Life | Art Of Healing

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Art Of Healing
Text by Mamta Badkar
Published: Volume 17, Issue 5, May, 2009

Medicine has made way for guitars, watercolours and mudras; and with music, art and dance therapy centres springing up across the country; Mamta Badkar explores the far-reaching therapeutic effects of the arts

When Vladimir and Estragon took to the stage for the first time in January 1953, the audience at Théâtre de Babylone sat puzzled. By the end of that year, a German prisoner had translated the play and performed it inside Lüttringhausen Prison near Wuppertal, Germany. History bears witness to the fact that Waiting For Godot, arguably the most celebrated absurdist play, resonated more with prison inmates, used to waiting around endlessly for something to happen, than with the Parisian bourgeoisie. Samuel Beckett who wrote the play, took interest in these prison productions and even supported Rick Cluchey, an inmate at San Quentin Penitentiary, who acted in it and went on to become a writer and an actor after he was released from prison. There is a lot by way of evidence to suggest that the arts – be they music, art, dance or even the performing arts – have a therapeutic and often rehabilitative value to them.

I recently visited the Kamalnayan Bajaj Art Gallery to survey Art From Behind Bars. The exhibit was the brainchild of Kavita Shivdasani who took on this project as a social cause for her NGO, Know Your Environment. “There were questions raised about us helping criminals and the analogy we came up with was that all of us have done something wrong but our parents don’t discard us. Granted these are bigger offences but there’s no point just digging up the past, we should be trying to do something positive,” argues Shivdasani.

The artists represented here include three undertrials, two convicts, a police naik and his protégé. Baby John Parker, Rahul More, Naresh Jhadav and Tatiana Bolomey all had points of reference, some were imitative given the conditions in which they work - Shivdasani tells me the din at Arthur Road is deafening and not in the least conducive to creativity – but they had wall appeal. Lalita Gonugunta, who has an MA in fine arts and whose works were the last to be sold, had unique sketches which weren’t aesthetically appealing but were the most stimulating of the lot. “She was like wood when I first met her. Initially, I didn’t realise there was writing at the back of her sketches. She had put her thoughts about them down in Hindi,” says Shivdasani. Gonugunta’s art centres on women’s oppression and she has specifically requested that the money collected from its sales be used to help female prisoners at Nagpur Central Jail. Baby John’s works carry social messages too and a few are cathartic, depicting his frame of mind during his arrest.

Shivdasani’s biggest lesson came by way of Jhadav and More, both of whom would compete, not for money but for prestige and appreciation. “I once refused to take Jhadav’s sketches and he felt terrible. He sulked; he wouldn’t meet me the next time I visited; he even ripped one picture. What you realise is how much they want to please…. They are cut off from reality so long that they become extremely sensitive to what we say. It is important to make them feel good about their work because they already have this other stigma attached to them.” While this project didn’t serve as a basis for real world transition, it did show the inmates they had other resources at their disposal and gave them a sense of pride in their work.

Alternative therapy isn’t limited to just behavioural changes but includes psychological, physiological and emotional ones as well. Art has been particularly helpful for children with autism, who usually have a problem with verbal communication and repetitive, ‘stereotyped’ behaviour, as it provides them the opportunity to express themselves non-verbally. The common thread across these forms of therapy which distinguishes them from mainstream treatments, is that they are customised to suit the needs of each individual.

Music therapy as we know it today is only believed to have come into existence in the 1940s to help World War II victims with brain injuries. In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks talks about the influence music has on the human brain using case studies to show how music is the cause of both acute comfort and discomfort to people. He even describes musicogenic epilepsy, a condition in which music is the cause of seizures. Sacks explains how some musical notes can cause the disappearance of tics in people with Tourette’s syndrome; cause Tourettic representations of music through lunging, pulling faces and gesturing; or how certain rhythms, their frequency and intensity can even set off uncontrollable tics. With Parkinson’s, a movement disorder, it can cause patients to master their motor control or leave them helplessly driven by the music and lacking any sense of agency. Sacks distinguishes between Tourette’s, in which music is used to channel creativity since it is explosive, impulsive and productive – citing composer Tobias Picker as an example, whose Tourette’s enters his ‘creative imagination’ and helps him compose – and Parkinson’s, in which music is used to control the condition since it is largely obstructive.

Somesh Purey, a music therapist for The Music Therapy Trust, created by Margaret Lobo in Delhi, tells me the first step of music therapy is consultation, followed by sessions conducted to determine an individual’s receptiveness to music therapy. This involves observing and assessing their response to music, their musical behaviour and their degree of involvement. A more pragmatic response to German Romanticist Novalis’ proclamation, ‘Every disease is a musical problem; every cure is a musical solution.’

Purey, who is also currently working with Action For Autism in New Delhi, describes a music therapy session. “Typically 30 to 45 minutes depending on the age, therapeutic needs and the area of the client’s illness…. There are two types of music therapy receptive and participative. In the receptive method the client is passive and is guided in listening to live or recoded music specially chosen for his or her needs…. In the participative method, the client is involved in music-making and this process is itself therapeutic. When you make music, play or sing, all your mental, physical, psychological and emotional processes are involved. There is no predetermined format or structure to a session.” Timbre, dynamics, tempo and rhythm are four basic elements of music therapy theory. “What is most important is how you use these musical elements…. A change in these will change the effect, mood and feeling created by the music,” he adds.

The major benefits are improvement in personal and social skills. Autistic children become more outgoing. It provides an outlet for negative feelings, helps in speech vocalisation and musical structures help improve concentration, memory, sequencing, decision making and so on. Purey who specialises in working with children with autism says, “Music therapy helps children with autism by supporting the child’s self expression. I am working with two children of three and four years with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). (Their) parents have reported that their hyper-activity has decreased and their ability to maintain eye contact has improved significantly. The increased eye contact is a sign of the developing ability of non-verbal communication and the ability to relate to and be aware of others.”

Dance movement therapy functions on the notion that the body and the mind interact and that a change in movement, will bring about a holistic change. Vyjayanthi Kashi’s dance therapy videos show her working with people who are blind and those who live with Down’s syndrome, autism and other mental health problems. The sessions demonstrate how simple mudras can help improve motor skills and make them gregarious. Painting a picture of someone with depression she says, “We tend to drop our heads and hug our legs, almost as if we are going back to the foetal position and mudras teach us to comfort ourselves.” Kashi tells me about a German woman who had been abused and came to hate her body seeing it as the root cause of the assault. After the ninth session she admitted she was beginning to accept it and like it again. Translating a shlokha Kashi adds, “‘Where goes your hand, there goes your glance’. Your eyes follow your hands, feet and body, they take their time and in doing so make you love yourself…. At the end of the day all the problems in the world relate to emotions and dance is about feeling.”

In fact, Kashi’s admission that problems stem from pent up or unresolved emotions and that dance (and in fact music and art) helps release and vent these feelings, seems almost primal. She describes our rite of passage into the world, as one that begins from movement from within the womb and elucidates that dance is healing by virtue of the fact that it employs this innate rhythm. These therapies as Kashi points out “are not to be used as alternative medicine but as a way of life.” While practitioners are enthusiastic in their endorsement of arts-based therapies, care should be taken seeing that there are often chemical imbalances underlying behavioural and health problems. The process doesn’t offer miraculous cures but visibly improves quality of life.

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