They’re not as serene as they seem to be

Minimum wage violations perpetuate modern-day feudalism on Assam’s tea plantations

Recently had the opportunity to be published in the Hindustan Times as the co-author of an op-ed developed with Francesca Cespi Feruglio during my time with Nazdeek as part of my research fellowship with India China Institute.

Colonial-era labour structures, faulty trade union practices and corporate greed are responsible for unjust wages…  The current state of the plantations is nothing short of modern-day feudalism—taking the migrant population, placing it in social isolation and ensuring the people live in abject poverty with little to no access to education, health, food or an alternative livelihood. Plantation owners eliminate any opportunity for social mobility.

See the full article here.

Hope through music

 

 Hope through music

Mahesh’s Interview

Dharavi, being one of the biggest slums in the world, has many challenges regarding waste management, transportation, garbage disposal, and clean water. Clearly, families living in Dharavi cope with this situation by taking part in traditional and ludic activities such as praying, dancing, singing, and celebrating religious holidays. While working at Dharavi, we were invited not only to interview the children’s parents in their own homes, but have the opportunity to share with them some time, talking about music and art, and how Mewsic has influenced positively their children’s lives.

 Hope through music

With Sachin and Kaajal

One of the interviews we conducted was with Sanjay (Mahesh’s student)and his mom, a women head of household, who just 4 years ago lost her husband due to asthma complications. She lives with Sanjay in a small yet humble, 9 sq mt house in the middle of Dharavi; a little over 15 minutes away from the Mewsic Center. While interviewing her, one could sense her devout religiousness and hard-working attitude. Being a single mom is definitely not an easy task, but she was confident when saying the communication with his son has improved immensely since he started playing the guitar and flute at the Mewsic Center. She saw Sanjay perform at the Music Mela (a performance event with music presentations) and was so overwhelmed with his performance, she couldn’t help it and started crying while her interview. One of the several testimonies we got this day in Dharavi (in addition to Kaajal and her mom), also from parents who see in their child hope of a better future, serves as an example of how music empowers these children, and how through music, they have a chance of gaining another perspective of life, despite their socio-economic situation. Continuing with more footage and looking forward to additional tutor interviews and parents with their kids.

Interviews at Govandi

 Interviews at Govandi

Dance kids at Govandi

Our visit to the Govandi music centre was very productive and proactive. We met with the dance tutor, Sachin and witnessed a remarkable dance session with the children. Having experienced yesterday the Dahihandi festival (or Govinda sport) in the streets of the Mahalaxmi area, it is clear that dance and music is key to their cultural development and traditions, both individually and collectively. The Dahihandi festival celebrates the story of Krishna, trying to reach the top shelves of the house and eat a bowl full of buttermilk. Numerous groups of children (both girls and boys) team up and strategize to build human pyramids, resembling Krishna’s effort to reach the top. It consists of an entire day of festivities, where multiple politicians and their political parties support financially the festival.

Similar to the music heard at Dahihandi, children at the music centre were dancing to Bollywood item numbers, contemporary music, hip hop, and dub step beats with carefully selected choreographies taught by Sachin, their music tutor. Their energetic faces and bodies make them seem as truly professional dancers and artists. We started the interviewing process for the documentary with a 10 year-old girl named Nida. She lives only 4 blocks away from the music centre in the middle of Govandi. We had a very interesting conversation, facilitated by Astrid and Sachin (serving as translators), about her talent as a dancer, what her thoughts for the future were, and her experience at the Maharashtra dance competition where she participated. We continued with Sachin. He talked more in depth about his dance expertise, his background, and how he plans to have his own dance academy for the community. He stressed the fact that he likes to send a message with his choreographies, considering the social problems they face both as a community and as a country.

 Interviews at Govandi

Nida’s Interview

Mewsic has several advantages in the community. Many people have been following their activities and concerts, which is why they have several collaborators and mobilizers. The mobilisers help to spread the word about music classes and programming around the community, while also bonding with the children’s parents and families. Thanks to one of the mobilisers, we met Nadi’s family. We visited their home and spoke to her for a while. She stated she likes to see her daughter dance (Nida’s oldest sister also danced at Mewsic, and now she attends college for a BA in Commerce). Even though Muslim families have different perspectives about artistic and musical endeavours, Nida’s mom is a complete fan of her daughter’s dance skills, and supports her as long as she goes to school and remains with good grades. All in all, great footage and a truly enlightening day. Tomorrow, we’ll speak to other students at Dharavi music center.

Trip to the Lotus Temple

Day 22 in New Delhi

For my last afternoon in Delhi, I wanted something calm and relaxing so I headed south to the Baha’i Lotus Temple, an astounding piece of modern architecture. I had the opportunity to walk the grounds, learn a bit about the Baha’i faith, and sit in on a service. Baha’i works to find the unity in all major world religions, and for the service I joined practitioners read verses from the New Testament, the Hebrew Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Quran followed by a period of silent, personal prayer and reflection.  This gave me time to think back on my experience with Nazdeek, plan out what might come next for the project, and prepare for the start of my last year of graduate school–courses start just a week after I return.

Coming from a background in both religious studies and architecture this was an amazing experience both in terms of the content of the service and the design of the space. I couldn’t think of a better way to end my trip. Photography was not allowed inside the temple, but here are some shots of the exterior:

A view of Mumbai

IMG 1729 300x200 A view of Mumbai

Incense and prayer

Throughout the weekend, since it was mainly about Independence Day, most governmental institutions and venues were closed except museums and other tourist sights. Considering filming and shooting without permission in Mumbai is against the law, due to the 2008 terrorist attacks, getting footage for the project has been quite a challenge. Most of the footage I’ve been aiming to get while not working with Mewsic and the children is from the city, the traditions and cultures one can experience in urban settings, traveling by auto rickshaw, train and taxi cabs, and through common day-to-day activities. In some of the temples, people are OK with tourist taking pictures and watching their prayers. Here’s a photo from the popular Jain Temple in the city. Particularly, policemen can be found in every single train station, and they will make you delete any snapshots you’ve taken with your camera, let alone any semi-professional DSLR’s or similar.

IMG 1973 300x200 A view of Mumbai

Man near CST

After a week staying in Mumbai, I’ve gotten the hang of the train system. Quite different than New York’s complex yet efficient system, Mumbai’s railway system is a bit more tough to handle and manage. Orientation in the city is not that hard; trains go from north to south and have both western and central railways. The first couple of rides tested my ability to fight for a spot within the 1st (100 INR or more) and 2nd class (5-10 INR) cars. Clearly, the 2nd class cabins are packed most of the time. Men are the common customers in 2nd class since it is too packed for women to travel (given the circumstances in gender violence cases). Train travel is a great option to check out the city and get away from the hustle bustle of constant honking in the streets and chaotic pedestrian walking. One thing to admire is the great railway system implemented by the British more than 100 years ago. Unfortunately, most of the architecture of train stations as well as buildings and classic British houses have been left without any restoration, making most of Mumbai’s views and urban scenery old and grey. Mumbai’s main train station, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus – CST (Victoria Terminal) is a beautiful building, also designed while the British empire ruled Mumbai. Major local, express, and city-to-city trains leave and arrive from this station, making it one of the busiest around town. I’ve been able to get great footage if Mumbai’s citizens, seeing how they live, how they relate to one another, and how they are part of a huge dynamic metropolis. The city of the 7 islands, or how the Portugues used to call it, Bom-Bahia… Bombay.

IMG 1744 e1408288713994 200x300 A view of Mumbai

Jain Temple

IMG 1734 e1408288768835 200x300 A view of Mumbai

Man at Jain Temple

Trip to Red Fort and Jantar Mantar

Day 21 in New Delhi

After an exciting three weeks of work with Nazdeek and a day of celebrating Indian Independence on the 15th, I took a trip to the famous Red Fort, the walled residence of Mughal emperors from the 15th to the 17th century.

On the way over, however, I stopped at Jantar Mantar, a fascinating architectural complex designed for astrological observation in 1724. Having studied Jantar Mantar in architectural history courses, I was quite excited to experience this little known wonder in the heart of Delhi, only to find that the complex is currently under renovation. While the construction did interfere with my visit, I was happy to know that the site is being preserved after years of disrepair.

Sounds from Govandi

Children playing 300x225 Sounds from Govandi

Children at Govandi

Govandi has many things to offer. After the day spent at the Dharavi slum Mewsic center, we traveled east to Govandi, where the other music center is located, and where other children attend. Govandi is mainly known for the surrounding waste dump, one of the three that Mumbai has. It also offers a diverse palette of cultures and religions all situated in a very close and dense area. From the three-story rooftops, one can see the mosque which through its call to prayer gives the community an every day soundtrack. When we first arrived, there were no attendants. On the first floor of the community center, a group of hindi women were having a meeting and watching an instructional video about birth control. While we waited on the second floor, we spoke some more with Mahesh (music tutor) about the concept and idea for the documentary project. He gave very valuable insight regarding the children’s backgrounds, why they chose to learn music, and some of the feedback he has gotten from the children while at Mewsic.

IMG 1682 300x200 Sounds from Govandi

At Govandi Music Center

After a while, the room slowly started to be filled with after-school kids, since usually the music classes start around 12:30 or 1:00 pm. Almost half of the children came thinking the session was for dance, but chose to stay and watch the guitar and keyboard students practice their Bollywood item numbers. This session was also very intriguing. We played with the harmonium, adding more depth and texture to the songs they were playing. After the session, we walked around the community, not only getting some footage, but also observing the day-to-day activities of the people, their micro-businesses, and inevitably, the conditions they currently live in.

IMG 1763 300x200 Sounds from Govandi

Elephanta Caves

With some time to spare today, due to the Independence Day preparations, the Elephanta caves were an ideal destiny to start immersing myself in the hindi culture and tradition. The tumultuous ferry ride (due to the unpredictable monsoon weather) takes around 45 minutes. After a 10 minute walk uphill, 7 caves and many monkey thieves welcome people. Looking forward to Independence day celebrations!

Trip to Humayun's Tomb

Day 19 in New Delhi

After my last day of work with Nazdeek, I decided to take a sunset trip to Humayun’s Tomb, just 10 minutes via auto from my office. Humanyun’s Tomb is precursor to the Taj by about 100 years, but the two possess many architectural similarities. A beautiful site to say the least. Below are the photos from the visit.

Every Mother Counts: Storytelling to Combat Maternal Mortality in India

Day 17 in New Delhi

As part of their ongoing mission to bring access to justice closer to marginalized communities in India, Nazdeek was recently awarded a Grant from Every Mother Counts, a non-profit organization dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother.

A Home Life 2 Every Mother Counts: Storytelling to Combat Maternal Mortality in India

Nazdeek, with the support of Every Mother Counts, is working to make pregnancy and childbirth safer for women like Sonali to ensure they receive the maternal health care they are entitled to.

In India, 50,000 women die from pregnancy and childbirth related causes every year; this accounts for 17% of all maternal deaths globally, more than any other country in the world. Culturally accepted discrimination against women—particularly poor women from lower castes and indigenous communities—drive India’s high rate of maternal deaths.

Key members of the Nazdeek staff were essential in the landmark case that first recognized maternal mortality as a human rights violation and the right to survive pregnancy as a fundamental right protected by the Indian Constitution.  Expanding and protecting women’s access to maternal health has been a central tenet of Nazdeek’s work. Funds from Every Mother Counts’ Impact Grant will enable Nazdeek to train activists and lawyers to document maternal health and infant health rights violations and use legal advocacy to demand better healthcare for mothers.

I has a chance to create the following photo series to kick-off Nazdeek’s work with Every Mother Counts. The amazing photographs were provided by Rajan Zaveri and Carlo Ghidini, I did content selection and photo-editing. The series is meant to exposes the current barriers to maternal health care on tea gardens in Assam, India.

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Every month, Nazdeek will be releasing another storytelling piece highlighting the impact of their projects in Delhi and Assam. With the help and support of Every Mother Counts, Nazdeek will continue to combat violations of  maternal health rights and work to put an end to preventable maternal deaths in Delhi, Assam, and across India.

Sounds from Dharavi

 Sounds from Dharavi

Astrid, Andres, Tomas

Even though the jet lag has finally caught up with me, every detail from Mumbai boosts the adrenaline. Yesterday was a very exciting day. I met the staff at Mewsic. Andres (program manager), Astrid (programming assistant), Elise (Head of Programming), Nandita (director), among other interns and technical assistants. We talked mainly about the impressions I’ve had while staying in Mumbai, the cultural differences with Colombia and the US. After the introductions, we got into the details of the itinerary and the plans we’ve been talking about over the past few months. Most importantly, we figured out how to divide the time strategically, in order to cover as much as possible, taking into account that getting acquainted with the children in their own communities can take time, developing their trust and comfort around us. We decided on going this week to Dharavi and Govandi (two of the major slums in Mumbai and the world), meet the children and their tutors, and establish some sort of ‘music connection’ with them.

Auto Rickshaw driver 300x225 Sounds from Dharavi

Auto Rickshaw driver

Today, we started the journey to Dharavi around 11:30 in the morning. Apparently, getting a taxi cab all the way to Dharavi is a bit tricky, since most taxis will not take anyone due to increased traffic jams and the fact that little to no customers will take the taxi back into town. We hopped on an auto rickshaw and soundtracked by the almost musical horns and honking, we arrived to the borderline of the Dharavi slum, where a few taxi cabs are waiting. Even then it was hard to find one that would agree on taking us. After much traffic, congestion, and raindrops, we arrived at the maze-like entrance of one of the sections of Dharavi, where the Mewsic centre is located. At first, it seems as if we were going inside closed pathways, but the more you delve into the concrete walls, the more spaces you find. Finally, at the music centre, all was good among the language of music. No more honking, no more chaos, just organised sound.

IMG 1623 300x200 Sounds from Dharavi

Girls at Dharavi

We met with Mahesh, one of the music tutors at the centre. Around 8-10 kids came to this first session. We shared a few tunes, playing Indian classic music (apparently, they are fond of the Bollywood traditional item numbers), and I even jammed along with some improvisation on the Roland SP-10 (an Octapad, with percussion and drum MIDI sounds). I taught both a student and the tutor some basic rock and pop rhythms on the Octapad, teaching them how to control the device, change sound parameters, and vary the effects of each sound.

IMG 1540 300x200 Sounds from Dharavi

At the Mewsic Center (Dharavi)

On our return, we focused on the planning for the actual filming and based on the impressions from today, we started developing more precise questions to ask the children (from Dharavi and Govandi) for the documentary. The questionnaire is a work in progress and will eventually have its final version by the end of the week, after we visit Govandi. Overall, today’s experience was unique and memorable. Even though the language barrier is evident, music has definitely no barrier. In fact, it is limitless and powerful. Seeing how these children enjoy music a couple of hours everyday, is a clear testament of the importance of music in people’s lives. It empowers and enriches our day-to-day activities.

 

 

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