In conversation with Gitanjali Sarangan, Founder and Executive Director of Snehadhara Foundation
“I found I could say things with colours and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way - things I had no words for” — Georgia O’ Keeffe
Art and music have always helped us in understanding the elusive parts of our mind and feelings by taking them up and presenting them in a clearer way, so that we feel as if, we know ourselves a little better than we did before.
We at ArtsPositive, have regular conversations and insightful experiences about how art helps us understand ourselves and those around us, in a clearer light. Recently, we had one such illuminating conversation with Gitanjali Sarangan, an educationist, social innovator, entrepreneur, an Arts Based Therapy (ABT) Educator and Practitioner and the founder of Snehadhara Foundation.
Snehadhara Foundation (SF) is a registered non-profit organization based in Bangalore. With a vision to foster a culture of respect and belonging Snehadhara aims to create inclusionary spaces that welcome, acknowledge, affirm, and celebrate the value of all learners through the Arts. It is the only organisation in the country that works using Arts Based Therapy (ABT) as a primary methodology in working with children and adults with disabilities.
The ambit of Snehadhara’s mission encompasses working with children across disabilities and across age groups using the Arts (Direct Care); co-creation of empathetic learning spaces in schools, colleges, corporates and the community (impART); as well as certification for Arts Based Therapy to construct a facilitation model for learning and inclusion (Prajnadhara).
During my conversation with Gitanjali, I realised that our journey through the world of arts was strikingly similar, almost as if we had lived the same life. We shared our early wounds that developed during the beginnings of our relationship with art — a traumatic art teacher from school who made us believe we couldn’t draw and a strict dance teacher, we wished death upon, as every evening they would conduct classes while the entire world was outside, playing. And, a love for music that stemmed from our musically rich families. But most importantly, how Arts was the most welcoming and uplifting medium during the lows of our adult life. The Arts united us in our experiences.
While telling us about Snehadhara, Gitanjali reflected upon the endearing story of its inception. It all started when Gitanjali met Sneha, a 2-year old with Down syndrome, who at that time could neither speak nor walk independently and was facing troubles getting admission in a regular school. After a year of trying and realising the amount of resistance, there was in accepting a child who just looks different, Gitanjali decided on creating a new learning space for Sneha, herself. Hence, Snehadhara was born. Today, Sneha is 10 years old and can speak 5–6 Indian languages that she’s learned through stories and songs and has become a chatter-box of sorts, says Gitanjali.
Gitanjali had never really thought of starting such an organization but she also was certain she didn’t want to work with adults. “The idea of working with ‘normal’ adults scares me. I think I can work with children. I like that world, maybe because it’s a non-judgemental world, at least till they are 5 years old,” she chuckles.
While helping with Sneha’s education, Gitanjali trained in Arts Based Therapy and decided to start the first centre in India that working with using ABT as its primary methodology. Although, this was 6 years ago, and people working with disabilities were yet to be familiar with the idea of ABT and its results. However, slowly yet surely, people started waking up to the benefits of Arts Based Therapy and that enabled Snehadhara to grow over the years. Snehadhara’s work this year has been taken to over 130 organisations across the country and impacted the lives of over 12,000 children.
On what made her decide upon ABT as the primary methodology for Snehadhara, Gitanjali explained the idea of looking at therapy not just as treatment but as a learning environment for children. Team Snehadhara wants to recognize the diverse
learning needs of each child, especially those in the autism spectrum and work on them as a whole. While also creating something that was non-threatening, learner-led and allow them to meet the child where the child is.
“What better than the arts?” claims Gitanjali. “What a dance and movement session has allowed us to achieve are the goals that a physiotherapist was trying to work on with a child”.
Currently, Snehadhara’s Direct Care hosts 35 children, from the age group of 7 to 41. Gitanjali prefers to address them as children since their neurotypical and biological ages are different. All of Snehadhara’s programmes are designed each year depending on the needs of these children and are carried out both, in group and one-on-one settings. Their main goal is to expand the universe of these children.
Some of their creative initiatives include -
Snehasangiti: An inclusive programme, where the children of Snehadhara and a regular school meet once a week, in order to form connections based on mutual respect and empathy, through art.
Pipilika: Pipilika, meaning ‘ants’ in Sanskrit is an outreach program that takes Arts Based Therapy to the parents and caregivers of the children at the centre and to other schools. Every Saturday, they conduct storytelling, puppetry, drumming, theatre etc. sessions to build inclusion and understanding while also having fun.
Oota Thota: A programme in which the kitchen acts as a social lab. A classroom in the kitchen where the children learn motor skills, math, science, language and develop their basic functioning and life skills.
Obattoo Café — The Obattoo Cafe under the Oota Thota programme continues to see our master chefs cook and serve a buffet of dishes once a week.
When I asked about the peculiar yet charming names of their programmes and classrooms, Gitanjali told me that most of the names have emerged from the babbles of the children in their classrooms. “We don’t really look out for names. They are something that we’ve heard the children say or what the team comes up with and when we Google it back, we realise that there is already meaning to them”.
In everyday life, Gitanjali feels “The Arts helps us hear what is not being said and see so much more than what meets the eyes”. And we agree with her that Arts plays a very important role in expressing and enabling one not to anyone else, but to oneself.
Gitanjali believes that the Arts enables us to learn of a world that does not discriminate, of people who love you for who you are and not what you do; and become world citizens who are not quick to judge, but rather quick to embrace. She has dedicated her life to giving these people a chance at an even playing field. It is an ongoing process, one that requires sacrifices and commitments every day. But for her, even shattering the biases of one person through her efforts is an achievement. She doesn’t want to change the world by herself. She wants the world to join her in her efforts, without judging her or each other. That is a victory like none other.
She believes “To be an artist, you don’t have to compose music or paint or write books or be in movies. It’s just a way of living. It has to do with paying attention, remembering, filtering what you see and paying back, and just participating in life by being present to it. And inclusion is just that gift of presence”.
Story by Isha Bhattacharya for ArtsPositive