Over the last decade or so Satya Nagar in Bhubaneswar has morphed from a sleepy residential area to a commercial hub. When you go straight down the road from the brash, new Big Bazar in the area you hit a reasonably sized, unremarkable two storied house numbered 16 that is painted white and looks as boring as any other house on the lane. But you cannot miss a signboard that is essentially a piece of carved and painted wood that says ‘Bakul Sishu Paathaagaara’ (Bakul Children’s Library) in Oriya.

A small gate leads you into a space that looks as unlike a library as you can imagine. Of course there are books all around; but you have pictures of joyous monkeys playing on the walls and every inch of the walls painted cheerfully with one motif or the other in soothing bright colours.

Bakul Children's Libary. Pic: Shivdat Tripathi.

But the physical aspect of the library is perhaps the least unusual thing about it. The Bakul library is one of the largest children’s libraries in the state of Orissa. It houses more than 8,000 books (primarily in Oriya and English, and some in Hindi) as well as multimedia and other educational material. There are no user charges for reading and referencing in the library, and there are no formalities involved in terms of becoming a member till now. Any child can drop in and read. Lending of books has not started, and a small fee might be levied as and when it starts. The library is run by the Bakul Foundation, with Dr Jatindra Nayak, Professor of English Literature, Utkal University as President, and is managed by volunteers Sujit Mahapatra and Satyajit Puhan with help from Puspalata Sethi and others.

A pledge campaign - "Donate Books, Build a Library" - was launched on the Internet by the trio of Satyajit Puhan, Sujit Mahapatra, and Ayushman Sarangi on the Orissa Day, 1 April 2006. Puhan is a young development economist and one of the founders of the Film Society of Bhubaneswar, Mahapatra is a Ph D scholar of English Literature at Delhi University and Sarangi is a computer engineer at Adobe. The campaign site was www.pledgebank.com/bakul-library. The goal was to mobilize a thousand people who would directly contribute (either with cash for a book or directly with a book) to set up a library, initially focusing on children and youth in Bhubaneswar. The deadline to get 1,000 supporters as well as to set up the library was the 1st of April 2007.

By the time the deadline passed, 1011 people had pledged support, and the library managed to start functioning. Around two thirds of those who signed up for the pledge were of Oriya origin, the rest being non-Oriya including some foreigners with significant proportions of both the groups being based out of Orissa.

The goal was not merely to create a library but to tap the energies of volunteers. As Sujit Mahapatra puts it, “most people do not try to initiate change because they know that they can contribute only in small ways and do not see how their small contributions can bring about any change. As a result of which, they do nothing and only ‘crib’ about things. They get cynical that things can never change. We are trying to tell people that change is possible and they can be the agents of that change. By coming together with our small little contributions, we can bring about a change in not only the lives of others, but also in ourselves.”

The inauguration date was marked by a small function and three children including a child from a nearby slum, inaugurated the library. The Bakul pledge campaign has since attracted the attention of scholars. It is being used as a case study in IIM Calcutta and in a Delhi University undergraduate textbook for using the internet for effective social mobilization tool for positive social change.

Volunteerism lies at the heart of Bakul's vision. Interns are increasingly seen as a major component of the organisation's work.

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But the size of the library and the use of the internet for mobilization are not the only things that make the library unique. The entire collection has been built with the voluntary contributions of ordinary people without any funding from corporate or institutional sources. Apart from the help of the numerous individual supporters, drives for book collection for the library at educational institutions like the University of Waterloo, Canada, Duke University, USA, HP, Bangalore, and BITS Pilani have been important. Bakul plans to build an online library system that can help its users to check the availability of books and multimedia material, to place a request and to renew already borrowed books etc.

The library has already met its target of a thousand footfalls, and has partnered with organisations working with disadvantaged children such as Khelaghara (a school for slum children) Anand Ashram (an orphanage), the B B C School for the Differently Able, and the Thakkar Bapa Special Hostel for tribal students. The library is involved in extending its services to as many disadvantaged children in the area as possible. With the help of Ramesh Swain, a prominent local architect, an amphitheatre is being built behind the library so as to facilitate storytelling sessions, theatre workshops etc.

The library plans to promote a good reading culture, especially among the children and youth by promoting activities like storytelling sessions, film screenings educational workshops, creative writing workshops. Many initiatives to such an effect have already been undertaken. On Gandhi Jayanti last year Sarbeswar Das, a noted Gandhian, talked to some tribal children from a local government school on Gandhi and Gandhism. On 14 November 2007 (Children's Day), children from 12 government and private schools from across the city volunteered to convert a public wall opposite the Bakul Children's Library into a children’s art wall by painting it up on the theme of ‘Bhubaneswar- Our City.’

Bakul also participated at the Sishu Prativa Congress organized by UNICEF and the Education Department of the Government of Orissa on the occasion of Children's Day, 2007; it replicated itself at the venue of the Congress for 2 days and there was a parallel Bakul Children's Library at the playground of the Unit IX Boys High School in Bhubaneswar that was housing the Congress. Art charades, theatre and reading session were organised by Bakul for the children. All these activities took place in Oriya. But the most popular event was the Children's Community Storybook where children collectively wrote stories, primarily in Oriya. Over a period of two days, about seventy children ended up writing 14 stories.

On 13 January 2008, 18 children from primarily fifth and sixth standards from four private schools performed an English adaptation by Roald Dahl of the story Snow White and Seven Dwarfs to a packed audience of children from various schools of the city, their parents and theatre enthusiasts in the Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya auditorium, Bhubaneswar. It was the result of a month long theatre workshop conducted by Nicole Suchanek (director of the play and social work student from Germany, an intern at Bakul). Melissa Cornacchia and Melanie Eidecker, both international social work interns working at Orissa coordinated the dance and costumes and props respectively. The children were integrally involved with the planning of the play, and the emphasis was not so much on producing a brilliant show as to facilitate children’s learning and fun. This is only one instance of volunteers, in this case international volunteers, who are expanding the range of the organisation’s activities by their own initiative.

Bakul also plans to give a fillip to the production of children’s literature in Orissa as well as contribute towards scholarship on children’s issues. A public lecture titled "The Impact of Imagery in Picture Books for Young Children" by Professor Ellen Handler Spitz organised on 7 January 2008 at Bakul was a step in that direction. Spitz teaches at the University of Maryland, US, and is an eminent scholar on children’s issues and their imagination.

The story of this lecture is also the story of how Bakul is slowly turning into a node for various kinds of volunteering. Spitz had originally planned a trip to some other city in India for some academic work. She heard about Bakul’s work and offered to come down to Bhubaneswar at her own cost and deliver a lecture in English. It was open to all and was well attended by people from the development sector working in the fields of education and children.

But children are not the only constituency that Bakul is trying to address. It recently hosted a Film Festival on the ‘Great Masters of Contemporary Western Art’ from 20-23 December 2007 that was a relative success with around 50-60 people attending the festival every day with most of the viewers being students of the arts. The festival screened feature films on contemporary western masters such as Anish Kapoor, Allen Jones, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. The focus of the festival was on David Hockney, arguably the greatest living painter in the world with three films on him being screened.

The festival was open to all and was intended to provide exposure to the art students of the state to the work of the greatest artists of the world. This is another example of the culture of volunteerism that Bakul is trying to foster in the state. A promising Oriya artist, Birendra Pani, who was visiting London for work came across the films and thought that Bakul can organize a festival for young art students in the state, and got the movies to Bhubaneswar for screening.

As an example between the proposed synergy between art, culture and development strung together by volunteerism that is a part of the vision of Bakul, more than a dozen promising, young artists are having a show of their work in a major art gallery in Kolkata in the first week of March this year the proceeds from which will go towards strengthening the work of Bakul. The organisation also sees this is as a first step towards building a people’s art gallery and cultural centre that will work towards the democratisation of the ‘high’ arts in the state and beyond.

The principle guiding Bakul’s initiatives is as simple as it can get; neither let funding/funding agencies’ priorities determine work, nor push for what the organization sees itself as a need of the people it wants to work with, but to work as a node, a social space that acts as a catalyst to get people together to volunteer together for the betterment of a greater collectivity. In fact volunteerism lies at the heart of Bakul’s vision; apart from Puspalata none of the people working at the library take a salary from Bakul. Therefore, interns are increasingly seen as a major component of the organisation’s work.

Bakul’s long term plans involve the setting up of a research and documentation centre that will do two things simultaneously; it will try and fill in the gaps in social science research in the state and the region, and act as the node for filling in gaps in undergraduate education in the surrounding area by having extension programmes as well by morphing into an alternative space for higher learning and research. Initial steps have already been taken in this direction. Commitments from various prominent people from the state of Orissa such as Padmashri D P Pattanayak (eminent linguist and educationist) and Dr Kabi Mishra, (eminent cardiologist) have been received regarding the donation of their personal collections. The research and documentation centre will start with a library containing these personal collections, and by forming a researcher’s collective of scholars that have an academic interest in the state and the region.

Simultaneously, Bakul aims to strengthen the children’s library at Satya Nagar so that it can act as the nucleus of a children’s library movement in the state, and as a centre of innovation for practice and research in Oriya Children’s literature.

The name Bakul refers to the grove of bakul trees near Sakhigopal in Puri district in coastal Orissa that was the site of the first alternative school in Orissa set up by the leaders of the nationalist movement. It remains to be seen whether the organisation fulfils the promise that the name evokes; but the beginning looks auspicious.

So the next time you are in Bhubaneswar, please drop in at 16, Satya Nagar to see some robust volunteerism at work; the organisation is new and there are both internal debates and critiques about its direction, but this is one young organisation that needs to be watched.