Sunday, May 5, 2013

Biodiversity goes Bollywood

For your information, "biodiversity" in Hindi is jaiv vividhataa. And... don't ask me to say that again. It's somewhat nerve-racking to pronounce it in front of a class of kids.

So how did I avoid saying "biodiversity" while teaching about biodiversity in class yesterday?

Easy. I used Bollywood.

[Cue the dancing pink flamingos.]

But seriously... I've been helping at Asha Deep School here in India for the past couple months and I finally got to teach the kids about the environment... in Hindi.

Sadly, there is a dearth of resources in Hindi about the environment. This is why projects such as Dhara are so important. Resources appropriate for kids are even more difficult to find. The Government of India does make a good effort through the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) and programs like Paryavaran Mitra, however kids' resources need constant updating. As young people become more and more fast-paced, even the slum kids that go to our school need things to be new and exciting.

This is why I was amazed when I found two recent animation projects that put a Bollywood twist on biodiversity.

The first is a Bollywood-inspired song released this year by none other than TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute). I love the creativity of this Hindi song, but I also love the fact that the video isn't simplistically promoting the end of urban development but that we need to work out how animals and humans can live together in an urban environment.

When I showed this video to the kids, they also loved it. They were glued to the screen and laughed the whole way through. They were also sad to see the animals so sad and sick. (You will be too when you see the monkey's sad disappearing face... if you have a soul.) Watch it. It has subtitles.

At the end of the video, we had a discussion. I asked the kids why it is important to plant trees in the city. They right away gave the stock answer of trees being a supply of oxygen. This is true, but trees are also the habitat of many animals. Who lives in trees? Birds. Who else? Monkeys. And? Squirrels. And? Insects? Yes! So many animals live in trees. Planting many trees are a way humans and animals can live together.

The previous evening, we had a special movie night where we watched the Bollywood animated film, "Delhi Safari." This came out last year and features voices from famous Bollywood actors like Govinda, Akshaye Khanna, Urmila Matondkar, Suniel Shetty and Boman Irani. It takes some animation tips from Disney, however its heart is Bollywood... but with animals.

Sadly it seemed not to do well at the box office, but it was a hit with our kids. The message was a little simplistic, but what does get across is that it's not right to wantonly destroy animals and the forest--their home. For kids who have grown up in a slum next to one of the most polluted rivers in the world, getting them to see beyond the concrete and pollution is a huge step in the right direction toward a more sustainable (and healthier) future.

As I've stated before, for me saving any species is not only about saving the environment but about also about saving ourselves.

The last activity we did was one I stole from CEE called "Web of Life." Each child got a label: Sun, water, tree, fish, monkey, insect, bird, fruit, crocodile, etc. I had them stand in a circle and showed them a spool of green thread, saying, "This is your shakti, your energy." I asked the child with the "sun" label who she wanted to give her shakti to. She said that she wanted to give it to the tree, of course. With the thread, I connected the sun to the tree. Like this we connected all the elements and animals to make a web.

On the web I put a bottle, which represented humanity, saying, "This is humanity. We depend on this web to survive. But what happens when the water becomes polluted?" I pulled the child with the label "water" out of the circle, and she let go of the string. The web weakened. "If the water is polluted, then the fish will die." Then I pulled out the child with the "fish" label, and he let go of the string. One by one the web weakened until "humanity" fell.

Like pulling the chair out from underneath us, we put ourselves in this precarious situation.

In the end, I asked the kids what they learned. They shouted, "Janwar hamare dost hain! Animals are our friends!"

And I think if we really understood this friendship, we'd do a lot more to keep it alive.

[Cue the "Delhi Safari" English version.]
Yes, apparently they made a full English version with Jason Alexander, Vanessa Williams and Christopher Lloyd.