The Peoples’ institute


rethinking education and development

Udaipur as a Learning City

21st Century Artists: Children's Creativity and Self-Esteem

By: Manav and Shilpa


"Children start losing their grace the day they start losing their intelligence. They start losing their natural rhythm, their natural elegance and they start learning plastic behavior. They no longer laugh spontaneously, they no longer cry spontaneously, they no longer dance spontaneously. You have forced them into a cage, a straight jacket. You have imprisoned them. The eyes of a child are an abyss, there is no bottom to them. Unfortunately, the society will destroy him, soon his eyes will be only superficial; because of layers and layers of conditioning, the depth, that immense depth have disappeared long before."


The New Child, 1998 


Like many other aspects of society, factory-schooling also plays a destructive role in the lives of children. It neither nurtures their natural learning processes, nor does it support their intrinsic and extrinsic development. Instead, India's 19th-century style factory-schools force-feed children random information and compulsory knowledge to make them obedient government clerks, submissive factory workers, compliant soldiers, and greedy consumers. Schools brand most children as failures and discard them. Even so-called art/creativity classes have become mechanical exercises, with little freedom for experimentation or expression.  With their dreams and thoughts suppressed by schools, children do not learn to create, critique, express, play, understand their potential, and really grow to realize their dreams and to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Efforts to radically change education — to develop new visions, processes and opportunities for learning — have started worldwide. We must experiment with creating, developing, and evolving new paths that lead towards regeneration of meaningful living and, ultimately, Swaraj. Real change and meaningful action will only come when one takes the initiative to think and act creatively.

We believe that each child has the potential to be a great artist, thinker, experimenter, and creator. They desire to understand and explore the world and do so with innovative and diverse approaches. By providing a space for them, outside of the stifling school environment, their creativity, individuality, self-expression, self-learning capacities, and self-confidence can emerge.  We seek to offer an opportunity for children to freely explore and realize their intelligences, skills, knowledges, wisdom, cultures, aesthetic senses, and full human potential.  In this way, they can understand their environment, the changes taking place around them, and their own power to do something.

Specifically, the importance of creativity in learning and living has been underestimated. Indeed in schools today, as in the Government of India's Minimum Levels of Learning (MLLs) curriculum, the word 'creativity' does not even appear. But without creativity, human beings are nothing more than lifeless machines, condemned to an existence of mundane drudgery.  With their human potential neither recognized nor unleashed, the would-be creators of tomorrow will be non-existent. Most importantly, if we are to face the challenges of the 21st century — increasing violence, widespread frustration, cultural upheaval, growing dehumanization, ecological degradation — we require innovative thought and creative new actions.  Doing what we have done in the past simply will not meet the needs of the future.  We must find ways to regenerate our lost creative energy in order for us to live a meaningful and healthy life and ensure a meaningful, just, and sustainable future.

About the Workshop

Shikshantar experimented with a one-month art workshop for approximately 20 to 25 in- and out-of-school children, ages 7-15, primarily from the kaachi bastis (squatter housing areas) of Udaipur. Children (and their families) from the bastis have been disregarded as a nuisance and a black spot on the city. Yet we believe (and have seen) that the children from these bastis have the same desire to learn and explore, the same depth of potential, and the same urge to understand and act in their environment, as children anywhere. This workshop gave us the opportunity to break down the dehumanizing stereotypes/rumors attached to the basti, and the chance to prove that these children and their communities had much to offer to Udaipur. A local artist, Shahid Parvez, ran the workshop with the assistance of colleagues from Shikshantar (See bios below). The goals of the workshop included:

F       Exploring the hidden creative force and energy in each child

F       Generating a space where children can express themselves freely and creatively, observe their external environment, develop their aesthetic senses and appreciation for art, and build their self-esteem and confidence

F       Creating a dialogue with families in how they can further support children's learning potential and learning processes and improve their own communities

F       Bringing professional artists and local children together in an unique, open learning environment

What We Learned

One of the first things we recognized was the deep conditioning of each child. They have been taught to follow the teacher's instructions and to rely on adults to do for them. Indeed, on the first day, 21 out of the 25 children drew the exact same thing — mountains, a sun, a hut, and a river — exactly what they've been mechanically trained to draw in school. The children have also been conditioned to think that the most realistic drawing is the best, and all else are inferior. This belief forced them to copy their peers, who drew what they perceived to be more realistic, or to copy other artwork from the wall or books.

The children had to be motivated consistently to work independently and to create something new.  Their concentration varied; at times, they were incredibly focused on their work and did not want to leave it, and at other times, they were distracted and restless.  Usually, their concentration depended on how much they liked the work they were doing, which in turn, depended on how confident they felt about it.  The children required constant praise and reassurance: that they did know how to draw, that they could make whatever they wished, and that what they drew was good.

We also had to encourage them to support and not to ridicule their peers' artwork.  Towards the end of the program, the children freely gave praise to one another. There was also no competition among the children, and they did an excellent job of sharing the few art materials together. While the average daily attendance was around 15 children, 11 children consistently attended the workshop, from the first day to the last. 8 children completely dropped out of the program for various reasons, such as lack of parental consent, change in school timings, and laziness to get up in the morning. But the most significant reason given for dropping out was that we were "not teaching them anything."  Again, children have become so accustomed to the 'chalk and talk' model — where the teacher lectures/draws on the blackboard in the front of the classroom and the children copy him — that they do not believe that they do not need to be 'taught' and can learn on their own.

On our part, we learned how to be extremely patient, especially in response to the children's overwhelming energy. We used a variety of strategies throughout the course of the workshop. Primarily, we focused on facilitating a happy and comfortable learning environment. To break out of the school setting, we played music and games and allowed the children to sit where they liked.  To facilitate the 'un-learning' of their conditioned mind, we tried to recognize each child's learning style and interests and to respond to them with personal dialogues, encouragement and praise.  We also tried to have each child reflect on his/her work, asking them what they wanted to draw, what was the story behind their picture, why they drew it, and what they liked about it. In the process of supporting the workshop, we deepened our own understanding of what creativity is and how it can be developed in all of us, at any age.

One significant observation we made was that many of the children would interact and react by hitting, teasing, or insulting each other.  From our experiences around India and the world, we have witnessed the growth of this type of violent behavior in children.  It is a cause for serious concern, and together we must discover, challenge, and eliminate the root causes for this behavior.  We do not believe in doling out physical or verbal punishment, and we challenge those who utilize these 'methods' to 'discipline' children.  In our workshop, when a child was too excited, not in the mood to work, or acted/reacted violently, we discussed the child's actions with him/her individually and then asked him/her to sit or play outside for a given period of time.  This method of developing self-discipline stood in great contrast to the physical and verbal punishments the children typically received in school, at home, or in their surroundings.

Our first interactions with parents and children were also informative. Many parents were open to the workshop, though they believed we would be 'teaching' their kids.  For a few parents, the fact that we were not requiring any payment was their main incentive for sending their children. We invited all parents to visit the workshop and see what we were doing, but in the course of the five weeks, only three parents came. They were quite surprised by our methodology (not hitting the children, allowing them to work freely and move about, playing music) and by the fact that we were not 'teaching' the children.  However, they were also caught up in a limited notion of art; if it wasn't 'realistic,' they didn't consider it art.  We spent time talking with them and sharing photographs of world-famous art to try to expand their understanding, so that they could begin to appreciate their children's work.  Yet, overall, we received enthusiastic responses from the parents when we personally delivered the invitations for the exhibition.  Hopefully, many of them will attend the exhibition.

Next Phase 

When assessing the workshop with the children, they expressed their desire to continue to engage in different activities that encourage creativity, self expression, self confidence and free learning.  These activities include painting a mural of their communities, developing children's parks in their communities, making masks and other paper mache items, creating vocal and instrumental music, acting in and producing children's theater and working with various forms of media technology (computers, video-camera, still photography).  We will need to speak further with parents and children to see how they can be involved in planning for the follow up activities.

Our Bios

Manav <> is presently supporting Shikshantar as a Learning Activist. He has vast experience of working with children and youth all around India. Manav believes that every individual can be a self-teacher and a self-learner. He is in a process of de-schooling himself, and his practices-interests include experimenting with life, practicing yoga-sadhana, interacting with nature, and engaging in a search to know himself.

Shilpa Jain <> is a learning activist for Shikshantar in Udaipur, India. Through her work at Shikshantar and previous experiences with international development organizations in Washington, DC, such as Creative Associates and the Academy for Educational Development, she has conducted research on several areas of education and development: democratic living, conflict transformation, creativity, Gram Sabhas and Panchayati Raj Institutions, the role of NGOs in civic participation, systemic reform, community participation, and equity education. Shilpa also loves learning from/with children and youth and has had extensive experience doing so around issues of self-esteem, creativity, collaboration, identity, and conflict resolution. She hopes to continue researching and activating the link between learning and social-political-economic transformation, and the role of children and youth in these learning processes. Shilpa has a B.A. magna cum laude in Political Science and Women’s Studies from Harvard University.

An internationally-renowned artist, Shahid is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Rajasthan State Artist Award 1995-1997, AIFACS Scholarship Award 1997, the Rajasthan Wales Exchange Fellowship 1998, and the Beinnaley Award 1999.  He has exhibited his work all over the world, in the 17th Mini-Print Exhibition in Spain, the India Pile Exhibit in Australia, the Relativity Exhibition in the UK, and has had one-man shows in Udaipur and New Delhi.  Shahid can be reached at 405 Teachers Colony, Ambamata Scheme, Udaipur, Rajasthan, India.