Goddess for tribal children
By Shirin Samuel | OCT 2016
She looks like a monk with her clean-shaven head, large smiling eyes behind glasses and crumpled white cotton saree with a tiny red border. This 43-year-old Zoology post-graduate started volunteering at the Jattu Ashram in Parvathipuram (about 150 km north of Visakhapatnam, close to Odisha border), Andhra Pradesh, in 2004 and later quit her job as Mandal Development Officer with the Andhra Pradesh State Government, to work full-time at the Ashram, with no remuneration, in 2007.
Padmaja V is ‘Amma’ for 42 tribal children. The Ashram was set up in 1999 by Pari Naidu. But things were pretty bad when Padmaja started working here. The residents did not have enough to eat and there was no money to buy food.
Hailing from an agricultural family, she roped in the children and youths to grow paddy, vegetables and fruits so that there would be enough to eat.
With local donors chipping in, mostly through donation of rice and other food grains, the residents began experiencing ‘achhe din’. Moreover, now, they grow vegetables which ensure that the children get wholesome meals.
Though the Ashram is in hot, dusty Andhra Pradesh, under Padmaja’s loving care, the entire Ashram is covered in green, with the children chipping in with watering of the plants and weeding, when required.
An imposing 30-feet tall statue of Shiva in his classic dancing pose as Nataraja is at the entrance of the Ashram. The garden around the statue has stone sculptures depicting the 108 Karanams (poses) of Natya Shastra.
This is the contribution of Srinivas Raju, a Government school teacher and magician, whose wife, Nagakanyaka, is the dance guru at the Kalakshetram set up on the Ashram premises. She teaches Bharathanatyam and Kuchipudi not only to the children of the Ashram but also to children from the neighbouring town.
Under her guidance, the Ashram children have performed at various dance festivals and competitions at the State and national level and have won many accolades and prizes. The couple has decided not to have children of their own but have informally adopted two of the girls from the Ashram.
Padmaja and the children have also built their own skating rink on the premises. They have a small hutch with rabbits, which keep having babies, and the children look after them. They also have a gaggle of geese.
Someone donated a pair and now they have almost a cricket team of geese who waddle around the campus honking noisily or swim contentedly in the small pond in front. Hanumantha, a school boy, is a peer educator.
He lives in the nearby town with his parents but has chosen to live in the Ashram with the children for a while. He teaches the ancient martial art of Karra-Samu (stick fight) to the handful of boys at the Ashram, who have become quite proficient in it.
Padmaja lives an ascetic life – she sleeps on a narrow, hard wooden cot with no mattress or pillow. She eats frugally. She is up at around 4.30 am daily to supervise the children doing their yoga.
She is always cheerful and has a ‘can do’ attitude, reminding us of the change for the better that one individual can make if he or she makes an effort. Padmaja can be contacted on 9440899365 if anyone would like to volunteer or contribute to the Ashram.
(The writer is Corporate Communications executive with BEL.)
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