Following is a personal account from 2009, when I worked with children living on the streets and railway platforms. I would regularly facilitate workshops that used creative methodologies such as theatre, dance and movement, craft and collage, drawing and puppetry. The workshops would mostly be with staff that worked for the care and protection of the children and sometimes with the children themselves. This was one such workshop with children of Jabalpur platform, Madhya Pradesh.
His life comprised mostly of begging in long distance trains, until one day he arrived at the shelter home for boys at Jabalpur. He must have been about 5 or 6 years old. What distinguished him from the rest of the boys was his pronounced stutter and the resultant reluctance to share his experiences in the group. My ice-breaking moment with him happened with the help of very few words, amid paper, pencils and colours. During the workshop, I had asked all the children to visualize their place of safety / a safe space and then draw it on paper. He chose fluorescent green as the dominant colour for his drawing. The human figure he drew, he called the gudda (doll in Hindi) and the house he drew, gudde ka ghar (doll’s house). Everything was coloured in bright, fluorescent green with minimal use of other colours.
Having completed his task, he approached me, seeking permission to go to the toilet. I nodded in between my conversations with other children not noticing right away that he was clutching the fluorescent green pen even as he left the room to go to the toilet. I called out to him, wanting to ask him to leave the pen behind. He did not stop. Clearly, he wanted to safeguard his favorite pen. On returning from the toilet, he picked up his drawing and continued filling it with the same colour. Considering it was a colour that had caught his fancy, he wanted to ensure that it did not fall into the hands of the other 19 boys. Everything at the shelter for the boys is shared and there is naturally a tendency to hoard, to protect and to ensure one gets the maximum of what is available. He did not return the felt pen to the staff even when he did the eraser and the pencil.
A short while later, when I asked the kids to to draw a scene from the railway platform, this boy seemed to be at a loss. He sat with a blank page which he finally brought over to me declaring, “I cannot do it”. That was the first time we spoke. I remembered a simple and easy thought put forth by Devi Prasad in his book, Art: the basis of Education. In the book, the author had stressed on the merits of an easy conversation with the child about all that he or she might have seen around, as children largely dip into their memory in order to draw. We started talking about what all he had seen on the platform. This was easy for him and I could sense a surge of energy that came with his ability to list all the things out. However, I knew that this surge could just as easily be undermined if he were to grapple with the pencil on paper! I naturally volunteered to draw a simple train coach for him, one of the items he had listed. He observed and imitated drawing three more bogies and connecting all of them to form a train. I then drew the first two lines of a railway track and he finished the rest. After this he himself volunteered to draw the kite-shaped signboards he remembered seeing on platforms and wrote जबलपुर (Jabalpur) on all of them. He observed, studied what I was doing and it appealed to him enough to try and re-create it in his own way. From saying “I cannot do it”, to finally, triumphantly, displaying his “platform” drawing to his friends, someone had certainly come a long way.
Many months after this event, browsing through Devi Prasad’s book once again, I came across an explanation of the same idea and I quote directly, “Children who continue receiving new experiences all the time, new ideas for their paintings, would not do it (referring to imitation’) When any of them does it, it is due to the absence of a new idea at that time or the subject in a particular picture has specially attracted him. Children who are comparatively backward in this respect, are more likely to imitate. We should not make a fuss about it. Who knows, this kind of imitation might give them an incentive to draw their own pictures in the course of time!!” (Prasad.D, 1998)
In his book, Devi Prasad more than once touches upon many a teachers’ and parents’ dilemma of should children be allowed to imitate in art. It is helpful for parents and educators to understand that when a child, noticing something he has never seen before, enjoys it, examines it and seeks to re-create it in his own manner, is different from the mindless imitation / copying of adults’ pictures. In fact, the former, according to Devi Prasad is not imitation at all but a very acceptable part of an artists’ creativity.
Talking and smiling with this child through this process of creation, watching his imagination materialize on paper and being witness to his small yet significant triumph continues to be my cherished moment.
 Prasad, D., 1998. Art: The Basis of Education. Published by National Trust.