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Seema Azharuddin is Going Against the Flow

May/12/2022 / by ABHIJIT MASIH
Seema Azharuddin dons multiple hats- actor, writer, producer, journalist and philanthropist

Seema Azharuddin deftly dons many hats. An actor, producer, journalist, philanthropist and soon to be an author, she is also president of the Jaldhaara Foundation, which provides safe drinking water to school children and local communities in Telangana and across India. 

Active in politics since her university days in India, she has kept those skills alive, her connections spanning administrations both in the US and India. Azharuddin was the spokesperson for the Indian diaspora for the presidency of Joe Biden. She has had an interesting journey and she shared it with SEEMA from her home in Maryland about her journey which started in a small town in Bihar, India.

From a sari boutique in Kolkata to having your candidate in the White House, you’ve had an incredible journey. What would you consider your greatest achievement?

I often think that it is necessary to have an appetite to achieve. Whether it is the company you keep or the professional community you are working with, or surrounding yourself with a wider intellectual aura, what needs to happen is the stimulation within that impacts the desired outcomes. Achievements happen when you can define your desired outcomes. I believe that achievement is related to success but the impact of success varies considerably from person to person. Having said this, my achievements have not seen their greatest point yet, but I have a good feeling I will mature in the art of giving. I’m getting there. I can say I have had quite a journey so far establishing life on my own. My challenges and enduring early breakthroughs in life helped with a great outcome in building self-confidence. I do consider this an achievement in that it made me very empowered.

You are now a force to reckon with. But when you are young, it takes a trigger to activate that energy. Did you experience something similar? Did an incident transform you?

When I was young my triggers were my very active hormones. I kid you not, my memories of those years keep me smiling always. Power, in my very gender-inclusive days, was both hard to feel and execute for many young women my age some 40 years ago. It is the triggers that awaken you. You have to acknowledge them to bring action to undesirable situations. I do recall a bus trip to college from home in India. I was 17 years old, sitting by the window seat and fell asleep. I felt that nasty touch – fondling by the passenger next to me. I slapped him hard and screamed at him. I got the bus to stop and had him thrown out! I did not cry and have a good sense even now, as I recall, of the power unleashed in me. The trigger was the disgust I felt of being or being seen as vulnerable enough to be preyed upon.

Jaldhaara Foundation provides water for schools
Jaldhaara Foundation provides water for schools

What got you to turn your focus to safe water solutions and the Jaldhaara foundation?

The Jaldhaara Foundation was established in 2011 and headquartered in Hyderabad. I came on board late last year. It was a poignant moment for me to take on the mantle as president of the Jaldhaara Foundation, which stands strong in its resolution to provide clean and safe drinking water, and educate people about water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in both India’s urban slums and deep rural areas.

For those of us in philanthropy, it is a calling. No gain, lots of pain, but happiness all the way! The underprivileged and underserved deserve every human help possible for it is about the fundamental right for equal opportunity. I chose to be with the WASH sector in India, primarily for the cause of a fundamental right that continues to be in need of being righted.

Tell us a little about the foundation’s work and the regions it is focusing on?

The Jaldhaara Foundation delivers clean drinking water and educates people about WASH very aggressively. So far, we have impacted over 250,000 direct beneficiaries. Over 6.2 million people have access to safe clean water at an affordable price.

Our ‘Water for Schools program” now covers 90 schools and has impacted over 30, 000 children.

Our focus has been in several states, including Maharashtra, New Delhi, Karnataka, and Haryana, but we are headquartered in Hyderabad, making Telangana and Andhra Pradesh key focus areas. The other region we are actively pursuing work is the northeast of India.

You have worked both in India and the US. What are the challenges common to both for a not-for-profit?

The common challenges have not changed over the years. The same key areas – sustainability, retaining and engaging donors, finding the right volunteers, and organizing internal and external processes. Be it in India or the United States, the corporate donor structure is expected to make all strategic decisions with the organizational mission in mind. Most work done by not-for-profit organizations revolve around developing strategic partnerships to enhance outreach. There is great effort needed to initiate engagement with donors. That can be exhausting as grants are long in coming, most times. It’s a tough job but a very gratifying one. You have to champion a cause because you believe in it, and that is what will bring change.

Safe water solutions for all!
Safe water solutions for all

You deftly manage various roles – actor, producer, journalist, activist… Which of them is the most meaningful?

In all of these roles I have there is a common element: expression. Theater is, perhaps, the greatest platform of expression for an actor. I have loved theater all my life and always wanted to be an actress. In my early days it was taboo to send me to film school. Instead, I studied history and political science, and had a brush with politics. That’s where my parents hoped I would lead. Instead, years later, I opened my own production house! We perform to the great classics of world literature and commercial films.

I pursued my roles with love and care. Over time writing has become very meaningful because it allows you to be truthful to your ideas and thoughts without the fear of criticism. It’s a great sense of freedom one gets in being a true writer. A quote I love by Ayn Rand, “Freedom (n.) To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing.”

You’ve said that you’re an expressionist using these various platforms. What is the one common message you try to propagate on them?

The message is to express yourself, truthfully. Come as you are. Show who you are. Somebody said it quite simply this way, “Be yourself. Accept yourself. Value yourself. Forgive yourself. Bless yourself. Express yourself. Trust yourself. Love yourself. Empower yourself.” This is how I feel a message should come through when you want to bring about change. “When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge.” So true are the words of Tuli Kuferberg.

Seema Azharuddin supports the Biden presidency

How did you get involved in the Biden campaign?

I have long been a Democrat at heart. It goes back to the glory days of Camelot, JFK and his legacy. I have been a volunteer spokesperson for the Democrats since the days of Clinton. It was at a fundraising event in Virginia that I first met Joe Biden, the then vice president of the United States. He seemed such a nice guy. I did tell him I would campaign for him in Indian communities and got a gentle pat on the back. Soon after that I began to speak up and to feel the need to be part of America getting back its dignity from the tongue of Trump.

What would your advice be for women who perhaps are restricted by the chains of tradition, expectation, or religion, to follow possibly unconventional passions?

Let me quote what two women have said.

Coco Chanel: “Don’t go banging on a wall expecting it to turn into a door.”

Seema Azharuddin: “Lead, don’t plead”

Restrictions are self-imposed! No woman must be in chains. Can’t imagine this can be true even today. Yes, respect for tradition, culture etc. can be, and to some extent should be, practiced, but only if it helps to make situations better – and only if she wants to do so.

Seema Azharuddin

We should continue to educate our underprivileged women (I pray we get rid of that word, “underprivileged,” at some point) and let them bloom in ways equal to men. Being a woman should be your super achievement, not your deepest fear.

Coco Chanel: “A woman should be two things: Who and what she wants”

Seema Azharuddin: “Don’t debate strength with a man. In you, he can see it, feel it, Ouch!”

Seema with her first Playbill
Seema Azharuddin with her first Playbill

What are the other things that interest you? I understand you are involved in Broadway as well. Tell us about the things that you do for yourself?

I am very interested in people, cultures, food, the art of communication, writing, empowering women, and being involved in the art of giving, but its theater that gets me all charged up. The opportunity to play a role and live it to the fullest on the grand stage is the ultimate way one can speak on and express oneself. Yes, we brought Broadway to India soon after I launched my production house, Kartaal Productions, in 2010 and played to full houses for three days straight with “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

When I saw my first “Playbill” in print, I cried. It is a moment that will stay with me forever.

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