I felt like I had been thrown in the deep end when, within half an hour of arriving at the Muktaneer Boys’ Home in Kolkata, India, I found myself dancing the Hokey-Pokey with 40 boys, aged between 5 and 15.
Hand-in-hand on the concrete rooftop, looking out over a sea of banana trees, it was impossible not to be overwhelmed by the excitement and energy of our newfound friends.
This was the first of many times when I found myself out of my depth when volunteering in Kolkata. Coming from a developed country like Australia, nothing could have prepared me for the challenges and joys of working with a group of disadvantaged kids in India.
Image by Lisa Stewart (Friends of Kolkata volunteer)
Many of the boys at Muktaneer were orphans who had witnessed or suffered regular family violence. And many had also been exploited as child labourers working at local brick, shoe and prawn-shelling factories.
Image by Ranabir (Muktaneer Boys’ Home)
The small stature of the boys was a constant physical reminder of the malnutrition they had experienced. Despite this, it was easy to forget their circumstances like children everywhere, they were playful and full of hope, and they had big dreams to become policemen, taxi-drivers, teachers, computer engineers, zoo-keepers and film-makers.
The small group of ‘Friends of Kolkata’ volunteers, who undertook placements at the Muktaneer Boys’ Home in January this year, came from a variety of backgrounds. The diversity of the group consisting of both students and professionals enabled us to contribute to the home in many different ways.
Some of us ran a mosaics project; others led professional and curriculum development for local teachers; and a series of creative workshops, such as photography, drawing and creative writing with the older boys. We gave basic health checks to all the boys, and organised additional medical attention for those who needed it.
On Sunday mornings, we often took the kids to a local park to play cricket. They, of course, knew more about the game than we did! Name-dropping Ricky Ponting was a good start, but it wasn’t enough.
A quilt project, where each boy was given a calico square and was asked to paint his dreams for the future on it, resulted in an amazingly beautiful patchwork of images.
Image by Michael Chew (Friends of Kolkata volunteer)
Volunteering at Muktaneer Boys’ Home wasn’t always as easy as quilt-making and creative workshops. We were challenged by stark cultural differences particularly with respect to gender. We had many discussions about these issues and while they were far from resolved when we left, as volunteers, the experience taught us much about respectful cross-cultural communication.
Living and working at the Muktaneer Boys’ Home, has renewed my commitment to educate others in Australia about the issues facing disadvantaged children in India.
To this end, we’ve organised an exhibition of some of the photographs, artwork and stories that the boys produced during our time at Muktaneer. Through Different Eyes aims to transport the viewer into a different reality that of the children who made the exhibits.
Gopal Sen (Muktaneer Boys’ Home)
Volunteering at Muktaneer was an incredibly rewarding experience in spite of or perhaps in virtue of its many challenges. It gave us all new perspectives on our lives and priorities, and touched us in ways that we weren’t expecting. Many of the volunteers are planning to go back.
It doesn’t take much to make a difference, and you can learn a lot in the process.
Through Different Eyes
Exhibition Opening, 16 May, 5:00-7:00pm
George Paton Gallery
Second Floor, Union House
University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria 3010
phone (+61 3) 8344 5418 or (+61 3) 8344 4809
Exhibition Dates: 15-25 May
11:00am-5:00pm weekdays; and 12:00 noon-5:00pm weekends
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.