By Suma Varughese
An enterprising group in pune has set up a centre for arts-based therapies such as music, theatre, dance and painting
Talk of surreal. I am sitting in a circle with a group of fitness trainers in a spiffy gym in one of Pune’s upcoming suburbs, New Baner, with a big drum between my knees.
A tall good looking young man, whose well-developed biceps testify to regular attendance at the gym, is putting us through our paces. "Pam parapam," he says, and all of us thump the drums gingerly, experiencing the sharp thwack of skin against wood for the first time. Faster, faster, he says, and we attack the drums in a frenzy. Now stop, he shouts, jumping into the air for emphasis. Breathlessly, we come to a halt. Asking us to pick one of a medley of instruments, he tells us to create a jungle symphony. I pick up a magical tube, which, when raised upward, creates the sound of running water. Frogs croak, crickets chirp, and the jungle seems fairly close when our impromptu drumming session comes to an end. Our once fairly stiff group is now visibly animated, eyes shining, smiles stretching our faces, excitedly asking our energetic conductor where one can buy a drum and how one can learn drumming. For most of us, a new possibility is being born.
For Zubin Balsara, the task of sowing seeds of possibilities in the unlikeliest of grounds, is all in a day’s work. Along with his wife Asha Pillai, and good friend Aanand Chabukswar, he has set up the impressively titled World Centre for Creative Learning Foundation (WCCLF), in Pune, teaching and using arts-based therapies such as music, art and theatre.
"People respond easily to art and get excited," observes the articulate Asha, who has had more than a decade’s experiences in human development."We decided we could make a difference by giving them experiences."
For India, arts-based therapies is an avant-garde concept, though they have a respectable standing in the West which has been experimenting with such concepts for the last 50 years. While dance is now steadily getting a clientele, music, art and theatre, though distinctly intriguing, have still to make their presence felt. This trio, then, is clearly a path-breaker, forging into uncharted territories. More so, because they have chosen to direct these therapies for people with special needs: addicts, the mentally challenged and the mentally ill, to cite a few.
"These are the people who need it most," says Balsara passionately. "They are also the most neglected section of society. Besides, so-called normal people have other options. They can talk. Special needs people usually cannot."
For special needs people, these non-verbal techniques are effective ways of breaching emotional blocks, communicating their state of mind, and even of healing.
Says Zubin, "People often want dramatic results. They point to someone who cannot walk and ask, ‘Can you make them walk?’ No, we can’t, but music can improve gait. Rhythmic stimulation makes motor movement smoother. And in drumming, muscular coordination problems disappear."
They cite the case of the vice president of a company who was afflicted with broca’s aphasia, a condition that creates inability to form grammatical sentences. However, the brain circuitry involving melody was unaffected and he could sing songs. Balsara taught him conversational songs, which eventually led him to resume normal conversation.
Even those suffering from autism have fewer behavioral problems when made to practice arts therapies.
Adds Aanand, "Drama therapy can enable a person to tell his story. We move from telling stories to making them and enacting them."
Says Asha, "Art works at all spheres from the subtle to the gross. It also opens up possibilities, which means that you have more choices. Art forms also alter perception. If you act the role of a lion or horse, you become a lion or horse."
Balsara adds, "Metaphor brings freedom. You are not stifled by the story that you have bought of your life. You discover passages of freedom."
All three arrived at their work through their own explorations. Says Asha, "Even as a facilitator, I loved experimenting with games and music. Personally, I find that I become a lot calmer when I listen to music."
Balsara has been a drummer since his childhood. However, a year’s detour into corporate life convinced him to switch to his present calling. Since music therapy was unheard of in India, he flew to Hawaii to train with Arthur Hill of the Drum Circle Facilitation. (Incidentally what we practised at the gym was a drum circle, organized by Balsara for his gym instructors as a mark of his gratitude to them. "I believe in contributing to community," he said as we drove to the gym in his car, which was piled high with drums of varying sizes.)
He also trained with Heather Mactavish, a sufferer of Parkinson’s in the US, who had achieved remarkable results in treating her own situation through music and dance. Says Balsara, "The main thing about Parkinson’s is that it puts you in frozen states. You feel the body is not yours. At such a time, she asked herself, ‘Can I make my body move?’ For three to four nights she used to dance and found her muscles were moving freely."
Today, Heather runs a foundation for fellow sufferers and is clearly one of Balsara’s sources of inspiration.
Aanand too has been doing theatre from a young age. When taking tuitions, he found that children responded far better if he converted the classes into theatre. Says he, "I used balls and street theatre with children. While working with children, I found that those with special needs responded really well to this."
Aanand also went abroad to study drama with Dr Sue Jennings, in the UK. It was while working with the Kripa de-addiction centre that he met Balsara and joined hands with him and Asha. The trio has a fourth colleague, Deborah Daniel, who looks after administration and facilitates the fine arts therapy.
Watching the four of them laughing together over a festive lunch to celebrate Aanand’s birthday, one cannot help but applaud them for having the courage to step out of the mainstream and follow their hearts, using their skills to cater to the most vulnerable section of society. These young people in their early 30s, seem indeed to symbolise a new India. Confident,articulate, hip and savvy, these erstwhile corporate warriors have their feet firmly on Indian soil and hearts clearly in the right place. They appear unhindered by the fears and security needs of the earlier generations that kept them hidebound to conventional jobs.
"Someone who really turned our lives around was Debu, (a popular trainer at the Forum workshops). He taught us to think independently and question society’s standards," says Asha of her and Zubin’s experience.
What enables them to contribute so generously to society and yet maintain a fairly comfortable lifestyle – complete with large flat, car, organic food, lashings of Tropicana juice and gym memberships – is a generous grant from the Mumbai-based Sir Dorabji Tata Trust.
In addition to using their skills with special needs institutions, they also hold workshops for regular people. "There we don’t use the term ‘therapy’", they say.
The group offers a series of workshops. There is the Arts-Based Therapy (ATP), which combines painting, dancing, singing and story-telling, activities anyone can do and therefore, serve as an effective therapeutic tool. The second workshop is Improvisational Music Therapy, which makes use of drum circles for therapeutic purposes. Balsara encourages participants to make up music while singing or playing, creating a melody, rhythm, song or instrumental piece. This can be done only after participating in the initial ATP course.
The third is Drama Therapy (DT), which can help facilitate creativity, imagination, learning, insight and growth for healing purposes.
Because it is a new field and there is little awareness of it, let alone studies on its efficacy, one of their key goals is to do research and compile studies that would prove the levels of its effectiveness on various groups. Quite apart from compiling data from their own projects, they have also decided to fork out and offer training in these areas. This serves two purposes. Not only does it generate more therapists in the country, but the mandatory requirement to work on a project will provide them with the data they are looking for.
The course, which targets only those who work in institutions or NGOs looking after the special needs population, is for a duration of nine months, though only 15 days of these are actually hands-on training. After an initial 8-day period of training, they are required to return to their institutes and create a pilot project, using the skills they learnt at the course. In order to ensure that the training is implemented at work, the head of the institute is required to come to the centre and commit to ensuring that the participant will use the knowledge.
After a period of three months they return for the second stint and are asked to create their final project. They are expected to design arts-based interventions for whichever institution they are working for, through an understanding of the audience and of their needs. They are also trained to document the work: "What did I do? How did I do it?" This latter requires the feedback of peers and clientele.
Of their first batch of graduates, 15 of the 20 passed and got certified. Ten or 11 are doing active project work.
"There is no other avenue to learn these therapies in India," they say, "and going abroad is such an expensive proposition."
Their ultimate ambition, however, is that in the next 10 years they should have a proper institute (they currently operate from home) that would attract people from all over the world. "We will have an Indian component to arts therapy. After all, we have such a profound understanding of the human psyche because we approach it from the basis of spirituality while in the West they come from a psychological context," they say, with the confidence of the global generation.
Now this is a consummation devoutly to be desired. India, which sees sound as the basis of creation and has a profound repertoire of healing music and dance, has immense wealth to offer in this regard. Through using these arts sensitively and skilfully, not only will the special needs population flower out, but the rest of us too could renew our stores of creativity, spontaneity, mental and emotional health.
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