Every year four artists from the Prince’s Drawing School in London come to India to teach at the International Institute of Fine Arts in Modinagar, an old industrial town north east of Delhi. Following their residency three of this years’ batch have teamed up with an Indian NGO for the first time. In the rural margins of Delhi Emma Seach, Siobhan Lennon and Konrad Gabriel are helping the Karm Marg family – forty or so children aged from 3 to 18 from “at risk” situations – decorate their home.
Deepak is a wiry young man with overgrown dishevelled hair, thick eyebrows and the downy beginnings of a moustache. He is working at eye level on a high wall, sketching in white paint what will emerge as a magnificent fiery cock. His faded navy sweatshirt and khaki jeans are paint spattered, a key on thick cord hangs down his back lest it impede concentration. “First my dream was to become a footballer,” he says, “and then it changed to become an artist.”
The Karm Marg home, designed a decade ago with input from the children, is something of a haven to any city dweller – let alone the runaways, orphans, and children of prisoners, addicts and sex workers who thrive here. The brick buildings are light and airy; in the grounds vegetables grow, hens peck and sleepy dogs bask in the sun. The organisation tries to be self sustaining and encourages the children to run their lives on their own terms, guided and supported by sympathetic adults.
Somewhat daunted by the space they were to cover in four days (the three interior walls of the entrance atrium, pristinely plastered but for a section of old mural, were a heady eight metres high) the artists began their project with ice breaking games in the grounds. Then they “workshopped” for ideas, deciding with the children that the mural’s theme would be Karm Marg itself in honour of its approaching 15th birthday.
On long sheets of paper in oil pastels the children made drawings of everything and anything they associated with their home then Emma and Konrad “composed their ideas.” On one wall would be a meadow with portraits of all resident animals, across from it a rose garden, and on the third linking wall a large mango tree (with fifteen mangos – one for every year) would rise to the side of the arched entrance, its branches spreading over the top of the arch and upwards towards a setting sun.
Siobhan sketched the composition onto the walls with the help of a towering bamboo ladder (actually two ladders lashed together) prone to unnerving swaying and bending. She commented wryly on the “new standards of health and safety, which are refreshing if a little dangerous.” The children would paint in her sketched outlines.
Deepak began the mural, rolling the deep red of a setting sun around a half moon window, his sunset drawing integrated cleverly into the architecture of the building. Closer to ground level all of the children took turns at the meadow, using different sized rollers to press grassy hues into the wall. They worked late into the night, under the light of a giant lamp run by generator and to the beat of Bollywood tunes spun by Deepak and his brother Vipin. “That Saturday night was really, really fun, a bit mad and chaotic but so much fun,” Siobhan reminisced.
The energy surged on into the fourth day.
“Comrade!” calls Rajesh, stretching out the second syllable. Konrad has been renamed, and aptly. With few male role models in their everyday lives the older boys especially have taken to him. On the second day he led a group of them – Deepak, Vipin, Rajesh, Bobby and Vikranta – into the fields outside the home in search of a peacock to draw. They didn’t find one but made lovely sketches of other birds as well as portraits of the Karm Marg dogs, all of whom will take their places in the mural today.
Deepak is nervous about transferring his excellent drawing of the cock to the wall. Only after Konrad tries and, dissatisfied, scrubs out his effort with a rag, does Deepak pick up a brush. He sketches the bird carefully in white, mixes browns and oranges and reds for its feathers and fiery crown, then using his fingers as well as a brush he smudges and blends the colours. Konrad smiles in admiration while the real cock crows almost knowingly in the garden. Next Deepak paints a shimmering peacock (he had looked on the internet for a model) whose long tail feathers cascade over a window.
While Emma works determinedly on the mango tree with help from Anusuiya, Siobhan chooses a background colour for the rose garden. Dirty pink wins over lime green and the existing pale yellow wash – and the messy mixing process begins. Everybody wants to mix and everybody wants to paint, including Raju the boy with Down’s syndrome and Mahua who is deaf communicates with grunts and (mostly affectionate) gestures. Both lived on the streets for no one knows how long before they found a home at Karm Marg. They are almost the keenest of all.
Children flow in and out. At any time up to a dozen are working on the rose garden, the older children paint leaves curling up from the ground, the younger and differently-abled fill in the background pink. Five year old Sangeeta (whom Konrad has nicknamed the Dalai Lama for “wisdom beyond her years”) works away with a tiny paintbrush on a tiny portion of wall but shines with the result. Nine year old Abdul stands on a stool and skilfully paints around leaves and flowers already sketched in. Spaces are found for Raju and Mahua where they can have free rein. Jokes and laughter follow moments of meditative quiet.
(While this project is not in any way a therapeutic intervention the easy flow of activity, the relaxed engagement of the children, the pride they are taking in their work calls to mind the well documented benefits of art as therapy for children who have suffered. These are kids whose cheerfulness belies in many cases traumatic histories.)
By the end of the fourth day the mural looks spectacular but it is not quite finished. Emma has to leave, and then Konrad, but Siobhan stays on. Through the following days the children paint the roses red and the thorns gold, they make more sketches of animals in their garden, and paint frogs squatting among the leaves and butterflies dancing above the flowers. Siobhan finishes the mural – a decade of working as a decorator for upmarket clients in London has left her with very high standards. The edges are perfect. Then she and Deepak celebrate by taking their sketchbooks by bus to the Taj Mahal.
For a self-taught artist like Deepak these days with the Princes Drawing School artists have been revelatory. “My painting became very clear and I have learned how to shade,” he says demonstrating with a pencil given to him by Siobhan. But everyone at Karm Marg has enjoyed the experience. They all have their favourite parts and can point out proudly the areas on which they worked.
Veen Lal, the organisation’s much loved founder-matriarch talks of the benefits, which range from a simple “it makes them happy and creates good memories,” through to “it helps them fix their goal, what they want to do in life.” This is in on everyone’s minds as the time has come for some of the older kids, including Deepak, to move on; they are eighteen and cannot legally remain in the home. Veena values the opportunity for teamwork and the exposure to people from different cultures, she talks of the pleasure of decorating one’s own space and the way it helps the kids to feel that they are not living in an institution.
And what did the artists learn from their engagement? Like all volunteers from abroad they were immersed completely in the life of the home, sleeping on cotton mattresses on the floor in a room near to the (noisy until “very late”) dormitories. As well as drawing and painting they danced, sang, played, ate with the kids. Their separate bathroom had unresolved plumbing issues.
“It was beautiful working with these children,” Emma said afterwards. She had been worried about completing the mural but “it flowed really easily. The children loved it and that gave us energy: we got instant, live feedback.” She remarked on a “certain enthusiasm” that is lacking among children from lower income areas in London. There, where she has taught in the after school drawing clubs run by the Princes Drawing School, “discipline issues tend to take over,” she said. In terms of her own practice, “It made me want to work on more murals. I have never done anything on such a huge scale, now to go back to a small rectangle of canvas…” and her voice trailed off into thought.
For Siobhan also it was a “wonderful experience, a pleasure” she wrote from London. She too was deeply impressed by the “enthusiasm” and “good spirit” of the children. And now, “I am attempting to get a mural painted on the estate where I live, involving the local kids and the nearby school; this is undoubtedly because of my experience at Karm Marg. It will be really interesting to see how it turns out and if it’s allowed (by health and safety laws) to happen.” She is going to study art therapy.
What of Deepak’s dreams? Before they left for the UK Konrad, Emma and Siobhan were hoping to be able to arrange for him to study at the art school they had been teaching at in Modinagar. This may well happen. But at the moment after many years at Karm Marg Deepak is living back with his mother. Veena thinks he underestimates the dedication it would require to become an artist (or a footballer) and will not be able to access the kind of “guidance” this career would require.
One of the outcomes of bringing children out of vulnerable situations to Karm Marg where they go to school and live relatively normal childhoods is that they learn to dream. Experiences like this open their minds to the vast possibilities in this world. While this is positive it is not always practical. “They all want to become photographers or dancers; no one wants a sensible job in an office,” Veena smiles.
Still, the chance to dream – even if one’s dreams don’t come true – is a gift; for in a life circumscribed by poverty and hardship dreams have no place.
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Deepak was able to follow his dreams in the end. Today he is studying fine art at the IIFA, Modinagar.
Text by Charty Dugdale