Tamuly warns, is not easy. “We must plan the initiative meticulously. The impact cannot be seen in numbers; we are dealing more with the quality of primary education,” he says.