While some are busy working at a job that makes them a comfortable living, 29-year old Sandeep Viswanath quit his well paying IT job to pursue his passion for photography and opted to work with tribal kids.
Convincing the teachers, engaging the students and even getting thrown out of the school on the grounds of interrupting school activities did not break his confidence as he continued to work with students of four tribal schools in Nandubhar District of Maharashtra as part of his SBI Youth For India Fellowship.
After graduating with an Engineering degree from Bangalore in 2007, Viswanath worked as an IT Consultant for two years and later joined Born-free Art School for two years as a tutor, a mentor, and a film-maker.
“I strongly believe that the practice of Arts should not be divorced from the socio-political realities of our society and have attempted to practice my craft in this manner. I decided to quit and devote my energies in the pursuit of film-making. The experience of working with rag-pickers and street children molded my perspective of the caste and class dynamics in our society,” Viswanath says.
Working with tribal students
He did not want to restrict himself to Bangalore. He had bigger dreams. Dreams to bring a change in the lives of people across India and to travel the world and explore more through his camera. A friend informed him about the SBI-YFI Fellowship and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. He always wanted to work around children and change the way the education system works in the country today.
He was selected for a year-long rural Fellowship program by SBI in the tribal district of Nandubhar, where he worked closely with the children of Ashram schools in creating documentary films.
Viswanath designed a pinhole camera which could be made by anyone without much effort and cost. “There are many students who can’t afford equipment like a camera. This is an easy solution for that. Anyone can make this,” he says.
He made five documentaries with the tribal students in various languages. “It is a learning process. I learnt Marathi while working with these children,” Viswanath says.
The journey as an Youth For India fellow
The journey as an YFI fellow has been like a roller coaster ride for him. It helped him to build networks, meet like-minded people and share ideas. He became aware of some ground realities which were only possible to see as he worked closely with these schools. YFI also supported his Masters degree at Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
It wasn’t an easy path. “The teachers here (at the Ashram schools) would routinely disturb me, not allowing me to extend the class even if the kids were charged up, give me the last hours of the day to conduct classes, scheduling routine medical check-ups during my hours. The result: I had managed to conduct only 3 classes during 3 months,” he recalls.
His project titled ‘Grassroots Cinema’ consisted of five short films (in the local tribal languages) scripted, directed and shot in a democratic and participatory approach with the children.
One of the short-films that he created with these tribal schools had only girls in the group and the film turned out really well. “Its interesting to see how these students are excited and ready to learn if given a right opportunity,” he says.
“This experience gave me insights in to the struggles of tribal children in an education system designed for a modern society which often clashes with their own cultures,” he says.
Continuing the love for the camera
After the fellowship, Viswanath continued his passion for photography and filming and joined Agastya Foundation in Kuppam as Senior Program Manager in Media and Arts department where he teaches children to make various short-films and also the science behind the camera.
His work includes documentaries on NREGA later used as an awareness tool for workers, and on the water-woes of Bangalore later screened at the Voices of Water International film festival.
The biggest challenge was to break the ice with students, especially the girls in high school. “The children in tribal schools aren’t used to a teacher who comes to a class with a camera and doesn’t use a blackboard and a book to teach,” he says.
More than convincing the children, it was getting the families and teachers involved which posed a bigger challenge.
Apart from this, as most of these students come from a poor background, it was hard for them to get a camera. So, the team started getting the cameras on rent to teach the students.
“I don’t plan much in life. I will just take opportunities as they come. One thing that I am sure of is that I will always be in touch with these students,” he says.
He is also rigorously working on his idea of pinhole cameras. “You will be seeing at least 30 of these out in the next six months,” he says.
Being a constant learner himself he believes that learning is a process which you should start as soon as possible.
“It is the attitude of learning that matters. I just want to trigger that attitude among children. Learning should start today,” he says.
While we talk and read about Viswanath’s journey, he is already out there working on a plan that could leave a bigger impact. As we witness his wonderful journey and high spirits we just hope India sees many more such heroes.