You just cannot miss the students of Umbichi Haji Higher Secondary School in a parade because they are sure to tower over you on their stilts.
We have watched NCC cadets marching at Independence and Republic Day parades and appreciated the spectacle of their rhythmic movements and discipline. But to watch the NCC cadets of Umbichi Haji Higher Secondary School in Chaliyam near Kozhikode, march one has to crane one's neck, for these cadets march on stilts.
This school has the distinction of being the only school in the State where cadets are trained not only to march on 110 cm-long stilts, but even to play band music, dance and play football on them.
It was in the year 1984 that stilt-training was started in the school for the first time. A military officer from Nagaland, who came to the 29th Kerala battalion at Kozhikode was impressed by the NCC cadets at the school and suggested the idea of stilts which were popular in his State.
K. Balakrishnan, who was the NCC officer in the school then, took the initiative to bring experts from Bengal to train the cadets. Then on, the NCC cadets have been indispensable in any special function in the district. They have taken part in Independence Day and Republic Day parades at the district headquarters as well.
The present NCC officer, P.K. Kunhikkoya, said that the stilt team which started off with 21 students in 1984 now has 40 boys. The cadets' interest in stilts is increasing every year, he added.
“The stilt used here is a wooden stick with a platform to place the feet. The feet are tied to the stilt using cloth. The cadets begin by walking inside the classrooms using the walls and furniture for support.
They gain balance with a week's practise and then move to the play ground. The team practises for days before a performance,” Mr. Kunhikkoya said.
In 1986, Umbichi Haji Higher Secondary School created history once again by starting the first girls' NCC batch in the State. The girls were awed by the sight of boys on stilts and wanted to be on a par with them. Sathi Devi, the first NCC officer of the girls' batch, took it as a challenge to learn to walk on stilts and then to train the cadets.
“It was a challenge. Money was a problem because most students hail from poor families and couldn't afford stilts that cost Rs.400. Then there was the stigma that girls should not engage in such tasks. But my children were more determined than me and we could accomplish the task with élan,” narrates Sathi Devi.
In 2002, 40 girl cadets of the school started walking on stilts. They won accolades wherever they performed, including the valedictory of the Tourism Week in Thiruvananthapuram last year and the Thalassery Carnival, in which they participated under a special request from the Home Minister.
Now, another teacher of the school, C. Beena, has taken over as the in-charge of the girls' NCC, for Sathi Devi is now busy performing the duties of a Headmistress. Ms. Beena however is yet to learn ‘stilt-walking'.