Former child workers in India bang the drum for education

The musicians, who performed this week at one of India's top arts centers, use every platform they can to talk about their journey and have become an inspiration to local families.

Mahesh Kumar A./AP/File
At a railway station in Hyderabad, India, rescued child laborers stand in a queue to board a train to be reunited with their parents in Bihar, one of India's poorest states, Feb. 5, 2015. Police have rescued hundreds of children working in hazardous industries in the southern Indian city despite laws that ban child labor.

After performing at one of India's top arts centers in the city of Chennai, folk musician N Deepan stunned the audience when he took the microphone and spoke about being a child laborer.

From the age of 10, he said he had been in and out of school, spending most of his time toiling at construction sites or binding books in stores.

And then he discovered the parai, one of the oldest traditional drums used in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

"The beat of these drums liberated us," the postgraduate student told the audience, referring to his 10 fellow performers.

"We went back to school, we played music in the evenings and all of us eventually made it to college."

India is home to 5.7 million child workers aged between five and 17, according to the International Labor Organization, which estimates there are 168 million child workers globally.

More than half of India's child workers labor in the fields, and over a quarter in manufacturing – from embroidering clothes to weaving carpets and making matchsticks. Children also work in restaurants and hotels, and as domestic workers.

The artists in Monday's show, who formed Nanbaragal Gramiya Kalaikal (Friends of Folk Art) in 2013, grew up in the slums of north Chennai, where it was normal for children to work until just a few years ago.

The revelation that the musicians were once child laborers astonished the audience attending the arts festival at Kalakshetra, a leading cultural institution which promotes the classical arts including the prestigious Bharatnatyam dance form that originated in Hindu temples.

"We use every platform we can to talk about our past," Deepan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation before the show.

"In spaces like this, considered sacred by dancers, the reality of life in another part of the city including the slums I grew up in should be reflected."

Most of the performers, who all dance while drumming, were rescued and persuaded to go back to school by members of the nonprofit organization Arunodhaya – a center for street and working children.

"We all worked. When I was 12, I went on the fishing boats," said performer S Pavithran.

"I dropped out of school and spent the entire day loading and unloading baskets of fish. Now I am doing my masters in business administration and also have a part-time job."

The number of working children in Chennai's slums has fallen recently following awareness programs and interventions by civil society groups and the government. The drummers have also become an inspiration for families in the area.

"We know how easy it is to drop out so if we find any child wandering around during school hours, we literally drag him or her back to school. Today, even their parents are grateful when we do it," Deepan said.

The folk group, a mix of men and women, performs in schools and at weddings as well as in shows – and at the end of most performances they tell the story of their childhood.

They are also eager to dispel misperceptions about the parai – a flat portable drum.

"The parai drummers are most often considered illiterate and associated with playing at funerals," Deepan told the audience.

"We are all educated and we are not at a funeral today. The parai gave us freedom and a purpose."

Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, editing by Emma Batha. This story originally appeared on the website of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption, and climate change. Visit

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Former child workers in India bang the drum for education
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today