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In rural MP, young people are punching and dancing their way to change

Martial arts and mentorship programmes are helping break barriers between religions, castes and genders, changing mindsets in rural Madhya Pradesh.

health Updated: Jul 16, 2017 08:28 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
Madhya Pradesh,Harda,Empowerment
Ritesh Tiwari, 28, and Manna Mandlekar, 23, teach judo at a government school in Harda, in the Madhya Pradesh heartland.(Mujeeb Faruqui / HT Photo)

Manna Mandlekar’s parents wanted to stop her schooling after Class 8 because the secondary school was in the next village. “It’s not safe for girls to travel alone,” says her father Ramesh Mandlekar, a daily-wager with seven children, from Alanpur village Harda district in the Madhya Pradesh heartland.

That’s what Mandlekar told all his five daughters. Manna’s four sisters had already stopped study after Class 8 and were married off. Manna insisted on studying and persuaded her older brother to support her. “My parents finally agreed on the condition that I would stop school if I failed,” says Mandlekar, 23.

She didn’t. Manna’s now doing a Masters in political science and is the most educated person in her village.

Manna also stands apart for being the first girl in her village to learn judo. “I saw girls learning judo in a class across from my school six years ago and got curious. I learnt the classes were free, so went to sir and asked him if I could learn too and he said yes,” says Mandlekar. “It gave me confidence and helped convince my parents that I could look after myself and travel alone.”

Manna is also a black belt in mixed martial arts who participates in national competitions.

Manna Mandlekar stands apart for being the first girl in her village to learn judo. The skills have given her the confidence to pursue a Master’s degree in a village where girls drop out in Class 8 because it’s unsafe to travel to school in the next village. ( Mujeeb Faruqui / HT Photo )

Girl power

It’s not unusual to spot girls in all ages and sizes in judogi, the traditional Japanese uniform for judo, in the village streets in Harda, around 200 km from Bhopal. These are Harda’s ‘Street Fighters’, who have been learning judo at school and in neighbourhood parks from Rajesh Tiwari, 28, absolutely free for several years. The uniform gives them the confidence to speak up and challenge the world.

‘Street Fighters’ is the brainchild of Tiwari, who was the proverbial 45-kg weakling when he was in school. It led to him being bullied and beaten. “It cost Rs 2 a day to get my shirt stitched after being beaten, I couldn’t afford it so I decided to learn martial arts,” says Tiwari, a B.Com graduate from Government College, Timarni.

When he read about a young girl committing suicide after being harassed, he decided to teach girls and women for free. Many of his students, such as Manna and Mohini Khare, 22, daughter of rickshaw-puller Ram Bhagwan Khare, now teach other girls.

What started as free classes in a park has become a movement as several women, many of whom were victims of harassment and domestic violence, joined up. “Now I hold free martial arts classes in girls’ schools, ITI and colleges and have taught over 10,000 students over the years, of whom around 400 have participated in competitions,” claims Tiwari.

Shreya Tiwari, 7, a Class 3 student in Harda, wants to be “a fighter” when she grows up. She practices judo every day with three classmates. ( Mujeeb Faruqui / HT Photo )

What’s helped him scale it up is ChangeLoomers, Unicef’s mentorship initiative in Madhya Pradesh that aims to strengthen the voices of young adults and builds their leadership skills.

Basic mentoring was all that was needed to help a dozen young adults like Tiwari to conceive, implement and scale up socially-relevant projects around education, child rights, social inclusion, sanitation and empowerment.

Fleet-footed change

Akram Khan, 21, a B Sc in Computer Science, found his calling in dance and now uses it break down religious, social and gender barriers. “I teach everything, hip-hop, garba, Bollywood… you name it,” says Khan, who comes from a conservative Muslim family living in Abagaon Khurd village where people frown upon dancing.

“I got hooked to the ‘Dance India Dance’ on TV and taught myself by watching videos. My father, who works as a compounder, gave up trying to stop me after I failed three times in Class 12,” says Khan cheerfully.

He thought of using dance for communal integration when he was turned away from participating in a garba competition during Navaratri in 2015.

Akram Khan (centre), a 21-year-old BSc Computer Science student, uses dance to break down religious, gender and social barriers. ( Mujeeb Faruqui / HT Photo )

“I was told that entry was full, and overheard people say, ‘He’s from a Muslim family; kuch kha pee ke aayega’ (he’d eat or drink something unsavoury and come). I left but then I thought, dance has no religion and the more people dance, the more they’ll understand,” said Khan. He now runs KDC, short for Khan Dance Academy.

Khan now teaches dance at Academic Heights Public School in Harda, and runs a project called Dance Attack to promote social, communal, gender and caste integration.

Among the other ChangeLoomers is Ritesh Gour, 23, a post graduate in computer application, who uses singing, dancing and role-playing to encourage child labourers in urban slums to go back to school. Shivani Agarwal, 19, a B Com student at Bhopal University, travels 19 km to a village of the “kalbelia” community, to teach children who dropped out of school to beg. Swati Rovanshi, 20, in B Com final year, works with school dropouts and has got nine back in school.

Polio-affected Class 12-dropout Vivek Parte, 25, works to change the social mindset towards accepting differently-abled persons like him. Parte was six when his parents abandoned in a state-run hostel because his stepmother did not want to look after a disabled child.

“Young people can be powerfully inspiring as change agents and ChangeLoomers helps youth to better understand issues impacting children and to advocate for their improvement,” said Michael Juma, chief, Unicef, Madhya Pradesh.

The difference is already visible on Harda’s streets.

First Published: Jul 14, 2017 21:39 IST