“…As long as I am alive, I will not allow you to trample the dignity of my children.” These were her assertive words to the person incharge of her troupe for Sansui Cine Award at New Delhi.
There’s something about her which I discovered that is awe-inspring. Am I sounding a little dramatic? But, its true. Simplicity is her elegance yet her bold persona could pin down anyone who crosses the limit of her absorption. There is no sign of insecurity in her feelings, no weakness in her conduct and she recognizes the gravity of her accomplishments without seeking any praise for herself.
There was no better way to know such a prominent and multi faceted personality than meeting her personally through an interview. Mrs. Mrinalini Padhi (lawyer cum social activist) was kind enough to share her life’s journey with Team Coffee Bytes at her farmhouse in Telengapentha over a cup of coffee.
Share with us about your journey till date.
By destiny I was born to an affluent family. My father was barrister Gobind Das, a well known name in the literary and legal field. I completed my education from the best of school and colleges i.e Covent of Jesus and Mary and Lady Shriram College in New Delhi. My father was a disciplinarian. He often used to say “children must be shown the stars but at the same time, roots should be shown too”. A trip to the village (Mogulbagh, near Binjharpur in Jajpur district) was a must, during the vacation time. Even though, I hated going to the village as I used to get bored but today I realize its importance which helps me stay rooted.
After my college, getting into legal field was inevitable and had to happen as I belong to family of legal luminaries. To me, legal system was not the end but means to achieve social justice, so I utilized it in a humble manner.
In Odisha during 80’s, it was such that the moment a lady files a FIR for dowry, the in-laws would immediately be arrested. Invariably, the children of the accused would have to live in jail too. As Our criminal justice system takes years and years for such cases to be disposed, the child grows up with the stigma of having grown up in a jail for no fault. I had worked with children earlier so I was more concerned about the children of the accused. When I visited different jails like Champua and other remote areas the plight was quite disturbing so I ensured that the court gave directive that anganwadi centres be opened near the jail. So that these children will grow with dignity with some semblance to normal childhood out of the jail premises even if it is for a few hours. That’s how I got associated with Jail reforms.
In my own way, I always wanted to do something which would touch lives.
Allow wheelchairs inside Jagannath temple, you had taken lead in the campaign. Tell us something about it.
I remember a pilgrim (aged 80+) had come from Mumbai to Puri. She had an earnest desire to have darshan of Lord Jagannath. She wasn’t able to climb the stairs of Shree Mandir. She enquired from the temple administration whether wheelchair is allowed or not as apparently there are temples in Benares where wheel chairs are allowed. She was denied. I took the lead in the campaign to allow wheel chair in Lord Jagannath temple and faced lot of cultural and religious resistance. Ultimately, the campaign became successful due to a political push; when a Rajya Sabha member had a team of 70 wheelchair bound people for darshan of Lord Jagannath. Now, wheelchairs are allowed to a certain point and then with certain payment people with stretchers would take you for darshan. I hope with progressive thinkers at the helm of affairs, we will be able to motivate to extend the ramp needed for wheelchair upto the sanctum.
You are honorary secretary of Red Cross Centre for Special Children- Sahaya. How was it formed and any special moment/experience you would like to share with us?
In 1988, Ramadevi Sishu Vihar was the first school in Odisha to deal with differently abled children. It was adjacent to the High Court. In those days when I used to practice regularly at High Court, I would hear voices of children and would visit them due to curiosity. Eventually I became a part of the managing committee of this school. None of them had any idea of mental retardation and its range. I had gone for the training to Hyderabad, sponsored by Unicef in 80’s. Coming back from Hyderabad, I had a belief that I would be able to handle mentally challenged children. I never knew by then that children could be self injurious by biting or hitting themselves. The special child, whom I handled was hyper active who for no reason would be very aggressive and violent. After analysing I found that his mother used to go to her village frequently leaving him at home. Nobody really cared to talk to the child. The child was left with a lot of questions in his mind which he was unable to ask or express. I realised the pattern through lot of observations that in the absence of his mother, the child becomes violent. I counseled the mother to explain to him the reason of her absence. The acceptance, that he is a matured boy gave him confidence and emotional security in reducing the aggression. My training taught me, if a child is difficult to handle, overpower by tying him against yourself so that you take out his aggressive energy. I applied the same to the child. Unfortunately the child slipped from my overpowering mode and badly got hit. He was bleeding profusely and taken immediately into medical care. It was a big shock to me and my arrogance of being trained was fully shattered. I realised each individual case is different and independent. There was a difference in generalized training and actual field work. From this the thought of Sahaya emerged. I wanted to do something different from what was conducted at Rama devi Sishu Vihar. I found that there was no work in the vocational sector for these children. I along with a few parents started ‘Ankur’ and gave specialized training. We started Ankur at a parent’s house. As enrolment grew, we approached Red Cross for space for the centre. They didn’t approve for the land instead started a school. So in 1991, Sahaya was born as a part of the Red Cross Society, Odisha state branch and has a journey of 27 years.
Being a woman, have you ever faced gender discrimination in your journey till date?
In the professional scenario, I didn’t face any discrimination at all because when I wear my official coat and gown, I totally forget that I am a lady and I am someone who is at par. I have aruged with the best of talents in the court. Bring it on !!!
We have seen an increase in crime against minor girls, Your opinion on the same.
I am very disturbed with the degeneration of our society. In my view the highest punishment should be awarded for such heinous acts but unless and until the time period between crime and award of punishment is shortened, it will not make an impact. If the punishment is awarded with an immediate effect, it affects the psyche of the perpetrators. As far as protection by law is concerned, if an abuser is aware of punishment he would immediately receive on complaint of the child, he may not go to such an extent. Secondly sexuality has never been brought across the table in our society, so the ignorance and curiosity is taking a toll in the present time.
You are an Odissi dancer, drama therapist and have created a 33 minute documentary on Gotipuas of Raghurajpur. Share with us about your interest in dance and drama.
I think in my generation for every odia girl it was compulsory to learn music and dance at Kala Vikash Kendra. It started from Odisha and it continued in Delhi. You cannot escape from music and dance no matter how good or bad you are. I was also assocaiated with giti natya (dance-drama). I used to perform giti natya in the best of halls at Delhi. It was a massive hit. I love to dance and I was drawn towards theatre due to my association with Sushma Seth who had established Children Creative Theatre.
It was in 2002, a lady from Cuttack was doing Gurukul program for Star Plus and Sakshi Tanwar was hosting the show. She knew me and my interest in Odissi and she asked me if I could make two documentaries. I said yes, and made two documentaries (i) Gotipua dance style (ii) Ganjapa cards. I completed the documentary and the entire episode was recorded in Ramanand Sagar studio. It was aired and I was allowed to host it too. Though it was a teaser kind in Star Plus, I developed the Gotipua project as a full documentary movie. It was a great learning experience. The full documentary got viral and I was called to an Odissi Festival at Manchestar. At that event, I was requested to screen the documentary and talk on the style of dance form.
You have started Sahaya Cultural Troupe which showcases the talents of differently able children through Performing Arts. Brief us about it.
From 1992 to 2012, we used to organize festival of differently abled people at Cuttack. In the year 1997, I wrote letters to the big wigs of Bollywood industry, Jaya Bachchan, Anupam Kher and Shabana Azmi to come as special guest to the festival. Jaya Bachchan and Shabana Azmi turned down the request but Anupam Kher responded and said he was busy in a shoot at Kolkatta and if the producer agreed to leave him for half a day also, he would definitely visit. But alas! Anupam Kher wasn’t able to come.
After two years, I got a call from Shiamak Davar. He wanted our girls to perform in Sansui Cine Awards at Delhi and he worked out that the girls would be trained for the show in Mumbai. My troupe was of Odissi girl dancers who were deaf and one of them had Down syndrome. My troupe had a culture shock but were fortunate as they were trained with elite dancers who performed with superstars like Shahrukh Khan. Shiamak informed us that on a shloka note our troupe would perform. We had taken Odissi guru with us who made a beautiful composition. After that, Shiamak went for a program at Bhopal but asked our kids to practice at his student’s residence in Colaba. On returning, things had totally changed. He said that they won’t have shloka slot in the programme due to radical agencies like RSS. I felt helpless as I knew my girls were best possible performers yet they were losing an opportunity. I knew that the explanation which Shiamak gave, was a blatant lie as my girls would steal the show in midst of rich, famous, powerful, bold and beautiful stars. It came true, shloka part was done but by dancers of Shiamak. This was the ugly side of the glamour world, if you are not rich, beautiful or famous, they can trample you. At Delhi, a person was assigned to take the responsibility of our troupe. Every time I called him up, I used to hear giggling sound from the person. We were left unattended. We didn’t get our flight tickets back to home which I had assured the kids. On the day of the event, I rushed to Sansui travel desk and updated them. On a positive note, they did the needful for six members but one ticket couldn’t get confirmed for the member with down syndrome. From there I called up airport manager Mr. Gaud and said “Mr. Gaud we will never meet in life, but your small gesture this afternoon will go a long way in bringing a cheer to the life of a down syndrome”. In those day’s there was a Captain choice which Mr. Gaud used to confirm the ticket for the child. I have never met Mr. Gaud in person but through Coffee Bytes, I salute the person for his kind nod. Then, I looked for the man who was in charge of our troupe. Accidentally, I bumped into him and said “keep in mind, as long as I am alive, I will not allow you to trample the dignity of my children”. Being embarrassed, he begged my apology. In the Sansui Cine Award bravery was the theme of the show. The compliment received from Shahrukh Khan was “My performance appears to be quite faded, infront of the performance of differently abled children and courage of children who won bravery awards”
It was a great milestone for me as my troupe was invited for a performance in special Sansui Cine Award and my children got appreciation from bigwigs like Shahrukh khan, Shiamak Davar, Anupam Kher. I am grateful to Shiamak for giving us the opportunity at Sansui Cine Awards and for the hospitality extended by Anupam Kher.
What advice would you give to women to have a successful career?
Whatever I have learnt in life is from two great women. One is my mother – a home maker and other being my mother in law who was the first lady judge of the High Court. So my advice is whatever you do or choose to do, do it with utter dedication, devotion and good intent. You are no less, you are at par in contributing to the society.
Being a woman of substance, if you are bestowed with power for a day, what would be the thing which you would like to change for the betterment of Odisha?
The catchpoint is one day, if given for a day, I have a great desire to give the municipality sweepers the dignity they deserve as in places like England. They too contribute for the social good as much as other professionals like doctor, engineer etc.
I would love to bring them together, show love, care and appreciate by telling them… Hey guys! You are doing a great job!
By Upagupt Mohanty