Rang Bhare Jeevan Mein Kala Mela
documented by Jennifer Dickenson
We all have the ability to create. One of the beautiful things about human nature is that we all inherently have the ability of free thought. Increasingly often, however, this ability gets insulted. Our lists of options are quickly dwindling. This occurs in every facet of life from what foods we eat to the way society sees as acceptable to raise our children. Our schools, media and society are slowly taking away our options by making our lives more standardized. A standardized, ready-made world works like a machine and is easier to maintain. While this world may be efficient, it does not readily accept original thought, creativity or expression.
Where has the place for expression gone? We reserve this luxury for special people we call artists. By the simplest explanation of the word, an artist is a person who makes art. But everyone can make art! However, the machine society has done a very good job to convince us otherwise.
The machine society takes its roots in school systems. Teachers ask their students to do similar projects, which they will then grade on the same criteria. Because of this, students (excluding the ones who rebel) will try to make their project fit the ideal. Teachers do not guide students how to cultivate their creativity. The exact opposite is true. Teachers reward students when they fit into the standard. This does not result in an environment that is healthy and safe for creativity. .
In 1999, Shikshantar hosted a month-long workshop called Twenty-First Century Artists (see www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/udaipur_21startists.html for more details). We had about thirty kids, and the first day, when they all sat down, twenty-eight of them drew a scene: two mountains, a tree, a sun and one hut, only two of the thirty drew something different, remembered Vidhi Jain, core team, learning activist. These experiences corroborated the understanding that schools hinder creativity. This realization resulted in many workshops.
During the past year, Shikshantar held many eight to ten day workshops on the idea of cultivating creativity and outlets of expression. The workshops were held mostly in different neighborhoods around Udaipur and in a few schools as well. There were many different kids from lots of different age groups and backgrounds. Workshop facilitators used unique approaches to encourage the children to create beyond the scene-scenery (mountains, river, sun; flowers; flags; their own name) they made in school. During the days of these workshops, the children became more confident, and started to create their own pictures and come up with their own ideas of what to make. Towards the end of numerous workshops, many of the children produced some excellent, unique works. The Shikshantar team thought it would be a good idea to exhibit these works in a place for the community to see.
The result was the Rang Bhare Jeevan Mein Kala Mela (Life Is Full of Color Art Festival). How can each of us uncover the artist within? What is the importance of our creativity and its expression today? We explored these questions and others through a variety of media and processes. There were four main parts of the mela: an art exhibition, hands-on creation, a poster exhibition and a film festival.
The art exhibition was one hundred and twenty-five pieces collected from the previous years workshops. All of the art was matted and set nicely and put under high-quality lighting. (Incidentally, professional artists have had their work displayed in the same space.) This tasteful presentation demanded the respect from the public and restated the idea that one does not have to be a professional artist in order to create art.
The second part of the mela was hands-on creation at many different stations. Each station made art accessible to people and tried to allow each person to find their inner artist. I will describe a couple of the stations.
First of all, there was what I and other people have come to call My Left Foot. At this station, one would paint on paper by clasping the brush in his/her foot, mouth or any other part of the body, except the hands. Combs, toothbrushes and many other household items were also available for painting with. We used paints made out of common household and natural materials, like vermillion (kumkum), henna powder (mehndi), tumeric (haldi), etc.
To me, My Left Foot clearly communicated two things. First, making art does not need to be expensive. Second, people can free themselves of conventional methods of making art. I may not feel that I can paint well with a brush in my hand, but if one takes the brush out of my hand, then everyone else and I are on the same level. I then do not feel as if I must fit into some sort of predescribed norm, because I personally do no know what foot paintings are supposed to look like, so I will feel better about making whatever I want to create.
I did see some interesting things while participating at this station. Many people would first stand and watch the people who where participating. They would watch them and wonder what they must be doing. After an invitation to start painting, some people would squat down and start participating and other people would refuse. When asking why, many people would reply that they do not know how to paint. They seemed too scared, or embarrassed to even try. Moreover, even when people did start to participate, and we told them that they were not allowed to use the brushes in their hands, some would say that they could not do that. People often are afraid of things that they do not know and have not tried before, but then how does one ever learn new things? There were many instances, however, that I could see the wheels turning and people really getting into what they were making.
Another station we had was the mitthi/gober (clay/manure) station. Here, we encouraged people to make their own sculptures. People had a choice of two materials out of which to make their sculpture: clay and cow manure. This was a very popular station and many kids, and a few adults chose to make sculptures ranging from cameras to elephants and people.
Few people, however, decided to make sculptures out of the manure. The time this mela was going on was just before Holi, an important holiday in India. A tradition during this time is to make sculptures out of manure which hide some sort of surprise, a coin or something of the like, letting them dry in the sun, and later burning them. Although people will still do this in villages, most urban people will not touch manure if they have the choice. When offered the manure, people would almost invariably give revolted looks. However, seeing some people touch it and make sculptures out of it was a good step for others to take the stigma off manure and off the people who handle manure.
Another part of the mela was a poster exhibition. We hung posters throughout the Suchna Kendra (Information Center) space. The posters discussed both how can we explore and express our own imaginations and creativity, and how are certain frameworks/systems/models/programs getting in the way of our creative expressions. One of the posters that I found to be quite poignant had a picture of a schoolroom scene. In the scene, the teacher said, Alright students, the I want you to write an essay on imagination and cooperation. The person whose essay is the worst will be punished! The students in the poster have thought bubbles and one student thinks that she is going to work hard and not give help to anyone else, because that person might steal her ideas. A second student thinks that he will just have his father write the assignment. And a last student thinks that he just will not try because he always fails anyway. The question written at the bottom of the poster asks, What kinds of processes should we have to cultivate imagination and cooperation? The posters raised many different questions and were a good opportunity for starting discussions.
The final part of the mela was a film festival. Shikshantar had screened several films, but this was the first time that the team put on an entire film festival. Films shown included My Left Foot, Charlie Chaplins Modern Times, Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Children of Heaven, Kabulliwala, and Dead Poets Society. Films were chosen on two criteria, first of all, their connection to creativity and imagination and secondly, their ability to appeal to a predominantly Hindi-speaking viewing audience. The films looked at human potential and how we, as people, cope with the changing world. Most of these films were new for the viewers and people seemed to enjoy them. In addition, they opened up a space for interesting dialogue.
This was my first exposure to Shikshantar. During this mela, I had the opportunity to experience who they are and what they do. The essential thing that I saw happening at this mela were different kinds of discussions. At any time, during the three days of the mela, one could see the Shikshantar core team members engaging in discussion. These dialogues are so important for sharing and understanding ideas and experiences. More importantly, these dialogues link the entire process to the community, truly making Shikshantar a people-driven movement.
Personally, this entire experience has broadened my scope on the way I look at art. After this experience, I found myself asking many questions. What makes a piece of art good? Is this simply a question of aesthetics, or is it more than that? What are different ways that people express themselves and show creativity? Where are these other outlets? Besides these questions and many others, I walked away from the mela having realized one thing. Overall, our creativity and expressions are not a luxury; they are part of what makes us human.