A Tete-a-tete with Sharda Vishwanathan

Who is Sharda Vishwanathan?

Conversations define me. I love engaging with people and understanding their perspectives. Born and brought up in the Maximum City of Bombay, I have always been overwhelmed by the chaotic but the relentless spirit this city stands for. And it was here that I got exposure to the different facets of society, be it political, socio-economic or religion and understood the class dynamics. Bombay seamlessly assimilates everyone, from millionaires to our very own Bollywood stars or migrants coming into the city in search of economic opportunities.  I am a travel enthusiast and love soaking myself into the local culture and understanding local communities and every aspect of their lives. Over the years, my professional experience and my travels across countries have helped me take on different roles. Of an analyst and researcher. Of a writer. Of a storyteller. And of a photographer.

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Who is Sharda Vishwanathan not?

I am certainly not someone who is judgmental about people, society or the world around. I am definitely not someone who follows conversations blindly, without questioning the status quo. I have always been a rebel or in the words of my family- the black sheep who does not conform to what the society expects of me.

What does Sharda Vishwanathan do?

Patriarchy for ages has continued to influence the society we live in. It is not uncommon for both boys and girls to be exposed to patriarchy and gender stereotypes. During one’s growing up years, one often experiences the pressure to fit into society’s preconceived notion of what it means to be a boy or a girl. My childhood was no different. But my parents always encouraged me to think and created a space for dialogue where I could share my perspectives while questioning the norms that dictated our being. This was soon followed by a career in humanities and I went on to do my Master’s in Gender, Media and Culture from the London School of Economics and Political Science. My passion for community engagement towards creating a gender-just society has been instrumental in my decision to work in the development sector. I have always worked with nonprofits and managed communications in areas as diverse as urban planning, governance and gender empowerment.

On my recent visit to India, I was at a park and saw this group of little girls place their hands against each other’s and compare which one of them had a lighter skin. The one with the darkest tone was immediately called “Kaali” (the word for ‘Black’ in Hindi) much to her disappointment. And this was not all. The fairest amongst them shared her excitement of how she was the “Snow White” of the group. Completely aghast, I could not stop but question the extent to which the media be it literature, cinema or advertisements continue to influence the society and reinforce the social and cultural norms that seek to normalize the ideal beauty. How can we change such narratives? Can we have stories that do not show women as damsel in distress while waiting for her knight in the shining armour to come to her rescue? Plagued with these questions and reflecting on how stories continue to influence our everyday lives, I embarked on my journey to write stories that break stereotypes and empower children with life skills. I decided to call the initiative Tale Weavers- Weaving Tales, Breaking Stereotypes and officially launched it in March 2017. Through simple conversations, colorful illustrations, and powerful characters, I aspire to create a world where our boys do not shy away from careers in arts and girls pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). A world where children are equipped with basic financial literacy skills that will inculcate in them the importance of savings and money management from a very young age. A world where our princesses no longer dress in pink or need a prince to come to their rescue but are strong independent women who take on challenges.

Why does Sharda Vishwanathan do it?

To create an inclusive learning space, where every child has the opportunity to unleash his/ her full potential. I strongly believe in an approach that uses alternate education and innovative methods of learning that helps self-development while facilitating the growth of a vibrant community of leaders empathetic and sensitive to the various unmet social needs.

How far has Sharda Vishwanathan come?

It has been a great learning and enriching journey in the development space and I do believe I still have a long way to go and make an impact in the communities I am working with. Some of my most cherished moments and work are-

Launch of our Stories for Awareness campaign in collaboration with The Red Elephant Foundation. As part of the campaign, my global team of volunteer writers and illustrators put together 17 stories, each throwing light on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. And The Red Elephant Foundation as a partner, developed curriculum and activities as a follow-up to the stories so as to engage with children through workshops.

 

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A story titled Menstroo was written and illustrated and launched as part of the Global Menstrual Hygiene Day on 28th May 2017 to break the silence and engage with children in conversations around menstruation. This story was written as part of the campaign that was launched in partnership with The Red Elephant Foundation and LEPA Initiative. One of our volunteers translated the story into Maithili language and an audio recording of the same was carried on Radio Madhubani.

Over the last 3 months my team has written and illustrated stories that challenge conventional gender roles, question fairness as the ideal skin tone and help equip children with financial literacy skills through simple concepts on savings, basic money management and taxes.

And the most rewarding of all is when parents write to me and share their experience of reading out our stories to their children and ways in which it has helped them discuss various topics in a simple yet engaging manner.

Where does Sharda Vishwanathan wish to be in a few years from now?

I see myself running a community centre for children and the youth. The centre will use alternate education as an approach to empower them and create a community of changemakers.

Whom does Sharda Vishwanathan look up to?

I think the first person who has always inspired me will be my mother. She has always shattered every stereotype and ensured that I had access to a good education and better exposure to the world around me. Her constant encouragement and confidence in me has helped me push my boundaries and unleash the explorer in me. And last but not the least, my friends Kirthi Jayakumar and Rupande Mehta and my partner Raghu Ramachandran continue to inspire me every second with their sheer brilliance and relentless spirit to bring about the change we are all so passionate about.

What advice does Sharda Vishwanathan have for our readers?

Dare to dream big and follow your passion.

Where can we find Sharda Vishwanathan

If you have a story that breaks the stereotype or just want to engage in a conversation and share your perspectives, feel free to reach out to me through my website or twitter handle.

Website: www.tale-weavers.org

Twitter: @visharda/ @TaleWeavers

 

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