Subhashini Vasanth
Subhashini dance

I was warmly welcomed into Subhashini (Subha) Vasanth’s home. Subha – a lady full of energy, sporting a beaming smile meets me and instantly makes me feel very comfortable. I am slightly in awe, as I am sitting with the 2016 Neerja Bhanot Awardee. I settled down and we got started.

IN CONVERSATION WITH SUBHASHINI VASANTH

On her start to the philanthropy journey

Subha is a trained and renowned classical dancer. She was a full-time fauji wife and traveled with her husband to each of his postings and taught dance to the people in that location. Subha’s husband, Colonel Vasanth Venugopal, was the commanding officer at Nine Martha Battalion in Kashmir. She had interacted with the jawan’s families for over 15 years. She always used to wonder, what ever happened to the families of the martyrs.

When Vasanth was commanding in 2006-07, both of them had to meet a lady who lost her husband in a battle. This meeting really moved her. The army is extremely efficient, they process and settle all the PF, gratuity, etc within 3 months time from the armed personnel’s death. Wives of martyrs are invited by the army at certain events and are honored.

Vasanth and Subha

She had interacted with the jawan’s families for over 15 years. She always used to wonder, what ever happened to the families of the martyrs.

It was overwhelming. Everyone wanted to know if they could help.

In July 2007 Vasanth was martyred while fighting terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir. He was awarded the Ashok Chakra (Posthumous) in 2008. Subha’s life was extremely ensconced post this life changing incident. She had an outpouring of love and affection not just from her immediate family but from a lot of well-wishers and people who heard the news. It was overwhelming. Everyone wanted to know if they could help. Since Vasanth could not be got back, nothing else could help her at that moment – cash or kind. She felt all this great positive energy that was reaching her is going waste. She needed to do something for these families. She felt, she couldn’t be a dam (hoard it all), but she had to let all these great feelings flow.

This was the start for the Vasantharatna Foundation for Arts in 2007. The foundation, formed in the memory of Colonel Vasanth, started with an aim to create a support system for the families of martyred soldiers. The NGO was a channel to extend a helping hand to the families of martyrs.

6 weeks after Vasanth was martyred, Subha performed a play named Silent Front. It was based on the lives of army wives, and she was the protagonist. She performed the play in Delhi and Bengaluru and the funds generated through it helped strengthen the base of the Foundation.

However, initial days of setting up and running the NGO was all based on her experiences and learnings as she did not have formal knowledge in managing a business.

The tag of being a widow, especially for the wives of martyrs who stay in the rural areas, can be extremely daunting. Many a time they are victimized. The NGO was set-up to provide the necessary emotional connect, to let the wife of the martyr feel and realize that somebody cared for them. But, the larger objective of the NGO was to bring about social change. Subha also realized that the change needs to come from within. She knew she could not displace the woman away from their current social set-up, but needed to work within their social environment. The change has to start from her. That was the start for the empowering programs at Vasantharatna Foundation for Arts.

In parallel, the foundation also embarked on a program to provide educational scholarships for all martyrs’ children in Karnataka. This is to ensure that the child’s education and well-being is not hampered. The army has programs to reimburse tuition for these children, but with a lengthy paperwork involved. It took Subha four years to understand the paperwork process to get the refund of tuition fees. Imagine the plight of several thousands of women from rural places. So, the NGO set-up a fund to provide educational scholarship to the children (5 years and above) of Kargil war martyrs from Karnataka. The NGO collected all the information and helped the woman get their paperwork in order to get the necessary refunds. This educational scholarship gave some respite to the single mothers who were trying to run the family on their own. Once the children’s needs were taken care, Subha and her team moved their focus to young wives of the martyrs and help them with their emotional well-being. If any women needed emotional, legal or financial counselling, the NGO connected them with specialists where they could seek expert opinion at no cost.

The NGO got funds from various people – either in terms of their time or donations. Capt. S Ravi (Retd.) Managing Director Pegasus Institute for Excellence, Bangalore has been supporting the woman empowerment programs. The core team members of the NGO – Subha, Smitha, Shakuntala Bhandarkar and Salma Gauri are getting trained along with their manager Lakshmi on the woman empowerment programs at Pegasus so that they can train the wives of martyrs. The training will be through outbound learning programmes for both women and children which include vocational training and employment opportunities for families.

Currently Vasantharatna Foundation for Arts supports 30 families (which includes 50-60 children) in Karnataka, Belgaum, Bagalkot, Coorg and other parts of rural Karnataka.

Subha teaching dance

This was the start for the Vasantharatna Foundation for Arts in 2007 with an aim to create a support system for the families of martyred soldiers. The NGO was a channel to extend a helping hand to the families of martyrs.

Women empowerment

Currently Vasantharatna Foundation for Arts supports 30 families (which includes 50-60 children) in Karnataka, Belgaum, Bagalkot, Coorg and other parts of rural Karnataka.

Subhashini vasanth

“They said they haven’t been able to let their hair down and laugh without worrying about who will say what; can we just be?”

Subhashini receiving the Neerja Bhanot Award - 2016

Subha is still on the quest to see how the world can honor the martyr without hurting the self-confidence and esteem of the woman.

On her success in the journey

Subha took it very slowly, and this reach out process of giving to the other martyr widows helped her in her own healing process. It’s like a two way process. She feels she has gotten more than what she has given. The satisfaction after reaching out and doing something for others is immense.

Majority of these women from the rural areas, had not seen anything beyond the four walls of their home and were bound to their kitchen. They would only go out for felicitation functions arranged in recognition of their husbands. These outings does not do much for the women’s self-esteem, as she is like a prop for her husband’s garlands. A lot of women are made to feel that it’s because of the husband’s sacrifice that she is honored and she means nothing to this society. Personally, it’s not doing her much good. Subha is still on the quest to see how the world can honor the martyr without hurting the self-confidence and esteem of the woman. The whole objective of the woman empowerment program is to improve her self-esteem, make her feel she is worth something and can start her own life while being herself.

A memory close to Subha’s heart was the first empowerment program they ran for these women. Subha had made all the arrangements (travel, boarding and lodging) for a 3 day camp at Pegasus to have 20 ladies. Capt. S Ravi had blocked the entire Pegasus. One day before the program, the ladies called one after the other and said they will not be able to come. They  were scared as they had never stepped out of their villages. Also, their immediate family was objecting to them going out like this. There was another practical problem. All of them had children and they could not leave them behind. Subha told the ladies, that they could get the children. Overnight, Subha spoke with Capt. Ravi and his team to accommodate 20 ladies and their children at Pegasus. Finally, Subha had to threaten that the foundation would withdraw the scholarship given to their children. The ultimatum worked. Slowly, within half a day, all 20 women agreed to come for the program. Next morning, when she saw the ladies, they were confused and not sure on what to expect for next three days. When the three days were completed, they had tears in their eyes. Each one of them said, they never had so much fun, and no one has really cared for us so much. But what they said finally just before leaving moved Subha – “they said they haven’t been able to let their hair down and laugh without worrying about who will say what; can we just be?”. That’s when Subha felt that they had arrived. After the first camp, the acceptance for the next has been high. The modules that they went through in Pegasus, has helped them put a vision for their lives ahead and also gotten them to start dreaming again for themselves and their families.

Gift a birthday is another program Subha and her team started 2 years back. They send the children and the wives a small gift every birthday. This year’s gift is travel bags (for the ladies) and calculators (for children). It’s a very small gesture, but it’s making a huge impact, as the families feel loved and cared.

On her future plans

The long-term plan is to ensure their “train the trainer” program is successful. Five of them who get trained in the first batch are identified as facilitators. These women can be trained next on women empowerment programs. They feel that these programs will raise the bar for these ladies – work on their self-esteem, enhance self-confidence and encourage them to do something with their lives while recognizing leadership qualities in them. Also, the ladies in the last 6 months have undergone training in English communication, as well as a course in computer literacy. This knowledge and empowerment will help the women with more employment opportunities that can give additional funds to the families. They are also looking at expanding this program to other states.

In the next 3-6 months Subha and team are planning a jute skill development program with them. The team is collaborating with National Jute Corporation to get these workshops in place.

These 30 women have been the ‘success’ for Subha and team. Subha measures the impact of her work by getting the women back on their feet and getting them to live their lives with dignity and self-esteem. For these 30 women, the Foundation has shown them life has a meaning beyond being a martyr’s wife.

“You have your good days and bad days but you learn to cope. What else one can one do but accept the bitter truth? It was not easy then, it is not easy even now. Nobody could help you in this but you. This is your battle.”

Subha with Smitha

Art helps as there is so much role play and can put oneself in many roles, so it aids in the healing process.

On her role models in the journey

Subha admires Arundhati Nag, for the way she was able to change and transform her life even after she lost Shankar Nag.  Subha thought if Arundhati can, so can she. Art also helps as there is so much role play and can put oneself in many roles, so it aids in the healing process. It helps by making you think about the situation from different people’s perspectives. Art has played a key role in her healing process.

Subha’s parents, family and friends stood by her when Vasanth was martyred. But it was her cousin, Smitha who put her own life on hold for 3 months and was with Subha and the kids in every waking moment. She was a pillar of strength during those 3 months. She has always been supportive of all Subha’s initiatives and has been a part of this NGO since its inception.

There is no such thing as right thing at the right place. Life will happen irrespective of where you are. Take the bull by its horns, take it as it comes. The foundation, does need funds and volunteers to work with them. If you are willing to support their dream, please reach out to them at – http://www.vasantharatna.org