By Shilpi Madan
Dr Swaroop Sampat is synonymous with the practical Renu of the iconic television soap Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi. The progressive Ma of Kareena Kapoor from Ki and Ka, the dementia afflicted mother of Vicky Kaushal from Uri. But few know that the Indian actor, who was also crowned Miss India 1979, is a proficient life skills educator who has been shaping the lives of lakhs of children across India through her unique teaching techniques. Excerpt from a conversation:
You made it as one of the 10 global finalists for the Global Teacher Prize 2019 conducted by the Varkey Foundation. How have things changed since?
Honestly, nothing has changed. In India, teachers are not important. We keep saying that they are. But it is just for effect, as it sounds good. It is all about rote learning, “cut and paste” and gaining marks, not about education. The truth is that at every stage in your life, it makes a world of a difference if you have a good teacher.
Very few people know that you were selected from amongst 10,000 nominations from 179 countries worldwide as a finalist.
True. But mine is not a headline-making story, even though I have been struggling resolutely to change perspectives. I come of a privileged back ground. I have not struggled barefoot to rise to where I am today. But it is still a herculean challenge, breaking mindsets to educate the children of my country. I teach out of love.
You have turned down five film offers and a web series over the past two months…?
See, I am happy with a 10-minute role (like in Uri) as I make an indelible impact. My son came home after watching the movie and said, “Mom, your performance of 10 minutes on one side and Papa’s (actor Paresh Rawal) performances on the other…I was simply blown away by you in Uri.” That mattered so much to me. I am busy with my teaching schedules spanning Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chattisgarh, Uttaranchal, Karnataka, Puducherri… my work as a teacher gives me immense satisfaction. It is time consuming as well, hence I need to pick my movie assignments carefully. Only if they are worth my time, do I sign on.
What took you so long to hit mainstream Bollywood again?
My sons, Aditya and Aniruddh, were young and needed me around. I was pursuing my PhD from the University of Worcester, UK. I did my doctoral thesis on using drama to enhance life skills in children with learning disabilities. After my PhD, I expanded my work to include all children. Back to family, now the boys are full-fledged adults, busy pursuing their own careers, and I am able to take time out as well for a few movies, as and when my schedule permits.
You prioritised family when you needed to…
Of course. Paresh was busy with shoots round the clock. We made a choice, together. I wasn’t very happy with the kind of roles I was getting at that point in time, and was happier teaching. I chose to be the stay-at-home mom.
The boys have grown up watching your mother do social work as well.
Of course, as an oncologist, their Nani (maternal grandmother) always helped out the underprivileged. I remember when our boys were with her once at the hospital and a senior doctor told them that no one could challenge the expertise of their Nani. They were overwhelmed, choked up, wide-eyed and realised the enormity of the work she was doing. Exposing kids to social work is a good leveller.
Tell us more about your work.
I venture into remote villages to educate children through drama. I train teachers in these techniques. I do not charge any money. The education is free. I have been to places including Latur, Amravati, Nandurgarh….to educate teachers and children. I can easily say that our best teachers are in the villages. I have trained over 2.5 lakh teachers in Gujarat and over 1 lakh teachers in Maharashtra, many more for teachers for the Azim Premji Foundation.
What is the cornerstone of your belief?
Love and empathy. These are emotions that solve many problems. For me, an urban kid is the same as one with torn clothes. Both sit on my lap while I teach. We need to stop being judgemental. There is a desperate need for all of us to be open-minded. You have to love children, win their trust, empower them through learning. If you do it out of love, they listen to you, respond beautifully. There needs to be a mutual emotional sync. I believe in negotiated learning, through love. Also, we have a precious heritage. We must start at the grassroots level, bring in the goodness of yoga, pranayam, dhyan into the value system of children early on for maximum benefit.
What is your take on corrective action?
When you are upset with a child, it is actually the action of the child that has upset you. Therefore, you need to correct the action, through patience and positive reinforcement. Your choice of words, body language, acceptance is very important. Learning must bring joy at the end of the day for you and the child.
So then happiness is what counts?
When you learn together, you cultivate and nourish a rainbow of emotions. That is how you develop critical thinking at every step.
Do you ever get depressed, working extensively with the underprivileged?
Never. There is always hope for a better tomorrow. Let the light of education shine.
Does your family support you?
I have a wonderful, loving, supportive family. Paresh makes things so much simpler. Like he told me when I started out that by the grace of God we do not need the money, so I must not charge a single rupee for teaching the children. He advised me not to copyright my work. The idea is to duplicate the methodology as much as possible so that it reaches the maximum children. That made things so much easier. I work gratis, and watching my methods work, every time, is fulfilling beyond imagination. I was meant to do this.
How has your experience made you a better parent?
It has sensitised me, developed tremendous patience in me, opened up perspectives. I know I have to break down many walls all around to reach out to the children at large. It is not possible to do it in one go, but I shall do it, chip by chip, resolutely. I want to share my knowledge.
What is your aim?
I want to change the system of learning in our country. For this, I work with the government for a wider reach across the length and breadth of India. This is my calling in life, and I discovered it by sheer chance. Almost 18 years ago, when my children were in school, I was the chairperson of the PTA. Then an opportunity came up to be involved with teaching special kids through an evening course. I did that, enjoyed myself teaching the children for a year, through the medium of drama. One thing led to another. I was able to pursue my PhD from University of Worcester. I was awarded full scholarship, had the opportunity to do the data collection in India and even submitted my final proposal as luckily the final interview was conducted here. My examiners stood up in appreciation of my research distillate. Not a single word was changed; my PhD was approved as I submitted it. God made everything fall into place.
Do you agree that your wattage as a celebrity helps in cutting through the clutter?
I have always been a star’s wife. I have won the Miss India title. Of course, it helps in cutting through the clutter and meeting the concerned individuals for work. I am grateful for being able to leverage my celebrity wattage, as in the end, the work is getting done.
You have a massive wealth of work to your credit.
I was meant to do this. I am associated in an intrinsic capacity with Save the Children, UNICEF, Gujarat State Council for the Protection of Child Rights and scores of NGOs.
Is yours a case of too little time and too much to do?
Absolutely! Every morning I want to get out of the bed, fast. There is so much to do.