An Interview with Pallavi Chander, who runs the Creative Arts Therapy Programme with the Buguri Community Library.
This interview first featured on the IndiaFoundation for the Arts Newsletter, edition 49.
This project is made possible with support from RG Cargo, Help For Children in Need, and India Foundation for the Arts, under the Project 560 programme and partnered by Citi India.
|point of view: ON CREATING A SAFE SPACE FOR ADOLESCENTS, AN INTERVIEW WITH CREATIVE ARTS THERAPIST, PALLAVI CHANDER|
|For this newsletter, we are pleased to feature an interview with Project 560 grantee Pallavi Chander! Pallavi Chander works as a creative arts therapist. She completed her training in Drama and Movement Therapy (Sesame, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London) in 2017 and Arts-Based Therapy (India) in 2012. She also has a BA in Visual Arts from Chitrakala Parishath. Her practice uses drama, visual arts, storytelling, music, movement, play and mediation to facilitate creative processes towards psycho-social interventions and compassion-based treatments as well as for self-expression and awareness. The creative sessions are intended to be client-led to create a safe and non-confrontational environment for the clients. Pallavi received a grant from IFA, under its Project 560 programme, for sharing, through artistic practices, an arts-based therapy intervention by the children of the MGR colony in Banashankari. The adolescent residents and participants of the Creative Arts Expression programme of the Buguri Community Library shared their experiences in a year-long engagement with this intervention. The project took their learnings to members of the Buguri Library community in Bangalore and Mysuru.|
IFA: What drew you to the Buguri Community Library project?
Pallavi Chander:The library essentially is a space for children from the community to play and learn from stories and imagination. The first time I stepped into the library, I saw children staring at pictures in books, some reading aloud, some who could not read were making up stories and narrating it to their friends. I could not help but be drawn to their magical worlds. I spent about four months at the library before initiating the Creative Arts Therapy (CAT) program. I was stepping in for the coordinator who was on a break at a residency. It was in that time, that I understood the importance of Buguri in the community and the difference it intends to create in the lives of the children. The organisation – Harisudala, who largely work with waste pickers were trying to create safe learning spaces for their children; in the hope to provide an alternative where they could work through some of the dire issues and challenges they faced within the community, i.e., alcohol and drug misuse, school dropouts, early/ child marriages, and violence to name a few. The library was already using art-forms such as visual arts, craft work and drama activities in their daily reading programmes. Reading and telling stories by itself seemed to be therapeutic, therefore bringing a therapeutic approach using the arts seemed like a natural progression to their existent programmes. The CAT program also helped to build a safe container for children to therapeutically work through some of these issues mentioned above. Additionally, using the arts for therapy is an up and coming field in India and I am very grateful to the organisation and Lakshmi Karunakaran, the children’s programme coordinator for not only trusting the process but also helping in raising funds for the programme. It is the openness and support from the organisation, the children, and the donors that encouraged me to set-up the CAT programme and it continues to draw me to work at the library.
From a creative arts therapy session for boys at the Buguri Community Library in Banashankari
IFA: Why did you choose to work with adolescent children?
Pallavi Chander: Do you remember that phase in your life when you felt that you are not a child anymore, also not entrusted with all the burdens of being an adult? It is a phase charged with a weird sense of freedom and a rush of social activities; where friends suddenly occupy an important dynamic in shaping your understanding of the world. The body feels different, you notice changes and there is a hurry to do everything under the sun. I remember it as the most confusing and overwhelming phase of my developmental years. I yearned for a space to pause and think through things. I leaned on the arts which allowed me to understand and respond to my world in a way that felt necessary and relevant. It was mostly drama and visual arts that allowed me to create a space, within myself and with my peers, where we could voice our thoughts and emotions. In retrospect, I think I was more idealistic and had the energy to conquer any problem or issue and also acknowledge that we were all probably confused. But somehow it mattered to have that space, it was liberating, irrespective of all that confusion. Looking back, I know it was not easy and I had a difficult time trying to make meaning of things in isolation and the arts gave me some grounding. When I started working with children, I was naturally drawn to adolescent children because I think somewhere I recognised that resistance, that need to ‘act out’ to ‘be heard’ and although it isn’t pretty to the least, I can empathise with those manifestations. I strongly believe that as adults who engage with young adults, our responses matter as it could impact how young adults adapt to situations, build coping strategies and this is in many ways are the building blocks to adulthood. Young adults are growing up with not just a surge of media influences but seem to find very creative ways of using it. I think we adults need to learn from them and listen to their challenges. Rather than complain about millennials changing culture and simply brush them away with humare zamane pe… (‘in our time’) stories, which I think we do to avoid our own anxieties. Yes, when we were at their age, we did not have as much, but they do and it can be overwhelming to wade through it and blaming them only adds to their challenges. I feel we have much to learn from them and we need to include them in this process.
Participants of the experience sharing session at the Buguri Community Library in Mysuru
IFA: Your programme requires participants to communicate actively with you and with each other. How did you manage to create a safe space for children to share openly?
Pallavi Chander: The CAT programme uses art forms such as drama, movement and visual arts therapeutically to create a safe, confidential and client-led process in a non-confrontational and non-judgemental manner. This translates to a process that is more allowing and playful, establishing required boundaries that is built into the sessions along with the participants. Moreover, the programme is set-up as an open group where the participants come on a voluntary basis, so no one is forced to attend these sessions. We started the program with trial sessions where we informed the children about these terms and conditions in a way that was accessible to them, i.e., using the language of play and stories. Before we started, I also visited their parents in the community to inform them about the programme and shared a letter of consent in Kannada which the children had to get signed from their parents. During the programme, it did take a few sessions initially to build these boundaries into our sessions, to create an environment of trust and group rapport among the participants. The therapeutic sessions explored activities such as, using beginnings and closure rituals, improvisations and spontaneity, projective play with materials, stories and enactment, spontaneous play, image work, drawings, movement, and so on, which encouraged the participants to share their thoughts and emotions through the symbols and metaphors of the characters from a story or drawing. This way they shared whatever they felt like, when they felt ready and comfortable and it was at their own pace. Also, the participants came from the same community where they lived in close proximity to one another, many of them went to the same school and some were even related. In that sense, most of them knew each other and like most relationships, this had its pros and cons in the sessions. However, being together in the sessions also brought them closer and I feel they built strong bonds through the course of the programme.
From the creative arts therapy workshop at the Buguri Community Library in Banashankari
IFA: Tell us about the two books authored by children. How did you come up with this idea? What were the processes involved?
Pallavi Chander: The books are offerings from their experiences of the programme. Aye Reena, authored by the girls was put together towards the end of the programme. One of the recurrent themes that emerged from our sessions was the menstrual rites as all the participants in this group were adolescent girls and a couple of them got their first period during the course of the programme. So we explored this theme by creating a play using materials to enact their experience of the menstrual rites during one of the sessions. In successive sessions, we created scenes using Eric Carle’s style of collage-making from coloured textured paper. Eventually, towards the end of the programme, the girls collectively felt the need to share these scenes as a story with the younger girls and boys so they could understand and be aware of what girls go through during their menstrual cycle. And so, Reena was the character who holds the experiences of the girls and takes us through the journey of her first period as well as the many thoughts and emotions she traverses during these rites and additionally gives some suggestions on how to manage period pain and what kind of cloth or sanitary pads to use in a safe and healthy way. Similarly with the boys, the book – Oota Aayutha (‘have you eaten your meal’) was the result of participants documenting the recipes of the dishes they cooked. The participants illustrated the process of cooking each dish from procuring the ingredients, calculating the budgets, understanding the procedure, i.e., cutting, kneading or baking (in some recipes), cooking, and finally eating it. As we came to the end of the programme, the participants decided to put these illustrations together to share it with their friends and family and we turned those illustrations into a recipe book! These books were then given to a designer to digitise, lay out scenes and illustrations into a book format. Finally, with the help of IFA’s Project 560 grant, we managed to print a limited edition of these books. The books are displayed at the Buguri libraries and a few copies have been distributed to other community libraries. We do have a lot of requests for more copies and we hope to raise funds to print them in future.
Recreating scenes of the menstrual ritual on paper
IFA: Tell us about your interactions with parents. Were they open to their kids participating in the experience sharing events you organised, especially when it involved travelling to Mysuru?
Pallavi Chander: The parents were supportive and encouraged their children to attend the programme and some of them even attended the closure event which was held at the library in April, 2019. However, their turn out for the event was rather very low. It would have been good to have all their parents and family members attend the event. Most of them informed us that with both parents working for daily wages through the day, attending such an event would have meant, missing out on a day’s pay, even if it was for an hour and it might have been difficult for them to do so. This is not to say that the parents were not interested but acknowledge the fact that they were working under certain constraints. Also being so close to the elections, the team at the library was informed that many parents were busy attending different campaigns. Consequently, for the next phase, we are planning to have a few sessions with parents. That might help us understand how we can include them into such a process and also open out avenues for conversation about certain topics between parents and children. The trip to meet the Buguri community in Mysuru was something all the children were really looking forward to and they had informed their parents much in advance. So the parents knew about it and they seemed quite excited for their children. Also, the library has had several events where children have gone for day-trips – i.e., to Freedom Park for the annual summer camp, Cubbon Park for a Sunday session and Rangashankara to watch plays; so parents are quite familiar with the process. However, going to Mysuru was a full-day affair, so there was a lot of planning that the team had to put in place to make it happen and we made all efforts from our end to make sure the parents were kept informed at all times.
The two books authored by children on display
IFA: Many of your sessions were focused on breaking gender stereotypes. How did the children respond to it? Were there any challenges along the way?
Pallavi Chander: Honestly, there were several challenges but that is the work. Talking about gender stereotypes and gendered behaviours we consciously or unconsciously carry due to social training is not an easy area to thread. I had to keep in mind not to hound them with information as the children still had to go back to their environments (home and school) where these stereotypes are celebrated as the norm. Instead, I worked with what they brought into the session, encouraged them to ask questions and be curious about things that made them uncomfortable or bothered them. This way, they were involved in the process of breaking these notions down with me, they came up with questions and arrived at finding some answers. In some sessions, we used symbols and metaphors from stories with puppets and dramatic projections to address these issues. Sometimes we spoke about their experiences and acknowledged their challenges as young teenagers. Also when the group felt challenged and frustrated with certain issues, as a facilitator and therapist, I was stuck with my privileged upbringing and class politics. I could only wait in the wings till the children arrived at unpacking certain aspects of gendered behaviours and I could only go as far as the group wanted to go. One example was when the boys would casually but violently hit each other in the name of play or when they felt it was okay to tease girls and rag younger boys because they felt a sense of power over them. This was very difficult for me to confront but we managed to address it in a way where the boys were able to talk about it and think through what that idea of ‘power’ was and where it was coming from. On the contrary, there were times when I was pleasantly surprised at how my privilege and knowledge of popular discourse also restricted my view and cushioned me to bracket certain experiences as uncomfortable or challenging. Instead, I found myself questioning certain discourses which have expanded my understanding of certain issues through their experiences. An example is that of the menstrual rituals. Growing up, I completely detested the ritual and blocked it off as something unholy and prejudice. However, when the girls’ spoke of their experiences, my unbiased therapist hat forced me see beyond my experiences and I am grateful for that.
A page from Oota Aayutha? (‘Have you eaten your meal?’)
Pallavi Chander received a Project 560 grant from India Foundation of the Arts, made possible with support from Citi India.