Munnar’s hazy blue Kannan Devi hills with their green camellia sansis (tea) shrubs form a dramatic backdrop to the unpretentious squat buildings set amidst gardens ablaze with snapdragons, yellow and red poppies and bellflowers.
Something wonderful is happening there. Most of the people here have special needs. Some cannot hear, others cannot see. Many are on wheel chairs, some have been diagnosed with autism or cerebral palsy. No one, however, is sitting quietly. Everyone has something to do.
The Srishti Welfare Centre supports the education and rehabilitation of specially abled children and adults. Celebrating 25 years of existence in February, it has about 62 students (aged three-and-a-half to 18) in its DARE (Developmental Activities in Rehabilitative Education) School. Years ago, when tea planters left severely challenged children locked up at home to work in the plantations of Kerala, DARE took them in to help them learn something and stay safe till the parents came back.
Apart from reading, writing, arithmetic, the children are given lessons in dance, drama, yoga, medication, physical education, speech and physiotherapy. Many of them are taught to chop vegetables and cook, clean up and handle shopping and accounts to be independent. They have to also ensure what they cook is delicious because that’s their meal of the day. The younger ones greet you loudly, laughingly making you repeat their names till you get it right.
Small units have been started over the years in Shrishti to generate jobs and revenues. The natural dye and textile design unit Aranya has absorbed 12 ex students . Twenty of them work in the hand-made paper and stationery section, Athulya. Seven lucky ones sort out delicious strawberries, passion fruit and plums in Nisarga, the fruit preserve unit and four work in the Deli (bakery and confectionery section), making tarts, a variety of piping hot and delicious breads, muffins, fudge and more. About 12 of them work in the vegetable and flower garden. Many students have found employment outside and 15 have been integrated into regular school. All of them get salaries.
Most of the students and now employees are jet setters - having travelled around the world to France, Japan and other countries. The Deli staff have trained at Bombay Taj-President, now Vivanta, with Chef Ananda Solomon and are justifiably proud of their chocolate cakes. Bhanumati, once a heart patient who was sitting at “home, disturbed,” joined Aranya after surgery. Now married with children, she’s happy to be here, handling plants, leaves and other natural agents for dyeing colourful fabrics.
Ratna Krishnakumar, managing trustee of the Shrishti Charitable Trust recalls the time when they decided to switch over from plain dyeing and move to something exotic. “We taught ourselves basic shibori (a Japanese dyeing technique which produces patterns on fabrics) from a book.” Years later, she met textile artist, curator and researcher Yoshiko Wada, the woman behind shibori and realised that all Aranya’s learning had come from Wada’s book. “The next year Wada visited Shrishti and has been a guide and mentor ever since,” Krishnakumar says.
Even the paper made at Athulya is interesting. Not just flowers, you’ll also find some made from elephant poop – with rather interesting patterns because of all the straws and other fancy stuff the pachyderms have consumed (all disinfected of course)! Aranya also boasts of some young innovators. Patterns created by Aramugam with a pipe and cloth have been named Arushibori by Wada after him.
There are so many stories... Of how Prakash met Muthukumari and decided to marry her, the proud moment when an old couple’s specially abled son or daugher started supporting them financially, or when a Srishti employee’s daughter joined college for a BSc degree. Let’s keep them for another day.
Srishti is a small initiative - but one which gives great hope to anyone who visits. Krishnakumar gets annoyed when you ask her how it can be built as a brand or marketed. It is not about business, it is something that comes from the heart, she insists. But there is a hint of pride in the voice when she tells you about Aranya’s Rs 1 crore turnover or the Deli’s sales touching Rs 15,000 to Rs20,000 a day – profits which are reinvested in Srishti.
As you walk out of the welfare centre, a young man tending the garden waves at you. You wave back, knowing you will come back again one, to feel the lovely positivity and happiness that touched your life briefly today.
Srishti and DARE (Developmental Activities in Rehabilitative Education) School (that provides special education to children) were formed by the erstwhile Tata Tea Limited in 1991 and are now supported by Tata Global Beverages. The author was invited by the Srishti Trust to visit the Srishti Welfare Centre at Munnar, Kerala.