A World Playing Itself Out in the Open

A personal introduction to LOKA, a school which presents itself as a space of hope, reflecting the light of the stars and the music of the spheres

At Patna airport, our Executive Editor Shivani Karmarkar and I were received by two teens, Devwart and Shilpi. They handed us a welcome poster which bore, along with a lot of flowers, the smile of the child artist who made it. The duo came all the way from LOKA, a small school with a big dream, located in the remote Manikpur village in Bihar’s Aurangabad District. On our 3-hour return journey, Dev and Shilpi told us about their school and all that they do in the village in a language that instantly struck us as uninhibited, translucent and, above all, open about its beautiful imperfection.

Welcome card made by a student of Loka

We did not know how fast we arrived at LOKA on the wings of our young ushers’ stories, one of which was about migration, indeed! It was dark, and yet we could sense the bustle as we got out of the car, and were instantly greeted with rose flowers, of course, grown by the children in the school campus. It felt like we had just gone on some trip and were coming back to the warmth of home. That night we sat around the fire and shared litti chokha and more stories till the moon was about to set.

The next day was Saturday, and by 8.00 am the entire school was present outdoors, sitting in neat rows. We realised we were going to be a part of LOKA’s weekly art time. After an hour of song and dance and nukkad natak, all written, choreographed, directed and presented by the students themselves, our spirits were more than full.

By the time we went to have breakfast in the garden with LOKA’s co-founders Charlotte Leech and Sanat Kumar, we knew we too had begun to belong to the world that they had together dreamt of and created.

The following two days that Shivani and I spent on the LOKA Campus were an eye opener. We rapidly gained an immersive vision of the world that the LOKA children were creating at Manikpur. They took us around the village, showed us their homes, and we returned to LOKA along the kaccha road where dogs and cows and hens and human beings walked their own ways of coexisting with others.

Sanat (left), Charlotte (right) and the students of Loka (centre) walking through the Manikpur village

Back in the school, we sat together and discussed subjects ranging from ecology to gender. Thanks to the mentoring and the freedom of expression that they have at LOKA, all the students show a remarkable capacity to communicate their innermost thoughts, transcending the limits of verbal language. They express themselves not only through words but with their whole selves–body, mind and spirit together. That was evident during the evening when we walked to the fields, sat around the well and talked about creativity, relationships, conflict of interests and what not. We learnt how Sudhir, the artist among them who has made the cover of the LILALOKA magazine that we are presenting in this issue, cycled every morning and evening more than one hour to come to school much against the wishes of his parents. We learnt of Devwart writing about his mother’s journey from her village to her husband’s house as a Migration Story because “she went through everything that a migrant would experience in a new land–she is still not settled down.” We learnt of Sandhya’s mother and father taking time to sit down and make drawings, playfully competing with each other–and of Sandhya’s own demand that girls in LOKA should not have a uniform different from boys’–everyone should have the same T-shirt and track pants. And, many more.

As we walked back to the campus along the trail of the departing sun, Shivani offered to share some basic dance steps with the kids to which they enthusiastically agreed. And the ground beneath our feet became a dance floor in no time. Children religiously practising pirouettes with Shivani. The sun shedding its last glorious orange on earth. As darkness fell, without even thinking we began to move into a classroom to continue our dance, which now, astonishingly, burst itself into a letting-go to the tune of the children’s favourite Bollywood songs. O, what a night of joy it was!

It was in quiet amazement of the spontaneous play of lives as we saw and experienced at LOKA that we left for Bodh Gaya with Charlotte the next day . Under the moonlit sky, the three of us sat under the Bodhi and shared our individual dreams of the world and found those streams merging into something luminous, larger than all of us and our personal aspirations. From Bodh Gaya, we got a wrist band for each of the senior students and then proceeded to catch our train to Delhi from Gaya.

In a couple of days, Charlotte sent us the picture that went on the cover of the last LILA Inter-Actions on ‘Public’. It was a different understanding of Public that the children offered us–they filled us with hope and energy. Featuring their promise on the cover of Inter-Actions where we discussed how to evolve a responsible public, was our way of expressing gratitude. Then we began getting small gifts including a song written by Suman’s father in their local Magahi language and sung by Suman and her siblings.

The Corona Song sung by Suman and her siblings

It was essential for me to continue the connection and reach back to them, and what better way to be in touch than through poetry! And that is how we decided to read Jean Follain’s “The Music of the Spheres” together.

Music of the Spheres by Jean Follain

He was walking a frozen road
in his pocket iron keys were jingling
and with his pointed shoe absentmindedly
he kicked the cylinder
of an old can
which for a few seconds rolled its cold emptiness
wobbled for a while and stopped
under a sky studded with stars.

Translated from the French by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass

27 June 2020, 11 am. Zoom meeting | Charlotte in Amsterdam, Rizio in Mumbai, LOKA Students in Manikpur

It warmed my heart to see them again, though on screen. The way they crowded in front of Sanat’s laptop reminded me of the night of the dance when their bodies celebrated the music of the spheres. After reading the poem a couple of times, I asked them why the poet thought the can stopped under the star-studded sky. The answers were mind-blowing–and in all my years of teaching University students, I have not had a class respond so originally to a poetic moment. I am listing below a few of their observations, reflections and imaginings about the empty can under the stars:

  1. The can is empty and so it merges with the sky’s emptiness
  2. It is winter and dark; when the can goes up it gets covered with snow. So it cannot be seen any longer and the poet thinks it has just stopped there
  3. The man is used to kicking heavy balls and there is a limit to which such balls can go. Hence they never went to the sky. But this can was empty, and could reach the sky
  4. The man is absent-minded, so he kicked it, but he did not see where it went. But suddenly he looks up, sees it under the stars and imagines that the can has stopped under the sky
  5. Scientists spent a lot of time and money on sending spaceships up, but this man can just do an absent-minded kick and send something to the space
  6. The man just looked up and saw that the can is up there–so he imagines that it has always been there, and that he was not the one who kicked it and that he has no part in putting it there
  7. The poet does not like the modern civilisation of iron and steel and hence he is making the man kick it away into the space so that it will not come back to earth
  8. The can is on the frozen road and it has become snow; so it goes up and merges with the snow up there
  9. The can is old and rusted, so when the man kicked it was shattered into pieces and merged with the atmosphere
  10. He might have kicked the ball from a different place, not the same place as usual–so it has gone into the sky
  11. There are birds and other beings in the sky, which the man could not see in the dark–but once the can went up, those birds took it as their own under the sky
  12. The can has air in it, and the air fills the sky also. Once the can went there, it was no longer a part of earth–so it stayed with the air in the sky
  13. The can is such a small thing and the poet’s eye is also limited. So he does not know what happened to it after kicking–so he just imagines it stopped under the sky

The internet was acting up–we had to do this in many broken sessions, but they kept at it till the time I braved their language and the internet fluctuations and made sense of their interpretation of the situation. They were immensely patient with me and kept saying ‘No’, till the time I got it right. And every time someone said ‘Yes’ after many iterations, I felt a thrill in my solar plexus. I introduced a new word: Epiphany. I told then the etymological meaning of the word and they saw the epiphany Jean Follain has offered them.

Winding up the class, I asked them why the poem was called The Music of the Spheres. And, then, while we thought we were closing came another deluge of views about the connection between silence and sound in music, which is so much part of their everyday lives. So I recommended that they watch John Cage’s 4’33.

As I write this, Charlotte has just sent me a mail with the transcript of a conversation they had on 4’33. Here we go with another set of freewheeling observations–so characteristic of LOKA:

John Cage’s 4’33

Devwart – We were talking about music of the spheres with Rizio ma’am. When we watched the video, there were no beats, but everybody was watching it like there was music. From inside we felt it was like music.

Sanatan – While watching the video I was thinking that the sound will come but it did not. I was excited about what would happen next. Then I thought this is the music of peace. I watched it twice. First with the group and the second time alone in a peaceful place and I felt good and got peace in my mind.

Dinesh – I was also very curious and wondering when he would start to sing. While waiting for this, the whole video was finished without him starting to sing. It was an amazing video. It attracts the mind to watch it from the beginning until the end.

Devwart – In Indian music, people play the instruments to pray to God. When this video started, I thought he was doing the same. He would do some small action and he repeated this procedure until the end.

Dinesh – I also learned from that video how we can sing the song of peace and have patience. When we watch Indian music from the beginning then we do not watch very attentively and often skip parts. This video (of John Cage) makes the people helpless to just watch.

Madhu – When I watch the video I am waiting for him to sing but he is only putting something on the piano. I thought that this is a peaceful video because there is no sound.

Yashpal – When I watched this video I thought he would play the instrument. He makes people curious to watch. He repeated one procedure many times. Because of that people become more curious; what will happen next. I am also curious to see what will happen next but before I could see the video was finished.

Shilpi – I was also waiting for the music to start. Then people started to clap. Then I thought, this was a peaceful song. 

Sandeep – When I saw the video, I felt bored. Because I was waiting for him to play the piano and I was wondering what he can do.

Pranav – I learned from this video there is also music like peace. 

Ankit – Courage is needed for this.

Dinesh – It is very courageous because not all people like peaceful music. Most people like to listen to music for entertainment. For attracting the minds of people, he (John Cage) made this type of video; it is very courageous. 

Devwart – He is courageous because like when we were children people would ask us to sing a song. If we would not sing, then we would bow our head we only stand straight, quietly. Then I think there is a connection. We are courageous to sing the song of silence. But people are not understanding that.

Dinesh – It is frightening to stand quietly in front of everyone.

Devwart – This man is so courageous. If we do like this in front of children not studying at Loka, they will say we are mad. 

Sanatan – Only when we know the value of something, we can appreciate it. Like when we find a diamond, only when we know the value we will treat it like that.

Dinesh – We know the music of the peace, that is why we understand it.

Devwart – We need to know things first. We should never act without knowing something. Whatever things we do, we first have to think deeply about it. What it is, what its effect is.

Sanatan –  When we prove towards society about the value of these things, when we sing the song, peace song in front of everyone, some people will clap and others will say it is boring or not good. Only those who know the real value will appreciate it.

I record this conversation as part of my reflection on LOKA because it captures its spirit more than my words can tell. As the world reels under the effect of an unseen virus, and humanity is gripped by fear and uncertainty, we present LOKA as a space of hope reflecting the light of the stars, the music of the spheres.

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