Last Saturday morning, at 8 am, I was woken up by a WhatsApp video call from my younger sister. Bleary-eyed, I picked up the call to look into the beady eyes of her 3-year-old.
‘Mashimoni!’ Little curly-tops bounced. ‘I make a tree!’ Up came the painting of a tree, its green finger-printed leaves swaying in the breeze and a big, stripy trunk. ‘I make it with my fingers, and look! It’s dancing in the storm!’ The green fingers were displayed (to alarmed cries from my sister: ‘Neeli! Don’t put your fingers on the phone!’), and then she proceeded to demonstrate just how the tree was dancing. My sister and I laughed at her enthusiasm and blew her kisses for her effort, leading to some more joyful dancing.
What makes this story remarkable and worth sharing with you? The fact is, Neeli has not taken well to the lockdown at all. At the grand age of 3 years and 6 months, she was all primed to join the ‘big school’ this April. She had been talking about it for months, preparing for it with her new bag, and checking out the school spaces with her parents, sharing stories of what life in the big school would be about.
But then came March 24 and Neeli - as friendly and outdoorsy a child as can be - was locked up in her own house. For the first few days, she could go to the park and the skating rink, both of which she loves, but soon, those outings too came to a standstill as Noida housing societies started clamping social distancing norms.
Stuck at home with her parents and 4-month-old brother, Neeli’s temper soon began to fray. She began throwing tantrums, refusing food, and, what was particularly frightening for her parents, began to show considerably less energy in performing her daily routine. She was unwilling to play cricket, or kick a ball around, or even put on her favourite skates; instead, she preferred to lie around sucking her thumb, a habit she had given up over a year ago.
Worried, her mother tried various things to get her to respond. She designed games and activities to varying degrees of success, until she invited her daughter to step into the world of role play. Immediately, little Neeli’s attitude underwent a sea change. They would watch a movie, enact scenes from it, sing its songs and create stick puppets out of their favourite characters, who would then go on their own, unscripted adventures.
Neeli was happy, bouncing about again, and willing to expand her horizons by finding connections between her artistic exploits and the world outside. The fascination with the tree in a storm, for instance, came from watching the storm scene in Beauty and the Beast, and being able to relate the scene with the view outside her window during a dust storm a few days ago. With Art, she was able to connect her imagination with the world again, and find ways to express herself even under duress.
But it isn’t just Neeli or children of her age who respond thus to art. Works of art, wrought of nature or the human hand, evoke awe, wonder and sheer joy — emotions we rarely access in our day to day lives. And, at the root of it, all art imitates nature, though much of it aims to subvert or go beyond it. We try to replicate the colours of a gorgeous sunset, or the trilling of a nightingale, or the rhythms of the movements of animals and even trees. Research shows that artistic ability in humans is a key marker in separating human intellect from other animals.
This has led to the Arts being included in educational curricula as an important tool for learning. In many ways, this makes sense. Writing, an important milestone in human progress, developed from art. The earliest forms of writing we know of are pictorial, and seek to represent events, beliefs and ideas. Education in the earliest age of human evolution must have involved pictorial depiction; who knows, perhaps cave art was the earliest attempt to educate children of the tribe on the dangers that await and the easiest ways to overcome them!
Hunters in many parts of the world continue to imitate animal sounds in an effort to blend in with the environment and warn their peers of danger. The art of mimicry, in fact, has been important in teaching human beings how to evolve by way of acquiring various skills demonstrated by different animals and by other members of our own species.We continue to do this even now, when we style our hair to try and look like someone we consider more attractive than us, or adopt the habits of ‘highly effective people’! Art, then, as often now, served a highly practical purpose.
So it is fairly safe to conclude that art will keep children engaged, improve their motor skills, build their skills of expression through visual arts, music, dance and theatre. But is that all that is worthwhile in an Arts education?
Let’s return to Neeli. What was it about the art’s approach that worked for her? The bare fact is art affects us emotionally. Viewing, listening or participating in art triggers parts of us that our everyday working lives rarely can. The sense of wonder, of joy, of deep sorrow that art can invoke is hardly ever given its due. How many times have you seen something of rare beauty, or heard a beautiful song, watched dancers move in graceful harmony, or a moment of truth unfold in a play, and felt moved to tears? The tears may be teased out of us by Art, but they are in fact built up within us, repositories of our anxieties, fears and failures. In releasing them, we find peace and often, a sense of acceptance towards our selves. Art connects us with our deepest selves and helps bring harmony to our lives.
Art also provokes us to think and to act and ‘know’ things in a way that language cannot. Ever have a feeling that you just cannot put in words? Put it into a work of Art, and voilà! Art also, as in Neeli’s case, triggers the imagination. Adults, much like children, live in their imaginations, and due to the lack of inspiration, our lives may often feel dull and without purpose. To paraphrase the words of Cesar A Cruz, good art comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. At the very least, it pushes us to see and think of things differently.
Most importantly, art is timeless, yet it exists in the moment. When we get down to enjoy or create a piece of art: to listen to music, or to sing, to dance with abandon, to slip into the shoes of Othello or Savitribai Phule as we watch performance or perform the roles ourselves, we shed our everyday skins and find release in that moment. At that time, we are momentarily someone else, somewhere else, and there is no anxiety, no fear, no worry for the selves we have left behind. There is only wonder and the joy of discovery.
Art brings us balance, gives us hope and teaches us to appreciate the beauty that exists in our everyday lives. Even memories of engaging with art can bring a smile to our faces. Through deep engagement in the moment, Art helps us to reflect upon and accept ourselves and our present situations, to use our own wisdom to reveal, and then heal, ourselves.
(The author is Head of Arts Programme at Shiv Nadar School, Noida. Views expressed are personal)