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This visionary introduces the joy of art to disadvantaged children10 min read

July 16, 2021 7 min read

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This visionary introduces the joy of art to disadvantaged children10 min read

Reading Time: 7 minutes

A blank sheet of paper. Fresh crayons. And a world of possibility! Isn’t it one of the most exciting feelings to create something out of nothing?!

Image: Giphy

Owliver met Sriram V. Ayer, the founder of Nalandaway Foundation, who wants to take this joy of visual and performing art to children from disadvantaged communities.

The Nalandaway Foundation is committed to improving learning abilities, cultivating positive behaviour, and enabling children to express creatively through art. In its fifteenth year, the organisation has positively influenced the lives of millions of children through their programmes.

Sriram is a writer, social entrepreneur and a storyteller. An Ashoka Fellow, Sriram has been named amongst the top 50 social entrepreneurs in India by Outlook Business. He is the recipient of many prestigious awards including the World Bank’s Development Marketplace award, “Architect of the future” by Waldzell Institute, and Millennium Award by FICCI/USAID. He is also a key partner to the Singapore International Foundation for the global “Arts for Good Fellowship” where creative professionals get together to work on projects on social welfare.

His journey from being a corporate professional to the founder of a heartwarming social venture is an inspirational one.

Let’s get to know this trailblazer, shall we?

How did it all begin?

The journey began at a difficult time. In 2002, while I was still working at a technology firm, I happened to be in Gujarat to meet some clients. This was when the Godhra riots broke out. It got me thinking— What causes such hate and violence? Is there something we can do to prevent violence or hate? They remained as spiritual questions for me, and led to multiple conversations with people who have worked in education, community building, and spiritual work. I realised that hate and violence are a consequences of circumstance. As humans, we are naturally kind and compassionate. What I saw as a part of the rescue operations post the 2004 Tsunami affirmed by faith in congenital human kindness. I realised that fear and ignorance are the primary causes for anger and violence, as their expressions. This was the redeeming thought that made me believe that we can do something about it! We can help people find ways to channelise their fears and express them in a non-violent way. That’s where art came to the rescue.

In 2005, I quit my job and Nalandaway was born.

“I took a pilgrimage from Buddha’s place of birth to the place he gained Nirvana when I found about Nalanda, and the whole system of learning there. There, the students decided how they wished to learn.”

Why did he choose art as the medium for social change?

I feel that art as an experience allows us to express our fears in a positive way. It allows us to make meaning of our challenges and experiences. All around us we see that children are growing up without experiencing art, around adults who have no experience of art. Not everyone gets to experience what it feels like to be involved in this immersive experience and what that can do to your personality, and empathy! We wanted to facilitate this experience for children across sections of society.

Image: Your Story

What were some of the challenges he recognised along the way?

We found some deep seated structural constraints in children as we continued to work in marginalised communities. Fear is so ingrained in the way we grow up. I remember how my school days were completely driven by fear! And that was so destabilising. I see that for so many children even now. For children from disadvantaged or vulnerable groups, school is primarily a place where they are learning that which is not relevant, where there is no joy of learning, where there is fear of beaten up or abused. So this constant fear of the subject, teacher, of not doing well, of being judged, is ruining the experience of education for millions of our children.


“We took one subject for a group of 13 year old boys that they disliked. It turned out to be history. We got a theatre practitioner to work on a chapter with them. With the practitioner’s help, the students converted the chapter into a play that they staged before an audience. They took the same chapter in the exam, and they remembered everything! It is not that kids are not interested in studying. It is how it is taught to them. If everything can be taught through art and play, everything is happy, joyous and free, away from the violence that is structurally there in a classroom.
And that was a huge eureka moment for us that art will work!”

Was art a big part of his childhood?

I was very shy in school. I remember feeling the pressure of exams, and the fear of math. Personally, I was someone who was interested in drawing or painting because that was the only class where I would be less afraid. I could be somebody who was not judged. That was the only place where I did something where I felt I was somebody. I felt confident about myself.

What would he consider a breakthrough moment?

There have been many such moments. These have been high inflection points in my personal journey to find purpose, and also pivoting moments for Nalandaway.

One such moment was in 2010 when we readdressed our purpose. While we were working with children all across India, our interaction with them remained limited to the time of our workshop. But we began asking what after that? What is our ethical responsibility towards them? So, in 2010, we decided to do programmes which were sustainable. We decided that we are going to sit in one place and work with a group of children for a long time. For this, we built a lot of resources, and added depth to our our product.

Another moment I remember is from when we took our Chennai Children’s Choir for a performance at the John F. Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C. It was an inclusive group of 33 children. And here they were in this grand Gothic church in D.C. preparing for their performance. I remember they were there for their soundcheck. They belted out a beautiful Bharathi Tamil song. Imagine a child who is a Dalit, Muslim, has never left Chennai singing in a Church in USA in Tamil! I had goosebumps.

Meet the choir:

What role does art play in moments of crisis like the Pandemic?

In fact, the pandemic was another pivotal moment for us to define our purpose. The pandemic reminded us that our lives are so fragile. The only thing we can control is how can we be of service to someone else. Can everyday be in the service of a child? Can we share hope and joy in a sustainable way that can make a difference to children?
With this aim, we created programmes that impacted 7-8 lakhs children through art and stories. The response has assured us of its significance. It has brought more urgency to our work.

We created a series of set of guides, Art for Well Being, for parents to help them enable their children to express. What was created in English was translated to Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Telegu, Marathi, Vietnamese, Malay, Italian, German and French all by volunteers across the world. Parents have reached out to us saying that this is the only thing that helped their children make sense of what was happening with them.

It will take time for children, especially from disadvantaged groups, to go back into the rhythm of education. Art and its experience allows them to build confidence and trust education again.

What role does art play in maintaining good mental health?

Image: DT Next

A large part of our work is around mental health and well being. And it effects very small children too. In marginalised communities, children have access to all sorts of violences. Poverty is such a violence too. It effects the physical nervous system responsible for social behaviour. This, in turn, effects how children see their world. This is also true of children with different abilities and what art, music, and dance can actually do to them. Art gives them a language and vocabulary to express their feelings, to build capacity for emotional self-recognition. There is no alternative as good as art.

Who inspires him?

I am greatly inspired by the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Buddha, and Mother Teresa. In Vienna, I studied under Brother David. He is a strong propagator of grateful living. At that moment, I wanted to become his disciple. When I asked his permission, he said something very profound, “Go to the poor of India, they will teach you more than I ever can.” I get goosebumps when I remember that. Everyday the kind of resilience and hope I see on the faces of people who have gone through such suffering, especially over the last year, overwhelms me. It also reminds me of my privilege and makes me grateful for the beautiful world I get to be a part of.

His message for our readers:

Are you up for the challenge?

If you are still looking for some inspiration, see how NalandaWay celebrated its tenth anniversary, five years ago:

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