My husband and I went for a long awaited vacation to the Kinnaur region of Himachal Pradesh. Since this was to be more of a relaxed photography trip we made overnight stops at Fagu and Nogli. Then it was on to Sangla. The last 4 km drive up to the forest guest house tested my hill driving skills to the max. The road was non-existent. It was mud path with mountain on one side and sheer drop on the other. That it was just the width of the car and there were no fence or parapet along the drop and the entire stretch was slushy after the morning rains did not help. Finally reaching the guest house we were rewarded by a beautifully preserved British era house.
We sat in the gazebo sipping our hot drinks and eating maggi when we noticed a school below. There were a bunch of kids exercising. On enquiring from the caretaker we found out that they were all aspiring boxers. Jagannath, the caretaker then told us that his daughter is a notional level boxer who studied in the same school before she moved to Hisar for higher education. The headmaster of the school was a national boxer who lost an eye in a bout. Now he has made it his mission in life to teach kids in the small hill town the sport. They kids have responded by winning medals at national level. We decided to go to the school the next day and meet this inspiring teacher.
I was carrying my art material along, hoping to capture the beauty of the majestic Himalayas on the trip. What better way to spread art than to share it with the kids? With that thought in mind we decided to visit the school and see if they’d entertain a city artist to take some of their valuable time. So we walked up and down the mud path to the school with an open mind. Once there I introduced myself to one of the adults there. I had no idea if he was a teacher or an office staff. I told them that I was an artist from Delhi, visiting their town for a vacation and if I could spend some time with the kids and do a short art session with them. I was then introduced to their art teacher Mr. Raj Prakash Negi.
Well, hill towns are small places and everyone knows everyone. So it was no surprise that Jagannath had already called up the art teacher and they were expecting us. We were unable to meet the famed headmaster as he was out on work but we were accorded a warm welcome by the other teachers and they were happy to let me hold an art session with the kids. I was apologetic about encroaching on their time but they said that this was the beginning of the session and it is not every day that someone comes to interact with the kids.
We went to class seven classroom and were greeted by the students in the long drawn good morning that transported me to my school days. There were about 15 smiling kids with curious eyes wondering who I was. I introduced myself and told them that we’d be doing some painting. Their excitement was electric. Now which kid doesn’t want to skip a regular class and paint? I told them that’d we’d be working with watercolours and asked if they had used them before. Then fell the bombshell.
The kids said no and their teacher told us that the material is not available in Sangla and even if some things were available, the kids were too poor to afford it. A set of Camlin watercolurs costs 120, less than a cup of your favourite café latte at Starbucks and it was way out of reach for this kids. I looked back at their smiling faces with neatly combed hair and clean, ironed uniforms and realized how much we take for granted. Mr. Negi told us that a couple of years ago the school fees was 8 rupees and a lot of kids could not even afford that and dropped out. Now there is no fees till middle school so all of them come to school. They see the privilege in the education and respect it.
I asked the kids what do they use and they brought out their packs of small sketch pens. A tiny pack of watercolor sketch pens that a Delhi kid would turn up its nose on even as a return gift. (Sorry but most city kids are entitled brats). My husband then suggested that I should teach them with what is available to them. So I taught them how to use water to dissolve the pigment of the pens and make watercolor like paintings. But since I was carrying a lot of paper and extra paints I wanted them to experience working with brushes too. I asked them to make groups of four so they could share. In a blink of an eye they made groups with their friends. Then started some happy experiments with flowing colours and brushes. Some paper was sacrificed in enthusiasm when skies were painted brown and rivers green. New paper was provided.
One little boy wanted a new sheet and when I asked what happened to his he said that it was spoiled. I looked at his painting and decided to teach him how to salvage it. A few strokes and it was looking better. So I asked him if he was happy now. He nodded but the smile was missing. I knew that since he had not gotten a new paper unlike three other kids he was feeling cheated. Without a word I walked to my bag and brought him back a new sheet. His smile lit up the room.
Mr. Negi showed me their school projects. The school holds regular art competitions for the kids. They draw a lot of things but when left to draw without instructions they paint their beloved mountains. They live a taxing life. Walking to school 4-5 kms everyday. No access to adequate stationery and other facilities but they do not complain. They are not cynical and have a very cheerful outlook. It was a wonderful experience for me. The bell rang and the kids left for their mid-day meal feeling reluctant to leave behind their paints and brushes. One girl said to me, ‘Ma’am aap bahut pretty ho (Ma’am you are very pretty.),’ and made my day.
My husband and I decided to do something for these kids and their teacher who could have gone to a big city for a job but stayed to teach the kids of his town. If possible I’ll go again, maybe for a week to teach these kids art. But till then I’ll send them some material that will let them explore and enjoy the creative journey. TAEP is about exchanging art so it fits right in. Hope I’ll have more members pitching in.
Text and photos: Aarti Uppal Singla