"It is a happy talent to know how to play."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
I have come to India to photograph play. Magic Bus India, an international NGO working in 10 states in India and involving 250,000 children, uses the natural inclination for play and laughter to bring children into a nurturing mentorship that teaches, nudges, and encourages them to enact behaviors that will break the cycle of poverty for them as slum children of India. However lofty that goal, because we are in India, our experience starts with cows.
As we drive into Bhalaswa Resettlement Community we see beautiful reflections on the water with cows peacefully grazing the edges of the lake, bucolic amidst the chaos of every form of motorized and human transport flying past. It is only as we come closer that we realize that this is stagnant water, the cows graze in garbage, and many of the families are making livelihoods from the sorting and reselling the garbage. This is an informal community of 4,200 forcibly displaced by the government 12 years ago and recreated here, next to the garbage dump swarming with birds that feed off the waste. This is where the Magic Bus kids are living, playing, and thriving.
Across an open field the cows wander, along with the goats, the dogs, the bicycles and the cricket players, and it is here that Magic Bus is involved in serious play. The games are designed to evoke laughter and physicality, but also teach hygiene, gender equity, teamwork and leadership. Teen volunteers who have come up through the program model leadership and values for the younger kids, and the skills they learn as liaisons with parents and community members instills maturity and responsibility that translates well in the workplace. Ultimately, Magic Bus is focused on “childhood to livelihood”; giving kids the skills they need to transition through young adulthood with stability and choices going into the workforce. Magic Bus applies a rigorous set of metrics to measure their impact around educational performance, participation and leadership by both genders, and demonstrated healthy behavior practices like washing hands and boiling drinking water. They do their work with the support of an admirable roster of both public and private partners.
Personally, I am intrigued with the power of play to heal and create a positive force in people’s’ lives, and the NGOs that are systematically using play to drive change. Of particular interest are those that use play therapies to promote both healthy psycho-social development to change destructive patterns and in post-crisis situations such as abuse or conflict situations. Every culture plays, and understands play as a tool for healthy social and emotional development, for relaxation, learning and peace. Play is a way of trying out certain behaviors both physical and emotional, and of building strong and cohesive community values. I am interested in exploring this photographically on a global scale, and have begun in India to document how Magic Bus puts this into practice.
So back to the cows; the reverence for the cow in India stems from one of the favorite gods, Ganesh, who is a cowherd. Likewise, deeply imbedded in Indian culture is a profound respect for every living thing, so as we watch traffic bend and rickshaws flow around the cows, the dogs, and the children, I think of the quote There are thousands of lives in one single life from Swami Prajnanpad. Each life matters, and every big change starts small. In Bhalaswa the work of Magic Bus honors Hindu and Muslim, boys and girls, parents and teachers. The goal is to raise up the entire community — one child at a time. Every life is respected; every path is supported. Magic Bus is starting with 900 single lives in this community, 85,000 in greater Delhi, and intends to touch one million lives across India by 2015; thousands of lives, starting with one single life.