Friday, April 29, 2011

Art, within and without lines

In the long-forgotten past, I worked in a publishing house. With actual adults, politics, a cafeteria, and real gossip. But before I start weeping at those fond memories, let me move on to the one that inspired this article. Colouring books. Full of perfect, pre-drawn pictures, colouring books were our main money-spinners, and their status as such was sacrosanct.

Once, feeling a bit wild — or unwell maybe — I suggested doing an open-ended sort of art-and-activity book for children. Not the kind where the kid colours a smiling mouse, but one where she is encouraged to apply her mind as well. So you have, say, a tiger with a thought bubble, and the child has to figure out — and doodle — what the tiger might want to eat. Shooting Nazar-suraksha-kavach-type rays of condescension my way, the boss said, ‘Why parents buy activity and colouring books? So that children will do timepass. Not so that children will ask them what to draw.’ Point noted. I shut my gob.

Ten years later, working with kids has shown me that art can and should be seen only as a method of self-expression in children. Any adult intervention should be at the level of acting as a facilitator or trigger — and nothing more. To take joy in colours and explore materials should be the primary focus, rather than acquiring the ‘skills’ associated with making perfect pictures. Skill-based art classes — madly popular right now — teach kids 4 to 6-years-old how to draw and colour ‘well’. They come out making pretty pictures no doubt, but their natural and delightful uninhibitedness is pretty much ironed out of them.

Try saying the words ‘colouring books’ to my otherwise mild-mannered-artist husband, and he will break into a taandav and rip your head off. These seemingly-innocent books — or the spawn of Satan as he calls them — meet two key parental desires: perfection in the child’s ‘performance’, and secondly, quiet engagement, or ‘timepass’. Like the classes, they leave no room for open-endedness, imagination and self-expression. They also pass on a subtle signal to kids: drawing is grown-up’s work, and should not be attempted by you. You just colour. Neatly and within the lines.

So as a toddler, our kid was only given paper, paints, water and brushes. She messed around like Jackson Pollock on steroids. Skills, her father said, could be taught later. We were entirely smug about this till she returned bawling one day from pre-school. Colouring a printed picture within the lines had her flummoxed. Given colours and paper, she scribbled, rubbed, crushed, had fun. Unlike most kids in her class, she had never seen a colouring book and didn’t know that you couldn’t — at 4 — let your crayons stray. We were actually saddened when she came home one day with her enthusiastic-but-totally-formless colouring of a teddy bear. When the teacher shouted / reprimanded her (I'm not sure which it was), our madam told her, 'But that's how Jackson Pollock paints!' The father of the child laughed, but I simply cringed. There was a huge mis-match between what we were doing at home and what was being done at school.

Colouring within the lines may be an artistically pointless pursuit, but to most teachers, colouring with fat crayons is a good way to help children gain better finger-control. Sighing at our reluctance / inability to shift her school (lack of choice, huge distances, etc.), we quietly went out and bought colouring books. Gradually — with her kind teacher’s help — our child ‘caught up’ with her friends. Humble pie is delicious when the alternative is a teary child.

Now that she’s older, like others her age she draws stuff and builds stories around it. Silly, strange vignettes that probably pop into the head as the hands move (and her artistic tantrums are part of the package too, her friends’ mothers tell me). We’ve also discovered the Japanese artist Taro Gomi’s delightful doodling books. Open-ended and thought-provoking, they don’t just make time pass, they make it fly like Rajnikant on 3G.

It’s cruelly ironic that though we don’t send her to art tuitions, she shamelessly picks up colouring tips like ‘shading’ from the art-tuition-going-kids at school. As an adult she’ll probably write about her kanjoos, oppressive parents who wouldn’t send her to art class at 4 and how deprived she felt about it.

Too bad. We’ll survive that, I hope!

(this article first appeared in the DNA of April 17, 2011)

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