“Art1st sits at the intersection of Art, Literature and Child Psychology.” Ritu Khoda

June 23, 2023by Kids Eureka0

From observer to tireless art advocate Ritu Khoda has done quite a bit for art appreciation. In this freewheeling e-chat with Bookaroo, Ritu shows how the outlook on art has transformed from almost zero experimentation and exploration into many spaces of discussions between children and the artists or teachers who mentor them.

Ritu is the founder of Art1st whose mission is to create a community where learning about the arts is an integral part in the growth of the people and their culture. It comes from “our passion to create a healthy cohabitation of thoughts, ideas, imagination and creativity along with the hunger to know more about the art and culture which lies unexplored, unattended”. Art1st endeavours to engage the children in a passionate journey of self-discovery, creativity and imagination through arts. Excerpts:

Q. You are a management and communication professional. So why art and how did it all start?

A. Oops! It was a mistake. But it was a beautiful one. It was one of the things I was meant to do to prove the world wrong only to realise that I had nothing to prove to world. I was responsible and answerable only to myself. And by the time I realised this I was married, a mother and inching towards the forties. It made me pause and reflect on my life.

I quit my job and when the world around me became silent, the world of colours, images, stories started to surface in my consciousness. I started to observe it more closely through my son’s world of fantasy. He would work hours on his own, dabbling and exploring new mediums and material. His expeditions were more exploratory and he had a narrative for everything he did. Right from hiding a dragon behind the windmill, to creating chaos with traffic light, he spent hours emulating a structure that sees him lying with gay abandon staring at the blue sky.

Khoda: the restless spirit that needed a voiceHowever, his art in school was dictated by the craft activity that his teacher had designed. Instead of exploration, it was forced impressions and worked-upon art that reflected very little of the child’s ingenuity. These two disparate worlds bothered me. I had to make sense of it. A subject like art not only brings joy but inventiveness, creative imagery, fantastical stories and deep thinking. Why was this missing in our schools?

I decided to embark on a year-long journey to meet teachers, artists and also educators in Kochi, Bangalore, Jaipur, Mysore, Mumbai and Delhi to understand some of these gaps in the Indian art education space. I felt restless after seeing the regression of cultural education in our schools.

This restless spirit needed a voice. A voice that would reflect on imagination, innovation, creativity, curiosity, criticality and experimentation in the child, a voice that would that would bring to fore how the art education policies, curriculum guidelines, and teaching strategies are framed and implemented, a voice that would dispel the retrograde thinking associated with visual arts.

This voice soon became a collective and art1st was born.

Q. Nearly a year ago you had said that Art Education in India has an outdated model of teaching. What exactly did you mean and has there been some change in the past year?

A. Have you ever wondered why most children in art classes land up drawing mountains and rivers and a road that is as narrow as the width of the door which is invariably juxtaposed against a coconut tree, irrespective of their present environment and surroundings?

It could be an archetype but it could also be because of the way art is taught in schools. The blackboard, chalk and a topic – that is how a majority of the art classes is defined. It leaves very little scope for experimentation, discussion and a dialogue for the students, not just with the teachers but also amongst themselves. The teaching practices do not give children enough opportunities to learn a concept by exploring material, questioning at every stage of learning and applying their knowledge and skills.

Art is defined by material and techniques but the skill of thinking is often overlooked. Because of lack of knowledge there is no inclusion of art history and appreciation in the classrooms. There is no localisation of cultural knowledge and folk art is reduced to craft and decorative art, marginalising its position. We are still affected by the colonial binary.

One of the key reasons is that most schools don’t have a robust art curriculum that aligns with the National Curriculum Framework. The curriculum is defined by the teachers as they go along and it is mostly based on topical events, drawing and colouring techniques.

The last couple of years have seen transformational policy documents in the space of Art Education. There is a clear intent to shift from STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math). However, the changes are so rapid that structures are collapsing under stress.

A case in point is the new Arts Integration Policy, where it is mandated by CBSE that all schools must shift towards art-integration pedagogy. The Art1st Art Education Summit in 2019 in collaboration with IGNCA and CBSE was a step towards building awareness of the role of art as a core subject. We had set up Interactive Labs and had invited experts to open up the space of integrated learning for our teachers (https://summit2019.art1st.co.in/#/).

The New Education Policy, 2020 is also focusing on an innovative pedagogy that will tap into experiential learning, integrated pedagogy and the effective use of technology in classes. However, what remains to be seen is how the schools will implement it for they are faced with several challenges of which lack infrastructure and adequate professional training to update the knowledge of teachers is key.

Q. Art1st teaches art to teachers. What interesting observations have you made while doing this?

A. We don’t teach art to teachers. Art is a philosophy, a way of thinking. It cannot be taught but can be explored. We work as catalysts. We conduct a need assessment and SWOC (strength, weakness, opportunity and challenge) mapping of our teachers and then, based on their strengths and areas of learning, we mentor them. We look at three areas of professional development: personal competency, upgradation of subject knowledge, and pedagogy and methodology of teaching and learning.

Our mentoring program has led to tremendous growth in teachers. For instance, art history timelines have helped the teachers understand the interconnections between major world events and the art movements; PMI (Plus, Minus, Interesting) is a technique of reflection and feedback which has made teachers confident and vocal about their opinions; using local games and songs to introduce concepts (teachers used the game of “Rail Gadi” to introduce the concept of lines, where children formed a line/train and moved all across the garden to look for leaves and twigs that had various lines on them). Finally, art classes have transformed into spaces of discussions between teachers and students

QArt1st wants to redefine visual art education in India. Give us an example/s of how you plan to achieve that.

A. Art1st intervenes at multiple levels of the educational ecosystem to affect change.

The Art1st AEP program provides concepts, frameworks and tools to Art Educators to redefine their roles within the school, from becoming advocates for the value of art education as a core subject as well as imparting creative, critical and visual thinking skills to their students.

Our advocacy work through our Art Education Roundtable (AER) and the Annual Summit, brings together educational and governmental leadership to share key insights and learnings which informs policy making moving forward.

Art1st Publications places the rich Indian visual culture in the hands of young readers, allowing them to engage and experience with Indian traditional and contemporary art. This gives young readers a familiarity and appreciation of Indian art and art history.

Art1st Films continues to produce and distribute films that highlight Indian artists that need to be brought into the spotlight on domestic and global artistic and cultural platforms. These films raise awareness of our rich traditional and contemporary creative culture making it accessible to a larger audience.

Art1st Digital translates a vast repository of research and experience in art pedagogy into innovative, accessible programs and services that expands our scale and reach exponentially to educators, educational, art and cultural institutions and communities in India and globally.

Q. Congratulations on the bronze medal that Art is a Verb won in the ‘Interactive Children’s Book Category’ of the IPPY Award 2020. How did the book come about?

AArt is a Verb is a book that concurrently explores the works of Indian artists such as A Ramachandran, Abanindranath Tagore, Madhvi Parekh and many more, whilst delighting in the action of verbs. The book takes the young reader on a journey of actions, as drawn from the works of eminent Indian Artists, along with a set of engaging Art and Language activities. The child protagonist awakes to the wonders of a new morning, makes some friends and has a wonderful day.

According to its author, Likla, it began with a simple idea ‘Art is a Verb’. Art is the very act of creation, art is experiencing, art is being. We set out to create a book of joy, action and art, where each page leapt out at you, playful and enchanting. The young reader held in their hands a small personal gallery, filled with their own stories and games. Every aspect of the book aligned itself to the title.

The design of Art is a Verb began with a simple brief as well: ‘Bring delight and surprise to young readers.‘ But simple is not how its designer, Rohina Thapar, would describe the process! She employed engaging and complex paper manipulations such as gateway sheets, folds, die-cuts, pastings. Meaningful considerations of layout, composition and typography helped enhance the book’s eternal story. With an endless cycle of prototypes, we shaped a delightful experience of art for children – one that is all worth it when we see a child playing, figuring and enjoying our book!

To be honoured by the Independent Publisher Book Awards is a hopeful sign that the simplest tool in our hands – the book – can be a source of unending delight and surprise.

Q. Children, Art and Books. Do you see a synergy building up there? How would you define that synergy if there is?

A. It is interesting that you ask this question. Art1st sits at the intersection of Art, Literature and Child Psychology. Books bring the past, the documentation of all human knowledge. Art is the present, the utterly engrossing act of creation within a moment. Children are the future, the ones in whose hands all choices belong. In the synergy of these, of the past, present and future, we are presented with endless possibility.

Q. What would art1st’s message to parents be? Especially if a child is interested in art and the parents may not think it an important aspect?

A. I would tell the parents just one thing – let your child explore the endless possibilities of creative expression so they can be open-minded, inquisitive, reflective inquirers. The exposure to art is not to make them artists but creative thinkers. What our children require is a foundation in creative education.

Q. How important are collaborations to art1st? Is there a particularly interesting collaboration that you may want to talk about?

A. We have never actively applied for funds or grants. We have adapted a hybrid model where the profits of our enterprise support our foundation work. But what we do focus on is a true collaboration where two foundations come together to genuinely take the larger vision of art education further, where the focus is on a collective vision to drive change.

When it comes to collaboration, all the people we work with become part of our extended art1st family. Our very first collaboration was with Mohile Parekh Centre. I had approached them with a proposal for Partner a Master: An Artist Mentor Program for young teenagers. What started as a studio program acquired a massive scale, where we went on to curate and exhibit students works in Delhi and Mumbai, released a book Unbox: A Workbook on Contemporary Art, provided a platform for the students to present their work to an eclectic audience, produced films on the artist mentors and then hosted a seminar for art educators as a culmination of our work.

Both Foundations worked selflessly and seamlessly and the joy was transcendental. This relationship is also important to me, personally, because Amrita and Nikhil worked with us when we were a fledgling organisation. They accepted our proposal because they believed in our vision and truly supported us to make it a reality.

Recently, we collaborated with libraries and foundations like Akshara, Share a Book India Association, Let’s Open a Book, Slam out Loud, Aseema, Karam Marg, Katkhata Puppet and The Community Library Project, so they could take our art and literature program to diverse groups of children.

Q. Eleven years of art1st and maybe many more years of art. What do you look back and see?

A. I see a changed world. Today, our children are two steps ahead of our educators. They know much more than we ever did when we were their age. Information is available to them at a click of a button. Their interests are changing and their thoughts and ideas are being crystallised. They are trying to make sense of a complicated world. And it is becoming all the more imperative to offer the students a creative conduit for their thoughts and a school culture that is open, flexible and receptive.

Creative imagination is useless in itself, but when it flows into awareness and interacts with existing reality, something new grows in the world. And when that happens, we want to be there beside our children supporting them and nurturing them to take their ideas forward.

My 11 years at art1st has also given birth to another organisation Little Light. It focuses on the mental health and spiritual well-being of our children.