Casting aside the glamour of the film world, 43-year-old R Revathi, former filmmaker, has educated 1,000 tribal children in the last 15 years. Revathi was 27 years when she was working as assistant director to Tamil film director Gautham Menon.
That was in the year 2004 when the deadly Tsunami struck India. It also took in its sweep several coastal districts of Tamil Nadu, killing more than 8,000 people in the state alone. Moved by the disaster, Revathi decided to take a break from film making and joined as a volunteer to work at a relief camp in Nagapattinam, a district in Tamil Nadu located 320 kilometres from the State capital of Chennai and one of the worst-affected coastal regions.
Revathi thought that she would go back to film making after she had done her bit for the disaster hit. But she never returned to the world of glamour, but instead chose to continue working with the less privileged, possessed as she was with a missionary zeal.
Revathi today educates more than 180 tribal children every year in Nagapattinam through the Vaanavil school. Started with 20 students in 2005, Revathi has succeeded in achieving a significant scale up in operations, thanks to her single-minded devotion to the cause of education.
Revathi was, in fact, about to wind up her work at Nagapattinam when she discovered a distressing fact. Two nomadic tribal groups in Nagapattinam region, the Boom Boom Mattukarans, or Adiyans, who earned their livelihood entertaining people by displaying their decorated bulls and the Narikuravars, one time hunters turned sellers of beaded ornaments, hardly made any real income and were virtually destitute.
They were very poor and were extremely malnourished. While mainstream society treated the adults as outcastes, the children had never heard or seen the inside of a school. Moved by their plight, Revathi decided to start a school for their children so that at least the young could move on.
She then established the Vaanavil school, which has transformed the lives of the Adiyans and Narikuravars groups. In a way the school owes its origin to one Lakshmi, a skinny girl, who Revathi had spotted at a bus stand. When she saw Lakshmi she was moved to tears, because she was so thin that she looked almost like a skeleton. A few days later she learnt that Lakshmi had died, obviously of starvation. She discovered that Lakshmi belonged to the Adiyan tribe. Her conscience was stirred and she had made up her mind that she would not leave them to their plight.
Educating them, she believed, was one way of lifting them out of their misery. Thus the idea of the Vaanavil school was born. Vaanavil means rainbow in Tamil.
The first two years of running of the school were very tough. Revathi was short of funds and since the students who came to school were hungry, she had to give them some food before teaching them. Thus she played the role of both cook and teacher. It was also difficult to ensure that students didn’t drop out. Since both the tribal groups earned their livelihood by begging, she found the children bunking classes to go out and ask for alms. Often Revathi had to tail them and bring the kids back to school.
The school curriculum was based on experiential learning models. As Revathi had experience in teaching street children as part of one of her college projects, this helped. The lessons were like practical classes. She taught them arithmetic by taking them to the vegetable market and explaining the cost of vegetables and agriculture was learnt by visiting farm lands. Movie watching, storytelling and dramatics formed part of the curriculum.
Vaanavil has seen great progress over the years―from Revathi being the only teacher, the school now has eight full-time teachers and 14 supporting staff. Over the years, financial support has come from crowd sourcing platforms like Milaap, individual donations, and grants from Sundaram Mutual Funds and Marc Saquet Foundation. Supplemental learning centres across 10 other nearby villages spread over two districts have been established to strengthen the education of tribal of children.
The most significant achievement of the school is that the children have been weaned away from begging as they see a source of livelihood at the end of their school education. Revathi with the help of the district collector of Nagapattinam is devising a livelihood project for the tribal groups. She is optimistic that this will make them economically self-sufficient and they will not live on the fringes of society anymore.
Revathi invested only Rs 25,000 of her personal money to set up the school. But the time and the years that she has spent on the school is worth a billion rupees.
Hers is a life of true compassion and altruistic giving.