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Rashmi Sawant, Founder of Culture Aangan aims to help rural villages in India continue to be self-sustaining, by sharing their beauty and traditions with tourists.
Interview by Rakhee Ghelani
Every year, millions of people in India migrate to urban areas in search of work and what they hope will be a better life. What they leave behind are beautiful villages and traditions that have been self-sustaining for centuries, but are now dissipating. While visiting the region of Sindhudurg on the Konkan Coast, Rashmi Sawant witnessed the impact of urbanization on the local communities first-hand, and wanted to find a way to negate the detrimental impact on the culture. As a result, Culture Aangan was born.
Culture Aangan is a social enterprise that is dedicated to promoting sustainable rural tourism and supports grassroots development projects that help support the livelihood of rural villages. Here we talk to Rashmi Sawant about what Culture Aangan has achieved and the things have inspired her along the way.
Tell us how Culture Aangan came about.
Rashmi Sawant: I spent a lot of time in a village in Sindhudurg when my children were young, and found myself learning so much about the local culture. What surprised and saddened me was that many of the local traditions were dying, for example the ancient art of puppetry only had one person who continued to perform it and he was ageing. I could see it wouldn’t be long before that art no longer existed.
Talking to the local community, they explained that the challenges of making ends meet were forcing many to seek out work in the cities, even though most would have liked to stay in the villages. I was watching my children playing with the local children one day, and just thought there had to be another way to help these villages, and tourism seemed like a good idea.
There are many bed and breakfasts in India, but I wanted to take that concept a step further and actually bring tourists into the homes and lives of a rural community. I felt that this was the best way for someone to see the real culture, and also give the family an opportunity to share what they know and how they live.
What is the reaction like when people visit a Culture Aangan homestay?
Rashmi Sawant: We have a wide variety of guests, from foreigners to NRIs and Indians, and overall the reactions have been really positive. But for me the most inspiring guests are the children. Some children come as part of a school group and others come with their families, but all of them react like they are experiencing another country. There are no televisions, play-stations or pizza, so initially some children react with fear, as it is so different from the life they know.
Thankfully, it doesn’t take long for them to open their mind and find out that there is so much else to occupy them. From participating in a theatre group to climbing a coconut tree, the children adapt quickly and take away a lot from the experience. I have watched young children sit down with local village children and learn new games from them, and in turn teach them some English. It is such an empowering experience for both of them.
Older children also take away things, but in a very different way. I remember we had one school group of teenagers, who created case studies on how food went from the ground to table. It was fascinating to them, as they had never thought about the process of food production before. For some, it has also made them realize that there were career options available to them that they had not considered before. One boy showed quite a talent for art when working with a local artisan, and he realized that perhaps there was a career for him in product design.
The parents also learn a lot from the experience. I received a letter from an NRI family who stayed for 5 days and were amazed that their children could live that long without watching television and not complain It was a revelation to them, and they felt the experience brought them much closer as a family. They now understood more about what interested their children and how they could enjoy each other’s company without the distraction of television.
How has the increased tourism impacted local communities?
Rashmi Sawant: We can see a lot of positive changes in the community. The culture is now being better preserved. There is even a puppet museum in Sindhudurg now and they hold design workshops, passing down the ancient traditions to a new generation. Line fishermen have also been able to stay in the villages, rather then migrating to the cities, because they now earn money taking people on tours of the backwaters.
There is one couple in their 70s who got a new lease of life because of all the new people they meet. Their only son died in the army, and life for them had been very challenging and isolated. As hosts, they now regularly bring people into their homes and enjoy the social interaction. The experience has enriched their lives. It warms my heart to hear them talk about how much they enjoy hosting visitors and what a difference it has made to their life.
So what is next for Culture Aangan?
Rashmi Sawant: The challenge for us now is to continue to grow and share village life with more people. We have more villages that want to be involved, as they see the benefits to them and appreciate that their culture will remain intact whilst improving their quality of life. This is what drives me to continue, there is so much more of rural India to explore and preserve.
We have added some home-stays in Pali, Rajasthan recently, which is helping farming communities and local artisans there. I am also hoping to include some places closer to cities, so that people can get away for a weekend and return to the city rejuvenated.
For me, if we can continue to preserve the heritage of more village communities in India, then we have achieved our aim. Being able to watch people learn more about themselves and their families is also an added bonus.
*Photo credit: Rashmi Sawant
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