V.R. Devika links urban and rural schools through folk art performances and introduces children to Gandhian values.

“It's very meditative,” V.R. Devika says, as she turns the handle of her pethi charkha gently. In her other hand, she holds a clutch of cotton which, when tugged at just the right angle, metamorphoses into a steady, unbroken string. “Mahatma Gandhi was an excellent strategist. If your hands are busy, you don't turn to violence.”

Devika, founder of the Aseema Trust, is full of stories of Gandhi. “Back then, you could spin yarn and exchange it for pulses. Imagine the tremendous power it put in the hands of women!”

The Aseema Trust works towards creating a space for folk arts in urban spaces. “Through lecture demonstrations, discussions and performances,” she says. “I have learnt not to differentiate between the classical and folk arts. What does ‘folk' mean? People. So, people's art.” Perhaps that is also why the Trust has a clear mandate about linking rural and urban schools through folk performing arts, and to use them as tools of empowerment. “Their context, their complexity, their richness. There is so much children could learn from it,” she says.

Devika, who is from a family of 11, moved here from Mysore with plans of doing a Master's in Psychology. “To pass time, I started teaching in a kindergarten down the road from my house. Suffice to say I completely forgot about my Masters!”

That is also how dance came to form a significant part of Devika's life. “I discovered that it helped in my classes. To communicate. You learn triangles, parallel lines, and geometry — all using your body. And you learn to tell stories!” For several years, she trained with the Dhananjayans in Bharatanatyam. “But I had already decided that I would not perform. I only wanted to feel dance in my body.” After 22 years of learning dance, she has not had her arangetram. “It gave me the freedom to learn whatever I wanted.”

There has also been an attempt to use the performing arts to reach children and women with traumatic pasts. “There was a girl who had seen her mother commit suicide. She used to pour sand on her head, shred her clothes, tear her books.” Devika recollects how the project changed her as a person, helped heal her wounds.

Devika, who is also a co-ordinator of the Prakriti Foundation, bemoans the loss of understanding we have about the importance of skills in education. “Ask a graduate to change a light bulb, and you'll understand what I'm talking about!” It's the same with arts, she says. “I'm shocked by the disregard we show to the arts in our curricula. Through them, we can teach them ideas and concepts so much more effectively than through textbooks alone. Through history, we've seen that a message conveyed in melody-meter and performances reaches faster, more definitively. Religions have understood this, as have political parties with their slogans and advertising agencies with their jingles. Why not use them in education?”

Devika reiterates that Gandhi had brilliant ideas about education. “And as a teacher, it was my responsibility to bring it to the classroom.” She has designed education programmes both for the Madras Craft Foundation, as well as INTACH. The Trust also has taken the charkha to several schools in the city, teaching children how to spin. They are now culminating a year of projects with their ‘Peace and I' festival, celebrating creative ways of looking at peace.