Rasheeda Bhagat

Beyond chequebook philanthropy

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on March 12, 2018 Published on December 19, 2013

Educationist Nirmala Misra in conversation with Vodafone India CEO Marten Pieters. - Photo: Rasheeda Bhagat

Lakshmi's mission is to help acid victims file FIRs, get treatment and put theattackers behind bars.

Teenager Sheelu Singh has stormed the male bastion of Aalha folk music, confidently swinging the 5 kg sword as part of the performance.

Sunita Dhairyam runs a medical clinic for the needy along the border of a national park in Chamarajanagara district of Karnataka.

Saluting ordinary women who made an extraordinary difference.



The first thing that strikes you about these wonderful women with exceptional achievements, but hailing from ordinary backgrounds, is their holding their own amidst the glitterati at the ITC Maurya in Delhi, where the book Women of Pure Wonder is launched.

Brought out by Vodafone Foundation, it contains stories of famous women such as Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Lok Sabha MP Priya Dutt and IVF expert Indira Hinduja, but mainly unknown women achievers.

Whether it is Sheelu Singh Rajput, barely 17, who has shattered gender stereotypes and become an Aalha singer from Uttar Pradesh, or Lakshmi, badly burnt in an acid attack when she was only 13 and who now helps acid victims, or Nirmala Misra, who started a school in a godforsaken village in UP in 1972, they are at ease chatting with Vodafone’s big two - group CEO Vittorio Colao and India CEO Marten Pieters.

I love the way Nirmala, a little late for the photo-op with Pieters, insists that he sit beside her, gets hold of a translator - she prefers Hindi - and tells him her story! He listens, all attention!

Back of beyond

Earlier, she recalled to me how she was educated in Lucknow, and became principal of Jauhari Inter College. But after marrying S.B. Misra, who left behind a flourishing career as a geologist in Canada to follow his dream of starting a school in a UP village, she joined him in his work. There was no school for miles… it was like Mohenjo-daro and girls dropped out by Class Five, some even Class Two. “Nobody wanted to send their daughters to school; I went from door to door to explain to parents the importance of education and assured them their girls would be safe in our school.”

Her gentle, but firm counsel saw girls slowly coming to the Bharatiya Grameen Vidyalaya, which soon had 100 children, mainly from Scheduled classes. Gradually other castes followed; today the school has 800 children.

But getting the children into school was easier than running it. To reach it “I had to walk 15 km. During the rains it would be flooded and my husband thought I would give up.” She didn’t, using a change of clothes after wading through knee-deep water. “It was such a remote area that nobody went there, except the police occasionally, and imagine! girls came to study there,” she chuckles.

“Today I live in Lucknow and travel 48 km, because the body has aged. But I am proud that nearly 35,000 girls have passed through my school and many have even gone to college,” she adds.

Attracted by the sword

Sheelu struts through the five-star venue where Bollywood diva Kajol released the book, and shares the stage with aplomb with Priya Dutt, Shahnaz Husain and others.

So, what made her choose a male vocation such as Aalha folk music? These folk songs from north and central India are in an Awadhi dialect and the singers enact stories of valour of great kings such as Aalha and Udal. Not only has she busted a male bastion, she and her contemporaries have added the story of Rani ki Jhansi to this folk music.

Sheelu says that as a child, when she “heard this music and, more important, saw the Aalha singers swinging the sword, I was fascinated and said: ‘ Hum bhi talwar chalaynge! Jab Rani Lakshmibai chala sakti thi toh kyon hum nahi?’” When she saw a woman from Madhya Pradesh performing the Aalha, there was no stopping her. While performing for the first time at 15, at the Hanuman temple near her home, she was lucky to be spotted by Aalha Samrat Lallu Bajpai, who took her under his wings and trained her in this traditional art form. “Sadly he died recently,” she sighs.

The sword she swings weighs 5 kg; how does somebody so delicate manage to do it? After a giggle, she parts with the secret. “To get the strength, early mornings I eat chana (Bengal gram) soaked overnight, with almonds and milk, drink a hot glass of milk, and run about 1 km. In the night I eat apples after food.”

She has performed in Bhopal, Banaras, Delhi, “and now I will be going to London in July, so am making my passport”.

Luckily, unlike in many other traditional arts, there is “decent money in Aalha singing, apart from a monthly stipend of Rs 1,500; for each performance we (a group of seven) get around Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000”, she says.

What about marriage? “I am only 17,” she giggles. “Also, I am studying now (Second year B.A.). But when I am ready, I will look for a man who won’t stop me from singing but will help further my career,” she says confidently.

Sheelu has now become a role model. “Some girls are inspired by me,” she smiles. “I started at 15, but am now teaching a girl who is only eight; I want more girls to sing Aalha!”

So, would she sing for me?

“Of course,” she says, and without the least inhibition, in the little conference room buzzing with people, she starts singing. And it’s easy to see where her confidence comes from!

Infinite courage, resolve

Another inspiring story in the book is of Lakshmi, whose beautiful face was scarred by acid thrown at her by the brother of a 32-year-old man who had professed love to her. “He was my sister’s friend and I was just a child. I said I’m not interested.” She was attacked by the man and his girlfriend in Delhi’s Khan Market area. Luckily she saved her eyes by covering them instinctively with her hands, but one hand and one ear were badly burnt in the attack.

An active member of the ‘Stop Acid Attack’ campaign, Lakshmi, now 23, says the Supreme Court’s restrictions on acid sales are not enough. “The court will make the rules, but who is to implement them? In many cases the police favour the culprit and don’t even register an FIR.” Her mission is to help acid victims file FIRs, get treatment, put the attackers behind bars and, more important, “shame the guilty”.

She had her first surgery in 2002 at the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, two more in another government hospital and five surgeries in Apollo Hospitals. “The lady for whom my Papa works as a cook has spent over Rs 10 lakh on my surgeries. I come from a very ordinary family. And I still need two more surgeries.” One is to enable her to close one eye, which she can’t right now, and another to relax the skin on her face. “The skin is still very tight and it is quite painful when I talk or smile”.

But she does both … and in plenty… and asks, “Shouldn’t the man who sells acid so freely wonder what if it were to be used against his daughter?”

Her single message: don’t wait for the courts or police to act; society should ensure that those who indulge in this horrific method of disfiguring girls are suitably punished. After the attack, for many years she hid behind the walls of her home, but has now come out. “And we are encouraging all such girls to come out, and are telling them that they are so beautiful and smart… it is the criminal who should be ashamed and hide his face.” Slowly the girls are coming out.

Beyond the purdah

Other women from ordinary backgrounds celebrated in the book include Anita Rana, the demure Jat housewife from Meerut who was shattered by her husband’s sudden death 16 years ago from a heart attack. “I knew little else than cooking, jhadu-pocha (cleaning) and that he was doing good work to serve the people through his NGO.” Defying her family, she stepped out of purdah, took over the NGO and is today the recipient of many national and international awards, “including one from the British parliament”.

Her goal is to work relentlessly against female foeticide. “Do you know in Meerut and Baghpat the sex ratio is 1,000 boys to 865 girls?” Through a children’s helpline and working with likeminded people, she tries to bust clinics that perform sex selection scans, and takes in abandoned female newborns and places them in adoption. “I want to tell women that if there is a sudden tragedy or setback in your life, don’t be despondent. Get up, go out and work, and you’ll be rewarded.”

Sunita Dhairyam, Founder of Temple Tree Designs, is a wildlife photographer and artist who returned from the US in 1995, bought a barren piece of land — now not so barren — along the border of a national park in Chamarajanagara district of Karnataka, on which she runs a medical clinic for the needy. “It’s a constant struggle to raise the money because we also give compensation to those whose cows are killed by the tigers, but I raise money through my art, selling T-shirts I design.”

Head of Vodafone Foundation, Madhu Sirohi said the genesis of the book lay in the Red Rickshaw Revolution (where women rode rickshaws from Delhi to Mumbai) they had organised to focus on women’s empowerment. “Then we heard about many extraordinary women through NGOs, but were able to visit only 12 then.” Now, some of the other stories are told in this book.

Vodafone India CEO Pieters said the three priorities identified by its Foundation in India are environment, emancipation of women and education. “Doing something good in India is both easy and difficult; easy because there is so much happening here, but it is difficult to make a huge impact, so as an organisation you have to select your priorities.”

The focus is always on using technology through mobile phones to make a difference, particularly in education — teaching English — or helping members of organisations such as SEWA improve their sales. “Our CSR is through actual participation, we never do chequebook philanthropy,” adds Rohit Adya, Vodafone India’s Director, External Affairs.

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Published on December 19, 2013
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