Walking with Rama

Faith Gonsalves

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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.

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Agarbathi boy

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“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 (www.nalandaway.org). 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.

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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 .

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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.

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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.

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‘Payasam’ for the soul

A colleague and I were on our way to a Government school in the northern fringes of Chennai. The neighbourhood was infamous for gangsters and violence. It was 2 pm in the afternoon, but a wine shop at the entrance of the street leading to the school was bustling with business. Sooner we got into the school we were greeted by a thick smell of urine.

Twenty five children from this school had attended our 4 days residential art camp a month earlier and we wanted to meet the kids, teachers and their parents to understand if our camp made any difference. So after an hour of conversations with children and teachers we did feel slightly reassuring that our efforts have not gone in vain.

It was time to meet the parents and only two mothers had turned up. My colleague inquired if they saw any changes in their kids’ behavior. One of the mothers remained silent but nodded along to all the questions while the other lady was talkative and open about her observations. The chatty lady looked prosperous compared to the quiet person.

“Ours is a very poor family,” she finally opened up.

“My husband and son do not work and I sell vegetables on the street to find money. I have never been to a school, but my daughter is very smart and beautiful. I have always the best for my kids, but with the money that I bring home, I can hardly make them rice once a day.”

“But that day she came running to me after the camp. She looked so excited and happy. She announced that she ate payasam, ice cream, biriyani, potato roast, cream biscuits and so much more,” and the lady started crying.

We let her cry. Her tears had more answers than what we wished for.

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Balaji

“Sir, I drew this sketch. Do you like it?”

Balaji came in unannounced into my room and laid out his sketch book before me. It was a three dimensional sketch of a traditional Rajastani pot. It was definitely a good effort for a beginner.

He was 14 or 15 when he joined our arts education programme. He used to stay then at the Government Home for Boys. 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. Besides performing well in school he took active interest in theatre, folk music and performed at our arts festivals.

Balaji moved back home 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 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,” and I looked back at him. He seemed uneasy and quite fidgety. 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 was concerned.

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,” 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 smiled

“Anyways, I need to catch the bus quick, otherwise I will miss her,” winked at me and made a dash to the door.

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