Art therapy gives undertrials, rescued women a new lease of life

Khula Aasman uses music, drama and the visual arts to bring about social change

Published - March 06, 2017 12:46 am IST - Mumbai

A sudden stillness fills the room as a group of about 25 women from the Government Special Home for Girls, Deonar, are asked to sit in a semi-circle. Each one is given a musical instrument: a drum, a shaker, a djembe, a tambourine and so on. There are murmurs as the women in the age group of 20 to 40 years examine their instruments and haltingly try to play them. A young man enters the room with a djembe and greets them with a smile. He shows them how to use it. The group starts with a simple rhythm and gradually, the pace picks up. The happiness is infectious.

The music session continues for 10 minutes but the women want more. After another 10 minutes of rhythmic beats, the instructor motions them to stop and relax. They are asked to follow a few simple hand exercises, and attend a meditation session.

“These women have no interaction with the world outside,” says Sarita Ganesh, the founder of Khula Aasman, a non-profit that uses Expressive Art Therapy (music, drama and the visual arts) to bring about social change among various groups like undertrials, women rescued from trafficking and children living in observation homes.

“Art for social change is a relatively unexplored idea that has huge potential for nurturing mental health, well being and to release stress and pent-up feelings,” says Ms. Ganesh.

“The art and crafts give them an opportunity to work with their hands, showcase their talents, learn a skill and express their feelings in non-verbal ways. There is a lot of hidden talent in the inmates which if, given an opportunity, can be channelised towards alternate occupations as well as enhance their self-esteem,” she says.

Khula Aasman was started as a project in Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 2009 and registered as an NGO in 2013. “The name was given with the intention of being able to experiment in diverse areas of interest. The name also suggests that for a human being, there are no boundaries for exploration.”

With six experienced therapists, Khula Aasman has so far worked with the prisoners of Kalyan and Thane jail; observation homes in Bhiwandi; David Sassoon Industrial School, Matunga; Jawaharlal Nehru Udyog Kendra; Dongri Children’s Home and with rescued women at Shanti Sadan Gruh, Ulhasnagar, Navjeevan, Deonar and the Government Special Home for Girls, Deonar.

Improving mindfulness

The workshops usually begin with warm-up activities. “Before starting a session, it is important to catch the attention of the participants and hence all workshops begin with a meditation session,” says Ms. Ganesh. The session is specifically designed to improve mindfulness and bring their attention to the present moment from distracting thoughts and emotions, adds P. Stalin, a trainer.

Meditation is followed by non-competitive games, which help body movements and improve group interaction. “These games are basically designed to be part of the warm-up ritual,” says Snehal Gaikwad, a trainer who has been associated with Khula Aasman for three years. This is usually followed by the visual arts, where the inmates are given different colours (crayons, oil pastels, and sketch pens) and are asked to paint whatever comes to mind. “Visual art is a powerful tool in enhancing creative and emotional expression besides increasing the level of engagement and sustained attention during sessions,” says Ms. Ganesh.

The visual arts session with women in Aadharwadi prison, Kalyan, broke many barriers, says Ms. Ganesh. “Initially, very few women came forward. As we started developing a rapport, many women started filling their drawing books with doodles. We then started giving them homework.” The prisoners were enouraged to begin mural painting on the entrance wall and inside the home. Recently, some of their paintings were exhibited in a mall in Navi Mumbai, which elicited a good response.

Clay sculpting is another art-based therapy Khula Aasman uses frequently. “Feeling how clay can be moulded, melded and rearranged can function akin to a stress ball: individuals can take their feelings out on a medium like clay during the process of creating a work of art” says Mr. Stalin.

Children, especially, enjoy making different items with clay which relate to their present lives. “One participant made a phone and gave it to another saying, “Here is the phone, please call your mom,” he says.

Khula Aasman also uses dance as therapy. “This is a form of authentic communication, and as such it is an especially effective medium for therapy. Besides it also adds an extra element of fun and joy,” says Ms. Gaikwad, who is a dance movement therapy practitioner.

Every activity is usually followed by reflection and creative discussion with an aim to gain insight, enhance self-expression and awareness. During these sessions, the inmates relate the activities with their lives. Some even share events in their lives. The choice of activities varies from place to place, and storytelling, collage and drama sessions are also incorporated.

Life-changing stories

The volunteers have life-changing stories to share. Mr. Stalin recalls how, in one observation home, a young boy — considered a rebel — nurtured deep hatred for his family as well as society. He remained aloof and did not wish to do anything with either his life or the session. With persuasion, he gradually started attending sessions and slowly started sharing his feelings. After five sessions, there was a noticeable change and he began to interact with others as well. He came up with collage art, which was displayed at the Republic Day exhibition at the home. “The activities greatly boosted his confidence and today he is one of the most disciplined inmates of the home,” says Mr. Stalin.

Art has immense potential, but the State and organisations need to see this as a priority area of intervention, says Ms. Ganesh. “Most of the inmates perceive these homes as prison with a better name, that’s all. That’s why there are so many attempts to run away in spite of threats. The spaces Khula Aasman is trying to create for the inmates help them accept their life’s journey and move forward with more positive energy.”

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