Culture street

When management consultant Shreya Soni struck an acquaintance with some children she met on the street while driving to work every day, she noticed something. Although the government and many NGOs were working to improve their state of health and education, these children, forced to grow up too early to earn a living through begging, had little access to movies, art, music or any other aspects of culture. "Consequently, in addition to being impoverished economically, these children were also growing up to be culturally poor," she says. "They had no access to the vast cultural opportunities that that Delhi provides to its more privileged citizens."

This seemed odd to her, for children begging on streetlights probably needed a break, a lighthearted moment and the pleasure of seeing something beautiful. More importantly, access to culture could enable disadvantaged children to develop life-skills, build teamwork and self-confidence, even as it honed their aesthetic sense.

Thus,she conceived the idea of Picture Wala, a fortnightly entertainment club for street and slum children which would expose them to cinema, art, music, sports and other creative learning experiences. Soni organised the first Picture Wala event at her alma mater, Mothers International School, in 2014. "It was a screening of Iqbal, a film about a village boy who makes it to the Indian cricket team," she recalls. "The animated discussion the children had amongst themselves about the film after it was over showed me that I was onto something good here."

In spite of its lighthearted approach, things weren't easy for Picture Wala in the beginning. "Parents needed a lot of convincing," says Soni. This was why Soni decided to focus on a single slum in early 2015. "We've been able to establish a long-term relationships with several families at the Andrews Ganj basti," says Soni. At least a hundred children show up for each Picture Wala workshop, be it football training, art or a movie screening. This way they have also been able to track the difference that these workshops have made to the children they work with.

Muskaan is one such girl. Initially, she was shy and under-confident. Regular exposure to Picture Wala's workshops has enabled her to articulate her thoughts better. "Her grades began to improve in school and she started voicing her opinions with greater enthusiasm," says Soni. "Today, she leads many of the workshops we hold in her neighbourhood." What Picture Wala gives to children like Muskaan is much more than mere exposure to different means of self-expression. It provides an enabling environment that encourages them to look beyond the boundaries of their slum.

Parallel to their raison d'être of introducing culture to children, runs Picture Wala's aim of promoting volunteerism in India. "When poverty is at our doorsteps, the least we can do is take time out of our busy lives to do our bit to solve the problem," she says. As a result, today the NGO runs almost entirely on volunteers, with as many as 20 helping out during each workshop.

A typical Picture Wala workshop costs just about Rs 6,000 but funds are often a struggle for the NGO. Bookasmile, Soni says, has been a great support to Picture Wala. Recently, this social arm of the popular entertainment website Bookmyshow.com took 60 Picture Wala children to see The Jungle Book. The art supply company Stichas also supported them by contributing art supplies for all their art workshops. The Delhi Police helps with logistical support. "However, we need more funds to take this concept to more slums across the country," says Soni. She is now working on creating an open source model that can easily replicated by other individuals and organisations to start their own Picture Wala chapters.

Soni's dream is for there to be a Picture Wala chapter in every city and town, so that each child in every slum gets to experience not only the many facets of culture, but also for a short while, the simple joys of childhood that poverty has snatched away from them. />

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