I am extremely proud of my dear friend Madhu, who works for the rehabilitation of refugees who flee Syria. She is based in Jordan in the region that borders Syria. Two aid-workers from her organisation have been brutally murdered by ISIS barbarians in the last one year. News from the region always gives me chills, worried about her safety. She messaged me earlier today that she was doing fine and she may be leaving for Iraq soon. I do not have the courage to do the kind of work she does. More power to you Madhu. Proud of you.
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.
This morning I was at the music release function of the Tamil Film, Kuttram Kadithal – The Punishment. This film had won the National Award for the best Tamil Film recently. The director Bramma, lead actor – Pavel and associate director – Suri were my colleagues at Nalandaway Foundation. Besides the child actor Ajay, two assistant directors Deva and Praveen, now young adults, had undergone NalandaWay’s programme when they were in their teens.
When Bramma told me that Rajnikanth had called him last week, to congratulate him on the award, I jumped with joy.
When Bharathiraja, one of the master directors of Tamil cinema and also a National Awards jury member in his speech today said, “Bramma, you and your team have made a film that I have never had the courage to make,” I was in tears.
I have been a close witness to their dreams and struggles; their moments of hope and despair; their love stories and heart breaks.
Nothing is as sweet as success. Savour the moment. You guys deserve this win.
“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.
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.
An elderly gentleman sat next to me at a restaurant this morning. He was dressed in a spotless white shirt and could have been in his seventies but his face looked tired. He ordered for an ‘onion rava dosa’ and requested the server that instead of sambhar he be given extra cups of chutney. In a matter of few minutes, the plate was emptied and his face shined like his plate which glistened with a fresh coat of ghee polish. He now ordered for a plate of ‘butter murruku’ and ‘pineapple kesari.’ The server’s eyebrows arched like an inverted ‘V’ in surprise on hearing his order. The gentleman did not approve of the server’s reaction and looked at me instantly if I shared the server’s surprise, but I maintained a straight face.
It took a while for his next order to arrive. At this time, he gently tapped his fingers on the table while he sung a slow tune in a low voice.
The dessert, ‘pineapple kesari’ looked tempting with small bits of pineapple and came in a small bowl along with a plate of savoury ‘nei murukku.’
The gentleman dug into the dessert straightaway without wasting a second. Both the server and I waited to see his reaction, who had now become oblivious of his surrounding, completely immersed in the ‘kesari’ experience.
After a moment, his eyes lit-up in ecstasy and all the three of us exchanged our smiles sharing his joy.
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.