Remembering the Legacy of Shashi Tyagi (1947 – 2020)
“A kind, gentle yet powerful force of light,” is how Director of Grassroots Partnerships Katherine Zavala describes her memories of Shashi Tyagi. Throughout her life, Shashiji exemplified the discipline of long-term commitment and the practice of deep listening to build trust, setting the ground for relationships and enabling opportunities for transformation. These values are still intact at Thousand Currents today, due in no small part to Shashiji’s influential legacy.
Shashiji was an educator and social activist trained in Sarvodaya, a post-independence Gandhian social movement in India, which strove to ensure self-determination and equality for all. She arrived in the Thar desert, one of the most drought prone regions of the world at that time, alongside her late husband, Shri L.C. Tyagi. Together, they dedicated themselves to the social upliftment of this economically and socially disadvantaged region, and started visiting and surveying all community members on padyathras, long marches on foot. They found deep poverty, illiteracy, substance abuse, a harsh desert, rampant discrimination against oppressed castes and women, and the purdah system – a physical seclusion of women from public life and the practice of the veil. Both realized that they needed to engage in long term transformational work with the entire community to forge a new vision of village life in the Thar, one that is based on equality and cooperation. This is how Shashi Tyagi, along with her husband founded GRAVIS, a longtime grassroots partner of Thousand Currents. Today, thanks to their collective vision, GRAVIS has transformed the lives of the people of Thar through community-led development, education, healthcare, sustainable agriculture, and water conservation, reaching over 1.5 million people.
Shashiji has been an integral part of the Thousand Currents ecosystem for more than 20 years, beginning with GRAVIS’ partnership in 1999. She served on Thousand Currents’ Board, participated and presented at multiple key events, and was a faculty member for the Thousand Currents Academy in 2015. Academy participants, including philanthropists, foundation staff, and social entrepreneurs, were inspired by her life story and took those learnings back to each of their respective organizations.
Executive Director Solomé Lemma said, “Shashiji is one of Thousand Currents’ greatest teachers who has been integral to our development and transformation as an organization. I, we, will continue to be guided by her lifelong enactment of solidarity with the oppressed, leadership grounded upon humility, discipline and integrity, and her unwavering commitment to and belief in human transformation.”
With a fierce spirit and steely determination, Shashiji always focused on building equality and power. She once stood before an angry male mob opposed to cross caste organizing, and asked them to think about their collective future and wellbeing for all. Despite the difficulties women face in the Thar desert, she persevered and led by example, showing the villagers that a woman could stand up and speak on her own behalf. Today, many locals cite her fortitude as the reason for change in their own communities.
Shashiji continues to be an inspiration to the people of the Thar desert and so many others who are inspired by her bravery. She remains a mentor and teacher for many current and former Thousand Currents staff and Board members, each of whom have been transformed by every interaction with her. As she transitions from this life, we remember her lifelong commitment to selfless service and solidarity, her humility, and her indelible spirit. We are grateful for her teachings and the wisdom she imparted to all of us, and will continue to be nourished by her legacy.