Rohini Malur and Pallavi Chander
In Kannada, Buguri is a spinning top, a traditional children’s plaything. Hasiru Dala’s Buguri programme is meant to deliver a spin to the lives of waste pickers’ children, offering them options and paths that might not have been possible for them before. Our work initially was focused on keeping children in school, away from child marriage, child labour and elopement. We worked with the community to facilitate scholarships, schooling loans, and hostel placements.
Banashankari in South Bengaluru is home to a large waste pickers’ community living a stone’s throw away from the Banashankari Metro Station, and the famous Banashankari Temple. Over 200 children between the ages of 5 and 15 live in the settlement. The families from the settlement are multi-religious and speak Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Dakhni. The community had no safe spaces for children to gather and play or spend time while their parents were away at work.
In 2017, we established the first Buguri Community Library in Banashankari, to provide a safe space for children to spend time after school. Our biggest challenge was - and is - creating stable and nurturing spaces for these children to thrive. We believe that children can transform their lives when given stability and safety, when they have the luxury to be creative and to explore their desire to learn.
In 2018, Lakshmi Karunakaran (then Buguri Programme director) noted: “The lack of basic resources, space, water and electricity puts the children in the Banashankari community under great pressure. While their parents are away at work, children spend most of their afternoons filling and transporting water, sometimes multiple buckets to over three floors high. Often older siblings need to become caregivers to younger ones, pushing them into roles and responsibilities they are unprepared for. Addiction issues are high in the community, alcoholism among the adults and substance abuse among the youth. This leads to further distress in family and homes. With constant conflict and crime surrounding them, in their homes and community, children often remain vulnerable to psychological and emotional trauma.” (1)
She felt that the library needed to function actively as [a structured space] to help the children express, make sense and manage their emotions and reflect on their actions and reactions to the often destabilising situations they found themselves in. Lakshmi ran eight sessions for emotional literacy with a small group of children, using children’s books such as Dr. Seuss’ My Many Coloured Days to recognise their feelings and explore how to react to “negative” emotions and stress.
The sessions were a way for Lakshmi to bond with the children but also firmed her intention that the library should work actively for the children’s emotional development and nurturing. It was essential to provide children with a safe space to work on their psycho-social needs which looked at issues such as adverse childhood experiences, relationships with violence in the community, early/ child marriages and substance abuse, to name a few.
Consequently, the Creative Arts Therapy (CAT) program was set up to offer a therapeutic environment for the children to work through these issues in a safe, contained, non-judgmental, non-confrontational and client-centric approach.
Overseen by Pallavi Chander for Buguri, the Creative Arts Therapy program is specifically designed for adolescents in Banashankari. The sessions focus on using arts as a medium to engage in discussions with teenagers on subjects such as addiction, gender sensitivity, issues of child marriage, and conflict and community tensions.
Pallavi uses the Sesame Approach of Dramatherapy (which uses drama and movement as non-confrontational avenues to access inner conflicts and nurture healing and change) along with Arts-Based therapy techniques to craft the therapeutic sessions. Arts-Based therapy uses music, drama and visual arts therapeutically for self-awareness and healing with an overarching aim for the participants to build and adapt better coping mechanisms.
Pallavi broached the first few sessions as a pilot programme in early 2018. The children were nervous and shy about working in mixed-gender groups, and so she worked with them in two groups of boys and girls. Based on the emergent themes from the pilot engagement, phase 2 (Jul-Mar 2019) was crafted for a more in-depth intervention. All the sessions followed a ritualised structure to bring the children comfortably into the work of emotional exploration and allow them to come out with a grounded experience to reflect on and diarise later.
The girls’ group moved organically to finding movement-oriented approaches. They shared that they rarely had the opportunity to dance (at school or otherwise) and enjoyed the experience of elation and being physically unrestricted in a non-judgemental space.
They explored The Heroine’s Journey (2) - a feminine, female alternative to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and shared that they strongly resonated with stories such as the African story of Mella and the N’anga (snake) by Gail Nyoka and the Russian folktale of Vasalisa and Baba Yaga, which were also stories of friendship, courage, resilience and overcoming fear. The girls decided to explore the Green Hut ritual practised by their community for a girl’s first menarche - a space of both celebration and maturity but also the unknown with hidden information they could not know until they reached puberty. They used the sessions to ask questions they weren’t able to ask openly before - about what menstruation is, why we experience period pains, the physical and emotional changes in the body, as well as ceremonial practices of coming of age that was patriarchal and emotionally confusing for the young women.
The boys’ group wrestled directly with questions of what it means to be a boy, the expectations and the pressures as well as the roles they wanted to play or felt they should be playing. Together the group created a song they sang in several sessions as their anthem. Through a Tree of Life (3) collage they explored their selves, their relationships and their environment, and these sessions allowed them to start expressing aspects of their lives that they didn’t feel were “expected” or “allowed” but were still significant to them personally. Community conflicts disrupted the sessions, and when they regrouped, Pallavi found the boys talking about food, especially the food cooked at home. The boys shared recipes, and the sessions became cooking sessions where the boys would bring the ingredients, cook on the site, and then eat together.
The children ended with a closure event, inviting members of the community to see what they had built in their group sessions, and the boys and girls worked together for the showcase (4). The girls collectively decided to work on enactment of a story and turn the scenes created on the menstruation ritual into a book that would inform adolescent girls and boys about the ritual. The boys on the other hand wanted to cook, they chose to do this through a story and also put their illustrated recipes together to make a recipe book.
This first batch of boys and girls actively requested more Creative Arts Therapy and other therapeutic/arts spaces, and the Buguri team felt that this programme could continue and be expanded to other locations.
In June of 2019, we began the next phase of the CAT program. The two groups of adolescent boys and girls from the previous sessions decided to work together as one group (Group 1), overcoming the shyness and resistance of the previous year.
We extended the program to a new set of children from the Buguri library who were above 11 years old and had not attended the previous sessions (Group 2). These children had watched the closure presentation in April 2019. Some of them had requested to join the program, so it is safe to say that they came with expectations and were excited to start.
For Group 1, our main focus became gender and sexuality, conflict resolution, building friendships and support systems and finding ways of working together. Both the boys and girls were noticeably competitive and would often get into arguments and fights, which would disrupt the sessions. It took time to build a working agreement where conflicts and disagreements could be expressed without aggression. The participants were introduced to mapping their community through group games and discussions. This was then followed by physically mapping the homes, shops and familiar spaces.
Interestingly, some of them avoided mapping certain spots or lanes within their drawings as they felt it was ‘unsafe’ or ‘dangerous’. We moved to explore stories and urban legends from the neighbourhood. The group was introduced to various story-making exercises and drama-based tools, such as developing characters, building narratives, understanding story plots and roles, and voice modulation. This helped the group adapt stories from their community into illustrative pieces. The group simultaneously made ‘Tiny puppet booths to use as a tiny stage/platform and made little figurines of their characters to narrate their stories. The puppet play allowed the children to express their difficult narratives in an external way through the art form, rather than holding it within them as collective fear, guilt or shame.
For Group 2 the above-mentioned themes were explored with a focus on building strength through vulnerability, friendships and support systems, personal histories with a focus on body image and personal identities in a group and adverse issues in the community. Working with different puppets as a medium individually allowed children to work at their own pace and also build ways to work with each other to address aspects of competition within the group. Using different forms like paper bunraku puppets and hand shadow puppets was fun yet simple in form and less demanding on the group. In the following sessions, the group was introduced to ways of creating simple narratives which encouraged time to explore simple story-making techniques with a beginning-middle and end.
Setting the frame with a basic feedback structure of witnessing and responding with one, what they liked and, two, suggesting ways to make it better, reduced that sense of competition and instead moved to encouragement and support which helped to build group rapport and group coherence.
The group was observed to have thoroughly enjoyed shadow puppetry as a form. They explored making different animal and organic forms through hand shadows and also worked on making 2D shadow stick puppets of their favourite story – Tiddalik, the Frog, which they eventually chose to showcase for the closure event.
The Closure event for phase 3 was held on February, 15 2020. At the beginning of the year, in January, both groups chose different aspects from their therapeutic explorations during this phase of the program and used the month to plan, put things together and rehearse. Group 1 decided to present the illustrative stories from their community and have a ‘tuck shop’ where they prepared two dishes - paani poori and rose milk. Group 2 presented two forms of shadow puppetry – songs through hand shadows and the story of Tiddalik through 2D shadow puppets as well as a songbook with illustrations of songs they have learned in the library.
In 2020, Hasiru Dala joined the H&M Foundation’s Collective Impact Initiative to work for waste pickers in Bengaluru. The initiative, named Saamuhika Shakti, brought together 7 implementing organisations to enable waste pickers to have greater agency to lead secure and dignified lives, with a specific focus on gender and equity. The Creative Arts Programme in Banashankari was now organised under the Saamuhika Shakti banner, as part of Hasiru Dala’s engagement to provide support against community and family violence, and against substance abuse, all of which affect the children either directly or indirectly.
But in early 2020 the first wave of the Coronavirus pandemic hit, along with the first lockdown. Over the next two years the library would have to close and then re-open multiple times in response to lockdowns and the risk of infections. The children had to stay at home, unable to go to school, play or the library, facing the fear of food poverty with their families and bearing up under the tensions at home.
The Buguri team reached out over phones, attempting to create structure and afford some form of support and awareness but reach could not be uniform, and when Pallavi was able to reopen CAT sessions she was dealing with children who had been through a traumatic period with little to no relief. For a year the team worked online and offline with the children, providing exercises, reading sessions, one-on-one therapy through digital means which were per force unavailable to every child. It was a time of extreme stress for the children and their communities, and for the Buguri team as they attempted multiple approaches to reach the children and provide support. This included packages for the children in the Hasiru Dala’s food relief programme, sanitation support programme, and awareness raising for the children about COVID-19, busting myths and answering questions that were sent in.
In September 2021, we had a good number of participants signing up from upper groups (older adolescent children) for the Creative Arts Therapy Programme. However, as schools and tuition officially began, we had many dropping out.
Most girls missed sessions stating that they either had to do a lot of work at home or were being sent for short-term work. Many children spent their evenings filling water from the public taps which are released only twice or thrice a week. Boys were kept home and asked to contribute to family finances.
The older children who remained became comfortable using the medium of visual arts and materials to express themselves, process and self-soothe during sessions. Pallavi worked with the children in two groups, one focussing on visual arts and the other exploring drama and puppetry.
The visual arts group continued a theme they had begun exploring in Phase 3, and worked on a large painting that explored their community, the memories of the space, its evolution over the years, and their hopes for the space and their community's future.
The drama group were excited to showcase two of their plays. The first was titled ’The Story of Kutti’, the group’s adoption of Cori Doefield’s ‘The Rabbit Listened’. The children named the little character in the story Kutti and wrote the dialogues of the other animals according to what they observed within their families and friends. The second was a piece on ‘punishments’ which came out of an improvisation exercise with little puppets they had made with wooden spoons. The participants spontaneously created short narratives which reflected the theme of punishments in schools.
The participants of this program had their Final Showcase on December 26, 2021. The drama group performed their drama and danced to the songs. In an interesting development they decided not to show their narratives on punishment in schools, not yet comfortable to speak outside of the safe space of the library. The painting group displayed individual narrative portraits along with a large group painting of their community – ‘Back then, Now and What we want!’.
The Buguri team will run a qualitative study to evaluate the impact the CAT programme has had for the children in Banashankari since 2019. Guided by Evan Hastings as external supervisor and research mentor, Pallavi will oversee two new therapists working with two groups in Banashankari as well as document the results of the work she has held together for the past three years. Some of the older children are supporting the library work as peer facilitators while they wait to enter college or sit for exams, which is a delightful proof that the CAT programme has established itself as a safe space and as a space which the children - now young adults - want to contribute to for their younger peers and siblings.
(1) Karunakaran, Lakshmi: Our World of Emotions (2018) https://hasirudala.in/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Buguri-Our-World-of-Emotions.pdf
(2) The Heroine Journeys Project began as a research project to collect and analyse literature, film, and transforming life experiences of women and members of marginalised groups with a different narrative pattern than the journey pattern articulated by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. https://heroinejourneys.com/about/
(3) This involves people drawing their own ‘tree of life’ in which they get to speak of their ‘roots’ (where they come from), their skills and knowledge, their hopes and dreams, as well as the special people in their lives. Read more at https://dulwichcentre.com.au/the-tree-of-life/.
(4) The closure event was sponsored by the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) Project 560. https://indiaifa.org/programmes/project-560.html