By: Piyali Dasgupta
16-year-old Ritu Kumari (name changed) from Haryana grew up listening to easy exchanges about sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. She knew of friends, neighbours and family members who had killed or had an abortion because the child would have been born a female. Ritu lost her mother as a young girl, so she grew up very affected, and largely confused.
In 2014, she attended a mentored creative writing workshop for children organised by Katha, at the Children’s Writers Festival (Katha Utsav.)
She wrote her heart out. Talking about the violence against women that she witnessed and experienced every day, she found a way to express herself through her writing. Katha Utsav proved transformative. Two years on, after having found her distinct voice, Ritu writes prolifically and is training to be a wrestler. She is still in touch with me.
I have had the honour of being associated with Katha Utsav as a mentor and now as the festival curator this year, since its inception five years ago. This year, we are gearing up to launch the Utsav with the north zone regional round on October 7 and October 8 in Delhi.
Five years ago, Padma Shri and founder of Katha, Geeta Dharmarajan conceptualised the Utsav with her innate vision for education and calling to empower young people. The Utsav became one of the several other initiatives that she has spurred in her guidance and leadership. Built on Katha’s ethos – which believes every child has a story to tell, Katha Utsav taps into the potential of young people, hearing their stories and helping them channelise their authentic selves with the hope to transform their lives.
In order to reach out to as many children as possible, the workshop is divided into two stages: the regional rounds, and then the national round. How this works is that students and schools first register to be part of this workshop through an intra-school writing competition. We get about 15,000 stories in different languages from all across the country. Of this, we select 1200 stories to participate in the four regional writing workshops. The regional writing workshops are being held this year in Guwahati for the east zone, Baroda for the west zone, Bangalore for the south zone and New Delhi for the north zone. The mentors choose about 500 submissions from this pool for the national finale in December, a three-day literary event.
Katha Utsav firstly enables young people to brainstorm ideas, address relevant topics, engage in an inner dialogue and turn it into a piece of art through their writing. Secondly, by listening and sharing their thoughts and ideas with peers and mentors, they become more patient and empathetic. Thirdly, it shifts how one lives individually in their ordinary life. Writing makes you an observer. By observing, one’s own and others world it helps widens your own perspectives and worldview. Fourthly, the workshop focuses on peer review and support. Considering the various backgrounds and experiences the participating students and mentors have, there is a healthy exchange of ideas in a safe space and in a non-judgmental way. Since the past four years in which I have mentored children, I have seen this transformation take place. Fifth, this creative process aides a young person vent, harness and channel that anxiety and stress positively. It helps deal with the demons, feel grounded, find focus and gain clarity. Writing makes you get in touch with the vulnerable self and helps you in parking the unnecessary and focusing on what is truly important.
Katha Utsav mentors become confidantes for young people. Our mentors are educators, writers, poets, illustrators, artists, theatre artists, storytellers, creative arts practitioner and translator etc. A mentor, through debate and discussion, opens them up to various ideas and thoughts. This year our mentors are focusing on topics like gender and writing, writing for films. We are focusing on questions like ‘What does creativity mean?’ , ‘How does space impact a story?’ , ‘How creativity can create a peaceful world?’, ‘What is the origin of stories?’ and to understand what non-fiction is.
Today young people are assailed by problems like – cyberbullying, body shaming, gender stereotyping, academic pressure, bullying, violence, abuse and problems at home. Things like “Blue Whale Challenge” are just the external, superficial and outward projection of the deeper issues. The real problem is that young people go through stress, anxiety, pressure, and a multitude of labelling. These are left unaddressed and it’s a buildup. What we see externally is a reflection of the internal conflict within a young person.
One year, a student came out as transgender in front of the entire group. In another year, a young student from Assam confided in me about being bullied with racist remarks about her eyes by one of the boys in the group. She went back and wrote a lovely story about how eyes change form in size, shape and colour from place to place, and therefore, appearances and beauty cannot be straight jacketed. That is how she chose to respond to him and speak up. These stories confirm that writing, as a process, heals you. Hence, platforms such as Katha Utsav become relevant.
Piyali is an educator, writer, brand consultant and creative arts practitioner. She is also a mentor and curator for Katha Utsav.