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Seeking calm and self-expression through art therapy

  • Besides being an avenue to express ourselves non-verbally, the process of creating art provides us with a sense of control

Creating objects out of clay is meditative and has been found to improve mood, decision-making and motivation
Creating objects out of clay is meditative and has been found to improve mood, decision-making and motivation (Unsplash/Shraga Kopstein)

Have you ever pulled clay, squeezed it into a cup or pinched it into a pot? If you haven’t, then you are missing the most beautiful thing to experience,” says Sanjay Talwar, 51, a teacher of ceramics at Kalasthali art and craft, a fine art school in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj. A pottery teacher for almost a decade, Talwar believes in the healing potency of pottery. “Stress is part of our life. I see kids as young as seven and eight feeling anxious and stressed. While we talk about physical pain quite openly, we don’t do the same when it comes to mental health,” says Talwars, who believes that pottery involves the five tatwas (elements): earth, fire, water, air, and sky, and when individuals practice pottery, they are finding balance in life.

When Aparna Choudhrie was introduced to pottery, she was a corporate employee. Little did she know that one day, she would be opening her own pottery space and become an art therapist. “I started The Clay Company in 2012. I had worked for more than 15 years with multinational companies including GenPact and Infosys. The hectic schedule made me anxious and stressed. I found pottery immensely therapeutic and meditative,” says Choudhrie. She believes that when you create something with your own hands, it feels rewarding and peaceful. “Clay is a natural component of the universe and engaging in making art with clay rejuvenates you,” she adds.

Art therapy is a multidimensional approach to addressing the physical, mental and emotional well-being of an individual. While Choudhrie and Talwar aren’t therapists, they understand the dilemma that people face in prioritising their mental health. They are also aware that going to a therapist is not an easy choice for a lot of people in India.

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“Mental illness starts with something as basic as the inability of an individual to express themselves. And it can present in signs we tend to overlook such as why a person is anxious before a meeting, is hesitant to make eye contact during a conversation or has suddenly started avoiding physical meetings. But the word therapy in itself carries a lot of discomfort and people tend to avoid seeking help. So, as an art therapist, I aim to do two things: make art accessible to all while also get people to express their emotions,” says Talwar.

Hong Kong-based art psychotherapist Joshua K.M. Nan conducted a study in 2016 to see the impact of Clay Art Therapy (CAT). The study was conducted alongside Rainbow T. H. Ho, a fellow professor at the University of Hong Kong. Their findings, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in April 2017 suggested that creating objects out of clay can help adults with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) to improve mood, decision-making, and motivation.

Art therapy is a versatile and flexible approach that can be adapted to various populations and settings. It can be used in individual therapy, group settings, and even in community-based programs. Through its unique combination of creativity, self-expression, and therapeutic support, art therapy can be a powerful tool in helping individuals cope with stress, trauma, and various mental health challenges, fostering personal growth, healing, and emotional well-being.

“As a therapist, I use many modalities and art therapy is one among them, but it surprises me at times how people express themselves better through art than talking. Various art modalities, such as painting, drawing, sculpture, and collage making, are used to promote healing, self-expression and personal growth,” shares Gurugram-based mental health therapist Arouba Kabir. According to Kabir, art therapy’s benefits are multifold. “Besides providing us with an avenue to express ourselves non-verbally, the process of creating art provides us with a sense of control and agency over our creative process. This can be especially empowering for individuals who may feel overwhelmed or powerless in other aspects of their lives,” Kabir says.

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Taking an honest look at ourselves requires courage, believes Gunjan Adya, artist and a UNESCO-CID & Fortis certified Expressive Arts & Movement Therapist. “By using different modalities like music, movement, writing, and of course, visual art, I try to help people better their self-expression,” she explains. Adya runs an initiative called Tula Journey where she offers a safe space for people to unite and reflect on their choices and observe if they align with their life purpose. “I have observed that the art people create in my workshops allows them to tune into their mind, body and soul. Through the course of the 2-hour workshop, people dive deep into their subconscious, sifting through memories and the emotions attached to them that are tucked away in the nooks and crannies of their mind and heart,” says Adya.

Art therapy is quite effective in alleviating PTSD, childhood traumas, chronic illnesses and disabilities and during difficult transitions in life. While creating art is effective, Dr. Charan Teja Koganti, Consultant Psychiatrist, KIMS Hospital says that merely watching art can be calming too. “Research has shown that if you don’t want to be involved in making art, watching someone make art or visiting an art exhibition and watching the artworks on display can alleviate anxiety and calm your brain. It can activate the parts of your brain that process emotions. It also helps patients regain their sense of freedom and control especially when everything in life feels like it’s going out of control,” says Dr Koganti.

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