For Sriram Ayer, the founder of NalandaWay, art is not only about aesthetics but also about hope. He tells how he uses it to change the lives of underprivileged children

Reaching out to underprivileged children through theatre and the arts has largely been Sriram Ayer’s life since 2003. But he admits that in the beginning, he didn’t know what he was getting into. “I had a corporate job and lived comfortably. Everyday, I drove past slums but without seeing the poverty,” he says. “It also made me think about doing something to change these lives. I started NalandaWay. But it wasn’t easy to reach out and know their real needs.”

When Sriram realised the recurring patterns in the lives of the poor and the way it affected their children, he quit his job to work for their cause. “I was in Baroda in 2002, when the Gujarat riots happened. Seeing it up close was very traumatic. I started asking existential questions. In 2003, when I was at the office one evening, a small boy selling agarbathis walked up to me. I was surprised as to how he got in. He was neatly-dressed and I began to talk to him.”

The boy, from Korukkupet, didn’t have a father and his mother made agarbathis during the day. So, after school, he would go around the city, selling them. “He wasn’t begging,” says Sriram, “He was clear that he wanted to study. And I thought, if there are children who are willing to work hard, why not help them.”

NalandaWay began as a place where unprivileged children could find a mentor to look up to. “These children were lost at home since they had no role models. We thought, what if the mentors were from educated communities? This way, both parties would benefit,” Sriram explains. “I started finding volunteers to mentor children in Triplicane slums. We decided to make learning fun, using drama and arts as a vehicle.” And the children began to enjoy their lessons.

This prompted Sriram and his team to start three- to six-month workshops. “I’m biased about the arts because you don’t need to be an artist to be excited about it. When UNICEF came on board, they wanted us to work with children who were rescued from bonded labour in Krishnagiri and use art for rehabilitation and as a form of expression,” he says. The workshops included filmmaking, photography, crafts, drama and other art programmes.

The group also began working with children who were sexually abused and those born to sex workers in Ongole, Machilipatnam and nearby areas. “Our workshops in Bihar and Kashmir had children formulating radio programmes and going on air,” says Sriram. Besides making learning fun, the workshops aimed at making children creative and original. In 2006, Sriram was chosen as an Ashoka Fellow. “When you quit your job, a validation from an outsider is important.”

But he felt the short-time workshops weren’t enough and decided to formulate a wholesome syllabus. “We felt we weren’t touching their lives long term. So, we planned to go to schools and train the teachers to teach fine arts to kids. Our 15-day training for teachers ended in a 37-week workshop for children of each class.” This was initially conducted in 20 corporation schools across the city last year.

“We were told by the teachers that the school dropout rates had fallen because of art class!” he smiles. This programme was expanded to Salem, Dharmapuri and a few slums in Chennai and works with children between ages six and 17. “Currently we are present in 220 classrooms.”

Apart from this, NalandaWay holds the month-long Art Arattai Aarpattam in July, four-day residential camps called Kanavu Pattarai every month (with follow-up sessions) and Orange Street, a project, where Sriram raises funds for social projects through online crowd sourcing (they are opening a U.K. version of it soon). “Through our 14-member team and 170 trainers we want to be the world’s largest art education provider in the next five years,” “We want to function like a corporate with all the empathy and sensibility of a non-profit organisation.”