It’s one of those stories that make a case for poetic justice. The Salaam Baalak Trust—an organization founded by the proceeds of Mira Nair’s 1988 film on street children, Salaam Bombay—gives rise to a whole generation of photographers, musicians, dancers, thespians and puppeteers.
The 2004 Academy Award-winning documentary film, Born into Brothels, illustrated, in evocative footage, the saving power of art. The film documented British photojournalist Zana Briski teaching photography to a group of children living in Kolkata’s red-light district, Sonagachi. Their lives were transformed: Some of the children’s work was published internationally, and auctioned by Sotheby’s.
When we visit one of Salaam Baalak’s five shelters in Delhi—the Armaan children’s home in the Tis Hazari area—we’re caught by the frenetic energy in the air. The children are preparing for their annual day in the last week of November. Six-year-olds have lined up outside one room to audition. A cutting-edge contemporary dance piece is being rehearsed in another. And on the terrace, where we finally settle, a group of 30 children who’ve chosen dramatics are in the midst of improvisation exercises.
Eyes on the stage: (above) Kumar oversees Salaam Baalak children rehearsing a dance piece; and aspirants line up for theatre auditions at the Armaan children’s home. Photographs by Madhu Kapparath/Mint
The organization has had several “success” stories. There’s 22-year-old Vicky Roy, who came to Salaam Baalak as a ragpicker, and went on to exhibit his photographs not just at the India Habitat Centre, but also at exhibitions in London and New York. Shamsul, 28, is one of the most sought-after puppeteers in the country and Avinash Kumar, 27, is first assistant to choreographer Astad Deboo.
Salaam Baalak emphasizes art education, even letting the children sift through multiple forms before settling on one that works best. The trust encourages children who reach the age of 18 to sustain themselves. “Education without livelihood is not a viable option,” says Praveen Nair, founder and chairperson.
Nair explains that since a lot of the children come to Trust homes when they’re as old as 12, it’s difficult to get them adjusted to a regimented routine, or even regular school hours. “It’s easier to reach out to them through theatre or dance. It prepares them for classroom schooling as well,” says Nair. Salaam Baalak ideally wants all its children to study at least till class XII but many are unable to cope. “But take any art form, and these children will be better than their privileged peers,” says Nair.
Art education serves a dual purpose here: It works to rehabilitate the children as well as open them up to a possible means of livelihood in which they can excel.
Because of the Trust’s goodwill and networks, several institutions waive their fees or provide a discount at the very least.
We meet 22-year-old Firoz Khan, who aspires to be a fashion photographer (like Atul Kasbekar, he insists). He’s been working hard towards his dream and has interned with two professional photographers (one of whom gave him a Canon DSLR 1000D in lieu of payment). Even though the Apex academy, a photography academy, has waived 30% of his course fee, the Trust invests generously in his ambition, paying Rs 84,000 for his one-year diploma course in photography.
Nair and her colleagues rope in established practitioners to mentor and guide the children and some of these lead to professional alliances. Shamsul learnt under the father of modern Indian puppetry, Dadi Pudumjee, and now performs with him. Likewise for Kumar, who was introduced to Deboo by Salaam Baalak’s founding trustee, Sanjoy Roy. Deboo is presently travelling with a production called Breaking Boundaries with 14 children from Salaam Baalak.
Other organizations are working along the same lines. The Aga Khan Foundation has been, for the last two years, running theatre and craft workshops for the children of Delhi’s Nizamuddin Basti. They hope to identify core skill groups among the children and train possible conservationists from within the underprivileged communities that surround the Islamic monuments around which its work is centred.
Twenty-three-year-old Mohammed Shameem came to Salaam Baalak 10 years ago. He first studied theatre and then sculpture, before deciding that puppet theatre was his calling. Today, he has his own production house, Kuch Kuch Puppet Theatre. He’s just back from performing in Linz, Austria; he goes to Zurich for a show in December. He took to puppetry because he was weary of the pity his street child status elicited from people. “But when people come up to me after my shows now and ask me about my background, they refuse to believe that I’m an ‘NGO child’,” he says. “Now I introduce myself as a puppeteer,” says Shameem.