In medias res

Help the kids smile


Aren’t these children’s smiles beautiful? Would you like to help them smile?

At Nalandaway Foundation we have started running small workshops to engage children inside 10 transit shelters across Chennai. We are looking for volunteers who have skills in story telling, teaching, playing games, dance, drama, singing, painting, music.

Sessions are between 10 to 12 and 2 to 4 all days. Please contact Monisha @ 9940350836 or Vidhya @ 9566180985. Kindly pass the word.

Thank you Vedanth Bharadwaj, Manaswini, Jayachandran, Usha (Rhapsody), Shujo (SCARF), Rhoda Alex, Siddharth, Shweta, and Deepika for getting things started.

In medias res

Leadership lessons


NalandaWay completed ten years this year. For those who do  not know what we do; at NalandaWay we use visual and performing arts to make learning fun inside classrooms, improve self esteem of troubled teenagers and teach dance, music, painting, film making, drama to children who exhibit talent. Over 17,000 children from disadvantaged communities learn in our schools every week.

But growth comes with its challenges. Somehow purpose gets pushed to the back and everyday transactions take the driver seat. Jobs become more important than mission.

So how do you create an organization that is a ‘great place to work’ for its employees and at the same time bubbles with evangelical energy.

I asked my friend Seema, a life coach to help us deal with this challenge. She works with organisations and individuals to deal with issues and unlock their potential. As a first step she conducted a workshop last Saturday to everyone at NalandaWay. There were many lessons and questions for everyone but I would like to list what applied to me. Perhaps some may appeal to you too.

  • It is important for the leader to keep coming back to the purpose for which the organization was founded. Is the purpose still valid? Are the activities still aligned to the purpose? Does the community need your services? Or are you running it because you have built an identity around it?
  • As much as it is important to evangelise the big picture it is important to state the reality.
  • Create a plan that allows people to grow.
  • As organizations grow we create systems that basically make it difficult for people to get their job done.
  • There is an urgency to do. Knowing is not good enough.
  • Help others to dream and not just do.
  • Hierarchies are important for getting things done, but people get demotivated if the leader becomes invisible and is not accessible.
  • People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision

These are my initial lessons. Thank you Seema. She will be working with us at regular intervals to help us navigate this journey. I would also like to thank Sathish of Paypal who provided their training facility for us to conduct the workshop.

I am reminded of this quote by Colin Powell,

“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

In medias res

NalandaWay – 10 years

NalandaWay Foundation is ten years old. Yes, you heard it right, 10 years…10 very eventful and fruitful years.

This journey has led us to children from the most exploitative situations in India, to help them using the creative power of arts, to create a life that they truly aspire. The combined efforts of Nalandaway, its mentors, trainers, volunteers and each and every one of you have helped these children become creative, learn life-skills, build self-confidence and succeed in their schools. And, we truly believe it has helped the children be happier!

To celebrate our 10th year anniversary we aspired to do something less self-involved. We recognised the need to thank someone who has been long discriminated for centuries, but continue to provide their services day-in and day-out…the human scavenger.

It took us nearly two months to identify Selvi. She, along with her son, two daughters and a granddaughter lives in Arakkonam, Tamil Nadu. Her husband had passed away many years back and she has single-handedly raised her family facing innumerable hurdles that life hurled her way. To make a living, she cleans open sewage drains, sweeps the roads and washes utensils at homes.

Nalandaway’s children, who have been trained in fine arts, after looking at Selvi’s house decided to paint the walls of her house with beautiful murals. NalandaWay also contributed towards building a toilet and flooring for the house. Needless to say, Selvi’s gentle smile and gratitude filled eyes said it all!

This short film is our attempt to thank Selvi and many more like her for their contribution to keep our cities and homes beautiful.

And, we celebrated our beautiful 10 year journey with Selvi and our children.

Join our celebrations by sharing this video on your Facebook and Twitter pages with the hash-tag #AchieveThroughArts.

Lots of love,

Sriram V Ayer

Walking with Rama

Faith Gonsalves


When I entered “Barsoom” a bar in Hauz Khaz Village, Delhi, Faith Gonsalves was sitting on a chair with her knees pulled to the chest and immersed in her Macbook.

Barsoom is a woody, science fiction inspired and eclectic space which offers wonderful food, cocktails and great music. It was only seven in the evening and the café looked empty.

Faith is the founder of Music Basti, a non-profit that provides structured music education to under-privileged children living in shelter homes in Delhi.

“We want to make a lasting change in the lives of these children through music.”

“We call our programme ‘Re-Sound,’ which introduces the elements of music including appreciation, listening and song writing through a creative and fun methodology, especially focused on voice and group learning.”

The entrance to the bar had a sliding door, which the guests who had started trickling in seldom closed it. This bothered Faith, she reached out her hand and closed it every time without showing her annoyance. She did not give up.

“Spread across 30 lessons over eight months, our trainers use both Hindustani and Western styles. The programme finally ends with a showcase, where kids perform to a wider audience,” she glowed with confidence.

What impressed me the most, unlike other young social entrepreneurs, who normally struggle for structure in their projects during their early years, Music Basti very soon had built a programme that had clear goals and a well defined implementation plan.

“Music is a powerful equaliser. It brings with it a whole host of learning and developmental benefits – whether it’s learning math and rhythm, language and singing or how to work together with other children,” she concluded.

While I shook hands with this beautiful and confident girl, the bar was filling up with a good mix of men, women and techno music.

Sriram Ayer

‘Walking with Rama’ is series of stories from my meetings with artists, musicians, dancers, actors, craftsmen and mavericks across India.

Walking with Rama

The Beginning

Three weeks ago, quite whimsically I decided that I would go on a tour across India to meet  artists, musicians, dancers, actors, craftsmen, and schools who teach arts to children. I am hoping that my meetings with these men, women and children would help me make connections, learn about their work and find ways to use them at NalandaWay.

But I also see this as a pilgrimage, a journey for introspection and search for meanings. The journey which I foresee to be short travels through the year, does not have a goal. Atleast not yet. I am calling this nomadic tour, “walking with Rama.” This Rama has nothing to do with the husband of Sita. It just implies, “walking with myself.” My name is Sriram too, just in case you did not know.

I intend to write about my conversations and my reflections here.

My walk with Rama began in Delhi this weekend where I met some incredible women, men and a dog. Their stories will follow soon.

Be nice, read and do comment.

In medias res


“I would like to write a story about you,” I messaged her.

“But why do you want to write my story? I am one of the kids no?” she replied. I heard her characteristic crackling laughter in my head.

Introducing Akku. She warned me of dire consequences if I revealed her real name. Akku a spunky beautiful girl in her twenties, has been teaching drama to children at NalandaWay’s art lab for the past one month. She invented a language, a mixture of English and gibberish, when she realised that she could not communicate in English or Hindi. Kids in her class adored her and did not want to attend any other classes, “Akku’s classes are ‘fabulochi'” they said. Apparently it meant fabulous.

I had met Akku at a training programme that both of us had attended in Nepal four years ago. Her mother had died giving birth to her and her father died a several years after. When she returned to her work as a writer at a small but niche publishing house in Delhi, it had already been bought over by a large corporate house. Along came lots of rules which she found strange to her bohemian ways. Irritated at the turn of events, she quit her job. To her surprise she found some savings in her bank account and decided that she would travel to different parts of the country and teach drama to disadvantaged children. In the last four years she has worked with children from Pondicherry to Kargil, Andaman to Goa, Orissa to Arunachal. She does not accept any payment for her services. She stays at the house of the hosts or at a friend’s place. She eats only one meal a day but that does not deter her energy or enthusiasm.

She only has four pairs of clothes. “I don’t like other colours,” she said.

“Is there a purpose to your life?” I asked her.

“I don’t have a house to pay rent. I hate over eating. I don’t have any relationships. I don’t want to be famous. So basically all the activities that require money seems boring to me. I don’t want to be tied to a place, a person or anything. I love theatre. I love teaching to children. I love their innocence and laughter,” she replied nonchalantly.

“Every day there is a glorious story. Why create a purpose and spend an entire life time running after it?” she said and smiled.

In medias res

Art for the disabled

One of our field coordinators for NalandaWay’s “Art in Education programme” visited a school on the outskirts of Chennai. Through this initiative we train school teachers in government schools to become creative so that they create happy classrooms. A teacher would typically use story telling, drama techniques, painting and craft activities to make learning stress-free and fun for children. Also, this ensures that these kids who anyway come from very disadvantaged backgrounds do not drop-out.

During her visit, at a classroom for third standard students the teacher was introducing the art session for the day. She noticed that a group of three boys were communicating in a unique sign language to a lean short boy. He was speech and hearing impaired. His friends used an unconventional non-verbal style to communicate every instruction of the teacher. As soon as the instructions ended, this boy enthusiastically began painting imaginatively. The teacher told her that before the arts programme, he would be constantly agitated as he did not understand any subject. He became disruptive, violent and his attendance dropped significantly.

Today he is allowed to draw, paint or craft all through the day. He has become calmer and attends school regularly. The teacher also assured her that they would use this art-based approach for him take interest in other subjects too.

Very satisfying!

In medias res

Not just a child

This Saturday, I and a few social entrepreneurs who were also Ashoka Fellows working in the field of education, were invited to speak to business leaders at Hyderabad. A few participants had also brought their spouses and children along, to listen to our presentations. The evening was well organized and the audience actively participated in the discussions. Among everyone, there was one girl, who could have been 12 or 13 years old, was the most impressive. Her questions were intelligent, honest and reflected her keenness in understanding issues that affected disadvantaged children.

After our presentations, she approached my table during dinner and congratulated me for my presentation. She continued her volley of questions and I tried my best to answer them. I was surprised at her deep sense of empathy in her arguments which even adults don’t possess these days.

While we were discussing and having dinner, she suddenly said, “I have invented the world’s best spread.”

I paused for few minutes wondering what ‘spread’ meant. I hoped this had nothing to do with ‘spread’ a term used in financial securities trading. I had zero knowledge in finance, leave alone stock trading.

I swallowed my pride and asked her to explain.

“It’s a smooth mix of Nutella peanut butter and broken Oreo biscuits; bread spread?” she replied nonchalantly.

“Finally, she is also a child!” I wondered and smiled while she polished an entire bowl of chocolate ice cream.

In medias res

Agarbathi boy


“Sir would you like to buy some Agarbathis?”

Vinod Kumar had walked into my cabin one evening in December in the year 2004. He should have been 8 or 9 years old then. I still remember the way he looked that evening; clean roundish face, well-oiled and combed hair, back pack but no foot wear.

Two years earlier in 2002, the riots in Gujarat had scarred and disillusioned me. This incident left me suddenly rudderless on the direction and the purpose of my life.

Vinod’s father had deserted his family. He went to school during the day while his mother made agarbathis. After school he went to different parts of the city to sell incense sticks, soaps and toiletries. At the age of 9 he was the sole earning member of his family. That meeting with Vinod changed my life completely. Vinod gave a purpose to my life and that was to help disadvantaged children. I quit my job in less than a week and started NalandaWay Foundation ( Today, NalandaWay uses the power of arts to change the lives of over 18,000 children like Vinod.

It took over 6 years to locate Vinod again. We supported his school and college education.

Vinod dropped into my office last week again.

He wanted to tell me that he had landed a job at KCP Cements. I was elated at the news.

After work he still continues to sell agarbathis, perhaps there is need for miracles in the lives of many others.