“In a dimly lit room, as the scent of aromatic candles surrounded us, well-kept secrets were shared and friends were made for a lifetime. I still remember the positive atmosphere of that room.” After struggling with anger issues for years, Vrinda Malhotra is now a calmer person.
I always had a troubled relationship with my parents and a lot of repressed anger, which increased after I completed Class 12. I had to skip a year because of health issues while all my friends were going ahead in their lives. Even after I got admission in an engineering college, I was so angry with everyone and just couldn’t forgive myself for falling ill. No amount of therapy was helping me.
In 2015, Malhotra experienced group art therapy for the first time with Vasvi Srivastava, and that, she says, changed her life. “I realised I was holding on to so many unnecessary emotions and started looking at things from a new perspective. I stopped blaming everyone for my problems, made some amazing friends and, most importantly, improved my relationship with my parents.”
Romancing with colours and art
For people who struggle to express themselves in words, art therapy is a powerful means of communication. “Art therapy is like learning a new language that can be used as a safe way to express your deepest feelings and emotions,” says Vasvi Srivastava, founder of Abhyaantar.
A psychologist by training, Srivastava started Abhyaantar Healing Arts along with Nishtha Sawant in 2016. The two of them facilitate art therapy and work towards helping individuals and groups to discover their authentic self. “After being in the corporate sector for years, I could not feel a sense of purpose. Having an inclination towards drawing and painting, I knew how therapeutic it is and wanted to combine my knowledge and my passion to help people. That’s how I got into art therapy,” Srivastava says.
Sawant, who stays in Himachal Pradesh with her husband, speaks about the healing nature of art. “It feels very empowering when a client discovers the magic of art, the spark in their eyes is worth living for,” Sawant says she still revisits some of the activities. “Art is like a tool that will stay with you once you learn it, and you can use it and discover something new about yourself,” she says.
Art therapy is a relatively new concept and at a very nascent stage in India. Although art has always been used as a means of communication, as a profession, it came into being in the mid-twentieth century. The term ‘art therapy’ was coined by Adrian Hill, a British artist in 1942 and Margaret Naumburg and Edith Kramer were the pioneers of art therapy in the United States.
Expressive Arts Therapy is a mode of therapy that uses several creative art practices like music, dance, drama, visual arts and creative writing in counselling and therapy. It is extremely gentle and playful where the client feels empowered as the answers start coming from within. “People come with a mindset that we will give them a prescription or tell them what their artwork means, but that’s not how it works,” says Srivastava.
We as facilitators are just co-travellers, we help them in the journey, but they are the ones walking on it. Our role is to ask the right questions and take the session in the direction where the person can see and accept whatever is coming through. What you discover while travelling is up to you, all you have to do is trust the process, Nishtha adds.
When everything else fails
Based in Delhi, 30-year-old Purva Narain recalls how art therapy opened new avenues for her. “I felt very static in my life, I could see the paths, but still wasn’t walking on them. When I tried art therapy, I accepted so many things about myself by trusting the first thought I had.”
During art therapy, Narain was asked to draw herself and her boundary. She drew a boundary made of dark energy and a silhouette of a woman sitting on it. “I didn’t know why I drew that woman, but that was an instinct and I went with it.”
As a result of this artwork, Narain tried past life regression therapy and got an insight into the unknown realms. “The woman had a connection with my past life.” Narain had earlier tried various kinds of therapies, but nothing worked for her. Art therapy opened new doors and gave her the courage to walk on the paths that opened up.
It is crazy because you do not realise what you are doing, what you are creating, but once you are done, you take a step back and understand what it means. It’s like tapping into the imagination and letting the ‘true you’ come out, she says.
“Words,” Srivastava says, “can be controlled. While talking, you have the power to keep certain things to yourself, but art cannot be manipulated. Since you don’t know what you will create, it becomes an honest mode of expression.”
Art is now also being used by professional therapists as means to understand certain things or incidents that people are not comfortable talking about. “Whenever I feel that the client is hiding something or is not able to express something in words, I use art therapy,” says Dr Ekta Soni, a Psychologist at Apollo Hospital, Delhi.
Dr Soni remembers a client of hers who could not walk despite there being no real physical impediment for the same. “When I asked her to draw her favourite people, it was revealed that someone tried to make sexual advances towards her that impacted her deeply. Art, in cases like these, become a beautiful medium to explore and understand what a person might be going through.”
Be a child again
How does all this work? Take a crayon in your non-dominant hand and scribble like a child. Let your hand move on its own, don’t control it and don’t try to make any sense out of it. Once you are done, turn the paper in different directions and try to discern an image or a character in that scribble, have a dialogue with it and understand how it makes you feel.
This is one of the simplest exercises, but an amazing way to declutter your mind and find an answer to something you are struggling with. I still do it so many times, says Sawant.
Taneea Agrawaal, who experienced art therapy in 2015, says it was meditative and exhilarating. “I understood so many things about myself. Although I was not really looking for therapy at that time, I still loved everything it offered.”
Vasvi Srivastava explains that the most important thing in art therapy is to realise that you don’t have to be an artist for this. “When we were kids, we got so disconnected with art and were told that art is a gift and not everyone is an artist. We need to move beyond this and understand that it doesn’t matter what we create, what matters is that we create something.”
Art, in Picasso’s words, washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. It is a medium to relieve stress, anxiety and the creative outlet can heal your soul, if you let it.