Those who have lived through the television era of the 1980s would remember Swaroop Sampat as the young woman who acted in the hugely popular sitcom, ‘Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi’. Not many would know that she married actor Paresh Rawal and those who do would think she traded the arc lights for a fulfilling domestic life. It then comes as a surprise to note that the beauty queen-turned-actress now goes by the name of Dr Swaroop Rawal. Far from being relegated into oblivion, she has, in her inimitable style, created a niche in an area that she not only identifies with but also completely believes in. Rawal is a life skills educator who uses the dramatic arts to empower children, particularly adolescent girls, to speak their mind and gain the confidence to become catalysts of change in society.

“Life skills education imparted with the help of drama allows young people, especially in the rural settings, to communicate and express themselves better. It teaches them how to cope with life as they become informed and compassionate members of their communities,” she shares.

What began as a parent-teacher activity in her children’s school, where she created a Drama Classroom to conduct an honorary workshop using the concept of theatre-in-education (TIE), turned into a personal revelation. During the course of her session with the students she realised the current state of education in India creates enormous struggles for children and restricts their ability to become resilient as well as empathetic. “There is a discrepancy in the agenda of the education ministry and state of education in the country. In spite of the good intentions of academicians as well as policy makers, students are actually traumatised by what they are being taught in the name of education in modern India,” she says.

After that training session, Rawal decided to work on this concept further. Learning to impart life skills through the medium of drama in a way that could augment emotional understanding and self awareness, build communication skills and encourage creative thinking in young people became the subject of study and research for her. At the University of Worcester in the UK she did her PhD on the role of drama in enhancing life skills in children and came back absolutely convinced of the fact that rich or poor, urban or rural, boy or girl, everyone could stand to benefit immensely from gaining life skills education.

Frustrated by the injustice, marginalisation and regressive patriarchal attitudes they experience, youngsters have developed low levels of tolerance, which lead to serious disruptions in society, as evidenced through the increasing incidents of violence, breakdown and depression. In such a scenario, life skills can play a crucial, positive role. In fact, Rawal believes that if introduced right at the beginning of a child’s academic journey and taught through experiential learning, discussions and storytelling, it can enable him/her to understand and process tough social realities and tackle them in a natural and spontaneous way.

Fortunately for her, when Rawal proposed to teach life skills in the government primary school in her home state Gujarat, its then chief minister and now India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi instantly agreed to her plan. At that juncture, Rawal’s focus was on dealing with mental health issues among students, a much neglected and even lesser understood aspect of their academic and social life. From there she moved to Save the Children, an NGO, working with them in Gujarat and Maharashtra and then later to UNICEF that roped her in to conceptualise the training curriculum for Jeevan Kaushalya, an adolescent girls project in Gujarat. This was a drama-based life skills intervention implemented across 3,450 villages in six districts reaching out to 38,000 young members of the village-level adolescent girl’s network.

Enthusiastic participation by girls saw many stories of change being written in the rural heartland. Girls went in for re-enrolment in school, child marriages were stopped and cases of abuse and harassment were taken up with renewed vigour. Indeed, the programme’s success paved the way for girls to come together and assume leadership roles in federations at the cluster, block and district levels.

Today, these empowered adolescent girls groups and their leaders can easily represent their issues at higher levels as well as seek redress. Additionally, not only have they begun to exercise their new-found self-belief in their personal lives but also contribute to sustaining the existing community-based structures and take on the mandate of protecting child rights. Rawal is not surprised at this development for she has all along maintained that, “Each one of us is born with life skills that guide us to take the right decisions and live happy, balanced lives. Yet, many of those qualities remain dormant, since no conscious attempt is made to enhance them in a systematic and age appropriate manner.”

But why does she find drama to be a powerful tool to enhance life skills? According to Rawal, it one of the most effective methods of engagement as it can be applied in the safety of a classroom. “You can talk about death and do a scene where through enactment, participants can experience grief; you can create a situation of eve-teasing and feel the discomfort, shame and outrage and talk of good and bad touch. Without confining the discussion to the text book and letting young girls experience any of this in real life to feel these emotions, drama allows you to experience them, learn more about them and find small but effective ways of dealing with them. In other words, the classroom setting allows you to control the activity. Also, you do not have to wait for results. The feedback is instant and the transformational change evident,” she asserts.

In Gujarat, as the concept of life skills took shape, girls learnt to recognise feelings of happiness, sadness, anger, calmness and excitement before linking these to their own personalities. These ideas had been alien to them as they had never looked at themselves through any lens other than what their family and friends showed them. The exercises and games were popular because the girls began thinking of options without the baggage of their social conditioning, which only limited them to visualising themselves in traditional roles. Giving them an open invitation to dream and verbalise their aspirations, whatever they may be, was like throwing open a floodgate of emotions. While some girls floundered, unable to think for themselves, others prodded them and spoke up and soon the entire group excitedly clamoured for attention as each wanted to share their dreams, conjuring images of who they wanted to be.

“For the first time in our lives we are indulging in the luxury of dreaming. Maybe, some of us will realise these dreams too,” remarks Sharda Vadaliya, 18, from Bhavnagar, Gujarat, who has gone through Rawal’s model of learning.

Shares Thakor Hiraji Monaji, the sarpanch of Banaskantha village in Gujarat, “Ours was a village where girls had studied maximum up to Class Five. They barely stepped out of their homes. Many had never set foot outside the village. Today, they are proactive, making house visits to counsel families, ensuring girls who have dropped out of school, re-enrol. They have stopped many child marriages and are actively pursuing village development activities. This is no miracle. It is the tapping of their inner strength and honing of life skills through the medium of drama that has made the impossible possible.”

Even as Rawal has transformed many lives through life skills, how has it changed her? She has started to listen and observe more attentively, and believes, now more than ever, in the merit of “democratic education”.

(Women's Feature Service)