The religious clashes of Gujarat 2002 claimed more than 1,000 lives and displaced close to 98,000 people. Of these, many continue to live in relief colonies across the State even today. There’s no denying that the aftermath shook the nation, and everyone was seeking answers. An MBA graduate working in IT, Sriram Ayer happened to be in Gujarat for a client meeting merely days after the riots ended and what he witnessed was the turning point of his life. He asked himself few existential questions,
What makes us violent? Are we all humane or pretending to be? Why do we need law or God to police ourselves? Does this mean that the absence of these will lead to more violence?
It led to the founding of Nalandaway Foundation – a Chennai-based non-profit that works with children nationwide, particularly focussing on those that come from vulnerable, exploitative backgrounds, and helps them raise their voices and issues through creative mediums of theatre, visual arts, music, dance, radio and films.
As you read this article, 42,000 children are benefitting from this programme. But over the last decade, Nalandaway has impacted several lakhs of children across the nation, says Sriram.
Finding the root cause
Sriram says, “In in the initial days, we did an interesting exercise with a bunch of children. We took a history lesson which was unanimously voted to be the most boring and converted that into a play. The end-product was beautiful and children were able to retain the entire lesson. The problem is not that children aren’t interested to learn but it is how they are being taught.”
But, as Sriram rightly points out, the larger problem is that
children from disadvantaged situations come with some form of exploitation. They suffer from a huge level of lack of emotional maturity, leading to no self-confidence, dropping out of education which ultimately leads to unemployment. And in the horizon of unemployment, these children will become anti-social elements. We don’t want that.
It has been well-researched and proven that any activity that helps a person use their full body like dance and drama helps them express and heal better. And at Nalandaway, through all our programmes that’s what we aim at – healing and behaviour change.
Expressing and finding solutions through art
Sriram further explains, “Art allows children to make their own assessments, while also teaching them that a problem may have more than one answer. Instead of following specific rules or directions, the child’s brain becomes engaged in the discovery of ‘how’ and ‘why’.”
According to a report by Americans for the Arts, young people who participate regularly in arts (three hours a day and thrice a week) are more likely to be recognised for academic achievement, to participate or to win an award for writing an essay or poem.
Tapping into many such findings, Nalandaway has designed three programmes –
Art in Education – Empowers teachers to expand their children’s creativity and create a joyful learning experience.
Art Labs – Special spaces built within schools that offer specialised courses to children from underprivileged backgrounds who show potential in fine arts, craft, music, dance, drama and photography. Today, there are eight studios in Chennai with exciting plans under-way. Samuel Venkatesan (Sam), a child labourer in Krishangiri, Tamil Nadu, joined the programme and directed several short films on issues affecting children in his village, Soolagiri. His talent caught the attention of a French journalist and he won the ‘Teenager of the Year’ award in a children’s daily in France. Sam later represented India at J-8 summit, Rome for the cause of free education for children. And finally, he completed his BSc in Visual Communications at Loyola College and his passion for filmmaking still continues. Sriram says, “His story just goes to show how a little faith in a child’s talent can work wonders.”
Healing Through Arts – A three-day residential art camp, called ‘Kanavu Patarai’ (meaning ‘Workshops of Dreams’) organised for adolescent children suffering from depression and disruptive behaviour. The camp helps improve their self-worth, enabling them to grow into positive individuals. Citing an example, Upasana, a trainer says, “In a workshop at a primary school run by Chennai Corporation, a girl had lost her grandmother that morning. She was murdered by her own grandfather. She was heartbroken as she was very fond of her grandmother. But the moment she began drawing, she forgot all her sorrows temporarily and was fully engrossed, not worrying what she may have to confront once she’s home.”Sriram says,
Adolescent depression is widespread across all economic strata. Children are becoming adults too soon. Identity mismatch and comparisons are worrying. And there’s a need to curb the emotions that arise of these. Healing Through Arts, we have seen, has the potential to do that.
A total of 63 art camps have been completed and Nalandaway holds four camps every month in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, and Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh.
Sriram recognises that the need for healing camps that go beyond schools. Over the years, Nalandaway has worked in different States, based on the specific needs. For instance, in Bihar, they trained adolescent girls (storytelling, voice editing, interviewing and recording) to discuss health issues in rural areas. The result was a year-long radio programme aired once a week on All India Radio.
More recently, during the Chennai floods, the team worked towards psychological well-being of children, by conducting art-based workshops for over 3,000 children in 10 rescue camps. Sriram explains,
It’s important to engage them positively to get them out of the fear of disaster and displacement. If not done timely, the effect can stay for a long time.
Future – working towards integrating art into mainstream curriculum
In the near future, Nalandaway would be starting nine ‘Art Labs’ – five in Coimbatore and Delhi, two each in Madurai and Chennai. But the larger goal Sriram is working towards is integrating Nalandaway’s proven art curriculum into the mainstream curriculum.
After all, Sriram has a beautiful vision for India’s children:
To bring art to every classroom, especially to the disadvantaged children.