How Pallavi Chander Is Using Art To Normalise Therapy For Children
The most formative lessons I learnt as a child were from my grandfather’s retelling of popular children’s stories. He was a master at creating elaborate imagined worlds, into which my sister, my cousins and I would gleefully find ourselves inserted as characters. Our adventures in this alternate reality always ended the same way—he would remind us “Not to get carried away!”—but knowing how the story would end never made us any less excited to hear it.
The practice of art therapy not only leans into the power of storytelling for children, but goes further to give children agency in creating their own narratives. To gain insight into the burgeoning community of art therapists in India, I spoke to Pallavi Chander, an art therapist in Bangalore whose practice was awarded a grant from the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA). Chander conducts her sessions twice a week in Tamil and Kannada out of a community library, and is now into the second year of what she calls the Creative Arts Intervention. She shares her experience facilitating art therapy sessions for vulnerable children.
- Your academic background seems to be in visual art and theatre. What drew you to art therapy?
As a child, art was something that kept me going through everything. I realised that being a part of a theatre group in my early teens gave me space to deal with my own issues as well as understand the world around me. As I began facilitating theatre workshops, I became aware of their therapeutic angle. We got a lot of calls to work with children with special needs. I saw how the kids opened up, and they said it really helped them enjoy the process of learning.
- How did your interactions with the children begin, and what were your initial observations?
I started the Creative Arts Therapy programme (a form of therapy that uses visual arts, drama, and movement) for children who come from a basti in an area in Bangalore. When they’re playing on the streets after school, just being themselves, it’s easy to get swooped into issues like drug addiction and alcohol abuse. And for a child it’s not an issue – it’s just interest and curiosity, and then there’s a domino effect from there. As a result, school dropouts are common, especially among young girls whose parents worry about their safety.
There were a lot of such issues that were prevalent, so an organisation called Hasirudala that works with the community there—which is largely composed of people who pick and segregate waste—set up a community library. The library became a space of imagination where they could look at alternatives to spend their time. It drew a lot of children who wanted to talk and share things they were going through.
- What was your focus area with the children, and how did it come about?
The overarching aim was to understand coping mechanisms. All of us build coping mechanisms through the different experiences we are put through. But not all coping mechanisms can serve us in the long-run, when they form a pattern. So our hope was that the sessions would help the children build stronger bonds with each other and themselves, and be able to take that strength and resilience into adult life.
We approached the India Foundation of Arts and thankfully were able to receive funding. So that’s how IFA came in. The girls and boys each had a set of things they wanted to share. One of the things that really stood out with the girls, because they were of adolescent age, was the coming-of-age ritual that is practised in the community.
- What did that entail?
If I were to give you a brief understanding of the ritual, it is when a girl gets her first period. They build a hut outside the house, where the girl spends about 9-11 days. She gets food and clothes and sweets. And on the last day there is a ceremony where the hut is burnt by certain male members of the family. The girl returns to normal life, but she is now seen as a grown-up by the community.
When I was asked to go and visit one of the girls, I was a little apprehensive. Growing up, I had to go through certain rituals too, and I remember them making me very uncomfortable. I also had my own understanding of these rituals, coming from a different background than them. But when I put on the therapist’s hat I had to be non-judgmental and understand it from a child’s perspective. Interestingly, the children shifted my understanding. For them, the ritual is a celebration.
Of course it comes with a whole lot of emotions—fear, anger, happiness, sadness—so we looked at what those mean through enactments and other art forms within the sessions. In the drama therapy world, we call it dramatic distance, where we create a safe and contained space within which everything plays out. The aim was not to look at these emotions as right or wrong, but to simply acknowledge them. The girls created visual scenes of the entire process in a book called ‘Aye Reena’, where this character, Reena holds all their experiences. They were especially keen on sharing the book with the boys in the community. They said, “They keep asking us questions but we’re too shy to answer.”
- What did you work on with the boys?
With the boys, the sessions would happen in the evening after school, when most of them would be hungry. There was a lot of talk about food, so they suggested cooking. Since each one had their own understanding of how to cook based on what they had learnt from their mothers and grandmothers, it became about sharing recipes and learning from each other as they cooked. Eventually they came up with six recipes which they were happy to share in a book.
In the end, the girls performed an enactment of a Russian folktale called Vasilisa, which was adapted and performed in Tamil. The boys performed The Stone Soup, where they actually cooked and served something to the audience during the performance. And then we had a photo exhibition that showed how the book and the performance came about.
- With respect to what they want to share and the therapy aspect – do they start with telling you about their concerns or what’s been on their mind, and you then translate that into art and drama? How does it work?
Largely because they’re children, I don’t approach the problem directly. I use a form of therapy called the Sesame Approach, which is more oblique. As a therapist I create a space through activities in visual art and movement for the problems to emerge. And when they emerge, we address them. To give you an example, there was a certain incident that happened in the community during our intervention last year, and it was one of violence. All the children were very affected by it. So we decided to approach it indirectly, through stories, and as we examined themes of fear, support, and strength, the girls themselves would see themselves in the stories and say, “This character did this, I think I can use that.” And of course, when it gets to a point where a child has questions, we do respond to that question. If there’s something that’s really present and alive where the child wants to address something directly, then I make space for that.
- Since you started your practice almost 10 years ago, have you seen changes in the conversations around therapy in India, particularly arts therapy?
Yeah, absolutely – it’s been a huge leap, actually. When I started working with children with special needs, I remember having to spend a lot of time trying to convince parents about how important it is to use the arts. I started programs where they could be more involved could experience it for themselves, to build trust that this might be helpful for their children. In the last few years, with the spread of art therapy across India and also the work done by a lot of pioneers, there’s a lot more knowledge about it. But that said, it’s only within a certain class. It still hasn’t reached rural India or the B-towns, and this is where my interest lies – in taking it to spaces which don’t have access, whether it is marginalised communities or rural spaces.