Saturday, June 2, 2007


By Krishna Kanjilal

With inputs from:

Sonali Chaudhari

Ever since her brother told her, "You have more roles to play in society than sister, daughter, wife and mother," life has changed for Bhanumati Narasimhan. Her brother is no ordinary person. He is the
internationally revered spiritual leader His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. "I had two children and was involved with my family. But after what he told me, I started fulfilling my responsibility towards society," says Smt. Bhanumati .

She began with rural literacy. Currently she is actively involved in the running of the Ved Vignan Maha Vidya Peeth School , a free rural school on the campus of the International Centre of The Art of Living in Bangalore. She has taken the school from 150 children in 1981 to over 2,000 children today. Most of these are first generation learners, coming from 50 surrounding villages.

"We had a difficult task cajoling the villagers to send their children to school when we started 15 years ago," recalls Bhanumati. But today, it's a different story with the school boasting of a zero dropout rate and a 95 per cent success rate in the board examinations. Significantly, girls constitute 46 per cent of students.

Born on
January 11, 1958, in Papanasam in Tamil Nadu, spirituality has been a part of her life since a very young age. Today, she reaches out to thousands in over 100 countries, directing humanitarian projects, teaching meditation and reviving ancient Indian wisdom, culture and tradition. She has travelled to different parts of the world, teaching meditation to people from different backgrounds and cultures.

Empowerment of women, especially rural women, is a cause close to her heart. Believing that "empowering the woman is equivalent to empowering the entire household," Bhanumati, also known as Bhanu, has guided various women-centric projects run by VISTA India (Value Integrated Services Towards All). This decade-old institution imparts training in skills and education to women from the remotest villages of Karnataka.

So far, over 2,000 rural women have found new meaning in their lives thanks to
VISTA's initiatives. Their activities include tailoring, making pickles, honey, ghee, making handbags and handicrafts. These women are provided with markets for their produce, thus opening avenues of economic

In 1995, Bhanumati addressed the UN-organised women's conference in
Beijing . Her brainchild 'Strength of A Woman', an international women's conference is now becoming a global forum for urban and rural women to share and exchange their dreams and ideas. Last year 350 delegates from 40 countries including Iraq , Pakistan , Africa and Australia attended the women's conference at The Art of Living International Headquarters in Bangalore.

" Urban women can learn so much from their rural counterparts," says Bhanu. "They have very strong values. They just need help with learning basic skills such as starting and operating a bank account, etc."

Feature Writer and grass-root researcher and implementer, Ms.Krishna Kanjilal, had the occasion to interview Smt. Bhanumati Narasimhan during one of her visits to Delhi. Excerpts of the interview are as follows:

KK: How do you define empowerment?

BN: Empowerment, according to me is for a woman to keep a sustainability in whatever she is doing.

KK: Is it complete economic independence or supplementing the family income?

BN: It is contributing partially to the family income. We want to empower them morally as well as monetarily. This is my definition of empowerment.

KK: How do you empower them morally as well as monetarily? Would you like to elaborate on that?

BN: When we were working in the villages, we found that the main defect in our system was that the girls were married off at a very early age. They got married immediately after reaching puberty, at the age of 12, 13 or 14. Once a girl got married, by the time she was 19 or 20 she would have 3-4 children. She would have one child almost every year. By the age of 20, she has to take care of 3-4 children, they would have malnutrition, she herself would be too weak to take care of them and would have to work in the house. She has to take too much responsibility. By this time if she has two or three daughters, then the husband wants to have a second wife so that he can have a son. After having two girls, they feel the girls becoming a burden, then they want to marry them off. Such things are happening. The young mother gets so tired of life that she wants to commit suicide. We know many such girls. That is why we started VISTA India (Value Integrated Services Towards All), wherein these girls come; every morning we bring them from different villages. They come and learn a few things like a little bit of pranayam, to keep their mind calm. Just consoling them and giving advice does not suffice. You have to give them something practical. We make them do ‘Pranayam’ and Meditation and give them nutritious ‘satvik’ food. We encourage them to use their own traditional medicine. For small things they don’t go to doctors.

KK: There is a lot of knowledge among them about these herbal medicines. Is there any trainer - trainee interface? Do you also learn something from these poor village women?

BN: Yes. There is so much to learn from them. I have heard of one person who has saved 3000 people who had been bitten by snakes. If you go to a doctor, they will keep you in the intensive care unit for one day and give you many injections, but here they have this one little herb which they rub on the spot that has been bitten and the poison just goes away. So these are amazing things that you can learn from them. I feel you can learn from them as well as help them in some ways. We teach them to open bank accounts and this money goes into recurring deposits because what these women earn ie., Rs.200/- to Rs.300/- per week is not going to help them to build anything much, but after two years it starts building up, say Rs.1000/- per month. And for two years they come to your project continuously, otherwise there will be many dropouts. People in their homes may also try to stop them. In this way you are assured that they will come and also learn something. Therefore we named this project “Earn while you learn” . We also teach them how to do the traditional activities hygienically. Making pickles is very easy for them, vegetable powder, papads etc. are also easy, but they have to do it hygienically.

KK: How do you market these?

BN: We have our own marketing system and we also teach them marketing skills. They also learn tailoring. It is expensive for them to go to a tailor for their own clothes. Therefore they bring their own things and stitch them here. They look forward to our bus picking them up every morning.

KK: From where do they come?

BN: From about 30 villages around our locality.

KK: What age group do these women belong to?

BN: From 13yrs to 30 yrs. We have 200 girls now. We have four centres already. There are about 60-80 women in each centre but the main centre has 200 women. There is zero dropout. All our projects including my school (Ved Vigyan Maha Vidya Peeth) have a zero dropout rate. We started with 30 children 25 yrs back, now 2500 children are there. Not one of them has dropped out. In the villages girls drop out very easily. In our school the children are so happy and energetic. Every day they come. You have to see their attendance to believe all this. You cannot even believe that they are poor children. They are so vibrant. We give them 3 sets of uniforms- 2 coloured and 1 white. They arrive neat and clean. We have regular checkups for them. Medical checkups, dental checkups. The doctors are from among our volunteers. More than charity, it is run by devotion. It doesn’t even cost so much. Like a doctor comes and volunteers to do medical checkups and he / she brings other doctors. Now we have started almost 100 schools around India.

KK: Is this spread all over the tribal belt?

BN: Yes. In Jharkhand, Tripura, Assam, Orissa……This is my baby, I take care of this.

KK: How did you go about the literacy programme? What kind of literacy is it? Any resistance from their side?

BN: No. Every day they come and we teach them bhajans, and through songs we teach them in the local language. Our school is in the local language ie., Kannada. The children learn Sanskrit, Hindi and English as well. We follow the state syllabus. Everything is free for them. We also have moral education classes and all our students are taught meditation. Then they read the newspaper for a while. We also have Leadership Training Programmes for them when they reach 8th and 9th standard. From 8th standard we have tailoring classes and computer classes. We also teach them plumbing, electricals, carpentry etc. Just an introduction. We also have Youth Programmes. They are encouraged to plant trees in the villages.

KK: In Karnataka is there gender bias against women workers?

BN: I have heard about masonry. A woman is paid Rs.10-15 while a man is paid Rs.20-25 per day for the same work. That is there in Karnataka. Women are termed “Unskilled labour” and men are called “Skilled labour”.

KK: When is the upcoming Women’s Conference being held?

BM: In June. This time it is called ‘Ichcha Shakti, Kriya Shakti, Gyana Shakti’(strength in will, strength in action and strength in knowledge) . Last time it was ‘Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati’. We want to introduce our Indian cultural heritage. Last year women from about 40 countries participated. This year we are expecting more. Women who have an impact on society will speak. It will be a three day conference.

KK: Thank you very much. We wish you all the best in your endeavour.