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  • Writer's pictureYak Pack Theatre Project

The Yak Pack News #7 – Pin Valley schools

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

Today at Sagnam Village school we’ll be running our first project workshop in Spiti. The school will choose 20 children to spend an hour with us in the morning, learning parts in the show and making flower props from recycled rubbish which Ben picked up from the roadside around our homestay (thoroughly washed of course). We’ve got a bagful of brightly coloured and useful bits and bobs from home too – ribbons, string, wire, pipe-cleaners, good scissors.

[Photo - Sagnam Village is on the righthand side, our homestay up on the hillside above]

The school was very welcoming and the principal directed us to a small upstairs rooms usually used for exams. There’s some very suspect floorboards and a hole looking down into the room below, so we’ll be careful where the dancing part of the workshop takes place. We set up 2 areas of tables and chairs for crafts, and the rest of the room was cleared for the drama. 10 students will do the dance and drama, and 10 the crafts, then they’ll swap over. They started arriving, all aged 14-17, they are excited to be with us, and we’re using the time to chat with them in English, an informal way for them to practice their language skills. The girls were very interested to learn that Izzy is also 14.

[Photo - workshops in Sagnam]

As they came in and sat down, like teenagers everywhere, they divided themselves into separate huddles of 6 boys and 14 girls. For the prop making, Ollie sat at one table with the boys and Izzy with the girls. They loved this, the boys really settled into the craft making, obviously enjoying themselves and chatting with Ollie. The girls really enjoyed being with Izzy too, learning each others names and getting to know each other. On the other side of the room, the group learning the dance and drama were having a blast with Penny, Arjuna and Ben, picking up the moves really fast. The floorboards held.

At lunchtime, the girls invited Izzy to go with them and see their village. I really can’t imagine anywhere else in India I’d be comfortable for my 14 year old daughter to go off for a couple of hours with people she’d just met, with no idea where she was going and no way to stay in touch. Here in Spiti, it feels natural and comfortable and wonderful. She re-appeared a couple of hours later after roaming round the village with a bunch of new friends, popping into to one of their houses to eat curd and sugar, and getting told off for raiding peas from someones field for snacks. She’s had a blast and wants to stay in Sagnam.

It was a long lunchtime, and whilst we waited for dahl and rice to be cooked, younger children started to arrive from the primary school. Ben and Ollie found a game of cricket to join in with, alongside a tiny boy who was the most outstanding bowler. Arjuna played with another group, sharing handstands and break-dancing skills. The child prodigy cricketer joined them, showing off his ability to do splits. It got competitive and before long everyone was showing off their ‘thing’ from somersaults to being able to bend your fingers back. In a world of old school playground games, Penny played hopscotch with a group of little girls. I watched some tiny girls playing jacks with little round pebbles. Everywhere children snacked on peas eaten direct from the pods. Pea pods were everywhere – humans have been able to discard their ‘rubbish’ like this forever – no wonder it’s a problem when we change the packaging from pea pod to plastic. Not here in Sagnam though, happily.

We sat in the staff room for lunch, little children popping their heads in, and some tinies asleep on laps. Dahl and rice was cooked on the stove in the middle of the room, which we ate with the staff, along with a big pot of chai. What a contrast to UK school staffrooms where in Bens experience as a visiting actor, drinking tea in the staffroom is often a delicate negotiation with jars of individually labelled teabags.

After lunch we set up the stage in a gap between two buildings. The children will sit opposite in a wide walkway. Its getting more and more windy, gusty too, so we made the most of a pile of bricks to weigh down the trees. We’ve brought some stage weights with us, which have Velcro straps to attach to the trees, and when filled with bricks feel reassuring heavy. Will it be enough?

The audience of around 120 students and teachers settled, our 20 co-actors positioned eagerly in the front row with their flowers at the ready, and we were off! The wind grew throughout the show adding a level of jeopardy as the tree legs skittered about on the gravel, lifting away from the bricks, and Lou snuck on and off stage, retying them and adding more bricks. Near the end the central tree fell, but luckily it wasn’t really needed by then, so Ollie chucked all the bricks to the back of the stage and the show went on. The audience were great and we felt a real connection with everyone having spent the whole day at school. The students who shared the workshop with us were absolutely brilliant. They remembered all the parts with the flowers, and got up to dance with us, teaching their fellow students the moves and emboldening everyone to get up on the feet and dance with us in the final scene. There was a wonderful joyous atmosphere to the performance, and afterwards everyone gathered for photos and swapped Instagram info. Izzy was curious when and how they’ll access Instagram to message her when the whole Pin Valley is off any network, but I guess she’ll find out.

Everyone was buzzing after the show – a long day but so rewarding for all of us – students, teachers, Yak Packers – a day no-one will forget for a long time, and the essence of what this Project is all about.

And Manoj came to see the show, so he’s on board with the Yak Pack message too now!

The next day we packed our bags, bid Soni and Karma a fond farewell, and headed down the road to Gulling Village - Penny and Arjuna on Kakus bike.

The headteacher told us that the government school here in Guilling is the second biggest in Spiti – only Kaza government school is bigger. Despite that, the school itself is much smaller than in Sagnam, a cluster of 5 very simple buildings around a dusty playground. Gulling is built on a steep hillside, the houses terraced one above the other, so there’s little space to expand the school.

We joined staff for tea before we started getting set up. The headteacher enjoyed chatting to Ollie about English Literature, and proudly told us about the excellent exam results their school enjoys. The maths and science teacher was much more up to date than us about the craziness going on in Westminster – but then we have no internet in the Pin Valley and it’s a lovely break from the real world! Judging by the trophies on the wall, kids here are brilliant at volleyball and kabaddi (Ben describes kabaddi as a mixture of ‘it’ and wrestling! Sounds fun).

Its still windy today but luckily the main school building provides us with a relatively sheltered wall to perform in front of.

We collected discarded bottles for the art workshop from the roadside where we parked in Gulling, and washed them in the stream running alongside. The room available for the workshops is tiny, so we held the dance and drama part outside. Despite it being lesson time, there’s a lot more than the 10 students we expected leaping around the playground to ‘Asejere’! The more the merrier!

The arts workshop was a fairly quiet but intense affair! The students seemed less confident to chat with us than yesterday, but clearly enjoyed the art activity.

We ate dahl and rice for lunch in the headteachers office, which is also the dining room, meeting room and the staff room.

The performance went really well, with about 100 children, teachers, and a bunch of old ladies who walked by and decided to join us! Because so many children had learned the dance in the morning, the final scene was exuberant and more than half the audience was up dancing. Great fun.

[Photo - Gulling School]

We left Pin Valley with a tinge of sadness. Its felt like being in a bubble away from the real world, with no internet, and absolutely wonderful rewarding school visits. Izzy is especially sad to leave her new Sagnam friends, but they all swapped contact details so hopefully they’ll stay in touch.

We reached the point where the Pin river joins the Spiti river, with the ancient Dhankar monastery perched on the sandstone cliffs above, our stop for the night before heading further down the valley to Tabo.

[Photo taken from Dhankar monastery - where the Pin river (left) joins the Spiti river (right)]

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