Buildings are built brick-by-brick. This one came up painting-by-painting,” remarked renowned Punjabi author Ajeet Cour.
The 2006 Padma Shri awardee was talking about the Academy of Fine Arts and Literature (AFAL), which was started in a small Saket flat in 1975 and now stands tall in Siri Fort Institutional Area. Ms. Cour, the then Editor of a business journal, and her daughter Arpana Caur, a well-known artist, started a school that offered basic vocational and education skills to girls and women from underprivileged backgrounds.
Today, AFAL runs a women’s empowerment centre under its subsidiary — the Indian Council for Poverty Alleviation. Over the years, the organisation has helped many women and girls by providing them with vocational skills, informal education and various training programmes.
The school operates in the basement of the AFAL building, with most visitors oblivious about the girls busy working just a floor below. The ground floor of the building plays hosts to private exhibitions, besides having on display a collection of paintings by Arpana Caur. The building also houses a library and a museum.
The 81-year-old Ms. Cour recalled how she met the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for breakfast and was asked why she was not expanding her school. This breakfast meeting, the writer added after a short pause, led to Mrs. Gandhi allotting her 1.5 acre of land where Asiad Village stands today.
However, things changed following the Asiad Games and with Mrs. Gandhi no longer in power. The Delhi Development Authority offered Ms. Cour 1.5 acre near the then isolated Hamdard University. When the writer expressed concern about how she would collect children for her school, run a library and gallery there, she was allotted land in Siri Fort Institutional Area.
Besides the land, Ms. Cour said, she did not receive any help from the government. She sold off her Saket flat and personal belongings, including gold, to restart from scratch.
“I did not have the money for architects, so I designed the building myself. With every painting Arpana sold, we built a little more,” she added.
The school, with a half-done building, finally took off in 1992. Even today, the academy receives no funds. It still functions on the money that Ms. Caur’s paintings bring in.
On a normal day, as many as 65-70 girls trickle into the AFAL premises from the slums of Shahpur Jat, Dakshin Puri, Kotla Mandi, Andrews Ganj and Nehru Nagar. The students come in by 10.30 a.m. and stay till 2 p.m., which is when the second batch arrives and stays till 5 p.m. The academy also gives the students pick-up and drop services in a bus.
The courses on offer include English-speaking, computer classes, embroidery, knitting, textile designing, block printing, painting, and making of handbags, wall hangings and other decorative items. All courses are taught free of charge, with students being awarded diploma certificates on completion.
“The fathers of most of these girls are labourers, guards or drivers, and their mothers mostly clean other people’s homes. The family income is usually less than Rs.10,000 and some of the girls do odd jobs to help the family,” said the author.
“These girls lack exposure. To address this, once a month, we take them for a picnic to places like Qutub Minar or India Gate. They stay in Delhi, but have not seen the Capital’s landmarks.”
The ultimate aim, Ms. Cour says, is to help them land jobs that are dignified and give them better livelihood options.