Shabnam Ramaswamy, ACTIVIST
From eking out a living on Kolkata’s streets to working as an interior decorator, Shabnam Ramaswamy’s life has been full of twists and turns.
Born in a village in the interiors of West Bengal’s Murshidabad, Shabnam, got to study in Kolkata’s elite La Martinere School, thanks to her father’s Army job. At 16, she was married off to a wealthy 32-year-old who would beat her to a pulp. After bearing him two kids, her husband would regularly throw her out of the house at night because he felt their son didn’t look like him. One night, at 24, she left home with her son.
For two months, she lived in a shanty at Sealdah station after which she got herself a job and worked her way out of poverty. Within a decade, she succeeded in her job as an interior decorator, got a divorce and won custody of her children. But she began to tire of high-society life and trained her sights on social work. “I decided to leave Kolkata, as it was awkward going from businesswoman to social worker in the very same city,” she said. She wrote down the names of six cities on chits of paper and asked her daughter to pick a chit. The girl picked Delhi, so that’s where the family went.
Shabnam joined Mira Nair’s Salaam Balak, where she befriended runaways at Delhi station. A senior journalist, Jugnu Ramaswamy, approached her with the intention of making a film on her work. He not only made the film, but married her too. The Ramaswamys set up a school for street kids in Delhi, called Jagriti. After the school was demolished by the Delhi government, they headed to Katna in West Bengal, where they decided to set up a state-of-the-art school with the same name for rural kids. In 2005, just before the school began, Jugnu died of a heart attack, leaving Shabnam to run it single-handedly. Today, the school boasts several school rooms, workshops, and hostels for 500 students, teachers and staff.
Shabnam participated in the 2014 residency with artist Angela Ellsworth.