They come from homes ridden with poverty, violence and abuse in the darkest of slums in the nation’s capital. Sonal Kapoor believes art and colours help these young girls heal.
“These little brats are learning about ‘creativity from nature’. They are the first generation of daughters in their family to get an education – these days they pop up from behind my chair and under the office table to show me their report cards. They have scored extremely well at school. I cannot stop smiling. Such rock stars!” – says Sonal Kapoor about the young girls hovering around her.
Sonal is the founder of Protsahan, a social enterprise that uses creative education and art innovation to empower street children and young adolescent girls.
This is one of the several ways in which Sonal makes the world smile – by sharing such beautiful stories about the delightful children she works with in Delhi. And this one was shared about a week before Protsahan turned five in May this year.
From completing her MBA to exploring corporate jobs and finally finding the one thing that would change her world view forever, Sonal’s journey has been that of learning, unlearning, numerous experiences, overwhelming tales, struggles, endless working hours, and lots of smiles.
It all started when the 24-year-old Sonal was shooting a film for a corporate. She came across a pregnant woman who had six daughters and was expecting her seventh child. The young lady was sitting with one of her daughters when Sonal approached her with an apple. Seeing this, the mother told her that the little girl would not be able to recognize it as a fruit, simply because she had never seen one. As the conversation continued, Sonal heard this woman utter words that would change the trajectory of her own life.
The woman was living in poverty and obviously struggling to take care of her children. In a very matter-of-fact manner, she told Sonal, that if she had a daughter again she was quite prepared to strangle the child. So unfortunate was their condition that she was already planning on sending one of her daughters, 8-year-old Julie, to a brothel to bring in money that would in turn feed the rest of the family. Sonal says she froze on hearing these words. It took her just about an hour to make up her mind that she wanted to change the life of girls like Julie. And within three weeks, Protsahan started as a one room creative arts and design school in a dark slum in Delhi.
Protsahan aims at empowering every at-risk adolescent girl with creative education and entrepreneurial skills training so that she can break the extreme cycle of poverty and abuse. And this NGO does so with the help of the ‘5-pillars of creativity model,‘ which includes design, art, digital stories, photography, technology and cinema.
“We use simple techniques, but with a difference. We use scrabble to teach them English, cartoons and photographs to keep the interest alive, game and art based education, digital storytelling to make teaching a fun process. Our sole mission is to encourage creative education and skills development through creative design thinking approaches. Thus was born the teaching pedagogy using art and technology. We are compiling all our approaches and releasing them under open source soon. Our team comprises the best brains from across India — ranging from students from IITs, IIMs to youth from well-known companies in Johannesburg, Singapore and New York, and those in the creative industry. We believe that working with one child, and transforming her in entirety, has to be done right,” says Sonal, here.
The children are also taken through a bridge course which usually goes on for two to two-and-a-half years, alongside the arts courses. In the bridge course, all the basics are taught by teachers from the local community who have been trained by Protsahan over the years. The aim is to bring the kids at the same learning level as that of other children of their age in government schools where they are finally admitted.
Sonal gives examples of how art helps the children at her centre heal. “Two of the girls were raped when they were 4-5 years old. They have been with us since they were 8-10 years of age. Their parents were least bothered about them and the community people looked down upon them. We put them through a two year bridge course. Today, they are really really good with computers and the internet. They have made their own films for UNICEF. They are amazing with camera work and they make fabulous Madhubani paintings. There are other kids who have fought severe physical abuse, one of them fought child marriage at the age of 12, one comes from a family where the father had passed away and the mother was ill with TB. The point is that when they come from such backgrounds – art and colours helps them heal. That is where their souls are happy.”
A day in the life of the founder
Today, Sonal is one of the youngest social entrepreneurial woman in India to lead an international non-profit, and Protsahan, which has been lauded with several awards and recognitions, (find details here), is growing one child at a time with numerous projects and campaigns that are transforming lives.
Ask Sonal what a day in her life looks life, and she very honestly says, “There are instances when I am like Oh My God – I don’t know how to solve this! There are times when it gets crazy in terms of balancing life, working 18-19 hours a day.”
She continues working at a day job, two-three days in the week, as a consultant for organizations like HelpAge India and the UN among others. But, “every day is a Protsahan day,” she says, because on these days, her work at the NGO starts in the evening. The rest of the week she is at the Protsahan centre in Uttam Nagar.
“Even though I am not there, the schools and projects are running. Work never ends. On 3-4 days a week when I go to Protsahan, we do different things. We are rescuing children, meeting mothers of the kids, conducting sessions, etc.”
On empathy and scaling up
One of the many things that Sonal says she has learnt from working in the NGO sector is that there is constant talk about scaling up. It is the one thing that makes her angry. “Everybody wants to scale up. It looks good on annual reports, it looks good everywhere. But many people don’t want to look at empathy. Suppose there is a training session for thousand children for an hour; in the end, it becomes 1000 children reached, 1000 children impacted, 1000 children transformed in that on hour session, when it comes to reports. Here we are trying to work with 400 girls since the last five years, making sure that they turn out to be rock stars, that everything in their life is sorted — from the point when they were picked up from a garbage bin to the point where they are taking lessons in classes. But everybody is looking at numbers so much that it makes me sad. If our approach for one individual is not right, then what is essence of scaling up?”
This post from her Facebook wall makes her stand pretty clear.
“Took months and months to get the first few words out of her. I remember, how for the first 4-5 months, we just welcomed her to PROTSAHAN and hugged her so tight each day. Then the next day. And then some more the next day too. “Donors” asked for her report card with “progress figures”. I told them, there weren’t any and that wasn’t our priority. Many took away the sponsorship money because I didn’t have her progress in Math and Hindi to show. That time, we were only killing the fear in her eyes. Ofcourse many don’t get that. Today, after 11 months, she is learning to read and write and dance on simple songs. Am sure, it wasn’t Hindi or Math. It was just those hugs that made her come to the school each day. And then the next day. And then some more. Until now, when we have admitted her to a good government school in grade 2 directly and she only continues to grow.”
To know more about Protsahan, visit the website here.