KOLKATA, India — We started Prayasam, which means endeavor, in 1996 to organize children from difficult backgrounds and transform them first into change makers of their own communities and then make them accountable and responsible for the neighboring communities. Since its founding, Prayasam has been working with the children, not for them. Its focus is mainly on popular education and preventive health. The children are nurtured and mentored from an early age.
Puppetry is one of the media that we use to propagate or advocate for issues suggested by the children: gender discrimination, health, sanitation and personal hygiene, child domestic labor and the need for vocational training. The first puppets the teenagers made were of crushed newspaper. Such puppets can be made in 40 minutes. They are about a foot high but have the anatomical details of a human figure. A novice needs to be aware where the hand, the neck or the backbone is and how much manipulation moves a puppet, and to what extent.
A brainstorming session was held to decide which issues the puppetry skits would address. Once the script was ready, they got busy making rod puppets. The puppet’s face is an upturned wicker basket, which the children covered with cloth and pasted brown paper on. In the eye sockets, we put Ping-Pong balls. Then the nose and eyes were drawn. Even the hair is painted paper; the throat is a PVC pipe.
We use throwaway objects available locally. We made mosquitoes out of plastic bottles. The skit on mosquito-borne diseases could easily be a daily reality in some slum communities with numerous ponds surrounding the shanties and pools of stagnant water accumulating in the shaded areas under bridges.
The children use wall paintings, comics, a theater of the oppressed and dance. They parody songs using waste materials to design their musical instruments. They produce “documentaries” to orient and sensitize their communities.
Our target is to change their mind-set and to show them another world is possible without “rehabilitating” them or uprooting them from their own surroundings. They have to be rooted in their own communities and see the positive sides of those neighborhoods. They make their communities more visible and their problems noticeable as they try to address them with their own initiatives. They are creating real-life short visual stories on different issues plaguing their lives and giving probable solutions too.
Since these communities never get recognition on geographical maps, children were encouraged to draw ones of their own and share them with the local municipal authorities. A youth like Salim Sheikh and his group have put their sprawling Kolkata slum on the map — literally. They gathered data about the people, the small brick huts, crowded alleys, scattered temples, few trees, water pumps and other information that clearly identifies Rishi Aurobindo Colony, a neighborhood squashed against a railway line in eastern Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). With Prayasam’s support, they have devised a colorful map of their community of 9,000. They have also uploaded much of the information onto one of the world’s best-known computer mapping systems, Google Earth. Salim said he would finally feel secure in his bustling world.
Our work is winning approval, guidance, support and encouragement from institutions like Unicef and the Rockefeller Foundation. In 2009, Stanford University thought that our work should be amplified to empower more children to take ownership of their own lives as well as communities. So a film, “The Revolutionary Optimists,” was conceived.
The film followed four children from my band of 1,000 and me for five years as I tried to replicate my work in the brickfields outside the city, where children live and work in unimaginable conditions. The film proposes workable solutions to intractable problems associated with poverty, including preventable diseases and ineffectual governance. It shows that education and child empowerment are crucial keys to lifting entire societies out of hopelessness.
Using street theater, puppetry and dance as their weapons, the children in the slums of Kolkata have cut their neighborhoods’ malaria and diarrhea rates in half and turned former garbage dumps into playing fields.
We have also created a Community Excellence Award, which recognizes outstanding achievements in the slum pockets working with Prayasam, focused on rewarding community development through community involvement.
We are introducing a management institute and a program called Ontrack, supported by the Pumpkin Foundation of New York, a philanthropy dedicated to education. Ontrack is a community program that works toward developing business, industrial and personal skills among the youth in the greater Kolkata area and West Bengal state. The program is a five-year course that will provide select youth with the opportunity to learn valuable vocational trades and prepare them to be influential participants in the economy.
Ontrack will not only prepare the youth for getting jobs but will also equip them with the business and social skills necessary to hold and excel in those jobs. These youth stand at a critical point in their social, emotional, mental and physical development, as they begin the transition to young adults. Early adolescence is a time of turmoil, resilience, productivity, cognitive growth, generosity and increasing involvement in social, academic and emotional tasks. Adolescents coming from slums to schools may not have family support to help them in their teen-age socialization. The students will benefit from the chance to begin exploring careers and the world of work. Ontrack teaches skills that all people need to develop a sense of family, to be an educated consumer, to make financial decisions and to understand health sciences to function in today’s world.