‘I feel free here’: how a miracle girls' school was built in India's 'golden city'

the Rani Ratnavanti Girls’ School and Womens’ Cooperative, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan
The Rani Ratnavanti Girls’ School and Women’s Cooperative is built of local hand-cut sandstone. Photograph: Courtesy of Citta
The Rani Ratnavanti Girls’ School and Women’s Cooperative is built of local hand-cut sandstone. Photograph: Courtesy of Citta

A strikingly-designed centre reminiscent of Rajasthan’s famous forts will soon be opening its doors in conservative Jaisalmer

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Last modified on Fri 30 Oct 2020 07.17 GMT

“Don’t even try,” friends told Michael Daube, when he said he wanted to coax women in Jaisalmer to embroider yoga bags to help them earn some income.

For the most part, at least in rural areas, this is Federico García Lorca territory, where marriage for a woman, as a character in the Spanish poet’s play Blood Wedding describes it, is “a man, children, and as for the rest a wall that’s two feet thick”. Rajasthan is one of the most conservative states in India, where ancient customs circumscribe a woman’s freedom and in turn any chance of economic independence.

Daube overcame the yoga bag hurdle when he became friends with villagers in the remote Thar desert region of Jaisalmer, known as the ‘golden city’ because of the yellow sandstone used in its buildings and its fort.

The Rani Ratnavanti Girls’ School and Womens’ Cooperative
The Rani Ratnavanti Girls’ School and Womens’ Cooperative in Jaisalmer. Photograph: Diana Kellog Architects/Citta

So trusted, in fact, that Daube, an artist and founder of nonprofit Citta, which works to develop marginalised communities around the world, is opening a school for 400 girls from poor backgrounds. The school is a product of Daube’s dismay at the state’s lack of progress in women’s education. The latest figures from the National Statistical Office show that Rajasthan has India’s lowest female literacy rate – 57.6%.

Almost half of all girls and women aged over five have never had any formal education, despite several governments trying – through new policies and incentives – to get girls into school.

The Rani Ratnavanti Girls’ School and Womens’ Cooperative
The school, known as the Gyaan Centre, will focus on girls’ education and preserving traditional crafts. Photograph: Courtesy of Citta

“I realised that through an economic avenue, I could entice these communities to send their girls to school. I decided to build a girls’ school and a women’s economic development centre focused on educating girls and preserving the dying handicrafts,” says Daube by email from New York.

If families are prepared to send their girls there, known as the Gyaan (knowledge in Sanskrit) Centre, it is because Daube has understood that it has to be more than a school.

The school will also have craftspeople imparting skills of weaving and printing to pupils’ mothers, elder sisters and aunts, who wish to earn a livelihood. The school will have a “marketplace” where crafts will be displayed for sale to tourists who, before the pandemic, would come to see the sun set on the surrounding sand dunes.

The Rani Ratnavanti Girls’ School and Womens’ Cooperative
Pupils playing in the school courtyard. Photograph: Courtesy of Citta

Daube’s first experience of India was working with Mother Teresa in Kolkata in 1998. Later he realised that within India, Rajasthan performed poorly on women’s education, within Rajasthan, Jaisalmer fared badly, and within Jaisalmer, the villages were hopelessly behind.

Even if girls are enrolled at school, they are often taken out to help with household chores, look after younger children or work in the fields. The remoteness of the villages also makes transport an issue.

The movers and shakers of Jaisalmer society were roped in for the project: the royal family, politicians, hoteliers and business people.

Designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee has used the local “ajrakh”, a form of woodblock printing on textiles, to design the school uniform, with the goal of encouraging the girls to feel pride in their region.

The dream, after much hard work, is assuming material form. Of all his decisions, perhaps Daube’s finest was to ask New York-based architect Diana Kellogg to do a pro bono design for the Gyaan Centre.

A classroom in the Gyaan Centre, Jaisalmer.
A classroom in the Gyaan Centre, Jaisalmer. It will officially open to students on 1 January 2021. Photograph: Courtesy of Citta

Using the striking local sandstone and recreating the curved walls of Rajasthan’s famous forts, Kellogg has created an original and contemporary design, the also reflects tradition and the landscape. The scale is sweeping, from the massive curved terrace to the great winding corridors and walls, topped with lattice work.

For the girls, who are from poor one-room homes where often the only piece of furniture is a charpai or string bed, and for whom schools are usually dilapidated concrete boxes, it brings an immense sense of pride.

Programme manager Chahat Jain says girls visiting the centre walk around in wide-eyed disbelief that they are going to be studying amid so much beauty. “I feel free here,” one little girl told him.

“Parents also feel a sense of security from knowing that mothers or aunts will be in the same complex learning from artisans while the girls’ study,” says Jain.

The first part of the Gyaan Centre was due to open on 24 March but was postponed by the pandemic. The Rajasthan government has just announced that primary schools, closed since March, can reopen on 1 January and Daube will be there for the Gyaan Centre’s big day. “I think the world is finally understanding the issues faced by women and a challenging time like Covid gives people time to ponder on what may or may not be a priority in life,” he says.