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Finding Focus

by Nitin Upadhye
India

Mr. Endo[© Yamini Upadhye]

I dropped out of college, quarreled with my parents, ran away from home and lived on the streets of Mumbai, all to pursue my dream of a career in photography. Soon enough, not finding success and filled with despair, I returned to my parents' home. Surprisingly, it was my mother who encouraged me not to give up. I returned to Mumbai to once again follow my dream.

So, 17 years ago, I was a bitter, frustrated young man desperate to make something of my life. Around that time, I was on an assignment, and the person I was working with interrupted our discussion to ask: "Why are you so angry?"

I assured her my anger was directed only at my own inability to deal with life.

She told me I could change my life through Buddhist philosophy, but I retorted that such philosophies are okay only in books; on the street nothing works, and that is the reality. But, as she went on to tell me about Nichiren Daishonin's teachings, I was moved by her words and decided to give prayer a shot.

At Bharat Soka Gakkai (BSG) meetings, I was surprised to find people honestly sharing their life and struggles so openly, simply to inspire others to live happier lives. Their kindness and genuine warmth made me reflect on my own attitude.

However, it wasn't until three years later that I was truly jolted awake. I had been assigned to make a study presentation at a discussion meeting on the postwar history of the Soka Gakkai. Reading about this history, I was profoundly affected by the unbelievable dedication shown by SGI President Daisaku Ikeda and his mentor, Josei Toda, during those years and their total commitment to working for the happiness of people everywhere. 

shelvesKashmiri girls practicing photography [© Nitin Upadhye]

I felt a powerful new emotion: concern for human suffering.

Between 1999 and 2001, I participated in BSG relief activities in the wake of natural disasters in different parts of India. Working on these projects strengthened the feeling that I must contribute to the world I live in, a feeling that was reinforced when I went to Kashmir to shoot for a book. What struck me most was the lack of spontaneity among the children in Kashmir. Little girls walked by almost silently, whispering among themselves. The older boys looked lost. Their faces haunted me.

Five years later, I came in contact with the Borderless World Foundation (BWF), an NGO headquartered in Pune, which ran two (now four) homes for orphaned girls who had been displaced by the armed conflict in Kashmir. I made a film on these homes, called Basera-e-Tabassum (literally, House of Smiles), which proved useful in spreading awareness and understanding about the project and garnering support.

Agents of Change

I began wondering what I could do to implement the exchange of cultures and ideas that President Ikeda speaks of in his peace proposals. I recalled his essay, "Teachers of My Childhood," in which he writes about his excitement about going on a school trip as a child, and I also remembered seeing a 1928 photograph of first Soka Gakkai President Tsunesaburo Makiguchi with nearly 50 pupils of Shirokane Elementary School on a school trip to Mount Takao, near Tokyo.

Inspired by these ideas, I proposed that the Basera-e-Tabassum girls go on an education and cultural exchange tour of different towns and cities during their winter school holidays. At first the idea met with resistance, but finally the local community agreed to send the girls along with two local teachers. The first group, of 27 girls aged 9 to 14, went on a five-week trip to Pune and surrounding areas, and I made an 11-minute film on the trip. 

three seatsStudying images before setting out on an assignment [© Adhik Kadam]

After our return, we screened this film at a lunch to which we invited the whole village. The applause would not stop. The travel group has grown bigger every year. In October 2008, I started teaching photography to some of the girls. Five of them won national awards for their photographs in 2009, and an exhibition of their work was held in Delhi the following year. Now the girls are working on a book on Kashmir, doing both the text and photography. We intend to take a traveling exhibition of their photographs all over the world.

In 2011, the Children's Film Society of India invited a group of 13 girls, 10 to 14 years old, to their international festival. For the first time they saw films starring children, made by people of different religions, languages and cultures. Their heads were bursting with ideas. Now they want to make films and tell their own stories.

Since 2008, a lot has changed in my life and in the lives of the Basera-e-Tabassum girls. Borderless World Foundation now has groups of volunteers in different cities, and the cultural exchange tours and photography workshops are now established BWFprojects. The purpose of these projects from the outset was to empower the orphaned girls, awaken them to their infinite potential, engage them in a broad spectrum of activities both inside and outside Kashmir, and through this engagement help them create proof in their own lives of their abilities, potential and strength. We hope that in time all the girls will become agents of change in Kashmir.

My determination is to expand the project to include the larger community. We are opening a library for children of the village and organizing health camps for women. We make every effort to involve intellectuals from universities and government officials in our work.

My determination is very simple: to use my life and skills to implement President Ikeda's ideas in communities in conflict areas.

[Courtesy January 2014 SGI Quarterly]

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