Pay it forward

In search of Sita

Pay it forward2

I am a reader, collector, follower on anything about Ramayana. I have been fascinated about the epic and its characters since childhood. My personal favourites among all the movers and shakers of Ramayana is Hanuman. But Sita’s character always fascinated me. The Indian society has always wanted their daughters to be like Sita. What makes her so special in comparison to other women like Draupadi or Radha? But is she really the demure husband worshipping girl that she is normally portrayed to be?

“In Search of Sita” is a collection of essays, conversations, folk songs centred around Sita. The contributors include Lord Meghnad Desai, Ranga Rao, Namita Gokhale, Sonal Mansingh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Madhu Kishwar and others.

I particularly loved the translations of folk songs from Telugu by Ranga Rao. In earlier times, Telugu women from the same neighbourhood would gather around and would sing folk songs about Sita. These songs were laden with sadness and melancholy. But it was not just Sita’s story, it was theirs too; their travails, lack of love, absence of freedom and being trapped in a household dominated by men.

I decided to gift this book. Same script like before; write a note and leave it at cafe for a stranger to pick it up. Amethyst in Chennai is an oasis. One of my all time favourite cafes in the whole country. I have so many fond memories of my meetings with fabulous people at this cafe.

So stranger, even if you are not a Ramayana fan you will love it!

Pay it forward



“I used to work in an investment bank in Australia. But I was unhappy. Everything around me was superficial, fake and unsustainable. I was always drawn to Central America, I had volunteered briefly in Guatemala. Every time I brought up this topic of quitting the bank and moving to Central America my family got anxious and upset. I was getting increasingly sick and was hospitalised more than five times in a matter of months. I had a feeling that this was a sign, that I needed to take the decision. I had to bite the bullet.”

I met Corina this week at a workshop organised by UNESCO in Rajasthan.

“So, I took the next flight to California, bought a car and drove down south. I drove all across Mexico, escaped corrupt policemen, thugs but persisted. No plans just plain guts. I reached Guatemala. I felt lonely, slightly anxious. I kept my resolve and drove. I reached Antiqua and as luck would have it, my car ran out of fuel and there was no gas stations anywhere close. It was dark. I was afraid. I was worried. I saw a man with a drum and a dog. He looked familiar. I had met him during my volunteering days. Was it him? Or someone else. He lowered his head, took a few seconds and said, ‘Corina, what the hell are you doing here?”

“Tears welled up in my eyes instantly. I was so happy seeing a familiar face. I felt this was a sign.”

“It was January 2009 and I knew this was it. This is where I begin my journey.”

Corina founded SERES an NGO in Guatemala to help youth become community leaders and change agents. Her organisation recently won the prestigious UNESCO Japan prize for outstanding projects related to Education for Sustainable Development.

I was moved by her journey and as a token of appreciation I gifted her the book “Countdown” by one of my favourte authors, Amitav Ghosh.

I am reminded of this quote by Amitav Ghosh from his book “River of smoke,”

“… an instance when Fate had conspired with Nature to give them a sign that theirs was no ordinary journey.”

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

Pay it forward

Nine Lives

Pay it forward

This week, while waiting to meet a friend, I ventured into a small bookshop at the Defence colony market in Delhi. As soon as I entered, a bright red book fell on the floor right next to me. It was “Nine Lives” by William Darlymple. The book sensitively profiles the lives of nine mystics from different parts of the country. The story of a Jain nun who undertakes “Sallekhana,” a Jain practice of undertaking voluntary death at the end of one’s life, had made a big impression on me.

I bought this copy and decided to gift it to someone. Why not a stranger? Maybe.

So the impulsive idea was quickly put into action when I returned to Chennai. The plan was to write a brief note inside the book, gift wrap it and leave it silently at a café, so that someone would pick it up. After writing a brief note, to my utter surprise, I found that the book had been autographed by the author William Darlymple himself.

Earlier this evening, I dropped into one of my favourite cafes in Chennai, Ashvita Nirvana in Besant Nagar and left the book on a table, informed the staff about my idea and silently walked out.

I hope that the person, who picks up this book, reads it and feels inspired, like I do.

I am praying that this book continues its magical streak in the life of one more person. ‪#‎PayItForward‬


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

Study tour

I am planning to go on a study tour on arts education across India. I would like to meet artists, musicians, dancers, actors, craftsmen, and schools with experience in teaching their art forms to children. While I prepare my schedule, which I foresee would be short travels through the year, can you suggest names of people/institutions that I should meet? Also looking for fellow travellers who would like to join me on this pilgrimage. Hit me if any one is interested.

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.

In medias res

Hope and Faith

“Sir, I did this painting, do you like it?”

Balaji came in unannounced into my room and laid out his painting book before me. It was a splash of colours and strokes imaginatively portraying the future.

He was 13 when he joined our ‘Achieve through Arts’ programme. He used to stay then at the government home for boys at Royapuram in Chennai. His mother, the lone breadwinner of the family had admitted him at the shelter, so that he could stay away from his alcoholic and abusive father and continue his school education.

He has been part of all our ‘Achieve through Arts’ programmes. Our activities  places the child at its centre and empowers teachers to  kindle their natural curiosity, question beliefs, express themselves creatively, succeed, fail and learn from it .


Our core initiatives include Kanavupattarai, a ‘workshop of dreams’ in Tamil, Kanavu Pattarai is an inspiring three day residential camp inside the beautiful Dakshninachitra campus, organized for children between the ages of 14-17 who suffer from low self worth, disruptive behaviour and truancy issues. Here, children are trained in in role-play, improvisation, creative games, storytelling and dance. The aim of the workshop is to reduce fear improve self-esteem and a sense of belonging among children.  475 children have benefitted from these camps last year alone.

Another initiative is the Structured Arts Education wherein teachers from over 163 government schools in Tamil Nadu engage their children from standards 1 to 8 in our thematic arts curriculum through 25 sessions spread over their academic year. Through a combination of visual arts, storytelling, music and drama, children have also improved their reading and writing skills.

Then there are Art Labs that train talented children from urban slums in fine art, craft, dance, drama and music. Set up inside government schools, colleges and museums experienced artists, musicians and dancers train the children through a structured curriculum. There are 4 such centres in Chennai with 6 to follow.

Balaji is a versatile actor and an artist. He played the lead actor in our play “Patti Vadai Kakka Nari” which had 63 children from the various shelter homes run by the government across Tamil Nadu. ‘The Hindu’ hailed the play ‘fabulous and folksy’ and has been staged 10 times in Chennai.

He moved back home from the Government Home in Royapuram, Chennai when his mother fell sick. He would start his day by distributing newspaper, cooking food, going to school and later doing other odd jobs. He would attend our workshops regularly.

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NalandaWay’s art classes are fun, inquiry oriented and full of excitement and expression. Our camps are also places where children learn about themselves, how to express themselves, think deeply about ideas, issues, come up with innovative solutions to problems, understand aesthetics and beauty.

“I laughed so much in the camp when I thought I had forgotten to smile!” said a child who had participated in one of our workshops.

Inspite of being a serious discipline, colours, activities like clay modeling, junk art, print making, painting, the visual arts provide children with creative tools for expression. Likewise, performing arts, dance, theatre and movement, allow children to express freely with their bodies, voices and expressions. With these skills, children find a new understanding of themselves and the world they inhabit.


Balaji completed his school board examination with distinction, but continued working to support his mother, younger brother and abusive father. I still remember the joy and sense of achievement in his expressive face, when he was selected for B Sc Visual Communications course at the Madras Christian College.

“Good job da,” I said and looked at him standing near the door in my office. He seemed uneasy and quite fidgety for a confident person. He came regularly to my office every day after his morning job and before he left for college.

There were noticeable bruises on his chin and arms. One side of the face looked swollen than usual.

“What happened? Did you have a fall?” I asked.

He avoided my question and rambled about something disconnected. After some persuasion he became silent.

“My father bit me barbarously last night because I would not give him money for alcohol,” he replied and showed the bite marks all over his right arm. He had also hurt himself on his face while trying to escape his hold.

“But don’t worry sir. This is not the first time. I am rock solid,” he said and smiled confidently.

Our children might have come from the most exploitative situations but their self-confidence that they have improved by participating in our classes have helped them endure all the struggles that have come their way to stay focused and create the lives that they truly aspire.

This article appeared in the “Aalaap” magazine, June 2014 issue. Names of children have been changed.