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Art for social change

When we think of development programs we are reminded of economic schemes, shifts in policy, or donations, but rarely of art as a medium for powerful social change. This is a medium I had a unique opportunity to learn about and explore in a village called Jhiri, located in southwestern Rajasthan.

Like many villages in India, Jhiri has a rich tradition of performing arts. From public nautanki performances to bhajans sung in angans, art has been passed down through the generations. And also like many Indian villages, the residents of Jhiri face issues in access to opportunities, needs, and choices I had taken for granted like a girl's right to education or the right to question superstitions. Hum Kisan Sanghatan, a farmer's collective based in Jhiri, has been active in the area for about twenty years, bringing a change in the community. One of their initiatives was youth cultural team that would put together plays and songs about different social issues and perform them for the villagers. My project was meant to revive the theater group and work with children to put on performances in village and foster a sense of activism.
..I discovered...that the power of art extends beyond the effect on others...it also has a profound effect on...individuals' ability to realize their own potential...

When I first arrived in Jhiri, I began as an instructor in school, teaching various subjects and committing about an hour a day to teaching music. As my understanding, awareness, and confidence evolved I realized that I wanted to work with all grades, teaching music and drama exclusively. We began practices by sitting in a circle, to show that we all valued each other's opinions and create a physical space of inclusion. In the beginning I was at a loss of what to teach, so we talked. I would ask the children about the things they saw in their village, things that they saw as unjust or things they wanted to change. One thing that came up frequently was the high drop our rate of female students, and the large number of older girls who had been pulled out of school to care for younger siblings or attend to household chores. During our discussions story lines emerged and developed into dialogues, characters, and scenes. Together we drafted a story about two brother who persuade their parents to let their sisters study, and the sisters go on to accomplish great things and bring honor to their respective families.

One of the first challenges to this project was the apprehension of female students. In their minds, and in the minds of their community, the stage and public sphere was a place for men. Women who performed were looked down upon. In the beginning many girls told me they could not perform on stage. They felt that they could not perform with boys for fear of risking their reputations. The were a few girls however who could see the value of showing this play to their parents, and fought to rally their friends. We made minor adjustments like having “mothers” and “fathers” played by two boys or two girls, but eventually the children got so lost in their play that it didn't matter anymore what people might say.

By the end of the year many children, boys and girls both, were volunteering for the next performance. They were having discussions without me about what issue they wanted to show next. The year wasn't without ups and downs, but in the end I learned a serious lesson about the profound impact of art on a child's life. Something that many of us who grow up in privilege take for granted is confidence. We learn to take pride in our unique talents, and we believe that we can accomplish our dreams. This is something that is missing from the children of Jhiri, but something I found when they were on stage. Through art they learned to push their boundaries and take pride in creativity. Suddenly the child who was always scolded for talking out in class had a place for his witty jokes. The girl who grew up believing that all she would ever be was married found a place in the spotlight to freely express her opinions and do something about the status of girls in her community.

When I thought of development projects, my mind immediately went to economics schemes, or shifts in political policy. I hadn't considered this medium, art, as a powerful tool for bringing about social impact. But I discovered this year that the power of art extends beyond the effect on others, as it also has a profound effect on the individual, and the individuals' ability to realize their own potential. This is reason enough to fight for arts programs in marginalized areas.

1 comment:

Mrigeshparashar said...

Loved your article sumita :)
Art provides pleasurable experiences along with cerebral wealth. It can beautify, surprise, inspire, stimulate imagination, inform, tell stories, and record history. For a social change  this process might be slow and that is why we keep coming on economic aspect. Although money can improve the standard of living, it can only give you the platform to expand one horizons.

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