A visit to Thiruvannamalai

Towards the end of my trip I had the opportunity to travel southwest to the small city of Thiruvannamalai.  I hadn’t known much about it before I went and found it to be a really interesting place to visit. It was pretty busy, and boasts a large temple in it’s center.  Tourists also come from all over to visit the famous ashram, Sri Ramanashramam, there.  One of the reasons we went there was to check out a school located on the outskirts of Thiruvannamalai called, Marudam Farm School.  It’s an open concept school, and founded on the principles that the students guide their learning.

It takes about 5 hours to get there from Chennai, but you travel through some really interesting spaces.  Lots of history and old mountains.  Some forts and also some of the prettiest countryside you can see in this area.  There wasn’t a lot of traffic when we drove and it was a really pleasant journey.

If I had known about this place sooner I probably would have made an effort to spend more time there to really get to know it.  I loved the area, the energy and the people.  It seemed like a very laid back kind of place, with lots of chances to view extremely important historical sites.   If you look at a map, it’s just west of Puducherry, and really easy to get to.

Here are a few pictures of the area, I’ll post more about the school later:

Starting the day off right with vada.

Ruin near Gingee
More around Gingee.
Mountain formations older than the Himalayas.


And, maybe a Jesus sighting….;-)

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.


The camp space.
Student receiving a welcome pin!


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


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


Presenting their community posters to all the other groups.


Me!  Teaching origami cranes, step by step.


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


Shadow puppets to tell a story.
Clay figures.


Trust game– “Crazy taxi”.


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.


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:

Students were game for a few yoga poses.  Tree pose is always a good one to try.
In Andhra Pradesh, the land is a lot drier and rockier.
Mural painting is big everywhere you go, although this one is fades, it’s still beautiful.
I had a chance to visit a girls school, the whole school was bright, cheerful, and boasted lots of arts integration.
Meeting with a group of girls who participated in a previous camp.
We also visited a residential school.  These kids were energetic, lively, and so friendly.
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.


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.


More to come from this trip. Stay tuned.

More Pondicherry

After looking at this blog, you might think that I actually lived in Pondicherry for 4 months. Well, that wasn’t the case, but I did visit more than the average tourist.  Mostly because it was close and I visited some lovely friends often.  And of course, anyone who came to visit me, also came to Pondy.  Here are a few more pictures from around the sleepy colonial part of town and a little bit to and from the beach.  There was so much art on every corner, and also random, unexplained things, like: lectures,  decorated auto rickshaws, and signs that I didn’t know the meaning of.  I loved the quirkiness of the place and would go back to visit anytime.

Ain’t nobody got time to follow that rule.  The road is understood by it’s honking.
There aren’t too many decorated autos in south India, but this one was a real treat.  It belonged to a local orphanage.
Mystery lurks around every corner in Pondy- no one knows what one might find.
My friend and I walked around and ran into them setting all of these chairs up in a middle of the road.  Then hours later, when we were walking back a full on presentation and lecture was taking place under the banyan tree.  About what?  I do not know.
Old school.
Out and about in Pondy.
Urban mixes with the country side, bringing graffiti to all the areas.
Fishing nets.
Palm roof.
View from the What’s Up? Cafe at Serenity Beach.
Don’t forget! 
A little statue in a hotel room.
There is a street that is constantly lined with motorcycles.  I decided to play around with the view from the mirrors.


More fishing nets, I watched them pull fish out of these delicate next for a while one day.  It really takes a lot of people to fish with nets like that.  I can’t even begin to think how hard it must be to untangle, repair, and handle that kind of netting.
In search of a wife?  Here’s how to find one and how to be one.  This book scares me.
Are the methods easy?  I dunno.  You’ll have to try!!!!


Darn parental units, always cursing our lives like that.
Gandhi Statue in Pondicherry.
A lot of these trucks are seen in and around Rajasthan, I actually hadn’t seen a lot of decorated trucks in Chennai. This one was a beauty.
I wonder what they’re honest about?


They do try.
Waiting for a ride.
In south India temples are everywhere.  Even next to tv service repair shops and window replacement stores.
Part of a Banyan tree in Auroville.
Leg room? On a bus?  How did that happen?
You know me and maps.  This one is made of metal.


Dogs resting in holes in the ground, because it might be cooler?
Girls on their way to school.
Staircase to nowhere.
Deity in a tree.

Mural Making and so much more

I was approached by NalandaWay to help with a community project they were spearheading to bring groups of students and artists together in a school communities to create a murals.  The idea was not only to improve the environment, but connect and integrate arts into making positive relationships.  I loved this project so much I think I’m mentioning it twice on this blog.  I had never posted the before and after pictures together, but I will today.

In early February I went to the school to choose the place for the mural.  The Principal and a a co-worker went with me to help coordinate and choose an appropriate place for the mural.  We decided it would be good to place the mural in the hallway, so that when kids saw it, they would be able to see it and interact with it.  The hallway itself was an elementary part of the school contained in a larger high school.  I would be working with kids in standard four, but the mural would be right outside of the door of the standard one and two classrooms.

I was so excited to be working with kids by this point.  I had been out of my own classroom since December 22nd, so I felt like it was about time to have some interaction with kids again.  The hard part would be deciding what would go on the wall.  I had seen so many murals throughout the city of Chennai, what could I do for this school that could be a little different but also represent the school?

For some reason my mind immediately stayed with the word “school” and I decided on a  “school of fish”.  I found out that, I actually would have to draw the mural and create the idea.  There just wasn’t enough time to include the students input on everything.  However, they would be able to paint, mix and choose colors.

The mural had to be created and completed in about 2 1/2 days.  It was a fast turn around, but I had some help.  Two fantastic volunteers from Fidelity came to help me sketch out the mural and do some preliminary cleaning and painting.  Without their help, it never would have been completed.

The second day, the kids would come paint.  AND PAINT THEY DID!  They loved seeing the wall come to life and already you could notice a change in the environment from just the buzz that was happening with the student painters.  They had a blast mixing colors and getting to work.  Many of the students passed up playing in the school yard so they could help paint more.    They were so focused and dedicated.  So many of the students were eager to speak with me in the English words they knew.  The students shared how proud they were of their painting with their other friends and teachers, and when students were being picked up after school, some students took their family back to the wall to show off what they did.

Day three, was all in the details.  I was working by myself to just clean it up a little and add the details that may have been missing.  Many students came by to check in with me to see how it was going.  They offered to help again, so I let them.  They helped layer some of the details, and clean up some line work and mix colors.  One little girl came to sit with me and talked to me a while.  She told me stories about what she ate for lunch, and who took care of her.  She told me her favorite foods, her favorite cartoon, and what she liked to do in her free time.  She was a sweet, gentle, sensitive girl.  I tried to persuade her to go back to her class, but she seemed to have no interest in leaving my side.  At first I was a little worried that she may get in trouble, but no one came looking for her, and the other teachers who passed by us seemed to think that this was kind of a normal behavior for her.  She wanted, maybe needed, some attention and kindness, and I was willing to give it to her.

Below, are some before, during and after pictures.  It really was one of my most favorite experiences in India.  So much so, that I would love to replicate the experience.

We thought about placing the mural inside a classroom, however, it would have been too high to paint with the students and only visible for one classroom.
We decided to place the mural in a hall outside of several classrooms near one of the administration offices.
These are a few of the students who were very curious about what were all doing there.


Day one is when we applied the fish stencils.
With the help of the volunteers we traced the fishes on the wall.


The next step was to create a border around the fish– it would eventually become water.


End of day one! Thumbs up!
Day two, kids come to paint– ALL day long!


This student was really good, he actually helped paint a lot of fish and mixed colors for other students.


Taking a moment for the camera.
My lovely helpers.


Posing for the camera!



Lots of smiles at the end of Day 2.


Day three, I came back to add in some details.


My new friends, who told me all about her favorite things.

All the student painters.



Healing through the arts

In February I had a chance to visit Nandhivaram, Panchayat Union Primary School, Kancheepuram.  NalandaWay organized volunteer educators, therapists and social workers to go to this school to provide a regular therapeutic program using movement and visual arts.  This school is in rural Tamil Nadu, about 2 hours south west of Chennai.  This area was heavily effected by the monsoon floods from December 2015.  Students used multiple forms of art for expression; including storytelling, dance/movement, song, and visual arts. It was one of the best experiences of my life.  Although these kids had witnessed a lot of tragedy and hardship the school was clearly a respected structure within the community and students could feel safe enough to enjoy being children once again.  The pictures below share what the children were involved in on the day I observed.  I found the kids to be friendly, fun, happy, and introspective.  These kids loved the arts workshop and it was written all over their faces.

Almost like a game of head, shoulders, knees and toes.
A group of primary students waiting to get started.
After movement, students go to visual arts where they can draw in response to their movement activities.
A smiley group.  All of these students wanted to take lots and lots of pictures.
Upper primary school kids getting to work in art class.
Taking a moment for the camera.
The combination of movement and art are a great combination for these kids.  All of them seemed to enjoy the whole experience and really value the time they had in the art classes.
A walk around the school building.
Primary group and movement.
A upper elementary student sharing her work with me.  During the movement activity, the therapists told a story about animals and how they helped each other cross the river on the backs of turtles.


Looking at the building you can see how far the water may have come up on the side.


At the end of the upper elementary art class students made small bracelets and exchanged them with someone else.
The room got quiet as they exchanged bracelets with other, students really showed how much they cared for each other with this small sentiment.