Chennai Photo Biennale

It’s hard to believe that with all of these posts, I still haven’t gotten into March!  One of the last events I attended in February was the Chennai Photo Biennale.  It was simply one of those things you actually couldn’t avoid.  BUT- Why would you want to!?! There were photo exhibitions all over the city.  Some in galleries, some in restaurants, but many that were out in public.  Many performances and happenings occurred around the city at different times and places.  It really felt electric throughout the city, because you never knew when you would happen upon an exhibit, and when you did, it was always something intriguing, thought provoking, and surreal.

A perfect example of this occurred in my neighborhood.  I lived in the oldest neighborhood in Chennai called Mylapore.  It is known for it’s temples, it’s also considered the center of the city, because everything built up around it.  It’s a very historic part of the city, and I loved being able to walk around and view all temples mixed into the contemporary apartment buildings, old shops and restaurants.  One of the best places in the entire city is actually a park.  Nageswara Rao Park is a large park where people walk, jog, play badminton, have fun on the jungle gym and swings, and of course do yoga.  It’s a lively place.  It got even more livelier when a photo exhibit was placed all around the park.  It was an amazing exhibit, with giant poster sized photos from a group of international photographers.  Their topics focused on a variety of social justice issues which included:  child marriage, race relations, poverty, homelessness, and culture.  The pictures were from around the world.  Not just focusing on India.

I walked through this park most days, but when the exhibit was there, I made sure I passed through it everyday.  One day I saw people taking down the exhibit, and soon it was gone.  The park was still great, but for a while I felt like there was something missing.  Art in public provides a profound experience for those who interact with it.  What an amazing change for this particular community to interact with the photography and also the messages it conveyed.

IMG_1014IMG_1045IMG_1020IMG_1030IMG_1028IMG_1026IMG_1046

Save

Untitled – on purpose

This morning, I wake up, make coffee, hop aboard the FB train and look. I look because people are sharing their news, showing pictures, posting articles and opinions. I enjoy it for the most part and also think about how open and honest people can be. Essentially inviting a wealth of people to view some part of themselves that they feel ok about sharing. I’ve been doing that for the past 10 years myself. I’ve shared my stories about my life, my work, my vacations, my opinions and opportunities.

It’s a lot to put out there, if someone were to sit down and organize my thoughts I wonder what it would say? Probably some vague posts, but also some thoughtful (I hope).

Today I share something I’ve been holding on to. Today is my last day at the detention center. I’ve been working there for a full 9 years, and I definitely have mixed emotions about leaving. I think it’s a good decision for me, because I want to do something different, and I also feel the need to re-calibrate myself personally and professionally. Maybe people will find that funny, but I’ve spent 10 years being associated with the detention center, and I’ve put my all into every single day of working there. I think I’ve had a lot of opportunities that have led me to some other pretty fantastic experiences. However, the experience of working there is taxing on most who spend a significant amount of time there.
I don’t want to downplay the stressful environment, because it truly is one of the most challenging places to teach. It’s not just because of the kids, but also the type of place, the potential for aggression and the constant barrage of verbiage that comes out of mouths. There are always noises.  Constant motion, and an underlying current of anxiety.  One of the most anxious parts of my day occurs every 50 minutes.  When a class ends, I have to round up all the art supplies by myself, count them all, and put them away.  Everyday I count markers, pencils, color pencils, erasers, fine point markers, paint brushes, scissors, rulers, stencils, and many other kinds of supplies.  I clearly don’t think my students should be limited in the act of art making.  True, I could limit their choices more, and leave out one pencil for each students, and give them one marker at a time to use.  But I have always felt that it’s ineffective and takes way too much time from the short class period we already have.
The decision to leave didn’t come easy to me.  And some might say I waited too long, or some might say too soon.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that I’ve been a part of something that taught me a lot about myself.  Everyday was like staring into a big mirror and seeing a reflection of things I didn’t like inside myself, that were too painful for me to deal with on my own.  Working there was the biggest education for me, even though I was the teacher.  I am not sure if some of the students recognized that or not.  Every chance I got, I told them,”  You are my teacher too.”  I would often see so many students rise above the daily challenges, the trauma they have incurred, the barriers they had to overcome, the recognition of their faults just by the virtue of being placed in a detention home.  How many people do you know are forced to take responsibility for their actions on a daily basis?  How many people do you know deliberately avoid and overlook their own shortcomings in the world and keep on moving?  I’m sure we can count ourselves sometimes.
The fact is, yes, my students are there by court order, many of them have done unspeakable things, and many have done things only a teenager could be in trouble for.  Many of them come from circumstances that we would never understand or be able to recognize.  Some go to great lengths to cover up their circumstances and are constantly trying to show that “everything is ok”, or they’re “in control”.  We know that’s not the case.
So the daily challenge becomes- what can you do now?  All students are not the same, each of them require a lot of different kinds of services, interactions, accommodations and treatment.  All of them carry with them individual habits, predispositions, interests, histories that we may uncover or not.  Many students have realized the opportunity that education could change their course and station in their current life.  In school, they get our undivided attention, working with teachers who care and will not let them give up, or allow them to see alternatives to the path they have previously chosen.  Many struggle with letting that control go, and hold up that heavy wall of protection for themselves.  It can be extremely hard to keep up, by the way.  However, there are holes in that wall.  Some of which start to crumble, but some of which they begin to tear down themselves.  They become vulnerable and open.  Sometimes, they flail around because they may have never had such opportunities or people who care about them and want to support them.  Or, maybe they’ve  realized they have already wasted some opportunities like this.
And maybe that is one of the difficult things for me.  It has take a lot of patience to get to the student, creating  a lot of access points to interest the student in doing something, and also being ready when the moment happens.  But, when it does, it is rewarding.  For everyone.
When I started teaching, I really had no direction, or goal of teaching in a particular kind of school, in a particular kind of setting.  I actually started out as a Social Studies teacher in a tough school in Albuquerque.  I too, flailed around to see where my feet would land, and it landed at the detention center.  I had the opportunity to work with some amazing people on the education side and detention side.  I’ve learned about hard work and dedication by being in their presence and observing how my co-workers interacted with the students.  I learned that you have to collaborate, you have to ask for help, you too— have to be vulnerable and willing to fail, and willing to get back up, go to work, and try again.   Most importantly, you need to be you. Authentic, real, and compassionate.  Towards yourself and others.
I never knew all of what my students were attempting to overcome, or battle with, but it never really mattered to me in some ways.  They needed me to guide them, be supportive of them when they needed it, and offer them an environment where they could flourish in the midst of chaos.   If they were willing, they came along on that journey with me.

There is a popular saying that people use, often under difficult circumstances, but it all rings true to me.  It encompasses non-judgment, compassion, and empathy:  “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

 

An arts camp, with the future in mind.

I took thousands of pictures while I was in India on the Fulbright. I carried my camera around with me wherever I went. The one time where I ran out of memory and battery power was the time I spent at the arts camp in Kuppam at the Agastya Foundation. I wanted to record everything I witnessed all the days I was there. The Kanavu Pattarai arts camp was something I wasn’t sure I was going to experience. Fortunately, I did. The experience was something that I will never forget.

This particular Kanavu Pattarai camp is supported by collaboration between the NalandaWay Foundation and the Agastya Foundation. NalandaWay provides the teachers, the curriculum, the resources, and Agastya Foundation provides the space. The camp pulls from near by towns. Both boys and girls, ages 13-16, attended this camp. It was not a residential experience but a day camp for 3 full days.

The first day students were introduced to each other and jumped right in on camp activities. The teachers organized the whole camp, and when there was some spots that needed an activity I filled in with yoga and a quick lesson in making origami cranes. I also participated in a trust exercise, which was really fun for all of us.

All the students were extremely excited to participate. They made a large amount of art in just three days, and presented on topics that were important to them and their school community. It just goes to show you, that when students are given a chance to perform, act, interact, create, make, design, and do—THEY WILL! Most of the students were really into the arts projects and produced a lot of amazing work together.

Collaboration is a big piece of the puzzle for this kind of camp, especially since the goal is to build a community of peers. One of the best parts of the camp for me was when the students were tasked with creating a group song. It was a huge challenge. Many students were very happy doing visual arts, or even making posters, and speaking. BUT singing? That was a big leap for some of them. Many of the students didn’t know what to do, or how they should attempt that particular task. However, there were a few girls who would not give up. While the group took a break from song writing, a couple of girls stayed back to finish the melody and lyrics. They were the only ones in the building, and I don’t think they were even aware that I was paying attention. What I saw was true collaboration, respect for one another, and the desire to come together to accomplish the task. These girls continued working on the song until everyone came back in the room. They shared their lyrics and taught the whole group of students the melody of the song. The other students were amazed, excited and couldn’t wait to be a part of the musical task once again.

As a group they practiced (led by the girls and a few other boys). The way the girls problem solved and helped their fellow peers was amazing. They reached out as a team to put something together that would bring a lot of joy to everyone in the whole entire room.

On a whole, this group exhibited a wide variety of talents and problem solving skills. I thought that this was a strength because they all had a particular way to exhibit that strength. It made the group of 30 kids extremely strong.   Students exhibited a lot of empathy and compassion for each other. Most times when one member of their group was having difficulty another would job in and say,” Maybe we try this?” The students always seemed like they were looking for ways to solve problems, think creatively, use the set limitations to their advantage, think outside the box to use limited art materials in a new way, and most importantly not give up on the project or each other. Only a few students really needed some extra help, but I think it was only because they had never had this much going on at once. Not much exposure to arts, not much exposure to group work and collaboration.

The Kanavu Pattarai camp is much more than a few days for kids to get away from school and have fun. This program is creating ways for kids to build their self-esteem, gain leaderships skills, practice problem solving, and be more self- aware. Without the arts, students are unable to see some the values that already exist within themselves. By providing arts camps, NalandaWay is essentially strengthening the school communities. The students who participate in these camps take everything back with them and share it at their school. They are able to talk about their experiences and show what they accomplished by participating in the camp.

 

IMG_3493
The camp space.
IMG_3519
Student receiving a welcome pin!

IMG_3513IMG_3529IMG_3560IMG_3559

IMG_3543
Camp rules.
IMG_3574
Students creating their small group poster.
IMG_3619
Student beginning work on her self portrait with a tiny mirror.
IMG_3631
Decorative self portraits.  Using color and pattern as symbols.
IMG_3643
Students had a lot of discussions with each other for collaborative projects.

IMG_3640

IMG_3652
Working on their community poster, discussing issues that are important to them and their community.

IMG_3654IMG_3670

IMG_3682
Presenting their community posters to all the other groups.

IMG_0599

IMG_0629
Me!  Teaching origami cranes, step by step.

IMG_0647IMG_0703IMG_0683IMG_0706IMG_0735

IMG_3735
Uma and I on a tour around Agastya.
IMG_3744
All the camp goers and the teachers.
IMG_3746
The lovely girls who put the song together.
IMG_0814
Traveling to the camp spot.

IMG_0824IMG_0849IMG_0856IMG_0860IMG_0917IMG_0926

IMG_0929
Shadow puppets to tell a story.
IMG_0954
Clay figures.

IMG_0957

IMG_0960
Trust game– “Crazy taxi”.

IMG_0972

I was delighted to collaborate with NalandaWay on this program. I was able to expand the camp to five days, and add additional components like yoga and mindfulness. The more time we spend providing meaningful programs for youth to connect to each other and their own communities, the stronger we build the future for all of us.

Save

A peak at what’s around

I had the chance to visit the Kanavu Pattarai camp in Andhra Pradesh.  I was mostly in the very southern tip of that state where Tamil Nadu and Kerala come together.  First we traveled by train, and toured around in a car until we got to Kuppam.  That is where the camp was held.  The landscape was very similar to the southwest.  Dry, arid, blue skies, and puffy clouds.  It felt like a very familiar place.  I loved the Southwest when I lived there, and I really got used to being in this type of environment again.  If felt so familiar.

It was the perfect setting for the camp.  Very quiet, serene, beautiful.  Rambling vistas everywhere to just stare at, and take a very deep breath.  I think students would have no problem feeling inspired to create in this space.  In the morning and evenings it was quite cool.  However, just as you may have guessed, the day time was hot.  You really had to keep up your fluids up here, or else, heat exhaustion.  I loved visiting the Agastya Foundation and staying on their campus for those few days.  It was a great break from the traffic, humidity and people-packed city.  It would have been great to see more of the State itself, but I was happy I got to see  this small corner.

 

IMG_0511
The conductor of the train, wearing  nice jacket, but what you don’t see is the clipboard.  It had a very colorful cartoon character, and a unicorn on it!
IMG_0510
AC.
IMG_0522
Trains fill up fast, sometimes it was standing room only.  Not to mention 3 people to one long bench.
IMG_0529
Everyone has there hustle.  There are people selling everything: toys, jewelry, games, food, snacks, tea.  You name it, you can probably get it.
IMG_3321
Part of one of the schools we visited on our way to Agastya.
IMG_3368
Streets are far less busy here than Chennai.
IMG_3372
Trucks, palms, and mountains.
IMG_3431
Watching the sunset, was lovely.
IMG_3432
Small town we passed through to get to Agastya.  We had some tea and chips.

IMG_3433

IMG_3454
We drove far away from the towns and villages to a huge plot of land that is the campus of Agastya Foundation.  We crossed over this big water body and we realized there was a full moon. 
IMG_3457
Outside of our dorm they are building a shrine to Agastya.
IMG_3479
After breakfast we walked the road to the art camp building.
IMG_3485
View from art camp.

IMG_3486IMG_3489IMG_3487

IMG_3492
Another view from Art Camp.

IMG_3496IMG_3587IMG_3586

IMG_0537
Typical South Indian Cuisine! That big spot is for the rice!
IMG_0559
You can tell it’s hot.

IMG_0560IMG_0561IMG_0562

IMG_0577
View from camp.

Spontaneous Performance

When I visited this school, I had no idea that these students were so apt to show their talents.  The students were so eager to show off their dance moves and singing.  We had a whole evening of pre-dinner performances. Many of the students improvised and made up percussion with the objects around them.  These two kids were really quite amazing.  It just goes to show you, that no matter what your background is, your circumstances, art transforms the space.  On first glance many of us may look at the state of the classroom and think nothing can be accomplished in a grey, uninspired room.  Sometimes it just takes a single action to transform the space.  The students who shared their talents that evening made the environment warm, joyful, exciting, and playful.

Road trip to Camp

The major highlight of being involved with NalandaWay Foundation was being able to attend, observe and help facilitate an arts camp called Kanavu Pattarai (dream workshop).  The purpose of the camp is to immerse youth in community building strategies. By using arts based and mindfulness practices, Kanavu Pattarai camps educate and train diverse communities to create responsible children who are expressive and positive in their choices.

Before we arrived at the camp for this session, our group stopped along to visit some other groups at some different schools who had already experienced Kanavu Pattarai in previous sessions.  The kids had recalled what they learned, shared with us the art and skits they created during camp.  I even got to facilitate some group yoga practices.  What a treat!

The best part for me was being able to interact with the kids, and noticing how receptive they were to my presence and trusting me to guide them through some poses.  What a warm reception and some stand out, unforgettable moments.

Here is a glimpse of some of the students I met, the schools I visited, and what they shared with us:

IMG_3315.JPG
Students were game for a few yoga poses.  Tree pose is always a good one to try.
IMG_3322.JPG
In Andhra Pradesh, the land is a lot drier and rockier.
IMG_3324.JPG
Mural painting is big everywhere you go, although this one is fades, it’s still beautiful.
IMG_3342.JPG
I had a chance to visit a girls school, the whole school was bright, cheerful, and boasted lots of arts integration.
IMG_3353.JPG
Meeting with a group of girls who participated in a previous camp.
IMG_3389.JPG
We also visited a residential school.  These kids were energetic, lively, and so friendly.
IMG_3397.JPG
Listening carefully to a few members who were speaking about the importance of the arts, but also how the arts can be a catalyst for social improvement among peers.

IMG_3399.JPGIMG_3390.JPGIMG_3367.jpgIMG_3359.jpgIMG_3347.JPGIMG_3311.JPGIMG_3309.JPGIMG_3302.JPG

IMG_3295.JPG
Part of the camp process is to create a banner to bring back to the school.  This group worked hard to create a message about equality and acceptance.

IMG_3285.JPGIMG_3282.JPG

More to come from this trip. Stay tuned.

Job Satisfaction

You never know what kind of driver will pick you up when you use Ola.  Most are not very talkative, but others talk your ear off, or ask you copious amounts of questions.  Many are truly just focused on getting the customer from point “A” to point “B”, no matter what.  This driver is one of my favorites.  He seemed really happy when he picked me up. Greeted me with a nice smile and turned on the meter quickly and without question.  On this day, the traffic was light, there was slight breeze, and everything seemed right about the world.

I was busy looking at my phone to follow along on google maps when I noticed his whistling.  It made me so happy.  At first I just listened, but then I felt the urge to capture his the joy he shared with me.  I hope you smile.