Ritam "From teacher to servant: A personal experience with 'Play of Painting'"

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Ritam
June 2009

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From teacher to servant: A personal experience with 'Play of Painting'

By Payal Adhikari



As far back as I can remember, I have always been interested in working with young people and helping them to develop their potential. It is this interest which led me to study psychology during graduation and post-graduation levels. Six years ago, the same interest led me to take up my first assignment as an English teacher in Udavi School, a school for children from the surrounding villages of Auroville, even though I had not received any formal training in education. For me it was an opportunity to work closely with children and to understand them and, I hoped, to help them grow towards becoming complete and self-actualized adults.

As I grew in my teaching experience, I realized more and more that it was not easy to reach the aims that had attracted me to take up this work. Imparting information and finding interesting things to do for children was not my only purpose. I wanted to go to another level. For me it was important to help the child move in the direction of self-knowledge. I consider this as the first step towards self development.

In a traditional classroom set up, I tried my own experiments in this direction and my search for a more effective tool to reach that aim intensified. It was during this search that I came across Play of Painting.

In March 2008 I attended a conference by Arno Stern in Auroville and learned about Play of Painting. I was immediately taken by the concept and Arno Stern’s own philosophy of education. He stressed the importance of the child’s innate personality and needs; he was completely against the idea of any judgment or imposition on the child. It was an eye opener to see that he had not sent either of his children to any educational institution but gave them an opportunity to grow and develop guided by their needs and at their own pace.

His conference inspired me to take up the work of a ‘servant’ or practitioner of Play of Painting because it seemed so much in line with my own ideas towards self-development. Luckily, a colleague had already started the program in the school and I volunteered as a servant.

Play of Painting

Play of Painting is a special method discovered, developed and researched by Arno Stern that involves a free play with colours using painting as the medium by participants, occurring in a special set of conditions. These have been specified by Arno Stern as follows:

  • It is conducted in a closed space where the participant is not influenced by any external stimuli or person.
  • It is a group activity. Others are present as playmates, engaged in the similar task of painting. The participants are not to communicate with each other about the painting but an informal interaction is permissible.
  • It is facilitated by a practioner who Arno Stern calls a 'servant'. The servant’s task is to serve the painters. He/she makes sure that the materials and conditions for play are maintained. He/she does not influence the painter or serve as a reference figure in any way.

According to Arno Stern, ‘Formulation’ is an important result of this play. Formulation is a repertoire of figures that emerge from the painter; it is not art. It emerges from an inner necessity of the individual and is a programmed development. The practice of Formulation is not a therapy but a process having positive results on growth and development as it releases images from a human being’s deep organic memory. It is not limited to any age group and is accompanied by a deep pleasure.

During the Play of Painting session the child is left in front of a white sheet of paper, on which he can paint what he wants. There are some basic rules pertaining to the use of paints and other materials but the content is totally dependent on the painter. He works (or plays) in a structured external environment and has complete freedom to paint what he likes.

The early sessions in school

The Play of Painting program in its current form has been running in our school for more than a year now. My two colleagues (who also attended Arno Stern’s conference) and I offer it to all students from class 7th to 9th standard; each student attends the session once a week. Unable to find a space for it during normal school hours we conduct this program in the morning from 7.30 to 8.30 am prior to the commencement of the school day. I have been servicing two groups of students from our school for a year now. These students were already known to me as I had been teaching them English. The children, 11 to 16 years old, were from different classes. According to Arno Stern it is important to have a mixed age group with both adults and children in a single session.

I remember the first few sessions of Play of Painting at Udavi where the children came in to a completely new set up and were not accustomed at all to the conditions of the play. The children from 7th to 9th standard had a background of traditional or at least semi-traditional classrooms where the subject, the content and the means of studying were specified by the teacher. And so, when they came in they expected guidelines as to what to do and how to do it. I think it was a surprise for them (and even disconcerting for some) to learn a few rules about the use of materials and then be left free to paint as they wished.

I had many of these children standing in front of the paper with a brush in their hands, not knowing what to do. I got many surreptitious looks almost beseeching me to tell them what to do! In the absence of any stimulation from me, they had no option but to start painting. ‘Could they paint something on their own, without guidance from a teacher?’ Many started with what they had learned in their regular painting class. Beautiful kolams[1], mountains, flowers, suns and scenery came alive on paper for weeks. Artistic ability was manifesting itself with vigour in those first few weeks. Those not blessed with artistic ability sought to represent what they knew best; for example, the school map, the map of India! Surely, I had the most patriotic students that India could hope for.

It was interesting to note that this artistic enthusiasm began to lose its vigour in the absence of appreciation from the ‘adult’ in the room. Irregularity and non-attendance by some was a sign of this loss of interest. But we did not allow this behaviour to continue and took measures because according to Arno Stern regularity is a must for the successful implementation of this program, especially in the early months; therefore, many of these children were again in front of the paper without their artistic enthusiasm, not knowing what to paint. In the absence of any external stimulation and with our insistence on attendance, a search began…

I think the question in the minds of those who had artistic ability would have been ‘Can we paint something for ourselves even though it is not appreciated by anybody or displayed anywhere?’

Those who were not artists experienced a relief when their paintings were not judged or corrected. The barrier of self-consciousness which separated them from this medium was disappearing and they began to paint freely.

At that point, I believe, the children began to search for something they could create only for themselves. Little by little an interest of a different kind began to grow; they did not have to paint to satisfy anyone else. I think each one slowly began to lose self-consciousness born out of the knowledge that he would not be judged on his work and in his own time began to discover his story to tell on the paper in front of him. They looked into their experience to bring forth something on the paper. Many times there seemed to be no premeditation on the painting. They just picked up the brush and painted without any objective in mind. They allowed the colours and images to flow spontaneously. I wondered whether this could be a first step towards moving beyond mental knowledge and accepting the presence of other inner processes.

As they settled more into the concept of the Play of Painting room, they began to experiment on their own, without any initiation from the servant. However, they did notice what the other participants were doing in the room and used that as a resource to experiment with. There was experimentation on themes, colours, mixing of colours, the size of the painting (the number of sheets that could be used), details that could be added to a painting and the brush strokes that could be used. Each one had his own path which he wanted to explore on the paper.

Some individual observations

Being their subject teacher I had known most of the students and was familiar with their behavior and attitude in a classroom setting. I did not use this knowledge to influence my behavior or service in the Play of Painting sessions, but it was there at the back of my mind allowing me to make some observations, which I would like to share.

In the sessions there were many girls who came from traditional backgrounds. They are not given much freedom at home and are raised to be obedient to their parents and future husbands/in-laws. These girls painted kolam after kolam (and flowers) for months on end. A few weeks before the end-of-school session (after 8-9 months of being in the painting session), I finally saw some gleam of experimentation by these girls. The basic structure of the kolam or flower was there, but there emerged subtle attempts to move to something else. They still held on to the form (of the kolam or flower) which was a safety net for them, but they were taking their first steps to explore other images. It set me wondering: could this openness to new things touch other areas of their life too? After months of repetition their exploration came in its own time without any initiation from me; the children were following their own inner necessity. In a more traditional class setting I would have been tempted to suggest new forms to paint, but definitely not in the Play of Painting sessions.

One eleven year old participant was a typical naughty boy whose favorite activities included falling out of trees and hunting small animals. This little boy was a pack of uncontrollable energy. It always pained me to ask him to concentrate in class; it seemed to be an artificial imposition on a young bundle of enthusiasm. How do you trap a free bird? I was at my wit’s end trying to figure how to channel his energy. Play of Painting was a real nightmare for this young fellow. To stand for minutes on end in front of a sheet of paper and paint was an impossibility. He could never stand still or even erect and was always leaning on something. He tried very hard to escape from attending the sessions. However, I was very firm with him and told him that he had to come but negotiated to free him whenever he wished to leave during the session. Initially, he stayed only for a few minutes and then left. With time, his stay in the room became longer. He still cannot stay a full hour and his attention is still sporadic, varying with his moods. But, I see concentration and attention growing in him, very slowly.

Another student who comes to mind was a fifteen-year-old. He was what we would call a ‘model student’, an all-rounder: good in sports, academics and extra-curricular activities. He once told me how important it was for him to set goals and succeed. Success was very important for him. He came conscientiously for the sessions and painted meticulously (re-creating images of Indian deities) because he thought it was a regular kind of class. Slowly, I could see that there was a growing frustration in him as his artistic skills were not being appreciated or compared to others. One day, I noticed he started to splash colours on the paper and nothing concrete was painted. This was followed by other similar work. I think this was an important threshold. He seemed to be freeing himself from the chains created by the need for success. He was letting a natural movement express itself in the absence of a goal.

Then there was a child of eleven, who was often tardy in class and homework because he is academically behind others. I usually have a huge struggle with him to get anything accomplished and am constantly irritated by his ‘don’t care’ attitude. I was genuinely surprised to see him make a sincere effort to be on time for the Play of Painting sessions. He seemed to have a sense of mission. He was accomplishing a painting on which he had been working for weeks. The painting was definitely not an artistic creation in the traditional sense, but it seemed to be important to him. I have never seen him so concentrated and I thought to myself, "Why do I have to struggle with this fellow in class, when he obviously has the capacity to concentrate and complete tasks?" It is however true that he shifted back to his nonchalant attitude until another painting caught his fancy.

I have often felt inadequate as a teacher with two girls from different classes. I always had the impression that they would rather be doing something far more interesting than what I could offer in English class. When they came to painting sessions, I saw them engrossed and working assiduously. One worked so hard on detailing her sheets. The other explored space and had a pleasure in using as many sheets as possible to complete a single painting. It was a realization for me to note that my lesson plans could not evoke the same preoccupation which I witnessed in the painting room. And there was a joy to see them thus pre-occupied and concentrated.

In a classroom I am limited by many constraints which do not allow me to customize my lesson plans with the needs of each child. The lesson plans are guided by an academic aim. The students are impelled (the system is such) to accept this aim and use me as a reference point to reach that aim. How often have I found a distance between my constructed aim for the child and his current state of being. How easy it has been for me to label a child as ‘slow’, ‘failure’ or ‘not hardworking’. And yet here was the same child showing all those qualities that I had longed for in the classroom. The difference was that the children had set their own aims and accomplished them in their own way without any interference from anybody.

As a servant I did not have the burden of judging the work of the children and comparing them to a standard set of norms. Despite my best efforts, the system compels me to have expectations from children and evaluate them. There is often a hurt look when I give negative feedback on written or oral work if it did not fare well with the expected standard. This was not asked of me in the painting session. It came as a relief. I enjoyed letting them be and not imposing my expectations on them. However, having said this, I feel that teaching still provides one with good opportunities to work with children. I do not feel the need to stop teaching but I have become a different kind of teacher. I have become more accepting to the children. There is an increased sensitivity in me because in the painting room I have witnessed how each child has a different law of being and growth.

Some group observations

As I mentioned earlier the groups are mixed with children from different classes, age and sex. I also invited a few adults to paint regularly with the children. The participants are not allowed to comment on each others’ paintings. As a servant I don’t make any observations either, nor respond to participants’ observations of their painting.

The sessions can be very intense because there are 14-15 people in a small room sharing common materials and the servant has to ensure a smooth flow. The children are concentrated upon their work but at times there is informal chatter, jokes and laughter. And there is silence too. At the moments of silence, the concentrated energy is almost tangible.

In the classroom, I have been a recipient of the demands of the children. Being the only teacher there, I found that I could give only a limited amount of attention and many felt left out. I noticed often that my attention tended to flow automatically to those who would demand most adamantly. The quieter ones shrank into the background. I was always conscious that I had not carried out my duty to all. Also, the nature of my attention was very ‘academic’ as I had academic goals to pursue while teaching English. Here, in the Play of Painting room, it was different; I was not on a pedestal, and I was not looked up to as a source of knowledge. I was a servant, making sure the pins were in place, the colour pots were filled, colours were mixed when required and water not dripping. To my surprise I enjoyed being at the beck and call of the children. If there was paint dripping, I had to run no matter what I was doing to stop the flow. I was forced to widen and intensify my attention to include all of them and their activities. I had to learn how to multi-task, prepare the paint for one and attach the pins for another all in one go. I could not exclude a single child; I had to cater to all needs. It was interesting that I was working with the very students who also saw me as a ‘teacher’ in their classroom. Naturally, they enjoyed ordering me around! The shouts of ‘Akka[2] paint’, ‘Akka mixing’, ‘Akka dripping’, ‘Akka finished’, ‘Akka I am waiting for the pins’! – still resound in my ear.

There are some children who I know need special affective attention from me in the classroom which I am unable to give them because of time constraints and the academic rigour. I am bound also by the norms of teacher-student relationship. One boy who I had taught for many years came to the painting sessions. I have always felt that he wanted more attention from me in the English classes. His language skills were not so good and he felt shy to demand attention in front of others. Here in the painting room, he was not fettered by his lack of confidence or my lack of time; he would call for my help for all kinds of things: ‘whether he could use a pot from the mixed colour table’, ‘whether I could wipe his wet hands’, ‘whether I could wash his brush which had mixed paint on it’. And I gave my service and my attention. I gave it freely, knowing that it was his way of reaching out to me; his way of maintaining a contact with me in a way not possible in regular class.

My own experience as a painter

I remember my art class in school with a feeling of trepidation even now. Most vivid is an ‘Art Exam’ fifteen years ago. At the end of the exam session, I looked at my paper and cringed – a big vase with round balls in it. “Was this the best I could come up with?” Trying my best to hide the ‘masterpiece’, I handed it over to the supervisor, shrinking with shame at my inadequacy. That was it; from that day on I labeled myself as a non-artist with no aesthetic ability. I shut myself up against anything remotely connected with art or aesthetics. But, I remember my notebooks from school and college days – filled with squiggles, collages and abstract designs. During the long lectures, I think I spent my most concentrated time squiggling on the paper. Where did this need come from? Why was it there?

Now, many years later, after Arno Stern’s conference I decided to go to the painting session conducted by a colleague in school with my English students as my playmates. When I approached the Play of Painting room as a painter, I was filled with opposing feelings. I knew I could not paint, but within me, there was this excitement to explore a medium which was still fascinating to me, but from which I had been rudely cut off years ago. I experienced a fascinating and controlled freedom in the room. Absence of judgment on me and my capabilities was such a sweet joy. It gave me liberty to experiment and explore forms, colours, images and my own unique preoccupations. For example, I am intrigued by boundaries, a strange and whimsical interest I agree, but there nevertheless. I saw myself painting squares and circles and trying to fill in the spaces without the paint spilling outside the borders. This was an absorbing process for me.

Sometimes, images would arise of their own accord and I would paint as if I were inwardly driven by something. There were some brush strokes that seemed to have an almost physically soothing effect on me. There were some geometric images that I wanted to repeat again and again; I would think about these images even outside the painting room and wait eagerly for a week before I could start painting them again. It was a necessity which I still cannot understand but know that it was important for me. And sometimes I created my own world on the paper, the images conveying only what I could understand, a language which only I could speak. I was not bound to include others. Others were present, yes, but busy in their worlds. Their presence made the activity a fun and happy process. A fixed time and day set aside for the activity was a help because then painting was not dependent on my whim and fancy. I have thoroughly enjoyed painting exclusively for myself and, like the children, I have done my own little experiments in a joyous and concentrated manner.

After a year as a servant I feel enriched because I finally have a tool which can help me come closer to my aim of helping children grow according to their inner necessities. As a teacher I have a role to play and work to do, necessary in today’s reality. At the same time I can offer something more through the painting sessions. No matter with how much goodwill I enter the classroom, the lessons and aims are mine and based on my perceptions of what is needed. Sometimes these perceptions are in tandem with the child’s need and sometimes they are not. It is obvious that there will be a loss of interest if my perceptions are not in accord with their true needs; then the child has to artificially create that interest in himself to keep up with the educational pressures and social requirements. He has to suppress his preoccupations and interests because he is not the one deciding what to do in class. During the painting sessions, I am not imposing my personality, my thoughts, my knowledge or my lesson plans on the children. When there is no imposition from outside, the children move at their own pace. I am not creating or prolonging any experience for them nor am I cutting short any experience. They create their own experiences and stay with them as long as it is necessary. The result is an organic movement of consciousness, surely leading to something positive.




  1. Kolam – Traditional South Indian design created on the floors/entrances of homes with coloured powder. A task done mostly by daughters and wives of the household.
  2. Akka – Tamil word for elder sister. The children in Udavi refer to teachers as ‘elder brother’ or ‘elder sister’ rather than the formal Sir/Madam.