The renowned author Jean Houston had said of laughter, “At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.”

Dishaa Pratishthaan has done exactly that with the children and women they have catered to since they began in 2014. A non-profit organisation, they provide a hot nourishing meal to needy children and they empower women through the creation of handmade products. They are a team of ten individuals in the core group and 15 volunteers. In the course of their work that includes food services, workshops and weekly classes, they have helped nearly 800 children around the local bastis in Thane, Maharashtra and currently have about eight underprivileged women working with them to create handmade products that you can place an order for at

Chief trustee Lakshmi Bhat, Co-trustee Sadhana Desai and Natasha Desai, Media and Communications, share the inspiring story of the women behind Dishaa Pratisthaan with Conchita Fernandes.

What led to the creation of Dishaa Pratishthaan?
Dishaa Pratishthaan logoLakshmi Bhat: Before Dishaa took off, a group of friends and I wanted to spread the joy of laughter. We would organise weekly laughter clubs that became popular especially among senior citizens. Gradually, we incorporated yoga, dance and exercise, and noticed the huge difference it made amongst the participants and their health. After a point though, we disbanded the group. However, the participants were so invested in the sessions that they took it upon themselves to organise weekly sessions of their own.

It was the success of this that sparked off the idea for Dishaa. We thought, if we could do it for these people, then we could do it anywhere. We set our eyes on the local bastis in Thane, focusing mainly on children and how we could instil in them the joy of laughter. From having seen the benefits of laughter therapy in senior citizens, we understood the difference it could have on the children if we inculcate the habit in them from a young age. Also, the greatest quality of young minds is the eagerness and curiosity that they possess. That is how Dishaa began in 2014.

What was the idea behind the name and the core principle that drives it?
Lakshmi Bhat: I am a tarot card reader, and one of the things that I do for the people who consult with me is giving them direction through spirituality. That is how the name ‘dishaa’ came about. It was all about channelling people in the right direction.

“Our core principle is to spread happiness in whatever way possible. We see Dishaa as an answer to people’s prayer, and a way to attain peace and tranquillity.

Dishaa is an all-woman team. Tell us about them. Also, what was the idea behind using arts and crafts as a way to propagate empowerment amongst the women catered to by Dishaa?
Lakshmi Bhat: When we first started, Dishaa catered solely to children. We taught them everything from nursery rhymes to arts and crafts as well as communication skills. Looking at their progress, the mothers were more than happy to have their children spend time with us. That, and the fact that we fed the children simple, but nutritious food, khichadi, in this case. This was crucial in building trust between the mothers and us because they saw the value we brought in the activities we conducted for their children. Soon enough, they too were as eager as the kids to participate and learn.

Sadhana Desai: Lakshmi had the brilliant idea of paying a stipend of Rs. 50 to the women who attended our classes. The thought behind it was simple – How could we get the women to leave their homes for a couple of hours every week and come spend that time with us to learn new skills. As soon as the women in the bastis realised that we were offering them Rs. 50 to spend three hours with us, they arrived in great numbers. They even received permission from home to do so. We started by teaching them bhajans, and eventually progressed to training them in skills like embroidery, crochet work, paper rolling, beadwork, and so on. In the process, we (the volunteers) too were learning and polishing our skills. This was unlike anything they had done before, and it brought about a visible change in their outlook towards life, which they brought into their homes.

Lakshmi Bhat: These were women who were not used to discipline, and as strenuous as their day jobs or housework was, whatever free time they had, they would wile it away in gossip or unconstructive activities. Our activities became a huge success that we had women come from all over the area to register for our classes. Also, we recognised the significance of art therapy and the difference that it made when we initiated it amongst the children. It only made sense to do the same with the women.

Diyas Dishaa Pratishthaan

Handmade Diyas Crafted from Newspaper Rolls

We saw the work and products created by the women on Dishaa Mela – Handcrafted with Love. How did this come about and what has been the reception to it?
Lakshmi Bhat: With every session, we made it a point to teach the women a new skill. One of our first projects tackled embroidery. After learning the basic stitches, we realised that we had to do something more as just learning stitches was not of much interest to the women. So we began making products like pouches and little carry bags. Initially, whatever products the women made, they got to take them home. However, once their skills began to develop, we decided to venture into creating products that people would buy.

Dishaa Mela, the website, has been a recent development, during the pandemic because we wanted to make our products available to a wider audience. Before this, we sold our products solely through word of mouth, letting friends and family know of the work that we were doing. Our first ever project was creating rakhis that sold extremely well. Then we made diyas by upcycling newspapers, which were also a huge hit with customers. We received a lot of encouragement and support from people who recognised the purpose behind what we were doing.

Natasha Desai: I remember during our first Diwali, we sold about 150 diyas, then we sold 1000 diyas the next year, and the year after that we sold 3000 diyas. This momentum would have continued if it wasn’t for the pandemic. Initially, our orders mainly came from our volunteers and their friends in Thane. Eventually, this moved to orders coming in from other parts of Mumbai and then from across India. Soon, we had people place orders in advance so that they could carry them abroad and give them to their relatives.

Sadhana Desai: Turning the arts and crafts into a commercial venture to benefit the women creating the products has had a huge impact on their families. From the money that they earn, these women have been able to afford education for their children and enrol them in good schools. One of the mothers told us that now because her kids were going to a good school, she was looking for a better place for her family to live in and that she would like to move out of the basti. This is a huge step… For these women to recognise the value of education and having a good home environment is something that makes us at Dishaa extremely proud of.

In a time when conversations are slowly but finally shifting towards women’s role in the growth of the economy, do you feel that initiatives like Dishaa play a crucial role in enabling this?
Lakshmi Bhat: Yes definitely. At Dishaa, we pay the women fair wages. In addition to this, whatever work they do at home, like crochet work, they are paid separately for each product that they create. So, they earn quite well.

“Income plays a crucial role in making these women self-sufficient. They aspire to and strive for a better life for their children and families.”

This also means that they have a say in such important family decisions, and the very fact that we were able to make this possible, makes us incredibly happy.

What are some of the significant ways in which Dishaa has contributed to the well-being of women and children?

Sewing empowering Dishaa Pratishthaan

Constructively Empowering Women: Reshma Using the Pedal Sewing Machine

Sadhana Desai: One of the women who work with us, Reshma, has polio. She was often discouraged from doing certain activities owing to her condition and was often pitied. However, with constant affirmations, mindfulness activities and encouragement, we noticed a change in her demeanour; she appeared more confident.

Reshma enjoyed stitching, but preferred the use of a hand machine, over the one with the pedal. We could see her itch to try the pedal machine, and despite constant encouragement from us volunteers, she refused as she felt discouraged due to her condition. Then one fine day, she went for it. I was ecstatic to see the joy on her face. She enjoyed it so much that she got a machine for herself at home.

The other difference that we noticed was in the health and appearance of the children. I remember when the children first came to us, their legs were so weak that they could barely stand for long. Their eyes used to water and during the summers, their entire bodies would be covered in prickly heat. However, once they started coming to us and were served hot, fresh meals, their overall health improved.

When the first lockdown was announced, we were at a loss as to how we could continue helping the women in the bastis. We had to ask Sangeeta, one of our volunteers from the basti if she would be able to provide food to the local families if we supplied her with the materials. She readily agreed and made several packets of food while adhering to TMC guidelines. She had a huge crowd of people line up to collect the food, including migrant workers. Some of them would even place an order in advance so that they could collect the food for the journey ahead of them. Sangeeta’s contribution was recognised and she was even awarded a certificate of appreciation from the TMC.

Reiki Classes Dishaa

Conducting Online Reiki Sessions

Healthy living with positive thinking is your motto and it comes through in your work, take for example the Reiki sessions. Why is this significant to the work you do and what difference has it made to the women who attend it?
Sadhana Desai: As meditation practice, we have seen the benefit that our participants have got from our Reiki classes.  They would be happier and calmer, and would generally be in better health after the classes. So, we decided to do the same with the ladies and children from the bastis. We would begin the sessions with Reiki meditation and positive affirmations with the ladies so that we could begin the day with a positive mindset. The ladies took a keen interest in it because they could feel the difference that it made in their day and eventually the effect it had on their lives. They even noticed a difference in the quality of the products they made.

Lakshmi Bhat: Sadhana and I have been conducting Reiki classes since 2012 and have managed to help many people find solace and peace. All our volunteers are Reiki attuned to it. With the women, I think the biggest difference was that they noticed how we treated them, how we genuinely took an interest in their well-being. This transpired to their own families because the women would then conduct these sessions at home.

What are the various activities disseminated by Dishaa towards the education of children?
Sadhana Desai: We did a whole bunch of activities with the children. One year, at a local school in one of the bastis, we conducted workshops during the summer holidays. We taught the kids skills like painting, quilling, embroidery and card making. Then every Monday to Friday, at the basti itself, we would conduct 45 minutes sessions. Every day we would begin with affirmations and meditation before we commenced with the activities. A lot of the girls are fond of jewellery, so we taught them how to make earrings out of paper and beads.

There was no academic teaching as such, but we tried to cover basic math, alphabets and spellings. We realised that if we could establish a strong base for the children, they would be able to do much better in school.

Natasha Desai: One of the things that the kids really enjoyed is colouring. When they came to us they had unlimited access to colours and paper, something that was rationed or missing in their own homes. This helped the kids freely express themselves through art.

What were the hurdles, if any, in the initial propagation of Dishaa, and how were they overcome?

Kids eating healthy food

Kids Enjoying their Food Pre-Pandemic

Lakshmi Bhat: In the beginning, whenever we would enter a new basti, there would always be some push back from the local Anganwadi (child care centre) run by the government. We offered warm and hearty meals to children and organised fun activities that they enjoyed. They would flock to us, which led to a significant drop in attendance of the children at the Anganwadi. Attendance is crucial because it determines whether an Anganwadi should exist in an area or not. So, the ladies who ran them would come up to us and fight, even drag the children away.

This happened in the first basti, so we decided to move to a second one only to have a similar situation transpire. The ladies of the Anganwadi fought fiercely and even began spreading rumours in the basti about us, and that we should be thrown out of the area. We kept quiet about it. But the mothers knew the sincerity of our work. They intervened and allowed us to continue doing our work.

Sadhana Desai: Someone registered a complaint against us with the local police station. After observing our activities, one fine day, they called us to the police station. They were polite with us and even acknowledged the good work that we were doing. What they suggested though was that we officially register ourselves as an NGO to avoid the trouble of this nature in the future. And we did exactly that, in 2016. We became a registered non-profit organisation.

This was a big step for us because we never wanted to get into any kind of bureaucratic process and deal with paperwork. We wanted to focus all our energy on the kids and the women, but registering ourselves was a step in the right direction. Even today, we have local governmental organisations approach us for a tie-up, but we refuse because we do not want to be affiliated with any government activities and we know of the mounting paperwork that will result in the process. We’d rather channel all our time and energy into ensuring the well-being of the people that we have sworn to serve.

Are there other ways in which Dishaa is branching out to cater to the upliftment of women in other parts of Mumbai and/or Maharashtra?
Lakshmi Bhat: Currently, we don’t have any plans to branch out because we believe that there’s still so much work to do in the area that we are focused on right now. Of course, when we receive requests for products from NGOs or institutions catering to the well-being of children and women, we always help.

Sadhana Desai: We’ve also started making baby blankets for children and cloth pads for girls. We want to focus on the requirements of the people who genuinely need help.

What is Dishaa’s long-term goal? Does collaboration with other brands, companies or NGOs feature in this goal?
Lakshmi Bhat: Dishaa’s long-term goal is to spread joy and laughter, and teach people that there is a better life than they can aspire for. We are always open to collaborating with other brands, organisations and NGOs.

Natasha Desai: So far we’ve partnered with Amazon as part of their CSR initiative, where we sold our rakhis on their premises. We also partnered with HDFC and a few other banks where we were invited to set up stalls on the premises. For Christmas, Bombay Closet Cleanse, a thrift shop, displayed our products and we partnered with a small bakery business, S goes Baking too.  The response was astoundingly great.

In what ways is Dishaa utilising the online platform or social media to promote the stories of its women as well as the products that they create?
Womens Day Post Dishaa PratishthaanNatasha Desai: We are still in the process of building Dishaa’s social media presence. It was only after the pandemic that we realised the importance of having a large online presence as up until then all our sales took place offline, so we built an e-commerce website for our products. We have also started conducting online Reiki classes, making them accessible to people because no one can physically be present to attend them any more.

Recently, for Women’s Day, we put up photographs of the ladies who work with us along with personal anecdotes to reflect their stories on social media. They loved it. In activities like these, I am very attentive towards the portrayal of these women. I am careful about how they are photographed and how they are dressed, how would they like to be represented… These things matter. This particular activity received a lot of traction, and in doing so, we are slowly and steadily spreading awareness amongst larger groups of people.

Currently, we’re not pumping any money into advertising and marketing because it is expensive. I remember Lakshmi telling me in the beginning that we don’t need to utilise the money to promote ourselves, and that we’ll find people who need what we offer. She was right!

How can one volunteer at Dishaa and in what capacity?
Lakshmi Bhat: Now, owing to the pandemic, we are not accepting volunteers. But, once things go back to normal, people are welcome to join us and participate in the activities. Otherwise, one can always help by spreading the word about what we do. We also accept donations, and we are 80G complaint, so they receive the tax benefit too.

How has Dishaa personally impacted the members of its team? And how have you grown as a person in this journey?
Lakshmi Bhat: Whoever, in whatever capacity has helped Dishaa have all been blessed in their respective businesses and are doing extremely well, right from the person who we got our affirmations photocopied from to the guy who sold us bowls for the khichdi we served.

With regards to the members of the team, everyone’s potential has increased to an exponential level. We have become more compassionate, accepting, and calm in our outlook towards life. Personally, I have been introduced to many skills which I didn’t know I had or was capable of.

We still have a long way to go. We’re constantly learning and challenging ourselves to explore new avenues and skills. Sometimes we wonder what we should do next, but I’ve realised that things always have a way of working themselves out. It is how we’ve come so far in our journey.

Our Key Takeaways

Tips spreading joy and empowerment Dishaa

Spread the joy of health and laughter with Dishaa Pratishthaan! Drop by @dishaapratishthaan or visit them at!

Published On: April 30th, 2021 / Categories: Community Drivers, Interviews /