Set up as a space for alternative ideas, Visthar buzzes with action 25 years down the line

Visthar is so named to connote a sense of ‘dimensions’, of ‘stretch’; its activities have, it turns out, expanded far beyond a single narrow focus.

Perhaps the best place to start is to describe it as an institute for peace studies: Visthar offers short and long-term courses in peace and conflict studies. David Selvaraj, Executive Director of Visthar, says this focus was born from something of a “sense of angst” that in Gandhi’s homeland, there wasn’t a well-established peace programme. “There have been attempts, but nothing in comparison to what you see in Europe and the U.S.”

The question to be quickly grappled with, once the focus on peace studies was arrived at, was what kind of peace would be the focus. The interest, David says, was in “lasting peace”, which necessarily brought in a dimension of equity and social justice. The term they coin to describe this idea is “justpeace”. “That is our USP,” he says.

Various roads to peace

Besides the peace studies element, a diversity of projects springs forth from Visthar, from Bandhavi — a school for girls at risk of being dedicated as devadasis — to gender training programmes for non-governmental organisations.

Every year, Visthar hosts the Bhoomi Habba, a “celebration of justpeace” that includes workshops, film screenings, international food and art.

Visthar is now entering its 25th year, and plans to focus on sustainable development in practice.

Back in 1988, when Visthar was set up, a combination of factors was at play, but the most important was the need to create and articulate an alternate space. “And not physical space alone,” says David, “it would have to be an alternate cultural and intellectual space — a symbolic, tiny defiance of that worldview that said there was no space outside the market.”

Promoting dialogue

The aim was also to bring people from diverse streams together — artists, activists, intellectuals, and so on. “There was a time when activists and intellectuals wouldn’t talk to each other; the role of art in social change was not recognised — they would say art was for a certain kind of art geek,” says David.

It began with a single room, and is now spread across a six-acre campus; Visthar now houses a performance space, a large dining area, accommodation for visitors and students and even a variety of fruit trees, besides their offices.

The city-based artist C.F. John, who was actively involved with Visthar in its early days, has also contributed several paintings and installations on communalism.

The space itself is built as sustainably as possible, with little cement and steel: many of the structures are made from mud.

A large well in the campus has dried up, and now instead acts as another venue for theatre performances and celebrations.

“We don’t own this space,” says David, “we are its stewards.”

(Visthar is near Karnataka Rehabilitation Centre, off Gubbi Road, Dodda Gubbi. Call 28465294.)