Despite a rather long dry spell which was littered with inevitable workshop delays, repeated drawbacks and dawdling progress, the kind you would deal with government officials, we soon learnt that polite obligation does not necessary mean efficient action.
I do believe that everything happens for a reason, however cliché that may sound, and I think we were waiting for a perfect opportunity all along to take off the project to where it was due. The opportunity arrived in the form of the Music Project. Nushelle and I were discussing their work during one of our long distance calls – I was telling her about an impulsive chat I had with Saluka , my ex lecturer and also who was spearheading the project and coincidentally Nush had posted a post regarding the Music Project on the BB Facebook page at the same time. The Music Project does incredible work bringing communities together through music, and we were presented with a superb opportunity for collaboration. A series of music and art workshops running parallel to each other creating a vibrant environment for learning.
This was my first solo workshop and one I would not be assisting Nush with as I usually did. It is always easier to conduct workshops without the added responsibility of coordinating everything else. I have an immense respect for her conducting these solo workshops. She posses a knack for multi-tasking and communicating with the kids coupled with pragmatism, amazing vibes and superb energy – a gargantuan task which she made look easy, I knew I had huge shoes to fill.
I was joined by four incredible individuals, who graciously volunteered for this workshop. Two of them being my good friends from work, Maduka is an architect and has a natural inclination with kids and Sauri, a livewire who would provide much needed exhilaration and keep the spirits high. Priskila, I met over coffee to brief about the workshop a few weeks prior to it, she does great work with youth in reproductive health and very kindly obliged to conduct the workshop in Tamil (the eloquent kind, not the barely intelligible stringed words I sputter) as well as helping us to translate. Side note: I am hoping to recruit her to help on polishing up on my ‘Colombo’ Tamil, so that I can communicate better with the kids. Amalini – I met for the first time at the crowded train station, being already familiar with her work on Instagram, to meet her in person and then to share our ideas and memories was a particular unexpected joy. She has the unparalleled talent of documenting moments through her lens complemented with honest and poignant captions.
We took the 6 am train from Fort. The train was slightly delayed by 15 minutes, anticipating alongside hundreds of passengers hovering the platforms; we were treated to a spectacular dawn breaking over the horizon drenching the surrounding with amethyst and gold hues. A good omen, I reckoned.
Amidst the initial confusion and chaos at finding the seats and then finally settling in, I was thankful for booking the tickets a fortnight earlier. During the ride we went through the workshop timeline, reviewed the syllabus outline and made last minute changes. When we reached Kurunegala it was half past eight. Saluka our lovely collaborator from the Music Project had arranged a van to pick us from the hotel after breakfast and take us to the Pothubowa Maha Vidyalaya where our art workshops would take place alongside the music projects workshop. She politely inquired where we were planning to stay and I told her that I found this hotel which is conveniently located in Kurunegela town via booking.com and she hastily cautioned that the town doesn’t have many ideal budget accommodations and hope that it does not turn out to be a dodgy hotel.
The ‘ dodgy’ hotel turned out to be quite an unexpected little gem of comfort. Mr. Jayatissa who greeted us at the reception was a delight! With a kind smile – one I would come to be familiar with for the next two days – he showed us to our rooms, which were air conditioned with clean white linen sheets, clean bathroom with hot water and most importantly WIFI! He also offered to provide us with chilled water bottles to take along the ride. Yes, the Bravo city hotel in Kurunegala suited us just fine.
After a leisurely breakfast at the restaurant on the ground floor and a few clumsy mishaps later (Sauri and I were in need of a new pair of slippers and I had momentarily misplaced one of the room key cards) The Van arrived at 9.30am. Mr. Sisira who was the local coordinator for the music projects was nice enough to arm us with new soles. From the town it took almost half an hour to get to the Pothubovila Maha Vidyala.
We had the workshops coordinated a week prior with the Music project time schedule and managed to have two workshops (2 hour duration per) allocated for the first day which would run parallel with the music workshops. Each workshop comprised of 30 kids aged from 12- 15 from Mallavi, Mulativu (Mallavi central college, Yoghapuram Maha Vidyalayam) and Kurunegala. (Gunanda, Pothubowa, and Lakdas Vidyalaya)
As anticipated the workshop started out with a few stumbles and unexpected challenges but revolved into a delightful disposition. It was apparent that limiting an introductory art workshop for 2 hours was not necessary an ideal arrangement for the syllabus I had intended -as we were conducting the workshop both in Sinhala and Tamil which required more time to explain the exercises and clarify queries from the kids. We started off with Introductions, Each kid along with introducing themselves was asked to share one thing about them to with their peers. A necessary dynamic start to the workshop and to lay out a safe space where the group got to know their peers and identify similar interests among them, it was apparent that the time allocated was inadequate and I made a mental note to maybe limit the introduction to just names for the following workshops.
We started out with the Desert Island, conceived to be done on a huge roll of paper where the kids get to draw an Island as a whole group but due to unanticipated space restriction (it was a small classroom) and thanks to spontaneous ideas we transformed the classroom blackboard into an island and asked the kids to draw 2 things on pieces of papers that they would want to bring to it in order to survive. In turn each of them were asked to describe their chosen object and why. From past workshop experiences, we realized from early on to not share specific examples as most would follow the given example, instead we encouraged them to be creative by thinking of ANYTHING and EVERYTHING! And motivated them to ask questions like what represents you the most? Or what do they enjoy? It took some time for the kids to get hold of the idea which we realized was a novel concept to them.
To keep the momentum up and to make sure that the workshop didn’t delve into dullness, I started a countdown which refreshed the overall workshop mood and triggered hilarious reactions from the kids who yelled with excitement Akki! Oh 10 minutes more! We don’t have enough time! We need more time! I haven’t even started yet! And then hastily speed up the process. I did cheat quite a bit later on by extending the time but maintaining a sham countdown, not that the kids were aware with all the frenzy that caused it.
The result of the desert Island was a juxtaposition of ideas and identities. I have always been awe at how art can trigger the imagination and vice versa. There were the practical ones- with their binoculars, fire torches and maps to the help them navigate the Island, The straight forward ones – with boats to take them out of it, Some techies with their phones and laptops to connect to the outside world, the intellectuals with their novels, musicians with their drums, A cricket bat and a ball for a solo cricket match to keep him occupied and some bought in their respective parent or pet to the Island whom they cannot be apart from.
Again before we knew it we were running out of time so we had to switch quickly into the next phase of the workshop, which was tricky not knowing how the kids would react to the exercises -I had a few backup option laid out.
The first one was a 3D art experiment called the Inside-outside mask where we would ask the kids to produce a face mask with an inner layer depicting their inner selves -and the outer layer depicting as what they think people see- the outer self. As much as it sounded brilliant when conceiving the idea and discussing amongst us, communicating it to the kids became a whole other challenge. Either our communication skills were lacking at this point or the kids were finding the exercise too complicated or bizarre even. A good reminder to keep the exercises effective but simple next time.
Predicting the outcome is implausible when it comes to these things but I think that’s part of the workshop, to make blunders and to learn from it. Both ways we had to move on quickly in order to keep up the momentum and to avoid unrest amongst the groups. The backup option was to pair the kids into buddy duos. The selection of the buddies was random so that they do not end up with the people they already know. Some of the kids were not too happy with the random pairing and we were presented with sulking faces then some resignation from their part which later dissolved into ingenious doodles and sketches.
To begin, we passed a bowl of 2-3 default questions notes written both in Sinhala and Tamil – i.e.: What’s your favorite color? What do you like most about yourself? Paving to provoke more questions amongst them in order to interview their peer and based on the answer to produce a sketch on their buddy. The intention of the exercise was to Appreciate and acknowledge and gain a visual understanding of your peer. At the end of the exercise the buddies get to exchange their sketches of each other and were asked describe the sketch to the class and what he/she mostly likes about it.
Some of the girls were quite reserved and shy to be paired up with boys and I observed that they were avoiding eye contact during most of the exercise. This applied mostly to the girls from Mulativu- That’s the thing with the workshops, one needs to be more perceptive and ready to deal with such situations. Despite the defaults questions been written in both languages, we were asked to help them decipher the questions further to make it more understandable and obligated to sit with individual groups and mentor them to provide comfortable setting.
During this segment I could see the workshop slowly coming to its own as the kids voluntarily asked for our help when they needed it and despite the jarring language barrier conjured their own creative way to communicate with each other – Some literally drawings the question to their buddy or using hand gestures- it should be noted that these kids had known each other for the past 5 years interacting in past music project workshops and concerts together, of course music surpasses all cultural and linguistic barriers languages and goes beyond it but for an art workshop which required one on one communication- it was apparent that language identity vice there was an invisible emerging void among them. (In future to have a series of language workshop through art/ theatre)
Two of my favorite moments of the exercise were the image that depicts below where Harshani and Kalaiyarasi, who found their own niche, overcame their initial shyness and language barrier to share their dreams, aspirations and identities with each other.
And the boy from Kurunegala who initiated a conversation with his buddy from Mulativu to overcome her introversion and managed to produce a mutual good vibe. I loved the overall solidarity between these two.
This part of the workshop was an eye opener which laid out clear impending underlying challenges for us. As the workshop series was perceived to be a sustainable cultivating critical thinking + interaction to seek shared goals, shared identity and to provide a better understanding between two groups of children from different contexts- we were compelled to consider intricate layers of gender roles, cultural attitudes and the perspectives of their identity in order to make it a viable, respectful and gratifying experience for them. I realized how being focused to make sure there was a fool-proof syllabus and considering only the language barrier which was anticipated that I had taken for granted to foresee the obvious – that no matter how much experience you gain there is only more to be aware of.
Before the final stage which was going to be complete group project, we moved the kids outdoors for a quick game of Dog and bone to refresh and stretch out. This turned out to be the right thing! It’s true what they say about games and sports it has this delightful knack of bringing people together despite their differences. Quite fascinating really. For the kids who were reserved or discreet transformed into shouting Spartans! Again the two teams were mixed up and had no problem cheering for their team members despite their cultural or gender differences. One game turned to three games due to repeated popular requests- At the end of the games with the likes of sweaty limbs, hoarse voices and camaraderie in the air- it was time to move back to the classroom to the final stage of the workshop.
After regrouping we asked the kids how they were doing- And if they were enjoying it so far and most of them yelled back cheekily “Yes YES miss- akki! What are we going to do next!? Ooh What’s that? (Pointing at the canvases laid in front of them)
The Kids were asked to get together in their groups and draw, without prompts or suggestions- anything they wished, the original intention was to have the canvas passed around the group with each group member contributing into the next person art until the canvas completes a full circle however it turned out be a rather spontaneous surprise when the kids took initiative surrounding the blank canvas armed with paint brushes and crayons went on to create an artwork together despite their language and cultural barrier. We were witnessing moments where art manifest at blurring boundaries.
Initially after a quick brainstorm session within the group which started out chaotic and then finding order among chaos, there were points where I noticed that some of them did not actively participate in the group and that we soon realized it would be best that group select a leader among themselves who would make sure that everyone gets space to contribute toward the art which turned out to be a great idea.
“The kids were drawing Sri Lanka. The boy holding the pencil – from a school in Mullaitivu – traced the outline carefully and gave it over to his friend – from the school in Kurunegala – to paint. He needed a little help when he got to the tiny details in the geography of the Northern peninsula so with the little English they could share, one following a textbook and the other following his guidance, they completed the map.” – Amalinii
It’s kind of magical how a workshop despite predictions and planning can take a form of its own with its own organic adaptations to the given process. It was rather humbling to realize that certain facts we perceive are not necessarily how the kids perceive and connotations can be rather ambiguous. (Refer day 2). To wrap up the workshop we assembled everyone for a group pic which was super fun! Though an intent onlooker could notice the invisible line dividing the boys and the girls, most of the girls’ instinct was to line up behind the boys. This is something I would like to address in our future workshops, How do we ensure equal space among both genders whilst respecting their cultures ( if that’s the case) Or it could be that they are yet to be comfortable around each other and that a single workshop doesn’t necessarily break the ice. Maybe after a few workshops this would not be the case? Theories that require answers.
We then gave away chocolates (thanks to my uncle’s -Mr. Jiffry and cousin’s – Muna ‘s generosity, who has always been supporting the Building bridges initiative from the start ) and showed our appreciation for sharing their time and space with us and said goodbye with a promise to meet again.
During our lunch break we were treated to delicious rice and curry- offered with kindness from the parents of the Kurunegala students. Sitting on the steps shaded by the Kottamba tree , we reflected on how no amount of preparation could foresee how the children would be reacting and to always stay calm and carry on when the workshop throws a curveball at you and to NEVER to predict the outcome of the activities. Some of my best moments were when the kids took their own initiative to make the activity their own and made me aware that chaos is not necessarily a bad thing, the kids taught me that organized chaos can be a good analogy to the organized chaos of interdependent living systems! I perceive the workshops as an old sage that keeping coaching me to listen to the individual emotions and reactions, to be empathetic and patient towards situations and always keep myself in check- keep asking over and over again why am I doing this? The workshop reminds me what kind of a person I need to be, and most importantly to learn – to keep learning and to share learning.