Creative Arts for Children with Special Needs - by Madhumitha Rangarajan

Virtual interventions by A Brush With Art (ABWA), an art program designed for children with special needs.

By #COVIDHeroes

Madhumitha Rangarajan

An art class for Rishi with Mala Chinnappa (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

Mala is one of the facilitators in ABWA - an art program run for the neurodiverse who have difficulty in verbal and social communication. This is Mala’s home, converted into a makeshift space for her art class with Rishi, a student on the autism spectrum.

Despite living 3000 kilometers away, Rishi and his mother Ramya are still able to continue their art classes thanks to the internet and ABWA.

Mala painting along with Rishi during the art class (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

Mala, one of the three facilitators at ABWA, is painting along with Rishi during their art class.

As the physical art class came to a halt due to lockdown, Mala and her team started putting out small art tutorial videos and stringing together a bunch of photos as reference for the mothers to try doing the activity at home with their child, thus ensuring they don’t lose touch with free expression through art.

Rishi showing his progress to Mala during their art class (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

His mother Ramya says, “Rishi, aged 15, has been with ABWA for a few years now. It is amazing how innately sensitive the ABWA team is to each child's needs, wishes, likes, and dislikes. We, mothers, have learned so much from them in terms of learning to let go, give our children the space and the freedom to explore through a creative medium. They have opened a whole new world of creativity, imagination and possibilities for our kids!”

Mala reviewing the final art created by Rishi (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

Rishi showing Mala the final art he created during the class.

The ABWA team comes up with fun, creative yet simple ideas for the child to do every week. Each activity is tailored to each child's capability and the classes are minimally guided by the teachers and assisted by the parent. 

Ramya, Rishi’s mother, absolutely loves the art class because she finds it as a huge stress-buster for them both.

An online art class with Haripriya, in her home (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

The art of teaching is a reflective experience in itself. Here, Haripriya is all ready for her class. Each facilitator begins with a warm-up conversation, with a lot of smiles exchanged between them and the student, to create an atmosphere of comfort, before the activity begins.

Haripriya showing a piece of chart paper to Pavitra on how to draw clouds using white crayons (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

Priya initiates her class with Pavitra by giving her some direction on the process.

Students are given a free hand to explore art materials. The facilitators offer directions only after a certain stage when students are more comfortable using the materials, to guide them along their journey of art.

Priya looking at Pavitra’s painting process through her iPad (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

Priya says, “ABWA has always been a place where our kids have the freedom to create their own masterpieces. I was pleasantly surprised at how well they all adjusted to the online classes. This was a learning curve for both  facilitators and parents, and I’m delighted that we have found a rhythm that brings out the creative freedom in our kids.”

Sowdhamini and her daughter Pavitra presenting the art she made in one of her online art class sessions conducted on Zoom (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

Pavitra and her mother in a cute little art corner in their home. 

Her mother Sowdhamini says, “art has been a huge part of Pavitra's life ever since she was a child. Through ABWA, I have also learned a lot in terms of letting go, not intervening in her free exploration and at the same time improve my art quotient, and finally to chill in the tranquility of art exploration.”

Nivrutha helping her daughter handprint on a sheet of paper to create a Christmas tree using paint on paper (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

When the classes were held at the cottage in Cholamandal Artists Village, mothers would drop children off and usually wait outside class ended.

Due to the pandemic, the mothers have become assistants, facilitating the teachers and actually helping their children execute the art. These online classes have enabled them to share an even better special bond.

Nivrutha painting her daughter Mredini’s hand (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

Nivrutha says, “Mredini has been with ABWA for more than three years now. I love the way they let the children explore art in their own way. ABWA’s online art classes have been extremely helpful during the pandemic. They satisfy the sensory needs of each child by touching the paint, painting, pasting, and more - it’s a great way to keep them occupied.”

Jyotsna Srinivasan seen on Zoom during her art class with Nivrutha and Mredini (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

A mother's hands are always full.

Nivrutha attempts to fulfil the needs of both her children. She prepares for her elder daughter's art class - who is on the spectrum of autism - while arranging toys for her toddler.

Jyotsna, seen on the phone, guides Nivrutha through the class, ensuring she enjoys the entire process and has fun doing art with her daughter.

A special bond between a mother and child (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

Nivrutha enjoying herself, while talking to Jyotsna on a Zoom call and finger painting with her daughter to decorate the Christmas tree.

ABWA's online classes have become a great way for mother and child to bond. They get to work hand in hand, with the child exploring communication through art, and the process is self-reflective for everybody who is a part of it.

Jyotsna Srinivasan having a fun conversation with Madhav and Madhuca (mother) (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

Jyotsna Srinivasan has been with ABWA ever since it started in 2015. 

Working with the students of ABWA has altogether been a completely different experience. She was new to the learning process, and it was challenging. She had to learn to step back and see the results by letting the children explore the mediums themselves, to not direct them in any way.

Madhav making a christmas tree (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

Madhav making a Christmas tree with guidance from Jyotsna Srinivasan, his facilitator.

ABWA focuses more on the process than on the end product. Every student has the freedom to explore their choice of materials and create art with what they are comfortable with. 

Watching them enjoy the process of creating art is what inspires us.

Jyotsna Srinivasan showing Madhav what needs to be done that day on a zoom call (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

Jyotsna Srinivasan says, “art, without an agenda, is their means of engaging with the outside world. Special needs children function differently - we need to give them the space and time to get comfortable where they are before they begin any activity. 

You must realise they are sensitive beings and one has to treat them as independent human beings capable of expressing themselves - and that’s what we aim to do at ABWA.”

Happy smiles at the end of an art session with Madhav and Madhuca, facilitated by Jyotsna Srinivasan (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

Madhav poses with the Christmas tree he made during the art class and we see two happy faces who love what he has made. 

A convenient aspect of conducting classes online is that even if the Zoom session ends, the kids continue doing the art with the help of their mothers. There is no pressure of time to finish the final work.

A christmas tree art by Madhav (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

Madhav’s mother Madhuca Krishnan says, “Madhav has been with ABWA since 2016. It had its challenging moments in the beginning when he would put varied art material in his mouth. His facilitators would serenely forestall my scolding by saying he was just exploring the medium."

She continues, "they gave him the freedom to do what he wanted with the material presented and he had so much fun. All the kids took to the new format like pros and lockdowns suddenly became rainbow-hued.”

Artist Velu Viswanadhan’s house (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

Artist Velu Viswanadhan’s cottage space at Cholamandal Artists’ Village was where the regular art classes happened. 

Viswanadhan adored the work the children created and declared, "this isn't so much freedom of expression, but an expression of their freedom".

The cottage space was a beautiful space for the kids to come to, explore different textures and materials available and learn and grow.

Works of ABWA Students (2020) by Madhumitha Rangarajan#COVIDHeroes

Artworks created by Pavitra, Madhav, Mredini, and Rishi when the classes were held in the cottage. 

ABWA has a strength of 20 students, of which 11 are now attending the online sessions. Over the years ABWA has grown into a beautiful community of facilitators, parents, and children who support each other and learn and grow together as a community.

Due to this nurturing of their natural expression, the children have created stunning works, some of which were even displayed during the 2018 Kochi Biennale in the “Outsider Art” show, at the Dravidia Gallery.

Outsider Art or Naïve Art refers to works created by people who have not been 'educated' in a mainstream Art School with a standard curriculum. These free spirits are driven to express themselves, without any thought about the works' commercial value or validation.

Credits: Story

Artist: Madhumitha Rangarajan

Madhumitha Rangarajan is a documentary photographer based out of India and has been documenting people and places since 2005. Her work focuses on visual narratives that showcase various landscapes, cultures, environment and lives lived across India. She is also a freelance graphic designer and an entrepreneur who owns a stationery brand based out of Chennai. Her love for people and nature has taken her to many remote places in India where she has had the wonderful opportunity to live, experience and document the lives of the locals.

Project location: Chennai, India

#COVIDHeroes is an initiative by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Chennai Photo Biennale Foundation (CPB) to acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of real-life heroes by sharing their stories.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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