THE PERFECT SETTING
The Sumangali Seva Ashram (SSA), headed by Susheelamma, sprawls across a one-acre piece of land in Cholanayakanahalli, on the outskirts of Bangalore, near Hebbal, Bengaluru. The large well attended compound exudes an aura of peace. Along the cobbled pathway, is a picturesque hillock with a temple, a meditation hut to the left and to the right a circular open pavilion for visitors. The ashram, entirely managed by women, is filled with the happy laughter of children and the chirping of birds. Women manage all the finances and activities of this-huge complex. They tend to the ashram cattle, the garden, the school, the hostels and the training centre. But behind each bright face is a story of pain, suffering and rejection by society.
A MONUMENT OF TRIUMPH
S.G. Susheelamma, a soft spoken, seventy two-year-old woman, clad in a simple white saree, established the ashram in 1975. The ashram is almost a monument to her triumph over suffering for through it she has been able to forget her own pain and has been able to reach out to others less fortunate. It was a long struggle but in the process Susheelamma discovered her own strengths. Today, she is the recipient of state and national awards, chief among them being the Jankidevi Bajaj Award (1995); the Babasaheb Ambedkar Award for Handicrafts and Handlooms (1994); the National Award for the Promotion of Handicraft and Child Welfare in 1985 and 1991 respectively and the Kittur Chennamma Rani Award instituted by the Department of Women and Child Development, Government of Karnataka. She has been awarded a national award instituted in the name of Basava, a great reformer. She also acts as a consultant to several government and quasi-government organisations.
THE SACRED PROMISE
This indomitable woman was born into a poor household with a large family of fourteen children. Having known poverty, hunger and deprivation, she is able to empathise with the sufferings of others. As a child, she had seen four of her brothers and sisters die in infancy. Her father, a humble weaver called Ganeshappa, and her mother Chennamma belonged to the Devangana community, a traditional weaving caste in Karnataka. For the sake of the children's education, Ganeshappa and Chennamma had migrated to Bangalore from their village. However, due to Ganeshappa's early death, the family was in dire straits. The older sons in the family quit studies in order to carry on the family business. Susheelamma's own quest for education was not easy. She was dependent on free education and on the free books provided by the school to the poor children.
One day while waiting to collect her supply of free books Susheelamma resolved that she would help others just as she had been helped. From an innate desire to serve God and humanity, Susheelamma would teach the children in the neighbourhood. The small fee that the children gave her helped her to study up to Pre-University in the Maharani College for Women.
Soon she got a job as a meter operator at the Bharat Heavy Electrical Limited (BHEL) in 1959. Even though the financial situation began to ease up a little bit Susheelamma never forgot the promise she had made to herself. After working for about seven years, Susheelamma decided to take a salary cut and work with children. She asked the Company to put her in charge of the creche that it had started for the children of its employees. In the meanwhile she also started to train herself for her future work. She took a condensed course in teaching and became good at sports. She participated in basketball and various other competitions.
During this period of her life Susheelamma made two friends who helped her in her life's ambition. The first was Leelavathi (who worked as a radio operator in BHEL) and the second was Kantamma, the warden of the Bhubaneswari Mahila Samaj. Susheelamma had met her while she was studying for her condensed course in teacher's training. Currently both Leelavathi and Kantamma are trustees of the ashram. Says Leelavathi, "Although I am ten years older than Susheelamma, I have always depended on her emotionally. Whenever I have felt the need for any spiritual or emotional support I used to stay with Susheelamma for a few days. I was not entirely happy in my marriage. I therefore decided to leave home and stay in the ashram after my son got married."
Eighty-year-old Leelavathi continues to supervise and guide the inmates of the ashram and is affectionately called doddamma by the inmates. Describing Susheelamma's early struggles, Leelavathi says that Susheelamma gave up her well- paying job to work with women and children. It was her single-minded determination that enabled her to build this institution.
Succumbing to family pressures, Susheelamma got married in 1966. She was however not combative with her husband, who was employed as a caretaker in the certified school run by the Department of Women and Child Development. Therefore in 1972, at the age of thirty-six, she walked out of a crumbling marriage with only Rupees fifteen in her purse and three children to take care of. She moved to a friend's house and by living on a spartan diet of vegetables and gruel, she made the money last a whole month. Deeply religious and moved with the spirit of service, she did not choose a conventional path to find- herself and her children. She took up a teaching job at the Bhubaneswari Mahila Ashram. In those days she earned a meagre salary of Rupees one hundred and seventy, out of which she would keep Rupees seventy aside for her organisational work. In her spare time, she would coach children wanting to drop out of school and motivate them to study. At the same time, she was attempting to build an organisation. By 1973, she was very clear in her goals and she became a sanyasin, but the path she selected was not that of prayer and contemplation; it was the path of selfless service.
ORGANSATIONAL GROWTH AND INTEGRATION
From this humble beginning, Susheelamma has developed the organisation into a mammoth enterprise, conducting schools, creches, orphanages, industrial units, training programmes and hostels for women and children in distress. Apart from the in- house programmes mentioned here, it reaches out to the larger community through its awareness of income generation programmes and supervision of Primary Health Centres and creches conducted by the Government. Setting up this huge organisation was not easy because Susheelamma had neither money nor contacts. The people in Ganganehalli slum were also suspicious of her and did not always accept her help. By sheer dint of hard work, this charismatic woman was able to initiate her programmes. She began her school in a single room with only three students. In order to gain acceptance in the community she passed on information about her programmes through her students. The children passed this information to their mothers, who on their own came to participate in the activities of the ashram. Soon curiosity brought the fathers around. Susheelamma had thus succeeded in motivating the family units, which in reality meant the entire community. Today the SSA is thoroughly integrated with credibility of the people. She is often called upon to mediate in community and family disputes.
The small school has grown to include hostels to shelter women and children in need. No needy woman or child is turned away from the SSA. It provides women in distress the much-needed respite to think over their options and rebuild their lives. Today this ashram shelters more than four hundred destitute women and children. The SSA runs nursery and higher primary schools at Adugodi and Cholanayakanahalli with about six hundred children of whom hundred are ashram inmates. The SSA has recently started the Sumangali Girls High School. Sangeetha and Neelam are seventeen year old twins who came to the ashram when they were just three. They have since completed SSLC (Secondary School Leaving Certificate) and are trained in tailoring, knitting, and other skills. There are those who joined the ashram a decade or more ago and are today an integral part of it. The ashram also runs three hostels for women and children and creches in rural areas. One out of these twenty creches is located on the ashram premises. Gowaramma, a construction worker says, "I can work in peace because I know the child is being well looked after in the ashram. When I had my first child, I had not heard of this place and so I would take her to the site. Sometimes she would eat sand and fall sick."
Apart from such institutional-based programmes, the SSA also conducts community outreach programmes. Believing in the need for women's collective action for dealing with their problems, the SSA organises various mahila okkutas (women's unity organisations) and yuvathi kendras (in which the SSA brings together adolescent girls to give them vocational training). Organised as a federation, these mahila mandals provide women with vocational training and income-generation activities. Some of the income-generation activities include dairying, horticulture, tailoring, knitting, handicraft, handloom weaving, screen printing, making pottery, terracotta dolls, detergents, candles, etc. These mandals are also provided with creches and loan facilities. The SSA has also organised rag-pickers, artisans and weavers into SHGs and runs non formal education programmes under the rag-pickers rehabilitation programme.
FINANCE THE KEY TO SUCCESS
Finance was the most persistent problem confronting the ashram in the early days. Working hard, fingers aching, she, along with a few women, would bend steel rings to make metal poultry feeders. Their efforts fetched them a meagre forty paise for a kilogram. They began making garlands of cocoon pods (of silkworms) for the Arts and Crafts Emporium. To make the deliveries, the women would have to carry the consignment of their backs. There was often no money to meet the daily expenses. Susheelamma therefore cautioned her wards that if one day there was no food, no one should complain. However, a chance to visit to the Action Aid India office left her with a large cheque in her hand. With their financial difficulties solved, one goal after another was achieved. Over the years the SSA has received funds from the government and various donor agencies, both national and international. The government and semi-government agencies that have funded its activities from time to time include, among others, Canara Bank: and the Ministry of Education and many international agencies like SKIP from Switzerlan and G.E.Furro from USA.
Some organisations have given donations for specific programmes the important ones being Robo Bank Foundation (The Netherlands) which has provided a revolving fund for micro- enterprised and Adoption International (Switzerland) which has funded a programme to rehabilitate the rag-pickers.
THE VOLUNTARY SUPPORT SYSTEM
The staff members include those who came to the ashram for help and subsequently stayed on to work for the upliftment of others like themselves. For example, there is Shanta, a woman in her forties. She came to the ashram with severe mental problems. She was given shelter and occupational therapy in the knitting unit of the ashram. When she recovered, she went back to her family hoping for a happy ending to her troubles. But life continued to be unkind to her. Seeking refuge in the ashram once again, she now runs the knitting section and helps other women to start life anew. Several women entrepreneurs, who have been trained and subsequently helped by the SSA to get bank loans, continue to keep in touch and offer voluntary services to the ashram.
MANAGEMENT AND SUPERVISION
It is the single-minded dedication and hard work of Susheelamma, which keeps the huge ashram working smoothly. She wakes up at four-thirty in the morning and after an hour of meditation, begins her work. She personally supervises the menu for the residents every day and goes through the accounts. She is always on hand to solve any of the multifarious problems that arise in the various units. She tours extensively in the state, conducting awareness camps for village and slum women. These working class women, who bear the triple oppression of caste, class and gender crowd to hear her, as she instructs them about their rights and means to improve their lives. Susheelamma, however, has attempted to delegate authority to others. Each project has a coordinator, who is expected to call a meeting of the project staff every month to review and plan the future directions of the project. These coordinators are expected to report the minutes of the meetings to Susheelamma. There is also a team of outside experts who evaluate the work undertaken by each project every year.
Apart from the orphaned and destitute children of varying age groups staying in the Premananda Makkala kuteera, the inmates of the hostel include young girls on the threshold of life as well as deserted and separated women. There is Uma, a twenty- year-old girl who came to the ashram to learn weaving so that she could become economically independent; then there is Saraswathamma, an eighty-five- year-old woman who was abandoned by her alcoholic son. She says that Susheelamma gives her the love and care of a daughter. Although she is not expected to do any work around the ashram, she likes to contribute her bit and therefore works in the weaving centre. Seventy- five percent of the ashramites are in the age group of twenty to thirty years. In most cases, their marriages failed because of dowry or alcoholism. A twenty-year-old woman narrates: "I had a love marriage and we were happy till his family started harassing me for dowry. He'd take their side and send me home to my parents for money. In the beginning I would comply with their wishes and give them whatever I could get out of my parents. But the harassment increased and he started beating me. Some of my neighbours had heard of Amma (as Susheelamma is affectionately called by the ashramites). They advised me to go and seek her help. After two years of Amma's influence on him he is a changed man. We are reunited, but I continue to work in the SSA as I am happy here."
PROVIDING AUTONOMOUS SELF DEFINITION
Notwithstanding its religious leaning, the SSA seems to represent indigenous feminist consciousness. One facet of this (ironically expressed in its original name as Dheerga Surnangali Bhava, i.e. the traditional blessing given to married women for a long married life) is seen in its understanding of women's rights and entitlements in the family. It seeks to collectivise women and enable each woman to acquire vocational and economic skills needed for autonomous self-definition. This is not to imply that the SSA is not committed to the family. In its attempt to bring about reconciliation in the family, it seeks to understand the source of the conflict. If the conflict arises because of financial problems, efforts are made to improve the earning capacity of the family through skill training, access to loans or different employment. If the difficulties arise from emotional or sexual incompatibility, counselling is provided. However, the SSA does not seek to keep the marriage intact with the silencing of the women. It provides the woman the necessary opportunities to study, acquire skills and earn an income, while her children are educated and cared for.
TOWARDS GENDER EQUALITY
Thus the feminism embodied in the ashram provides succour to the women in distress and propagates the message of women's liberation through the yuvathi and mahila mandals it conducts. The approach can best be described as pragmatic, for it aims to make women independent with knowledge of their rights and entitlements while at the same time enabling them to acquire the necessary economic means to remain independent. The issue of domestic violence is central to the work of the SSA. It provides vulnerable families with shelter, education and opportunities to earn a living. Despite her heavy workload, Susheelamma personally conducts counselling sessions. In these session, she seeks to find a common ground for reconciliation. If efforts fail, then the ashram appoints a lawyer and files for divorce. During their stay, the women are given shelter and vocational training to enable them to become independent.
The other facet of this indigenous feminist consciousness is seen in the ways in which Susheelamma has transformed religious traditions. She has built a Shiva temple in R.T. Nagar where women priests perform the rituals. Additionally, through spiritual discourses and bhajan (religious singing) sessions, Susheelamma spreads the message of peace in the family and community.
Dr. Veena Poonacha
(Source. Kayaka Tapashwhli, Shobha H.G.-2010)
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