Amid the arid desert of Jaisalmer’s Sam region, lies an architectural and academic marvel the Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls’ School. Many a sofa spud may think it is too remote a place for girl students. But Michael Daube, founder and executive director of New York-based NGO CITTA that derives its name from the Sanskrit word ‘chit-tah’ and translates into the mind relating to the heart only sees immense potential in the location. “Compared to my other projects near Mount Kailash, remote Odisha villages and deep in the Mexican jungles, this place is very accessible,” he laughs. The GYAAN centre, which comprises the school, offers the perfect platform to distant and poverty-stricken communities in the Thar region. Their daughters now have an opportunity to realise educational dreams they never thought was possible before. The added advantage is a creative destination for designers, donors and educators.
The school, named after a Bhati royal and suggested by the Raj Mata of Jaisalmer, was originally supposed to open in March 2020. But the pandemic threw a spanner in the works. Daube admits it’s been a challenge to keep the team motivated. “But we’ve been able to develop both our ‘Theory of Change’ and the educational structure we hope to implement. We’ve decided that the SEE (Social, Emotional and Ethical Learning) model is best suited to the students here,” he says, adding, “We’re looking at opening in July and are also developing an alternate village-based study programme in case students are unable to attend school then,” he says.
Daube spent a good 10 years nurturing the project. He was inspired by learning about the people, social structures, the culture and the idea of an all-female cooperative/school in the area. “Though my other projects are for all genders, I felt this environment had the best potential to benefit girls and women,” he says. He partnered with the erstwhile royal family of Jaisalmer—the young Maharaja, Chaitanya Raj Singh, and his mother, the Raj Mata, are both Directors. Finding the land for such a large project was a problem, though. “I spent years trying to find the best land. Eventually, Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, one of our directors and the owner of the Suryagarh Hotel in Jaisalmer, offered land near the dunes. We also plan to establish a Women’s Centre for craft there. The location’s beauty is bound to attract tourists who could buy items made at the Centre,” he explains
But as the programme evolved and became a reality, Daube was apprehensive whether the families would send their girls to the school. He contacted the villagers, government officials and prominent businessmen in the area. “We went from village to village persuading people to send their girls to study. Their response was overwhelming. The villagers saw the school as a gift and were convinced it would empower their daughters,” he smiles.
The school boasts two special stakeholders—architect Diana Kellogg and designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee. The New York-based Kellogg had never worked outside the US. Daube was clear about what he wanted and knew she would deliver. “She knew how to create a comfortable, useable space. The unique Jaisalmer stone and local material called to her design sensibility,” he elaborates.
The building’s design is a feminine statement of guardianship and nourishment from the outside, it resembles a Rajasthani fort to protect the girls, and inside, with its circular walls has the atmosphere of a warm embrace. For the uniform design, Daube was given a list of 10 Indian designers; Mukherjee appeared the perfect fit. “I reached out to him and he was overjoyed. He asked me about the textiles of the region. I mentioned Ajrakh, which I love, and he immediately responded ‘I adore Ajrakh’. School uniforms in general have a formal British feel. We are different. Here the girls are happy to wear fabric they are used to,” says the academic visionary.
The rich crafts tradition of Jaisalmer has not got the attention it deserves, unlike neighbouring Gujarat. With designers such as Mukherjee, Anita Dongre, Indian-born Texan, and a member of the royal family of Indore—Sally Holkar—who is popularising the Maheshwari weave through her Women Weave initiative, driving the project, the school hopes to train women in traditional crafts. Daube’s plans do not end there. Kellogg has agreed to design another school for CITTA in the Himalayas. “Currently, we have three primary schools in the region near Mount Kailash. There are three Tibetan villages there. These remote communities are fighting to keep their traditions alive,” Daube says. No place or idea is ever too far for him.
The building’s design is a statement of guardianship and nourishment. With its circular walls, it emanates a warm embrace.