Monday, November 5, 2018

Change, one step at a time

Sujatha Balakrishnan, the founder of Theatre for Change, has dedicated her life to breaking stereotypes every step of the way. Here's her story.

Let's start right at the top. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood, growing years, education and work - and all that led you up to the work you do today?
I could not have asked for a better childhood! It was so much of fun with such cherished memories. I was a outdoor person and would be on the streets until seven in the evening and would fall asleep the moment I entered home. That would leave my amma with no option, but to complete my homework the next morning! I was a very average student in school, but never scoffed at. I was huge movie buff and Jayalalitha was my inspiration. Ramaswamy Cho, Manohar to name a few were my heroes on stage. After every movie or play, I would sincerely come back and stand in front of the mirror and enact the dialogues. I made sure to be on stage during the school annual day celebrations. This beautiful childhood took a turbulent path the moment I turned fifteen and was all set for college. Being raised in a conservative household and going to the most happening college in town, Mount Carmel did not complement one another.  Here began my struggle as I wanted to pursue an unconventional career path. I wanted to be a model. I wanted to do theatre and was interested in joining the National school of Drama. I did theatre in college too. This certainly was not liked by my family. Adding fuel to the fire was my falling in love with a boy from a different background. I was married off the moment I graduated to a boy of my parent's choice. My college love didn't work out. But I got married to the most progressive family that did not conform to gender roles. My husband made it very clear to me that I need to make my life choices and I required nobody's  permission. I was fortunate to have found a husband whose world views were so different.

What inspired your foray into education and counselling? 
My daughter was born the very next year of marriage and I decided my adventures were to be with her. As I began teaching her as a child, I realised that I was doing a pretty decent job of tutoring and I was  enjoying it too. When my daughter entered her teens, it was a challenge for me to make her sail through this phase of identity crisis smoothly. She was a very demanding and troublesome adoloscent and she turned out to be my case study for raising teenaged children. I understood the physical, psychological and physiological turmoil that she was undergoing and wanted to lend my ear and shoulder to her. Empathy and perceiving the world from her lens was the key to unlock this stormy phase. I thought why not consider this as a career option.This is when I decided to hone my skills in education and counselling and obtained a teaching degree along with a masters in psychology. It was not an easy one as it was back to school after almost eighteen years of break. But, here again my husband's support and encouragement made this feat possible. This combination really helped me transforming teaching into an interesting, fun loving and interactive process. I took calculated risks in the classroom and made the mundane chore of teaching a magical one. Using the Multiple Intelligence theory of Howard Gardner I tapped the inner potential of every child and nurtured the same. And counselled thousands of children who needed support. Even today, I tell parents that their child is normal and smart and it is parents who need to unveil the mind and start thinking out the box.

After twenty years of gratified teaching, I realised I was fifty and had to give back to the community. So I became a member of  Soroptimist International (SI), Bangalore is the city branch of the National Association of Soroptimists International, India, affiliated to Soroptimist International of Great Britain and Ireland. SI Bangalore is committed to a world where women and girls together achieve their individual and collective potential, realise aspirations and have an equal voice in creating strong and peaceful communities worldwide. Our projects touch on various social issues like education, empowerment and health. SI has a consultative status in the UN. This was a deep learning curve and gave me a meaningful opportunity to offer my small service to girls/ women in the community. As the Past President of SI, Bangalore and being an educationist, I started the Stars of Tomorrow, an education initiative and Project Bead to lead, a women empowerment initiative under the aegis of SI, Bangalore. As one of the twenty member delegates from India at two successive CSW at the UN, New York helped me in understanding the SDGs and more importantly SDG 5 that focuses on women empowerment and gender equality and their implementation in depth. 

You also work with theatre - what brought that on?
Just as habits die hard, so does your passion. The passion of the stage and spotlight which was lying dormant became dominant. As I had the time and energy, I wanted to revive it. So after repeated attempts, my perseverance paid off. I got my first theatrical break in the play" We live in Bhopal", with Renegade Arts and Theatre Society. There was no looking back after that. I was part of Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues at 58! I portrayed Swami's paati in Swami and Friends for the Jagriti theatre festival. I also completed a  Theatre of the Oppressed facilitator workshop in Boston. I am an ardent admirer of Augusto Boal!

The interesting blend of all three areas of your work - education, theatre, and counselling, culminates in Theatre for Change. Can you tell us about your work in that space?
After completing the TOI workshop is when I realised the power of theatre that can be used for the Voices of the Unheard or the oppressed. Theatre should be a combination of entertainment and engagement. With this concept was born " Theatre for Change", a non-profit theatre initiative in 2015. Being a special needs educator, I wanted my pilot project to be dedicated to the differently abled community. As a volunteer at public schools in the US, I noticed the special needs children were not labelled and went to the main stream school. This concept certainly was lacking in India. So I named the play with the metaphor "UDAAN", Undoubtedly differently Abled Amazing Nebulae. I also penned the lyrics for a poetry which goes" Special children are a DELIGHT, in their own RIGHT! The protagonist of the play was twenty three year old Sanjana with autism. I gave a voice over to express her feelings to the society, requesting them to not look for the missing quality and to accept her one among them. This was staged for Childrens day and had children from schools across the city. It was a resounding success covered by the print and electronic media that enabled the message to reach far and wide! The second play was defying the myth about ageism where children were a part of the event bridging the gap between the young and the old. This was premiered at Nightingales, the senior citizen community. Both the plays sensitized children and parents thanked me for bringing about a change in their children's perception of seniors and special needs children. This reinforced the power of theatre. And my current production "When the rainbow is enough" are narrative monologues of compelling personal stories. Initially this was started to provide a platform for women above 50 who had rich inner stories. The first four shows had seniors and interestingly it took a new turn with youngsters being part of  later shows and adding a different perspective and flavor to the play. After seven successful shows across cities in India, we are delighted to be staging our eighth show in Boston next month. The show here will focus on South Asian American women narrating their compelling personal stories on racism, empowerment,  identity, mental health and FGM (survivor). The Cambridge  city councillor Sumbul Siddiqui has graciously accepted  to be part of the event. 

And now, onto Project Bead to Lead - what does that entail?
Project Bead to Lead was started in 2013 as a women empowerment initiative of SI, Bangalore. Women from the informal settlements of Ganga Nagar, Bangalore underwent vocational training in jewellery making and the nuances of marketing. The materials are sourced from China, Korea and Taiwan. The beads are lead and cadmium free. Once the finished products are ready, we generally hold exhibitions where these women themselves man the stalls. The remuneration for their efforts, time and commitment is rewarded by taking care of their girl children's education. 

Clearly, you're a changemaker beyond the scope of what words can do justice to, in describing! How do you keep your spirits up in a world that is so dedicated to quelling attempts at change?
I am 61 years YOUNG and I would with pride say my life after fifty has been simply breathtaking and meaningful. People often ask me how I am so energetic and do things that even a twenty year old would think twice to do! I tell them I love what I do and I do what I love!! Age, I have always  believed is just a number. Yes, societal tongues and mouths will continue  to wag and bark as this is their sole entertainment! Basking in unwanted gossip. We need to raise above all these and do whatever you're  convinced with. Follow your heart and the moment your top chamber takes over, let me honestly tell you, you will not do 90% of the things what you want to do. For instance, there were many who were unable to understand why I was doing The Vagina Monologues at 58!! Is she crazy? That did not deter me as I knew this was more than just vaginas!! Empowerment  in the truest sense of the word. The same experience  when I enrolled for Shiamak Davar's Bollywood workshop. I joined as I simply love dancing! If you need to bring about a change, it's a herculean task as you're crossing  the boundaries drawn by society for which you need to pay a price, big or small.  Even Ekalavya was not spared. He mastered archery which was exclusively for the upper strata of society and had to pay a huge price of giving away his thumb for crossing those lines. To sum up, life is short and sweet to have regrets. And theatre done in a social context always raises critical questions to society. All my plays have done it! My daily mantra is "Just go for it! Live life on your terms and conditions! If you truly love yourself, you'll do it!!

What's in the pipeline, next?

I have always believed in making my initiatives inclusive and diverse. I would like to expand the current production by including women from the working class, especially garment/domestic helpers/nurse community.  I have moderated panel discussions where working class women were panelists voicing out their opinion in different languages. Nevertheless, what matters is their voices to be heard. I am already on this job connecting with various organisations working on urorganised sectors. And my next show will also include a representation from the LGBT community and survivors of various atrocities. And a personal note on my husband and daughter. They have been my support system without which I will not be where I am today! We raised our daughter without defined gender roles and this has culminated in her reaching the status of a professor at Harvard. She is 39, single and very happy.