Community Partner Spotlight: Shikshantar

Shikshantar was created in 1998 in Udaipur, India, to help individuals to reclaim control over their own learning processes and rebuild learning webs within their communities. In the Gandhian spirit of satyagraha (non-violence), Shikshantar promotes alternatives to existing formal educational institutions and advocates for “unschooling” opportunities, including workshops on topics ranging from homeschooling to permaculture, computer repair, and filmmaking. The program and its participants have generated several sustainable and environmental initiatives, including a thriving guesthouse, an organic restaurant, a shop featuring up-cycled goods, and two heritage walking tour organizations.

Sydney Eck ’24 (Bridge Year India 2019-20) recently sat down sat down with Manish Jain, Shikshantar’s founder and Sydney’s mentor while on the program, to have him share more about the goals and work of Shikshantar. Excerpts of their conversation follow:

Sydney: What is Shikshantar? Will you talk a bit about its mission and values? 

Manish: Shikshantar is part of a movement to reimagine education and concepts of development for a good life. The movement is inspired by questions Gandhi, Tagore, and other freedom fighters raised during the Indian freedom struggle. We are working towards decolonization, remembering and elevating local knowledge systems, and living as role models to promote living in harmony with each other and the planet.

Manish Jain, Founder of Shikshantar
Manish Jain, Founder of Shikshantar
(photo courtesy of Shikshantar Andolan)

Our work is defining swaraj in our own lives. Swaraj means harmony with ourselves. How do we start living swaraj? How do we develop a unique and interconnected self, a sense of autonomy and responsibility, and love in our daily life? We try to build systems that will nurture that.

Sydney: What does life at Shikshantar look like day to day?

Manish: Shikshantar’s daily life has many different activities going on. First of all, lots of different visitors, both young and old will come to the unlearning center. We believe in intergenerational learning spaces. You can learn something important from a grandmother or a child and as a grandmother or a child. Some of our current learning and skill building projects are community cooking using the produce from our urban organic farming projects [where people can learn how to grow and make their own food]. We also have film projects and community workshops. 

Sydney: What kind of workshops and projects?

Shikshantar music workshop at Udaipur's Central Jail
Swaraj Jail University participants preparing for Udaipur's World Music Festival (photo courtesy of Shikshantar Andolan)

Manish: These projects are used to develop personal skills and often focus on sustainability, conservation, and cultural reclamation.

Sydney: Will you talk a bit about the people at Shikshantar? Those who are there every day and the friends that stop by during their travels?

Manish: There are lots of interesting people who come into Shikshantar. Shikshantar tends to act as a kind of incubator for lots of inspiring people and their projects throughout the city.

There’s a man named Vishal who runs The Eco Hut [a business dedicated to upcycling and sustainable product sourcing] and a makerspace [where community members can come to learn technical skills and create their own products].

There’s two brothers named Sonny and Minoj who run Millets of Mewar, a health food restaurant focusing on really interesting and exciting millet recipes. Shikshantar has spearheaded efforts to teach people how to preserve millet plants and seeds [which are indigenous to the Mewar region in Rajasthan] and how to incorporate millet into their diet. This promotes natural biodiversity in the region as well as traditional culinary practices that are quickly being lost due to corporate wheat growers.

There is our collaboration with Rohit Jain at his Banyan Roots organic store, where we are working with small farmers from nearby Udaipur. We founded a learning program with them. And there are several families who are doing unschooling [families that have decided to take their children out of the traditional school system to allow them a more holistic learning experience], and they and their children will come and spend time at Shikshantar. 

Sydney: What do Bridge Year students typically do at Shikshantar? To which projects have they contributed the most?

Manish: Bridge Year students work on lots of things. They are involved in the daily duties of the learning center, leading and facilitating workshops and events. Whether that’s taking part in our urban farm or helping organize a cycle-a-thon. They help with our newsletters and have also completed research projects for us.

Bridge Year participant Sydney Eck '24 at Shikshantar
Making gluten-free millet cookies in a workshop on sustainable eating with dietary restrictions (photo courtesy of Shikshantar Andolan)

One intern worked with us to create a compilation of “Alivelihoods” (regenerative careers that align with the idea of swaraj). We then were able to promote those careers and support people who pursued those careers. Another intern developed a virtual-international-local-dance resource and led workshops.

The interns also help us run events like the Halchal Cafe, which is a community, gift-culture event we put on each week [community members volunteer their time to make food and play music; anyone is welcome to come and enjoy free food and music made with love]. There is a space to make films on different important issues where interns can work. Interns also work more broadly with the global ecoversities alliance. They will also meet with guests and visitors, explaining what Shikshantar is about and helping develop new project ideas with them.

We also partner with Udaipur’s Jail University, doing workshops on various skills such as haircutting and music. Interns can also support our work there. 

Sydney: Is there anything else prospective students should know?

Manish: Shikshantar is a very exciting and radical space. We are challenging many different established paradigms. It is a space for unlearning and understanding the wisdom of traditional communities, artisans, and farmers, and promoting diversity at much deeper levels. It’s good for people who are open to a bit of craziness, who want to get their hands dirty, and who are willing to open their hearts and connect with people in a different way. I would say there is a basic set of deep questions that interns should hold with them about the education system, what it is doing to young people, and how we can create new models of education outside of the current framework of standardized schooling.