On a warm, stuffy day in Delhi, I came face to face with a 5 feet by 5 feet canvas at the French Embassy. I stood mesmerised by the scale of it and also horrified that I was expected to fill this white expanse along with four schoolmates in a matter of a few hours. The horror wasn’t entirely because
of the task at hand but because I knew that in the pecking order of ‘artists’ that stood in front of the canvas that day I was right at the bottom. I had never actually been ‘right at the bottom’; never felt the terror of failing at art before, because in my tiny little world comprising of 40 classmates I was passably ok.
My worries weren’t unfounded. I was relegated to the task of painting in the outlines of what others drew and that turned out to be my last ever attempt at painting on canvas. So when I heard about volunteers from CRY Bangalore conducting an arts based programme in partnership with ArtSparks Foundation, I was intrigued by the very thought. And this is the story of how on another warm, stuffy day I took a journey into what I can fittingly call ‘an education’.
I volunteered at my first ever ‘Learning through Arts’ programme at St. Paul School in Yeshwantpur, a sub-locality of Bengaluru in Karnataka. The heat and the energy that a closed room and forty 12-year-olds generated was enough to overwhelm me for a good few minutes and transport me back to the bitter-sweet memories of art in my childhood. The fact that I had entered an evolved space dawned on me only a while later when the founder director of ArtSparks Foundation, Nisha Nair, started speaking. For a change, I didn’t hear the universally feared strict school teacher in Nisha’s tone. Instead, I heard an adult speaking and a group of forty mini-adults turning it into a conversation. Nisha didn’t tell them what to do; she only requested their attention and reasoned with them. In response, these kids heard her out and offered respect.
While this transpired in one end of the classroom, Vishnu, a volunteer with CRY set up the atmosphere for the class to commence. These kids had started making puppets of their everyday heroes in their last session and patiently waited as Vishnu handed out their work and art supplies for them to get started. Of course, out of habit, a few of them came looking for adult supervision, suggestions and approval and were instead met with questions for them to answer and arrive at their own, unique path.
Because my eyes are used to seeing the world in finite ways, it only struck me when Nisha pointed out that 40 kids had found 40 different ways to create their puppets. When left to their own devices, they had let their imagination become their teacher. While one child masterfully added pleats to a saree that looked quite done to me, another one detailed his hero with a spiked haircut. Conditioning yet again pushed some of them to compare their work or look around for inspiration but the assurance that art has no right or wrong, gave them the courage to pick up their pair of scissors and cut the outlines of their imagination.
In that stuffy classroom I saw art turn into a means of learning, a way to explore and experiment, and make independent decisions; to share glue, scissors, paper and eventually, ideas. They found ingenious solutions to what they thought were ‘mistakes’; pants that were cut too wide and would have in any other art class been rejected turned into stylish bell bottoms. Arms that weren’t ‘sober’ enough to sit neatly next to the body found expression in dance. They competed only with their clashing thoughts about which colour to pick and won irrespective of what they chose. And most importantly, they went on to display their work with pride. When asked what they liked most about the workshop; with innocence and wisdom beyond their years, they smiled and said it made them happy. As simple as that. It made them happy to focus their energies and ideas with no sense of time, or fear of being wrong.
In a world where kids as young as 6-years-old, spend their time running from school to tuition to homework and back. At a time when they are constantly under the threat of being turned into puppets and chided for wanting to break the mould, art is our ideal solution. Not the kind of art that requires them to create a masterpiece or the kind we expect them to dole out because we have an extra hour to fill at school every week, but research-backed arts education. The kind that focuses on creative problem solving and ideation and gives our kids the confidence to envision a future and take risks when required. An education that has to do with the process of creating art and not with what is finally on the canvas. Because art isn’t just a skill; it is instead a valuable learning tool that can transform the way our kids think, imagine and create their future.
ArtSparks Foundation is an educational nonprofit that supports the creative, cognitive, social, and emotional growth and development of children through the medium of art. It also provides professional development opportunities to various stakeholders, through schools and other partner organizations.
This article has been written by Tintu Saleem, CRY Volunteer, who draws from her observation of a ‘Learning through Art’ programme in progress and subsequent discussions with ArtSparks Foundation & CRY.