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Children's Special 2023: Small hands that paint big feelings

Children have always splashed paint on paper and all around them but the new generation is taking it a step further and, guided by artists and therapists, expressing concepts and emotions worthy of being on gallery walls

Mumbai-based Nyah Bharwani, 14, has created a modern miniature, showcasing different perspectives of a cricket stadium. Photo: courtesy the artist
Mumbai-based Nyah Bharwani, 14, has created a modern miniature, showcasing different perspectives of a cricket stadium. Photo: courtesy the artist

Nine-year-old Reyna Shah is fascinated with the work of Rithika Merchant, a 37-year-old contemporary artist known for her oft-political works that interpret iconography from myths and legends in a contemporary context. Reyna, a class IV student in Mumbai, likes to see the recurring motif of the eye in Merchant’s artworks, which offer a perspective on times that have gone by and are yet to come.

“I like that Ms Merchant uses stories of the past to talk about the future,” says Reyna, of the artist who won the Vogue Hong Kong Women’s Art Prize in 2021 as part of the 17th edition of the Sovereign Asian Art Prize. Reyna first saw Merchant’s work at The Art Studio Mumbai, a studio helmed by art educator Purnima Sampat to provide art education programmes for all age groups and skill levels. For the past two years, Reyna has been part of its Art4Kids programme, which caters to the creative needs of children, from toddlers to middle-schoolers. “Ms Purnima also organised a video meeting with Ms Merchant, which was very exciting,” she adds.

Some of the older children have had similar sessions with contemporary artists like Dhruvi Acharya, and have attended walkthroughs at exhibitions of Akbar Padamsee and S.H. Raza works.

Reyna and her classmates at Art4Kids are gearing up for the annual exhibition, themed on “Only Blue Will Do: Not the Colour, Just The Connect”, to be held on 26 November at the Kamalnayan Bajaj Art Gallery at Nariman Point, Mumbai . Each age group has been given a different prompt. Reyna’s prompt is related to myths on water from cultures across the world, and she has chosen stories of Greek gods and goddesses. “I am taking inspiration from Ms Merchant’s paintings and interpreting certain elements of her work in mine. On canvas, I have created a circle and a diamond with coloured paper and then created figures of gods and goddesses from my perspective. The work also features some complex characters, such as plants coming out of a body,” she explains.

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While speaking to Reyna, I have to constantly remind myself that I am discussing the complexities of Merchant’s art with a nine-year-old, who not only has a unique perspective on the artist’s practice but is able to relate those works to her own life and art. While growing up, a lot of us millennials were not even aware of the contemporary artists of our times or modern masters of the past, let alone discussing their work. If each of us were to go back to our school art books, the first page would feature the very same image: a hut nestled between two hills, with the sun peeping out, a river flowing by, and two V-shaped birds added for effect. It’s amazing how thousands of children, in different parts of the country, were united in drawing the same image—year after year. Perhaps because art education at the time was also following the same rote-learning formula as other subjects. The focus was more on skill and a pleasing aesthetic than on unbridled creativity. Deviation from a set norm was frowned upon.

Today, children like Reyna are learning to be intuitive when it comes to creating art. Art education has pivoted from being merely skill-led to being concept-driven and emotion-led. Kids are pouring their heart and soul into their work, and are thinking of mediums and materiality that will help them achieve this. They are constantly asking questions such as: “How does this colour make me feel?” “Why did someone like, say, Somnath Hore paint fragile broken bodies? How will I paint a similar anxiety or grief?”

Art platforms in major cities, led by therapists and educators, have played a pivotal role in bringing about a change in the way children’s art is approached. Though there are numerous “art hobby classes” for children, there are now a few with proper, age-appropriate curricula. Take, for instance, the Art Room in Gurugram, Haryana, led by artist Shalina Vichitra, where children, aged 4-18, take inspiration from not just the art but also the lives of David Hockney, Frida Kahlo and S.H. Raza. For instance, the bindu becomes a symbol of focus and concentration. Museums and galleries too are showing an increasing interest in channelling the creative energies of children in collaborative works for specific exhibitions.

There is a realisation that there is no one methodology that fits all. So programmes are designed around the needs of different age groups, different abilities, ranging from the neurotypical to the neurodivergent. These platforms are not just nurturing creativity in kids but also celebrating their art by hosting regular exhibitions both online and offline.

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The curriculum of change

Much of this change is driven from personal observations and experiences. For instance, Sampat, 65, taught art and design for 30 years before starting her studio in 2008. While teaching at a school in Mumbai, she realised that art education was missing an age-appropriate curriculum. “A six-year-old is being asked to do something that even a 15-year-old won’t be able to do. This leads to frustration,” she says. Many a time, she is approached by enthusiastic parents who feel their child is extremely skilled and should be taught at a higher level. “They have to realise that art is not all about skill, but about concept and idea as well. And that takes time,” says Sampat.

Art helps children unwind after a frantic day of school and extra classes. Photo: courtesy The Art Studio Mumbai
Art helps children unwind after a frantic day of school and extra classes. Photo: courtesy The Art Studio Mumbai

At her studio, you will find toddlers simply enjoying the material, the kinetic movement, and feeling a sense of achievement if they get some mark on paper. Slowly, as they grow a little older and become comfortable with some form of expression, Sampat shows them a face or a portrait. “They can’t be expected to draw the whole thing. So, we give them cut-outs of nose, eyes, ears and ask them to complete a portrait. This leads to development of small motor skills as well,” she says.

The curriculum contains an element of art history as well, with a focus on Indian artists and some international masters, in a fun way. Educators such as Sampat try to teach things that the net can’t. “These days, my kindergarten group is learning about Picasso and the blue phase of his practice. But if you simply tell them what Picasso, Rembrandt or M.F. Husain did, they won’t connect with that until it resonates with their lives,” she says.

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So, the information about the artist is conveyed in a story format. Then children are asked to close their eyes and think of any significant moment from the past week. “Someone say, ‘birthday party’. So, we ask them, what colour is that party in your mind. They say, pink or yellow, and then paint a scene from the party in that colour. So, we are not copying Picasso or picking up the colour blue, but are learning to associate feelings with colour,” she says.

Some of the older children, who are doing pop art with blue characters from movies for the 26 November exhibition, such as Sonic The Hedgehog or Elsa from Frozen, are also seeking connections within their own lives. “Sonic Hedgehog is known for speed. So, I have drawn a scene where I was late for school and rode on the back of Sonic,” says one child.

Such a curriculum is also aided by books and material specifically designed for children. Take, for instance, the Exploration book series—which delves into the lives, particularly the childhood, of eminent artists—by Art1st. This organisation has been engaging at the level of curriculum and advocacy since 2009 to bring about a change in the way art is taught and perceived. Through its publications section, it introduces children to the world of Indian artists. Its 2021 title, Somnath Hore: Wounds, takes children through the life of this sculptor-printmaker, who was deeply influenced by the suffering that ensued after the Bengal famine of 1943 and the peasant-led Tebhaga movement of 1946-47.

“Parents and teachers might wonder about the impression that a body of work—seemingly dark and populated by fragile, broken bodies—would make on the minds of seven-year-olds. Children, however, have been able to connect with the empathy that Hore imbued his work with. “During the pandemic, when kids have been grappling with anxiety, grief and other inexplicable feelings, Somnath Hore: Wounds talks to them about difficult emotions and ways to express them,” I wrote in Lounge in my 2021 review of the book, put together by storyteller Likla Lall, illustrator-artist Kripa Bhatia and designer Shambhavi Thakur.

Another title from the Exploration series, Abanindranath’s House Of Stories, written by Lall and illustrated by Eva Sanchez Gomez, in 2022, tries to make the life of this revolutionary Indian painter, and the Bengal School, more relatable to children through stories of his childhood, projects and activities.

Young learners at The Art Studio Mumbai, helmed by art educator Purnima Sampat, are gearing up for the annual exhibition, themed on ‘Only Blue Will Do’, to be held in Mumbai
Young learners at The Art Studio Mumbai, helmed by art educator Purnima Sampat, are gearing up for the annual exhibition, themed on ‘Only Blue Will Do’, to be held in Mumbai

Being exposed to such books and a “thinking art curriculum” has children consciously mulling over perspective and angles. Mumbai-based Nyah Bharwani, 14, likes learning about different mediums in Sampat’s classes. Over time, she has found comfort in paint and ink on paper. An avid sportsperson, she has chosen cricket as a theme for her artwork for the exhibition. “For my age-group, the prompt was ‘blue-blooded’. We had to create modern miniatures. I am very passionate about cricket, so I chose to paint a cricket stadium, showing different perspectives of the same area,” she says.

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Bringing art into the school classroom

Art need not be studied in isolation, it can be integrated into the school curriculum to enhance an understanding of math, geometry, civic issues, climate change, etc. Or it can simply help in the socio-emotional development and observational learning of a child.

Habiba Begum, a Chennai-based photographer and art educator, has seen this happen. Until recently, she was part of CPB Prism, a community-based and grass-roots educational wing of the Chennai Photo Biennale Foundation, which focuses on lens-based arts education. “We work with students, aged eight and above, in a classroom setting in both government and private schools in Chennai. We have seen a behavioural change in students who are not very participative in other classes. The minute they encounter an approach which is not constrained by rules and is fun, they start participating,” she says.

CPB Prism also conducts regular school-level exhibitions of students’ works. And they feel empowered when they receive appreciation for something they created all by themselves. “At one such exhibition, we received feedback from a computer science teacher. When she saw a student’s photos, she admitted to having reprimanded the child earlier for not studying a certain way. But after seeing her work, she realised that there might be other skills that the child might be good at, which she was not paying heed to. “Children have a different way of viewing things, which becomes restricted as we enter adulthood,” says Begum.

The CPB Prism team recently visited a “model school” in Nungambakkam, a corporation school for students in class XII who excel in academics and are brought to this model school to prepare for competitive exams. “The stress there was palpable. We used photography as a means to unwind. Since we were not allowed to go out of the campus, students had to take photos in the school itself. You will be surprised to see all that they have captured—beetles in the sand, small insects, little heartwarming details, things that go unnoticed by adults,” she adds.

A student, who was part of she was part of CPB Prism, a community-based and grass-roots educational wing of the Chennai Photo Biennale Foundation
A student, who was part of she was part of CPB Prism, a community-based and grass-roots educational wing of the Chennai Photo Biennale Foundation

Art is also being integrated in the school curriculum for children with learning and physical disabilities. Siddhant Shah, a disability access consultant who is trying to bridge the gap between cultural heritage and disability through his organisation, Access for All, is working on such art-based learning methods. “If a child looks at a Raza work, he or she might not be able to understand the depth of it. But the painting becomes an excellent way of exploring geometry,” he says. During one art outreach programme with a Mumbai school for neurodivergent children, he picked up the Warli art form to see how it could be used differently. “We realised that you could learn verbs through it as so many different actions were taking place in one painting. Soon, we started getting calls from schools for neurotypical students as well with requests. So, the material became inclusive and universal in a true sense,” says Shah, who has worked with the India Art Fair, Serendipity Arts Festival and the gallery DAG to create tactile aids to make art accessible to the differently-abled.

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There is one conversation Shah will never forget. He was discussing Gond art at a special needs school in Delhi in peak winter when one student remarked that the animals looked like they were wearing jumpers their mothers had knitted, referring to the delicately patterned detailing particular to the art form. “The child said, ‘aisa design wala sweater mere paas bhi hai (I have a sweater in a similar design),’” reminisces Shah. “Art gives children a space to express such observations. If this doesn’t show the importance of art in kids’ lives, then what will!”

Play gets serious at museums

In recent years, museums such as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai or the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Noida (Uttar Pradesh) and Delhi, have consciously been designing programmes for youngsters. There are a host of workshops, a showcase of children’s works, and regular interactions with artists on offer. “The museum programming for kids at KNMA initially started with a skill-based approach. However, once we captured the interest of school kids, we changed our approach to be more engaging, interactive and fun. This transformation is vividly exemplified in recent exhibitions like Pop South Asia and Very Small Feelings, which ended on 10 October this year,” says Somya Sahni, manager, art education, KNMA.

Very Small Feelings (held in Saket, Delhi)—the fourth in the Young Artists Of Our Times series in collaboration with the Samdani Art Foundation, a private art foundation founded in 2011 in Dhaka—was co-curated by Akansha Rastogi and Diana Campbell with Ruxmini Choudhury, Avik Debdas and Swati Kumari. It prompted artists to approach childhood as a place that one can enter and exit at will. They imagined environments and spaces that brought alive play and storytelling. It was interesting to see collaborations between artists and schoolchildren being showcased. Take, for instance, Playroom, conceptualised by the artist-educator Nidhi Khurana, who based this work on artist Devi Prasad’s book, Art: The Basis Of Education—a must-read about the role of art in life and human behaviour. “Playroom presents itself as a unique structure that can be experienced from front to back, much like a book, featuring interactive framed artworks created in collaboration with students from Udavi School in Edayanchavadi, a village in Auroville, Tamil Nadu,” states the exhibition note.

As part of a recent showcase, ‘Very Small Feelings’, at the KNMA, Delhi, children created drawings that could be seen only when exposed to light, and stop-motion animation
As part of a recent showcase, ‘Very Small Feelings’, at the KNMA, Delhi, children created drawings that could be seen only when exposed to light, and stop-motion animation

In another corner, one could see interactive masks and puppets created by children from non-governmental organisations that offer safe spaces, such as Karm Marg, Udayan Care, Salaam Baalak Trust, Rainbow Homes and Tara Homes, as part of the project Humaari Duniya, created during the Artreach-KNMA Teaching Fellowships between 2020-23. The showcase included drawings that could be seen only when exposed to light, and stop-motion animation.

As part of the outreach programme for the show, KNMA created sessions that would allow for hands-on engagement with the works. Take, for instance, Belly Of The Strange III, a womb-like space envisaged by artists Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty, meant for reading, imagining and daydreaming. During a visit to the exhibition, I noticed several schoolchildren—middle and senior school students—stopping at the space. It was fascinating to watch them respond to the installation. “It feels like I am sitting inside a ship,” said one. Another child remarked that the orange colour in the interiors made her feel warm and happy. “It feels like a place where I can hold secret conversations with my friends,” giggled a young girl.

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“We now have quite a few children-led engagements that we repeat regularly, such as art competitions, artist-led series, and Craftopia, our summer engagement,” says Sahni.

Art platform for kids by kids

Instead of waiting for adults to create platforms for their art, children too are taking matters into their own hands. Krish Nawal and Manya Roongta, two Gurugram, Haryana-based teenagers, started the Children’s Art Museum of India (Cami) as a free online art platform for children’s art, in January 2022. “We saw this as a space where kids from all over the world could feel inspired by each other,” says Krish, a 13-year-old student of The Shri Ram School, Gurugram, who describes himself as an obsessive gaming enthusiast, an avid reader, a painter and a traveller.

Manya, 16, and he were prompted by their own experience of limited access to platforms to showcase their art. It started as a neighbourhood project during the pandemic, when the two would ask friends to upload their artworks. “We didn’t realise it would get this big. Today, Cami, which is entirely bootstrapped, gets entries from kids, aged 3 and above, from 170 cities. Kids can give free rein to their imagination as long as the content is age-appropriate and not criminal or abusive in nature in any way,” says Krish.

A vibrant work created by Myra (age group 5) from Thane, Maharashtra, displayed by the Children's Art Museum of India
A vibrant work created by Myra (age group 5) from Thane, Maharashtra, displayed by the Children's Art Museum of India

All that children have to do is sign up with basic details and start uploading their art. The two founders go through the works to see if the content is appropriate and then display them in the live gallery. They put up monthly art challenges on the website, organise online art contests and even share learning resources. “Being online helps us transcend physical boundaries. One of the biggest visions of Cami is to encourage global citizenship in children,” says Krish.

‘Reading’ paintings

M.H, a 12-year-old in Delhi who has Down Syndrome, is splashing colour on paper with vehemence in her room. Her mother, Renu, a homemaker, is quietly watching this display of emotion. “When she is upset, she colours with abandon. But in calmer moments, she has a more structured approach. Her paintings are a key to her mind,” she says. Renu didn’t know just how significant art was to understanding her daughter’s feelings until she started following Shalini Gupta’s The Art Sanctuary, a charitable trust that showcases artistic talent in young adults with intellectual disabilities, on Instagram.

Gupta started the platform in 2019 to showcase the work of young adults like her daughter, Gayatri, who has Down Syndrome and is an avid photographer. “There was a dearth of platforms for art by neurodiverse artists. Apart from annual school exhibitions and art melas, where else could her work find space? There was no celebration of her art,” says Gupta. This led her to speak to other parents, and she realised that people were hesitant about encouraging art in children because there was no appreciation for it. The Art Sanctuary started, then, with the goal of hosting exhibitions—both online and offline—of neurodiverse young adults. After the first exhibition, Gupta realised that the participating artists had huge emotional blocks, perhaps due to negative feedback from school or lack of social integration.

“You can’t teach them how to hold a brush or mix colours. They paint with abandon. But a lot of them can’t articulate why and what they are painting. For instance, I would ask my daughter why she used a particular colour and Gayatri would simply reply, ‘Just like that,’” says Gupta. “So, we started online workshops with the sole purpose of removing emotional blocks. That would help them understand what they were doing and also express it better.”

Today, two young girls, who have done a postgraduate diploma in expressive arts therapy from St Xavier’s, Mumbai, conduct online sessions in the morning on weekends with a group of neurodiverse young adults from across the country. The participants are encouraged to express themselves through visual arts, theatre, music and dialogue writing.

In other sessions, professional storytellers prompt the participants to create an artwork around a story and share why they drew what they did. “I was watching one of the online sessions, during which a story about a monkey was shared. But my daughter drew a rose. When I asked her why, she said: ‘The name of the monkey was Rose. While listening to the story, I kept thinking of the flower,’” shares Gupta.

The past four years have seen huge emotional growth not just for Gayatri, now 22, but for others as well. Though Gupta works with young people aged 16 and above, the platform is accessible to younger children as well. “We are constantly approached by mothers on how to use art with their children. They share artworks by kids as young as five or six with us, which we showcase on our social media. Moreover, we regularly announce prompts, which are open to kids of all ages. These works are presented online. Once the kids reach the age of 16, their works are shown in physical exhibitions held in a space like Stir World in Chhatarpur, Delhi,” she adds.

Ultimately, it’s all about feelings

It’s never just about colour, or a line, or a shape—art is all about expressing how you feel. And if nothing else, it helps children unwind after a frantic day of school and extra classes. “To me, art is very relaxing. I spend most of the day, after school, playing sports. In whatever little free time I get, I draw with ink on paper,” says Nyah. Reyna concurs. She is extremely aware about what she is creating. “I mostly draw my feelings, and doodling is my favourite activity. I occasionally paint. I like to pen down my thoughts in the form of art. Art is like my best friend, always there for me,” she says.

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Inspiration for curious minds

Globally, there has been a rising interest in showcasing art for children. At the Gallery Children’s Biennale 2023, at Singapore’s National Gallery, earlier this year, a big screen mounted on a wall, like a canvas, had a small podium in front and an instruction to “Clap”. Children stood on the podium and clapped, the intensity of their movement resulting in brush strokes on the screen. The children yelled with glee, and adults queued up for their turn. This installation was conceptualised by Singapore-based artist Yeo Shih Yun for the collection My INK-credible Adventure. With such projects, the biennale aims to engage curious minds through play.

Its fourth edition started in May and will continue until March 2024. The theme, Let’s Make A Better Place, is centred on four core values: Imagine, Respect, Collaborate and Care. On display are 10 works by Asian artists like Arahmaiani from Indonesia, Chiang Yu Xiang from Singapore and Kumi Yamashita, who shuttles between Japan and the US. Norway’s International Museum of Children’s Art has created a space, The Magic Forest, with walls filled with drawings of trees and nature. Children are encouraged to take inspiration from these and create their own nature-inspired sketches. Apart from the works on display, they have interactive workshops spanning music, storytelling and craft. —Jahnabee Borah

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