I was some 6 years old when my family shifted to a new apartment. The idea of having neighbours was totally new to me and I loved it instantly. The first house I remember visiting was on the floor above our house. When we rang the bell, a saree clad woman opened the door and let me in with a huge smile. Her eyes were deep and her touch was as soft as my mother’s. I ran all over the house and saw a girl sitting on a chair. She was dark in complexion. Her neck was as if permanently positioned on the right shoulder. She emitted a profound odour which I noticed when I went closer to say hello. She kept staring at me and I stared back at her for a long time. After a while, she gave a huge smile with brightened eyes and I smiled at her as well.
“You can call her Tai. Her name is Sneha and she is my elder daughter,” the woman who opened the door told me from behind. While returning home, I told my parents that I would go and play with her every day after school. They agreed but told me to be extremely sensitive towards her as she was not a normal child. I asked them what exactly was her problem and they told me that she was ‘mentally retarded’. They made an honest effort to explain what exactly that means. At a tender age of 6 I could only see a potential friend in her. As I grew up, I came across many such children as if I was meant to meet them and befriend them. These encounters helped me deepen my understanding about various physical and mental conditions. Yet, Tai holds a special position in my life. Not just for the special bond we shared but because she introduced me to the empathy within me.
Now when I look back I realise that these were not mere associations, as I ended up choosing a profession where I keep meeting people with mental illnesses. But is that really a ‘mental illness’? I prefer to call it a mental condition. I realised this especially when I went to Brazil for a small internship in Dance Movement Therapy.
I worked at a place called casa dos sonhons (house of dreams). This was a government aided center where people came in for counseling as well as alternative therapies such as art, craft, movement, music and so on, free of cost.
One day when I went to the center, I found Miris, one of the therapists, sorting out boxes full of postcard art. I asked him what they were and what he was going to do with them. He seemed very enthusiastic to share the entire story. The postcards came from different mental rehabilitation centers across the world, made by patients having some or the other mental condition. On a closer look, I realised that I was looking at some intense artwork. My brain simply refused to accept the fact that it was made by people who we consider as ‘mentally ill’. I felt inadequate for flaunting myself as an art-based therapist.
Miris asked me to make a postcard on the theme of ‘How big is your madness?’ Without even giving it a second thought I picked up a piece of paper and a few colours to paint whatever came to my mind. I handed over that piece of paper and told him that I was no painter, but this is what came to me. He asked me to further describe and talk about the ‘mad one’ hidden within me. When I finished talking he said, “This is what it is! Madness is important. We as art based therapists here do nothing but help people find a direction for their madness. In this way they can make it big in their own possible way.”
Looking at my keen interest in arts and therapy, one of the psychologists, Cami Jacob, decided to take me on a tour of the main mental rehabilitation center in the city of Campinas. The first thing I noticed were the sign boards made of mosaic work which had been made by the patients who stayed there. Since she knew that I have worked with people with paranoid schizophrenia, the first place Cami took me to was the extreme trauma center. It came to me as a cultural shock to see a group of schizophrenics sitting under a tree sharing smokes and calmly talking to each other. I enquired about the type of treatment they received and she took me to the arts and crafts section. I saw people engrossed in some or the other artwork. I was surprised to know that this was a part of their core treatment. They utilise art to tell the most intimate stories of their life which otherwise becomes difficult for them to verbalise in a one-on-one counseling session. The walls of the room were filled with jaw-dropping creations.
We further went to the wood and metal workshop where I met a 15-year-old autistic girl who held my hand and took me to show her creations. My eyes could not believe that she was working with welding machines to make metal flowers. She wanted to give one to me but since it was freshly made it was hot and I could not hold it. I told her that I would collect it after some time. But she did not agree and went straight towards the water tap and held it under cold water.
The whole experience of visiting the mental rehabilitation center acted as an eye opener for me. The walls were painted with amazing graffiti works; patients were freely wandering around in the premise; the lawn was well maintained. The whole space was calm, peaceful and energizing. While returning home, Jacob said, “We take art very seriously. It is like one of the inseparable activities that we do in our day to day life. Hence, art becomes an important component when it comes to healing and therapy for people having a special mental condition.”
When I returned to India I felt like a complete alien. I realised that even though we say that India is one of richest countries when it comes to art and culture; we are not able to see the power that art holds. It has so much more to offer than just being a mere tool of entertainment. Many people like Tai might just find a way to make their lives meaningful as art would help them find their own way of expression.