Published: 12th October 2018
Saher Ali's Totums Art Studio in Hyderabad uses art to remove the stigma surrounding therapy
When was the last time you said the word 'therapy' and were judged? Well, not anymore
On the long stretch that is the Raj Bhavan Road in Somajiguda, Hyderabad, there is a lane between the outlandish yet adorably pink store named Bellaz and a homely kirana store. If you follow the lane as it turns towards the left, you'll eventually hit a dead end and see Hidden Treasure Apartments. But we believe that the true hidden treasure on that lane (or perhaps even beyond that) is Totums Art Studio, which was started by Saher Ali in January this year. Nestled on the first floor of an independent house, it retains its old-world charm, complete with beautiful Salar Jung Museum-esque paintings (which we are told were painted by Saher Ali's mother) clad in heavy, intricately carved frames. Painted bottles and artwork along with two extremely comfortable-looking single-seater sofas in sunny yellow greet us along with the equally sunny smile of Saher Ali herself. As she ushers us in, we hear lively contemporary classical music (“You like it? It’s Yann Tiersen,” Saher says). The word 'flexible' is neatly written on a blackboard which is otherwise surrounded by happy, hand-painted flowers. Curious children and their mothers are examining a rock and drawing it. We quickly realise that we are intruding on her weekend session with kids. "Today's session is about imagining where the rock must have come from and drawing it," says Saher and joins them again to facilitate the session.
We don't always have names for the emotions and feelings we go through, says Saher. That's when you can express it through art
Making of Saher
Right after the session, we catch up with Saher and quickly get the basic details out of the way — born in Delhi, attended boarding school at Lawrence School, Lovedale near Ooty, Tamil Nadu, studied (and later taught) at St Francis College For Women, Begumpet and pursued a Master's in Counselling Psychology from Sampurna Montfort College, Bengaluru. "After that, I spent six months crying," says the 38-year-old. This was because there was no growing need for mental health professionals then, like there is now. But she did work at Activity India, where she facilitated life skills in different schools. She also worked as a counsellor at St Francis and St Mary's College and started her own initiative, but something just wasn't clicking. "I wanted to help people, help them get in touch with their inner-self. Every one of us has an intuition, a creative being inside us. We need to get in touch with it because that's the highest level of awareness we can attain. The medium can be anything, art, gardening..." she says. And she discovered the medium that works for her quite organically.
Own space: One of the areas inside Totums Art Studio
In between all this, Saher had two daughters and lost her father in 2012. Vigorously, she started painting old bottles lying around the house when her daughter pointed out that she had painted 150 already! And her long journey of finding out what to do culminated here, when she figured out that she must use art as a medium to connect with individuals. "I thought of integrating art with my sessions, after all, I have the qualification for it. Everything has come together beautifully," she gushes. And that's the tale of how a counsellor and psychologist turned into a holistic psychological counsellor.
There is no board outside the studio which declares the name because Saher did not want to commercialise the space and make it seem like a summer camp
Art as an enabler
"Usually it takes an individual two to five sessions to open up, but with art, it happens quite easily," says Saher, as she offers us some cut fruit and green tea. When we struggle to imagine how art really helps, she tells us how she asks individuals to synchronise their breathing to the paintbrush as they paint a dark pond while imagining all that they fear. Another way is to ask individuals to pick their favourite colour and assign one colour each to the people who are close to them like a spouse, parents or friends and paint accordingly. Only when these colours merge on paper do they realise their feelings regarding them. "The key is awareness. When you are aware of what is going on, you will change it," says the artist. When we ask Saher about the name, she laughs and tells us, "Totums was the pet name given to me when I was in boarding school. So, when I started the studio, I thought to myself, 'This is my space, I will call it what I like!'." It looks like it has worked out well, we say. "Oh for sure, people think it's an exotic name," she says and laughs again
My plan is much bigger than this space. I want to really make this a movement and reach out to people across the demographic
Saher Ali, Founder, Totums Art Studio
So, Saher taker her art therapy to corporates (including Uber), schools (including NALSAR University of Law) and even NGOs (she is in talks with Humane Society International and My Choices Foundation). We especially love one of the sessions she conducts for corporates, where she gives everyone a small and smooth square granite tile and asks them to paint one stroke for every role they play — parent, child, spouse, manager and so on. "The purpose is to show that they have limited time and that these are all the roles that they are trying to fit into it. I ask them to give themselves some credit, step back and look at all the roles they play. And trust me, I've seen people break down. People never feel validated and this exercise lets them reflect," she says. And when she puts it that way, in her soothing, calm voice, we can imagine the crying too.
Our favourite corner of the studio is the balcony, which Saher calls the 'disgusting corner'. It has a huge canvas that participants can splash paint on, irrespective of the mess they create
What we are most excited about when it comes to the studio is the digital painting software she is planning to bring to the city with the help of Smart Core Labs, a US-based company, which enables children to turn their written stories into digital art, complete with a storyboard and everything
Paintings that speak
Right beside the door of the studio are these paintings. Some of them are drawn by children who have gone through physical and emotional abuse. While one is about the darker side of the child and how, as they grow up, the hurt that is in their heart travels to their mind, the other is where the child has attempted to draw her abuser
Saher also introduced a course while in St Francis called Pre-marital Counselling. "I found that college students were not motivated as they had no goals. College for them was like a giant-sized waiting room, just to kill time before they get married," says Saher. This interdisciplinary course helps them understand relationships. "You may think that your boyfriend saying 'Don't go to any parties when I'm not in town', is cute now, but it is actually an early sign of an abusive relationship," she says. These are some of the aspects girls are made to understand.
Book your session
Saher conducts different kinds of sessions:
- Weekend sessions for children
Children (and their mothers too) can participate in this session. A guided session is followed by a free-flowing session.
- Painting with friends
This is for all, including "Those women who want to opt to come here instead of gossiping at a hotel. We even make it really fancy by providing each woman with a tabletop easel, serve mocktails and even arrange a cheese platter," says Saher.
- Study circle
This is for counsellors and even non-counsellors who are taught counselling skills through art. "This is ideal for teachers, trainers and all those who feel the need for it," says Saher. During every session, one skill like empathy or active listening is explored.
- Books and cupcakes
This is a book club especially for those children who love reading, "and feel like weirdos sometimes," she says.
Intuition is a woman's greatest strength. We are always told what to do and people around us become enablers. We need to understand that our strength lies within us
Saher Ali, Founder, Totums Art Studio
"We are quick to blame the system every time a student commits suicide, saying that the exam paper was too tough or the teachers and the institute itself spoke to them in a certain way, but we never see that we did not help the child build resilience or an emotional awareness of what is happening within them," says Saher when we shift gears and dive into the need for art, or even an avenue of self-expression really, for children. And it is fairly simple to create this avenue, shares Saher. "There should be one space at home or at the institute, a room where the child can do anything they please. Mistakes are acceptable and there are no rules; they can express themselves any way they wish," offers the artist. And what about those children who are reluctant and riddled with self-doubt? "Just place the paints in the room, or whichever medium required, and the child, or anyone really, will itch towards it, sooner or later. They let go of that fear," she says. When she mentions the word 'fear', we recall reading somewhere in her studio 'Fear no longer determines what I do or do not do' and decide that someday, maybe we should give the pen a rest and pick up a paintbrush instead.
For more on the studio, click on facebook.com/totumous/