Children from an impoverished locality in south-east Delhi are trying to re-write their destiny through poems, paintings, short-stories and films based on the life of maverick artist Rabindranath Tagore. 

The students Farhana Saifi, Kiran Rai, Arti Yadav, Adeeba Saifi, Abdul Karim and Hasan Raza Naqvi have embraced Tagore’s philosophy on freedom of expression, women’s rights, education and self-reliance to tide over the difficulties in their own lives. 

"Rabindranath Tagore has not just influenced my work; his teachings have also given me a new outlook towards life. I enjoy painting his women characters like Kumudini, Mrinal and Charulata on the canvas. These characters are symbolic of the modern day women," says Adeeba, a class 12th student. 

Aseem Asha Usman who started the Aseem Asha Foundation in 2008, to empower children from poor socio-economic background in Jamia Nagar area through the medium of art, says teachings of Tagore hold the potential to create awareness and empowerment. 

"Tagore as a poet, story-teller, painter, lyricist and author has many nuances. We conduct workshops on documentary making, pictorial calligraphy, music, dance, embroidery, tailoring, painting and other art forms all based on Tagore’s works," he says. 

Battling issues of religious polarisation and domestic violence in the locality, Aseem Asha, an artist and alumnus of Jamia Millia Islamia University, says that his centre has often been at loggerheads with clerics and paranoid critics but he chose to move ahead. 

"Domestic violence is a big issue in the area. The students who come to the centre are often victims of such an evil. We sensitise them about the gender roles. The boys work in batches and manage the community kitchen. It is crucial for them to know that women should not be seen in a stereotypical role," he says. 

"I have had bitter showdowns with the clerics. They detest the idea of unconventional learning. They want to put the children into stereotypical roles. But I like to go against the tide," he adds. 

Notwithstanding the paranoia, the foundation has got many takers in the locality, especially among children, due to the multiple avenues it offers them. 

"I dropped out from school and was working with a pathology laboratory due to bad finances at home. But Aseem sir convinced my family how crucial education was. He told me how education can get me a good job. I have resumed my studies. I also take documentary classes at the centre," says 18-year-old Abdul Kareem said, who wishes to become a filmmaker and run an event management company. 

In order to beat resource crunch, the foundation has adopted crowd sourcing and the help of local NGOs to fund its events. 

"Social media offers a plethora of opportunities. A lot of support has poured in through Facebook, Twitter and other networking sites. Eminent personalities like Ram V Sutar, Aruna Vasudev, Muzaffar Ali, Mahasweta Devi, Qamar Dagar, Padmashree Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar etc have lent their support to our work. Jamia Millia Islamia has been providing us with the space to conduct our events and workshops," says Aseem Asha. 

The artist says it is crucial to instill a sense of confidence and self-worth among the children from a young age and how education should be about employability. 

"A lot of time, it is rote learning that takes place. At the centre, we teach Maths, English, Science and other subjects through visuals, music, PowerPoint presentations and films. The students, especially the ones whose access is limited, learn faster at the centre and also inculcate a curious mind. 

"Computer training is given to girls from the minority community. They might not be fluent in English but pick up fast on technology. It makes them employable as well as confident," he says. 

"The children are also taught how to make documentaries and short films. They are trained how to write a story, prepare a story board and shoot with different camera angles. 

They generally tell their own stories. Filmmaking starts a dialogue and that itself reflects freedom of thoughts," the artist says. 

The foundation is currently working on a series of paintings on the work of Umrao Jaan fame lyricist Shahryar. "Two students from the centre – Adeeba Saifi and Farhana Saifi– are reproducing the ‘shayari’ and poems of the legend on the canvas. We are planning to exhibit the work in July," says Aseem Asha.