Celebrating a milestone: Prajnya’s first full-time team member

Today is a momentous day in Prajnya’s history.

Our first full-time staff member joins us officially as Programme Officer for the Gender Violence Research and Information Taskforce. Ragamalika Karthikeyan will look after our research, public education and network-building activities in the gender violence awareness work that we do. Ragamalika has played a variety of roles in Prajnya, first as media coordinator for the 2013 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence and since then in a voluntary capacity with programmes, training and communications. We are delighted to have someone in this role who already knows the domain; knows the organisation, its history and functioning style; comes to us with an array of useful skills and proven commitment to this work.

A year ago, we were not sure we would ever be able to hire a full-time person, even though we were clear that our survival as an organisation depended on it. That has become a possibility thanks to our first three Vasundhara donors: Sivakumar Surampudi, Ramesh Narayan and Ingrid Srinath. They have committed to supporting this position for three years, enabling us to consolidate our work in the area of gender violence awareness and gender equality. We are very grateful for their vision (realising that social change requires mundane appurtenances like salaries) and for their generosity. Most of all, we are grateful for their faith in us. They cannot imagine how grateful!

All these years, we have made plans and promises, but the vagaries of a volunteer team’s part-time availability have meant that our best efforts have still fallen short of our own aspirations. We begin a new journey today–one in which we will gradually professionalise the team in order to sustain our present work and to scale up a little. Our volunteers are still around, but we can finally shift some responsibility from their overburdened shoulders.

We will continue to need your support and encouragement in the time to come. Keep rooting for us!

Swarna’s note: What I really want to do is to insert a large dancing, partying, celebrating image here to share with you what a happy moment this is for us. This little piece of clipart will however have to do!



Roller coaster!

What a difference a year makes!

One year ago, Prajnya opened the year with great uncertainty. All our resources were shrinking in inverse proportion to our work and reach. That is, more and more people were interested in working with us on this and that, but we had fewer volunteers, available less and less, and were raising less money than before. For me, personally, the workload was overwhelming; the difficulty of neither being able to say yes or no to things that came our way very embarrassing; and the inability to keep my own professional life and identity (which are separate from Prajnya) alive had become a source of resentment and anxiety.

When we started the year last year, we did not know whether we would still be in existence at the end of the financial year. With these questions, we set an emotionally trying year in motion. I asked all the active volunteers to think about these questions realistically, and spent the year anxious, indecisive, agonizing and yes, grieving. Grieving, because this idea, this dream that began in my head looked like it was on its deathbed. How do you watch your child die? How do you choose euthanasia? For me, there were no easy choices.

All year long, I got advice–from partners, from donors, from friends in my professional network and Prajnya’s, from volunteers, from Board Members and of course, from Advisors. I listened carefully.

Each of them had a valid point to make. But over time, the advice began to hurt. For each one, this was a problem they were thinking about only for that brief period of time. For me, whichever way the year ended, this was going to be emotional, almost an organic wrench. Some people listened with horror when I suggested we might close, and said, “No, how on earth can you shut down?” I would resent that and think, “Well, are you going to come and do this work?” Others would say, “You should not make an emotional decision. You should shut down. There’s no shame in quitting.” And I would think, “It is an emotional decision either way. How easy to say, “Quit!”” It was getting harder to talk about this decision, and harder to talk about anything else while this huge sword was dangling over my head. I doubt anyone in my life or in Prajnya could imagine how hard this process has been for me.

Something else was happening. In the face of imminent death, it was hard to not do every single little thing that came our way. One last time. Just this once. Just in case we never could again. Giving it our all. In the face of shutting down, we wanted to max out our life, go out in style. The result was a very active, full year, of many pilot activities and many new partnerships. In April, we helped EroTICs India bring their “Connect Your Rights” workshop to Chennai. In August, we launched a Peace Club at the PSBB Millennium School, Gerukambakkam, refusing to let the Education for Peace Initiative die without one last shot at a life. We met the students thrice during the year, and they held follow-up activities to take the ideas in those sessions forward. At the end of the year’s sessions, they asked, “No Peace Club next year?” I did not have an answer. In September, all of Prajnya’s active volunteers and Board met to discuss Prajnya’s future. We took heart from each other’s enthusiasms, but walked away with big questions. In November, we brought the findings of Saakshi Fellow Linda Racioppi’s book to a media training on gender and disasters. We worked with two new partners–the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute and Oxfam India. The same information was carried into a briefing held at the Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission in December, just before the 10th anniversary of the tsunami. The 2014 16 Days Campaign was one of our most successful. Not only did we finally organise the “gender violence as a public health issue” programmes that we had always dreamt of–again going all out because it may be our last chance–but our decision to have 17 individuals adopt and lead the campaign turned out to be a great idea. It took the reach of our campaign well beyond what we could have done, and opened up new conversations, new spaces and new partnerships. Through the 16 days, we agreed to help with this idea or come in for that training, with me always wondering if we would be around to deliver. We decided to take each day as it came. In January, our women’s history and peace education work came together when we launched Women and Peace, a South Asia directory of organisations working on both women’s rights and peace. We revised our television screenwriters’ guide and shared it with the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council through a friend. In March, we launched the Prajnya Archives’ third call for entries, this time extending our call to stories and photos. Plus, we did workshops and training at old locations and new. All this with a team that rarely went over three people, excluding the brand new administrator!

January was a really difficult month. Decisions needed to be made quickly so that they could be implemented by the new financial year. But the writing was already appearing on the wall and I just needed the courage to read it aloud. In September, we had left that weekend of deliberations with three choices: to continue as we were, to shut down or to continue but with some big changes. At the end of the meeting, I knew this was nobody’s challenge and nobody’s problem as much as it was mine. It could not be. Working with volunteers meant that nobody could own this as much as they might like. I had to take this call alone. By January, I knew that whatever decision I made, I would have to live with it and implement it alone–while building a new professional community to carry on the work started by volunteers.

As I was saying that to myself, I knew what the campaign had underscored in bold red for me: Closing was not an option. September and my experience told me staying open on the old basis was not an option. So in February, I made the only decision I could.

As anyone who has read the story of the Amritmanthan knows, churning brings good and evil in equal measure. Sometimes they are identical, and what you see, depends on your viewpoint at a given moment.

The heartbreaking churning of last year yielded a very lonely decision, but one that I could make with a strong sense of accomplishment. I knew and had repeated the challenges like a litany for so many years that I had stopped noticing how much we were doing in spite of them. I remembered how we had started–with just words on paper and one person in a new city–but I had forgotten to acknowledge how far we had traveled. We dwelt on the imperfections of our work, but dismissed the reality that we’d still done many things that others with more resources had not thought of doing. We had celebrated so little that our collective sense of accomplishment was not enough to keep us going. And I had also forgotten the other things that are really important: that the only measure of ‘success’ is doing–if you do your best, you are successful; that every little bit counts; that you have to max out what you give–to others and also to yourself; that, really, each of us walks alone.

So I took the decision: to keep Prajnya open, but using the campaign sabbatical this year to professionalise the team and transition from working primarily with volunteers. Our old volunteers will be around and we will need new ones, but we will move away from depending primarily on them and towards having full-time team members.

This means, we open the year with fund-raising as our main plan for the first part of this fiscal year. We are launching three categories of fundraising initiatives:

  1. A “Fun Fundraising” project, our equivalent of a Small Savings Scheme, to raise money from individual to support activities.
  2. A special outreach to Indians living abroad to cover the costs of our office and administration.
  3. The launch of a circle of special donors who will help us finance two professional positions by the end of the year.

This is not going to be easy, but it has to be done. I hope that everyone who has stood by us for the last eight and a half years will continue to do so. This work does not belong to one person or a small group of people. It belongs to all of us.

As I began to communicate this decision to the team, we got word that FICCI Ladies’ Organisation, Chennai, had decided to recognise our work in their annual awards list. The appreciation came as an endorsement of this tough decision, and encouragement to enter this new phase bravely.

I start this new year feeling very positive about what we have accomplished, and about what we have the potential to do. For every negative thought or every pessimistic view we have heard or expressed, there is a defiant, obstinate positivity in my heart at this moment. I have made this decision fully aware that it is not going to be easy to implement, even as I reclaim time for myself personally and professionally. But I know we cannot walk away. We have to do this. This is the right thing to do. That conviction makes 2015-16 an exciting rather than a daunting year.

First steps, first images

On May 2, 2014, we took the first steps towards moving into the new workspace we are borrowing from the Shree Ayurvedic Multispecialty Hospital. This photograph, taken at the end of the small get-together insisted on being posted first! So, here’s who was present!

may 2 7

may 2 1We entered by pasting a laminated A4 sheet with our logo and name in three scripts on the door of the room. (We did it paste it straight, rest assured!)

You can get a sense of the room from these photos of us standing around and chatting. may 2 2 may 2 3 may 2 4


Our long-time host and supporter, Shyamala Rajagopalan, lit a tea-light placed in an old Diwali diya, and that was our moving-in ceremony!

may 2 5



This was followed by the distribution of sweets. Glasses of mango juice prepared us to step back out into the Chennai heat.

may 2 6And this is me lighting a sambrani ‘dhoop’. Hope light, fragrance and a happy team are always the hallmark of the work we do in this room and elsewhere.

“All I want is a room somewhere”

When you get to see this post, Prajnya will be taking its first tentative steps outside the small, narrow room that has been our home so far. Oh, that remains our registered office and we will still work there, but we are getting to borrow some workspace in another location. As this post appears, we will be in that space for the first time, filling it with our hopes, our dreams and a lot of positivity. (And yes, our many accumulated belongings!)

This is a big step for us, and we take it with great trepidation.

There are many things we are not sure of. Funding is the biggest one. Human resources remain a challenge. It’s been a very anxious two weeks, too anxious to even be excited about this move. Is this the right thing to do? Is this the right time? I don’t really know.

But yesterday, I remembered: Not knowing is normal, right? It’s life. And every now and then, you just have to close your eyes and jump. We did that when we started Prajnya. We did it with the first quiz and the first campaign. At every turn, we had no way of knowing how it would turn out and we haven’t done too badly on the whole.

Reading the generosity of our new hosts as a good sign, we are stepping off the ledge. Wish us luck!

As for me, each time this impossible dream of mine turns another corner, my heart fills with so many thoughts and words that I can barely distinguish them to write. I cannot completely believe what I see. It’s as if I watch things unfold, surprised. I am not excited as much as awed. How can something that began in my head have become so real?

And the answer, as always is, because it has become the dream and the mission of so many others–those who volunteer, those who donate, those who participate, those who partner with us and those who learn of our efforts and wish us well.

These are incredible moments, made possible by friends like you. Please savour them with us.

Prajnya’s first Marathon!

For the first time, Prajnya was represented in a Marathon: The Delhi Half-Marathon on September 30, 2012.

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A report from Hemant Shivakumar, a Prajnya volunteer working in Delhi, who took the initiative to make this possible:

Prajnya’s runners’ network and the Delhi Half Marathon
Prajnya’s 16-day campaign against gender violence commences on November 25, 2012. As a run up, team Prajnya’s volunteers at Delhi decided to use the ‘Airtel Delhi Half Marathon’ to promote Prajnya’s campaign and to kickstart a runners’ network for Prajnya. The runners network for Prajnya will comprise of volunteers around India/ world, ready to participate in runs and half marathons to promote team Prajnya and to convey a resounding ‘NO’ to violence against women. Prajnya’s runners’ network got off the ground with participation in the Delhi Half Marathon held on 30 September 2012 @ Delhi.
In Delhi, Ravikiran Upadrasta volunteered to sport the Prajnya Tshirt and run the half marathon. He completed the 21km run successfully. The run began at JLN stadium and passed Lodhi road, Rajpath, Jantar Mantar, and back to JLN stadium.
Hemant and Meghnad were the two non-running Prajnya volunteers at the Delhi Half Marathon.
Prajnya’s runners network will participate at the Chennai Marathon (December 1, 2012) and the Mumbai Marathon (January 20, 2013). Watch us run and rally against gender violence!
To become part of the Prajnya Runners’ Network, email hemant.prajnya@gmail.com.

On our fifth birthday, thank you!

Prajnya Initiatives turn 5 on September 9, 2012.

As the founder, I am alternately stunned by Prajnya’s journey, and winded by its exertions. People ask, what have you achieved, and I honestly have no answer except to say that the world changes if you keep moving and working. And you, have made this possible for us. It all works because we walk together. That, I know with complete certainty.

I am writing to thank you for supporting our work with your generous donation—whether it has taken the form of money, moral support, time that you have given us, shared expertise, shared network or cooperative partnership—one or more of the above.

To our donors: Your financial support speaks to us at multiple levels. It allows us to go out into the marketplace of goods and services to facilitate our work. When we stumble into self-doubt, it tells us, no, keep moving, you are on the right track. Or, don’t worry, I have faith in you. And most important, it gives us a community to which we can point and say: They believe in this cause, too. It’s not just us. You are the energy behind this change that we will bring about, creating a peaceful and just world. It’s happening because you want it to happen. We really couldn’t do anything without you, and all of us at Prajnya are profoundly grateful to you for your thoughtfulness, moral support and generosity.

To our partners: The work of making the world a better place is no one’s private turf. All of us care, all of us have committed to trying our best and we can each work best by learning from others and walking and working together from time to time. Those are values enshrined in Prajnya’s founding documents, and in the five years since our founding, all of us have repeatedly learnt that seeking to work with others is both an intrinsic and an instrumental good. It is working with other organizations like yours that has made our efforts possible, plausible and effective. We value our partnership with you, more than you know. And we thank you humbly for everything we have learnt from you in these years of our working together.

To resource persons, teachers and friends: At Prajnya, we did not start with the illusion that we possessed the competence to do everything ourselves. And all our experiences have only reinforced this clarity. If experienced and expert persons like you were not willing to share knowledge, skills, time and networks with us, what would we have been able to do? I will tell you: virtually nothing. I hope we do this every time we work together, but I certainly want to take a moment today to tell you how vital your support is to making our work possible. And I want to thank you for everything all of us at Prajnya have learnt from you. By participating in our projects and programmes, you have been friend, resource and teacher. We count on your continued presence in our community.

A heartfelt namaste; a very humble thank you, and a promise to do our best, are what we give you in return.

Swarna Rajagopalan, on behalf of the entire Prajnya team

Birthday party!

Prajnya turns 5 on September 9, 2012. We brought forward our celebration to September 1, to coincide with our Board of Trustees meeting. Here’s one group photo to share, in which we are draped in dupattas especially dyed in Prajnya colours for the occasion as a gift by a Friend of Prajnya, Kavitha Reddy.

To those who couldn’t make it, we did miss you! We hope you will be around for Prajnya 10!

Milestones since September 9, 2007

March 8, 2008 We held the first Prajnya Intercollegiate Quiz on Women in South Asia.

“The “Women In South Asia” quiz is part of Prajnya PSW’s public education work. Five Chennai women’s colleges participated–Ethiraj, MOP Vaishnav, Queen Mary’s, Stella Maris and WCC. M.O.P. Vaishnav’s team won and Stella Maris came in second. Enthusiasm was great among teams and audience.”

Read more here. And here you can see our banner flapping in the wind for the first time.

We also inaugurated The PSW Weblog that day. And you will see in the earliest posts that we could barely believe we were getting to do any of the things we’d dreamt of. As Swarna wrote,

“The moment at which people who were till recently (one month, one year, one hour ago) strangers, work together to string a banner that reads “Prajnya Intercollegiate Quiz” across a driveway, is a moment at which you think: if I touch it, it will not go away.”

April 2008 We compiled our first Annual Report!

May 15, 2008 Prajnya’s first group of summer research interns came on board. We organized a two-day training, and they wrote short papers for us.Take a look at their ‘graduation’ photos here.

July 21, 2008 The first Prajnya Roundtable was held featuring Dr. Linda Racioppi who spoke on her research in Russia and Ireland on women in peace movements. In March 2009, we launched a monthly roundtable series under the rubric “Prajnya Women’s History Roundtables.”

October 2008 We published the first Prajnya research project: Sweta Narayanan’s Women Taking Action: A Survey of Chennai Women’s Organisations. (This has recently been updated.)

October 16, 2008 We received the first instalment of our first research grant, which came from the Sir Ratan Tata Trust. The grant supported three pre-launch research studies, which are available here.

November 13, 2008 We received approval under 80G of the Income Tax Act! This meant all our donors could receive 50% tax deduction on their donations, and their generosity would have some tangible reward.

November 25, 2008 The first Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence began. This has been our most visible activity since 2008, and the one that most people first know us by. Read about the highs and lows of the first campaign at the blog dedicated to chronicling each of our campaigns. All materials relating to our campaigns, including our media and other information initiatives are available here.

August 4, 2009 Prajnya’s Education for Peace Initiative had its first programme, a seminar where the three Sir Ratan Tata Trust projects were presented to a small group of educators and educationists. You can see a photo of all those present at The Peace Blog, which we launched that day.

September 28, 2009 The Prajnya Archives were launched, a user-generated repository of visual images that document women’s participation and work in the public sphere.

October 31, 2009 We went to meet the person who featured in our first LifeStories interview.

“We are really excited to be finally doing this. LifeStories is one of our dream projects, and while we still don’t have any funding for it, we are getting started using our personal resources because we cannot wait any more.”

Lead researcher, Uma Vangal, wrote:

“For us, it was long held dream come true to begin this oral history project. And the first one only whetted our appetite. To many more such wonderful memories as we continue with this effort!”

January 2010 The Gender Violence Research and Information Taskforce (GRIT@Prajnya) was set up to create a systematic agenda for research and public education on gender violence. After two years of doing the Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence and a series of information initiatives along with it, we really felt the need for a year-long, full-time programme. GRIT blogs here

August 2010 Two Prajnya researchers presented papers at the Madras School of Social Work conference, our first outing as Prajnya researchers!

January 2011 Prajnya’s first Saakshi Fellow arrived in Chennai. Dr. Linda Racioppi will be affiliated with Prajnya as Saakshi Fellow for her project on gender politics in post-disaster contexts.

August 5-7, 2011 Our call for photographs of “Rainmakers” resulted in our first public exhibition.

September 16, 2011 The first GRIT research seminar was held in Chennai on gender violence data collection challenges.

The exercise of writing this post has been awesome. We can’t believe how much we’ve done, and yet, we’ve barely begun! There’s so much left to do!

Deed and registration

We executed the Prajnya deed on January 9, 2006. The next step was to register it with the Income Tax authorities. We initiated that long process in February 2006. On March 1,2007, we received notice of approval.

We swung into action, taking care of the things that we needed to start work. Yes, we spent a long time in suspended animation, waiting for the paperwork to get done.

Swarna designed the logo on powerpoint, saved it as a .jpeg and spent many hours at the printers’, trying to describe and pinpoint the exact ocean blue-green and sandalwood shades that were in her head. The head-to-paper colour translation remains a work in progress, as does the process of getting a good large size file image of the logo.

The Founding Board

One swallow does not make a summer. One dreamer cannot make a dream come true. We have never really had a place to tell you about our trustees before.

Shilpa Anand was the first one to come aboard. She brought to the Board an understanding of fiscal and management intricacies, a strong pragmatic sense and firm belief in the Prajnya vision. She has remained on the board since Prajnya’s founding, a constant support.

Sudha Ramachandran, political scientist by training and journalist by vocation, read all our earliest drafts of this and that, engaged with important decision-making and helped shape our earliest projects. Although she left at the end of one term (three years), she remains one of our strongest supporters.

Jaya Menon, journalist, has been an important resource for building Prajnya’s network in Chennai. Her presence on our Board has signaled our sincerity to Chennai’s social sector.Jaya Menon served as Prajnya trustee for two terms.

Ratna Mukherjee brought energy and enthusiasm to our earliest meetings, when we debated this and that provision of our Trust deed, trying to understand what the provisions meant and what they meant to our day to day functioning. She could not stay on the Board, but she remains in our community.

And of course, Swarna Rajagopalan was on the founding board of Trustees as Managing Trustee.

We hope all our past, present and future Trustees will use this platform to share their views of and experiences at Prajnya