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Act I Scene I

From Critical Dialogues to Performance to Social Change: Lucknow Girls Speak

Audio Documentary


Kathleen: For the last 5 years, I have led the Urban School Performances Project and observed the lives of youth and teachers involved in drama, alongside a team of research assistants from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. We’ve found ourselves in cities around the world, including Lucknow, India where we spent time at Prerna school.  Prerna is unlike any other school. It was founded in 2003 by Dr. Urvashi Sanhi to support disadvantaged girls from urban slums in Lucknow. It serves girls from pre-school to grade 12 in the afternoon and evenings who would otherwise not attend school, most working as domestic servants at multiples houses each day prior to coming to school.  Dr. Sanhi explained to us why she created Prerna.

CLIP: Urvashi the reason for starting Prerna & Urvashi stats on drop-outs 

Kathleen: When Ms. K, a teacher at Prerna, explained to us what a typical day is like for Prerna students, it became much clearer why young people find it so hard to stay in school and why literacy skills are lower for girls.

CLIP: Prerna girls and academics – child labour 

Kathleen: Soon into our time at Prerna, it became apparent that the support the students receive at school goes well beyond their studies; Prerna is invested in creating better lives for girls. The students are taught academic subjects and take classes on empowerment and gender studies to critique and combat the wide-ranging forms of oppression they face every day. 

CLIP:  Prerna is more than a school

Kathleen: The way Prerna philosophy is a clear reflection of the choices Prerna’s founder Dr. Sahni has made.

CLIP: Urvashi deliberately focus on making it a universe of care

Kathleen: This approach to teaching is not common in Lucknow and the students and Dr. Sanhi were instrumental in helping us understand the differences between Prerna and other public or government schools in the educational system in India.

CLIP: Girl answering in Hindi then Urvashi translates: she participates at Prerna, role in a play

Kathleen: In the larger educational and political arena, there are many challenges that teachers face and politics within the educational system that affect the quality of education that students typically receive.

CLIP: Teachers’ challenges and problems

Kathleen: Given these challenges, I have admired the work of the teachers at Prerna and the relationships that teachers like Ms. K have developed with the girls. I have come to understand that this ‘universe of care’ is the guiding force at the school and behind all decisions made with and on behalf of the students.

CLIP: How she (Kavita) is close with the girls  

Kathleen:  In our interview, Ms. K. brought up interesting ideas about women’s freedom from oppression.

CLIP: Women not having liberty- she believes she could improve

Kathleen: Not only did Ms. K help us understand the issues of class and caste in India that play out in the lives of the Prerna students, she also shared her ‘dream of the future’ for these girls. 

CLIP: Kavita’s dream that everyone is at the same level

Kathleen: Dr. Sanhi translated many of our conversations with the girls while we visited Prerna. We had the opportunity to get to know one student, Laxmi, well.

CLIP: Laxmi explaining how Prerna has supported her (Urvashi translating for Laxmi)

Kathleen:  Dr. Sanhi explained that many of these serious issues that Laxmi and Ms. K point to involve various forms of oppression.  For Laxmi, it was the potential of being forced into a child marriage and dealing with a violent, alcoholic father.  For other students it involved sexual abuse.

CLIP: Urvashi- sexual abuse in students’ lives 

Kathleen:  In addition to having teachers or peers to rely on when the girls face serious issues, students also have many opportunities to engage in meaningful and empowering classroom conversations about their lives and the issues they face, including child marriage and domestic violence. These conversations are called critical dialogues at the school.

This idea of an “empowering curriculum” explored through critical dialogues is understood at Prerna, as a process through which the girls gain increased control over the conditions and resources that affect their lives. Here’s an example of one we had the chance to observe.  

CLIP: Urvashi saying the girls have no rights, no responsibilities but their kitchen

Kathleen: These critical dialogues are not only important opportunities for the girls to debrief and reflect on their experiences, but they are also often translated into some form of drama or role-playing situation, which helps the girls express themselves in new ways and prepare for, and practice dealing with, future conflicts. In many ways, the critical dialogues help the girls imagine and work towards different futures for themselves.

CLIP: Girls having an identity – dialogues helps them understand their needs and wants

Kathleen:  Dr. Sanhi also explained to us how this critical feminist focus to the school is necessary given the experiences of the students.

CLIP: Urvashi focus deliberately on helping girls resist

CLIP: Urvashi explaining knushboos trouble and the scope of their education 

Kathleen:  Dr. Sanhi and the teachers at Prerna have also intervened when the students find themselves in situations where they cannot resist oppressive forces on their own.

CLIP: Urvashi example of interventions with Laxmi

Kathleen:  Even though Laxmi had faced some of the most challenging circumstances of the girls at Prerna, she was one of the students who was most open and honest with us about her feelings about her life and what going to Prerna means to her.  

CLIP: Urvashi translating how Prerna has supported girls, no other schools like Prerna

Kathleen:  Laxmi’s family isn’t the only one that recognizes the role Prerna has played in the girls’ lives. Dr. Sanhi explained to us that one student at Prerna completed a class assignment where she had to interview members of her family and through that realized how her life could now be different from her grandmother’s and her mother’s.

CLIP: Girl interviewed grandmother, learned how their lives are different

Kathleen: As drama researchers, my team was particularly interested in what the girls thought of the dialogues, and the drama inspired from them, because we could see the impact both pedagogies were having on their lives

CLIPS: Girls explaining what they get out of critical dialogues

Kathleen: Laxmi, the last speaker heard, was so motivated to share her story after participating in critical dialogues at Prerna that she created a one-minute digital story about her life. Here is an excerpt from her piece.

CLIPS: Laxmi one-minute narrative

Kathleen:  In Laxmi’s full piece she also courageously discusses the challenges she has had with an alcoholic father, normally a taboo subject. As a result, this piece was incredibly powerful for her classmates and within her community.

CLIP: Urvashi- Laxmi’s movie shown, oppressive forces in public and private

Kathleen: Given the place girls occupy in Indian society, it is a success in itself that students were inspired to speak out as a result of Laxmi’s digital story and because of their experiences at Prerna.

CLIP: Girl saying that girls don’t speak a lot in her family (Urvashi translation)

Kathleen: Ms. K explained to us that it wasn’t always easy for the girls to express themselves or think and act powerfully in the face of oppression, because they had been deeply affected by the things they had experienced in life. For some students like Khushboo though, the ‘transformation’ they experienced through this work and in that community was tremendous.

CLIP: Kavita explaining - initially girls were upset about things in life, cry, now easier

Kathleen: Not only have the students been empowered to stand up against injustices and oppression in their own lives, but many of the girls have created a group called Varanga, which works for social change in their communities and stands up for the rights of other women.

CLIP: Girls supporting one another, and woman in village

CLIP: Girl explaining how they help one another

Kathleen: While the odds are stacked against them and social change can move slowly, Ms. K believes that the students at Prerna will truly go far in life and positively contribute to the lives of many other women.

CLIP: Finds girls have great potential

CLIP: Girls need to be trained for themselves  

Kathleen: In the following interview segment you hear my struggle to make sense of the different worlds we imagine the girls having to navigate. 

CLIP: Kathleen speaking, girls living two lives, students and labourers, Prerna safe place

Kathleen: Dr. Sanhi explained to us the progress she has seen with the girls over the last few years. I am confident that with Prerna’s continued work, current students and many more students to come will benefit immensely from the ‘universe of care’ created at Prerna.

CLIP: Urvashi doesn’t change poverty but changes spirit.

CLIP: Urvashi defines their role as doing a lot, try to get girls to see value in themselves

Kathleen:  After spending time at Prerna and seeing for ourselves the social justice work they are collectively engaged in, I couldn’t help but wonder what the impact would be if there were more schools like Prerna.

CLIP: Why is Prerna important?

Kathleen: Perhaps the best way to summarize the lasting impression I have from meeting the girls and teachers of Prerna is a song the girls sang during a student, Sadna’s, one-minute digital story.  In the song, the girls say – “The journey will be covered if we all walk together. And the destination will be visible when we walk together. We are travellers of love and to move ahead is our aim. Any difficulty will become easy in seconds. The valleys are echoing. There will be a change in the air. We don’t care if we have happiness or sorrow, we will play with the storms and handle every pain that comes our way.”

CLIP: Sadna’s song



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