The World Painting Tour: Chapter 6 – From the Slums to Alchemy through Mosaics in Surat, India

At the Surat airport in Western India Robert Markey and I were welcomed by Sagar and his incredible team from the NGO Pathshala NGO; a group of young adults who are “fighting against a ticking clock” to bring as much beauty into the world and into the hearts of the underrepresented youth as possible, before the pressures from society and family push them into marriage and the traditional lifestyle. These courageous volunteers of Pathshala work every day to plant the seeds of change, fueled by the belief that “all men (AND WOMEN) are created equal”. Their dream is that one day the class system will be a thing of the past and that all children have the right to an education. They inspire us!

Thanks to Pathshala, the first week in India has been filled with incredibly gracious hospitality, delicious ethnic food from across the country, and over one hundred youth who find happiness in the face of adversity, making mosaic murals and attending art class with smiles, while streams of urine flow down the streets of the slums they come from. On the very first day we taught an art class about human proportions and emotions at a school of underprivledged youth sponsored by the NGO. Stick figures transformed into amazing portraits within an hour and a half. One evening we painted under the headlights of Sagar’s car with youth from a street school who could not afford to go to school. It was deeply touching to hold space for their imaginations to soar! Robert and I were invited to give two seminars based on ‘peace building through art’ at the central library and the Institute of Fine Arts in the diamond polishing capital of the world and a population of six and a half million people. For five hours everyday this week we have been working with twenty-six amazing youth who emerged from the slums with a thirst for education and created over thirty mosaic animals, plus a unicorn. They have such a drive to make art for five hours a day that we have to make a manditory lunch break to remind them to eat. Its been a week to remember, to say the least!

It is a great honor to be learning how to make mosaic murals with my colleague and friend, Robert Markey, who has worked beside hundreds of youth around the world! From the kick off, the youth were focussed beyond belief; those who were known to bring their troubles at home to school and start fights on the regular, shifted their unresolved emotions to the tiles, broke them and transformed the broken pieces into little masterpieces! Initially they spoke of having difficulties filling the small gaps in the tiled animals and now they find it easy. This is a metaphor for life. While volunteers were looking for the right pieces and attached to pieces they had already placed even if it made finding the next piece more difficult, the kids had no problem removing a piece that would be better somewhere else and if the tile they wanted wasn’t readily available, they would make one. After a few days, and fifteen mosaics had been finished, one child said proudly, “Now that we’ve learned how to do this, what will the carpenters do for a job?” Thankfully the project received donations of leftover tiles, and some of the tiles had incredible textures and designs, but they were mostly white, grey and black; therefore, it inspired us to explore more possibilities in the collaboration of mosaic and painting.

This weekend is the Kite Festival and yesterday we journeyed to the old city to attempt to fly kites off the rooftops. There were families and friends on every rooftop. There was not much wind, so we started a dance party for hours. At dusk fireworks and flying lanterns lit up the sky as far as the eye could see. It was a surrealistic experience and felt like we were in the animated film “Tangled”. Since it is a two day festival and most kids wait the entire year for it, we did not expect a good turnout for our Sunday class, the day we planned to paint the background of the mosaics, but to the surprise of the adults, every single youth appeared and painted from 10 am – 3pm! It was a beautiful testiment to their devotion to creativity, development of self and desire to spread beauty in their community. Today they learned that the colors in the rainbow are the same as the chakras colors in our body and we played games to remember the primary and secondary colors. They brought their mosaics to life by painting impressionistic colors onto the wall and covered nearly forty meters of cement in a handful of hours. At the end of the week we asked them, “Who wants to be an artist?” Almost all of them raised their hand. Those who question us about how we can sleep at night after working with youth in conflict zones, this is the perfect answer: the purity of the child’s heart.

None of this would be possible without the amazing team of Pathshala and we wish to extend our deepest gratitude. They have searched out all of the materials we have requested, even going so far as to visit their family’s textile shops to be inspired by designs and the coal factory for charcoal to draw out the mural. We have been hosted by nearly all of their families with the most delicious food and incredible hospitality. Thank you! Also, thanks to the media who take the time to publish articles about possitive work being done in the community. This project was featured in the Times of India publication and attracted even more interest and volunteers! … AND TO THE YOUTH – YOU ARE AWESOME!