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.
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.
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.
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.
It was definitely a nice retreat to stay in Kerala for a few days. It was extremely cool, quiet, and fresh. We had great meals everyday, and had a very leisurely time. We played games, ate food, walked around and basically felt like we were taken care of. The quietness can be shocking after being in the city for a time. I was used to the city traffic and constant hum. However, once you refocus your senses to listen to the natural settings of the babbling brook, the bird calls, the monkey knocking at your door (really, they did), you then begin to feel like yourself again.
As I keep going through my pictures for this blog, I realize that I’m really only half way through. I took so many pictures, probably too many. But it was all in an effort to remember, and even feel what it was like to be there. Let’s face it, I am a visual person. I like looking at things. I definitely remember telling myself to stop taking pictures and to just be in the moment and to pay attention to the present. That’s really hard for me when there’s so much to look at. I guess that is a failure of technology, in a sense. We can use it to remember things for us, when we should actually be remembering the time we spent doing, being, and living. I do love taking pictures, but I also know it’s important to step away from the camera lens, to just let whatever happens, happen. I love that I can capture moments, or observe something in a different way with a camera. That’s exactly it’s job, because even then, you can alter what others see. Your first edit is deciding what you are taking a picture of. I don’t alter my photos much, I usually just leave them the way they are. That is also giving that environment, that moment, that object, that person a particular point of view. These pictures are a view of what I saw, what I wanted to remember, but it’s definitely not the way it was or is.
The long awaited break came when a friend visited me from her teaching post in China. She came to Chennai and then we took the bus to and from Pondicherry. After that, we flew to Kerala. We didn’t do the typical trip of going on a river house boat, or going down south. We went for the cool air, the breeze, and to coexist with the beautiful green forest way up on the mountains. There we took a few hikes, a yoga class, chatted, had a massage played games, and watched some cultural performances. Maybe it was just what we needed to get a way from the hustle and bustle of the cities both of us had been living in. One thing for sure, is that I want to get back to Kerala and experience all the other amazing historical offerings and more of the beautiful landscape that makes up this huge state. The food was good, the people were welcoming, and the air was fresh.
Just some snap shots around my friend’s neighborhood. There were some fun shots being taken as I looked down from the roof of their apartment building. It seems like you get even more of a peak at real life when no one things you’re watching. Big thanks to the little boy busting a move on the top of his roof top! But, my roof top is higher then yours!