“Why don’t you let children enjoy their childhood? Why do you force young girls to wear sarees and get married?”, sings the performers holding hands as the impromptu audience under the banyan tree breaks into an applause. This is the troupe’s 16th performance, and they have been attracting crowds everywhere they perform.

“I never thought I would be acting in plays across our villages”, says Bhumika. “I signed up for the KKS theatre workshop because I liked to act and sing – at home. Three weeks later, we are travelling from village to village performing in public spaces.”

Bhumika and friends are part of the Kanasu Kishori Sanghatane (KKS), a network of 250 sanghas of adolescent girls in Kukanoor taluk of Koppal district. The sanghas were initiated by Visthar to promote gender equality and resist gender-based violence.

25 girls from the network signed up for a theatre camp in the summer. Led by Nazar, the girls developed 4 street plays to raise awareness about the violence and discrimination faced by girls – child marriage, child labour, sexual harassment, domestic violence, etc. The girls then divided themselves into two troupes. With the suport of adults, they have been going from village to village, raising awareness and speaking out against violence.

“I was moved by the performance of the girls”, says Lakshmappa, “I was returning home from the field when I saw there was something going on in front of the temple. I hope my daughter and son can see this performance too. I told the girls they should come and perform here again.”

The Visthar Trust, a secular Civil Society Organization committed to social justice and peace is all set to start the Visthar College of Arts for Women (VCAW) its latest initiative in its 30-year-long journey. The college will offer a BA (Hons) in Journalism and Mass Communication and English at their Gubbi campus in the outskirts of the city, starting later this month.

Speaking to Salar News, David Selvaraj, Founder and Executive Trustee of Visthar, said, “We dedicate the course to socially committed journalists, who have paid dearly for their convictions and coverage of issues. Gauri Lankesh and Raman Kashyap come to mind. While the former is a celebrated journalist from Karnataka, the latter was killed while covering a farmers’ struggle in Lakhimpur Kheri (UP). Simultaneously, at the time of our launch, we applaud Ms Maria Ressa, a journalist from the Philippines, and the most recent awardee of the Nobel Peace Prize 2021 for her consistent and committed work to ensure freedom of expression.”

“Visthar has a vision of peace with justice; we believe it is our moral responsibility to enhance democratic values. One way of doing this is to ensure freedom of expression. Enhancing this fundamental right is central to our initiative,'” Selvaraj said.

He said Visthar has a triple-focus rationale for launching this course, the first of which would be to enhance the space and, platform for women to address issues of underrepresentation and gender stereotyping in the media and advocate for gender equality. Secondly, ensure media coverage of a large part of India which has been left out by mainline media and contemporary issues of the people in the margins, and thirdly to enable young women from vulnerable communities to receive a sound value-based education that has strong employment possibilities.

“VCAW is an accredited body of the Karnataka State Department of Higher Education and affiliated to the Karnataka State Akkamahadevi Women’s University, Vijayapura. The National Education Policy provides academic and pedagogical guidelines for operation. We welcome the flexibility and innovation which will favour the student community,” Selvaraj said.

The college though new has a competent core staff, adjunct faculty (national and international) and a Board of Studies which includes practising journalists, policymakers and public intellectuals. As part of the learning process, the college will ensure students have internships with mainline and alternate media houses and explore possibilities of placement. The course will be taught in-person and online. “The in-person study will be on our sprawling six-acre lush campus in Bengaluru,” David said.

Director of Visthar, Mercy Kappen said, “The process of admissions has just begun. We began this course as mainstream media is one of the better influencers of society.” She said women were sensitive to issues concerning society and they take a stand and play a vital role to bring about social change.

 “The reason why our course is for women only is to empower women to make a positive change in society especially among the marginalized community,” she said.

She said Kannada language was a very important part of this course and that Nagamani Shivara, a well-known Kannada professor has been brought in to be the principal of the college.

Bodhi Vana at Visthar is conceived as a sacred grove. Sacred groves are spaces that protect and preserve rare fauna and flora that the Earth can return to regenerate Herself. It is the primal storehouse of Life. The Bodhi Vana is designed as a place for reflection inspired by the ecological meanings of the sacred groves.

The first saplings, in this space, were planted in 2004 with the advice received from Dr. A.N Yellappareddy, the renowned conservator of natural forest. We planted Peepal and Banyan trees, Bilva patra, Amla, Fig, and Neem. We planted and left them to their own. After that, we were preoccupied with many other things, but those tender and vulnerable saplings kept growing, and you can see now how big they have become. It was like our mothers at home who put some curd in the milk before going to bed in the night. Morning when we are up, the whole milk would have turned into wonderful curd.

David, Mercy and I spent some time here in early February thinking of purposing this space, as space also for reflection on sacred space. To purpose a reflection we have inter connected these trees and space with a dry well, lily pond and a small architectural space using a winding wall. As you enter the Bodhi Vana, to your right is the old dry well, lost its meaning and once abandoned, but for the last 17 years has been repurposed as a well of regeneration. The dry well is a witness to our flawed developmental aspirations. As an extension of the form of the well is the circular wall. Sections of this wall are made out of materials that are segregated and discarded.

So the natural question to ourselves would be why and when do we segregate or discard something? We do that when we find it has no ‘Use Value’. Our use value may come from mere immediate existential needs, from the view of comfort, understanding of beauty, or even that help achieving our dream goals. Anything comes in its way we tend to discard. All what we select and keep are that fit into our needs. Our need is limited to our knowledge of things and our knowledge of things is limited to our immediate needs. Frightening it is, we do not hesitate to maintain the scope of the world to our limited knowledge of things, to our understanding of needs. So without speaking, this wall speak about the discarded and martyrs of our times. Hence this wall that is made of segregated and discarded, called Martyrs Wall, symbolically represents all those who are thrown out of our vicinity and have become martyrs.

A good architect takes into consideration the land, the rocks, the trees, slops etc., to make it integral part of his design, a bad architect will flatten the land to execute his studio based design. A bad farmer removes all the trees, shrubs etc. to develop his mono-culture farm. Whereas a good farmer would keep most, she sees the meaning of most things to everything else grown in her land.

When the Nations started dreaming to develop itself focusing only on economy, from time to time certain people, communities or land get segregated or discarded. As some of us in the process get segregated and discarded, we too with our limited thinking, desire for efficiency, or achieving our dreams discard some other systems. Once we discarded tribal. Now farmers are discarded in the minds of our economists who make decisions for our nation. With which we are not discarding merely people but also our choices of common survival. Because Agriculture is not a technical activity of applying science to food production but rather a socio-cultural practice, rich with deep rooted meanings for the people involved. Agriculture is farming and farming is responsible keeping, breeding, and rearing. It is soil, seed, moisture, warmth, air, vulnerability, and also pests, weeds, and affection. It is observation and staying alert, it is people and relationships. Industrial agriculture is the antonym of it.

So if engaged with the discarded will help open us to the intelligence and inner working of the small, the insignificant, the formless – the things at the edges and that are out of our vicinity. They all are to come alive in our consciousness, as fundamental life forces playing vital roles to sustain earth and life.

The architectural space at Bodhi Vana is an intimate small space, a pyramidal structure from four feet below the earth pointing to the sky. It connects earth and sky like a tree. The space invites you to sit, to sit in the company co-seekers, to heal ourselves and the suffering Earth. To regenerate the earth and us within the meaning and glory of mutual fecundity.

It is time for us to start preserving small patches of land, as Devara Kadu, and communities that hold wisdom for our common survival, not remaining limited to our knowledge, but to learn to regard, honor and celebrate, hence we can return to when our own knowledge and dreams betray us.

And equally beautiful would be if we too can be like the sacred groves, to which humanity can return to when they are wounded and suffering.

C.F. John

The beginning

Visthar has journeyed from a small support service agency working out of a single room, rented space to a lively campus with arteries in nearly every area and level of social activism. From the beginning, Visthar recognised the need for perpetual introspection and evolution in response to India’s varied social and political climate. The internal environment of Visthar was also of equal concern to us.

Visthar was founded and registered as a  Trust in  1989.  At the very inception itself, David invited me to join the team. While maintaining its role in capacity building, Visthar stayed true to its name and spread its wings. We looked at the connections between the work and struggles of several small  NGOs and recognized larger problems and power structures that impeded their work.  We knew that the only answer to these challenges was a broader, more holistic political and social transformation.

The early nineties was a significant moment in time to initiate a Civil Society Organization (CSO) in India. Internally, the rise of religious fundamentalism and development induced displacement, gave little voice and space to the poor and the marginalized. Externally, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War and the pressures of a cold- blooded global market made civil society in the Global South feel like an afterthought to the forces of globalization. In India, this new world order ushered in a uni-dimensional vision of development and progress. The disenchantment with socialism also snuffed out much of the usual idealism found among young people. The dramatic changes brought about by globalization were viewed critically by those in civil society. The stage seemed to be set.

Visthar saw the links between socio-political and economic forces and sought to address these complexities with holistic perspectives and practices. In a context where the relationship between art and social action was tenuous, Visthar opened up the space for artists and activists to explore the role of art in social change. We began a cultural critique of development led by our colleague and well-known artist C F John. We vigorously explored questions such as – Is our concept of the development just a follow-through of the Western model? Is there an indigenous model that includes the people and their cultures? We felt that unless we looked at the connections between ecology, culture and spirituality, whatever development we talked of, would have no meaning.

In the first two years, we had our feet in nearly every level and type of engagement. It was apparent that our vision for a “humane, egalitarian, participatory and ecologically sustainable society” would take us through a complex web of related quests. What that journey would be like was still unimaginable for us. It was a time when dissenting voices were co-opted into the paradigm of the market as mass media sought to de- sensitize the public. Resistance and Hope became our catch phrase. Believing that unity of thought leads to unity of action, we brought together activists, academics and intellectuals for critical reflections on various issues. We were committed to the process of connecting people, experiences and ideas. This became the key methodology for Visthar.

Development, not destruction

As India began to drown in debt, it was forced  to accept and adopt global capitalist monetary management programs. The new policies began to define the pattern of social spending within India. In order to understand how the decisions made at world headquarters were affecting large sections of marginalized Indians, Visthar organized a meeting    of prominent economists and activists. They addressed issues such as the impact of New Economic Policy (NEP) and measures needed to sustain micro-enterprises and vulnerable livelihoods. Several groups were formed and educational campaigns on the NEP were planned. And we learnt that the privatization of healthcare, education and other social services meant that the underprivileged were denied of essential services. An export-oriented market also changed production habits. Where there had been bio-diversity and sustenance farming there was now development of cash crops. The massive injustice to the powerless was not part of the NEP’s cost-benefit analysis. Visthar took the initiative to sensitize the public, especially the rural poor, on the implications of these policies and strategies to collectively resist them.

The starting point for sensitizing the public on the development paradigms in India began with our association with the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA-the Save Narmada Movement). C F John and the team from Visthar visited the Narmada valley, met with the NBA leader, Medha Patkar and the people in the valley.  Inspired,  we started a  campaign in support of the struggle to stop the dam and ensure people’s right to life,  livelihood and identity.  In  1994,  Visthar organized thousands of students from over  15  schools.  We had extensive interactions with these student groups, screened documentaries and initiated discussions that helped them to critically debate the idea of development, the costs involved and also to understand the struggles of the people of Narmada Valley from that point of view.  This was a  great moment in  Visthar’s history as the entire team got involved, fired by a passion beyond words.

Education for democracy

The   Save   Narmada   Movement   went   beyond Narmada Valley. It reached out to revive public consciousness   on   issues   of   democracy   and India’s emerging identity. As we approached the golden jubilee of India’s independence in 1997, the concern for the future of India’s democracy absorbed our thoughts. Something needed to be done to ensure that democratic processes would uphold people’s interests through the changes in development. Inspired by Citizen’s For Democracy founded by Jayaprakash Narayan, we initiated the campaign, Students for Democracy.

In conversation with young people, Visthar sought to reinvent the notion of ‘development’ so that students would be able to distinguish good development from destructive development. True development while recognizing differences affirms each person and community to be equally important and provides space for all to develop and develop differently. The success of the Save Narmada Campaign and Education for Democracy among young people gave a lot of encouragement to our team. We maintained the same activities with schools and colleges in Bangalore under the new title: Students for Democracy. The goal was to help students internalize the systems of democracy and respond to the realities in their own schools and neighborhoods.

The campaign, Students for Democracy, led  to  Manthana, a  forum for college students. Manthana in Kannada means churning, and the wisdom that comes out of deep thinking, shaping and analyzing. The objective was to enable youth to ‘read their reality and shape their own destiny’. In our understanding, both the media and political structures had deprived students of the learnings that are rooted in their lived realities. Visthar team worked tirelessly to sensitize the students on secularism, gender and caste discrimination, and other social systems and processes. They also discussed how the processes of liberalization, privatization and globalization were connected to their personal lives and helped them explore alternatives. In addition to educating for political awareness, Manthana exposed students to art, theatre, dance and music.

Cultural resources for social action

Right from the beginning, we felt the need to have deeper reflections on ‘the emancipatory and spiritual possibilities of culture’. ‘A culture that speaks of humanity and democracy; a culture that finds its echo in the fundamental rights enshrined in the Indian constitution. It is an appeal to think anew of  a  politics  rooted in economic and social justice; ecological and environmental sustainability; plurality and diversity; decentralization and devolution of power; ethics, love, compassion, tolerance and the rule of law’ (Artists Unite).

Looking at the challenges and barriers we faced in our journey,  we  felt  the need  to  revive  our  work  in  the  area  of  culture  and  art.  Art  for  Social Transformation was one of our primary foci during 1992 – 2003 when artist C F John was on our team. In February 2003, with the support from  the  India  Foundation  for  Arts  (IFA),  C  F  John,  choreographer/ dancer Tripura Kashyap, and visual artist T M Azis presented Walls of Memories, an event around the well in Visthar. The event comprised of a series of 15 installations and a performance inside the well. There were several other installations and exhibitions on various themes held during  this  period.  We  were  deeply  convinced of  the  power  of  art  to  inspire  resistance  and  offer  alternatives  that are sustainable and inclusive. In this process we need to bring in and strengthen the folk art forms and nurture the talents and skills of youth from marginalized communities. Visthar Ranga Shale (VRS) is a small effort in this direction.

Beyond the binaries: Gender and diversity

We began our work in the field of gender and diversity in 1991 with an introductory workshop on Understanding Feminism facilitated by Kamla Bhasin and  Vasanth  Kannabiran.  This enabled us to see things with new eyes.  Visthar was extensively involved in the pre and post-Beijing efforts. By 1995, we were deeply convinced about and committed to evolving gender perspectives in development and have facilitated regular gender workshops and trainings.

Visthar offered various fora for community leaders to delve deeper into themes and look at issues related to the economy, education, health, violence etc. from a gender perspective. Apart from this, we facilitated several gender training programmes in India and offered sustained perspective building programmes for Faith Based Organizations (FBOs) in south and south-east Asia. We were convinced that gender equality must be accompanied by changes in other fronts such as caste and class as they were all inter-connected. We felt that without minimizing the intensity of Dalit issue, we needed to see it in perspective by addressing the linkages between the struggles of women, Dalits and the working class. Over the years, social activists, students and various professionals have all benefited from these gender training workshops.

Towards alternatives in living and learning

We have been groping analytically, but never stopped exploring new avenues to make ourselves relevant. In the mid-nineties, Visthar acquired a 6-acre plot in the outskirts of Bangalore. This beautiful and rustic land soon became the epicentre of our work. It was our dream to set up a campus and a training centre that would facilitate our programmes. It became a reality as we started working on the land and designing the spaces with a rustic aesthetic sensibility. We wanted to keep our goal of empowering the marginalized at the forefront and hold ourselves responsible for our actions in both dialogue and lifestyle. In order to keep these priorities, we determined that the campus must be a manifestation of what the organization stood for ideologically. We worked hard to ensure that the issues of livelihood, gender discrimination, cultural domination and environmental degradation were not jeopardized for the sake of promoting Visthar as an institution. Our question of relevance in a constantly changing global environment hung in the air as a prayer for direction. ‘Resistance and Hope’ continued to be the theme during those years.

We recognize the symbiotic relationship between earth and humans and our responsibility to nurture and restore ecological integrity. Our earth has been a native habitat for herbs and plants of healing, beauty and fragrance. In our intricate webbing with the world around us, they are influential and beautiful strands that we feel must be held together for a balanced living.

The journey must continue

The growth and development of Visthar has been organic, responding to felt needs: external and internal. What began as a ‘support service’ organization from a shared office space has grown and diversified. Visthar currently has a campus in Bangalore and another in Koppal employing over 40 staff engaged in varied fields of work.

This includes educational programmes, community based development activities, conference and retreat centre and an eco sanctuary. Visthar was primarily a support service organization in the beginning years, providing a platform for conversations between activists and critical intellectuals. Our profile has changed over time, with the introduction of educational and community advocacy programmes.

The journey has not been without hurdles. There were times when we, as an organization, were faced with a crisis of confidence. At times we felt we no longer had a grasp of issues and their ramifications. Everything seemed to be complex and contextual. Our responses had to be space- time specific, and we often wondered if we had the depth, the competence and the commitment to respond relevantly and meaningfully to the challenges around.

Anchoring ourselves in the struggles and hopes of the marginalized, we continue groping, searching for relevance.

Mercy Kappen

The Artist’s Residency is a new initiative of Visthar and is open to  visual artists, writers, performers, designers and other creative individuals worldwide.  COVID19 lockdown made us so conscious of the need to be connected with nature and with each other in an organic way. Many friends are struggling to deal with the distancing demanded by the pandemic.  The residency is designed to give artists and writers  the time, space, and inspiration to focus on their creative pursuits.

The Residency will host 10 writers/ artists each year from across the country and around the world. The Residency includes:

  • Bath attached private rooms and meals
  • Access to the library and the campus
  • WIFI enabled green and serene indoor and outdoor workspaces
  • Opportunities for eco-therapy including gardening, paper recycling and eco art
  • A platform  to present your writing / exhibit your art
  • Monthly conversations with writers and artistes from Bangalore
  • Complete solitude without being part of any of the above activities

Visthar is not in a position to offer fellowships or free residencies.  The cost depends on the kind of accommodation you choose. The rate per person per month inclusive of accommodation and meals is given below.

  • Studio apartment with living room, bedroom, kitchen and bath – Rs.40, 000/- (USD1000 for international applicants).
  • Single rooms – spacious and bath attached : Rs. 30,000/- ( USD 900 – International)

Applications are accepted year-round. The residencies should be booked 2 months in advance. For more details and registration, write to [email protected].

Burn our land, burn our dreams

pour acid onto our songs

cover with sawdust

the blood of our massacred people

muffle with your technology

the screams of all that is free, wild and indigenous.

Destroy, destroy our grass and soil

raze to the ground every farm and every village

our ancestors had build

every tree, every home, every book, every law,

and all the equity and harmony.

Flatten with your bombs every valley;

erase with your edits our past,

our literature, our metaphor.

Denude the forests and the earth

‘til no insect, no bird, no word can find a place to hide.

Do that and more.

I do not fear your tyranny.

I do not despair ever

for I guard one seed

a little live seed that I shall safeguard and plant again.

-Palestinian Poem

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

– Maya Angelou