Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The New School Year, Ashramshalla, Education...

As we approach finishing the EKATVA show production over the next 3 months, we need to get prepared for the journey we will be taking this upcoming year with the kids: Performances, interactions and activities, practices and rehearsals, alongside the most important activities: School, Tution class and Education.
For this reason we have decided to bring all the EKATVA children living further away to come live at the Gandhi Ashram Hostel Ashramshall, with the other 120 kids that currently live there (6 of which are already our EKATVA kids). These kids are all from the so called ‘Untouchable’ community. Gandhiji started the Harijan Sevak Trust over 70 years ago to help in the upliftment of this community.
With most of the EKATVA kids at the Ashramshalla now, and going to Government School across the street, Gandhi Ashram School No. 1, we will be able to focus more attention and detail on their studies and with their teachers. On top of this, we will be having tution class for the kids everyday at the Ashramshalla, Gandhi Ashram from 2-5pm. And then finally we will have dance practice from 5 – 8pm.  In this new school year it has been very important for me to stress to the kids how important their education and studies will be this year. Because once the EKATVA journey and project is complete, Education and their values, will be the number one and only tools they have to reach their dreams. They seems to understand and accept that.
A pleasant surprise: Two of our kids, Bhavnik and Nikita were awarded 5000 Rupees each (about 2 months of their mom and dad’s salaries) for being top performers in their last school year. Three other of our EKATVA kids also received top 3 in their class. J

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

EKATVA Skype performance with Liecester UK - Indian Summer Festival

The groundbreaking Indian Summer festival in Leicester UK featured a live Skype linkage between the 16 children of EKATVA and kathak performers at the festival. The children interacted with Festival participants, artists and organizers, and learned about the Indian community that lives in the UK. Segments of the dance drama were performed and projected live at the Festival.

We all gathered around Gandhiji's bronze statue at the Gandhi Ashram at 6pm on Saturday, June 18, 2011 to first explain to the children what we were about to do. For most of the children, this was their exposure to Skype and its power to connect people through audio and video all over the world.

We talked about geography, explaining to them where Leicester UK was in the world, and what the festival was all about. The kids had many questions and were full of wonder once the camera came on and we were all interacting with the Festival moderator.

This first interactive linkage has set the stage for more exciting collaborations! For all of us, the experience affirmed the power of unity and EKATVA, and how music and dance can dissolve boundaries between cultures.


I could only remember how exciting it was when we were younger to hold slumber parties with our friends.
Well we had our second slumber party with our 16 kids, at my apartment. It was…well....a slumber party!!!!
Taking showers, late night and getting ready as if we were gonna go out to a club or something....

...Then cooking...

...can't forget to watch a movie..."The Incredibles"!!!...

...of course, you need a little excercise, to balance your 20 people in a 2 bedroom apartment slumber party experience...

...and, can't forget to play with all the little dolls in the gift corner...

...at some point we went to sleep....

...and at some point we woke up....

...can't forget to feed the belly....

...and a be a goofball, while feeding it...


YOU HAVE TO AT LEAST MAKE ONE MUSIC VIDEO at every slumber party you go to :)

hAving the kIds ovEr is Always a BLEssinG. We eNjoy ComInG TogEthEr and FindIng Love in Life.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Meet Bharti...

Bharti seems to have it all. She has the striking expressions of an actor, the grace of a dancer, and the potential to develop her girlish presence into one of a great performer. Yet something is lacking, holding her back from the places her talent may take her.
On the surface, Bharti’s home life shines compared to her neighbors in Ramapir no Tekro, the largest slum area in Ahmedabad. The moment you cross the threshold of her home in the tekro, the background changes from dusty, barren slum-land, to glossy, tiled-floor. Bharti’s family owns a computer, bought by her grandparents as an investment in the education of Bharti and her siblings, and a refrigerator, a sign of wealth in the crowded, poverty-laden chalis, or alleyways.
            Though Bharti is happy, enjoying the masti and mischief of youth in the tekro, her story reveals difficulties – some she understands, and others she does not.
            She explains that her mother fell very ill when her youngest brother, Mehul, was born three years ago. For months, she was in and out of the hospital, experiencing seizure and faintness. Bharti’s eldest sister, Payal, studying in the 8th standard at the time, dropped out of school to take care of their mother and manage the household work.
            When Payal later decided that she wanted to continue her studies, her father did not support her wish. As he explains, the circumstances in the household, including Bharti’s sickly mother and her 3-year old brother, have not allowed Payal to return to school.
            “Who would stay home and take care of the housework?” he asks.
            The contrast between Bharti’s colorful childhood, highlighted by experiences in Manav Sadhna and EKATVA, and Payal’s seemingly lost childhood, are stark, but underrated.
            Though Bharti doesn’t dwell on her sister’s circumstances, she worries that her parents fight often, creating tension in their home.
            “I try to make them stop,” Bharti says, with genuine adolescent angst. “I tell them they should act like adults, rather than small children.” But her parents do not see, or choose not to acknowledge, that their quarrelling has an effect on their children.
            “Family members will always fight,” Bharti’s father says. “That’s just the way it is. When Bharti tells us to stop, I say, ‘Fine, we’ll put off today’s fighting for tomorrow.’” He laughs, making light of the issue.
            The conflict and relative wealth in her home have added elements ego and friction to Bharti’s otherwise charming personality. At EKATVA dance rehearsal, she sometimes lacks focus. She shows less ambition than her peers to perfect her performance.
            In an environment like the tekro, prosperity is an abstract term. To one family, wealth refers to their herd to goats; to their neighbors, wealth is the ability to afford electricity. In such a resource-poor setting, the perception of wealth depends on the priorities of the beholder, and the attitude with which one discloses his possessions and lifestyle.
            Within Bharti’s family, seemingly prosperous with their modern possessions, symptoms of poverty exist in Payal’s interrupted education, and the household tensions caused by the often-fighting mother and father.
            Bharti describes EKATVA as an experience that has changed her completely.
            “I’ve learned about ekta [unity],” she says. “I’ve learned that when we show love to all people, regardless of age, religion, or caste, everyone benefits.”
            Only time will tell if the values Bharti is learning in her journey with EKATVA, will add prosperity to the features of her home life that bear qualities of poverty, and help her realize the wealth of talent she has been gifted.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Meet Dharmaji...

Fifty years ago, one could stand on the banks of the Sabarmati River and see trees extending far into the Ahmedabad horizon, Dharmaji’s father recalls. Today, the landscape is less green, overflowing with rickshaws and motorbikes, brightly lit hotel signs, and acres and acres of slums.
In just the past two decades, the number of slum-dwellers in the city has doubled. Rural Indians, like Dharmaji’s parents, moved here in search of work and opportunity, both of which had grown stale and uncommon in their villages.
Though the family lives in Shankar Bhuvan, a slum in the heart of the Ahmedabad metropolis, their home bears certain vestiges of village life. Dharmaji’s mother wears a dozen plastic bangles on each of her arms, with heavy jewelry weighing down her earlobes. The smell of burning coals lingers from their recently cooked dinner, and a goat rests under the cot on which Dharmaji sits with his father, who is sedated and wordless from his evening liquor. Four of Dharmaji’s sisters squat in a dimly lit corner, exchanging words in their coarse, local Gujarati.
The family owns six donkeys, which they use to transport building materials to construction sites. Dharmaji contributes to the work in his free time. Though he finds it laborious and repetitive, it has allowed his uneducated parents to sustain their household.
The after-dinner conversation shifts to the topic of Dharmaji’s approaching wedding. He and his soon-to-be wife, Mamta, will be married after Diwali, at which point the couple will meet for the first time.
“It’s our tradition,” explains his mother, referring to the child marriage. But one can’t help but wonder how Dharmaji, boyish and absent-minded, will assume the role of a husband.
Dharmaji laughs at his own jokes, regardless of who is listening. He has a habit of losing his train of thought in mid-sentence, smacking his forehead in frustration. Though his school records say he is 17-years old, this is merely a guess, as no one ever bothered to record his actual date of birth. It’s unlikely he is a day over 15.
He acts childish, but Dharmaji’s expressions and manner are rough, weathered by the uncouth elements he has faced while growing up in the streets of Shankar Bhuvan. Dharmaji explains how his parents and older sisters often hit him and insult him, using foul language that is sadly, the norm in their community.
“When they say so many gal (insults), I leave the house,” he says. “I don’t know how to respond when they treat me like that.”
Dharmaji admits that his habits used to be equally poor. He would counter his sisters’ insults with foul language of his own, and paid little attention to his schoolwork. Although Dharmaji completed the 7th standard this spring, he has yet to learn how to read and write Gujarati.
He was an unexpected selection for EKATVA, excelling neither as a dancer nor as a student. But Dharmaji showed the potential to shine with support and guidance, and to emerge from the bad habits he was exposed to at home. Though he still carries himself with the attitude of a street child, raw and often coarse with his words, Dharmaji’s behavior with others, including his peers and family, has assumed a sincerity and compassion aftering joining EKATVA.
 “In EKATVA, I like that we do everything together,” he says, referring to the 15 boys and girls that have become like a family to him during this journey.
“We tell each other off if someone does something wrong, but we treat everyone with respect.” Dharmaji demonstrates a striking understanding of oneness, despite the abrasive qualities that shape his family life at home.
 “We are all brothers and sisters.”

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Meet Bharat...

            On hot Ahmedabad days in his childhood, Bharat Vaghela and his older brother Lalit would spend their mornings scavenging through mountains of rubbish outside their home in the slums of Ramapir no Tekro. The boys would search for two pairs of slippers, most often mismatched and too big, dragging their small feet down with each noisy step. Clop clop clop.
            “I was 11-years old,” Bharat recalls. “We needed something to protect our feet from the burning ground while we walked around and polished shoes for money.”
            When the brothers would board the bus to return home after a day of boot polishing, they would kick their mismatched sandals off the moving bus and sprint home on their smarting soles, not wanting their mother to see their impromptu footwear.
            As Bharat describes episodes from his youth, his expression is sad; his tone, hesitant.  The 25-year-old is now married and working to support his wife and mother, but part of him is still lost in the tragedy and disappointment of his childhood.
            Around the time Bharat and his brother used to go boot polishing, they were connected to the Gandhi Ashram-based NGO, Manav Sadhna. In 2001, Bharat was given the opportunity to take part in EKTA, the dance and drama performance produced by Manav Sadhna, which planted the seeds for the EKATVA journey. During his experience in the EKTA project, which means unity, Bharat realized his love for dance.
            “With dance, I open up my heart completely. It is my passion,” he says.
            EKTA was a critical time in his life. It shaped Bharat’s dream to become a professional dancer and choreographer. But it was also littered with setbacks and heartbreaks.
            Throughout his childhood, Bharat’s father had drunk heavily. His persistent alcoholism turned him sickly and weak, putting a mental and financial burden on his family. Bharat describes how one day after coming home from EKTA practice, his mother received a phone call that his father had been in an accident and his health was very poor.
            “Pappa had fallen down while he was drunk, and broke his hipbone,” Bharat explains, tears welling in his eyes.
            He required an expensive operation, for which his mother was forced to take out loans from their neighbors. Even after operating, Bharat’s father was never the same. He was bed-ridden and suffered from tuberculosis.
            “He was my best friend,” Bharat says. “No one in the world has a better personality than my father. He may have drank, but he was not a bad person.”
            Meanwhile, Bharat’s spot in the EKTA project was in jeopardy. Bharat admits that as a child, he was often angry and stubborn, especially as the stresses of his father’s health built up. These qualities nearly cost him a place in EKTA, when his mentors at Manav Sadhna were disappointed in his behavior.
            Yet they took a gamble, keeping Bharat in the show despite his sometimes-poor habits. When Bharat came home from EKTA practice on his 15th birthday, his father, very sick at the time, was beaming.
            “When I walked in, he told me that a gift had been delivered for me that day. It was my passport.”
            Bharat’s father supported him fully in EKTA and in his love for dance. Unfortunately, he never got to see his son go abroad and pursue his dream. Bharat’s father passed away in November, just four months before EKTA and the 14 Manav Sadhna slum children were scheduled to leave for their tour in the U.S.
            As the EKATVA journey is now reaching a climax in preparation for another tour abroad, Bharat’s life is going through a tragically familiar pattern of uncertainty. As his mother’s health has been deteriorating for the past several months, he is struck by memories of EKTA, and the burden felt by his family with his father’s passing.
            “If Mummy is not here, I feel like there is no hope for us,” Bharat says. “She held us together after Pappa died.”
            Bharat’s sentiments toward EKATVA are mixed. He is grateful that God has blessed him with this opportunity to learn how to teach dance and to choreograph. But when he watches the children dance at practice, his heart burns.
            “I’m not a kid anymore. I don’t know when my dream to become a great dancer will come true,” Bharat says. “Seeing these kids in EKATVA makes me think back to EKTA. I wonder if my time has already passed. Will I ever get to fulfill my dream?”
            Although Bharat’s story has been a rollercoaster of frustrations, with his family, his marriage and Manav Sadhna, he recognizes the blessings that have appeared during dark times. Had Manav Sadhna not invested in the potential they saw in Bharat’s personality more than a decade ago, he would not be in the position he is today – serving children in the slums with his talent and passion for dance. Through his commitment to these children in the EKATVA project, Manav Sadhna and his mentors are committed to seeing Bharat advance in his career, life, and journey.
            Whatever hurdles he may face going forward, if he walks with truth and faith, the NGO and volunteers involved with EKATVA are there to support and help him walk the steps toward his dream.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Meet Payal...

“When I grow up, there is no way I will live in the tekra,” Payal says firmly. Even though the 12-year old’s scope of the world beyond Ramapir no Tekro, the Ahmedabad slum in which she has been raised, is limited and obscure, she has already made up her mind.
Like his daughter, Payal’s father grew up in the tekro. He hopes Payal’s wish to one-day make a life outside the slum will be realized, though it never was for him. His childhood was spent in hard labor. After his parents passed away when he was in the 7th standard, he dropped out of school. Nowadays, Payal’s father earns about 200 rupees for the family each day by riding through the city and refilling gas bottles for restaurant kitchens and street vendors.
“It’s hard to take even one holiday,” he says. Both Payal’s parents sit tensely during a Saturday afternoon parent’s meeting for the EKATVA children, for which her father took the day off work. “Our household can barely survive if we lose a single day’s earnings.”
Payal does not complain that money is tight, or that space is lacking in their small, one-room home. But she boldly objects to the way boys and young men behave in her community. She describes the way they whistle at her and other young girls, staring and using crude language.
“I’m scared to leave the house by myself,” she says.
Luckily, Payal has not needed to face the harsh tekro on her own as she makes her way to and from EKATVA practices. She and the three other girls from Ramapir no Tekro who were selected for EKATVA have developed a solid friendship. Payal explains how her three friends pick her up from her home, so she does not have to walk past the foul-mouthed boys in her chali, or alley, on her own.
Although Payal is nearly inseparable from Bharti, Nikita, and Krishna, the other EKATVA girls from the tekra, this was not always the case.
Payal admits initially having a difficult time adjusting and mixing with the 15 other children in EKATVA.
            “I was upset when my best friends from the tekra weren’t selected for the show,” she says. “I was lonely, and that made it hard to focus on dance practice.”
            The other tekra girls would invite Payal to play with them, walk with them, and talk with them, but Payal felt out of place in their triangle. Instead of joining in their masti, or playfulness, Payal kept her distance. Slowly, however, her resistance to their invitations melted as she observed them.
            “When they talked to each other and to older people, they spoke so politely” Payal says. “They didn’t use gal (bad words) like my friends in the tekra. As I was watching them, I decided these are the kind of girls I want to have as my friends.”
            Payal explains that since joining EKATVA, she has stopped spending time with her old friends in her community, and therefore dropped certain bad habits.
            “I don’t use foul language anymore and I don’t feel so much anger when people insult me,” she says.
            She explains that her friends and mentors in EKATVA, teach her big and small lessons everyday, and that she has grown to respect and appreciate them like a family.
“They take care of me like sisters,” she says of Bharti, Nikita and Krishna. “We tell everyone we are sisters with different fathers.”

Friday, June 3, 2011

Our Harmless Friends

Day before yesterday while we were in a circle of prayer, Asha starts cringing, crying and saying in a squeamishy voice, "nimesh sir, there's a 'jivdo' (insect) on me, please, please, please get it off....please, help"...She was nearly in tears...I couldn't help but laugh...it was a tiny harmless bug smaller than the size of half her pinky nail.

After that experience I told her we're gonna have to do something about this fear of hers :)

Yesterday, after lunch we went on a little trip to go make friends with insects. It was more like test #1 in her path towards not being afraid of insects, or at least lessening her fear. So she was half reluctant, but trusted me enough to go along with it.

She was told not to make any noise, but she could squeeze my hand as hard as she wanted and just observe.

I picked up a mankoda (which are those big black ants) and shifted it from my hand to her hand...she was cringing tremendously, small tears swolled up in her eye as the black ant crawled on her hand, then after five seconds, we let the ant go back on the ground...and slowly Asha started to break her fearful face into a slight smile.

I know, it was kind of mean for me to force her, but i sensed a 5% shift in her confidence for the better after that. And plan on continuing these small 'insects are our friends' tests with her over the next month in different ways. And she has agreed to do it also. I'm sure it'll be fun and great way for us to connect with nature.