Education plays an important role in the formation of an individual. No matter the system, it’s ideally meant to give us the tools to develop ourselves in a determined society. Now, we could argue that in many countries the education system is a failure that doesn’t give people the same opportunities, and I couldn’t agree more. For centuries education has been a medium of segregation, where only a few have been really benefitted by it, being gender one of the most important separations. Despite what we could think, in some cultures the education of women was an important pillar of society. Take India, for instance, where women have been receiving education for over three thousand years. During the Vedic era, Hinduism believed in what they call the Shakti, a feminine divine force that pervaded the universe. Then, women were encouraged to choose a life of education based on the principles of ancient Hinduism.
Following that ancestral traditions, during the early twentieth century Ma Anandamayi, a woman of a poor upbringing, became an important spiritual guide and founded an especial school for girls that has become one of the most important educational systems for women in India. The system consists of a traditional residential school for girls, where they remain secluded until they graduate in early adulthood. Girls from five to twelve (not older) can be accepted into the institution.
The girls start their activities at 4 am. They get ready and have breakfast. Lessons begin at 9 am and end around 4 pm. But what exactly do they learn? Basically, the school prepares them for every single aspect of life, from formal education (elementary school to high school), spiritual training, and domestic activities. Girls learn from ancient Hindu texts (based on the Vedic teachings), English, Sanskrit, grammar, math, economics, history, sociology, and geography, to crafts such as embroidery or knitting, music, arts, and cooking. This educational system intends to prepare girls to womanhood so when they graduate they can choose a profession or be ready to form a traditional family.
The school, of course, has a huge foundation on spirituality and intends to form these girls into the beliefs of Ma Anandamayi, who based her religious life on self-sufficiency and a connection with meditation. The pictures you've been seeing were taken by Indian photographer Paromita Chatterjee, who visited the main ashram (school) in Varanasi, considered the holy city of Hinduism. Every year, thousands of pilgrims visit the city to dive in the holy waters of the river Ganges. The facilities of Ma Anandmayee Kanyapeeth at Varanasi are obviously on the edge of the river, which allows girls to connect with their spirituality on a more physical level.
Naturally, as it happens with these kind of institutions, things aren't as great as it sounds. The system requires a lot of discipline and girls are meant to follow some strict behavioral rules and dress code. All girls have to wear the school uniform, and their hair is kept short during their education process. Once they graduate, they are allowed to wear a white sari, symbolizing that they're ready to face real life. Moreover, getting in is not easy. According to the official website, the requirements for this particular branch are quite tight, since girls "must be of a good upbringing, bright, of a gentle nature and without any physical deformity; no orphans are admitted."
No matter how strict the norms are, as Chatterjee states: "the peacefulness in their faces is actually the reflection of the simplicity of their lives." This is perhaps something we should meditate about, how sometimes children are put through so much stress that they end up missing a peaceful and serene life that could have helped them enjoy their childhood way much better. These photographs show another way of life nobody really speaks about. However, as Paromita Chatterjee explains, photography is her way of exposing the world around her and her camera, the weapon that helps her make a contribution to society.
Paromita Chatterjee is a documentary photographer that explores the world and captures her impressions through her photographs. Following war photographer James Nachtwey's motto "I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony," she makes her images the evidence of determined realities that are not often exposed to the world. If you want to become another witness of her artistic journey, take a look at her Instagram account and Facebook profile.
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