A Proclamation of Surrender: Wisdom in Uncertainty | Lessons from Drawing with Children in Pulwama
The summer of 2022 was nothing short of transformational for me, an undergrad student of design in Bangalore. I met the trailblazers at ELICIT Foundation through a college-mandated internship I was to do, who sent me to Pulwama as an artist, illustrator and researcher to collect stories of resilience for the Impact Assessment, ‘Preparing for the Never Normal’- a story of lives impacted by the school system of Dolphin International school (DIS), Pulwama, Kashmir.
I drew in my sketchbooks, as a vegetarian in Kashmir- ate paneer twice a day, every day, and spent the evenings watching the ducks* patter across Bashir Uncle's front yard, as the sun went down.
Bashir Uncle- the transport head of the school- and his family were my home away from home, far north in the village of Drussu, Pulwama. They were the most gracious, welcoming and authentically parental- Eat some more, wear something warm!
Here's what I learnt:
1. Always share your crayons The inability to connect- especially in a space riddled by the trauma of occupation and thus conflict- most often takes root in one's inability or unwillingness to fearlessly share all parts of oneself. So communicate and share freely, trusting that those who receive it with grace are the ones that will hold you in your discomfort and hold you accountable in your lapses.
2. Sharpened pencils don't make lasting lines In conflict, confusion and fear, we tend to react explosively; sometimes to match the tone of our surroundings, and often in an attempt to ensure that we are heard amidst it all. However, dealing with a challenge in softness, empathy and presence is the only way that worked for me, while attempting to make headway in order to maintain balance within and around me. A blunt pencil makes a thicker line: a softer, more lasting connection.
3. One shade of blue can look like three different colours to as many people Definitions of 'right', 'wrong', 'objectivity' and 'subjectivity' take a real hit when you set out to collect stories in a place like Pulwama. Your lens will shift every day, readjusting to the light and angles in every story, and that's okay, even beneficial.
4. Your sheet of paper will never be big enough to draw about everything you want to say. So just grab another sheet if you need to The hopelessness of feeling like you can never accurately convey all that you're seeing and experiencing is a feeling that followed me throughout my time documenting. The antidote for me, was to draw and write meticulously, in extreme detail, and to stop when I knew I had done all that I could.
5. Drawing Lines is imperative. However, they don't have to be straight or restrictive Drawing boundaries is an act of self-service and is also a responsibility. Extending yourself beyond your limits not only incapacitates you and makes you incapable of doing even the bare minimum but also sabotages the foundation of your relationships. To draw boundaries that protect you while establishing honesty and accountability in your interactions is the goal (and a tough one to meet).
6. The slower, more apprehensive your strokes, the more scattered and inauthentic the story you'll tell. Be bold and certain, and if you're not, pretend like you are while doing the best you know and can do. The clarity and steadfastness with which the children told stories through their art were incredible. It didn't matter if I understood; they drew and explained, picked up another sheet, and started another story.
7. There will always, always be another way of doing something. And that's okay. After my time in Kashmir, while we were putting the book together, I felt as if I was collating and editing someone else's work. My sketchbooks felt foreign, as all that I had seen, learned and documented made me judge everything I had done in my time there. It took a lot of empathy for myself and belief in the responses of the incredible team at ELICIT to continue to see the merit and value in the work I had done and the logs I had brought back.
When I look at the book now, it feels like someone else's lines, and yet I know each curve, story, and page intimately. It's surreal and wonderful that ‘Preparing for the Never Normal’ is truly an assessment and celebration of the universal impact of intention, empathy, art, and resilience.
I'm grateful for those that shared their stories, answered my questions, and drew with me; to DIS and Farooq Sahib, the director of the school, Bashir Uncle and his family, to Lopa and Ini from ELCIT, the indispensible engines of this project; and for the invaluable mentorship, support and lifelong friends this project gave me amidst a world of learning.
*I named the one that chased pigeons Masakali. He was my favourite