In a small village in rural Odisha, far from the urban comforts we take for granted, the sound of children’s laughter echoes through the halls of a village school. A young boy skillfully copies Shahrukh Khan’s dance moves from Chennai Express while a little girl proudly shows off her drawing of the sun rising over her village. The man behind these brightly lit faces is Siddharth Vashisht, a 24 year old Production Engineering graduate from NIT Trichy with a passion for social work and performing arts.
After graduating from NIT Trichy, Siddharth landed a job at Tata Motors. While it offered him comfort, it left him feeling hollow. After a few days, he quit this job only to join SBI Young India Fellowship, where the Fellows are posted in rural pockets of the country to work on a project to benefit the locals. Siddharth found his calling in Kalahandi, one of the poorest districts in Odisha.
The Thuamulrampur block of Kalahandi district presents an antithetical combination of surplus natural resources and epidemic poverty with majority of people living below the poverty line. In fact, when I finally managed to get Siddharth on the phone, he shocked me by saying, “I have to travel around 13 kilometres everyday just to get network and around 70 to use the internet.”
While working on a mushroom cultivation project with the local community, Siddharth visited Shiksha Niketan, a school in Thuamulrampur run by the NGO he works with. In this tiny village school 90% of the students belong to tribal communities. The school has a tradition of something called ‘cultural weekends’, where the students perform some kind of an activity. It is here that Siddharth witnessed enthralling performances by the children on their cultural night. What amazed him was the sheer talent these children displayed despite lacking in professional training.
Armed with just his phone and speakers, Siddharth set out on a mission. Being passionate about dance and music, he began training these children. He regularly makes the long commute of 70 km to the nearest town to download songs and music videos using which he teaches the children and helps them practice.
It wasn’t just dance that they excelled at but even art and handicrafts. Siddharth believes that in order to nurture these talents and empower the children to reach the next level, a proper infrastructure is required. This would help them to finally break the shackles of poverty and explore the world. Thus, Project Udaan was born.
“My vision is to build and create a performing art space with basic infrastructure for these highly talented but economically disadvantaged tribal children. The space will not only help these children to hone and train on these skills but also give them other critical life skills such as confidence, self-esteem etc. I believe such a space has the power to shape the future of these children.” Siddharth says enthusiastically.
When asked how the kids responded to the Project, he recounts, “Kids were absolutely amazed. The lack of exposure is such that even the sight of the speakers makes them feel amused.”
Project Udaan is focused on setting up a fully functional cultural center at the Shiksha Niketan school in Thuamulrampur. The objective is to help these children realise that they can actually achieve their dreams and eventually turn their talents into careers. Helping these children think beyond the traditional education system is another important aspect of the project. Every child holds unique potential and Project Udaan aims to give flight to little dreams and turn them into reality.
Project Udaan is transitioning from a vision into reality through the power of the community. By crowdfunding, ordinary citizens have stepped up to help make this project come true in any way they can, whether it is by contributing instruments, donating to the cause or volunteering to conduct workshops. The walls of the school are soon going to be covered in wonderful murals by international artists.
Through such platforms and help from various well wishers, Siddharth has managed to raise 1.7 lakhs and has successfully set up a studio. “Everyone has been supportive including the headmaster of the school,” Siddharth adds, “He himself is trained in dramatics and every weekend the kids put up a cultural show.” When asked about future plans, Siddharth announced his decision to stay with the NGO and his wish to expand the project further. “For that we need more crowd funding activities, something that would ensure sustainable flow of money.”