Published: 01st November 2020
With art for art's sake as their mantra, this Hyderabad-based foundation conducts workshops for govt school students
This is the mantra that Aikaarth Foundation follows. Started by 24-year-old Pooja Agarwal, this NGO might have halted its operations due to the pandemic, but they are rearing to go very soon
Art is a beautiful and versatile tool. It can be used as a medium of self-expression, as a form of therapy to overcome depression or other ailments, as a tool for activism and so much more. But between all this, whatever happened to the notion of 'art for art's sake', one wonders. Just indulging in the form for nothing else but art. This is what Pooja Agarwal got us thinking about. It is her belief in art education that egged this 24-year-old on to start Aikaarth Foundation in June 2016. It started as a simple idea where college students conduct workshops for orphanages and government schools. Now, their model is evolved to provide fellowships and even a cluster model that enabled resource-sharing among schools.
"‘States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity’ states Article 31, Convention on the Rights of the Child, UN Human Rights. We want every child to be able to exercise this right and we provide art education programmes in schools for this purpose," says the determined Hyderabadi. Going digital during the pandemic was not really an option for them because the students they cater to don't have the equipment to make the most of it. So the foundation has shifted its attention to a three-fold target — curriculm, raising funds and building programmes.
During a performance | (Pic: Aikaarth Foundation)
"Even after schools reopen, will they opt for art projects is a big question especially since we work on a cluster model. Therefore, we are planning to start operations in the year 2021," says Pooja. Taking us through her journey of starting this foundation while studying in St Francis College For Women, working with Teach For India and everything else, Pooja tells us about being in the social sector and what exactly 'art for art's sake' means to her. Excerpts:
1. Take us back to the time when you were introduced to the social sector.
Since childhood, I have stayed in a place that is surrounded by a slum. I have made friends here but I knew that the opportunities, resources and quality of living between my friends and me were extremely different, and I saw my family always helping the community. My family (especially my grandfather Arjun Lal Agarwal) always kept teaching me about the struggles and difficulties the people in the community face and how we must always do what we can to help them. It is from these values inculcated by my family that I've always known that I wanted my work to be such that I am in service to people from low-income communities.
2. Aikaarth Foundation's journey started back in June 2016, we believe. Take us back to those days when you were still finding your feet.
In 2015, I was leading an art community of around 400 artists in Hyderabad where artists would come together to connect, collaborate and celebrate once every month. We were one of the first groups to host open mic events in Hyderabad. In 2016, I was the social outreach head at St Francis College For Women and I had to come up with some initiative through which students of the college could engage in social activities.
Drawing my inspiration from the art community that I was leading, I got the idea of starting Aikaarth, an initiative where students of college could host workshops (related to extracurricular activities that they were good at) in orphanages and government schools. We worked with 17 orphanages and government schools from across the city. My professor Dr Mallika Shetty (at present, Dean of Academics at St Francis College For Women) would help me reflect, process all the experiences and learn from them; and that motivated me to join the Teach For India (TFI) fellowship to learn more about educational crises.
After a class | (Pic: Aikaarth Foundation)
In 2017, when I joined TFI and worked as a full-time teacher in a budget private school and a government school, I was shocked looking at the schooling experience of my students in which all that they did was sit in one place from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm six days of a week and attend academic classes one after the other. With this, I had students who were incredible at activities like singing, painting and so on. But they had no resources or opportunities to nurture their talents further. So, I started Aikaarth as a project with TFI to give my students and so many more students studying in government and budget private schools a schooling experience like that of mine where there were safe spaces for joy, rest, leisure and recreational activities through the arts, where they could nurture their talents.
3. Did you always know that you wanted to set up Aikaarth as a full-fledged organisation?
No. When I started Aikaarth in college and then continued it while I was a TFI Fellow, I didn’t think of setting it up as an organisation. After I completed my fellowship in April 2019, low budget and a few high-income schools too started reaching out to us to have our programme in their school. That motivated me to finally decide to set it up as an organisation and commit to it. Aikaarth Foundation was registered as an NGO in January 2020.
The number of children they have impacted are 2,000, the number of schools they have worked with is 16 and the number of orphanages they have worked with is 15
4. What has been Aikaarth’s model so far?
We provide a fellowship opportunity for promising artists to volunteer to be art trainers in under-resourced schools.
We have collaborated with art communities and spaces in Hyderabad, like Our Sacred Space, Nritya, Jxtapose, Octospaces, Collab House, Tale Tellers Troupe, HACC and so on, who've helped us reach out to artists to share with them the fellowship opportunity. Interested artists apply and go through a rigorous selection process through which we select the most promising artists who have expertise in the artform and leadership potential. In 2018 and 2019, we had 127 and 156 applications respectively and 19 and 15 artists were selected.
Full house | (Pic: Aikaarth Foundation)
After being selected, we provide artists a teacher training programme, after which they are allotted their schools. They visited their allotted schools every Saturday and taught their artform to students. They also go for community visits to meet and build relations with families, community leaders and members and invest them in the work we do. Our partner schools are allotted fellows who teach different artforms. Children choose the artform that they are most interested in and learn that.
We also introduced a cluster model in 2019. We identify three to four budget private and government schools in close geographic proximity in a slum/low-income community and arrange them in a cluster so that all the schools can share their resources with all the children in the schools. Resource mapping of schools is done. For example, if school number three has a kitchen, culinary art classes take place there.
Children learn artistic skills, knowledge, mindsets, other related essential non-artistic skills to gain expertise in the artform they choose so that they can consider/utilise it for vocational purposes/higher education in the art form if interested
5. Can you explain to us the cluster model in more detail?
We want children to have access to seven artforms (performing arts: dance, music, theatre; visual arts: drawing and painting (2D), crafts and sculpture-making (3D), photography and culinary arts. They can take their pick from the list. However, the average number of students per grade in the elementary schooling system in India is about 14. We have seen that the schools we have worked with usually have around 20-30 students per grade. So, if we worked with students of class VI, we would have to send seven art trainers for 20-30 students and the schools would not have space and resources to accommodate seven different art classes. Each of our art trainers could teach 20-25 children in each batch. We wanted around 140 students of each grade and each batch. So, we arranged schools in a cluster model and this way, schools could also share space and other resources.
6. How do you convince schools and parents to take up your programmes?
Through our experiences, we have realised that schools and parents are very welcoming of our programme. They want their students to learn activities beyond academics. Schools, families and community leaders have provided us great support to implement our programme with them. However, considering that 70 per cent of students studying in unaided private schools pay fees less than `1,000 per month, it becomes very challenging for stakeholders to allocate the already limited resources and efforts for implementation of an effective arts education programme by having expert teachers, having a scaffolding curriculum and assessments methods, having resources for art classes. We help them with it.
His artwork | (Pic: Aikaarth Foundation)
We have an academic-oriented meritocratic measurement and selection approach to education; and the best and the brightest get into the better colleges, and perhaps, they will also get better rankings in life. Children from low-income communities need these rankings to change their current reality. Thus, stakeholders prioritise academics and invest limited resources towards it.
7. So, art education or art integrated learning?
I love the way CBSE explains this. It says that It must be understood that art education and art integrated education are mutually exclusive, but build upon and strengthen each other. Art education is a necessary precursor for the adoption of art integrated learning. Art integration is not a replacement of art education. Integration happens only if the students have been taught the arts. Without the background knowledge, neither the students nor the subject teachers will be able to integrate art into education. For example, the notes in Hindustani classical music can be aligned with the teaching of fractions in Math. However, without the knowledge of the music notes, it will be impossible for the students to comprehend the link between the two.
We are happy that the National Education Policy 2020 recognises the importance of cluster models and encourages it
It is similar for other aspects of education too, for example life skills. Children must be made to learn and practise life skills every single day at all places possible, in Math or language or Social and Science or Art classes, in morning assemblies and during lunch breaks. It cannot happen in the most effective way with just one special class once a week where students learn about life skills through arts. Art integrated education/learning is beautiful and definitely drives change, however, it must be a part of daily routines and activities that take place in schools. It can best be implemented by school teachers and other staff of the school.
With this, it is the human right of every child to participate in cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activities. Art education can facilitate it. Art education can nurture the talents of students and give them vocational skills. Students can choose to pursue higher education in arts. Art education brings joy and has been mandated by CBSE in 2019.
Kids with Pooja | (Pic: Aikaarth Foundation)
We believe that the value of arts for human experience is a sufficient reason to justify its presence in school curricula. Thus, Aikaarth focuses on providing arts education to children. What our programme also does is that it makes school academic teachers a part of our training programmes and art classes, so that school teachers can learn artforms that they are interested in and explore art integrated education/learning.
EXPERIENCES THAT MATTER
Cheering them on
In 2017–2018, there was one parent in the audience during Aikaarth Celebration (a grand event where children showcase what they have learnt through Aikaarth classes). In 2018–2019, community visits were introduced through which our art trainers invested families in our work. That year, more than 700 parents, government officials, prominent artists, highly regarded members of the education and development sector cheered for around 350 children during Aikaarth Celebration, hosted at Ravindra Bharathi with the support of the Department of Language and Culture, Government of Telangana.
Just for art
Two of my students and their families decided to not have these students continue education and drop out of school, take a TC and work instead. While all the formalities were being done, Aikaarth classes were introduced in school. These two students decided not to drop out of school to be able to attend dance classes. They came to school only on Saturdays, and since they were enrolled in the school, at rare times, they would also just come to school and spend the day.
THEIR 3E MODEL:
- Explore (class VII) - Children will learn two artforms that interest them and gain average level mastery.
- Excel (class VIII) - In class VIII, children will learn one activity of the chosen two in class VII and excel in it by gaining mastery in it.
- Experience (class IX): Children will be exposed to on-ground opportunities — competitions, events, apprenticeships and so on — to experience the bigger context with respect to the artform.
For more on them, check out facebook.com/Aikaarth