Juggling many roles together is an author and social entrepreneur, Pia Bakshi, whose four year old initiative PhilARThropy was born out of the omnipresence of art in her life. The initiative that has grown into much more over the years now also forays into the field of economic standing and the self worth of women belonging to underprivileged backgrounds. We touched base with the dynamic personality to know more about her love for the arts and the need for it in education. Our conversation was as follows.
How did your interaction with art come about?
It is difficult to think of one instance but I will go as back as memory permits. My Ma tells me that every time I was instructed to write A for Apple, I drew an apple instead-fortunately, I was never asked to mend my ways because she believed that expression is an individual choice. I grew up with that lesson. 20 years later, I still find myself working with different forms of expression- writing, collaging, painting, sketching, zentangling and making music. I think of art as an organic occurrence in my life that I have been fortunate enough to carry with me into the realm of work. Art exists as a juxtaposition in my life- private and at once, collective; intimate and at once, cumulative; organic and at once, crafted. I can trace my interaction with art to a Fragonard cross stitch my mum made years before I was born or to a print of Sunflowers that has adorned the walls of all our homes. But I think it will be a futile exercise to relay the sum of my life here because that is how naturally art came to me-all day everyday- not as a skill or vocation but as a way of being.
How did you conceive the idea for PhilARThropy?
In 2017, I found myself spending my weekends teaching art and poetry to a group of vivacious teenagers at a Teach for India Learning Center in Jahangirpuri and my weekdays tutoring for art and literature at a liberal arts university. I understood epistemic privilege mitigated by a universality possessed by art in my interactions with my students across socio economic demography. That is how PhilARThropy and a better part of what informs me as a writer came to be. While working with my students, I realised how the realm of competition has alienated the simple joy of creating and expressing- and expression should not and cannot be a luxury. This is when PhilARThropy branched beyond an artists collective raising funds for multiple causes to an organisation committed to inclusive art education. Last year, we started our flagship skill development project with a group of women from a slum in Panchkula, Haryana to take a step beyond education and venture into the realm of economic strength and self worth. I often joke with my friends about how PhilARThropy is like Amoeba changing forms and shapes but with a strong nucleus- a beating impulse- art for everyone and everyone for art.
Why did you think it was important to take art to schools? How did you need to define and redefine art for the same?
As an educator who has worked across age groups and social-economic structures, I have realised that expression cannot be reserved for notebook margins- it needs to be celebrated. There is a freedom that comes with recognising emotions- a creative confidence that grades can never account for. PhilARThropy works with art education that aims at Social Emotional learning. Our primary concern is expression and not skill. Skill is incidental to our modules but expression is paramount. Why we took PhilARThropy to schools has a two point answer- first, it is our responsibility as educators to ensure that children are not robbed of their ability to be creative- to look at the sun and see a yellow ball- and to assist the children who have been forced by circumstances to view life with reticence. So, we went to schools to meet kids who ended up teaching us a lot more than we could impart to them. Secondly, we wanted to take art education to spaces where societal circumstances have deprioritized emotional health. We hoped to start conversations around SEL indicators through art bringing emotions to the forefront even in academic discourses.
How do you think a creative medium such as art complements the academic course structure within schools?
Academics by virtue of their existence need to impart holistic knowledge to its receivers- creation of new ideas and opinions is just as pivotal to academic growth as the celebration of existing information. Here, art plays a pivotal role in liberating thought and pushing the boundaries of intellectual processes. We use modern art and onwards as our theoretical base to develop our modules based on SEL because artists of modern and onward disposition are famous or infamous of attributing more significance to the expression and idea as against the 'aesthetic beauty' elicited by skill. Through a study of Rothko and Child Art, Cizek and Folk Art, we arrived at a module that allows students to play with ideas and create their visceral representations to reinstate belief in their work. Also, some classes like the ones on Infinity and Gravity automatically find a way to merge with subjects they are familiar with. Depending upon class, culture and organisational needs, we have also customised our modules to run parallel to the course curriculum to make learning fun and practical. However, our consistent aim is SEL which is meant to equip a student with emotional awareness and strength that lasts a lifetime. Apart from an incidental booster to academic growth, we focus on life skills that go beyond the walls of a classroom.
PhilARThropy runs two programs, one called Strokes and the other called MaTee. Could you tell us why you chose to structure them such?
PhilARThropy grew organically through our work in the field- wherever we found vacuum in art education and consequently, celebration, we tried to fill in the space. MaTee is a skill development project that we started last year where we train group of women from a slum in Panchkula in visual art. The work thus generated is turned into merchandise and made available for sale. The proceeds go back to the women. Along with financial independence, we also work on emotional awareness and belief- we are currently working on an exhibition that talks about interactions between a city and its slum. We are processing an order for a wedding, simultaneously. Strokes is the art education program that we run in under resourced communities for children in the age group 5-15. It started as an attempt to thwart the elitism around art education and accessibility. It moved on to create an egalitarian space for expression. MaTee was born out of a conversation with the Didi who works at my parent's place and is now a part of our collective. When we talk of inclusivity, we often think of those who are left on the margins- children for their lack of agency over their emotions and women for the lack of rights they have over their own lives. We believe that art can bridge this distance between self perception and society's gaze.
How did your own practice of art change as you engaged with art collectively, and through other people?
When I was 18, I had my own ideas of good art and bad art. PhilARThropy allowed me to get rid of unnecessary adjectives. PhilARThropy was born out of this renunciation. Before PhilARThropy, my theory of egalitarian expression was in place but PhilARThropy realised it. Academics usually live oscillating between theory and practicality, but PhilARThropy helps me practice what I believe in- uninhibited expression and feminism. My own work has moved from figurative to abstract. I work with Abstract Expressionism as a meditative exercise for myself. I make music for the same purpose. I write to be able to trace the ways my thoughts flow with time. I have learnt to disassociate an audience from my practice of art by making it a space of personal exultation. I think this process has made me more open to receiving from the world and all its inhabitants. When I look at a kid own his/her/their work, I learn to love my expression sans judgement.
When I look at a Didi recreate a Pollock with her color scheme, I learn to release the baggage of perfection.
PhilARThropy has taught me to love the process of creation as much as the final moment of revelation of the expression that ensued the creation in the first place.
How was PhilARThropy received when you took it to schools? Would you like to share some anecdotes around the same?
It was extremely heartening to see how PhilARThropy's modules gained ground in the under resourced communities we reached out to. The PhilARThropy class became a space for our students to experiment with forms and compositions to create a piece emblematic of their thoughts. I started PhilARThropy with the presumption that kids like to express if they are given the space- our work in the initial phases helped transform that assumption to belief. We worked with partner organisations like Light Up, Slam Out Loud and Chetna Shiksha Kendra who welcomed our program. We also worked directly with schools who were just as willing to introduce a new way of learning to their students. I had a student once who made a poster after an immersive art exercise that stated- 'All are equal. All are on the same page.' I think that line sums up PhilARThropy's experience inside and beyond the classroom.
When you’re working with underprivileged communities and going to certain areas do you face resistance? How do you deal with it?
The resistance we anticipated was more about what constitutes priority in education than anything else. Why is it important to spend an hour every week with us? The question had a simple answer- emotional health is paramount to holistic development. Our program is an art based program aimed at emotional awareness. A student from social and economic periphery needs a vocabulary and a space to share the emotions they carry in their little minds and hearts to be able to have a life that is full of the possibility of joy and cheer. We strongly believe that the quest for joy is a priority and cannot be undermined by 'productive' pursuits. It is a parallel line that co exists with academic growth. Establishing that synergy through subject interlinkages helped develop credibility of our program.
Text Unnati Saini