Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Making The Difference

Simply regal. That is the first thought that comes to mind, when you see her. And why not?

The once Ambassador’s wife to many countries, Dr Veena Sharma, combines grace, hospitality, intellect and a powerful personality, which is in fact, splendid to meet. But I am not about to say more on that aspect, for my mission here is to introduce you to a work, which she is doing, making a difference where it matters.

Prajna Foundation For Cultural Interaction and Studies is an NGO which was started by Dr Veena Sharma in 1995. The objective of the Foundation is, as the name suggests, to involve sections of society, namely the haves and have-nots, which are otherwise, divorced from each other on a day-to-day basis, to get sensitized to each other by using cultural and educational tools and method to bridge this glaring gap. What it means in real terms, is to open up the children of the economically challenged communities to a much wider world than the one they are used to. At the same time to initiate a channel of ongoing communication between them and the wealthy in our society via a medium of communication and exchange through many cultural and educational activities. Thus, the children in slum areas of Delhi have been exposed to and have interacted with the more affluent, economically advantaged sections of people living in this city. And vice versa.


During its nascent stage, the Foundation began doing workshops at Delhi’s elitist colleges/Universities like JNU, IITs and Lady Sriram’s. These workshops were conducted in a manner that the students could open up their minds and resources and get to know and understand the lives and times of a section of people, many of them were not sensitive to, namely the less privileged sections of society. Resource persons invited were such as could be looked upon as role models – as they were still serving and yet had made a difference! The workshops also extended to various pockets of Delhi where the economically challenged in society lived and the methods used to sensitize them were quite different. They were, initially, exposed to yoga and yogic games, creative and fun games of different kinds through which they could come together on a level playing field with other persons from different sections of society.

What happened in these workshops was interesting as it is through drama, plays and education capsules, specially designed by the participants that the two sections got to interact with each other, in the bastis where they lived. Thus, both sections got to see each other in a different light, which otherwise, especially in a city like Delhi with the rich and poor divide being enormous, one never could have accessed either section in such an intimate way. This brought the children of the bastis to view the elite in a different way and lose the fear of interacting with them and reversely, the elite got sensitized to the under privileged. The ‘elite’ youth were often surprised how much they learned from them in terms of sharing and just being joyous! This opened the channel of communication for both sections.

As the work grew the need to have a central place became important. Basti Vikas Kendra’sare run by JJ & Slums Department of MCD, Delhi. As a matter of fact, these spaces are built in the midst of Juggis, jhopadis, slums where a cluster of the underprivileged live. In one such, in the midst of the environment just mentioned and right across the Deshbandhu College in Kalkaji, Prajna Foundation moved in the year 2001. And ever since, the area has not seen anything like this happen in the past. And the Foundation has never looked back either.

Nestled in a small building, in the midst of this group of humans, mostly, of Tamil origin, whose professions range from cars washers, to house help, to cleaners, sweepers at MCD, are their children, who have found another world, they never knew existed before. Aged between 8 to 18 years, the children are active participants of an array of activities that take place at the Centre starting 2 pm to 8 pm, 7 days a week. The Centre opens around 11 in the morning. On Sundays activities start at about 9.30 am. The students receive extra-classes in the studies they have done in class. Some of the teachers who help them are those who are inspired by the Foundation’s work and come from outside to do the job, on a voluntary basis they are few and far between. What is important is that the older children from the Basti itself are encouraged to teach the younger ones. This way, they get to participate in and become catalysts in the improvement of their own community. No wonder, Veena ji, as she is most lovingly called, has seen many a child grow up and open up to new possibilities, which were not open to them earlier, like working on computers or becoming a teacher.

“It’s not easy”’ she says ruefully, “at exactly the time the children are to come to the Centre to study, the mothers would send them to fetch water or do some other household chore. They do not understand the need for a little discipline or value of education.”



Thankfully things are changing, as more and more of the children are acknowledging that the Foundation is making a difference to their lives. Parents too are beginning to realize that, no matter what their lot is, their children’s need not be so. They may continue to live in the same place, but they feel a part of society at large, they feel responsible for their own lives and the surroundings, and they feel they belong to the wider social system in which they live. Therefore, the surroundings in which they live are a little cleaner and the children can raise their heads and speak up confidently to other people around them and those they see outside their environment.

It is said that one of the biggest contribution in life is to take the fear off from the minds of children so that they can be brave citizens of a country, subservient to none. When the same becomes a reality for the under privileged, the results are very encouraging. They can strive to live as citizens, equal to all, for their birth in certain sections of society, is no fault of theirs.

The Foundation’s work has thus opened up and sensitized people to those humans who we encounter on a daily basis. They work in our homes or wash our cars, clean our houses as domestic help, scrub and wash our utensils and clothing. And so far, we had turned a blind eye to their plight.

But how does one really bridge the gap in real terms? Ask Dr Veena Sharma.

Theatre workshops and performances are held on a continuous basis, every week in the Centre trained by none other than well-known Director, Ashish Ghosh with practical inputs from his assistant Animesh Guha. You might like to visit one of these very heart warming performances by the children at the India Habitat Centre, the next time you are in Delhi. And you certainly would not believe your eyes when you see these children perform to a whole audience of very elite spectators, plays such as Akbar Birbal, Tota Maina, Sab Thiik Hai.


In the past couple of years these children have been a part of workshops held in Rishikesh in Conjunction with another such organisaiton where they were invited to perform and also help teach other children and help of their own theatre instructors to do so. The exercise was a great success for both sides. The travel to a famous and ancient centre of pilgrimage and culture was also an eye opener for the children who had remained cloistered only in their own Basti.

As a result of their exposure they were able to participate in a theatre workshop concluded recently and run by the well-known Director Arvind Gaur. A very dedicated and committed theatre person Arvind Gaur has similar ideas about the upliftment of the economically non-privileged. He gave a special concession to Prajna children. Very soon he put them on stage together with other middle class children. The experience for these children was transforming.Similarly, Sh. Swami Vimalananda ji, General Secretary to the Divine Life Society, Rishikesh, very graciously welcomed ten children with five teachers/coaches to stay at the ashram for a week and be a part of an ongoing workshop conducted by the Khushi Project in Rishikesh. The children performed at the Samadhi shrine in the Ashram. They returned home, having received the blessings of all Swami jis and souvenirs and gifts they would treasure for life. A small seed sown at the right time will flower and bear fruit in the years to come, surely.Some children have been trained in basic computer applications. A couple of them have found decent jobs based on that training. Three girls have now been selected and are being sent to an accounting institute near the Basti to learn Tally. They are expected to get decent jobs after they finish the course.

A few other youth are being identified for support in other courses. They will be helped to go through the necessary training so as to enable them to qualify for higher institutions of learning – institutions like the IIT (if they are lucky) or Engineering and nursing colleges.

It does not stop at that. Regular drawing classes, candle making classes and other craft classes happen at the Centre. And ever so often, the kids go on picnics etc. to different places around Delhi so as to open up to the beauty and history of the city. Many recognize the Foundation’s work and there is no dearth of well-meaning individuals and Societies/Clubs who come forward to participate and carry the work forward. Like the Rotary Club of Delhi, South-Suburban, who plan to take the children on a day trip to Akshardham, in east Delhi region. Earlier, they have also provided coolers and fans at the Centre. Other philanthropists support bright youth towards their professional aspirations in life.

A young volunteer, Shalini Nair has begun to give of her time at the Basti. Not to forget, the young heartthrob of the youngsters at the Centre, Mahesh, who has been there from its inception, managing its day to day affairs, because he feels so strongly with those he cares and teaches, admonishing like a Head Master at the same time, empathetic to their needs.

Their work has found recognition in international circles too. German Development Cooperation from Germany, took active interest in encouragement through workshops conducted by the Foundation on creative and fun games for personal development and education. Later they also contributed by giving the Centre some sophisticated sports equipment, which is regularly used forconducting Festivals.The children at the Centre are spoken to on a continuous basis to help them identify their areas of interest and excellence and make career choices, which their parents never dreamt of. Like this, there are many others who sponsor the education of a few children as well. There is a constant ongoing effort to ensure that the dropout rate is arrested. Yet, sadly, even the best student among these will easily take up a job that pays Rs 500 or so per month dropping out of school, because the need for contributing to family finances, always outweigh the desire to study, among the economicallychallenged in society. While the parents of these children are aware that a change is taking place in their children through this exposure, their personal moral support to their children, remains yet a long way to go. But Veena ji remains unfettered. She is following her, what we may call a her true Calling. What brought Dr Veena Sharma to do work of this nature, I asked her?

“It’s always been with me ever since I was a child, since I can remember”.

Even as the Ambassador’s wife, she was busy organizing the women of Indian origin in Mauritius and Tanzania. They formed groups where each one’s skill was highlighted and certain activities were carried out by these women to uplift the down trodden even in these countries. Later, she found that when she visited these countries, years afterwards, the local women had carried the cause forward on their own initiative and made it an Organization in fact, adding their own indigenous flavour to it.

Dr Sharma (67), was born in Shimla but lived a couple of her early years in Balloki, now in Pakistan with her parents, her father being in the Civil Service. She moved to India, at 6, post independence through a perilous journey from Balloki, then in undivided Punjab to Delhi, resettling back in Shimla. In her own words - “We drove on. Dusk faded into a dark night. Tall columns of fires were visible on all sides in the villages around, and shouts of "Bachao, bachao (save us)" could be heard in the air. My father veered off the road into a sort of a muddy bush, using the canal as his guide. He asked the two Sikhs whom he had agreed to give a ride, who could easily be identified by their turbans, and could not even attempt to pass of as Muslims, to lie down under the car. My parents sat outside while we children remained inside the car.” She is also a scholar in African studies, in which she has a Ph.D from JNU, Delhi, and a scholar too in Vedanta, in which she is self-taught. She is a linguist in that she learnt Swahili in Dar es Salaam and worked as Head of Swahili Service of All India Radio for twenty-two years. But Dr Veena Sharma is a very spiritually inclined person too.

“Surprisingly, I met my Guru, in Mauritius, on my husband’s first posting as Indian Ambassador to that country”. In time, she grew to become his disciple. After his Samadhi, Dr Sharma, did the first translation of the Yoga Vasishtha as brought out by her Guru. The two volume of work is being published by none other than Motilal Bannarasidas, who are world renowned publishers of books on Indology. Besides that, Veena ji is also the author of Kailash Mansarovar, a book published by Roli Books.

“Where did you get your interest in spiritual matters?” I ask again, amazed at the number of areas that make up her personality.

“I think my earliest influence was from my grandmother with whom I spent a lot of time in my childhood. I noticed a certain spiritual life she led, in the midst of her daily life. In the morning, she had her bath and did her readings from different Holy Scriptures for about an hour or so and then only she had the first cup of tea, or breakfast. I watched her perhaps subconsciously. If she had things to do before that prayer, she would do them, then have her bath and complete her prayers and then only…..” It taught her a certain discipline, something she follows like her first nature, even today. Rising early, Veena ji has her own moments with God, writes and then begins her day.

I too follow some of the same early morning schedules and yet, after returning from work, I find myself de-stressing by watching TV News channels blankly! So what does it take to be different?

An unrelenting spirit. A drive that moves a person from within and a conviction, even an unrest from within, that forces one to initiate change, in their own individual way. This really sums up the work being done by Dr Veena Sharma to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots. The two despairingly divorced sections of society, which are so visible in Delhi. And in the process, the making responsible citizens of India of the otherwise downtrodden and shaded out section of our own society.

Dr Sharma speaks Swahili, the national language of Tanzania, apart from Hindi and English. Besides, running the Foundation as its Chairman, she also runs [on behalf of her son] a full time Office in Delhi’s Connaught Place, called http://www.w3c.com/, which is an Internet services provider. She has two sons, one living with his family in Australia and the other in Dubai. But, even when they are visiting, there is no let up on her day at work, both at CP or Kalkaji. She is a tireless worker, a great negotiator and a frequent traveler to many countries, carrying her work, be it of the spiritual nature or her Foundation to different parts of the world. No wonder too, one might see among the volunteers, people from different parts of the world who come to India as exchange students or even on a holiday, conducting workshops for the children at the Foundation. Another objective is thus being fulfilled, the need to become global citizens of the world, for our children at Prajna Foundation.

History has provided us with many examples in the past of how certain events in a person’s life happen which propels them to a life devoted to the greater good. Or one must be so dissatisfied with the system that one is forced to become the change they want. So too in Veena ji’s, many an event contributed to who and what she is at the moment.

“Life is a jigsaw puzzle”, she says philosophically. “In my life many of these events have been like pieces in the jigsaw puzzle, which seemed to be floating around. In time, all of them came and fitted themselves in the larger pattern, which only in retrospect, I am able to know. That explains why they were there in the first place….”

To reach Dr Veena Sharma contact:

Dr. Veena Sharma
Prajna Foundation For Cultural Interaction and Education
A-382, (IIF) Defence Colony
New Delhi 110 024
Tel: 91-011-23356878, 24337913Email: veena@w3c.com





(With Inputs From Dr Veena Sharma)
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