In the red-light area of Varanasi, India, an NGO-run education centre provides vulnerable local children with art therapy.
Flanked by hardship, the children of Varanasi's red-light area come across few opportunities for gentle, well-meaning guidance. Trafficking and multi-generational prostitution swirl around them. In response, in 1993, non-profit organisation Guria established an educational centre in the heart of the city. It was designed to help these children self-analyse, heal, unite and connect with the world around them via mentorship and collaborative art practice. Beyond their studies, Guria's model hopes for these children to blossom into community-minded leaders in their own right, spreading their learnings as far as possible. By this, Guria hope to contribute to a greater degree of social harmony and environmental sensitivity throughout India and, via spotlights like this documentary, the world.
Water For Birds chronicles some of the trials and tribulations faced by Annu, who co-runs the day-to-day operations of Guria’s centre in Varanasi under Ajeet, the organisation’s founder. A former student, Annu embodies Guria’s transformational power, lending credibility to their mission. She is dedicated to the people of Varanasi, particularly those living in the red-light area, and is an exemplar of intense personal growth.
However, she has not remained unscathed. The taxing nature of her work has taken a toll on her health. Her days are demanding, and her nights are often sleepless. At one point in the film, her struggle is brought into sharper focus when a distraught mother comes to her for counsel, caught in a quandary typical of the red-light area. Annu must navigate precarious situations of this kind every day. They are part of the daunting task Guria have set themselves: of returning hope to scores of wounded children who are setting out to improve their lives.
Guria have been battling human trafficking, multi-generational and child prostitution throughout North India since their inception in 1988. These criminal industries reflect and reinforce Indian society’s most perilous systemic issues, poverty and gendered discrimination among them. Guria pursue perpetrators with appropriate intensity. Girls and boys are rescued; brothels are seized; traffickers and keepers are identified, arrested and prosecuted, and bails are opposed. Survivors are provided witness protection, and unreasonable police suspicions are addressed. And Guria go further. They call out and challenge political corruption through public interest litigation, mobilise grassroots support and offer rehabilitation services to at-risk communities. This machinery is broad, but their philosophy is crystalline. Their end-to-end strategy chips away at trafficking and forced prostitution at a fundamental level: education.
Guria envision harmonious communities whose members are self-assured and connected to the world around them, particularly its natural elements. This is what their educational efforts try to foster. If the at-risk are granted these tools, according to Guria’s dream, they not only avoid lapsing into exploitative underbellies but are able to actively implement their knowledge in improving social conditions around them. This model, developed over the past 25 years, is scalable, and it has begun to be replicated around the country, though frustratingly slowly. In 1993, Ajeet’s first education centre began with five students. Now, across four centres, Guria care for hundreds. With assistance, they could sooner care for hundreds more.
Overall, Guria are visible. Their achievements and activities amount to a vast list, as detailed in the relevant section on their website. Unfortunately, their specific work in the educational centres they’ve opened and continue to open around North India is not. This is where Water For Birds comes in.
We hope Water For Birds engrosses and activates viewers through its authentic, unprecedented access to its subjects. We want viewers to think critically, and to emotionally and intellectually engage with the multitude of issues around which the film and its subjects’ lives revolve. This is what Guria’s students are encouraged to do, and what we tried to do during filming. We hope, with further assistance, to bring the compelling stories housed in Guria’s educational centres, and the philosophies they are interwoven with, to as wide an array of audiences as possible. By doing so, we want to:
add the ‘voice’ of Water For Birds, and all it contains, to anti-trafficking lobbies currently operating in India, including governmental efforts;
help viewers better understand the complex nature of trafficking, and the consequent need for holistic, multivalent approaches in fighting it;
and help eliminate stigma directed at Indian sex workers and red-light children, whose ostracisation is normalised under the sociocultural label ‘untouchables’.
Another salient goal of ours concerns Guria’s educational facilities. To date, Guria have opened four centres across North India, supporting over 350 children. We want to help Guria’s educational centres acquire further support, whether by donation or non-monetary endorsement, so their effective, gentle ideas and processes can be spread as far as possible. We want to help them accelerate the impressive work we’ve witnessed them perform on a day-to-day basis, for the benefit of so many lives that might otherwise remain hidden from—and ignored by—larger structural actors in India and elsewhere.
On a larger scale, Guria’s pedagogical approaches, via the film’s attempts to capture them, may contribute to debates about educational policy and process around the world. At their centres, the children under Guria’s care are encouraged to think openly, introspect and grow more comfortable with their voices, despite trying external conditions. Even in light of such contextual urgency, the encouragement they receive is gentle and individually tailored. Moreover, the only sort of productive mould it nudges the students toward is one of self-awareness, awareness of exploitation and environmental sensitivity. Guria are most interested in freeing minds, rather than merely replacing one ideology with another. We trust that schools around the world, regardless of whether they operate in similarly charged environments or not, are similarly invested in improving the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of their students, beyond grades and curricula. The eternal question, of course, is: ‘How?’
We believe Water For Birds could be part of the answer.
Water For Birds objectively shows that our concept has efficiently percolated down through peer learning, and that some of our pupils consistently form the second-liners. The film becomes an easy tool for all to differentiate between knowledge and wisdom so that they connect the heart and the mind.
The film can also have a ripple effect and take ahead the issue of first working on the self and then working on creating a more civilised world free from rape, child prostitution and sex trafficking. Using Art forms to Work on the self is important to connect and fall in love with this entire existence, and thus shrink by default.
Ajeet Singh | Founder
Varanasi, April 2019
To begin with, we were lucky: Guria welcomed us into their tight-knit family warmly. Ajeet and his team trusted us to tell their organisation’s story, unadulterated and uncontrived. Over two years, the sex-industry was revealed to us, bit by bit. This process challenged our ideas about agency, blame and responsibility in new ways: one can’t blame a child for sinking if they’ve never been taught to swim.
We chose to tell this story from the perspectives of the children, focused on the positive effects of Guria’s educational model rather than the perils of the local sex industry and its workers. Guria’s schooling is the aspect of their work we were most moved by; coincidentally, it is also the aspect least reported. There is no agenda behind Water For Birds, except that the story be told in the most authentic way possible. The observational approach, which Guria helped us achieve, was key to this.
This was not a get-in-get-out project. We had few expectations. There was no script. We were eager to listen, learn and question, and Ajeet and his team were eager to speak. That’s all, really. Consequently, the film has no destination. Images, soundtrack, voices—every element of Water For Birds interacts and gives rise to a story that flows like the Ganga itself. In this way, we think, the wisdom contained passes organically from teacher to student, then to viewer.
Henry Gosper / Cameron Trafford
Henry Gosper / Cameron Trafford
Gus McDonough / Felix Garner-Davis