In The Service Of Humanity

“In the service of humanity” appeared as an article in “The Hindu”, dated October 8, 2004. SUDHAKSHINA RANGASWAMY meets Mathioli Saraswathy, founder of the Nandalala Seva Samithi Trust.

Sri MathiOli R. SaraswathyTHE NANDALALA Seva Samithi Trust (NSST) is a testament to our times – a local grassroots endeavour that has become global. It is a reminder to how societies and cultures are becoming “glocal” and how important it is to foster tolerance and mutual understanding of religions and cultures in the young. Twenty five years ago, the residents of the Chennai neighbourhood in which the NSST is located would not have even had an inkling that the vision of a simple lady living among them would bring so much meaning to their lives and transform them into an enlightened and close-knit community.

Endearingly referred to as Akka by the hundreds of children through whom she has virtually entered their homes and roped in their parents and even grandparents to strengthen her hands in realising her cherished goals, Mathioli R. Saraswathy at first sight could be mistaken for the lady next door. This simplicity is her trademark and sets her apart from the rest of social entrepreneurs.

The NSST has indeed come a long way since its modest beginning with the Nandalala Children’s Club 24 years ago, which Saraswathy started as an informal after-school activity centre where kids of all ages could gather to pursue their interests with her as the guiding spirit. Reminiscing, Saraswathy says that she wanted to recreate the atmosphere in which she grew up as a child in this modern metro milieu – one in which social skills, cultural and spiritual values could be imbibed spontaneously.

Her club came as a boon to children of nuclear households living in the vicinity and became their extended family. A multifaceted woman, equipped to the cause she had taken up, Saraswathy put her skills in writing, arts and crafts to good use to train children. Very soon the parents started appreciating the difference she made to their children’s upbringing and this resulted in spontaneous gestures to contribute in whatever way they could to help her. Thus a one-woman enterprise blossomed into a community mission naturally. The Nandalala Seva Samithi was set up in 1988 to help underprivileged children and soon it spread its wings to Bangalore, Thiruvananthapuram, Tiruchi, New Delhi and Hyderabad. The Trust was registered formally as a socio-cultural organisation dedicating itself to the service of humanity. The activities diversified into providing educational aid to needy students, promoting general knowledge, free medical check-up camps, eye camps, blood donation camps, arranging seminars to create health awareness through the Nandalala Medical Foundation coordinated by Sukumar, training in arts and crafts for destitute women, poor feeding and so on. Renowned medical practitioners offer their time and services in these medical camps regularly.

The temple in the NSST premises, which was rebuilt in 1998, houses Vinayaka and Nandalala deities and Saraswathy says with pride that it is a temple for children. The kids are encouraged to perform worship here and thus have become committed to the celebration of yearlong festivals and its upkeep. It is the culture of learning informally without any compulsion here that makes children willing learners. Gomathi, a homemaker, says that her daughter has a mentor in Saraswathy to whom she turns to instinctively for guidance. And, she is always available for the children.

Ananyaa Gautham, an engineering student who has been going to Nandalala from the age of two, feels that Akka has enabled her to learn and become proud of her culture and broadened her perspective of life. Bhargav Srikanthan, a commerce student, recalls that the All India Radio programmes for which she trained him was a boost when he was a kid but now he was able to appreciate her as a spiritual person. The NSST has a quarterly magazine Flute edited by R. Lakshminarayanan.

A whole generation of children who have become adults now wants to replicate their experience in the far-flung cities they have migrated to for the benefit of their children and thus the Nandalala Mission has chapters functioning now in California, New Jersey and Dubai.

Mathioli Sarasawathy’s participation in the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions held in Barcelona, Spain in July, is an important milestone in her mission and proof of how far an individual’s effort can make a difference to this world. The first Parliament held at Chicago in 1893 was the historic one in which Swami Vivekananda literally took Vedanta to the West.

The East-West encounter now has come a full circle and in the new millennium this Parliament (held for the fourth time since its inception) has become a global platform for celebration of the world’s religions and to promote inter-religious understanding and social harmony, which are the need of the hour. The Nandala Mission was chosen to participate in this international forum in recognition of its “grassroots community outreach in health care and education initiatives in India”.

Saraswathy who will be entering her 65th year tomorrow (born October 9, 1940) can easily rest on her laurels now but her zest for service has not waned and she retains the same enthusiasm to lavish her unconditional love on children. It is no wonder that many who have been closely associated with her like V. Raji, a medical practitioner, who assists her in her rural medical camps and R. L. Narayanan who has penned the book “Pranamamyaham” on her, respect her for her spiritual stature.

(Contact: NSST, 2&3, Dr. Ranga Road, Mylapore, Chennai-600004. Tel: 044-24983631).