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RJ Vijaya shares her inspiring story from a village girl tending buffaloes to Community Radio, doing good work that has far reaching consequences for many.
The buffaloes had to be taken to the fields before sunrise, and I was afraid of the dark. But I was also afraid of being scolded. I lived with my grandparents and my mother’s brother. He was someone that I feared. He was authoritative, conservative and very strict. I had to adhere to the rules of the house, and so I said nothing.
As a young girl, I hated school; I was a last bencher. I shuddered every time the teacher asked me a question. I never spoke up, even though I had friends and was always surrounded by people. My lack of confidence and direction meant that I was often lonely.
The eldest of three children, I was adopted by my grandparents, as my father was a tailor and my mother was labourer in the fields.
When my grandmother took ill, I had to discontinue my studies and I became a full-time caregiver. I lived almost entirely within the walls of the home now, taking care of her, unsure of what I would do when the inevitable moment came. When my grandmother passed away, I went home to my parent’s place. I was not sure of what to do with myself. I passed time working in the fields, taking the buffaloes out, drifting in the world of my imagination.
I never really wondered where my life was headed.
Banahalli village, near Bangarpet, Kolar District was a small village, and sometimes it seemed very far away from the rest of the world. I often fantasised about being a lawyer, a strong and confident professional woman who spoke up, who was heard. But I knew this was just a dream. A convenient one to console myself for my silent world.
In 1999, my younger sister enrolled in computer classes in Kolar conducted by Myrada, a non-governmental organisation that works to create local institutions. At one of the classes there, she got to know that the institution was looking for volunteers to be a part of their pilot project on community radio called Namma Dhwani. The project was integrated into a federation of Self-Help Groups (SHG), which later came to be known as Community Managed Resource Centre (CMRCs).
I had begun to volunteer with Self Help Groups now, working to set up Sujala Water Sheds, working with young women to discuss their livelihoods, employment and finances.
I was merely filling my time, get out of the house. I had lost the habit of dreaming ambitiously: my whole world was with my grandmother, and later with the buffalos. My sister gave me the encouragement I needed, and recommended me to Myrada. Why not at least try?
I went to the centre to apply for a position, not expecting or even desiring anything. My sister told me to go, and I went. Without this whim of acceptance, my story would be very different.
I wasn’t ready for this. I had spent my life not speaking up, shying away from people, isolated, to care for my family or our buffalos. Suddenly I realised what I had signed on for – I had to make eye contact. I had to go out by myself. I had to lead the conversation and speak to people, to draw them out in an interview.
I also had no idea how to work the cassette recorder – complicated, clunky, alien technology that I would not be able to handle. I spent the nights literally weeping with terror. I was too scared to go, too scared to stay away.
But once I started talking, I found that it was not as hard as it seemed. We all have something to say, and it was easy to ask a question and receive an answer – people are happy to talk. Within a week, I was reconnecting with friends, working with people I knew from the Self-Help Groups, learning that the cassette recorder was not so very complicated after all. Editing a conversation became a skill and not arcane magic.
Most importantly, I was earning a living. I earned Rs. 500 per month for one and half years, and my family depended on my salary. In that period, my younger brother stopped studying and started working. My sister meanwhile continued to study, and we supported her.
In the course of working there for over 5 years, I met Ashish Sen, Ekta Mittal and Ram Bhatt from VOICES, all of whom had so much more exposure than I did.
One of the evenings when Ekta and Ram were visited my place, they mooted the idea of exploring working in Bangalore. Ekta had been one of my first interviews, and she had encouraged me to come to Cantonment in Bengaluru and talk to people here.
By now, I loved community radio. I loved speaking to people, learning about their lives, their missions, their purpose. My heart was set on community radio.
When Ekta and Ram mentioned Radio Active, and it felt like the call of a bigger life, doing this job I loved in a big city. I was so excited; I could not eat or sleep properly until I made the trip. I visited a café for the first time. I travelled on my own to stay in the big city – though I stayed with my aunt at first. Everything was bigger, faster, on the streets of Bengaluru.
Radio Active was located in the basement of Jain University on Palace road. Today, I don’t remember how I walked in. My apprehensions and insecurities were back. I was used to speaking for interviews now, but this was Bengaluru. Everything was bigger, faster. My tears were back.
But then I met the team Pinky, Ramya, Ramakanth, Yatish and Karthik. Between their comforting presence and some well of courage I got through, and slowly started acclimatising myself to my new, scary world. I moved out of my aunt’s house into a PG. I learned to travel and live alone, to do simple things like ask for directions. I, who had once moved only between school, my grandparents’ home, my own home (never forget the buffalos!) was now at large in the big city, all by myself.
As part of Radio Active’s outreach programs, and in partnership with Reclaim India, I managed the Bridge School for the children of construction workers. The exposure gave me new confidence. In the same year, an ex-colleague interviewed Child Rights Trust (CRT) and in the course of these years, my rapport with the team in particular Vasudev Sharma and Nagasimha Rao, feels like an extended family.
The year 2009 personally for me was life changing.
While I kept saying community radio or Samudaya Banuli, I kept think of comparing my life in the village and the city. And for me, newer definitions of community arose. Through Radio Active, I began seeing multiple communities and began questioning concepts and meanings.
I had never met a member of the LGBT community until I met Akkai Padmashali, and at first, to my shame today, I literally kept her at arm’s length. But to do an interview, I had to listen. I was listening, and I was learning.
My world was bigger not only in where I went and what I did, but in how I thought, and what I embraced. Community radio had expanded my idea of what a community is. My voice, which I was using with such courage, was used to call in other voices – a community of different people in our shared humanity.
I began to realise that it’s not my voice alone, but multiple voices are what makes a community radio. Through Kathyayini Chamraj, I began appreciating a range of civic issues. I also became aware of my privilege of being a community reporter. Without community reporting, what would I know, where would I be? I would still be the girl with impossible dreams, with too much fear. This is a badge of honour for me even today.
I also began questioning my personal biases and misconceptions of gender and sexuality. Manohar Elavarthi and Akkai Padmashali played an important role in addressing them.
I remember telling Akkai once when we were all sitting on the floor outside the station, that when I first met her at Kolar, I stayed rooted to one spot given the myths that we have grown up with. She laughed and said, ‘We now have a huge opportunity to clarify them. Please take the lead and we will support you”. Her generosity was amazing, held against my biases and caution.
Through the workshops that ensured on community radio awareness and production, saw me take a step as a trainer and facilitator and later as a mentor.
My tryst with reporting on water and sanitation programs with Landfill Impacted Communities and ESG made me realise that community radio offers a unique opportunity for citizens to engage with policy makers in promoting water and sanitation governance. I then expanded to reporting on larger environment issues and climate change and have co-produced over 600 programs.
To my surprise, I was becoming knowledgeable about cross-cutting issues, and I took the lead on a segment decoding Sustainable Development Goal 6, as part of the Community Radio Toolkit production. I worked with so many people to put this segment together. I was learning even as I spoke. There is nothing like grassroots voices to accelerate and put the spotlight on priorities. You can speak with theory from afar, but unless you have gone to ground, spoken to the people, you don’t know anything.
We continued to work during the COVID-19 lockdown. From home, on the phone. We put out regular programmes and talked to people on the frontlines of COVID-19 work. I am so proud of what we do, and what we continue to do even when funds are an issue.
Without community radio, what sort of Vijaya would I be? Today this is my life; I have been doing this for 16 years. I had no higher education, no ambitions, and no hopes. And yet, I have been able to support my family, I have learned and grown, I have met and embraced people who I would not even have known existed. This is special – to reach out to people means people reach out to you.
Community Radio does something that commercial radio does not – it provides a platform to everyone, no matter your status, your background. It lets you speak, and it also lets you listen. It is its own gift.
For me, it’s just not about reporting, but communicating, research, advocacy, adaption and building solidarity with different people to take the mission forward that matters. There has so much more going on at Radio Active that I marvel at being associated with so many different groups that make feel ‘alive’. Gone are the days when I would feel lonely, hesitate in the dark or be afraid to speak to people.
I no longer live a life circumscribed by fear, by tears. I am a woman who speaks up, and listens. Thank you to the people who have been my constants at the station – Pinky Chandran, Ramya, Padma, Beula, Priyanka, Radha, Usha, Shakuntala, Manjula, Vasudev Sharma and Nagasimha – learning, agreeing, disagreeing, laughing, crying and growing together.
Community Radio is much more than a charitable initiative – it changes lives; it changed mine. And though today we are facing an uncertain future due to severe financial crisis, I know that my voice is important during this period and I will use it constructively, to seek information, to clarify, to apply for funding. I am not going silent, I believe in working as a single unit and I am hopeful that funds will come our way, for community radio is truly people’s radio.
Find RJ Vijaya here.
Images source: RJ Vijaya
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Vijaya A, is a senior reporter, RJ, trainer at Radio Active 90.4 MHz. Originally
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