The life of social entrepreneur Sriram V Ayer can be divided into two periods – before and after 2002.

Previously, he held a lucrative corporate job that he thoroughly enjoyed. He had gone into business in his early twenties, and by the time he was 27, had been promoted to a senior position in the company.

“It was an interesting time for me at work. I’ve traveled around the world and had many experiences. In a sense, it has allowed me to see and learn many things.” India’s best.

Aftermath follows the riots in Gujarat, when Sriram is first awakened from his dream. “Seeing the kind of pain in people was so upsetting. I kept thinking about what makes us so hateful towards each other. He remembers how people came to fear me.”

Three years later, this – along with a few more profound experiences – would spur Sriram to set up the NalandaWay Foundation in Chennai.

Sriram V. Iyer - Founder of NalandaWay Foundation.
Sriram V Iyer

The organization works with children from low-income backgrounds to “Achievement Through the Arts” (ATA) and make learning fun. These art forms include theatre, dance, music, photography, creative writing, storytelling, and film.

Since its inception, the organization has worked with more than 10 million students across Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir. Sriram explains that this is done through direct intervention in the classroom, as well as collaboration with other civil society organisations, which include the Delhi government.

How do we make communities understand each other?

Delhi schools incorporate dance into their curriculum
Learning through dancing

Sriram found himself in Baroda, Gujarat in May 2002, two months after the Godhra riots. Violence continued to accelerate and spread over the months, and Baroda was experiencing aftershocks rather forcefully.

Even as he continued with his work, the anxiety of the polarizing people around him lingered in his mind. In 2004, another event would cause him to think about the direction the world was headed.

One evening, a young boy named Vinod walked into my cubicle with him agarbattis Incense stick in his hand. In the conversation, you learn that his father left the family when he was very young. His mother and sister participated in the making agarbattis.

He continues, “He used to go to school during the day and sell agarbattis in the evening to be able to fund his fees.”

He says it was this conversation that made him realize the importance of having a good mentor in one’s life.

Children mime as part of the NalandaWay Foundation's Sakhi Project.
Mime within Sakhi’s project

There was a boy who was very eager to pursue his education, but his financial situation did not allow it. While he was doing everything he could to continue studying, I felt that he would have benefited greatly from having a mentor in his life,” Sriram adds. A few years later, after setting up his organization, he found Vinod and began supporting his education. Today, the young man works for a company in Chennai.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami—which devastated Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and parts of India—that same year, Sriram began noticing how people came forward to help others in distress.

“Here, there was no question about one’s religion, affiliations, sect or faith. People with no previous experience in disaster management came to help. Watching that changed something in me,” he adds.

With Godhra’s incident still on his mind, he felt the need to do something concrete to bring about change.

“What if students like Vinod found a mentor from a community other than their own? It would provide both of them with an opportunity to understand each other’s community well, and see things from a different perspective. I thought doing this could solve two problems – respecting different religions, and being able to find a mentor to help and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” Sriram says.

This was his eureka moment, and led to the formation of NalandaWay in 2005, for which he had quit his job the previous year.

He says, “In general, we are all born with the qualities of compassion and kindness. One just needs to work on ensuring that we continue to hone these qualities and let them come to the fore.”

With NalandaWay, Sriram attempts to bring stability to the lives of children afflicted by one disaster or another, encouraging them to not only understand harmony and coexistence, but also work hand in hand to build a brighter future for themselves.

Use art to express your concerns

Chennai mural painting
Wall mural.

With no formal training in education or the social sector, the social entrepreneur learned all the way. He remembers having multiple conversations with children, teachers, and other stakeholders to find out how best he could design programs to help.

“When I asked a group of kids why they weren’t interested in school and classes, the answers I got were all standard – I’m tired of the way things are taught, the rudeness of the teachers, the general lack of any motivation to study and do well…” he says.

To find a way to make education interesting, introduce children to art.

A student holds a drawing she drew during art class.
Art in education.

They were assigned the same class, which they described as boring, and asked to stage it as a play.

“Suddenly, they were willing to go above and beyond to understand the subject and came away with such a real sense of learning,” Sriram says.

Because of the way they were taught, each child felt seen, as well as a sense of accomplishment. “The kinesthetic form of learning seemed to bode well with all of them and that was a huge learning for us,” he says.

This, in turn, debunked the myth that children are not interested in learning.

“It was just a matter of finding a medium that works for them,” Sriram says.

Children in a school for a foundation learning course.
Happy learners!

The Foundation works closely with children coming from trauma backgrounds – rescued from child labour, affected and orphaned by the tsunami, affected by HIV/AIDS, and trafficked for the flesh trade.

“We used theatre, art, music, dance, photography and creative writing as mediums to help them articulate and express their challenges and fears,” Sriram says. These works were then shown to decision makers, IAS officials, and schools to help effect change, as well as encourage students to continue their education.

One of their successful projects was the launch of the NalandaWay Children’s Choir, which was presented in 2015.

To find young talents from diverse backgrounds, the Foundation’s music team conducts auditions across various state and government-supported schools, children’s homes, and orphanages in Chennai and Delhi. “Our main criterion for choosing children for a choir is their level of excitement. Music can be taught, all we need is enthusiasm,” Sriram says.

“We set up a percussion group in Ongole district of Andhra Pradesh, which is on the national highway and is notorious for child trafficking. We identified about 47 children and youths from this district and worked with them over a period of time to train them in folk arts and theatre.”

He continues, “When the children learned these skills, they were also trained by mentors in social awareness, communication skills, storytelling, drama, dance, music, and playing musical instruments in the context of participatory workshops.”

They have done over 14 shows. In 2008, they performed alongside renowned drummer and percussionist Sivamani at Sir Mutha Venkatasobarao Auditorium in Chennai”.

Ongoing rehearsal session with Chennai Children's Choir students.
Chennai Children’s Choir

Another successful project is the Bihar Children’s Radio project. This included working with teenage girls in the districts of Patna, Gaya, Samastipur and Lakisarai teaching them skills in reporting, interviewing, writing scripts and creating stories about menstruation, sexuality, health and hygiene.

More than 60 girls have been trained as part of the programme. They held four workshops every year, which resulted in the girls producing a 25-minute radio show every week broadcast on All India Radio, Patna. The program was broadcast continuously for 60 weeks.

push it forward

Storytelling Session B by NalandaWay.
Storytelling during the early learning years.

These children come from very poor areas of Chennai and Delhi. Some have physical and learning disabilities as well. However, once they are part of the choir, they are all equal. He adds that music unites them.

The choir has the distinction of having performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. for an ensemble Serenade Choir Festival in 2018. They have also performed alongside many of the country’s professional musicians.

Dev Singh (17), part of the Delhi Children’s Choir, says, “I have been associated with them for more than four years. Music to me is like medicine – it always finds a way to heal. I have been a part of more than six performances so far, and each of them has made me Sing. I am currently in grade 12 and hope to continue learning music even after I finish school.”

Samin Almas, Associate Director of Projects at NalandaWay who has been with the foundation for over four years, says, “The pursuit of the arts allows for reflection, grounding, and expression. It is so exciting to watch these young children learn music skills, work together, become a close-knit group, and boost their confidence.” creative and they perform on stage without fear. In that moment, they own that space.”

Sriram says that as he began working on building the foundation, with each child he helped, he felt closer to understanding his purpose in life. “Every child we have helped has brought with them a deep sense of accomplishment. Some of our students today work in several companies, earn a good living and pay it in advance.”

Take, for example, Latha Devi Krishnan from Chennai, who had an amazing trip with NalandaWay. Says Sriram, “Latha was a young girl from Chennai who happened to hear me on a radio show. She managed to get my contact details and reached out for help. She wanted to study and apply for a scholarship.”

He continues, “When we met her, she was a malnourished child with a deep desire to learn and excel in life. Providing her with mentorship and scholarship was one of the best decisions ever.”

Latha with Sriram, founder of the NalandaWay Foundation.
Latha with Sriram.

Latha says, “Everything I am today is because of the support I received from Sriram sir. I was 18 years old, I was a scared girl when I called him. I still remember, when I made that call with him, all I had was 20 rupees.” I didn’t let him talk, I just kept insisting that he should help me complete my education. I was so adamant that Sriram had no choice but to ask me to meet him.”

This meeting changed the course of Latha’s life. Sriram says, “Today, she is working in a senior position in a software company in Chennai. She is married and has also started her family. It is very encouraging to see her doing so well. Even now, whenever there is a reason for her to celebrate, she makes sure to contact me and keep me posted.” .

Latha and her husband support and motivate other girls in similar situations as before.

Latha with her husband and Sriram.
Latha with her husband and Sriram

She adds, “If I didn’t pay the amount upfront, I’d be the most selfish person on the planet.”

Sriram says that like Latha, there have been many stories where a real difference has been made through the Foundation’s intervention and support. Since his first encounter with a young boy Sold agarbattisHis honest endeavors have come a long way.

If you would like to contact the NalandaWay Foundation, please click here here.

All photos courtesy of the NalandaWay Foundation

(Edited by Divya Sethu)


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