Uniform Project-Akanksha

Submitted by Amisha Upadhyaya

uniformprojectWearing one outfit for the whole year?? Only women may understand just how much of a sacrifice that is.  But Sheena Matheiken has vowed to do just that through The Uniform Project in which she has “pledged to wear one dress for one year as an exercise in sustainable fashion.” Accessories have never been so important.  And neither has the cause.

This isn’t on a whim.  It’s a year-long fundraiser for  Akanksha, an organization that brings education to children from the slums in India.  All contributions will go toward Akanksha’s School Project to fund uniforms and other educational expenses for the children.

I was first introduced to Akanksha in 2001 when I was off to work in Mumbai’s film industry.  I forget how I first heard of Akanksha, but I do remember a very passionate and impressive presentation given at a loft around 30th and 6th.  When the founder of Akanksha, Shaheen Mistri, mentioned that their upcoming fundraiser was a gala musical, I knew I had found a perfect fit.

It was one of the best years of my life. I danced, acted, wrote for Bollywood and then taught choreography to the kids for the musical.  Every day I went to the Mahalakshmi stop and walked to a gated community — or so it seemed but was in actuality a cancer convalescence center I believe — with beautiful cottages.  The Akanksha cottage was filled with chalkboards and bulletin boards and was a daycare and activity center rolled into one.  Most of the kids knew English, since that was part of Akanksha’s mission.   So yes, English is a language known by children from impoverished areas (I hate the phrase ‘slum children.’  It seems to brand the children rather than describe the economic condition or geographic area they’re from.) Though the horrible school environment they showed in Slumdog is nothing like the services many NGO’s provide.

The musical was directed by a talented theatre grad from Harvard, Krishnan, who was a volunteer with Indicorps in its very first year.  Connections go a long way and our musical had the benefit of lighting, music, sound and costumes from professionals within the industry.  Presented at Nehru Auditorium.  Indicorps volunteers offered to videotape it.  The musical became an event and successful fundraiser!  Indians know how to put on a dance and song event!!  And the kids knew how to dance.

Bollywood permeates every aspect of Indians’ lives.  There isn’t a ritual, an event, a holiday, a street corner, that doesn’t promote it.   So, the good thing was that the kids knew the songs inside out. The bad thing was that the kids knew the songs inside out.  We were making a mix of songs so as to tell a story but to get them to think outside of the choreography they associated with the song — which they also memorized — was one of the biggest obstacles.

I also had a partner sequence.  Never again for anyone under 19.  To get little kids, or teens, in any culture to pair up to dance is difficult. Lots of “eeews” and hair pulling and vomiting noises.  By coaxing, disciplining, stern voices, pleas, eventually they did it.

It would have been a whole lot more fun if I hadn’t gotten deathly ill.  Through my own deduction, since allergies are associated with rashes there, I realized it was congestion in the lungs from allergies gone amuck in Mumbai’s dust and pollution. One of the worse days I recall my head lying in one of the kids laps as she soothed my hair, a group huddled over me wondering when (not if) I was going to die.  I ended up wearing a face mask all SARS-like since I traveled by train everywhere, further getting pity from kids and old grandmothers who thought I had diabetes.

Sadly, I missed the kids a lot towards the end but by then this fantastic dancer, Reshma, who went on to dance in the Madonna Invention tour, took over until I recovered.

But other than one hospital stay, the experience was incredible and I urge people to join Akanksha or Indicorps or any social service that takes you abroad or in one of the underdeveloped areas in the US.  However much you think you are contributing, as every urban school movie tells us, you are lucky if you can connect with much less change the life of even one person or family.  Ultimately, it is you who end up changed the most. Just take Claritin and inhalers.


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