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From a model to Miss India 1979, to an actor, to a theatre artiste, to now an acclaimed Life Skills educator and a teachers’ trainer, Dr Swaroop Rawal nee Sampat has worn many hats in her journey.
“I tell them ‘Look into the eyes when you talk’ not as defiance but for self-confidence. You know, money doesn’t solely empower you. Even when girls are working and earning, they are entirely unequipped to handle life situations. Just education doesn’t empower, but Life Skills ensure that. Setting your boundaries, raising your voice and saying No is a skill and needs to be taught and learnt,” says Dr Swaroop Rawal. “The reason I am here is because of that belief in what I do. And that’s what brings all that energy and passion in my work.”
She was a model at the age of 16 and became Miss India 1979 at 18. An actress, a theatre artist, costume designer, and now an acclaimed Life Skills educator and a teachers’ trainer. The hats Dr Swaroop Rawal has donned in her real-life are as many as the roles she may have played on screen. And today even at the age of 61, it is her passion, energy, and simplicity which is astonishingly striking. With an unsophisticated and child-like persona, she has sailed through all the phases of life with natural ease and panache.
I so fondly remember her as that ebullient middle-class housewife in the top-rated TV series on Doordarshan Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi. Her portrayal of Renu had instantly made a connect with so many women.
Post getting married to the veteran actor Paresh Rawal, she gradually moved away from the television and film world and reinvented herself. Now a crusader of Life Skills in education, she is using the tool of drama to deliver Life Skills and transform the education system of the country.
I recently had the opportunity to meet her at an SEL (Social-Emotional Learning) education summit in Hyderabad, Enabling Spaces 2020. We spoke extensively about her journey, her real-life roles, and her mission for the education system.
Dr Swaroop left me in awe with each bit she shared. Read more –
“Being Miss India was beautiful, and maybe a part of growing up. That was short. But being an educator and a trainer, this is my life. That feeling when you see your work is changing lives has no parallel. It is truly gratifying,” she shares.
Dr Swaroop Rawat comes from a very educated family, though she herself dropped out of college. “My mother is a practising oncologist and my father a masters in Gujarati, my brother, an MBA from Boston,” she says.
Becoming a model and a costume designer as early as 16, she was the only one in her family who trod a different path. Always following her heart and choosing the not so conventional path, she married the veteran actor Paresh Rawal at the age of 27 when she was at the peak of her career. Post marriage; she soon embraced motherhood and gradually moved away from the industry. Did she ever regret leaving a flourishing career at the time when she was earning in a higher bracket than her spouse, I ask.
She replies immediately, “Paresh got ultra-busy immediately after we got married. For me, it was a conscious decision to move away from the industry slowly. I decided to be with my boys when they were growing up. Though my mother wasn’t pleased with this, I trusted my decision, and I have never regretted it. Not one day of their school-going, have I left them alone. I feel delighted and satisfied in retrospect. And at the end of the day, Paresh and I are both simple people content with what we have and eager to share what we can.”
In her early forties, she embarked on the journey of research to ensure the better impact of her programs. She shared that her thesis is unique as she has used three voices to write them – the first person as her, second as a researcher and third voice of her students. The study is presented not in numbers but through stories.
“Reading was always a part of my growing up, and that happened with Paresh too,” she continues. “I have a treasure of books at home with a few books from as early as the 1950s. Reading pushed me to explore an MA in English literature. Then at some point in time, there was an offer for teachers to become special educators at my kids’ school. None picked it up, but I did as the chairperson of PTA. I got an opportunity to work with children with a range of disabilities. I used drama and all the random games from the theatre. That sparked me to explore writing to a university in London for some short-term course. But when they saw my CV, they invited me to come and join a full-time study. And then rest is history.”
She has been on a mission to transform education through drama and Life Skills.
To reach out and create impact, Dr Swaroop developed a curriculum which focusses on the drama in education. She terms it as an active, learner-centred and experiential approach including group discussions, debate, games and drama. She has touched the lives of children across street children, in rural communities, economically and socially disadvantaged as well elite all across the country. She has gone around training lakhs of teachers to ensure the scale of impact. It wasn’t easy; she shares; nevertheless, she persisted and was undeterred.
“My work is very value-based. I operate on values because that’s what makes us. I believe in democratic and negotiated learning. There is no hierarchy in my classroom. I want my children not just to be resilient but emotionally empowered also. And this needs to go to schools for children from all age groups. Like a Pulse Polio kind of a campaign with that kind of intensity and focus.”
Over 10 million children in India go to work instead of going to school. Around 27% of girls in India are married before their 18th birthday. There are several stories of how her program has helped underprivileged girls. One such is of a district in Gujarat where the girls took a vow not to get married before the age of 18 and stopped child marriage. The focus on values like empathy has empowered several girls to connect with other girls sailing in the same boat, and they are doing everything they can to help each other. She shares.
“When girls are empowered, they talk differently and feel confident. There is a lot of baggage and trauma these girls carry. When we braid education with Life Skills, the girls can take care of situations like speaking up when facing molestation, raising the alarm because they practised the response to that situation as part of their Life Skills education. As a teacher, what else can one ask for?”
For her exemplary work, Varkey Foundation felicitated her amongst Top ten teachers for the prestigious Global Teachers award. She was selected from amongst 10,000 teachers from across 179 countries.
I ask her how this experience was, of representing the country at the age of 61, compared to the Miss Universe platform when she was 18, how does she feel. “I feel home now,” Swaroop replies. “I was destined to do this. It is a God’s gift to me to bring change in the lives of children and teachers. This is my life now.”
Her efforts with teachers’ training have empowered thousands of teachers across India with Life Skills and made them passionate about teaching. She believes that teaching is her refusal to remain silent, and education her way to make the lives of children and teachers better. “I always tell teachers – You can change people. You can do so much to make children confident and boost their self-esteem. The power is you.”
For many women, motherhood brings an end to a career. In a way, it did for Swaroop too. Though in her case, it was a conscious decision which she took. However, despite being a celebrity and in a higher earning bracket than her spouse when she quit, she never regretted her decision. Instead, she used that time and opportunity to pursue various interests.
She got certified in Ikebana, became a special educator, as well as embarked on a research journey. She attributes it equally to her resolve to keep exploring pursuits and passions and her spouse’s constant encouragement. “You need to get your priorities set. Kids happen, and the joy of being around your kids isn’t comparable to anything. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that one stops growing and striving to be a better person. Learning can happen at any age and should happen at every stage of life.”
It isn’t easy when you are working at the grassroots as there are mindset challenges which need to be manoeuvred before anything can happen. I ask if she ever feels tired considering social work can be emotionally draining due to inertia and resistance. Dr Swaroop answers with her usual effervescent charm.
“You know you are doing something right when you see lives changing around you because of your work. That gives you energy and keeps you going. And I have a strong legacy to follow. My mother is 89 and still practises as a surgical oncologist. Yes, I do feel tired at times but then one of my students or teachers shares something so positive that I get that energy to get back instantly,” she smiles.
I so wish that this passion and energy for making education holistic through Life Skills training using drama keeps touching lives across the world.
Image source: a still from Ki and Ka
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