Art camp for rural children helps participants rediscover themselves

“Last night, I danced my heart out,” gushes nine-year-old Raghu, “I danced away all my fears and worries.” This is the first time he has stepped out of Sivanandapuram, a remote village in Virudhunagar district.

A month ago when the Centre for Education Development Action and Research (CEDAR) came scouting for children for its biannual art camp, Raghu and few of his friends took up weekend jobs at the local match box factory to be able to enrol themselves for the camp. For the first time CEDAR imposed a registration fee of Rs.100 per child to make them realise the value of learning. Raghu and many other’s parents refused to pay the fee even though the children were interested in attending the art camp.

“I filled two plates containing 75 boxes every evening and earned 10 rupees,” smiles Jenifer, a class VI student from Meenakshipuram, another nondescript hamlet. She too earned and saved every penny to participate in the two day residential camp.

Nearly 50 children were handpicked from across 10 villages in the match box belt for an insightful art training. Over 100 villages in the backward Sattur and Kovilpatti block of the Virudhunagar and Tuticorin districts fall in the match box belt, notorious for child labour and child marriage. What was once a flourishing cotton belt became the ground of acute poverty and labour exploitation due to consecutive droughts and the callous attitude of successive governments. “In the past two decades, development has evaded these villages. Children even now walk 10 kms everyday to their schools,” says Michael, a field worker who helps rehabilitate school-drop-outs back into mainstream education.

“These children need extra exposure like co-curricular activities other than regular pedagogy,” says Mariamma, a volunteer who runs children resource centres in 12 villages around Kovilpatti. “Most of them do not even know what is a happy childhood.”

The art camp engaged the children in theatre, dance, painting, yoga, rapping, clay modelling and paraiyattam. “At home,” says 10 years old Suguna from Saalnayakanpatti, “I never get time to play or interact with friends.” She takes care of household chores when her parents are away at work in the match factory. “I enjoyed the painting sessions here. I felt light and happy,” she says.

For most participants, the programme helped them to rediscover themselves, their likes, wants and ambitions in life.

“I want to become anything but a worker in the match factory,” asserts Moses, a class VII student, who played Tenali Raman at the theatre workshop. “I didn’t even know the story of Tenali Raman until now. The camp made me realise how much I have missed out. I will catch up now,” he smiles.

“Learning through art is simple and fun,” says, Arumugam, the paraiyattam artist from Alanganallur. It also makes teaching science concepts easy and explains how the beats and steps of the parai instrument is a form of permutation and combination. “When I explain to the children why the parai should be heated before being played, they understand how an object contracts and expands in heat. That’s thermodynamics,” he says. “Children also learn team work and interpersonal skills through such art activities. Even a folk art like Parai can be pursued as a profession. One should only know to package it attractively.”

Dr. T. Chinnaraj joseph, the Managing Trustee of CEDAR, feels that some form of artistic calibre distinguishes a person from the others.

“As an academician, I believe art abilities provide individuality,” he says, “and such camps help to communicate and move around with others.” “The best part here,” he adds, “is we transcend differences like caste and religion and children get to make noise, jump and hop, run and play with no inhibitions.”

Having conducted more than two dozen camps in the past 12 years, Chinnaraj now aims to take it to the next level of providing niche exposure to the children.

He plans to invite top notch people from various fields to interact with the young participants. “This way the children will overcome the awe factor and feel confident.”

The camp helped many to come out of the cocoons of social restrictions and economic constraints. Roja who is now a village volunteer of the NGO at Kodangipatti belongs to an extremely conservative tribal clan.

Earlier she wasn’t allowed to step out of her house. Today she speaks about child rights and girl child protection. “I go around talking about girl child education and women empowerment to the village heads.” Her efforts have paid off. “Few families,” she says, “have started sending their girls to school.” “I hope to do more,” adds Roja.