Empowering women

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Empowering women

Sunday, 21 July 2019 | Shalini Saksena

Empowering women

Women are breaking the stereotype and challenging traditional roles to pave the way for a brighter future. SHALINI SAKSENA catches up with some pioneers who are dazzling the world with their ideas and innovations

It is a conversation with person to keep them engaged in a discussion in order to build a community. To create an environment where the speaker and the audience can interact with each other. Think of it as a party where the smartest people come on a common platform and share dazzling ideas from some of the world’s most extraordinary women who are risk-takers and innovators and are breaking barriers and changing the rules of the game.

One such person is Ashweetha Shetty, a young social rural worker. Her journey began from Mukkudal a small village in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. For the first 20 years of her life she had never stepped out of this small village. Her parents were bidi rollers. She broke the ceiling of social norms imposed by her community through the power of education and became the first-generation graduate who founded The Bodhi Tree Foundation. The foundation now supports over a thousand college graduates to reach their potential through education, life-skills and opportunities.

Before she got an opportunity to do a fellowship programme in Delhi, Shetty managed to not only complete her schooling but also go to college even though there was family opposition. Education was not something that was expected from girls of her village or community. For her parents sending a girl to pursue higher education was not on the cards. More so, since her sister got married after schooling and the same was expected of Shetty. But her percentage in Class XII was good and she insisted on pursuing higher education and graduated with a degree in Business Administration.

“After I completed my fellowship I worked for a year with an NGO in the healthcare sector before I decided to go back to my village. My life was all about being lucky. It was clear that I wanted to give back to the community that gave me the freedom to pursue my dreams. I was lucky that I got the opportunity to study further. I had great mentors who encouraged me. I wanted to make a difference in the lives of other students who would have otherwise spent the rest of their lives working in someone’s home washing dishes and clothes,” Shetty says.

The problem that her community faces are several. First, everyone in her village is poor since they are daily wagers. Second, everyone suffers from asthma including Shetty. Third, there are role models whom they could look up to.

“It was not as if every third person was an engineer in our village. We didn’t know how far education could take us. We were told that our destiny was to get married. It is easy to buy into this future. This is the problem of rural villages in our country  — the challenge of growing up with no role models and a support system,” Shetty.

Even though there is penetration of the Internet and most people have a smartphone today, back in 2012, Shetty didn’t have this privilege. More so since girls could not be seen with a smartphones let alone use a computer. In order to apply for her fellowship she had to borrow a friend’s smartphone. Even then, she had to type out her entire application under the shawl so that nobody saw it.

“Today, things have changed. Most people have a smartphones and use the Internet to have access to information. However, we have a long a way to go before technology can be used to its fullest especially for the students that I work with. When you have access to information, it gives a lot of confidence,” Shetty tells you and doesn’t believe that she a role model because she hasn’t reached that stage but she is an example of what a girl can achieve in life.

“This was something that I wanted to prove to myself when I set out to pursue higher education. I wanted to prove to myself that I could live my life on my terms. I wanted to keep the negative narrative around me at bay,” Shetty says who now works in every aspect education, self-awareness, self-development and access to career opportunities for those in the age group of 17 to 21 particularly girls.

“We tell girls that they can do whatever they put their mind to. We tell them that they need to be self-aware, be confident and reach out to opportunities that they think that are available to them rather than listen to what the society thinks they should do. We believe in giving access to information that they think they should have rather then push them into doing what we think is right for them. Most of the girls are first generation college goers and are from underprivileged families — socially and culturally backward communities,” Shetty tells you and adds that most most girls the aspirations revolves around getting a Government job.

“Some want to marry a boy who has a good job and some look for a job with a bank. This is because they have not heard of any other job. Pursuing a course in journalism would not even occur to them since they don’t know that this can be a career option,” the 27-year-old tells you who was one of the speakers at the TEDxGateway Salon: Breaking Barriers.

The good part is that parents are supportive of their daughters pursuing higher education and encouraging them to look for a job. They want their children to be aspirational. However, there are some parents who would let their child to study but clip their wings by not allowing them to leave the village.

Her own parents have finally come around. “Their mindset has changed. This is good. Even if I am able to change the mindset of one family, I will feel that I am blessed,” Shetty says.

Yet another person who is dazzling people with her ideas is Ankita Shah, the co-founder of The Poetry Club. She with Trupthi Shetty started the club in 2013 while the duo were still studying to be Chartered Accountants. Both wrote poetry and wanted to find others who shared their interests. Setting up the club and running it gave Shah the chance to interact with people who wrote in several languages, to discover stories, narratives and styles different from her own and to have conversations that shaped both her thinking and craft.

Before Shah started working as manager of programme and development at G5A Foundation for contemporary culture, she worked as a tax consultant at Ernst & Young and spent weekends organising poetry gatherings and performing at open mics and slams. Today, Shah switches between short-form poetry about family, loss and death, and long-form spoken word poems that are based on social issues such as gender discrimination.

“I have been writing poetry since I was in college. But my family background was such that put emphasis on academics and hence didn’t find many outlet to express myself. With my friend we started this club. During this time we met many people who were well-known writers and poets. People who came to our club have varied background. Some are people who write in regional language, others write in English. Even though these people write well, their families didn’t think that one could pursue a lucrative career if one pursued Arts as a subject,” Shah tells you.

While she agrees that the calibre of English writing poetry is not as defined as compared to Hindi, Mumbai where she is based out of, has many English writers who are good. “They write poetry that is fit for the stage on topics that they deeply feel about and that is what spoke poetry is all about,” Shah tells you.

The problem, she opines is that our education system doesn’t allow us to explore avenues that are unconventional. “Our school education doesn’t teach us poetry the way it should be or the way we are taught Math or Commerce. Our education system is a product of how the society has structured the jobs. This has paved our way to our choice of careers. We are not equipped to take a call whether we want to pursue Literature. I too was not equipped. We are told that it is a good side hobby. Things are changing though,” Shah says.

She tells you that a lot of people she meets today are college goers in the age group of 16-20. “Opportunities are changing. There are people who want to listen to poetry. There are more people in colleges who are turning writers. The corporates too are taking note and using poetry to say sell their brand. It is great that people are sitting up and noticing that poetry can do wonders,” Shah tells you.

She tells you that while one can take up writing professionally, this should not be the main concern for  the young people. The main concern, she feels should be to concentrate on what they have to say. “People should become their own audience otherwise their writing can be influenced and impacted by what others have to say. Once they set their style, they should achieve a balance where they find a platform where what they want to say has an audience,” Shah says whose writing comes from personal experiences and observations. It comes from her identity as a woman, as a person and as a citizen.

“I have written poetry that addresses discrimination or the norms that we have made for ourselves. More recently, my poetry is about my mother and father (who I lost two years back)— about memory and time. A few poems are about birds since I love them and am into bird watching,” the 26-year-old says.

Her family was supportive when Shah decided to leave her cushiony job. Her mother was a little apprehensive to begin with since her parents wanted the best for her. Since Shah is the bread winner, her mother wanted to know if she would be able to support the family financially.

“The good part that what I am doing today makes me happy. It was not tough to quit by job as a CA. It was this job that made me feel that I was not in sync with myself. Today, I am in a happy space since I was doing what I love,”Shah tells you.

‘Dance is a powerful communicative art form'

She started learning Bharatnatyam when she was eight from Dr Padma Subrahmanyam as was the norm for girls from Chennai. Eventually she moved to a traditional guru — SK Rajarathnam. From Kalanidhi Narayanan she learnt abhinay. It was a process that got inculcated into her system and became second nature to her. Meet Vidhya Subramanian who was one of the speakers at TEDxGateway Salon: Breaking Barriers.

She tells you that dance as an art form doesn’t require a language to express itself. “It doesn’t need words for the audience to understand it. It is extremely rich in its communicative form. An audience that is open to the experience can understand the art, especially the Europeans. This is because a lot of children grow up learning different art forms and learn to appreciate it from a young age,” Subramanian says who has an MA in theatre Arts.

She tells you that over the years, the mindset of the students has changed as well. When she was learning from traditional gurus, the students were in awe of them and didn’t ask any questions. “We were afraid of them and not comfortable and confident in asking questions. Today, children need to understand everything. Not everything that I gleaned was understood. It was much later that the understanding came. Whether this is good or bad  only time will tell. What we have been taught has been handed down for generations. Our traditions are rich. Only now it is being written down for future generations to understand it better. Students should ask questions and have their curiosity satisfied. Sometimes finding the right balance lies in learning through understanding is better,” the 51-year-old dancer says.

Subramanian is known for her sensitive choreography and emotionally charged performances. She has earned appreciation not only in India but Germany, France, UK, Russia, Afghanistan, Kenya and US as well where she started her Bharatnatyam production company and school — Lasya — where she lives but visits India from time to time. She is known to employ outstanding interpretive and dramatic skills to make the emotions visible on stage. A sought after artist to perform and teach, her dance is often described as an offering of mind, body and soul. Her talent extends to acting as well — she had done three stage plays and a short film as well.

Dance, she says is a powerful medium. “It is the responsibility of every artist to take it forward with integrity. If done in the right manner, it is very powerful,” she says and practices for many hours even though the performance maybe over within an hour.

For her a typical day starts with training since the body is an instrument. “There is yoga in the evenings. In between, a lot of time is spent in research. Time is also spent with family and playing my dog. I have two daughters who did learn the art from me but did not take it up professionally. Though I had been teaching for 24 years, for six years, I have shifted my  role to a mentor. I hold workshops for those who are able to train on their own but need to fine tune their art,” Subramanian tells you.

Her future plans are to continue doing what she loves doing. Her advise for other artists who want to pursue their passion: “There are so many opportunities. But the creative  imputes has to come from within. There are difference kinds of leaning and different reasons for pursuing an art from and not necessarily to take it up professionally. The most important thing is that creativity has to move you and one needs to follow it not for just the sake of it but to nurture it as one would one’s child,” Subramanian says.

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