When you meet Monish, Shikha, Subhojit, Rupa, Sujit or Salim, it is hard to recognise them as children from the slums. Well-turned out, polite, and speaking fluently in English, they speak in well-modulated voices about their aspirations, college life and the work they are busy doing at Prayasam.
Monish, of course, is already interning as a Junior Technical Executive at the Prayasam studio in Salt Lake. Of course, it has taken years for these youngsters to reach here. Hailing from slum colonies on the fringe areas of Kolkata, these youngsters have played an important role in transforming their filthy environment into healthy spaces as part of a group called Dakabuko (Daredevils) organised by the NGO (Prayasam) bringing down the incidence of gastrointestinal and malarial diseases drastically. Visual and alternative media such as masks, and hand-held cones through which they appealed, played an important role here.
Organised into groups as per age, from the nursery level, through middle-school and teenage, the children played an important role in educating their adults and peers on the importance of vaccination, cleaning up garbage, and prevention of littering as ‘area health minders’.
Being a trained choreographer himself, Founder-Director Amlan Kusum Ganguly saw the performing arts as the best medium to bring in a change in the thinking of slum communities and usher in a better life for the underprivileged ever since 1996, when he set up Prayasam.
Through training in dance and music, the girls and boys learnt to fight the social evils of domestic violence, child marriage, and discrimination against girl children. At the same time, they were helped with basic social skills and to converse in English by the Prayasam staff.
Over the years, these children have performed several dance ballets at several prestigious functions, depicting themes of social concern. Meanwhile, they also learnt to document their achievements through photography.
Once Prayasam set up a studio at its Salt Lake premises, the children were mentored into producing short films on simple themes under the guidance of Lead Educator Saptarshi Roy. Soon, they graduated into making films on social themes to put across messages on the evils that plagued them in their slum environment. The project was spurred on through funds received from the Global Fund for Children and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2011-12. In 2013, Adobe pitched in with the latest software under their Adobe Youth Voices programme, which saw the studio get equipped with the latest in equipment. Thanks to Google, which sponsored the organisation’s endeavours through 13 tablets that were handed over in 2014, films could be shown to slum communities through tablet-tops. These short films cover myriad issues and are used to educate slum communities on their strengths, weakness as also the threats they face in their midst.
With the help of their newly-acquired skills, five of the most promising youngsters have managed to get 10-month long USIS scholarships to study at various community colleges in the US, such as the Arizona Scottsdale Community College, the Virginia Community College and the Arizona Mesa Community College. Monish Chowdhury did a course in Community Media in 2015-16, Salim Sheikh and Sujit Datta have specialised in Early childhood Education in 2016-17, while Subhojit Saha and Saddam Hussain have specialised in Social Media.
The ones, who have trained abroad, are now gainfully contributing to the work being done at Prayasam, and mentoring others now. Thus, Monish is now working hands-on at the studio, as a Junior Technical Executive, along with Salim and Sujit, all of whom are engaged in taking things ahead.
Sponsored by Adobe, each of the youngsters training at the Prayasam studio, is making short films on matters that they have experienced, and want to focus attention on. Rupa Biswas, who experienced the trauma of being lured by traffickers in the past, has made Chorabali (Quicksand) on the modus operandi involved, Sujit Datta has made Chhap (Branding) on the kind of isolation felt by an effeminate boy when branded and bullied by schoolmates, Gopal Roy has made Niruddesh (Missing) on those who get lost forever, while Salim Shaikh has made Aaste, Ladies (Slowly, Ladies) on the social norms imposed on women.
Meanwhile, the commitment and hard work put in by founders Amlan Kusum Ganguly and Piyali Majumdar have already helped usher in collaborative interests from abroad. “It was as an Ashoka Fellow that I was invited to South Africa for a week. FK Norway collaborates on an exchange programme with Kenya. This was how we got to get in touch with Slum Dwellers International, Kenya, and embark on an exchange programme since 2016,” Ganguly tells me.
The youngsters at Prayasam have managed to pick up the finer points of microfinance from the Kenyan team of youngsters - Rose, Nijodi and Calvin, even as the latter got the opportunity to learn film-making and handling equipment at the Prayasam studio.
Similarly, Prayasam also had international hip-hop artiste, Rashidi, coming over to share some moves with the youngsters here. Shikha Bagchi, a promising dancer who has been leading in many of the Prayasam’s dance ballets, mastered hip-hop during Rashidi’s brief sojourn in Kolkata and is now a mentor to many aspiring dancers in the troupe.
The arts have clearly opened up new vistas for these children who have now embarked on the threshold of a profession even as they continue with their education. Rupa Biswas attends Sealdah College to do her BA (2nd year), while Shikha Bagchi is busy doing her B Com (3rd year) at Rammohan College even as they train at the Prayasam studio to learn the finer aspects of film-making. Each of the youngsters learn to budget, propose stories and scripts and pitch their films.
Prayasam has been participating with its films at the Bad and the Beautiful World Film Festival since 2014. This year, eight of its films were selected for the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF).
Besides films, Prayasam has also been undertaking media projects on a commercial basis. The media projects undertaken comprise calendars, brochures, short videos or corporate films. This ensures that the youngsters training under Prayasam earn a small amount even as they learn their vocation. Clearly, the arts and media have gifted them a life far ahead of anything they could have dreamt of a decade ago in their slums.