Saturday, February 2, 2019

A Story of Transformation in Sukma, Chhattisgarh

After successfully completing two workshops of Anubhuti, one in Dehradun with the kids who come from extremely impoverished backgrounds and are mostly rag pickers, beggers, addicts, runaways and orphans and another one in Assam with the kids of Tea Garden Tribe, I was so excited and looking forward to experience this wonderful journey of Anubhuti in Sukma, Chhattisgarh. Sukma, a place of which I have heard or have seen mostly in news channels for its Naxalite Movement.

I took a flight from Delhi to Raipur and then an overnight bus from Raipur to Sukma. At the bus stand, I randomly started talking to a woman and asked her about Sukma and its naxalite affects there as I was curious to get to know about it from the local people. The moment I asked her, she started crying and said, "अब मैं ज्यादा क्या बताऊँ इस बारे में, घर में घुसकर हमारे घर के ही दो आदमियों  को मार डाला था उन आतंकवादियों ने।" 'आतंकवादी' (Terrorist), this is what local people calls naxalites. Fear started generating in my mind after listening to this. In the mid night, bus conductor came and told us to put the curtains on the windows as we were passing from a sensitive area. All these things were increasing my fear but at the same time, I was feeling little adventurous too from inside and was expecting some naxalite movement before I reach Sukma. But nothing happened and I safely reached Sukma in the morning. 😛

After reaching Sukma, my mind was completely shifted on work and I was eager to meet my girls who were the very first generation to receive a formal education and are mostly taught to just sit and follow the discipline in the school. It was a place where it was usual for children to witness violence whether it's within their family or community, or between naxalite and police authorities. I was going to spend next 30 days with these girls and as I had just completed two workshops with a great success, I was extremely cheered up and confident to share my skills with Sukma Girls too. 😍

Next morning, I reached Balatikra, a small village in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh, a zone highly affected by naxalite. It was a Residential (Porta Cabin) Govt. Girls School with around 600 students. As soon as I got down from auto, I observe that there were some girls who were filling up their buckets, some of them were standing in a queue of an inside shop of school, some were roaming here and there, some were taking bath in an open space, and most of them were looking at me with curiosity. I looked at them too and gave them a big smile but they did not respond . I asked a girl her name who were standing near a small tree, first she tried to hide herself behind the tree but when I again asked her name then she ran away from there. I just smiled and thought they must be feeling shy as I was a new face for them.

In the afternoon, I had a meeting with the girls where I had to select 40 girls out of 150 girls. I personally feel that anybody can learn dance, unless he/she has a desire to learn and is ready to make necessary efforts towards it. And to check this I had to talk to them. But even after trying my best by cracking many jokes just to make them comfortable, the children weren't responding me or talking to me. The only words that they knew to give a response was either a 'yes' or a 'no'. On the basis of what they spoke a little bit, I selected 40 girls.

At night, I had doubts in my mind like would it be possible to make a change in these children's lives through a traditional Classical Art Form like Kathak. Kathak, a dance form that is mostly accessed by Metro and tier 1 or 2 cities, would it work for these kids who do not talk to any unfamiliar person, they hesitate even to listen to that person, even if one cracks a joke the kids will not respond or they would not know how they can possibly respond. I had worked with many NGOs in different parts of the country in the past but these children had just shaken up my confidence to make a change.

I accepted the whole scenario as a challenge for myself and started the workshop. Day 1 started with only 30% kids showing up on time, getting no response from them on trying to break the ice, showing no interest in what I had to say, with almost no motivation to learn, the first session ended with girls (who are 13-15 years of age) wondering about 'Yoga' or 'Meditation' or 'Kathak' terms that they heard of for the very first time in their lives. I thought that just now something new has started here, girls will may take some time to get adjusted, it is okay, keep working with patience.

BUT even after 10 days kids did not start responding or talking to me while generally it takes only a few days for me to build friendly relationship with kids. Kids continued not coming to the class on time, not showing much interest, not asking any questions or practising on their own which is required as a part of the workshop. I tried showing them videos related to Kathak to build their curiosity, it has worked wonder in the past with kids that I have worked with, but here even this did not seem to be helping much. My confidence was shattered and I thought of discontinuing the workshop.

The challenges were endless. On one side where it was getting really difficult for me to work with the kids; on the other I was facing challenges with respect to adapting to the local environment where there is water scarcity, contaminated water with no purification facility, food quality being below par and no markets around to buy packaged products. I was finding difficulty to give proper nutrition to myself, thus compromising with my physical health that in turn was making it difficult for my mind to be a peace.

As I spent more time reflecting and meditating myself in silence, I gained a little courage and confidence to stand back. And then my whole focus shifted to be able to make kids interact with me about themselves without any hesitation or fear.

The journey re-began with more patience and love in the heart, I started sharing more and more about my experiences even if kids don't respond, I continued sharing about my personal journey with a hope that the kids shall open up to me one day. The same trend went on for many days until one day a girl name Santoshi finally shared about what she was thinking during a particular meditation session, "Didi, I was thinking about going to my native place." And another spoke, "Didi, I was thinking when my mother will come to see me, she will bring biscuits." The silver lining was there finally.

During the process, I noticed that the kids feel inferior about their tribal language 'Gondi', So I insisted them to teach the same to me so as to make them comfortable with their local culture and language. Upon getting no response in the beginning, I started telling them about the Assamese language that I had learnt in another 'Anubhuti' workshop in Assam, kids enjoyed learning a new language. Gradually, the kids also started finding comfort in teaching me the basics of Gondi language in an informal way. Then it all reached to a level where during the Kathak practice, whenever it was needed to count some dance steps, they would do that counting in their 'Gondi' language. The purpose was simple to make them feel connected and respect their roots even if they were receiving a formal school education.

As I began spending more time casually with kids even after the workshop hours, sharing about my dreams and my life in Delhi, involving kids consciously to help me in my work so that they find comfort in my company and trying to make them speak by asking many things about their lives. Initially they could not believe that I was interested in knowing about their lives. They were even scared to touch me, as they thought they might pollute me, they were made to believe that black skin people are inferior and they can't achieve anything in their lives, and its only white skin people who can do something worthwhile. I then started deliberately asking them to help me correct me wearing of dupatta, bindi etc. as I didn't have a mirror in the room, I asked for help in things in which they will have to necessarily come close to me.

The time kept passing and then came a moment when I was helping kids doing makeup for a school programme and other kids were serving biscuits in my mouth. :) That was a big change I noticed nearly by the end of third week.

Then one day, four kids entered at 5:30am in my room (while getting ready for a class at 6am) and asked, "Good morning didi, wake up, we have come to take the Ghunghroos, where have you kept them?" I was totally surprised by their gesture. As I went to the class, I saw all kids being present on time. Since that day onwards the kids were my alarm and helped me carry ghunghroos to the classroom. The efforts were paying results. What was more difficult to believe was that when one day, I got up late and as I was rushing to the class, I saw kids practicing Yoga themselves, upon asking, kids told that they have also done meditation on their own. I could not believe that they were the same kids whom I met around 20 days back, they had even started practicing Kathak themselves by the time I entered the room. I was so overwhelmed.

In the coming days as the workshop was approaching its last week, I literally witnessed the power of love and persistence more closely. Kids started coming to the class self motivated, they also started practicing on their own in their free time after school the result of which was reflected in the class next day. It was so relieving for me to hear them asking questions finally. Smita, a 13 year old, interrupted me during one of the sessions and asked me to repeat 'maheshwara step' that I said previously. I felt full of happy emotions when this happened. It looks small from the outside, but for me this was a big shift I was witnessing within these kids. Later on some of the kids showed interest in leading the sessions and soon after they started conducting session on their own and I was just simply observing and encouraging them.

The time flew and the last day of the workshop came, a day when all kids have to perform and share with others about their experiences during the process of the workshop. They had their 600 school peers, their school principal and teachers, a regional political leader and 'Shiksharth' (an NGO, with whom 'Anubhuti' was collaborated) team members in front of them with all eyes on the stage waiting curiously for them to come. All the 40 kids who participated in the workshop not only performed Kathak Dance while showing beautiful synchronisations amongst them with confidence, but also anchored a few parts of the presentation speaking in front of all the audience.

It was not all perfect and the impact was not measured in numbers but that was not needed, they had won my heart or rather I feel I could make some space in their heart. It took me 3 weeks to win their confidence and love but somewhere the innocence and the love from the kids was my primary force for me to be able to sustain here and successfully complete this milestone of ANUBHUTI. I feel, now, I can finally look into my eyes and believe that I have done something meaningful and have contributed a bit in the lives of these kids.💗

# On the concluding day of the workshop, Shiksharth team members shared their experience in this way :

"Today was the most magical day. In Balatikra, Annu's children performed exceptionally. When the sound of Ghunghroos surrounded the hall, applauses naturally followed. Annu's performance, as a gift from her to the children, was magnetic. The Adhikshika, Principal and Political Leaders were overwhelmed that in a span of just a month children can perform so phenomenally and can speak confidently about the experience of learning Kathak. They appreciated Annu's work and repeatedly thanked Shiksharth many times. The children looked so happy and yet I could see the brimming dream in their eyes to do and be good in life. Perhaps it is my most happiest day with my team today. I don't know how can we thank Annu for being such a magic to children and Shiksharth. I hope we keep doing things like this in future for the children of Sukma."
- Neeraj Naidu, Co-founder, Shiksharth

"Indeed an exquisite and an elegant performance by the children. It got intensified and vivified when one of the student and performer affirmed with all the confidence that she would teach her siblings, friends and everyone else. Now that is what I consider as learning! A good event to experience. Cheers!"
- Pavan Deshmukh, Program Manager, Shiksharth

"Indeed! It was Miracle witnessed. It is a clear demonstration of Dedication and Passion by Annu Ji. The smiles on the faces of children while performing today shows the depth and nature of Art they have experienced and found over the last month. Salute! Today's event should inspire one and all to pursue what they believe in!"
- Rajvinit Gumber, Program Team Member, Shiksharth

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