Staying in Jaipur, I was asked to help out some volunteers at an NGO, They are coming to paint a wall on the outside of the school, in one of the backstreets in the slum. Can you give them some ideas? I was asked.
So this was right up my street, excuse the pun. Have paintbrush, will travel. Walking into the unknown, my desire for some creativity was met with creative chaos, mixed in with a need for cultural understanding. I am assigned to assist four enthusiastic female MBA students, Shweta, Ranu, Sweety and Prachi. The girls are part of a group sent from their college to experience working in the NGO community programme. These are your artists I am told. Please tell them what to do.
The brief:- ‘Please get these girls to paint this wall and add design. It was suggested we paint an Indian god. It will stop people from spitting on it. My first thought was, any person willing to spit on the wall, which yes is disgusting, would God really be able to stop them, I wonder? Maybe not in the West but this is India and priorities are different here. I am not going to argue but it got me thinking. This is the corner of a small street, People gather here, children play and drop litter, motorcycles screech, the odd cow meanders and unfortunately, people do spit. What a fantastic location to learn something new.
Empowerment is a word waved around a lot. It is important and people are keen to talk about it here. I tread lightly with respect. My empowerment was taught to me by my mother 50 years ago, when I was the age of ten and knew no different. I have lived my life by it, such a different life to what is being lived here. The women who come to take lessons in the little classroom sit on the floor. They are adorned in bright saris, sparkly face jewellery and bangles on their wrists. They are the colour of India. On the walls are painted words of empowerment. I wonder what they make of them and if our values will merge.
But true to Indian style, let’s just get on with it, the chaos of loud chatter demands and instructions add to the commotion. I watch and I breathe. There needs to be some order and structure here or it is going to be impossible to create anything, other than a mess. Paint pots and brushes are appearing before I have even said hello, and I am still not clear about what is expected. First things first, though, the wall needs cleaning, there is pigeon poo dripping on it. Unable to go with the custom of painting over dust and grime, I am eager to give a new lesson. Down Brushes, please! Get cloths, buckets of clean water and do we have a broom. We are going to create some art here and we clean up first.
A crowd of boys eager to have their say, intimidate my artists unintentionally. I am getting cross. If we do this, we are going to do it right. In my culture, I would be inclined to tell them all to bugger off, but I watch frustratingly as the girls give in and hand over their brushes. Lesson two. These girls are going to learn to do it themselves. It is not enough to politely find the boys another job. I want these girls to show they are in charge. How do I do that? Sorry guys, including Nitin the owner of the NGO, you have to get out of our way. This is a women’s creative zone and we actually do know what we are doing. Please allow us some space.
If we are empowering women here, my job is to inspire them into thinking they are capable and to show the onlookers and the cows just what girl power looks like.
My four students are lovely, We laugh as I try to get them to call me by my name, I am not used to being called Mam. It makes me feel old. I know that I am but that is not the point. ‘I cannot Mam,’ complains Shweta, it is disrespectful to you. So I guess I must give in to my new name.
I explain we are a team and we must work together. When artists work together we must be aware of each other’s roles. I must admit they find this difficult at first, happy to swap roles on a whim, thinking their friend could do it better, instead of making their own mistakes. It is how we learn I say to them. Finding your place where you can focus and try new things is where you find your creativity. I want them to find that place and then work together in it. Learn to focus. To listen to instruction. Phones away in pockets and a little bit of quiet, I ask them, ‘What would you like to see on this wall?’ They didn’t want to paint a God on there, ‘It is not a temple it is a school’ they express. So what words do you think of when we think of education and womans empowerment?
and that is when we thought about painting some WINGS.
A piece of simple art can teach us so much, The children gather round and we have to teach them to stand back so we can work. Nobody understands this so I try and explain. The girls do not understand either, I play a funny game with the children and draw a chalk boundary line. It takes three days for the kids to learn why they need to stand behind it. There are also safety issues and we need to take care. Explaining the reason is important, to the kids instead of shouting at them. It is a step towards earning their trust and respect. They watch us sweep and clean around the wall. I tell them it is your special wall and they will soon be able to have their photograph taken in front of it. This seems to work.
My girls are beginning to focus but continue to ask me which colour they should use, which pattern to create. This is their design. They are not yet confident in using their skills and deciding what they like which I found amazing because if they don’t want to do something, they are clear to voice loudly. Stepping out of their comfort zone and trying out an idea is a crucial lesson that should be taught on any business course. So we discuss designs and colours. I’m leaving it for you to decide. Art is never wrong.
The landlord rocks by to have a look at our work. He asks us to remember to put a god on the wall. I draw Ganesh at the side and a crossed-legged Krishna. We can paint vines and flowers. The kids seem to like it and that is what matters. We want to keep everyone happy.
Clearly now they have a plan and some wonderful artistry is beginning to emerge. ‘Shall we talk about your theme and try to work some empowering words in there, think of ten words. Fly. Free. Inspire. Trust, Hope. Learn. Together. Towards Freedom and love.’ These girls deserve all of those things as do women everywhere. We need our wings to fly and changes are coming to all those women who believe they have a right to become empowered.
We sit and rest on the floor in the schoolroom, The girl’s ages range from 21 and 22, they have left their family homes in Didwana and Makrana and live in hostels whilst they are studying. Ranu tells me she misses her parents as the girls tease her and giggle. Ranu wants to be serious but has no firm idea of what she wants to do. Maybe work in the corporate world for a year to gain some experience. I want to be financially independent so I do not have to rely on my parents she tells me. Shwata loves dancing and one day wants to run a school, She would love to dance in a Bollywood movie. She promises to give me some lessons. Prachi wants to be a make-up artist and beautician and Sweety (the loudest of our team) wants to work with arts and crafts, she shows me some birthday cards she has made. They all talk about wanting to be entrepreneurs. To achieve that, a creative spirit should exist, not just to paint a picture but to invent one. It starts with a simple thought but you must learn how to develop that thought. They all possess a creative spirit in them but a key is needed to unlock it.
They openly talk about working in the corporate world first because they have probably been told it is a safe and secure option. It is risky to show your hunger for success without a road in front of you where the sign, destination, swings precariously in bright letters. Goals need to prompt us and encourage us. I wonder if their education will fuel their spirit enough to be able to stand up to their freedom of choice which will stand as their first roadblock. Knowledge has never been enough. Ah CHOICE, a word we need to add to our wings. I hope they get to use that word before society decides on it for them and hinders their path to freedom. I see it happen to so many women, We are all too happy to give up our paintbrush to somebody else and allow them to paint our futures.
We are no different in the West. Woman all over the world actually make the same mistakes and for those whose choices are denied, know that change is coming.. Since painting these wings on a wall, I have seen more walls painted. I think we should paint them everywhere to remind us we have the right to fly and be free. What a bright and colourful world we can all live in when we all embrace that thought.
Anyone thinking about spitting on our wall, just know this. God will not save you, he may not even deter you, but respect for the rights of women and children everywhere, just might. The child that is allowed to tag on to our wings will never grow up to spit on them, and the women who are free to fly will bring home some colourful love. Lauren. (Mam)
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