Monday, 17 August 2015

Independence Through Inter-Dependence- The Right To Be And Let Be

Author - Pallavi Ghosh

The moment we speak of independence, the following questions spring up almost naturally- independence from what or whom and for what? As we celebrate the 69th year of our independence as a self-ruled democratic nation, might we introspect on our independence a little? If independence is about self-rule or “swaraj”, then why do we have to celebrate freedom only from an alien rule?

Imagine a day of your life. You freshen up; get dressed; sip your tea; eat breakfast; work and so on. Now, imagine a day when you do not have anything to wear because the weavers have stopped weaving; no food because the farmers have stopped cultivating; the buses have no drivers and the milkman or maid has gone missing. For a single day to run its course, we are related to others- our farmers, vegetable vendors, weavers, doctors, public servants, etc. Therefore an ideal survival plan includes a host of people to co-operate and act freely.  

If survival is one’s basic instinct, it is definitely easier to survive against odds with collective strength and support.

We often tend to think that discrimination only harms the victim. But here are three journeys- each a two minutes detour- that dramatise what it means to be in the shoes of the discriminated. What happens when the tables are turned? How would we feel if we were to be treated on the same biased plane? In short, they say-Yes, Discrimination Hurts! It is injurious to health; not only for others against whom we discriminate against, but also for us- the perpetrators.

Nitin Das, the maker of these movies, is an independent filmmaker who expresses his passion for film making by basing them on various social issues. These short movies have been made under the project-, which is a year-long journey of 100 young entrepreneurs, who have been piloting social change projects in six states- Bihar, Delhi, Jharkhand , Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.

The message in these video clips is a simple one- Stop Discrimination. It is injurious to health!

Let us begin...

From how to live to whom to love and live with; discrimination on the basis of status, caste, sexuality, region, and faith is an everyday reality here. Is a son’s love and respect for a father, brothers, friends and relatives more or less homosexual, thus ‘abnormal’ and ‘unnatural’ than love for another man? Let us watch-

Lastly, we need to remember that there is a dual aspect to independence, i.e., the independence to treat and be treated fairly.  Unless we are free from our biases, we are not independent beings as our choices and relations will remain restricted by our very own prejudices.

Just be open to the whole journey to see where it takes you: Changeloomer Zeba Rizvi

Author: Eva Cunningham, Tate Soller

Zeba always had a keen interest in work in the development field, but even after her studies in Social Work - like many in this area - it remained unclear to her what road she was to take. Exploring her interests further, she discovered that working with children is where her passion lies. Pursuing her passion for creative learning, Zeba co-founded Arpan in 2010 along with Sneha Thakur. The vision tied to this is that of children being able to learn through innovation, curiosity and exploration. To foster this notion, Zeba facilitates children from underprivileged and low socio-economic backgrounds to engage in the arts via a range of classes, including dance, craft, painting, storytelling and theatre.

'Art', she explains, 'allows children to open up and to grow without boundaries. Art places a focus on the child rather than purely on the education angle itself, granting them greater freedom to explore and learn about themselves and others'.  Art, in this context, represents a medium for empowerment and social change. Zeba explained this, drawing on an example of one center, situated in a school for the blind. Despite the array of challenges these children  face, they are able to gain confidence through these different art classes. This confidence is something they can then carry through their lives, empowering them.

We met with Zeba at one of Arpan's three project locations, Rainbow Town. This project is based around the idea of “creative Movement therapy’ which seeks to empower the children through encouraging them to use their imagination. The motto for the project is 'Let's paint the town rainbow', which encapsulates the work and the spirit engendered in the place. Here, the program works with children living in urban slums of New Delhi. This rainbow is personified by the children themselves as well. We watch in admiration as the children colorfully twirl around the room in their unique styles, freely embodying their own definitions of themes like air and water, and responding openly to a diverse range of music, showcasing each of their own talent areas.

But the road to reach here hasn't always been smooth sailing for Zeba. She has encountered barriers posed by organizational and legal aspects. But, as she reflects, this wasn't something that was going to stop her from what she's doing. She hasn't encountered any sizeable challenges in permission for children's participation in her classes either. Most parents, as Zeba explains, simply think 'why not? Its art.', without an understanding of the value and development this provides to their children. But the change in these children's lives and the impact it will have will be something others are able to witness with time. She encapsulates this in her explanation “it lets the child grow”, portraying the arts as a means of transformation.

The Changelooms program has also aided Zeba's progress with this endeavor. In her own opinion, the biggest gain from this program has been the people that she has met. Through meeting fellow change-makers in her community she has not only been able to network, but also gain broader insight into the change that others are enacting, and how they can coordinate such efforts. To other aspiring change-makers hoping to follow a similar trajectory, her words of wisdom are to “Just be open to the whole journey” – to see where it takes you, and others with you.

Her ultimate dream is for children to be appreciated for inherently what they're given. “Let the child grow, respect yourself, respect the other person”, she imparts.

Anything can be changed, you just have to set an example: Changeloomer Sarita Shukla

Author: Eva Cunningham, Tate Soller

After navigating our way through a dark alleyway situated off a bustling street in the heart of Delhi, traversing up several flights of stairs littered with an array of cords and wires sprouting from the walls around, and then proceeding down a dimly lit corridor we arrived at the Pahal Foundation headquarters. Covered wall to wall in bright posters showcasing the progress and triumphs of the transgender women that the organisation work with, and the change- themselves, the office was a colourful breath of fresh air.

Sarita Shukla is a young woman pursuing her dream of working with the transgender community. The name of the organisation she works with, Pahal, means to start something, a beginning. This is exactly what Sarita is enacting. She first realised her aspiration of working with the transgender community when she met a transgender didi for the first time and heard her incredible story. This story of social exclusion and total abandonment struck a chord with Sarita and incited her to use her voice to spread these stories to the wider community.

While working at another NGO, which was aiding sex workers, she found herself questioning the root causes of these endemic problems facing transgender people such as; a lack of education, social exclusion and being cut off from families. This is an unfortunate reality for many transgender people as they have often been alienated from society and face restrictions in the everyday.Through talking to these people, she realised for the first time what it really feels to havedreams completely shattered. Their stigmatisation and consequent social isolation restrict their ability to get jobs and creates an enormous strain on their livelihoods. Through her interest in the transgender community she begun to form close ties with several transgender women. “Why don't you work with us?” they questioned, due to the keen interest and understanding she elicited.

Despite the evident passion exhibited by Sarita, she has encountered numerous challenges along the way. The lack of support given by her father stood as a major barrier for Sarita, who places great importance on familial acceptance and understanding. And later, when her father went out of work she was forced to take a diversion from her dream and to work in order to support her family financially. She felt her dream becoming less and less tangible. But her persistence despite the obstacles thrown in her path only strengthened her resolve to follow the path she had set out to pursue.

This importance of family also flows through her work with transgender women. Her primary project as a Changeloomer is to reconnect transgender people with their families. Many of their families have abandoned them due to their identities as they saw their transgenderism as a form of social humiliation. She is currently works to reconnect 20 transgender women with their families. Sarita counsels both sides and emphasises the importance of accepting “what” someone identifies as. For Sarita, family support is integral as it represents one's roots in society. One's family have a responsibility to continue to support and care for their children right through to adulthood, no matter how they identify themselves. This, process either provides support to the transgender women involved or gives them closure.

Another difficulty, she explained, are the threats she has received from some of the families she has sought to connect with. These threats emanate from certain religious justifications for the families' abandonment of these women. But these have not had an effect on Sarita's work – she powers on and inspires those around her.

Embodying this success is one transgender woman in particular, who Sarita names as the biggest source of pride in her work thus far.  She has come a long way since Sarita first took her under her wing. Beginning life as an orphan, her hardship only increased from there. Her identification as transgender meant she was ostracised from society and restricted from acquiring a job. She could barely supply herself with adequate food to eat and lived on the streets, enduring the brunt of the coldest, harshest winters with her home as the unsheltered streets. Since then Sarita has helped her transform herself & her life, from previously being in a 'bad place' and now leading a happier, more fulfilled life. Now volunteering at Pahal, she learns admin and other tasks to aid her job prospects in the future, as well as surrounding herself in an environment of support and understanding.

Sarita's involvement in the Changelooms programs has aided her progress in reconnecting transgender women with their families. As she explains, it has given her work greater visibility, as well as connecting her with like like-minded entrepreneurs and mentors. As her involvement as a changeloomer is soon coming to an end, her words of advice to fellow change-markers and those aspiring to create change is to “be passionate...[and] don't get into it if you're not sure”, but also that  “anything can be changed, you just have to set an example”. 

Open your arms, welcome us: Changeloomer Nikhil Gupta

Author: Eva Cunningham, Tate Soller

At the age of 25, a dive into a shallow pool altered Nikhil's life irrevocably. After falling unconscious and subsequently awakening to a loss of feeling in his legs he immediately knew something was wrong. Nikhil, now in his quadriplegic state, was shifted to Delhi for rehabilitation. Here, he remained bed-ridden for three and a half years, dependent on attendants on a permanent basis. This allowed Nikhil no freedom or independence, only fueling the fire of his frustration. Nikhil was not only in physical but also mental distress, where, as he reflects, this dependence was “making life a complete pain”. This stifling environment and lack of physical independence ignited Nikhil's depression. His persistence and relentless motivation was something that remain with him though and kindled his drive for independence. It was upon meeting a fellow quadriplegic, Jonathan, that his desire for independence intensified, realising that there was a better life than what he had been living. Independence now seemed tangible. Nikhil dismissed his attendants, saying “now your duty is over, you're free and i'm also free”.

From this point on through his discussions with Jonathan, the idea of a house to empower others with spinal cord injuries slowly became bigger and bigger. This concept was powered by the lack of activity rehabilitation in India. The way Nikhil saw it, the quality of rehabilitation in India was not sufficient and there was an apparent need for a space for these people to achieve independence in their own way. Independence was possible, there just needed to be a supported avenue in which to achieve this. This space would constitute not only a physical independence, but also a mental one. In seeing how others with similar disabilities across the world were engaging in wheelchair rugby, Nikhil became inspired, deciding that from then on wheelchair rugby could be a rewarding form of building independence. This provides them with an alternative form of rehabilitation where they are able to dictate and guide their own activities. As Nikhil notes, wheelchair rugby makes them more physically and mentally strong, instilling a drive to want to get even better so that they can play even better.

Despite their active creation of independence, people with physical disabilities are plagued with one overriding societal obstacle: perception. Such disabilities like Nikhil's are perceived as a curse. There is continual rhetoric and discourse surrounding him, suggesting that what has happened to him is somehow his own fault, somewhat karmic in nature, that somehow he deserved this. This societal perception is damaging enough in itself, adding extra stigma, pain and isolation to those with physical disabilities. This perception then carries on through society, influencing the lack of access for such people in everyday life. This then works as a paradox, as the limited visibility of people in wheelchairs - due to restrictions and lack of access - then fosters further stigmatization, especially of young people. Nikhil and his friends are actively deconstructing this. They purposefully visit everyday places, such as malls, and to make their presence normalised. By demonstrating this presence they are shifting this notion of the 'curse' surrounding people in wheelchairs, replacing it with a conceptualisation of such people engaging in society and, most importantly, that they are happy despite their disabilities.

Despite the passion and motivation exhibited at ESCIP Trust (Empowering Spinal Cord Injured Persons) home, Nikhil and his colleagues have been hindered by funding. At the moment the organisation is US funded & they haven't been able to get any funding at home in India. But yet another struggle has been, reaching other people with spinal cord injuries or other disabilities. Where, they've encountered difficulties facilitating the transition for people to their home. This can be due to a lack of funds, mental trauma and alike. Burdening them yet further is that lack of government recognition. Positioning them in constant conflict with hospital, as they are providing an alternative to the traditional means of rehabilitation. Nikhil contends that the government is at fault for the lack of support and access. This, he suggests, requires a change in mind set. “Open your arms, welcome us”, he proposes.

The Changelooms program has granted Nikhil some of this support and the platform he desired though. He has been gifted greater visibility, funding and promotion which have supported venture such as running camps, expanding their reach and national network. All of this contributing to their overarching goal of facilitating the independence of wheelchair users, as well as having fun in the process!

Nikhil's advice to someone hoping to follow in similar footsteps is to be a good listener. One has to listen in order to deliver, he propagates. Changelooms, he reflects, made him realise the need to work on his own personality, and through analysing and making changes to himself he was able to create changes in the things around him. “You have to start thinking of society in perspective”, he emphasises, “first think of community with whom you have to work with, think of their mind set”.

His ultimate vision is to make wheelchair users mentors for others, and to thereby create greater independence. In addition to this, he also dreams of participating in wheelchair rugby tournaments on a national and international level, as well as extending their ESCIP Trust house and establishing several branches of it to carry out Nikhil's fundamental vision.

Gender is not something outside, it’s something within me: Changeloomer Mona Yadav

Author: Eva Cunningham, Tate Soller

Mona has been navigating the notion of gender and the issues surrounding it for a while. After initial study in psychology, she then went on to study gender, realising her passion and interest for this area. With her exposure to feminist trends, her interests grew in the subject & she took it up as a research paradigm for her masters study. Despite her extensive academic research in the area, questions around the reality of stereotypes and gender based violence still plagued her - “why haven't I experienced it till now?” she queried. She became critical of the Indian education system and wanted to discover the on-ground relevance of gender, which she felt detached from. This clarity gradually came when she undertook volunteer work with children during her studies. “My saying one thing is helping them make decisions”, she noted, explaining her gratification during her fieldwork. This is where the source of her true happiness lies, she realised. Through this new insight she recognised the disjuncture between academic study, characterised by a strong western influence, and the reality of Indian society and the forms these issues were taking in the everyday.  Leading her to critique psychology and its use of labelling which, she argues, advocates rigid social categories that are individualistic in nature. This disillusion between her academic teachings and her on-ground experience of gender triggered her connection with People for Parity, who work towards curbing gender-based violence.

Mona felt empowered by her workshops with People for Parity. These workshops covered topics such as stereotypes, what it means to be a girl or to be a boy, and notions of power structures. She felt like this was an area she was keen to explore. “What are the voices within me that are stopping me from doing the things that I want to do? How do I challenge these voices?” she questioned herself. She began to realise the importance of gender in her own personality and that her approach to gender must be two-fold: with herself and then with others - “Gender is not something outside, it’s something within me. I need to first explore the challenges I'm facing as a girl, and then extend that to the community around me”.

Mona went on to further explore these challenges through her work in People for Parity and the workshops she facilitated. These workshops with college kids deconstructed common stereotypes like “men don't cry”. These workshops created a space for young people to engage and discuss gender, as well as feel comfortable to open about how the social constructions of gender and the stereotypes and violence linked to it affect their lives.

Her journey as a Changeloomer has helped Mona's progress in breaking down gender stereotypes and gender-based violence. It has also made her feel celebrated for her creation of socially inclusive spaces to approach the concept of gender, she says. But, as she adds, this celebration comes with responsibility as “people are looking up at you”. She sees the spaces she creates through workshops and other forums as a kind of 5th space, somewhere for youth to get together and talk about how gender is affecting their lives and the change they want to see. Passion is inherent in every facet of Mona's work. She considers emotion to be integral and come hand-in-hand with her avenue of work, “I used to think that crying was something that made me weak...but creating safe spaces and trusting others…. [and] letting yourself fall has to happen”. It was through this uninhibited emotionthat Mona was able to achieve what she has today.

An idea is just a soul, changelooms can do the rest: Changeloomer Anurag Hoon

Author: Eva Cunningham, Tate Soller

For a long time Anurag faced a constant dilemma over his passion for music. Music was prohibited in his community, which plagued Anurag. Later upon joining Manzil, Anurag was introduced to a mystic poet, Kabir, whose lyrics resonated with him and afforded him a new insight into the value of music. Kabir's lyrics hit a cord with Anurag, making him realise his desire to use music as a tool to bring out the change that people want to see. In his own words, music could be used to show the colour in life - “we cannot create a rainbow without different colours”, he observes. His vision to give rise to this rainbow was to create a space where people could share their voice and explore themselves as musicians. This gave rise to Manzil Mystics, where he and his group would explore social issues with children through music. Beginning with 27 people, they now run projects in eight different centres.

Anurag describes himself having been an average student in school. Though, once he started getting more involved in music he could see the change in himself. He then began using music as a medium for opening up dialog over pertinent social issues, starting first with his own home. The music sessions he did at home started leading to discussions, where he created a platform to dissect long ingrained traditions through music. Anurag was then able to break down traditions such as “Ghoonghat” for his sister-in-law by showing and creating a different picture for all to see via music.

Despite this transformation at home, Anurag's music career still remained unaccepted and unsupported. He was afforded no financial nor emotional support from his family, and society more broadly still don't accept music as viable, beneficial work. “Everybody loves it, but no one wants to pay”, Anurag explains. Thus creating a significant financial strain as a constant undercurrent in his work. He feels he has a responsibility, to be able to pay all of his musicians as well as for the instruments. But making these ends meet is a tenuous task.

For Anurag, the role of music in society is a question of perception. To foster community and change through his music he wants people to not necessarily accept the music, but rather to understand it. It is though this communication of ideas that music and theatre are able to be powerful mediums for capturing people's attention and sowing the seed of change, he explains. The music itself works to break down discrimination and stereotypes. Anurag and his group, together with the children they work with have created 11 songs based on gender. Here, the children are able to construct the lyrics themselves, thereby allowing them an avenue to voice their own perspectives on such contentions, ingrained social issues, as well as have an influence on the change they want to see. This then empowers them to pursue their dreams of change throughout their lives.

Sadly though, this creative means of exploring crucial issues is not granted space in the education system. Acceptance from such institutions, Anurag argues, is pivotal for progress. Schools and society more broadly need to see music as not being purely for entertainment value.

Despite such obstacles in his path, Anurag's passion is still unwavering. His proudest moments, he describes, is when everyone, without fail, gets up to dance each time they perform. He takes pride in the incredible growth of his project to now working with 150 students, and keeping in touch with 650 students. A major draw card in this are his unique songs, and most importantly, the visible enjoyment of the children is the program's overwhelming success.

Being a changeloomer has spurred on this progress. It has helped him with design of his sessions by providing alternative approaches and giving support and structure to his endeavour. In Anurag's perspective, he is now able to engage more effectively due to this support and advice he has received. He has grown as a music facilitator during this journey, he imparts. As a changeloomer, you get to meet so many new, amazing people, many of whom become close friends, as well as to explore varying approaches under a guided structure, Anurag asserts. It creates a community. "An idea is just a soul, changelooms can do the rest", he explains.

Anurag's ultimate vision is to create a space through which music can be used as a tool to bring out the change; to train people, teach them life skills and teach them English, all through music. He wants to convey to people that music is not just entertainment, but tool of change. As foundation for this vision are Kabir's phrases - sticking with Anurag all these years – a vision of a world which is one; Social inclusion because we are one.

You can contribute to the society in any way if you follow your passion: Changeloomer Anish Singh

Author: Eva Cunningham, Tate Soller

In December of 2012, Delhi, along with the world, were propelled into a state of shock and anger after the fatal gang-rape and assault of a 23-year old student. At the time of this incident, Anish Singh was working in drama. Horrified just like the rest of India, Anish awakened to a brutal reality marring his community. “What should we do?” was his first question, “where do we go from here?” He pondered how he could use his position as an artist to approach the topic of gender and the shapes it takes in society, many of which going unnoticed or un-vocalised. Anish wondered where this duality existing within gender emanate from, a duality of power and weakness. He pinned this dichotomy down to gender rules. These rules pervade society and underlie gender discrimination and gender based violence. The choices I make as a boy, or as a girl, are determined by gender, Anish explained, and he wanted to explore how exactly this transpired. This duality though manifests in pressure arising on both sides though, he notes, although varied. Boys are expected to work and to uphold the family name and honour, but restricted emotionally with taunts like 'boys don't cry' and 'are you a girl?' Girls, on the other hand are subordinated in this masculine jeer, denoting them as weaker. They have societal pressure to learn to cook, to keep the home and to marry. These, though, are some of the surface level pressures, while a myriad of gender-based pressure are omitted from public vision and discourse, existing below the surface. This difference between gender conceptualisations begins at birth, the roles and the training are markedly different, Anish explains.

In order to dissect these notions Anish devised workshops for youth, aimed at sensitising them to the problems surrounding the concept of gender. He began working in schools, running these workshops as a tool to break down gender biases and to instil that such biases should not simply be accepted. Theatre is a powerful tool to enable social change as can connect with life, Anish describes. In theatre, one performs through experience, expressing what happens around us. But, in society such platforms for expression often don't exist, he remarks. Theatre provides this missing platform and if issues are illustrated, others then watch and then questions are asked. Children are able to explore their own stories and own experiences of gender through this medium.

In society, children are seen as incomplete, Anish notes, they are only complete once they are 25. They must learn, must abide, but are seldom asked their own thoughts, opinions or feelings; there is no space for expression. But this is an integral space in his opinion – of self-expression – and is one he has sought to create. This process is a two way street though, as his involvement in theatre has brought him where he is today, Anish reflects.

Such endeavours aren't without their share of challenges though. Stress is a constant undercurrent of his trying work. He hadn't expected the work load to be as big as anticipated prior to commencing, he explains. But the intensity of such a pursuit isn't something he could have ever imagined. His commitment to the project though has kept him going despite his stressful load. The Changelooms program has also aided him with this, giving him a solid deadline to commit to.

This deadline provided by the Changelooms programs has meant Anish has achieved what he hadn't thought was remotely possible – to achieve the goals he'd laid out for his project within one year. His commitment to being a changeloomer has made him fasten his progress, due to his drive to meet his target. On top of this, Changelooms has also granted him the opportunity to meet a range of other change-makers working on gender issues, with whom he can connect & reflect.

The attention and appreciation his work has garnered is Anish's biggest success, he concedes. The students' enjoyment especially, is something he takes the pride in most. Giving them a platform like they haven't had before and the moment when students come back despite no obligation to; their excitement to talk about issues pertinent to them, are fundamental successes for Anish.
In Anish's opinion there needs to be more of this open dialog in order to substantiate lasting change. Time has changed and people are beginning to notice this, Anish states. The more people talk, the more people start noticing. Gender is something we live with, Anish discusses, so it is hard to notice sometimes what the privileges and disadvantages are; asking the questions is first step, he says.

He dreams of continuing to create even more with students, as well as broadening this into film too. He wants to make it a meaningful and accessible medium for students, as well as creating something that lasts; to be able to retain theatre and the conversations it raises long after the production itself.
He also pushes for others to follow their dreams as well. “Whatever you are really passionate about, you should do that”, Anish implores, “you can contribute to the society in any way – if you follow your passion”. Every pursuit of passion and change will benefit society in one way or another. For Anish, “everyone is a changeloomer”.