"I repeatedly say 'shikhhai jatir merudanda' (education is the spine of the nation) through my songs," says kobiyaal, or folk singer, Ganesh Bhattacharya, on his unique way of inspiring students of rural West Bengal, who dropped out of school during the pandemic, to return to classes after their two-year gap.
"Village folk doesn't understand formal languages, but they respond well to rural dialects and folklore. Since they also believe in mythological figures, I use a mythological theme in my songs that's common in kobigaan. Through my poems, I convey how Kalidas was first insulted for not being educated but went on to gain knowledge," adds Bhattacharya, who has spent the last three decades trying to revive kobigaan, which can be traced back to the 17th Century.
The Bengali folk art form of Kobigaan involves performances of songs and verbal duels between poets. It flourished during the 18th and 19th centuries, after which its popularity dwindled.
Bhattacharya now uses its special connection with the rural population to raise awareness about social issues and highlight the importance of education among rural folk, in West Bengal's Bankura district.
The easy-to-follow poem set to a rhythm makes it more appealing to his audiences, he said.
Getting students back a challenge Kushnath Kundu, headmaster of Sree Chandanpur Prathamic Vidyalaya, a pre-primary school in Gangajalghati, Bankura, said, "After the Covid-19 pandemic struck, many students from poor families became reluctant to attend school. A lot of parents also sent their children to work as laborers in nearby towns. And since the government sanction of paray pathshala (mohalla/neighbourhood classes), teachers have been finding it challenging to bring students back to school, as many of them are no longer interested in continuing with their education."
Teachers attended training sessions before schools reopened and even visited parents' homes to persuade them to send their children back to school, however, the response was not satisfactory.
"We then decided to ask Ganesh Bhattacharya to raise awareness and encourage children to attend school once again, through his kobigaan. I believe it's one of the easiest ways to communicate the value of education to rural people," added Kundu.
The devoted kobiyaal was happy to oblige: "I strongly believe my kobigaan will instill the importance of education in students and their parents. So when Kushnath Kundu and other teachers requested me to perform, I agreed to the task without taking a single penny for such a good deed."
Many found this tactic of encouraging students and parents in Gangajalghati quite unique and followed suit.
Biswanath Ghosh, Headmaster of Dangapara Vidyalaya in Bankura, said, "I congratulate Ganesh Bhattacharya and Kushnath Kundu for this initiative. I appreciate the way they presented the whole idea, and I now want kobiyaal Ganesh to perform at my school, too."
"If we make such arrangements frequently, then it will work," Ghosh said. "In my school, there's 100% attendance. But this scenario is not the same at every school."
"The past two years completely distanced children from school and education," the headmaster added. "Online classes are next to impossible as only one or two in 100 students can afford smartphones. Even then, there are connectivity problems. Parents would rather get their daughters married than send them to school. Kobiyaal Ganesh is taking the initiative to also spread awareness against child marriage and various related health issues."
While schools appear to be receptive to this form of interaction, they were unable to share more information on the impact of Bhattacharya's kobigaan initiative. Moreover, the overall sentiment called for the need to improve students' attendance further.