Brown senior fosters empowerment for Indian outcasts
While most college seniors are worrying about getting a job, Caitie Whelan worries about the school for a community of lower-caste musicians that she opened last summer in Rajasthan, India. The Brown senior is working on a $15,000 fundraising campaign to expand the Merasi School’s academic and music programming, making it a self-sustaining engine for community empowerment.
In 2004, Whelan was introduced to the Merasi people while working for Folk Arts Rajasthan, a New York-based nonprofit that partners with Lok Kala Sagar Santhan, an Indian NGO run by and for the Merasi, to promote the community’s unique — and increasingly threatened — folk culture.
Under the Hindu caste system, the 15,000 Merasi in Jaisalmer District, Rajasthan, are members of the lowest strata within the untouchable caste, “the lowest of the low,” according to Whelan. In Rajasthan, one of India’s most conservative states, this means that they have little access to education, political representation, and steady employment.
These problems are compounded by India’s rapid modernization, which is stripping the Merasi of their sole means of income and social value: music. “They are the gatekeepers of a 37-generation musical legacy,” says Whelan, with traditions that describe “local folk history and the genealogy of the region.” As modern capitalism replaces traditional forms of exchange, the Merasi can no longer support themselves through their music. Children go to work instead of learning the musical traditions of their elders, Whelan says; as a result, those traditions are “on the brink of eradication.”
In 2006, Whelan traveled to Jaisalmer with Folk Arts Rajasthan to record Merasi music and create an archive of their folk legacy. But the community indicated that it needs more to preserve their singular cultural identity — its members need the opportunity to improve their lot through education.
“The question was, how do you merge the desire for preservation with the desire for social mobility?” Whelan says. “It’s a balance between immersing the kids in their own legacy and providing them with the necessary academic foundations.”
Back at Brown, Whelan — a one-time aspiring actress — studied up on education and began to design a culturally sensitive academic curriculum for the Merasi. In December 2006, with funding from Folk Arts Rajasthan, she rented a building for classroom space in Jaisalmer District and trained a member of the Merasi community (one of few with a ninth-grade education) as a teacher. The school opened its doors in June.
“Right now, it’s the rough equivalent of a kindergarten,” Whelan says. “Our goal is a completely community-run K-12 institution . . . The community would like it to prepare kids for college.”
Not only was the school the Merasis’ idea, the academic curriculum is based on educational needs they identified, including Hindi and English literacy and health education. “The ultimate objective is to expand the choices available to them, so that they are the decision makers,” Whelan says. Ideally, she says, her own role will become superfluous.
Both the academic and music portions of the school are run and taught by Merasi, with Whelan checking in by phone several times a week. The 18 students attend classes for two hours a day, six days a week, because families cannot afford to lose more than two hours of their labor.
The fundraising campaign, which Whelan conducts from her East Side apartment (donors can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org), will fund two more teachers and the purchase of a school building. And this spring, Whelan will co-manage a tour of five Merasi musicians and one dancer, who will visit Providence in May.
: This Just In
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