Their nimble fingers scrubbed pots and pans, their dreams had been sold before they even took shape. Today these rescued child labourers and victims of abuse let the harsh stories of life feed into their street plays and songs as they go from place to place to raise awareness.
The Mukti Karva, as the mobile theatre troupe of eight children calls itself, is a cauldron of talent, creativity and never-say-die spirit. From ideating concept notes to scripting an entire play, from writing the songs to creating the music, it is their baby all the way.
The children - in the age group of eight to 16 - were rescued by the Bachpan Bachao Aandolan (BBA), an NGO that works to protect child rights across India.
Salim, who is 15, said: "I was seven when I was working in a roadside hotel in Jaipur. Everyday was a struggle for me. Even after working hard throughout the day, I used to get beaten up by the hotel owner.
"Then one day there was a raid and I was rescued by BBA. I was put up in the Bal Ashram here in Delhi where I started learning to read and write and nurture my interest in acting. I met a few more boys who had similar interest. We decided to get together and formed the Mukti Karva".
Jaisingh, another child artiste, said: "Our main aim was to spread awareness about the issues of forced child labour, child abuse and child trafficking through street plays and songs.
"So we started scripting plays and songs which narrate the story of a child whose childhood is stolen from him, just like ours was."
The troupe, with the aid of BBA, has travelled across Bihar and Rajasthan, performing in scores of villages and towns.
"We modify our play in accordance with the place. So if we are performing in Patna, we tell people there the story of a child who belonged to that place. It's always based on true stories," said Salim.
Jaisingh's story, for instance, was the theme of one of the plays. He was working in a farm in Bihar at the age of eight before being lured away by his uncle to Delhi in the hope of a better life. He was then put to work in an electronics shop.
Rescued by BBA eight years ago, Jaisingh is now adamant that no child should suffer like him.
"Other than sensitising people about these vices - how the middleman sells the children, how the children suffer - we also ask them to support us in our demand for stringent laws to protect children," he said.
The troupe will be leaving for Uttar Pradesh at the end of this week.
"At one point, Uttar Pradesh used to have 300,000 child labourers in the carpet industry. Although the numbers have come down to nearly 25,000 now, we want to ensure that it doesn't go up again. Hence we will be travelling and performing throughout the state for about six months," said Salim.
With their heads held high and hearts brimming with hope, these children now have new dreams. "We want to become professional actors," they say in unison.